When Darkness is Light

By Kenna McGerty

Louise Erdrich’s Saint Marie features the story of a Native American girl Marie, wanting to be seen as a saint going up to a convent and winning the battle against an abusive nun, Sister Leopolda. This outcome is unique, as the expected roles are swapped between the two. Sister Leopolda being a nun, is expected to be a representative of Christ, but in reality, is a representative of a darker entity. Marie, despite being viewed as impure by Sister Leopolda and the Church for her heritage, is the more Christ-like of the two. Religious symbolism and mythologies from both the Christian Church and Native American culture are prevalent throughout the story. The subversion of this religious symbolism along with the characters’ traits and actions deconstruct the traditional interpretation of morality, showing that Marie is the Christ-like one with power, not Sister Leopolda.

Marie’s wounds resemble Christ’s, the burn on the back and the hand injury alluding to His wounds when he was getting crucified. Yet this symbolism is undercut by Marie’s more vengeful side, “But I wanted her heart in love and admiration. Sometimes. And sometimes I wanted her heart to roast on a black stick” (Erdrich 5). Despite her wanting to have Sister Leopolda’s love and admiration, there is also a side of her that wants to cause harm towards Sister Leopolda. While this vengeful side of Marie cannot be attributed to Christ, it can be attributed to a part of Native American mythology, the Trickster. Patricia Riley in her article “There is No Limit to This Dust: The Refusal of Sacrifice in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine” mentions this Trickster as the force that fuels Marie’s resistance towards Sister Leopolda. While the Trickster in her is quelled by Sister Leopolda for a short time, it comes back with a vengeance towards the end of the story. Despite the Trickster’s presence, the taunt it levels towards Leopolda still falls flat with the Christ-like attributes of Marie intervening. In fact, the text along with this religious symbolism rejects the idea that Western culture has power over any other culture (Norris 19). Marie gaining power and authority over Sister Leopolda shows that.

Marie is not the only one who has contrasting symbolisms in both Christian mythology and Native American Mythology, Sister Leopolda also has a paradox of two cultures surrounding her. While as a nun, she may represent Christ, there is another symbol in Native American culture that she could represent, the Windigo. The origin of this creature comes from the belief that the Windigo is created by starving oneself to death, as Riley attributes to Jennifer S.H Brown and Robert Brightman. The indication that Sister Leopolda could be one of these Windigos is shown through her immense strength. “She took my hand. Her fingers were like a bundle of broom straws, so thin and dry, but the strength of them was unnatural” (Erdrich 6). Marie even notes that this strength is a “kind of perverse miracle, for she got it from fasting herself thin” (Erdrich 6). The idea that fasting can give the righteous strength in the Christian church but can give the evil strength in Native American culture is a paradox. The fact that fasting can be defined as the same thing in both cultures but the power that one is thought to gain is not the same, and in fact are the exact opposites of each other.

At the beginning of the story, Sister Leopolda holds power over Marie. Convinced she is harboring the devil inside of her, Leopolda makes Marie go through painful trials in order to release him. These trials are sadistic, involving pouring hot water over Marie’s back while she is looking for a cup that fell under the stove, resulting in painful burns. Feigning concern for Marie and even tending to her burns after the fact, Leopolda is still convinced that the devil was still there. When Marie has enough and tries to throw Leopolda in the oven, she reacts by stabbing her in the hand before knocking her out. After Marie holds power over her, Leopolda lies to protect herself from facing the wrath of her sisters, “‘I have told my sisters of your passion,’ she managed to choke out. ‘How the stigmata…the marks of the nails appeared in your palms and you swooned at the holy vision…’” (Erdrich 17). Even though she has sworn to be a representative of Christ as a nun, she does not behave like it. Her actions resemble more of the Devil than Christ, a contrast to her status as a nun.

While Sister Leopolda is cruel and sadistic when having power and authority over Marie, the latter is the opposite. Marie pities her instead, is more merciful towards her, “‘Receive the dispensation of my sacred blood,’ I whispered. But there was no heart in it. No joy when she bent to touch the floor. No dark leaping” (Erdrich 15). This shows that despite gaining power over her tormentor, it does not bring happiness and satisfaction like she had wanted. There is no payback for the abuse she suffered through, the one taunt by the Trickster is the only attempt to show who was in control and even that doesn’t change how Marie felt. The rage from earlier is gone, replaced with pity. Karla Sanders in her article “A Healthy Balance: Religion, Identity, and Community in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine”, calls Marie’s victory “hollow” and that her dream of becoming a saint before Sister Leopolda was empty. She does not even try to reveal that Sister Leopolda was lying to save herself and tell the other nuns what actually occurred in the kitchen. There is no gloating about how she was the one who prevailed, and even instead of wanting to stay and continue holding onto the power she received, Marie’s thoughts are wanting to leave. The very last line of the story is “Rise up! I thought. Rise up and walk! There is no limit to this dust!” (Erdrich 18). Unlike Sister Leopolda, once Marie has the power, she does not think about keeping it, her only thoughts are that she wants to leave.

Saint Marie is a story of the underdog Marie winning the battle over Sister Leopolda, an unexpected and uncommon outcome. Religious symbols such as Christ, the Devil, the Trickster, and the Windigo show two cultures coming together, yet still entirely separated from each other. The nun that has sworn an oath to be a representative of Christ and the Native American girl seen as impure and unclean do not remain in their original roles, and instead swap with each other. The power each wields is swapped as well, the one who had it in the beginning loses it to the one who had none. How each one deals with that power shows their true colors, the righteous nun using it cruelly while the impure girl uses it with mercy and grace. The paradoxes in this story are numerous, light versus darkness, the rising and falling of status, and so many more. Marie turns out to be the one who is the most similar to Christ than Sister Leopolda shown by a deconstructed interpretation of traditional morality through subverted religious symbolism and the traits and actions of the characters.

Works Cited

Erdrich, Louise. “Saint Marie.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 19 Dec. 2019,

Norris, Christopher. “Chapter 2: JACQUES DERRIDA: LANGUAGE AGAINST ITSELF.” Deconstruction, Taylor & Francis Ltd / Books, 2002, pp. 18–40. EBSCOhost,

Riley, Patricia. “There Is No Limit to This Dust: The Refusal of Sacrifice in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine.” Studies in American Indian Literatures, vol. 12, no. 2, 2000, pp. 13–23. JSTOR, Accessed 2 May 2023.

Sanders, Karla. “A Healthy Balance: Religion, Identity, and Community in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine.” MELUS, vol. 23, no. 2, 1998, pp. 129–55. JSTOR, Accessed 2 May 2023.


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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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