Blackrobe Essay

Frequently in his career as a novelist, Brian Moore has taken Catholicism and the demands of religious faith as a central theme. In Black Robe, he gives this theme a historical background, setting his story in the seventeenth century Canadian wilderness as he explores the attempts of the French Jesuits to convert the North American Indians to Christianity. The story is also of two parallel journeys—one physical and one spiritual—undertaken by a priest who has come to the New World seeking martyrdom through his service to God. As Moore’s story progresses, the clash between the priest and the Indians he hopes to convert becomes a microcosm of the larger conflict between the European and Indian cultures that marked the white man’s arrival in North America.

Moore’s objective throughout the novel is to present each society in its own words, and he accomplishes this through the use of multiple points of view. Although the narrative remains in the third person, the viewpoint from which the action is perceived shifts from scene to scene. In the first chapter alone, Moore incorporates four points of view, including that of the famed French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, who heads the Quebec settlement. Later chapters are told from the viewpoint of several of the Indians, thus presenting their own interpretations of the Jesuits’ actions and their tribal beliefs in spirits of the natural world. This device allows Moore to balance his portrayals of the two cultures, as well as revealing the thoughts and feelings of several of the novel’s primary and secondary characters.

Although the story offers multiple points of view, the principal figure in Moore’s tale is Father Paul Laforgue, a French Jesuit who is chosen to travel to the remote Huron village of Ihonatiria, where one of the two resident priests is rumored to be ill or dead. For Laforgue, the assignment offers the possibility of martyrdom, or even sainthood, at the hands of the people the French call the Savages, and he embraces the journey’s dangers with a mixture of fear and joy. Yet, his feeling for his Algonkin companions and guides on the trip is initially one of revulsion. The vulgarity of their language, their easy, open sexuality, and their seemingly barbaric habits all horrify the ascetic Laforgue, particularly when he sees the French fur trappers in the colony adopting the Savages’ dress and customs.

Laforgue sets out on his journey firm in his devotion to God and unrelenting in his view of the Savages (Moore’s terminology—borrowed from the French—throughout the book) as little more than potential souls to be saved. He will finish it, however, a profoundly changed man, his faith shaken to its foundations by his growing understanding of his companions. As the tribesmen become not simply “the Savages” but individuals in the priest’s mind, he finds himself doubting basic teachings of the Church that he had hitherto accepted as inviolable. This crisis of faith is precipitated by the events of the journey itself, a canoe trip upriver from Quebec to the shores of Lake Huron, which will encompass illness, hunger, betrayal, abandonment, and terrible torture at the hands of a tribe of Iroquois before its conclusion. For Laforgue, the trek becomes a personal “temptation in the wilderness,” but unlike Christ, he finds that his faith cannot sustain him.

Accompanying the priest on his mission—and counterpointing his experiences among the Savages—is Daniel Davost, a young French boy who, unbeknown to Laforgue, has fallen in love with Annuka, an Algonkin girl, and plans to remain with the tribe rather than continue on with the priest. As the arduous trip upriver commences, Laforgue attempts to accustom himself to the Savages’ habits, but it is experience, rather than an act of will, which brings about his gradual understanding. Initially sickened by the greasy, half-cooked meat that constitutes the tribe’s evening meal, he finds, to his surprise, that this same meal tastes delicious after several days of cornmeal and unsuccessful hunting. Gone, too, after several days is his disgust at the smell and heat of the sleeping bodies in the shelter at night. Ill with a fever and unable to concentrate on his prayers, he discovers that he now longs for the moment when he can lie down among his companions and sleep. Even the Savages’ open sexuality begins to affect him when he stumbles upon Daniel and Annuka making love and finds himself, to his shame and horror, aroused by the sight of the naked girl. Although he fights this last revelation with scourging and prayer, it increases his understanding of the boy’s attraction to Annuka.

Unlike Laforgue, Daniel adapts easily to the Algonkin way of life, happily eating from the communal cooking pot and sleeping in the communal shelter while Laforgue struggles against his revulsion. Yet, the irony in Daniel’s willing embrace of the Savages’ life-style lies in their refusal to accept him as a worthy member of their tribe, for just as the Europeans regard the Indians as primitive savages, so the Indians themselves hold the French in contempt, with Annuka’s father, Chomina, telling the girl that no white man can ever be a fit husband for her.

The mutual suspicion with which the two groups regard each other across a gulf of cultural differences so wide as to appear unbridgeable forms the crux of the book’s conflict. To the Savages, the priests—or “Blackrobes,” as they term them—are unnatural witches who abstain from sex, cast spells while they pray, practice water sorcery (baptism), and live only for a life in paradise after...

(The entire section is 2302 words.)

English 233:   Introduction to Western Humanities ­ Baroque & Enlightenment

Extra-credit Option

on the film Black Robe

The film Black Robe is based on the novel of the same title, by Brian Moore, who also did the screenplay for the film.  Novel and film are set in New France in 1634, and concern the missionary work of the Jesuits in Québec, under the governorship of Samuel de Champlain, who had in 1608 set up a trading post at what is now Québec city.

The most famous of the historical French Jesuit missionaries is Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649), now the patron saint of Canada. [1]   Having grown up in Normandy, he was sent in 1625 to Québec, where he worked among the Huron Indians.  The region was the site of intense imperial and native conflict:  the British and French were contesting access to the lucrative fur trade, and established alliances with Native American peoples - the Iroquois and the Huron, respectively - who had a long history of mutual enmity.  Warfare between the Huron and Iroquois forced the French Jesuits to abandon the mission to the Huron in 1629.  In 1629, Québec had to surrender to the English,[2]  and Brébeuf went back to France.  He returned to his missionary labors in 1633.  In 1649, the French having (temporarily) concluded peace with the British and with the Iroquois, the Iroquois decided to have done with their Huron enemies.  In the course of their campaign, they captured Brébeuf and his assistant Gabriel Lalement and tortured them to death.

Brébeuf does not directly appear in Moore's novel or its film adaptation, but does figure in the novel as "Father Brabant," who serves as Father Laforgue's inspiration, and whose (pre-1629) reports to his superiors are the basis for some of the advice Father Broque gives to Laforgue.  (In the film, this is the man the young Laforgue visits in the recollected scene in the cathedral - the man whose ear has been cut off.)

Readings in preparation for the assignment.  This assignment requires you to do a brief bit of background reading to help focus your attention on important issues raised by the events in the film.  These readings are available from the Arts & Sciences Copy Center (Eisenhower 11).  Be sure that you have acquired and studied these materials before sitting down to watch the film.

Begin by reading Tobias Wolff's meditation on Brébeuf, "Second Thoughts on Certainty:  Saint Jean de Brébeuf among the Hurons," from A Tremor of Bliss:  Contemporary Writers on the Saints, ed.  Paul Elie (New York:  Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1974).[3]

Next read the "Introduction" Brian Moore wrote for his novel Black Robe.

  • As you read these, use a highlighter and take notes in the margin of your copy to bring into relief the chief issues that these modern mentalities find themselves fascinated by in contemplating the missionary experience, and its effects, in 17th-century New France.

Consider the motives of the missionaries, their strategy and tactics, and the effects of their interventions on the lives of the people they sought to help.[4]

Also:  what do you see as the principle matters that interest Wolff and Moore concerning the Native American peoples (Algonkian, Huron, Iroquois) with whom the Jesuits came into contact?

Then rent a video of the film Black Robe.[5]   (Both Dillon's East and Dillon's West here in Manhattan have copies available for 39 cents (!) per day.  Blockbuster Video here also has copies (multiple), for $3.00/3 days.  (If you run into a logjam at all of these, call me at home [539-5189]  and I can arrange for you to borrow one of my own copies.)   Watch the film in the light of the issues raised by Wolff's meditation, Moore's Introduction, and the topics and study guide that follow.

The choice of topics.  After watching the film, write a brief essay on one of the following topics.  (As a rough guide to scale:  shoot for at least a page, single­spaced, typed, with standard margins.)  Strive for an intelligibly logical scheme of organization for deploying the points that, together, constitute your insight.  Be sure to develop these points with specific reference to the concrete details of the work.  Don't forget to explain your interpretive insights.  Here, then, are your topic options:

Topic A.   Both the Algonkians and the French Jesuits find it difficult to understand each other.  Pick one point of mutual confusion between them.  Describe it in detail and analyze its roots in the differences between the two parties' framework assumptions.

Topic B.   What is the fuller thematic significance of the contrast that develops between Daniel and Father Laforgue?

Topic C.   Spell out a set of ironic parallels that the film finds ways to point to between the Native American and European ways of thinking and behaving.[6]

Study Guide to the film.   Here are some more specific questions that may point you to reflections useful in one way or another in connection with one of these options:  

(1) What frame of mind do we imagine Father Laforgue to be in at the end of the film when he agrees to administer baptism to the Hurons?  

Does he believe the sacrament is effective for the purpose for which they seek to undergo it?

What after all is that purpose?

And what is his understanding of the purpose of it?

What does he decide, in response to the request, and why?

What meaning does his decision have for us?

Has he changed, or has he remained basically the same as what he was when he began his journey in the interview, in the cathedral in France with Fr.  Brabant?  Explain.

(2) What assumptions about the nature of divine providence and/or original sin do we have to be aware of in order to understand Laforgue's feelings about sex?  about his mission?  about wildness and wilderness and savages?

(3) What is the dream that the Algonkian leader Neehatin has at the beginning of the canoe party's up-river journey?

What assumptions do you detect as responsible for the interpretation of the dream finally settled upon?

What decision does it give rise to, and what are the ultimate results of that decision?

Where does the dream come up later on in the story?

(4) What connections is it helpful to make with what we learn in the Wolff essay and in Brian Moore's Introduction to his novel about the role of dreams in Algonkian and Huron life?

(4) What is the point of the epigraph at the end of the film, reminding us of the eventual fate of the Jesuit missions to the Hurons?  


[1]  Along with 7 others - including his companion and assistant Gabriel Lalemant - he was canonized in 1930.  Collectively these 8 men are known as "the Jesuit Martyrs of North America."   Return.

[2]  It was later recaptured by the French.  Québec did not become a province of British Canada until 1763, as a result of the British victory on the Plains of Abraham.  (This is the famous battle in which both commanders - Montcalm and Wolfe - perished.)   Return.

[3]  Wolff mentions the use he made of the figure of Brébeuf in a famous story of his called "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs."  I've attached this story as well to the packet of materials at the A&S Copy Center, even though it is not a part of the present assignment.  Note the 20th-century reverberation of the figure of Brébeuf, as someone with the courage to "speak truth to power":  Wolff brings him in in the climactic moment of a story concerned with a person's eventual refusal to stop giving in to the cultural conformity fostered by the "McCarthyist" intimidation of universities in the 1950s.  But note how the implications Wolff draws upon for the purposes of this story do not exhaust the significance, for the same writer, of the same historical figure.  Hence the title:  "Second Thoughts on Certainty...."  The same complexities are at work in the valuation Brian Moore invites us to consider making of his fictional protagonist, Father Laforgue.   Return.

[4]  In relating this back to Wolff, you might begin by distinguishing among (a) what he says he can hardly imagine, (b) what he can imagine and admires, and (c) what he finds chastising and stirring and troubling in Brébeuf's life.   Return.

[5]  If you prefer, you can instead read the novel.  There's a copy available in the library, but you may wish to order the paperback.  It goes for only $4.95, and can be had within a week of ordering from Claflin Books and Copies.  Partly because it is written from an "omniscient point of view" (affording us direct insights into the consciousness of a variety of characters, French and Native American), it affords us a wealth of complexity concerning the specific issues at stake in the encounters between the two cultures that is impossible to convey in all its richness in the film medium.   Return.

[6]  It will not do to say such vague and general things as "they both don't understand each other"! Tell us specifically the points at which misunderstanding arises, and make explicit what we are to appreciate as the differences between the parties' axiom systems that accounts for these misunderstandings.   Return.

  Review the general instructions on Extra-Credit Assignments.

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      Contents copyright © 2000 by Lyman A. Baker. 

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      This page last updated 11 October 2000.

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