There are several lines of symbolic imagery in the story—references to birds and “winging it” (in lectures), to rain and dryness—but the most important imagery expands on the story’s title by developing parallels between Mary and the two martyrs. The closer Mary gets to Iroquois country, the more she feels a sense of déjà vu. The strained appearance of Louise the hatchet woman reminds Mary of “a description in the book she’d been reading, of how Iroquois warriors gave themselves visions by fasting.” In the lecture room that Mary calls “the Long House” sunlight streams through windows of “stained glass onto the people around her, painting their faces.” Mary is, in effect, being roasted at the stake: “Thick streams of smoke from the young professor’s pipe drifted through a circle of red light at Mary’s feet, turning crimson and twisting like flames.” Like the priest who kept preaching through torture, Mary delivers her lecture; in the words that Mary imagines the priest speaking, time past and time present come together.
Mary herself is perhaps intended as a representative figure of higher education in the United States. In her days of clownish conformity, she became Brandon College’s presiding spirit, “something institutional, like a custom, or a mascot—part of the college’s idea of itself.” Her “martyrdom” is also typical of horror stories about cruel hiring practices in academia. “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” should be on the required reading list of everyone contemplating a career in higher education.