With the social changes of the 1960s came the “Quiet Revolution” in Quebec. As the secularization of the once Catholic dominated province progressed, motherhood increasingly became a central concern for many as women emerged as major players in the literary field. Anne Herbert and Marie-Claire Blais and before them, Germaine Guèvremont and Gabrielle Roy began a search for the forgotten foremothers, a rewriting of Quebec’s history to include the experience of women’s lives. Their stories document the injustices of a society which had for centuries valued women almost solely for their reproductive function while denying them access to the social, political and cultural spheres their male counterparts enjoyed without limits.
A well-known example of these dispossessed mothers is the nameless, silent mother in Blais’ “A Season in the Life of Emmanuel.” Blais’ protagonist haunts the pages of the novel. She is so caught up in the ceaseless rhythm of her countless pregnancies that she barely remembers giving birth to her baby the same morning. Less well known, but equally haunting is the protagonist of Herbert’s short story “Be Fruitful and Multiply,” published one year after Blais’ novel in 1966. In this story, Herbert describes the reality of married life for generations of women in Quebec caught up in a constant cycle of pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering.
In a tidy four pages, Herbert recounts the life story of a nameless woman who is married off before the apron strings are even severed. Robbed of her youth, she is impregnated by a husband she barely knows. The setting of the story on a farm that breeds horses is lost on no one. Like clockwork, the nameless woman produces one baby after another with dizzying speed until 22 children later, she is reduced to nothing more than a worn out and confused old woman. The story’s devastating, unspoken question is undeniable: “Is this what it means to be a woman?”
Herbert’s depiction of motherhood, far from a ringing endorsement of it, is nonetheless part of an evolution in the representation of motherhood by Quebec women writers. In the intervening years since the publication of “Be Fruitful and Multiply,” there has been a shift away from the mechanical mother to an even more sinister one, as seen in novels with horrifying scenes of infanticide and matricide, such as Aline Chamberland’s “The Fissure” and Suzanne Jacobs’ “Obeisance”.
These crimes may be interpreted as the ultimate expression of women’s frustrations with the limits traditionally imposed upon them, a lashing out of mothers, not only in their refusal to continue to churn out babies but to take the lives of those she has already created or the life of the one who created her. While one might argue that the crime of infanticide is the most dehumanizing of all, for feminist literary critics, these scenes of matricides and infanticides, no matter how shocking, may harbor a silver lining.
The image of a daughter knowingly torching the family home with her mother inside in Blais’ “The Beautiful One” provides us with the narrative ashes from which a more positive depiction of motherhood may emerge. With motherhood now a choice rather than a requirement, we see more and more in the works of contemporary women novelists of Quebec, a celebration of motherhood, the polar opposite of Herbert’s glassy eyed, spent protagonist.
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