Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506
“Saints” is about the ironies of remembering and about affirming one’s past. Rather than reject the teachings that she received from her religion and her grandmother, Soveida recalls them within the ironic context of her adult experience. She still identifies with saints. In accepting herself, Soveida accepts what has shaped her.
Another theme of the story—which is as overstated as Soveida’s acceptance is understated—is sex. “Saints” is the story of one part of the education of a girl in the matters of sex and sex roles. Soveida learns from her grandmother that women should be allowed to be priests and that men are beastly. Her grandmother also supports Soveida’s reading. In this sense, Soveida’s grandmother is a feminist. She even argues that the prayers of nuns, more powerful than those of men, are “little by little . . . making God a nicer man.” Mamá Lupita’s arguments against priests—who, in her opinion, are all either homosexuals or womanizers—against Soveida’s own father, and against men in general are perhaps inappropriate for the ears of a child. On the other hand, they provide a balance, especially in their realistic detail, to the messages about sex that Soveida is receiving at her Roman Catholic school. Soveida reads many hagiographies of female saints who would rather suffer terrible torture than lose their virginity. Presumably, she does not read of ordinary desire, or of women who exercise their sexuality without guilt or punishment; such concepts seem alien to her world.
Along with sex come sex roles. Men, Mamá Lupita tells Soveida, are typically born with one of three invisible signs on their foreheads: priest, married man, or jerk. Women, Soveida surmises, are also marked at birth, as woman, wife, mother, or martyr. Tellingly, men are not marked with the word “man.” Mamá Lupita’s being a woman kept her out of the priesthood; being born a man, however, does not assign one to a category. A woman may also become fallen, Soveida learns. She has as examples Saint Mary Magdalene and the shameless whores whose company her father seeks, her grandmother says. The story implies, however, that Soveida, as an adult, has become neither mother, martyr, saint, nun, nor fallen woman. Soveida, one may infer, has transcended the limitations of her education.
Finally, “Saints” is about saints. The narrator describes a variety of saints and their significance to her. Saints clearly play an important role in Soveida’s mental life, including her adult life. Soveida also tells that Saint Dymphna, the saint of the mentally ill, is a particular favorite, but does not explain what, if any, experience she has had with mental illness or the mentally ill. She often describes saints in personal terms, such as “popular,” “desperate,” “aggressive,” “dependable,” and “pal.” This familiarity is not without irony. Saints are important in Soveida’s life, but her regard for them lacks the reverence, and has the humor, of one who no longer accepts the teachings of church and family with uncritical naïveté.