Quebec Studies

Love, Loss, and the Sacred in Maria Chapdelaine

Quebec Studies (2012), 54, (1), 31–46.

Abstract

31 Love, Loss, and the Sacred in Maria Chapdelaine Lisa Gasbarrone Franklin and Marshall College Relire Maria Chapdelaine aujourd'hui relève de l'archéologie. Lieu commun, parfait symbole, ce livre est devenu un monument à déchiffrer. — Nicole Deschamps, Le Mythe de Maria Chapdelaine Life is not possible without an opening toward the transcendent; in other words, human beings cannot live in chaos. —Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane "Ite missa est." At nearly a century's remove, we can only guess as to why Louis Hémon chose to open his much celebrated, yet often maligned novel, Maria Chapdelaine, by quoting the concluding words of the Roman Catholic Mass: his first paragraph reads simply "Ite missa est."1 It is a striking first line, but also a choice that left Hémon open to misreading. Nicole Deschamps sees this opening scene as "banalement réaliste": "rien de plus commun," she notes, "que le spectacle de la sortie de l'église le dimanche" ("Lecture" 153). In a similar vein, Patricia Demers counsels against overinterpreting the ref­ erence to the Mass, noting that readers are prone to make "extravagant claims for the opening chapters of novels" (31). She goes on to say, how­ ever, that these three words "[start] the novel appropriately by suggesting all sorts of possible interpretations" (31). While opening signals are seldom neutral, Demers's note of caution still bears repeating. Hémon's first sen­ tence points the reader in the direction of the sacred, but these three words have also proven to be a rich source of misinterpretation. Early admirers of the work, who first constructed what Deschamps and others have called the "mythe de Maria Chapdelaine," saw in the open­ ing lines the clear indication of a "chef d'œuvre catholique" (Deschamps, Héroux, and Villeneuve 99). Subsequent debunkers of the myth dismissed the reference to the Mass as superficial, part of the local color essential to any novel set in rural Québec.2 These two poles of interpretation, typical of the history of what Deschamps calls the intrusive "après-texte" of Maria Chapdelaine, both miss what may be the most significant aspect of Hémon's chosen entry point: from the outset, and in this privileged location, he posi­ tions the reader at the threshold of the sacred. The fact that parishioners are exiting the church does not preclude Hémon having "sown the seeds of an ending, which recalls a beginning, at the very outset" (Demers 32). The interpretive task that "Ite missa est" sets for the reader consists then in determining what sort of ending is implied by this "minimalist" reference to the sacred at the beginning (Demers 31). Québec Studies, Volume 54, Fall 2012/Winter 2013

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Gasbarrone, Lisa