New Criticism

Taking Holiness by Force: A Close Reading of Louise Erdrich’s Saint Marie

Andrew Barbour

Louise Erdrich’s Saint Marie is a work of fiction permeated by deep and often conflicting symbolism. It tells the story of a teenage girl in the tutelage of one Sister Leopolda and tracks her progression from a poor native girl on an Indian reservation to an apparent saint to the nuns at Sacred Heart Convent. Marie finds the only path to holiness is through dominance, and proof of being the most righteous of all is found in the utter subjugation of others. In her eyes, to be evil is to be lowly, and if she can scrape her way to the top, then she has become holy. This paradox of pursuing outward holiness by evil means is central to the piece, and as far as the protagonist is concerned, her pursuit is utterly vindicated as she rises to the status of a saint. This conclusion is built up through the story by increasing tensions between the inner and outer self, good and evil, as well as the reversal of roles between Leopolda and herself.

Marie sees herself (as the title and opening paragraph would suggest), as a saint. To Marie, she is worthy of the highest honor, and deserves to be worshiped by those beneath her. “But they were going to have me. And I’d be carved in pure gold. With ruby lips. And my toenails would be little pink ocean shells, which they would have to stoop down off their high horse to kiss” (Erdrich, 1). By the end of the story, Marie revels in the fulfillment of her fantasy, as she becomes, in her eyes, the most sacred of all the members of the convent. As she sits on the pure, white pillows, she begins to pity and look down her nose at the one who had abused her up until then (15).

Marie blends her views with her perception of the convents early on. She sees the convent as a shelter for arrogant, holier-than-thou people who look down on others. In that way, she begins to adopt those views as her own. Her homeland is described as a place “Where the maps stopped. Where God had only half a hand in the Creation. Where the Dark One had put in thick bush, liquor, wild dogs, and Indians” (2). She takes in the teachings of Leopolda and depersonalizes herself from the physical abuse she is subjected to in school. She sees the “Dark One” as influencing her, causing her to do things for which she receives punishment. When they are making bread together and she knocked a cup onto the floor, for example, she narrates “he’d entered my distraction” (7). It was the devil inside her that cause her to fail.

However, this acceptance of the convent’s teachings is merely surface level. The religious concepts she internalizes are as shallow as the excuses Leopolda gives for punishing Marie. To Marie, sanctification came by way of the appearance of holiness. A constant metaphor in the narration is physical height as good: the convent is up on a hill (1), she climbs up to it to join the mission (2), and she wishes to have the highest person she knows beneath her: Leopolda (10). Rising becomes her achievable means of salvation. “I was that girl who thought the hem of her black garment would help me rise” (3).

One of the strongest tensions in this story is between good and evil. Marie’s values are directed toward herself, and it would appear that whatever is good for her in her quest to become a saint is what is good, and what is truly evil is failure, and the fault lies in the devil’s influence and not her own self. When she is on the verge of passing out from the scalding hot water Leopolda pours down on Marie’s body, her egoistic values come to the forefront of her mind as a vision. “She was at my feet, swallowing the glass after each step I took. I broke through another and another. The glass she swallowed ground and cut until her starved insides were only a subtle dust. She coughed. She coughed a cloud of dust. And then she was only a black rag that flapped off, snagged in bob wire, hung there for an age, and finally rotted into the breeze” (10). It becomes clear, following her attempt to murder Sister Leopolda by ironically casting the nun into a personal hell(12), that Marie absolves herself of all guilt. After her altercation with Leopolda, she wakes up to gladly receive the adoration and awe of the other sisters in the convent. “Receive the dispensation of my sacred blood,” she proclaims to the women kneeling for her (15). Her achievement of her fantasy, not any moral character, was what justified her to herself. “I was being worshiped. I had somehow gained the altar of a saint” (13). It is in this culmination of her desires that the piece unifies good and evil into equal boons to Marie’s self-actualization and self-worship.

Other critics of this piece have pointed out the clash between cultures in the story as well. The ostensibly Catholic concepts of good, evil, God, and Satan are in sharp contrast with what Marie was raised with. In “Fragment and Ojibwe Stories: Narrative Strategies in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine” author Lydia Schultz describes how Catholic notions of Satan are used to justify Leopolda’s abuse of the protagonist. “Sister Leopolda personifies what goes wrong when Catholicism meets the reservation,” Schultz writes. “She clearly rejects her Ojibwe upbringing (as seen in Tracks), but she cannot behave in ways that coincides with modern Catholic practices, either. While training the potential novice Marie Lazarre (later to become Marie Kashpaw), Leopolda scalds her, hits her head with a poker, and impales her hand with a sharp fork, all because she thinks that Marie has “the Devil in [her] heart”” (Schultz). When speaking of the Devil, Marie claims Leopolda “knew as much about him as my grandma, who called him by other names and was not afraid” (Erdrich, 3). The supernatural concepts of Marie’s former culture and her present one are far from in agreement concerning the nature of the “Dark One,” and it seems he may have even been a friend to her grandmother’s culture.

Yet more critics have likewise associated the symbolism in Saint Marie as signifying the conflict between Catholicism and Marie’s ethnic spirituality. According to Marie Balsley Taylor, Erdrich’s use of water in this text symbolizes the intersection of the Ojibwe’s religious reverence for water and Catholicism’s sacrament of baptism. “In her novels, her portrayals of baptism allude to a violent history of Christian conversion as well as an Ojibwe fear and respect of the water as a powerful force” (7). Taylor claims the Ojibwe would have seen Baptism not as a rebirth, as the missionaries did, but as a rejection of their cultural heritage (8). In this sense, Leopolda pouring boiling water over Marie’s body was not just physical abuse, but a sort of forced conversion, intending to rob Marie of her former identity and to force the Sister’s values upon Marie against her will.

There is, finally, a reversal built into the story as well. The consecrated Sister Leopolda begins the story above Marie, the young girl brought in from her “low” status. Leopolda chastises Marie, telling her “You have two choices. One, you can marry a no-good Indian, bear his brats, die like a dog. Or two, you can give yourself to God” (Erdrich, 5). Leopolda, at least according to our narrator, more than lives up to Marie’s judgment of arrogant pretentiousness. The nun looks down on others and is considered holy despite her cruel intentions, words, and deeds.

Marie begins as a young girl in a desolate corner of the world. “The sky is just about the size of my ignorance. And just as pure” (1). She was thirteen years old and, from what the reader witnesses in the beginning of the story, rather innocent. She is taken as the lowliest of sinners in Leopolda’s mind and physically abused and tortured into a demented notion of purity. She internalizes pieces of Leopolda’s instruction and becomes determined to beat the Sister at her own game as she first conceives her twisted goal: “The real way to overcome Leopolda was this: 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 the scraping I’d be dealt, I wanted to sit on the altar as a saint” (5).

By the story’s end, Leopolda is bowing down to Marie just like she envisioned, and the two have entirely switched places. Leopolda has an inner sense of guilt revived and is internally more moral than she was before. She is humbled and rendered lowly and subservient, having raised her attempted murderer up before the other nuns. Marie, on the other hand, had her soul thoroughly corrupted, gloating to herself as she looked down her nose at those who now see her as above themselves (15). Perhaps the emptiness Marie feels in the final lines of the story is how Leopolda had felt the entire time: No heart, no joy, only dust. Finally, at the very end, even Marie’s attempt at murder became a means of achieving holiness by the sheer force of her will.

Works Cited

Louise Erdrich.

Schultz, Lydia A. “Fragments and Ojibwe Stories: Narrative Strategies in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine.” College Literature, vol. 18, no. 3, Oct. 1991, p. 80. EBSCOhost,

Stock, Richard T. “Native Storytelling and Narrative Innovation: Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine as Fictional Ethnography.” Brno Studies in English, vol. 41, no. 1, Jan. 2015, pp. 175–193. EBSCOhost, doi:10.5817/BSE2015-1-11.

Taylor, Marie Balsley. “THE RELIGIOUS SYMBOLISM OF LOUISE ERDRICH”. Georgetown University. 2009.


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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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