academic, ideas & perspectives, Literary Commentary

writing || The Hereditary Sickness: An Analysis of the Structure, Tensions, and Motifs of “Mad Shadows”

This was one of the first essays I wrote in my IB (international baccalaureate) HL (higher level) English course. It’s a close read at a specific passage we were assigned from the book “Mad Shadows” by Canadian author Marie-Claire Blais. (By God, did I hate that book.)

I haven’t posted it yet, but I like having things all in one place and it’s always interesting to look back and see just how much you’ve improved. So I’m sharing it here for your interest! Haven’t edited it at all. Feel free to dissect and criticize and hate on it all you like.

This was written November 2016.

The passage from pages 52 to 55 of the book “Mad Shadows” by Marie-Claire Blais presents a turning point within the novel. It is in these four pages that the deterioration of the characters and superficial relationships begins to occur. An aura of sickness and wickedness spreads throughout the family – in their bodies and in their relationships – foreshadowing the falling apart of the household later in the novel.

The physical deterioration of Louise is one of the primary ideas explored in the passage. As she is the head of the family, and the source of all of its inter- and intrapersonal tensions, her deterioration is symbolic for the gradual collapse of the entire family. Evidence of a disease begins to emerge, and her image as pristine and flawlessly beautiful begins to shatter. “Against the pink nightgown she was wearing, her face was horribly white, like someone’s face after a severe shock. Disease hollowed her cheek.” The whiteness of her face in these two sentences can be likened to the description of Isabelle-Marie, which refers to her appearance as “cold and eerie, like a gumless witch”, a similarity that prompts Isabelle-Marie to laugh in pleasure that others in the family are beginning to share in her ugliness, and consequentially, her internal struggle. The fact that Louise is beginning to show weaknesses when before she was perfect and beautiful is itself an indication that her way of living up until this point is reaching an instability with her aging and that her materialistic morals are dangerously inconsistent values to live one’s life by. However, it is not only Louise’s appearance that is deteriorating, but her health as well. Louise’s facial scar is a prominent element of the passage provided, and is emphasized through the frequent mention of a disease, a wound, and the colour purple.

Louise’s disease is detrimental to her well-being, especially given her superficial and materialistic nature that places her appearance at utmost importance. As a result, its impact on her criticizes her sources of happiness in life. But it is equally detrimental to the family. Her roles as Patrice’s overprotective mother, Isabelle-Marie’s reminder of her own lack of beauty, and Lanz’ lover, are affected by her aging. And as evidence of this, following the surfacing of her disease, character tensions in the household develop for the worse.

The character interactions within the passage are characterized by words that create an atmosphere of suspense and wickedness. In a sense, the passage is a revelation of the true nature of the relationships and people in Mad Shadows. Tone is created through the use of phrases like “gumless witch”, “embittered because of the passions that seethed within her”, “All her contempt for her daughter spurted like pus from her fingernails”, “Louise ripped her hand away from her daughter’s shoulder, away from this flesh of her flesh”, and “she squirmed in disgust”. These phrases emphasize the wickedness and lack of love in the character’s interactions and tensions with one another.

They are complemented with the descriptions of tensions occurring throughout the passage. Isabelle-Marie and Patrice’s central tensions are explored when we catch a glimpse into Patrice’s opinion of his sister: “[Isabelle-Marie] laughed. He had never heard her laugh so spontaneously. At home, Isabelle-Marie’s laughter was deadening. Tonight, it was enchanting. Patrice bit into some bark and tore it to pieces with his teeth. This act of biting calmed him.” The prospect of a change for the better in Isabelle-Marie is threatening to Patrice, who has never known life any other way then when he was being coddled by his mother and considered superior to his sister. The same familial unbalance and false love is evident in Isabelle-Marie and Louise’s primary conflicts – one being Louise’s treatment of her children in favour of Patrice, which causes Isabelle-Marie to detest both of them, and the other being Isabelle-Marie’s hatred for her mother’s superficiality. Isabelle-Marie embodies the family’s twisted, wicked nature when she laughs at her mother’s diseased face and takes pleasure in knowing that “Louise, alas, had aged considerably during the last few days. All she needs to do now is grow old, thought Isabelle-Marie.” Finally, Louise and Lanz’ love is exposed as being nothing more than a fake act when Louise walked into her room to see Lanz sleeping on the bed and “squirmed in disgust”. The revelation of all of these relationships as fake is critical to the future development of the book – it is these circumstances that explain the cause of the family members’ deaths and imprisonments later in the book, and lead us to reflect on the effects of superficiality and falsity within our relationships.

The passage serves to expose truths about the family’s nature and hint about its impending doom as a consequence for the characters’ wickedness and inhumanity in the beginning of the book. Structured in two parts, the passage first centers around motifs about the character’s condemnations for their wrongdoings and unveiling of their fake natures. Then, from the bottom of page 54 onwards, it creates an anticipation of the physical and spiritual collapse of the household. In fact, in the second paragraph of the passage, Marie-Claire Blais seems to hint at the final punishments soon to be passed upon the family when she paints the image: “He felt sick. Soon dawn would waken a purple world, mixing whiteness with the shadows. One could already smell the hay in the open barnyards.” Structured in the same way as the four-page passage, these three lines are indicative of the entire story. First, a sickness is presented. It is no coincidence that Louise’s scar is so often highlighted as being “purple” – the “purple world” is to be wakened at dawn and become invaded by a blend of white and dark – two colours well-known as representing good and evil, and in this case, also representing the illness that is Isabelle-Marie and her pale, white complexion. The mention of the smell of hay is a subtle hint at the solution to this sickness which Isabelle-Marie resorts to in the end of the book, which is to burn it out. Later, when Louise experiences a revelation that she does not love Lanz anymore, her superficiality catches up to her and begins to shatter her life, and Marie-Claire Blais creates another similar image: “…she experienced for the first time a kind of shame, at herself, and at this man, as though he were something she had found lurking beneath her own skin. Lanz still wore a nasty smile. Half the shadows in the room had faded as day began to dawn. The light, breaking through the blinds, cast a black and white keyboard across the bed.” While before, dawn was anticipated as being the point where the family meets its consequences, dawn is now actually breaking and the consequences begin with the unraveling of the relationships between the characters; the first being Louise’s loss of love for her husband.

In the passage provided, we see the same two-part structure of a sickness being presented and then the build-up of suspense regarding the consequences of the sickness. First, the sickness is presented through the exploration of tension in the characters’ mistreatment of one another, as well as a hint of the family’s sinful, sexual nature is mentioned: “The bird flew away, glancing gently against Patrice’s arm like a woman’s lips”. Later, symbols like water as a cleanser and sleep are elements that create a tone characteristic of a suspense build-up regarding the demise of the family for their actions. “The rain was coming down very hard. As it streamed over her, the water wove a cloak of misery around her long body.” Water is often a symbol of renewal, life, and cleansing, and in this passage it is evident that Louise has just been cleansed of her false love for Lanz and is now undergoing a greater cleanse that will be the effect of her lifestyle to this point in the book. At the end, “A pall of sleep hung over the house.” As in many timeless literary works including Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “Tempest”, sleep is a very meaningful motif. In “Macbeth”, sleep is used to create suspense and is a time of murder and death. In 4.1 of “Tempest”, Shakespeare expresses that each day’s sleep represents a finality to one life and the beginning of a new one, just as it represents the beginning of an end to the family in Mad Shadows: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” (Tempest, 4.1.56–58) In Mad Shadows, the reference to sleep that “hung” over the house, like a curse and like the suspenseful use of the motif of sleep in other works, an atmosphere of suspense is instantaneously constructed.

Hence, the passage from Mad Shadows is a major turning point in the novel, for it delves deep into the nature of the false relationships in the family and the wickedness of the characters towards one another. The passage ends on a suspenseful note that hints at the upcoming trial of the family for its wickedness. An emphasis is placed on Louise’s deterioration, specifically, for it is her fall combined with Isabelle-Marie’s final blow that will ultimately eliminate the family’s physical and spiritual sicknesses. Structured as cause-and-effect, the passage emulates the structure of the entire book and sets up an experience for readers that portrays the consequences of superficiality, materialism and insubstantial relationships.

Works Cited

Blais, Marie Claire. Mad Shadows. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1966. Print..

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Web.

Leave a Reply