Themes and Meanings

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Louise Erdrich’s novel Tracks (1988), from which “Fleur” is taken, has two principal narrators: Nanapush and Pauline. The latter, also known as Sister Leopolda, is established as an unreliable narrator by Nanapush, who points out several times that she does not always tell the truth. The events that Pauline relates in “Fleur” are therefore not necessarily what really happened to Fleur Pillager.

Two themes in this story are quite evident. The more important theme—as in Erdrich’s longer fiction—concerns the ways in which Native Americans must struggle to survive and maintain their own cultures. Erdrich as author links destruction, survival, and continuity in the characters of both Fleur and Pauline. The second important theme is the merging of myth and reality through conflicts between traditional Native American and modern Western cultures.

Both Pauline and Fleur are survivors. Fleur is tied closely to both her Chippewa heritage and her white immigrant heritage. In her essay “Where I Ought to Be,” Erdrich says that Native American writers “must tell the stories of contemporary survivors while protecting and celebrating the cores of cultures left in the wake of the catastrophe,” that is, the destruction of Native American cultures by European Americans.

According to Pauline, Fleur has survived two drownings, estrangement from her tribe, and rape. Pauline describes her as being both physically and spiritually strong. “Fleur” concludes with Fleur giving birth—an act that establishes both a literal and a symbolic continuity. For her part, Pauline has survived her mother’s death and the cruelty of her stepfather; her murder of Fleur’s three attackers further demonstrates her strength. Erdrich continues Pauline’s story in Tracks, in which Pauline describes herself as ready to join the convent and become Sister Leopolda; thus Erdrich again presents survival and continuity.

The second theme, that of clashing cultures, also is presented through both women. Pauline explains that Fleur survived her drownings because the waterman Misshepeshu wanted her for himself. Fleur ignored the warnings and traditional advice of the old women of her tribe by dressing as a man does, but at the same time she used half-forgotten tribal medicine. When she went hunting, her tracks turned into bear tracks: Pauline recalls that “we followed the tracks of her bare feet and saw where they changed, where the claws sprang out, the pad broadened and pressed into the dirt.” When Fleur went to Argus, she worked in the white settlers’ milieu, in which she was again mistrusted and punished for being different.

Pauline presents the cultural clash through her blurring of tribal religion and Roman Catholicism. Mixing American Indian and Judeo-Christian religious traditions, she sees herself as a visionary savior. In her mind, Misshepeshu, the Chippewa spirit of Lake Matchimanito, is the same as the Christian devil who is to be chained and thrown into a lake of fire.


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The overriding theme of "Fleur" celebrates the power of narrative, of the story, and of the belief in "the story." It is a theme that marks Erdrich's stories of "ozhibi'iganan, the reservation depicted in ... all of [her] novels . . . an imagined place consisting of landscapes and features similar to many Ojibwe reservations" (The Last Report, 357). Nanapush, the central male character in The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001) (he does not appear in the short story "Fleur") expresses it this way: "There is a story to it the way there is a story to all, never visible while it is happening. Only after, when an old man sits dreaming and talking in his chair, the...

(This entire section contains 282 words.)

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design springs clear" (Tracks, 34). The "story" here, and thus the theme of many if not all of Erdrich's stories, is survival—of a people, of a culture, of a time—and the power of narrative, of storytelling, to effect and ensure that survival. It is the story of Lazarus, "come back from the dead, come back to tell you all." It is a story of the survival of Native Americans who, despite the attempts of Euro-Americans to exterminate them by any and all means possible, cannot and will not be eliminated. It is the story of an appalling love. One reason is argued by the later history of Fleur Pillager as provided in Erdrich's 2001 novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. In this book, we learn that Fleur Pillager marries John James Mauser, the lumberman who cheats the Indians out of the timber on their allotments, cuts it down, and takes it to Minneapolis to build his house and many others.


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Female Power

One of the most important themes in Erdrich’s story is that of female power. The situation at Kozka’s Meats is somewhat like a battle between the sexes, in which Fleur, Pauline, and Fritzie have their own methods of dealing with a brutish, dangerous group of men. Daring and fearless Fleur is the most overt wielder of female power, as Pauline emphasizes throughout the story. Fleur seems to draw this power from ancient Chippewa spirits, medicines, and charms, as well as her sexuality. This may be a reason why the men rape her, to maintain what they perceive as their rightful control over her, because they are sexist and masochistic. In the end, they realize they cannot understand or control her.

The fact that Pauline locks the three men in the meat locker indicates that she too has power, the ability to remain out of sight and then take revenge at the right moment. Unlike Fleur, Pauline is meek and insecure, unable to stand up for herself or for Fleur at the crucial time. Nevertheless, Fleur and Pauline connect, both in Argus and after Fleur leaves Argus. They have two different kinds of female power, one direct and confrontational, the other indirect and secretive. Fritzie, able to control her husband and censor him effectively, illustrates a third kind of female power, which is that of a wife over her husband.

Except for Pete, who is under Fritzie’s strict control to the point where he can talk about nothing but agriculture, the male workers attempt to make a show of their own power. They disdain women then find themselves outwitted by Fleur and rape her to prove their dominance over her. Erdrich strongly suggests, however, that women have the real power at the same time that they can be abused by men (raped like Fleur, forced to keep out of sight within the walls like Pauline, or overworked like Fritzie). In fact, despite the fact that they are butchers, the men are continually compared to the meat and livestock, while the women are the ones sharpening knives, carrying packets, and boiling heads. The long passage describing Lily’s fight with the sow makes it clear that he is like a pig himself, and the final image of the men frozen in the meat locker suggests that these men have been reduced to the level of carcasses.


Erdrich frequently refers to Fleur’s sexuality and her good looks, beginning with her description of Fleur’s drowning. Fleur’s interactions with the waterman/spirit can be understood, in part, as a metaphor for her sexual development; Misshepeshu is a “love-hungry,” sexual creature connected to Fleur’s own sexual powers. Fleur is characterized as androgynous and fishlike: “her hands large, chapped, muscular, Fleur’s shoulders were broad as beams, her hips fishlike, slippery, narrow.” Fleur’s daring personality, which fascinates and infuriates the men at the butcher shop, exudes from her sexuality, particularly during the night when she is raped. She wears a tight, transparent dress and gives the men a “wolfish” grin when she wins the card game; in response the men try to convince themselves of their power over her by violating her sexually. Fleur returns to Lake Turcot where she has a child and is visited only by Pauline (although, apparently, some say she has relations with white men or Chippewa spirits). Though she has a child, she is not married, and she lives independently, apart from male control. The men who attempt to take possession of her, either by saving her or raping her, die.

Racism and Sexism

The men at Kozka’s Meats resent Fleur because she is capable, strong, beats them at cards (thus spoiling their chief source of pleasure), and because she is a Native American. Tor calls her a “squaw,” or a Native American woman, as an insult, and the men believe that they should be superior to her intellectually and physically simply because of their male gender. Erdrich’s story dramatizes white racism and male sexist beliefs, especially as these apply to Great Plains Native Americans. “Fleur” enacts the racism and sexism common in the 1920s that resulted in severe abuse and injustice.