The Women Who Worship

By Kassy Roberts

Louise Erdrich’s short story, “Saint Marie,” leaves a significant impression on its reader, and presents a large field of content to study and pick apart. Dealing with extreme abuse, evil darkness, racism, and religious beliefs, Erdrich creates a strong main character who becomes a saint-like figure to her fellow ‘sisters. The story follows a woman named Marie who joins a convent filled with other women and decides to cast aside the prospect of marriage for life in this religion. Marie undergoes torment from another woman in the convent, leading to her surviving a wound that makes those around her believe she is a saint. Leopalda, the woman who abuses Marie, sees a reflection of her younger self in Marie and wishes to exorcise the devil from her, as if making up for her own past mistakes. If it were not for the absence of men in the story, nor the guilt of Leopolda, Marie would not have gone through the abuse Leopolda put her through, which would lead to Marie being worshipped in the end.

At the start of the story, Marie makes a comment stating that her younger self was “ignorant.” She then goes on to tell the story of how she joined the convent. When she was younger, Marie was heavily influenced by Leopolda. “She had a string of children who could breathe only if she said the word. I was the worst of them” (Erdrich 2020). Without Leopolda being such an intimidating figure, Marie would not have the confidence or the ego that she developed. This drove Marie to want to “beat” Leopolda at her own game. From this section of the story, “I’d get to heaven first. And then, when I saw her coming, I’d shut the gate. She’d be out! That is why, besides the bowing and scraping I’d be dealt, I wanted to sit on the altar as a saint” (Erdich 2020). From Marie’s inner dialogue and narrative, it is obvious that she has a competitive nature.

Marie is someone who values herself and does not want to be looked down on. Now that Leopolda has challenged and embarrassed her, she feels the drive to leave behind the prospect of marriage and seek out a life in the convent in the hopes of one day being a saint that Leopolda would have to look up to. There is no hesitation in her mind. Marie is well aware that she could lead a normal life at home on the reservation, but now her mind is set on pursuing this spite against Leopolda. She explains her thoughts on joining the convent here, “I could have had any damn man on the reservation at the time… But I wanted Sister Leopolda’s heart… Sometimes I wanted her heart in love and admiration. Sometimes. And sometimes I wanted her heart to roast on a black stick” (Erdrich 2020). This is one of the strongest examples of how the female gender is a constant in Marie’s life, and how she finds no fear in giving up a life where men are involved in order to seek out something that she wants. She knows her worth and is aware that she can easily find a man to love her, but instead, she seeks out a life where she competes with a woman, showing that Erdrich’s writing is heavily feminist-based.

Marie then joins the convent, where she begins her journey to becoming a saint. I find that there are some very interesting feminine relationships shown in the convent. Alongside the fact that each woman refers to each other as ‘sisters,’ there is a tightly woven group of women here. In the convent, Marie learns much about how all of the women live together. Meldan Tanrisal, a professor of literature, makes this analysis in her article covering the mother and child relationships in Erdrich’s work. Tansiral states, “In Erdrich’s novels, women and especially mothers bear the enormous responsibility of family relationships that sustain both individual and community” (Tanrisal 1997). This analysis of Erdrich’s work resonates with my own assessment of this story. I feel that even though the women in this story do not bear children, they still carry this responsibility to sustain their community/family. It seems that coming from the reservation, Marie is excited at some of the riches she finds at the convent, “Inside were all kinds of good stuff. Things I’d tasted only once or twice in my life.” (Erdrich 2020). Marie is excited at the prospect of her new life; despite the abuse she knows she will endure from Leopolda. The environment is kind and exciting, yet there is a shadow of religious issues looming behind Marie.

Leopolda is an interesting character, as she claims she wants to show Marie love and care, yet threatens her and abuses her. From my perspective, it is very obvious that Leopolda’s abuse does not come from a place of hate or disdain toward Marie, rather it is the product of guilt. Intense guilt that she carries from her own youth, where she felt the pull of the devil. The first instance I see Leopolda’s violence towards Marie be clearly displayed as a way to punish her old self is when Leopolda tries to burn the devil out of Marie, and tells her the devil wants her just as much as he wanted Leopolda to. “‘You’re like I was,’ she said. “He wants you very much.’” (Erdrich 2020). Leopolda is referring to the devil in this situation. She believes that Marie is someone that the devil likes and that Marie worships him as well. In this situation, I see Leopolda as a scornful mother. This is a common trope in stories where one older woman is a role model or mentor for a younger girl. Leopolda displays character traits that resemble a mother figure who is jealous but also scared for the young girl she is watching over. When she was younger, she had her own experience with this ‘darkness’ that she sees Marie beginning to engage with. Now, she finds it is her responsibility to be the one who punishes and quite literally burns the devil out of Marie.

As previously mentioned, Marie is not one who scares easily. Her confidence and drive to prove herself as worthy is what saves her from falling into a dark place while Leopolda abuses her. While there were moments where her mentality faltered, ultimately Marie has a vision that pushed her forward, “I was rippling gold… She was at my feet, swallowing the glass after each step I took” (Erdrich 2020). When the abuse should bring her down, it instead fuels Maries ideas of being a saint and wishes to be worshipped by Leopolda. Because of this, Marie then gets the courage to try and hurt Leopolda physically by shoving her into the oven. Instead, Leopolda is able to bounce back from her fall being stopped by one of the oven pokers. As an act of anger and revenge, Leopolda then stabs Marie through the hand with a fork. I see that the fork Marie is stabbed with resembles the nails that went through Jesus’s hands, it seems that this is also thought by the women in the convent, because Leopolda does not tell the truth that she stabbed Marie, instead she is guilt ridden and ashamed and claims that Marie must be a saint who magically developed the marks of the nails in her palms. Leopolda’s guilt leads to Marie being worshipped as a saint.

Tobyn Shaw, a published student, wrote an analysis on this story, specifically how the historical text surrounding religion is so important to the story of Marie. When regarding how the guilt and fear of Leopolda affects her, Shaw states, “With the use of Leopolda’s belief that the devil lies deep within those beneath her drawn from the bible and history, she is often seen giving into her fears of Satan mulled by these emotions” (Shaw 2021). Shaw does a great job at explaining how the idea of the devil effects the actions that Leopolda takes. If it were not for the shame that she feels, Marie would not have been abuses and pushed to becoming a saint through Leopolda’s own mistake and shame regarding her abuse.

How can we understand all of this, and how does Leopolda’s gender play a role in her religious guilt? Throughout history we see women rarely take the spotlight when it comes to running a religious group. Now that Marie has come along with her beauty, Leopolda is convinced the devil is in her, like it is in her as well. Through Leopolda’s jealousy and fear of this new young woman, she makes the mistake of abusing her and creating Christ like marks on Marie. This leads to Marie becoming a saint like figure, and ultimately being more worthy to Christ than Leopolda is. The relationship between the two characters can be viewed as an abusive mentor or parental relationship, ending with the victim eventually overcoming their abuser. It is seen with clarity that Marie’s success is due to the guilt of Leopolda.

Works Cited

Erdrich, L. (2019, December 19). Saint Marie. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1984/03/saint-marie/376314/

Shaw, Tobyn.. “The Power of History and Belief.” Historical/new historical. Beginnings and Endings A Critical Edition. 14, May 2021. https://cwi.pressbooks.pub/beginnings-and-endings-a-critical-edition/chapter/historical-new-historical-4/

Tanrisal, Meldan. “Mother and Child Relationships in the Novels of Louise Erdrich. “American Studies International, vol. 35, no. 3, Oct. 1997, p. 67. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9711233074&site=ehost-live&scope=site



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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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