The Plague of Doves

by Louise Erdrich

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The Plague of Doves Themes

The main themes in The Plague of Doves include the influence of the past, vengeance, and sin and redemption.

  • The influence of the past: The past weighs heavily on the characters in the novel, influencing the course of their deeply intertwined lives and forcing them to confront their history.
  • Vengeance: Pluto’s history is marred by revenge, beginning with the lynching of the Indigenous men by the white mob following the farm family’s murder.
  • Sin and redemption: Corwin Peace exemplifies the theme of sin and redemption when he is ordered to pay for his crimes by becoming Shamengwa’s violin student.


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Last Updated on February 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 761

The Influence of the Past

The major theme of The Plague of Doves has to do with the weighed influence that the past plays on present lives. At the end of the novel, Cordelia as the town’s historian looks back on the events that have woven together the community of Pluto, and the irony is astounding. As the novel unfolds, the characters learn that they cannot abandon the ills of the past and that their lives must in some way account for past wrongs. Mooshum never speaks of his role in the hanging of his three friends, and he allows his alcoholism to cover his guilt. When Evelina finds out the truth, Mooshum must step down from his revered position in their relationship and admit that he has been living a lie. Cuthbert Peace’s run of tragic luck follows his progeny right down to Corwin Peace, whose involvement with drugs and crime bring him nothing but trouble. As a result, the characters learn that they must live by honestly accepting the roots of their existence.


Revenge creates a deep wound on the soul of Pluto, and the characters experience much hardship as a consequence. The white mob is driven by the sight of the murdered family to exact revenge. Indians are an easy scapegoat on whom to lay blame, and the pack of men set their sights on making someone pay. The mob uses the Indian men as a warning to incite the townspeople and further divide the people. Thus, vengeance pervades the character of Pluto.

Sin and Redemption

The unjust hanging of the Indian men by the white mob influences the ways in which crimes are dealt with in Pluto and on the reservation. When Corwin Peace steals Shamengwa’s beloved violin, the court is prepared to permanently do away with Corwin; Corwin’s string of crimes involving drugs and theft has turned the court against him. But fearing that incarceration will only continue to drag down the Native American community, proponents support Corwin’s rehabilitation, and Shamengwa agrees to tutor the boy. Corwin thus serves out his time under Shamengwa’s tutelage, and he becomes a productive member of society. Corwin has a talent for music, and next to Shamengwa, he becomes the best musician in the area. When Shamengwa dies, Corwin plays at his funeral in honor of his teacher. Thus, the novel suggests that one can atone for their sins and redeem themself in the eyes of their community.

Culture Clash

The implicit and explicit tension between the white farmers and townspeople and the members of the Ojibwe tribe who live on the reservation characterizes the relationships these people have with each other. From the beginning, ethnic prejudice causes the members of the community to believe that four Indians are responsible for the murder of a farm family. A mob of men search out Cuthbert Peace and his friends, and the police are powerless to contain their rage. The Indian men are never even asked for their side of the story, much less given a trial. Decades later, it is revealed that the real murderer was Warren Wolde, a white man. The Indian men are well aware of the discrimination that pervades the area—Asignak did not want to report the murder when they came upon the crime scene because he knew public sentiment was against them. But for all their attempts at trying to remain separate, these two cultures are indelibly intertwined. As time goes on, the members of Pluto and the Ojibwe reservation attempt to reconcile the differences that have and continue to keep them apart.


Forbidden love draws together many characters in the novel, and as a result, they must contend with challenging the barriers that separate them from those whom they hold dear. When John Wildstrand falls in love with Maggie Peace, their union is doomed from the beginning. John, the descendant of one of the mob men responsible for the hanging, and Maggie, the descendant of one of the Indians hanged, do not have a firm foundation on which to build their love. Burdened by the past ills of their ancestors, cultural barriers, and John’s marriage to Neve, the couple cannot realize their relationship. When Maggie gets pregnant, her brother Billy assumes that John has been taking advantage of his sister, and the kidnapping plot that they conceive only leads to disastrous ends. Ironically, the lovechild of John and Maggie’s union, Corwin Peace, becomes the object of Evelina’s intense passion, which also cannot be realized.

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