Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of


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Chuan, A., "The Returns of the Roman de la Terre : Défricheurs and their Migrant Others in the Canadien Imaginary," 20th & 21st Century French and Francophone Studies International Colloquium, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, March 26-28, 2020.

doi: 10.32873/unl.dc.ffsc.05


Copyright © 2020 A. Chuan


The theme “parler la terre” presents an opportunity to reconsider Québec’s romans de la terre—farm novels from the turn of the Nineteenth Century into the Twentieth that are often considered to be the inaugural works of the province’s literary canon. Variously known as the “roman du territoire” or the “roman paysan”, this genre, with its idealized depictions of colonization and rural life, helped articulate what literary historian Dorothee Scholl would call the mythe du terroir—or in her own words, “the mythologizing of the soil as the site of French-Canadian national identity (103).” At the height of their popularity, these novels were heavily patronized by Catholic clergy, provincial politicians, and nationalist literary circles, who promoted the productions in order to discourage the rural flight of francophone Canadiens,1 encouraging them to instead migrate internally and agriculturally exploit the Laurentians region north of Montréal. There is now a vast body of critique that examines how the agriculturalist ideology expressed through these farm novels helped reify notions of Franco-Canadian identity and territoriality. Transcending these studies, critics have also begun to read romans de la terre against the grain, highlighting the multi-dimensionality of the discourses of land in this genre. Some critics even diverge from the agriculturalist debate all together—for example, Sudarsan Rangarajan who does so in order to draw links between the roman de la terre and the contemporaneous French roman d’aventures (767). My paper, however, maintains that there remains work to be done in complicating the novels’ agriculturalist fixation on land, in particular by reckoning with the settler-colonialist implications of this discourse. Before me, geographer Caroline Desbiens productively proposed that certain romans de la terre may be emphasized as romans de ressources—and rightfully so, as many of them do extol the extraction and economic mobilization of natural resources from newly colonized land (121). However, remarking that this exploitation is mediated by the movement of colonists across the national terroir, the question I raise instead is how romans de la terre may also be read as economic récits de la migration. Doing so will allow us to comprehend the place of human migration in the settler-colonialist imaginaries that informed Canadiens of their relationship with the land in the past, and perhaps even continue to shape Québécois territoriality in the present day.

As a case study, I turn to the emblematic roman de la terre, Louis Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine; understanding migration loosely as the displacement of humans across geographical space, I will demonstrate this 1913 novel to be a veritable reservoir of economic discourses of migration. Arguably a migrant novel avant la lettre,2 as Hémon (1880-1913) was a French immigrant to Canada, Maria Chapdelaine was inspired by its author’s stay among Canadien colonists in the Lac-St-Jean region; published posthumously after the writer’s tragic death by train, the first edition of this novel was, according to Hémon scholar Nicole Deschamps, heavily censured from being a “conte de neige et d’absence” into an “allégorie triomphaliste” (vii). In effect, working with Hémon’s unabridged edition, literary critic Rosemary Chapman troubles the bucolic vision normally associated with Maria Chapdelaine, asserting that therein, “rather than amounting to a simple hymn to the agriculturalist way of life, the perspective on rural Quebec is made more complex because of the interplay of protagonists, with their conflicting responses to the Lac-Saint-Jean (81).” Just like their relationship with the territory, I show that the colonists’ relationship with migration in the text are equally as complex, but nonetheless conditional to a sort of settler-colonialist system of values. Reflecting Maria Chapdelaine’s popularity as the province’s elite enforced their politiques de la colonization (Hamelin 415), the novel valorizes migrations that result in the settlement of the province’s territory, while other forms of migrant mobility are distinguished and demonized. This colonialist conception of migrancies can be demonstrated by the eponymous Maria’s three love interests who, I argue, each represent a distinct migrant type in the Canadien colonialist imaginary: the défricheur, the coureur des bois, and the citadin. Effectively, they are more than symbols of, in the words of literary critic Florian Freitag, “place-based identities whose mere geographical location is all that is necessary to identify their stance on the French Canadian [agriculturalist] cause (170);” their stances in the agriculturalist debate can be nuanced by the particular migrant and economic modalities that each figure practices.