Marie-Claire Blais

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel

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A Season in the Life of Emmanuel Summary

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One of the classics of Canadian literature, A Season in the Life of Emmanuel is a shocking expose of the realities of the grinding poverty and suffering inherent in rural life in the middle of the 20th century. Published in 1965 by Marie-Claire Blais, the novel was immediately controversial for its no-holds-barred depictions of the depredations of conservative patriarchy and Catholicism: child abuse, harmful sexual exploitation, familial dysfunction, and a lack of options for escape. Accompanying this focus on the sordid underside of country life, is Blais’s dark, wry humor and her insightful and detailed observations of the human condition. Recognized as a masterwork of fiction, the novel was eventually translated into 13 languages and won the Prix France-Québec and the Prix Médicis in 1966, and the Prix Jean-Hamelin in 1976.

Blais wrote the novel as a response to the flourishing genre called roman du terroir (“novel of the land”) – a rose-tinted celebration of mid-20th century rural life in Canada as a nostalgic idyll, celebrating the rural homestead, the family, and orthodox religion. Instead of romanticizing this kind of existence, Blais and others originated the anti-terroir that made sure to highlight the lasting impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the repressive response of the Catholic Church to its waning power during the gradual transfer of authority called “the Quiet Revolution,” and the delays of rural Canada in adopting more egalitarian attitudes about gender roles.

The novel’s main characters are a large, poor, Catholic family on a farm in rural Québec. The family is headed by Grandmother Antoinette, an indomitable matriarch whose domineering and inflexible rule controls the rest of the household. She is the mother of an unnamed woman who is more baby-making machine than human being, and who is married to an unnamed man whose only fathering instinct is to mercilessly beat whichever child happens to be nearby. By the time the novel opens, the woman has just given birth to her sixteenth child, Emmanuel – the events we will witness take place during this baby’s first year of life. However, despite the novel’s title, we will primarily be following four older children: sibling teenagers Pomme, Héloïse, “Septième” (Number Seven, whose actual name is Fortuné-Mathias) and Jean-Le Maigre.

The conditions of family life are extraordinarily miserable. However much power Grandmother exerts over the endless tide of children, she is unable to prevent almost any of their suffering – nor does she have the cultural understanding necessary to be able to perceive much of it in the first place. Instead, so many children have been born to the family, and so many of them have now died that none of the adults in the household care all that deeply about those that have survived – as demonstrated by the dehumanizing nickname of the boy dubbed Number Seven.

The fates of the children demonstrate the lack of options available to this population.

Heloise is forever reaching for something beyond herself, which to the reader seems clearly to come from the fact that she is starved for emotional and physical affection. At first, she becomes a religious zealot and enters a convent in order to become a nun. Once there, she sees that her desire to belong won’t really be realized, so she returns home in order to impose a viciously masochistic routine on herself. She fasts, cuts her hands and fingers until they bleed, and stays in her room for days without emerging. Rather than worrying about her granddaughter’s mental state, Grandmother encourages the “martyr,” bragging about Heloise to a visiting priest. But after some time, Heloise decides to seek out a different kind of connection. She leaves the house and goes to work in the “firmament of lust” of the local brothel. There, the men’s objectifying treatment of her seems to be a familiar thing.

Pomme and Number Seven spend their early childhood having their curiosity and desire to learn about the world beaten out of them by their father, who literally belts any child who asks him a question. Number Seven in particular has a mind that could be used for enterprising invention or useful pursuits, but the only schemes he can devise when completely deprived of all education are how to steal bicycles. Every time his father catches him, he tells Number Seven that the boy is irreparably damaged and evil – that his desire to steal makes him irredeemable and corrupted. Eventually, Pomme and Number Seven are sent away to a Reformatory run by Catholic priests. Both are molested by the priests, and we witness Number Seven accepting this horrific fate because he has been so thoroughly convinced that he is a worthless human being. Eventually, Pomme leaves the Reformatory to go work in a factory where he soon loses several fingers. Number Seven leaves the Reformatory already well on his way to becoming a full-blown alcoholic and professional thief.

And yet, somehow these aren’t the saddest lives to come out of Emmanuel’s family. That honor falls to Jean-Le-Maigre, the one child who actually could potentially contribute to society in a meaningful and lasting way. Jean grows up sickly, but he is clearly intellectually gifted. Somehow even in the midst of this environment he gravitates towards books and is eager to read anything he can get his hands on. But his father doesn’t approve, and Jean is often beaten for reading. Later, he is beaten when he is found writing poetry. Jean’s imagination is irrepressible, and he himself describes his mind as “an aquarium full of floating things.” It is clear that if he were allowed to develop and nurtured to the full extent of his potential, Jean could become a kind of John Keats figure. Instead, he develops tuberculosis and is sent away to Noviciat (a form of religious sanatorium) either to die in peace or to recover. The sicker and weaker he becomes, the more pronounced his genius for words becomes. When he dies, the family has a moment of enlightenment, realizing briefly his intelligence and worth. But there is no point to this revelation – escape from the stagnant desolation they occupy is impossible.