English 233: Introduction to Western
Humanities Baroque & Enlightenment
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. 
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, 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).
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.
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
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
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.
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:
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
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.
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?
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
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
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?
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
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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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