What do we learn about the narrator as a character through her narrative techniques in "Saint Marie" by Louise Erdrich?
In Louise Erdrich's collection, Love Medicine, and specifically the chapter entitled, "Saint Marie," the narrative technique most evident is the use of "voice," showing what Marie is and what she is not. (Erdrich also uses flashback, another narrative device.)
Through use of realism and evocative visual imagery, Erdrich captures the contemporary audience.
Voice is the way in which the character speaks to the audience. Marie seems to be a reliable narrator: she is realistic to the point of cynicism, holding up the irony in the world around her.
...the narrator is not the author but a created persona with a personality, a behavior pattern and special reasons for telling the story in the manner it is being told...
Marie is a fourteen-year old who can spot hypocrisy a mile away. She wants to join a convent, but is not concerned with piety—simply with making a break with her Native American heritage and getting the nuns to idolize her.
Marie is upfront and honest about her situation and her world view. She describes herself as a girl who would do just about anything to get out of the bush and into town.
I had the mail-order Catholic soul you get in a girl raised out in the bush, whose only thought is getting into town.
With Marie's literary voice, she describes the truth of the human condition. Marie describes a "windbreak" that has been constructed in front of the bar, within the sight of the convent. Allegedly installed for "the purposes of tornado insurance," Marie is having none of it: she knows it is there so people can drink without being observed by the sisters.
Marie goes to the convent and she is taken in. Marie says:
I was that girl who thought the black hem of her garment would help me rise. Veils of love which was only hate petrified by longing—that was me.
Marie is taken under the wing of Sister Leopolda, who believes that Satan is alive and well. (Most of the other nuns have lost track of him.) As the story continues, Sister Leopolda becomes obsessed with reaching Marie's soul and keeping it from Satan, who Sister says wants Marie's soul badly. Her "lessons" come in the form of Sister's physical abuse. Ultimately Sister burns her; soon after, Marie tries to push Sister into the oven; it is then that Sister hits Marie and stabs her in the hand with a fork. Unconscious, Marie is taken in to the couch in Mother Superior's office.
The reader is aware of the irony of the situation when Marie learns that Sister Leopolda has explained the wound to Marie's hand as a stigmata ("bodily marks or pains resembling the wounds of the crucified Jesus and sometimes accompanying religious ecstasy"). Marie is being worshipped by the other sisters! This was what Marie wanted all along! Marie's cynicism is obviously warranted: Sister Leopolda has saved herself by making Marie the center of a "trumped up" miracle. She realizes, too, that she has Sister Leopolda exactly where she wants her—but then takes pity on her, saying nothing. Here, too, is irony as the "devilish" Marie is the one to take pity on the sinful Sister Leopolda who all along has been telling Marie how hard the devil has worked for Marie's soul.
In the end, the adult voice of Marie, once again recognizes the difference between appearance and reality. She realizes she is no saint, but simply dust. And this is no place for her. She leaves the convent, turning her back on Christianity when she states "Rise up and walk! There is no limit to this dust!"