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Randy McDonald

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[HONOURS] Ringuet and Thirty Acres

In my previous post, I've mentioned that, in regards to French Muslims and their relationship with wider French culture,

There does seem to be a belief that French culture--as an example of Western culture generally--is too corrupt to stand up against stern religious faith. Which is an entertaining belief, I suppose, but I find it difficult to believe that is accurate. I've read about this kind of thing before when I wrote my Honours thesis last year. In that case, granted, the groups thinking Canadian culture was corrupt were early 20th century Québécois peasants, Nova Scotian farmers, and mildly deranged hippies, but still. When you see massive and growing assimilation to a majority's culture, as in the case of those three subgroups from my essay or in the case of French Muslims--in terms of language, religious behaviour, gender norms, demographic structures--it's impossible to maintain the community's integrity. People will defect entirely; people will disagree with your goals; people will choose to fold in on themselves.

I was referring to my Honours thesis in English, written over 2001-2003 and successfully defended on the 10th of April, 2003. I examined three works of Canadian literature--Ringuet's Thirty Acres (Fr: Trente Arpents), Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising, and Margaret Atwood's Surfacing--wrapping things up with a nice conclusion. I felt that my essay's coverage of Thirty Acres, set as it is in a peasant society united by an expansionistic nationalism of largely religious origins, would be particularly relevant. I found that I didn't post it as I wrote, though.

So, here it is.

From its publication in 1940, Ringuet’s novel Thirty Acres has been hailed for its decisive break with previous trends in French Canadian literature. Exceptions such as the symbolist poet Émile Nelligan aside, French Canadian literature developed apart from--indeed, often in reaction to--the literary trends of realism and symbolism that prevailed in the literatures of western Europe and the United States (Shek 42-49), and possessing an “essentially didactic character” (Hayne 22). This literature’s preeminent genre--the roman du terroir, the "novel of the land" or "romance of the land"--glorified the French Canadian peasantry, in keeping with the prevalent ideologies extant in French Canadian society (Lemire 36-39). This genre was rooted in a rural ideology which strongly favoured French Canadians’ tenacious attachment to agriculture and rural residence (at least relative to English Canada, although compared to western Europe French Canada was not distinctly backward at all) as both a cause and an effect of a generally strong attachment to religious and cultural traditions, deeply rooted in their territorial base and the Roman Catholic Church while rejecting the outside world’s liberal ideologies. The roman du terroir was an essentially conservative literature, then, seeking to derive meaning from the French Canadian nation’s rural traditions as opposed to the more innovative and cosmopolitan urban centres, in the fashion of many nations likewise newly developing a coherent national identity. Although Ringuet adopted the forms and the language of the roman du terroir, he contradicted the genre’s enthusiastic embrace of traditional conservative cultural norms and of a viable French Canadian peasant society. In Thirty Acres, Ringuet’s character of Euchariste Moisan becomes a paragon of French Canadian society, and then proceeds to lose all--first his prosperity, then his farm, and finally his family--that he had so painstakingly earned. Indeed, Moisan’s failures derive in large part from his adherence to such traditional French Canadian values as attachment to the land, fervent Roman Catholicism, and a general disinterest in the wider world (Laflèche 165-173). In English translation, Thirty Acres corresponds to the themes of such English-language Canadian writers as Frederick Philip Grove (Sirois 20) as to the waste and unproductivity of rural life. Ringuet manages to provide a subtle but powerful critique of the whole concept of a French Canadian national economy, tied to traditional social and religious mores, existing separately from the wider Canadian and world economies.

Thirty Acres, as a novel, is concerned with land. Ringuet wrote in a society--that of French Canada--whose leaders almost unanimously praised the supposed intimate sentiment felt by French Canadians (individually and collectively) for their land. This attachment--certainly real in the 19th century when French Canadians were an overwhelmingly rural population, but doubtful at the time of Thirty Acres’ writing following a generation of breakneck urbanization (Linteau 126-129)--was regularly invoked as justification for all manner of policies, state-sponsored and otherwise. For instance, vast government programs of sponsored colonization in Québec’s internal frontiers were inaugurated soon after Confederation in order to encourage the maximum dispersion of French Canadian peasant communities (Mann 135-7). Further, just as Euchariste Moisan himself notes in the novel, the Roman Catholic Church strongly discouraged out-migration from rural areas--whether to the growing cities of central Canada or to the prosperous industrial towns of New England--on the grounds that in cities, removed from their tradition-bound and highly integrated rural communities, French Canadian peasants could lose their faith. French Canada’s peasantry was identified as a hybrid, demonstrating the time-honoured traditions of pre-revolutionary Europe in the new world of America (Linteau 275-277). This peasant culture, combining the good elements of both the Old and New Worlds, would serve as a beacon for both hemispheres, occasionally expanding to a full-blown messianic impulse as hinted at by Louis Riel in his writings on the Métis future, or in claims by such people as the Abbé Groulx (Lemire 12-13) and Jules-Paul Tardivel (Mann 162-4) that the St. Lawrence valley could emerge at the centre of a vast new Francophone Roman Catholic North American nation. Encouraging a popular connection to the land and to agriculture, then, served the interests of the established authorities in French Canada by reinforcing the social and religious attitudes that supported this attachment.

Many nationalist ideologues imagined that the close link of French Canadians to the land and the very high birth rate among French Canadians could be used to support a plan of expansion. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the zone of French Canadian settlement in Québec province was limited almost entirely to the lands drained directly by the Saint Lawrence river, with Anglophone immigrants predominating elsewhere, but government-sponsored settlement programs--and, far more importantly, uncontrolled population movements--toward the western, southeastern, and northern frontiers of Québec permanently installed French Canadians as the majority across most of that province’s habitable land area (Linteau 40-43). Québec’s internal colonization was contemporary with a vast number of French Canadian emigrants from Québec, who sought opportunity elsewhere in Canada (particularly Ontario) (Vallières 184-189) and in New England (Hayne 12-13).

This heavy emigration from traditionally French Canadian areas of Québec did not necessarily represent a failure in the minds of nationalist ideologues; indeed, this migration could potentially redraw the North American map, by installing thriving French Canadian societies across the continent (Waddell 161-4). The emigration was problematic only when it appeared that these emigrants might be assimilated, whether by government fiat in Ontario’s school crises in the first quarter of the twentieth century, or by the increasing attractiveness of America’s consumer capitalism to the populous Franco-American diaspora in New England. This Francophone system’s core would be located among the dense French Canadian populations of Québec’s St. Lawrence valley. From this core, French Canadian communities would disperse in several different directions: north, into the unsettled wilderness of the Canadian Shield; west, to the mines and farmlands of northern Ontario and the Prairie provinces; and south to the booming factory and mill towns of New England. These immigrants would form new French Canadian communities--focused just as in the St. Lawrence valley upon Roman Catholicism, the French language, and the patriarchal stem family--that would unite with their parent community. With luck, the strong attachment of French Canadians to the land and church and the high birth rate of French Canadians would allow these communities to prevail over their counterparts and to install new French Canadian colonial societies. As Susan Mann wrote in the case of New England, Catholic priests joined French Canadian immigrants

in the "little Canadas" of the manufacturing centres of New England and added ecclesiastical and social structures to what they grudgingly admitted was a permanent presence beyond the borders of Quebec. By the end of the [nineteenth] century they even began to find significance in that presence. Surely a population totalling three-quarters of a million in 1886 and doubling every twenty-eight years from the birth rate alone, without adding the continuing influx of immigrants from Quebec, must be destined to play an extraordinary role in America. Perhaps the hand of providence was at work after all, dotting the heathen landscape with compact groups of Catholics who treasured their familial customs and traditions (134).

The responsibility of the failure of French Canadian emigration to produce many enduring communities can be placed on the relatively small volume of French Canadian emigration compared to the total population, and on the lower-class nature of the French Canadian population which made assimilation a prerequisite for upward mobility. At the time, however, in the early twentieth century, this fate was unknown.

In turn, this territorial and geographical expansion of the French Canadian ecumene would be accompanied by an ideological challenge to the mores prevailing on the North American continent. At the time, French Canadian identity was very closely intertwined with the Roman Catholic Church, which in reaction to political radicalism in Europe--particularly manifested in the unification of Italy and the accompanying confiscation of sovereign Church lands--had adopted reactionary policies in regards to both church theology and contemporary politics. In those societies which were the greatest influence on French Canada--the Anglophone countries of the North Atlantic basin and secular republican France--the trends towards liberal societies and industrial capitalism continued regardless of Papal condemnation (Mann 115-130). Some visionaries sincerely hoped that a vast New France, centered on the French Canadian homeland by the Saint Lawrence river but including territories colonized by French Canadians, would rise to continental power and supplant both the laicized radical France of the Third Republic and the industrialism and urbanism associated with Protestant Anglophones of North America (Siegfried 173-179). These ambitious ideologues sought, then, to do nothing short of entirely remodelling North America to produce a territorial and cultural hierarchy centered upon Québec (Linteau 30-32).

Thirty Acres destroys this hope for the future. While Ringuet does allow for the possibility of some fulfillment deriving from French Canada’s stated agrarianism, these achievements are ephemeral. The Laurentian valley proves insuffucient for its residents, and is certainly insufficient to change North America’s social geography radically. Only for a time in the era of prosperity driven by the demands of the First World War does it seem to the reader and the protagonists as if French Canadian peasant society can triumph over urban industrial society elsewhere, but even this prosperity is parasitic.

Euchariste Moisan, Thirty Acres’ dominant figure, illustrates this idealization of peasant agriculture: "The Moisans are farmers. Farming’s always been good enough for the Moisans and they’ve always been pretty good at farming" (Ringuet 130). Despite Moisan’s wholehearted adoption of tradition, however, he is in many respects an unlikely proponent of conservative French Canadian values. He is not native to Saint-Jacques; he was born "in the newly settled lands of the north" (Ringuet 20), in the community of Sainte-Adèle. Moisan’s few memories of this community are negative:

There wasn’t nothing but stones up there. We’d put in the potatoes and when we came to dig them up there’d be nothing but stones--big ones, little ones--and hardly no potatoes at all. It was kind of queer of the old man to go and settle up there. But Father Labelle [a priest closely involved with Québec’s internal colonization plans] came around here to where Pa was working on Uncle Ephrem’s farm. I don’t remember so well, because I was only five when we got burnt out. But I know sure enough that it was more of a stone-mine than a gold-mine. Just stones and stones. (Ringuet 10)

These memories of penury and suffering on Québec’s northern frontiers culminate in the death by fire of Moisan’s entire family when he was only five years old. Euchariste Moisan’s personal experiences should indicate, then, that the nationalist rhetoric of colonization and French Canadian expansion is not only harmful but potentially lethal. Nonetheless, when Moisan comes of age he does not seek to abandon the Moisan family’s lands--for a life in a Québec town like his cousin Édouard, for life in industrial New England like his Larivière cousins--rather he seeks to continue the project of settlement and community-building begun by his father but disrupted by the death of his parents and siblings. Moisan’s unorthodox family--made up of his childless uncle Ephrem, his distant elderly cousin Amélie Carignan, and himself an orphan--is seen not as an aberration from the norms of French Canadian society, but rather as an expression of "the human trinity: man, woman, child; father, mother, son" (Ringuet 20). Yet this unorthodox family unit is itself a subversion, made up of individuals who had no intimate blood connection to one another and who simply chose to function as a family, more-or-less independently of traditional family connections.

Ringuet’s narrative is concerned with the efforts of Euchariste Moisan and his contemporaries to restore to the Moisan family resident in Saint-Jacques the traditional cycles of life--"birth, marriage, sickness, death" (Ringuet 35). After the birth of his third child, Étienne, four years after his marriage to Alphonsine Branchaud, Moisan reflects that the birth of his eldest son, Oguinase, "added something to the Moisan farm, something that was its due and for which it had been waiting a long time" (Ringuet 73). The Moisan family now lived on, and under his strict unimaginative guidance, the Moisan family prospered within the context of French Canadian peasant society. Moisan’s parsimony contributed to the substantial economic success of the Moisan farm; Alphonsine bore thirteen children (including nine surviving children) before her death, contributing to the French Canadian population’s rapid growth as Roman Catholic doctrine and nationalist sentiment would have her; three of Moisan’s children entered religious orders, with Oguinase becoming a priest (just as Moisan promised the parish priest when he began courting Alphonsine) and Oguinase’s sisters, Malvina and Eva, becoming nuns; Euchariste Moisan himself became a leading member of his community, in church and school. Though Moisan’s son Ephrem does become a troublemaker, his actions can be sufficiently regulated by Moisan to continue to see Ephrem as his favourite son. Even the First World War does not harm the Moisan family. If anything, Euchariste Moisan prospers from the high prices for food grains and hay that accompanied this conflict. The departure of the French-born farmhand Albert Chabrol to serve in his country’s army also removes a source of tension that had hindered Moisan’s rising status in the community, as Chabrol’s outsider status--exemplified by his modern nationalist sentiments and his irreligion--contrasted sharply, as Ben Zion Shek points out, with the parochial outlook and devout faith of rural French Canada:

Albert has come to Canada after fleeing army service in France. He has visited Africa and Asia. He refuses charity and seeks only to work. He does not attend mass, nor does he pray. He has nothingof that "attachement servile á une maîtresse" [servile attachment to a mistress], the earth, common to Moisan and his fellows. When Euchariste’s son Oguinase visits the home, Albert "lui tendit la main, ce dont jamais il n’avait perdu l’habitude, et qui surprenait toujours les paysans, pour qui la poignée de main est chose réservé á l’An Neuf et aux connaissances nouvelle avec qui l’on prend ainsi contact une fois pour toutes." [extends him his hand, that habit which he never lost and which always surprised the peasants, for whom a handshake is something reserved for New Year’s and for new acquaintances for whom this is done once and for all.] (57)

This psychological detachment of the Moisans and their neighbours from the horrors of the First World War testifies to their profound lack of interest in the outside world, seen as populated by "far-away peoples, some of them dominant nations thirsting for murder and loots, and others, quite humble like themselves, probably, but drunk for generations with the wine and patriotism and fed on military glory" (Ringuet 170-171). The Canadian debate over conscription is the only "foreign" event that profoundly affects the community, yet even it passes as soon as it is clear that farmers’ sons will not be called to serve on the battlefields of Europe. This detachment lacks visible consequences, even when it is directed against Britain and France. The First World War is entirely peripheral to these people’s concerns. Euchariste Moisan is miraculously able to afford near-complete indifference to the affairs of the wider world.

The first two sections of Thirty Acres conform to the romantic mythologizing of the roman du terroir in depicting a French Canadian peasant family that thrives through attachment to traditional virtues. The only exceptions to this are the depictions of Alphonsine’s fatigue of bearing so many children and her subsequent death, and the reluctance of eleven-year-old Oguinase to be separated from his family. The circumstances depicted by Ringuet are entirely plausible; the thriving Euchariste Moisan and his growing family does seem to prove the durability of the French Canadian peasant family in the face of atomizing social forces. With some reservations, the first half of Thirty Acres reinforces the social geography proposed by French Canada’s nationalist ideologues (Socken 152-156). In the second half of Thirty Acres, however, this ideal social geography dissolves. The first indication of this lies in the angry departure of Lucinda from Saint-Jacques, after being chastised for bringing her boyfriend to Mass and wearing revealing clothing. Despite the initial misgivings of father and son, Oguinase has become a priest; but despite Euchariste’s hope that his son will provide him with spiritual and social capital, he witnesses his son’s slow decline as he is sent to tend, without aid, a large overpopulated parish. Ephrem’s decision to emigrate to work in the factories of New England is a further disappointment to his father, who had hoped that his favourite son might stay to continue the Moisan heritage; Étienne, the son who stays, is embittered by his father’s preference for Ephrem. The farm’s prosperity proves to be ephemeral, as Europe’s agriculture recovers from the First World War’s ravages further destabilizing the Moisan family and French Canadian peasant society.

The gradual decline of the Moisan family’s fortunes and the exile of an impoverished Euchariste to New England can be traced to two linked phenomena, namely, the introduction of legalistic procedures and the growth of American influence. Euchariste simply finds himself unable to adapt to a society ruled not, as was once the case, by custom and by mutual friendship, but rather by law and impersonal relationships, to make what the sociologist Max Weber would call the transition from gemeineschaft to geselleschaft. As Ken Morrison observes in his
commentary upon Weber’s theory of systems of domination,

Weber began by making a distinction between power and domination. Power is the ability of individuals to carry out their will in a given situation, despite resistance. Domination, by contrast, refers to the right of a ruler within an ‘established order’ to issue commands to others and expect them to obey. [. . .] Weber’s primary aim was to focus on various systems of domination rather than on power itself and so his approach focused primarily on the structure of domination. In light of this, he began with the assumption that different systems of domination vary in the way commands are issued and in the expectation of obedience by individuals who are subject to such commands. (283)

In Thirty Acres, Moisan’s society moves from charismatic and traditional modes of domination based respectively upon personal relationships and time-sanctified customary authorities to a legal mode of domination, where "[i]ndividuals pursue their interests within limits established by legal precepts and follow norms approved by the group governing them [. . . and] comply only in their capacity as members of society" (Morrison 291). The most notable example of this can be found in Euchariste’s outrage at his neighbour Phydime Raymond, who prospered from ochre deposits taken from land that once belonged to Euchariste. Euchariste simply fails to understand the concepts of modern property law or of a judicial system, believing, for instance, that his prior ownership of the land qualifies him to consideration as a sort of secondary owner of the disputed property, and that Raymond’s refusal to allow him that sort of consideration--in accordance with
the rigid system of property law which has permeated Québec--is immoral if not illegal. After failing to provide useful testimony at the court hearing from the new legalistic geselleschaft perspective but driven by a profound bitterness towards Raymond, Euchariste decides to appeal the lawsuit to higher courts; he succeeds only in increasing his financial burdens. At the same time, Euchariste loses two of his children: his son Oguinase dies of tuberculosis, contracted during his ill-paid and low-status tenure as parish priest in a newly-opened marginal parish on the northern frontiers of Québec, while his daughter Lucinda appears to have been drawn into the lower classes of urban Montréal, possibly even as a prostitute. Even Étienne--Euchariste’s appointed inheritor to the Moisan farmstead, despite Étienne’s own youthful discomfort with the idea--grows increasingly embarrassed by his father, by his pursuit of his lawsuit against Raymond and his archaic conservatism. Once, when French Canadian rural society was relatively intact in the late nineteenth century, Euchariste Moisan was a relatively progressive young man, but now he finds that he and his childhood society have been entirely supplanted.

Euchariste Moisan ... est l’héritier d’une terre véritablement ancestrale. Et quand il est menacé par des changements et par de nouvelles techniques agricoles, ceux-ci n’ont pas une origine externe, qu’il pourrait mieux comprendre. Ces changements sont suggérés par son propre fils. Bien qu’il ait été la victime du notaire, quand il perd sa terre, c’est parce qu’il l’a cédée á son fils (Cowan 47).
Euchariste Moisan is the inheritor of a truly ancestral land. And when he is threatened by change and by new agricultural techniques, he finds that these do not have a comprehensible external origin; rather, these changes are suggested by his own son. Granted that he was the victim of the notary, when he loses his land it is because he gave it to his son.

This replacement of custom with law is aided, in part, by the penetration of American influence. Almost until the moment of Euchariste’s emigration to the United States, he had underestimated the degree of American influence on his life despite the popularity of American cars, music, and baseball and the very large number of French Canadian immigrants living in the United States. Euchariste accepted unquestioningly the belief of expansionist ideologues that the United States was being steadily converted into a French Canadian colony:

Back home, on the rare occasions when Euchariste Moisan had thought of the States, he had imagined towns and farms that were far away, perhaps, but very like the ones he was familiar with. And he thought of the whole country as being gradually invaded by Quebec. So many of the families he knew had emigrated there that this living and prolific stream must have spread out into an extension of the Laurentian home-land: a new, American Quebec. No doubt about it. Every year, when the celebrations on St. John the Baptist’s Day opened the flood-gates of national eloquence, pulpits, platforms, and the press resounded with the usual paeans on the fertility and vitality of the French-Canadian race. A million and a half "French" in the Eastern States alone, just in New England!

On arriving, in fact, Euchariste finds that the French Canadian community has been almost entirely assimilated, with Ephrem marrying an Irish-American woman, his American grandchildren possessing no connection at all to French Canadian tradition, and use of the French language and longing for the old days being confined only to the elderly Euchariste’s failure to adapt ends up confining him to the margins of American society as a night watchman--a job given to him as a favour--that limits his connection with tradition to a weekly reading of La Presse and its news. Even in Saint-Jacques, Étienne Moisan is unable to achieve the prosperity once enjoyed by his father despite his strict attachment to the precise procedures and techniques prescribed by government agronomists. The French Canadian peasant society earlier proposed as viable competition to urban industrialism has failed, leaving its remaining proponents stranded. As Maurice Lemire observed in a commentary on Québec’s newly-urbanized French Canadian populations,

Déracinée, la population urbaine récemment arrivée de la campagne traverse une crise d’identité d’autant plus grave qu’elle se retrouve dans un monde dominé par le capital anglais et en concurrence avec une foule d’immigrants qui la considère comme marginale. La vision du monde qu’avait élaboré l’agriculturalisme au XIXe siècle éclatait et le discours qui l’accompagnait risquait lui aussi de perdre sa cohérence. [. . . I]l fallait trouver un sens nouveau, une justification nouvelle á la présence des Canadiens français en Amérique. (Lemire 12)
Uprooted, the urban population recently arrived from the countryside suffered a grave identity crisis plunged into a world dominated by English capital along with a crowd of immigrants that considered French Canadians to be marginal. The worldview that the agrarianism of the nineteenth century had developed was destroyed, and the discourse that accompanied it also risked destruction. [. . .] It was necessary to find a new logic, a new justification for the presence of French Canadians in America.

Ringuet cannot provide, in Thirty Acres’ closing pages, such an explicit solution to the French Canadian predicament. The life history of the Euchariste Moisan, however, stands as an implicit critique of French Canada’s traditional ideologies and the high hopes derived from these ideologies. Regardless of the early promise which they offered in a prior age, they are quite insufficient vis-á-vis the North American model of modernity. The land is not enough to provide prosperity; the church cannot take care of its own; the family grows distant and hostile. The only thing that can be done is to live like Ephrem, happily enough in the city, while hoping that Ephrem’s near-total assimilation abroad can be averted at home. Thirty Acres, in the end, is a eulogy for the French Canadian nationalist challenge to North America and an augur of the North Americanization of Québec.

As always, I retain intellectual title to this work. Plagiarism will not be tolerated. (References, on the other hand, will be eagerly welcomed.)

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