Psychological Criticism

By Jess Lupton

On the surface, Louise Erdrich’s short story “Saint Marie” details the journey a young girl takes in order to seek religious retribution and a higher power. She staunchly tries to obtain both of these things through want and prayer; the reader can credit her journey to the obsessive mind of an adolescent compelled to serve God, unlike her family before her that was unable to fully do so; this becomes her main and only goal that the reader can understand as a fact. But is this an appropriate goal for an adolescent, given her ambitious mindset, to want to ascend into the respectable territory of heaven despite any obstacles that she might face? We come to question her stability in achieving such a feat; she is either incredibly determined or stifled by her upbringing and consequent patterns of upbringing which are deeply rooted, leading her into both a chaotic start and end that destabilizes her narrative into something more tragic.

From the age of 14, she visualizes climbing up the hill to the convent and nothing much else. She believes that she is only seeking the spoils of what has been dangled in front of her for her entire life; however, her actual goal is to embody the power of both God and the Devil, which are reoccurring figures. She wants to “sit at the altar as a saint” (Erdrich 7) and be worshiped; this is truly in order to rationalize the mistreatment she has received throughout her short life. She falls flat here and begins to show the reader that there is an underlying tone of mania that causes her to fluctuate in reasoning, using these figures to justify her behavior and that of those around her, and seeks to further her agenda through her staunch religious dedication. She has a god complex from the very beginning; she intends to make the other saints worship her, and in particular searches for the love of Sister Leopolda, who she perceives to be both her greatest friend and enemy. This relationship marks the turning point in the story, where the motivations of both carry them much farther than their initial declarations would allow.

We look to the beginning of this story to determine her motivations. She mentions that her father did not frequently “unharness” (Erdrich 2) her and her siblings, unconsciously admitting here to feeling stifled in her childhood. Marie’s statements lead us to believe that she is repressing a large part of her emotional upbringing in response to this small bit of information; the roadmap is laid. With this in mind, we look to her mental state instead to determine further if her actions match her persona. She says that she is covered in “veils of love, which was only hate petrified by longing” (6) and juxtaposes the idea of love versus hate. This is a heavy theme. God is also pitted versus the Devil, which becomes prominent in the story and in regard to Sister Leopolda, who senses the devil inside of Marie (whilst Marie senses inside herself God). Marie comes to view the Sister in an almost mother-like way, sparking confusion and isolation that does not agree with her logic.

It is safe to say that Marie was tortured psychologically by the Sister, causing these issues to spring up in the first place. But is there inherent meaning in the fact that while Sister Leopolda began the cycle of abuse and let Marie finish it, that the unconscious mind truly does play off of the idea that it is connected, inherently, to a higher power? Perhaps in this circumstance, the higher power is a mother figure? There is no mention of a mother made by Marie, only her father, which is noteworthy. Nancy Chodorow, a renowned psychoanalyst, believes that a child will “define aspects of itself in relation to internalized representations of aspects of its mother and the perceived quality of her care” (Metzl) which fits into the perceived relationship between the Sister and Marie. She plays off of Freud’s concept of id, ego, and superego, effectively displaying each within the realm of Marie’s conscious mind. Where the id represents her hidden memory and connection to the Sister through their female bond, this projection becomes the forefront of the conflict created within the story. Sister Leopolda may have claimed to have loved Marie in her own way, but the abuse was too prominent. Marie could not resist the feelings of maternal obligation she felt.

The potential connection to the only impactful female may have a sexual undertone that further supports her disillusion. Marie sees in a vision of herself that she “was rippling gold. My breasts were bare and my nipples ashed and winked. Diamonds tipped them” (Erdrich 10) and this inclusion speaks towards more than simply wishing to be accepted by the other nuns, or serving god; she transcends into her ideal self directly in response to the abuse she suffers from Sister Leopolda. The repressed sexuality is stark in response to this revelation, as she does not intend to sexualize herself. This is again expressed when she claims to want the Sister’s heart in “love and admiration” (5) whilst simultaneously wishing to “roast [it] on a black stick” (Erdrich 5); her confusion springs from the continual id of her ploys. Her superego is on full display as her attempts to remain calm in the face of aggression fail, which eventually results in the disfigurement of the Sister.

Ultimately, her moral conscious is compromised by her lack of perception of reality. Susan Castillo, an English professor specializing in American literature, further supports this thesis by establishing that Erdrich will oftentimes “portray women of power, though not necessarily of authority” (Castillo 2) in her texts, so the power struggle is extremely present after springing from the lack of control she held in her adolescent life. By attempting to intellectualize her feelings she creates more problems; her obsession with figures of light and dark isolate her from the Sister and other ladies, who perceive her to be a well-behaved young girl. Both women here undeniably express power, but neither holds any authority over the other. Authority is virtually gone aside from the hold that the Sister does place, through the devil, on Marie and her flimsy sense of self-proclamation. Her reality is completely altered by light versus dark, good versus evil, and Sister Leopolda versus Marie.

Marie classifies herself as “ignorant” (Erdrich 1) but later describes this as being “pure” and that “the pure wildness of my ignorance” (Erdrich 2) fueled her story. This is likely the most accurate statement that was made by Erdrich in regard to Marie’s true personality and understanding; contradictory. As she falls into the Sister’s twisted version of love, she is further entangled into confusion and self-denial disguised as rational thinking. As the sister has her foot pressed upon Marie’s neck she claims that “you’re just like I was” (Erdrich 8), projecting onto Marie the thoughts of evil despite the lack of evidence or claim to such a declaration. But she will believe it, despite her hatred, because Sister Leopolda holds dominance over such a young and impressionable person. The power struggle is one-sided in that Marie is unaware of her mental perceptions, instead completely focusing on the ideal sense of self.

As far as whether or not one represents God and the other the Devil, we find that both women appear to assign and play both roles for themselves. We come down to the “shambles of love” (Erdrich 15) which are merely the broken pieces of the conflict between two connected women seeking validation and acceptance, if not from each other than from a higher power, which also failed in its estimation. “Tears glittered in her eyes, deep down, like the sinking reflection in a well” (Erdrich 9) signifying an underlying reversal that leaves Marie with a false sense of reality in ascending without thought to why. In the end, there is no journey to self-betterment; only a decline into the mundane realities of worship, and once again the flimsy foundation that Marie received through a lack of structural childhood and direction.

Works Cited

Castillo, Susan. “Women Aging Into Power: Fictional Representations of Power and Authority in Louise Erdrich’s Female Characters.” Studies in American Indian Literatures, vol. 8, no. 4, 1996, pp. 13–20. JSTOR, Accessed 11 May 2021.

Metzl, Marilyn Newman (2003). Review of The Reproduction of Mothering; Feminism and Psycohoanalytic Theory; Femininities, Masculinities and Sexualities; The Power of Feelings by Nancy Chodorow. New Haven: Yale University Press. PP. 55-60.

Tanrisal, Meldan. “Mother and Child Relationships in the Novels of Louise Erdrich.” American Studies International, vol. 35, no. 3, 1997, pp. 67–79. JSTOR, Accessed 11 May 2021.


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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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