Places: Shadows on the Rock

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1931

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical

Time of work: Late seventeenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Quebec City

*Quebec Shadows on the RockCity. French settlement on the St. Lawrence River, in what is now Canada’s province of Quebec, that is the novel’s principal setting. The oldest section of the city is enclosed within walls. The lower city is at the level of the river, and the upper city stands on palisades several hundred feet higher. Steep steps connect the two parts.

As the novel opens, Euclide Auclair, a pharmacist, watches a ship depart for France, thinking that the river’s building ice floes will prevent any new ships from arriving from France for at least six months. He is not depressed by the physical isolation of the French immigrants from their native land. He and other colonists have attempted to recreate French culture in the harsh climate of Quebec and have also tried to coexist with Native Canadians, whom they do not truly understand. Missionaries, including the real historical figures of Bishop Laval and Sister Marie of the Incarnation, have built French schools and churches in Quebec. They have also introduced innovations that do not exist in France. In the quiet isolation of Quebec City, these two missionaries are adapting to their new country and introducing changes that enable French immigrants and Native Canadians to respect each other’s cultures.

As the French immigrants adapt to life in Canada, they eventually come to realize that they will never return to France. With Bishop’s Laval’s blessing, Father Hector takes a vow of perpetual stability. This means that he will spend the rest of his life in Canada and will never return to a comfortable life in France.

The physical isolation of French immigrants from their homeland and their need to accept a multicultural society make the characters change. While the French immigrants maintain their strong commitment to Roman Catholicism, they eventually realize that Catholicism and ethnocentrism are incompatible. Bishop Laval gives all of his earthly possessions to charity and lives a simple life. Even the count of Frontanec, the French governor of Canada, considers religion to be more important than politics. He attends mass daily and willingly sacrifices his career in France so that he can help devout missionaries to meet the spiritual needs of immigrants and Native Canadians alike. The harsh climate and the simple residences in which even such influential characters as Bishop Laval and Governor Frontenac live help Cather’s readers to realize that the true reality for these characters is not this life but rather the eternal life in heaven.

Auclair house

Auclair house (oh-KLAYR). Quebec home of Euclide Auclair and his twelve-year-old daughter Cécile. Auclair initially strives to maintain the daily customs of his native France and obtain most of their goods and furnishings from France. He also tries to have a proper French garden with French flowers and plants. Inside his house and garden, he and his daughter try, but in vain, to give the impression to visitors that they are more French than Canadian. Gradually, they come to understand the artificiality of their pretense. Differences in climate and people make it impossible to replicate France in Canada.

BibliographyCarlin, Deborah. “Tales of Telling Fictions of History: Casting Shadows on the Rock.” In Cather, Canon, and the Politics of Reading. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. Reads the novel as a narrative instead of a history. Says the novel is about the trans-lation of French sensibility into Canadian character.Greene, George. “A Colloquy with Clio: Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock.” Dalhousie Review 70 (Summer, 1990): 219-228. Praises Shadows on the Rock as one of Cather’s best works. Examines the treatment of the northeast wilderness and the Iroquois Indians.Jacobs, Wilbur R. “Willa Cather and Francis Parkman: Novelistic Portrayals of Colonial New France.” In Willa Cather: Family, Community and History, edited by John J. Murphy et al. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Humanities Publications Center, 1990. Traces the influence of nineteenth century Canadian historian Francis Parkman on Cather.Nelson, Robert James. Willa Cather and France. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Discusses the fascination that Willa Cather had in writing about the French on both sides of the Atlantic. Deals with Cather’s tour of France and what influenced her to write about the people and their customs.Stouck, David. “Willa Cather and the Indian Heritage.” Twentieth Century Literature 22 (December, 1976): 433-443. Claims Shadows on the Rock is a historical novel. Sees the Indians as a recurring theme in Cather’s novels.
Categories: Places