44 pages 1 hour read

Michel Tremblay

Les Belles Soeurs

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1968

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Summary and Study Guide


Les Belles-Soeurs, or The Sisters-in-Law, was written in 1965 and premiered at the Théâtre du Rideau Vert in Montreal in 1968. Although it was Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay’s first major play, Les Belles-Soeurs revolutionized Canadian drama as the first professionally produced play written in joual, the vernacular dialect of the Québécois working class. During the 1960s, in an era known as the Quiet Revolution, joual became politicized as a symbol of the oppressed proletariat, while the elite looked down upon it as an Anglicized corruption of proper French. During a historical moment when Quebec was moving away from other conservative values, such as strict Catholicism, the play helped to legitimize the use of vernacular in theater and performance. The play has been translated into over 30 languages, and although its use of joual has necessarily been lost in translation, the concept of using the language of the working class as a revolutionary statement has carried over into multiple cultures.

Les Belles-Soeurs also depicts working-class women at home, a subject that theater had previously ignored as unworthy of representation. Through its 15 female characters, Tremblay exposes capitalism’s particular oppression of working-class women, amplifying their struggles in voices that speak their language. The play takes place in the kitchen—the heart of domesticity, where the women toil, forgotten, in an endless cycle of drudgery. They enter contests in the undying hope that winning might lift them from their circumstances into something better. Their dreams are so desperate that they infiltrate and undermine the women‘s friendships and family relationships. The women range in age from 20 to 93, showing the generational changes in attitudes towards the Catholic Church and women’s agency. Despite the region and era-specific messages and issues of the play, it has been produced all over the world. It also inspired musical adaptations in 2010 (French) and 2014 (English).

Plot Summary

Germaine Lauzon, a working-class housewife in Montreal, Quebec, has caught the first break of her life and won a million trading stamps, which stores typically give away with purchases to reward customer loyalty; once a customer has collected enough stamps, they can trade them for merchandise in a catalogue. Since the stamps must be glued into booklets to be used, Germaine throws a spontaneous pasting party, demanding that Linda, her live-in adult daughter, stay to help and also inviting her friends, neighbors, and sisters (Rose and Gabrielle) to join in. Germaine dreams aloud about the things that she will buy to replace everything in her home, oblivious to the bitter jealousy that the other women, including her sisters, feel. When Germaine is out of earshot, the women complain about why they feel that she doesn’t deserve the prize.

As the women paste stamps, they gossip about church, their children, each other (including those who aren’t present), and the many contests that they enter and never win. One woman, Lisette, boasts about her trips to Europe and the furs she wears; another, Yvette, reminisces about her daughter’s wedding. The women periodically pause to deliver heartfelt monologues to the audience about their lives and struggles, and they occasionally perform choreographed poetry as a group. At one point, Linda’s boyfriend calls, but Linda—much to Germaine’s displeasure—has gone out, and the women leave him hanging on the line. When the radio broadcasts the rosary, the women all kneel in a display of religious devotion. However, a commotion outside interrupts them; another woman, Thérèse, enters with her elderly mother-in-law, who just fell out of her wheelchair. Even as the women pontificate on their devotion to Catholicism, they flout its teachings in various ways; Thérèse abuses her mother-in-law, Des-Neiges tells raunchy jokes, and, one by one, the women begin to steal the booklets that they are filling, deciding that they are just as entitled to the winnings as Germaine.

Linda returns home and brings her two friends, Lise and Ginette, to help, although her mother insults them. She argues with Germaine, and several other women join in the fighting. Linda and her friends begin to leave but change their minds when they run into Angéline and Rhéauna, who are just now arriving at Germaine’s apartment after attending a funeral.

Germaine’s youngest sister, Pierrette, then shows up unexpectedly, and it’s revealed that the women ostracize her for working at a nightclub. When they learn that one of their number, Angéline, has begun frequenting the club, they shun her as well. Lise reveals to Linda that she is pregnant, and Pierrette overhears and offers information about an abortion doctor. Lise’s decision to go through with an abortion pushes Linda’s youthful progressiveness to the limits. Meanwhile, Linda argues with her boyfriend, who has been waiting on the phone this entire time and is angry. Angéline, having left to consult a priest, returns and decides to give up her visits to the club, valuing Rhéauna’s supposed friendship over Pierrette’s genuine kindness to her.

At the end of the play, Germaine realizes that the women have stolen most of her stamps. In a frenzy, they fight with each other and steal everything that they can grab before running away. Linda acknowledges the mess and then exits. Pierrette, who didn’t steal stamps, tries to comfort Germaine but is sent angrily away. Germaine sinks to her knees, crying about what she has lost. The rest of the cast sings “O Canada” from outside her apartment, and Germaine, gathering herself together, joins in.