Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

The Motherhood of the Mother Superior: Anne Hebert's Marie-Clotilde De la Croix

Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

The Motherhood of the Mother Superior: Anne Hebert's Marie-Clotilde De la Croix

Article excerpt

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. …

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