Bessette grew up in Montreal and attended the Collège Saint-Ignace. He continued his studies at the Université de Montréal, where in 1950 he completed his doctorate entitled Images in French-Canadian poetry.
Unable to obtain an academic position in Quebec because of his atheism, he taught at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh from 1951–1957. He then found a job in Kingston, Ontario, first at Royal Military College of Canada in 1958, and then in the Department of French Studies at Queen's University from 1959 to 1979. Bessette's novel Le cycle (1971) won the Governor General's Award, and in 1980 he was awarded the Prix Athanase-David, Quebec's highest literary honour.
Several of Bessette's works address issues that led to and were representative of the Révolution tranquille, a series of societal shifts that took place in Quebec during the 1960s, which saw increased secularization and a general movement away from the influence of the Catholic Church. His earlier works are written in a realistic style, while his later novels utilize elements of the nouveau roman literary movement and tend to be more experimental. His literary criticism is noted for its Freudian readings of Québécois literature.
One of his most noted works is Le libraire (1960), an existential tale of a book store employee in a small Quebec town in the 1950s. The book deals with one of Bessette's most common themes: the stifling culture of Quebec of that time.
- La bagarre (1958) (translated as The Brawl)
- Les Images en poésie canadienne-française (1960)
- Le libraire (1960) (translated as Not for Every Eye)
- Les pédagogue (1961)
- Poèmes temporels (1962)
- L'incubation (1965) (translated as Incubation)
- Les images en poésie canadienne-française (1967)
- Une littérature en ébullition (1968)
- De Québec à Saint-Boniface (editor, 1968)
- Histoire de la littérature canadienne-française (edited with Lucien Geslin and Charles Parent, 1968)
- Le cycle (1971) (translated as The Cycle)
- Trois romanciers québécois (1973)
- La commensale (1975)
- Les anthropoïdes (1977)
- Mes romans et moi (1979)
- Le semestre (1979)
- La garden-party de Christophine (1980)
- Les dires d'Omer Marin (1985)
- France, Peter (Ed.) (1995). The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-866125-8.
- "Gérard Bessette," Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2009 (Archived 2009-10-31)