Saint Marie Analysis
by Louise Erdrich

Start Your Free Trial

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Download Saint Marie Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Marie Lazarre’s narration is down-to-earth, laden with pungent metaphor and psychologically acute. In a manner reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn, she moves between the language of the unlettered country girl (“They don’t want no holy witness to their fall”) and the astuteness of the clinician: “Veils of love which was only hate petrified by longing—that was me.” Both statements epitomize the story’s multiple levels of meaning. The drunkards do not want the nuns to see them literally falling down outside the bar, nor, thinks Marie, do they want witnesses to their “fall from grace.” The veils remind the reader of the nun’s veil to which Marie aspires (to hide her origins?), but the veils are really stone, that frozen immobility of hate and longing that barricades and conceals the vulnerable and misused little girl.

Christian themes and allusions enrich the story. Sister Leopolda’s hooks, first on the long oak window-opening pole and then on the poker, recall two biblical hooks: the shepherd’s crook, adopted as a symbol of bishops’ guidance and authority, and fishhooks, reminiscent of the New Testament passage in which the apostles are to become “fishers of men” and “catch” souls for Heaven. Marie compares herself in her naïve faith to a fish that has taken bait, and at the end of the story she squirms like a gaffed fish in her recognition of Sister Leopolda’s pathetic hunger for love.

This comparison is one of many references to food and eating throughout the story. Further paralleling the comparison of fish’s bait to the “lure” of faith is Marie’s allusion to Indians who had eaten the smallpox-infected hat of a Jesuit; instead of receiving what they thought was healing power, they consumed infection. (There are many accounts of the “white man’s gift” of smallpox; sometimes trade blankets have been deliberately infected, sometimes a box is the receptacle, and so on.) In “Saint Marie,” the image is a central metaphor for relations between Sister Leopolda’s Christianity and the powerless children she teaches. In a parody of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, which to believers imparts life and healing, the Indians swallow disease; Leopolda fasts herself gaunt but is herself consumed by madness, which Marie interprets as the devil possessing her.

Although Marie’s and Leopolda’s job (“the Lord’s work,” Leopolda says) is baking bread, Marie does not eat bread in any communion with the nuns; rather, the nun feeds the girl first stolen goat cheese (recalling the reference to Judgment Day and separation of the sheep from goats) and then cold mush. Marie’s initiation into the Christian life of the convent also includes a blasphemous “baptism,” as Sister Leopolda first pours scalding water over the girl and then rubs her back with salve. Marie’s eventual triumph also begins with an image of eating, when she envisions Leopolda following her, swallowing the glass she walks through.

In addition to references to the Sacraments, traditional Christian iconography and familiar superstitious practices appear in the story. When Leopolda places her foot on Marie’s neck, she is imitating a popular representation of the Virgin Mary in which the Madonna is shown to be standing with her foot on the neck of a serpent representing Satan. Related to this powerful Madonna is the woman clothed with the sun described in the book of Revelation, which pious art frequently identifies with the Virgin Mary, and which resembles Marie’s vision of herself as transfigured in gold and diamonds. Finally, there is the stigmata: the belief that the bodies of certain holy individuals spontaneously reproduce the wounds of Christ. Marie, seeing that Sister Leopolda has used the appearance of stigmata to avoid having to admit that she stabbed the girl’s hand, ironically colludes with Leopolda in deceiving the naïve nuns.

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Though "Saint Marie" is a story told largely in chronological order, it is...

(The entire section is 1,549 words.)