One of the dominant themes in The Nun’s Story is the idea of submission of the self to a community. From the very beginning, Gabrielle learns that the one thing a nun must never do is to “singularize” herself—that is, to stand out from the group with which she associates herself. For example, the head of Gabrielle’s order, the Mother Superior, is a very important and educated person: She has served as a missionary in India, a teacher in Poland, and a supervisor of many nursing nuns across the whole of Europe. She has degrees in philosophy, the humanities, and medicine. Still, when the Mother Superior visits the convents under her supervision, she makes a point of knowing every sister by name and speaks patiently and gently to the youngest beginners in the order. She even chooses, when taking part in the mandatory sewing circles run by the convent, to repair the stockings of the lowest workers—the gardeners and laundry nuns. Her humility is considered the essence of submission—she neglects to remind others of her own significant position because she seeks to promote the idea of service.
Another dominant theme is the idea of attachment and detachment. The ideal nun, or “living rule,” is a woman who can observe even the intense suffering of one of her fellow sisters or supplicants without becoming emotionally connected. While idealized detachment is perceived by outsiders as emotional coldness, within the order detachment is promoted as a recognition of one’s rejection of worldly issues and emotions in favor of an all-consuming devotion to God and God’s works. Furthermore, detachment allows each sister to perform her work effectively, without being distracted by what suffering of others.
Ultimately, however, The Nun’s Story is about being true to oneself—and the idea of calling, or God’s plan for one’s life: Gabrielle learns through her experiences as a nun that her personality is unsuited to that calling, and she finally finds herself more suited for work in the resistance against Nazi aggression.