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The motherhood of the mother superior: Anne Hebert's Marie-Clotilde de la croix.

Female religious are found reasonably often in Quebecois literature, but only rarely as main characters. Mother superiors are an even smaller subset of this group and when we read of them, they are usually somewhere in the fringes of the text, putting in a guest appearance when the institutional Church needs an older female representative or when imposing submission to the Holy Rule of their order upon a more important character. Against such a background Mother Marie-Clotilde truly stands out, not just as a figure of Quebecois literature, but as one of the triumvirate of women who dominate Anne Hebert's Les enfants du sabbat.

Our examination of the figure of Mother Marie-Clotilde allows us to explore the power of "mother" as a title and what that implies for the woman who holds it. In other words, does the title confer real maternity, and if so, what do we mean by that? The teaching of the Catholic Church has tended to reinforce the idea that the titles "father," "mother," "sister," and "brother" as used by the clergy and religious have real transformative power. To cite a particularly clear example, we can note that during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Church asserted that sexual intercourse involving clergy and/or religious was the equivalent of incest (Shell 62). Like "step-mother" and "mother-in-law," "mother superior" is a title, designed to refer to someone appointed to a mother-like role, but who is not a "real" mother. One can notice a consistent pattern in that modifying the term "mother" in some way limits the scope of the motherhood of the woman thus described. We even see it in the expression "birth mother." So let us be precise, a mother superior is (at least stereotypically) an older woman and a virgin appointed to a position of authority over a community of adults, and her "motherhood" stems from this authority alone. (1) In other words, she is a mother from whom all maternal attributes save gender and authority have been stripped. In the traditional family, first a woman gives birth to a living child and then we call her a mother--in other words, the maternal function comes first and the title of mother comes after. In the convent, it is the reverse; first the title is conferred, and then the maternal function (if indeed it is maternal) follows. In history, culture, and literature, the mother superior appears as a sort of paradox--as we will see--having both her motherhood and her superiority called into question. Hebert's Mother Marie-Clotilde appears as one solution to this paradox, clearly established as a mother figure and an authority figure, her authority and motherhood serving to anchor each other.

From its onset, nearly any analysis of the mother superior as thematic, symbol, or character type is going to be problematic, and this study can really only scratch the surface of what may be read into or (perhaps more appropriately) has been written into mother superiors as characters in French-Canadian literature. The small number of mother superiors as primary characters and the limited amount of research with mother superiors as a point of focus are contributing factors to this difficulty. The mother superior is not so much relegated to the margins of literary criticism as lost in the middle of a series of intersections. For example, she is a sub-class of the "mother" as a character type, and a sub-class of the female religious (or nun) as a character type.

Her image in literature has been at the whim of a variety of theories and ideologies. She is often seen as a sort of "super nun," magnifying in her person those traits that one attributes to nuns in general. In texts with a positive image of convents and female monasticism, the mother superior is frequently depicted as the kindest and wisest of the nuns. Consider, for example, the model provided by the mother superior in Roger and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music. In literature drawn from anti-Catholic or anti-clerical sources, which view convents with distaste and/or distrust, we see her portrayed as the worst of the lot. A mistrust of female authority on the part of a male-dominated Church and society--even by men who sought to encourage female monasticism--has contributed its share to the ambiguity, an ambiguity not at all clarified by women writers. While the convent appears to have functioned for centuries as a refuge for strong-willed women seeking a life independent of men, it is also possible to perceive the female religious life as subjection to a male-dominated Church structure and hierarchy. One can read both visions of the convent in the work of women writers, and it is even arguable that both visions are at work in Les enfants du sabbat.

Other traditions have exerted their influence on the mother superior in literature. The convent, like the harem and any other exclusively female space, has long been a subject of male speculation, obsession, and fantasy. Tales of lusty nuns can be found in Rabelais, Chaucer, and elsewhere (Fessenden 452). In such tales, the mother superior invariably turned out to be a negative presence--lesbian seductress, sadistic dominatrix, or at best a passive procuress (turning a blind eye while powerful and/or influential men have their way with the women trusted to her charge). Protestant writers would appropriate these legends, creating among others the genre of the escaped nun's tale, where the comparison of the convent to the bordello would be made explicit (Fessenden 452). Quebec's Marie-Clair Blais would explore the convent-brothel pairing as she presents the story of Heloise in Une saison dans la vie d'Emmanuel. Heloise is expelled from the convent (apparently for sexual impropriety--but this young woman is so caught up in religious ecstasy that it is hard to tell where the spiritual experience ends and the physical begins) and she moves into the house of ill repute run by Octavia Embonpoint. Heloise is assigned a room and promptly replaces the erotic prints hanging on the wall of her room with a crucifix, re-creating the nun's cell within the bordello. The madame allows the crucifix to remain, but insists on restoring the prints, believing them "necessaires a l'appetit de ses clients" (152). A related dichotomy with a nearly equally ancient lineage, and one more appropriate to Les enfants du sabbat, parallels the nun with the witch. After all, the words coven and convent are etymologically related. This association, like the nun-prostitute pairing, appears to stem from a fear of what women are up to when they are not controlled by men, coupled with a long-standing suspicion of clergy and the religious in European folk culture. These oppositions, nun/prostitute and nun/witch, are undoubtedly allied to the eternal pairing of Mary and Eve in both literature and Church symbolism.

Felice Lifshitz, in her study, "Is Mother Superior?: Towards a History of Feminine Amtscharisma," demonstrates that the mother superior has always been a figure of some controversy. While it seemed clear that female monastics should be led by one of their own number, what to call this woman and the extent of her power were not so easily agreed upon. Lifshitz focuses her study on the language used in monastic Rules, notably adaptations of the Rule of Benedict, formulated in the sixth century and which eventually became the basis for the majority of monastic rules--for both male and female communities--within the Roman Catholic tradition. Following the Rule of Benedict, the head of a monastery is an "abbot," taken from the word "abba," meaning "father." Benedict's Rule as written used exclusively masculine terms to refer to the monastics and their superior, and it would appear that its author had not envisioned the use of his rule for female religious communities. Those who later adapted his rule for female communities would hesitate between a variety of terms among which we can note mater and the transformation of the masculine abbas into the feminine abbatissa--whence our word "abbess" (Lifshitz 122). Essentially, we see hesitation between whether a female monastic community is to be led by a mother (mater), or a female father (abbatissa) (122). Lifshitz's article highlights the gender-role confusion that surrounded the abbatissa in the text of the Rule itself and continued in medieval social practice and in law and as evidenced in the ceremonies of ordination for abbesses. The problem as presented by Lifshitz centers around whether or not maternity can be a source of legitimate governing authority. If motherhood does not suggest the authority to govern, in order to supply a convent with a leader from among their own, she must be granted honorary paternity--a solution that seems to be suggested by the use of the title "abbess." Lifshitz ends her study saying,
   How female abbesses actually managed to impose their authority on
   the women subordinated to them and how they were perceived by those
   women, whether as mothers or as fathers or as a combination of both,
   would be worth investigating further. (131)

Indeed, we could well reverse the terms of the question "Is Mother Superior?" that forms the title of Lifshitz's article and ask, "Is the Superior a Mother?"

That Mother Marie-Clotilde is an authority figure is clear from the outset. With the notable exception of Sister Julie de la Trinite, she expects and receives unquestioning obedience from her charges, the Dames du Precieux-Sang She holds her own in encounters with men--such as the Dr. Painchaud, or the lawyers who come to meet with the sisters in council--and even men of the Church. Marie-Clotilde's rule of the convent is strict and unyeilding, and she would indeed appear more to fit the mold of a female father, as alluded to before, than that of a mother, for one is at pains to detect in her any of what might be considered stereotypically maternal traits. Yet, Hebert does not allow us to consider Marie-Clotilde as a female father. The paternal presence in the convent is adequately maintained by the chaplain, the wonderfully named Leo-Z Flageole. As if this were not enough, in the form of Sister Rose de Lima, treasurer for the convent, we are given the example of a nun who begins to violate gender norms, behaving more and more like a man. The contrast between Rose de Lima's behavior and interaction with the world outside of the convent and that of Marie-Clotilde seem to make it amply clear that we are not to read the mother superior as engaging in a similar gender-bending performance.

Making use of the traditional association between convent and coven, Hebert reinforces the motherhood of Marie-Clotilde by the deliberate and persistent parallel established between her and the biological mother of Sr. Julie, the witch Philomene Labrosse. Echoing the pairing of Mary and Eve, Les enfants du sabbat presents the mother superior and the witch as supernatural scrapping sisters, engaged in combat over the spiritual destiny of Sr. Julie de la Trinite. Sr. Julie as a novice among the Dames du Precieux-Sang finds herself in a kind of no-man's-land (pun intended) between them. She is a novice--not yet a nun, but still bound to the Church by ties she must sever if she is to become a witch.

Les enfants du sabbat is truly a tale of competing mothers--Philomene vs. Marie-Clotilde. If Philomene is the victor, having succeeded in guaranteeing that Sr. Julie follows the path of the witch and not that of the nun, her advantage arises not from having birthed Julie, but by knowing her better and over a longer period of time. Julie herself confirms that Marie-Clotilde's failure to separate her from the shack at the Mountain of B ... is due to the superior's ignorance. Wishing to teach a lesson in humility, Marie-Clotilde has twice refused to grant Sr. Julie permission to wash her nightshirt. However, as Sr. Julie notes, "Et d'ailleurs, pourquoi m'en faire pour une chemise sale? Plus je macere dans ma crasse, plus je m'echappe facilement du couvent" (57). While it is true that the competition between Philomene and Marie-Clotilde ends in defeat for the nun, the fact of the competition itself underscores the common maternity of both women.

When seen disciplining her charges, Marie-Clotilde's motherhood is emphasized. The discipline she imposes frequently stems from what is traditionally considered the "women's sphere"--withholding from Sr. Julie access to the laundry facilities, moving the hapless Sr. G-emma to the kitchen, and startlingly, in a scene where Sr. Julie begins to hallucinate in the superior's office, she imagines the mother superior dipping a mop into a bucket of bleach and scrubbing Sr. Julie's face with it while intoning, "Il faut que le visage de mes filles soit lessive comme un plancher clair" (21). Yet more important than any of these hints at maternity, Hebert has Marie-Clotilde participate in the most motherlike activity of all: reproduction.

Via the authority vested in her by her order's holy rule, Marie-Clotilde has the power to reproduce by transforming the young sisters in her charge into mirror images of herself and the other seniors of the community. Marie-Clotilde attains motherhood through parthenogenesis, the ability of a female organism to reproduce without male contribution, thereby creating a perfect duplicate of herself Repeated references insist on the fact that this is how the Dames du Precieux-Sang replenish their ranks; young women come in and are molded by the novice trainer and the mother superior until they resemble the senior nuns like peas in a pod. In what is to be Sr. Julie's last effort to complete her vows and become a full member of the order she prays:
   Je ne demande a Dieu qu'nne settle chose; devenir pour l'eternite
   une religieuse comme les autres, me perdre parmi les autres et ne
   plus donner prise a aucune singularite. Une petite nonne
   interchangeable, parmi d'autres petites nonnes interchangeables,
   alignees, deux par deux, meme costume, memes gestes, memes petites
   lunettes cerclees de metal. (18)

Marie-Clotilde likewise emphasizes the ability of the senior nuns to produce perfect replicas of themselves:
   Les soeurs en conseil sont redoutables et regardent leurs
   adversaires sans ciller. Le blanc empese des cornettes et des
   guimpes, l'etoffe noire, mate, des robes, les mains pales et les
   visages defaits. Tout cela pose pour l'eternite. Une religieuse
   vivante remplacant aussitot la soeur morte qu'on vient d'enterrer,
   sans que l'adversaire s'en apercoive, semble-t-il. Tant la
   ressemblance est parfaite entre les strums du conseil. (55)

In this novel, giving birth to a child would seem to be only of passing importance in establishing maternity. Even Philomene, the biological mother of Sr. Julie, emphasizes that she is molding her daughter into the image of herself As she expresses it, "Tu es ma fille, et tu me continues" (69). In illustration, during the nocturnal torment of the chaplain, we see Sr. Julie opening herself like a nesting doll, revealing that she bears within her her mother and foremothers, highlighting the degree to which they are all replicates of each other, souls and temperaments as alike as the viperous yellow eyes they all share (103). A mother's power, as imagined in this novel, stems not so much from a demonstrated ability to carry a child to term and give it birth, but rather in the exercise of authority to fashion or mold a young person in her care. This is how Philomene and Mother Marie-Clotilde alike demonstrate their motherhood, and it is an image of maternity reinforced in other novels by Hebert, notably in Kamouraska, where Elisabeth's birth mother is an almost negligeable presence in the novel. The real maternal figures are the three maiden aunts who use their authority over the young woman in their care to mold her into their image of perfection. That Elisabeth is constrained to maintain this image outwardly, even as she struggles against it internally, is a mark of their success.

This vision of motherhood is hardly new. In Western civilization, raising children has long been acknowledged as the mother's domain. It is an aspect of maternal power and authority that is reinforced in folklore where we find sayings such as, "The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world." We can cite the medieval folk belief that a bear cub is born as a formless blob, licked into shape by its mother, from which we have the French epithet "un ours real leche." We see it in the popular belief that exists still today that women raise their daughters as idealized versions of themselves and their sons as their idealized image of a husband. This same deep-rooted faith in the mother's power to mold or sculpt her children may have insinuated itself into Catholic dogma in the teaching that the mother of the sinless Savior must have been sinless herself

In Quebecois society before the 1960s, the overwhelming role of the Church in education, social work, and hospitals meant that les bonnes soeurs were a constant presence in everyday life, but the politics promoting the colonization of northern Quebec and the myth of the revanche des berceaux (2) meant that the sterile nun was an unlikely candidate for a heroic literary role. The overwhelmingly submissive role given to women in this period made it more likely that when religious women did appear in literature we would see the sisters submitted to the Holy Rule more often than the superior who enforced it.

Karen Gould, in her article "Refiguring the Mother," traces a history of mother-figures in French-Canadian literature. She notes that French-Canadian women authors of the 1970s, like many feminist authors of the same period, avoided the character of the mother, preferring that of the liberated daughter who rejected motherhood as an option for her own life (111-12). In doing so they were rejecting the image of the woman who submitted herself body and mind to the goals of a conservative nationalism and religion--that is, the silent mother of a dozen or so children depicted in the roman de la terre. This was hardly a context in which one could expect to see many depictions of women living under a Rule within a male-dominated Church. Rehabilitation of the mother figure would occur later, in works of the '80s and '90s (Gould 110). Hebert writes Mother Marie-Clotilde in 1975, in the middle of this matriphobic era--which may explain why the mothers in this novel are such dark figures. Yet, the mothers of Les enfants du sabbat do not attain motherhood by submitting themselves as tools to the hands of men who would use them to build a nation. Rather, they are the active element in the reproductive act--molding raw material into a design of their choosing, an idealized version of themselves. Mother Marie-Clotilde in this way is a powerful counterweight to the silent, suffering mothers of Louis Hemon's Maria Chapdelaine and Gabrielle Roy' s Bonheur d'occasion.

In an amusing and ironic move, it is the stereotypes of anti-nun literatures--traditions allying the nun to the witch and to the prostitute--that provide the background for Hebert to present a mother superior that is both genuinely authoritative and genuinely maternal. The complex and deliberate comparison between Marie-Clotilde and Philomene underscores Marie-Clotilde's real maternity. Although Philomene is the victor in the contest over Sr. Julie, we can recognize that she is no model to emulate. Her path involves poison, deception, and the attempted rape of her own son (among other thing), a path which ends in despair and death. Marie-Clotilde, for all her severity is sincerely concerned for her charges (as evidenced in her attempt to console Sr. Julie after the news of the death of her brother and his new family) and more importantly survives to turn her maternal attention to another generation of nuns. Hebert's mother superior is true to her calling as a female monastic, an authentic figure of authority (if a thwarted authority), and a woman who represents a maternal or motherly authority and not merely a female stand-in for a male-dominated institution. She demonstrates the mother's right and ability to mold, sculpt, form youth placed in her care. Filling a role that both requires and demonstrates authority, Marie-Clotilde de la Croix is both mother and superior.


Blais, Marie-Claire. Une saison clans la vie d'Emmanuel. Paris: Grasset, 1965.

Fessenden, Tracy. "The Convent, the Brothel and the Protestant Woman's Sphere." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 25:2 (2000): 451-78.

Gould, Karen. "Refiguring the Mother: Quebec Women Writers in the 1980s." Women Writing in Quebec. Ed. Paula Ruth Gilbert et al. Plattsburgh, NY: Center for the Study of Canada, Plattsburgh State U, 2000. 110-22.

Hebert, Anne. Les enfants du sabbat. Paris: Seuil. 1975.

--. Kamouraska. Paris: Semi, 1970.

Hemon, Louis. Maria Chapdelaine. Paris: Grasset, 1954.

Lifshitz, Felice. "Is Mother Superior? Towards a History of Feminine Amtscharisma." Medieval Mothering. Ed. John Carmi Parsons and Bonnie Wheeler. New York: Garland, 1996. 117-38.

Roy, Gabrielle. Bonheur d'occasion. Montreal: Stanke, 1977.

Shell, Marc. Children of the Earth: Literature. Politics and Nationhood. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.






(1) It is true that there are numerous examples, both historical and literary, of mother superiors that do not fit this stereotype.

(2) Translatable as "the cradle-revenge," the revanche des berceaux refers to the extremely high birth rate among French-Canadian families that allowed the continuation of a French presence in North America after the British conquest of Canada.
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Author:Boudreau, Douglas L.
Publication:West Virginia University Philological Papers
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1CQUE
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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