Character Study – Marie Kashpaw: Seeking Identity

The novel suggests that Marie Lazarre was born in the 1920s; she is born a mixed blood, as her father is white. She is raised by Sophie and Izear Lazarre who are her supposed family, her mother Sophie is said to be an old drunk. She is a child of the Lazarre family which has a bad reputation and she is also considered a lowlife because of her half white descent. Marie is raised on the Native American reservation but does not fit in, as she is not considered as part of them. Marie tries hard to redefine her identity to earn cultural acceptance and respect but end up stuck between two paradigms which she does not completely belong to. In the native community, she is considered half-blood and looked down upon due to her heritage similarly in the white community and the convent she is regarded as Native and cannot fully belong. She undergoes religious and cultural conflicts in an attempt to empower herself and fit in but realizes they cannot entirely blend. In her journey of seeking her identity, Marie loses and seeks power, love and respect all through as she navigates through various conflicting cultural and religious identities, but eventually manages to accomplish her goals and be empowered by her experiences.

At the beginning of the novel, Marie Lazarre wants to be acknowledged as a Catholic white girl because she identifies herself with the Virgin Mary, who signifies power. At the age of fourteen, she joins the Sacred Heart Convent in search of a new identity among the Catholic sisters. She asserts, “I was going up there to pray as good as they could. Because I don’t have that much Indian blood” (Erdrich, 2004). Marie denies her Native American descent, and she embraces her whiteness and finds her place in the Catholic and white community. She tries hard to demonstrate that she is a good individual like the nuns and devotes herself to praying frequently. Marie believes that proving to be the best Catholic will earn her a place and respect among the people. She wants to earn the highest achievement of sainthood through complete devotion to the ways of the Catholics. Her obstinacy and spite seem to surpass her genuine belief in the church and God. She yearns for an esteemed identity and fitting in, and if it requires her to be a devoted Catholic, then she will be best Catholic there is.

At the time the convent was the perfect place for a woman seeking authority and respect in the white community, hence Marie’s devotion to Catholicism despite a weak faith. Marie not being born in a Catholic or white society proves to be difficult for her to identify with it. She, however, believes that if she dons the role of a good Catholic girl she will eventually be part of the community. Marie states, “I had the mail-order Catholic soul you get in a girl raised out in the bush…” (Erdrich, 2004). Emphasizing her weak faith in church but believes it’s a way of belonging. Marie does not have a strong faith in the ways of the church but takes the church as a means of fitting in. She believes that her worldview is completely separate from her outside appearance and devotion in the church will give her a new identity. Asserting to herself that her “soul went cheap” (Erdrich, 2004). To Marie, the Catholic convent is a place to redefine herself and build a new identity among the community she feels closest to. She wants to be valued and accepted irrespective of her heredity unlike in the reservation where she is looked down upon.

In the convent, Marie strives to receive love and respect from Sister Leopolda, unlike Leopolda who seeks the adoration and love of God. Marie has a love/hate relationship with the Sister; she trusts the nun because she looks up to her but also hate her because she tortures and torments her. Marie says that “But I wanted Sister Leopolda’s, heart… sometimes I wanted her heart in love and admiration. And sometimes I wanted her heart to roast on a black stick” (Erdrich, 2004) which perfectly describes their relationship. Sister Leopolda is a zealous nun who has a strong belief in the church and shows this by tormenting both herself and Marie. Sister Leopolda believes she sees the devil in Marie and goes to extreme lengths to eliminate him from Marie. The Sister tortures Marie frequently at the hopes of freeing her from Satan, as she is a reservation girl with shamanic beliefs. The Sister justifies her actions towards Marie and attempts of commencing her to the Catholic faith as a portrayal of love. Marie does not possess a strong faith in God like Sister Leopolda because she only seeks attention and approval from her to fill the emptiness and loneliness she feels.

Ultimately, Marie wants to exceed Leopolda’s accomplishments and eventually become a saint to be triumphant and have respect. Marie and Sister Leopolda strive to outdo and have power over each other through their violent encounters on several different occasions. Sister Leopolda cruel treatment towards Marie is a way of indoctrination; the nun is attempting to eliminate the shamanic ways in Marie’s mind and commence her into the Catholic faith. Marie believes that if she defeats the Sister in the physical and mental battle, she will be the better Catholic and attain sainthood and respect. After the last fight, Marie states, “I was being worshiped. I had somehow gained the altar of a saint” (Erdrich, 2004), somehow she had attained sainthood. Sister Leopolda in an attempt to free herself from being accused of violent torments towards Marie lied to the nuns about her wound. She claimed the wound appeared out of nowhere implying that the wound as the stigmata of Christ (Erdrich, 2004). Marie is now considered a saint in the eyes of the nuns, and she has finally earned power and respect. Unfortunately, her triumph is short-lived as she starts feeling remorse towards Sister Leopolda. Marie claims, “It was a feeling more terrible than any amount of boiling water and worse than being forked” (Erdrich, 2004) which her feelings of pity for the nun. Marie’s finds out that her weakness is her feelings. She thought that such a win over the Sister will satisfy her and finally get what she has always wanted.

Marie finally gains the power she always seeks through sainthood but loses her sense of identity through her struggles with the Sister. Marie’s realization that Sister Leopolda is flawed too makes her shift her attitude towards the nun. She realizes that the devil is in Leopolda too because she lied to protect herself from scrutiny. Sister Leopolda used torture as a means to cope with the fear that she has the devil in her too. The realization heals Marie’s mental and emotional wounds she got from the nun’s torments. Marie asserts, “Rise up! I thought. Rise up and walk! There is no limit to the dust” (Erdrich, 2004). She comes to a conclusion that she does not want to be a Catholic any longer and leaves the convent for good. Even though she attained what she lurked for, sainthood and respect, she grasps that she does not want it anymore. Marie leaves to seek an identity that suits her transition to adulthood in search of love and liberation. Marie comprehends that the torture and torments in the convent made her stronger mentally and emotionally and made her grasp what she wanted in life.

In her adulthood Marie transitions from seeking identity through religion to searching for love and freedom despite initial scrutiny and judgment from the tribe. Marie and Nector first meet when Marie escapes the convent after the final fight with Sister Leopolda. She runs off with a wounded hand and comes across Nector who thinks she has stolen the cloth on her arm. At first glance Nector judges her like everyone in the tribe; he says, “Marie Lazarre is the youngest daughter of a family of horse-thieving drunks. Stealing sacred linen fits what I know of that blood” (Erdrich, 2004). They end up fighting because Marie wants to protect her dignity while Nector thinks she is good for nothing thief. She curses Nector with slurs as she fights him but when he sees her wounded arm and gains sympathy. Nector sees her like a wounded animal and handles her delicately before realizing the sexual tension between them. Marie ignites emotion and feeling in Nector who now accepts and understands her. A relationship builds between the two and eventually, they get married and start a family in the community.

In marriage, Marie seeks respect, power, and cultural identity through wifehood, motherhood, and authority in the community. Marie and Nector Kashpaw adopt homeless kids in the reservation to cope with the loss of their previous two babies in a year. They eventually manage to bear five more biological children. Marie gains more respect as a mother of both her children and the community. Nector begins to be absent in the lives of his family because of the number of children. Marie decides to encourage Nector to the chairmanship in the community for her to get respect and power. Marie says, “I was going to make him into something big. I didn’t know what, not yet; I only knew when he got there they would not whisper ’dirty Lazarre’ …They would wish they were the woman I was.” (Erdrich, 2004). She wanted to belong and get authority in the tribe which she never had because of her background. Nector got the chairmanship and was a respected member of the tribe and the white society, finally Marie’s attempt worked and now she was in the realm of reverence.

Though she has reverence in the community, Marie still hopes for her husband’s love to fuel her self-worth but eventually learns to empower and love herself. Marie states, “…by now I was solid class. Nector was tribal chairman. My children were well behaved and they were educated too” (Erdrich, 2004). Despite this Marie yearns Nector’s love even though he does not truly love her back and treats her below par. Her husband is her source of love that she gives to the people around her and especially to him. Nector cheats on Marie frequently with other women especially Lulu who he is truly in love with. He leaves Marie at some point where she becomes broken down and devastated. Nector’s lack of love towards her only makes her work hard and stronger; she becomes empowered as a result of not getting adoration from her adulterous husband. She narrates, “But I was not going under, even if he left me…I could leave off my fear of ever being a Lazarre” (Erdrich, 2004). Marie had finally learned to be a free and independent individual as her new identity, by empowering herself to an autonomous and respected matriarch. Nector eventually comes back to her, but he is still in love with Lulu till his unfortunate death at old age. Even though Marie is always in love with him and even attempts to rekindle their love during his final moments, she was able to manifest her own self-worth through her accomplishments in the community.

Marie embraces her identity as a respected matriarch and learns to give love to her family as much as she hopes to receive it. Marie and her adopted grandson Lipsha Morrissey develop a deeper relationship later in her life while she resides at a retirement home. They create a stronger bond when Lipsha helps his adopted grandmother to rekindle her love with Nector Kashpaw. Encompassing the story’s title Marie wants Lipsha to work on love medicine on Nector so he can be faithful to her alone (Erdrich, 2004). Marie and Lipsha plot, so Nector eats a goose heart while she eats one too for the love medicine. Lipsha, however, compromises on the type of goose heart and settles for store turkey heart as an alternative to a self-killed goose heart. He claims that the love medicine does not work, but the people’s belief in it is what actually works. Nector, however, refuses to eat the heart and just places it in his mouth which unfortunately chokes him to death. Marie and Lipsha mourn the misfortune, and eventually, Marie tells Lipsha that he has always been her favorite.

Following Marie from her youth, marriage and old age throughout the novel, she seeks respect, love, and power which she gets at different points. Marie has juggled two paradigms in her entire life from religious ways to shamanic beliefs and from her half-white heritage to her Native side. From the teenage years when she wanted acceptance and respect in the white community which she finally attained through her sainthood. Growing into adulthood, she realized other things she actually wanted from life such as love from Nector Kashpaw. She builds a family and learns about giving love and being part of a bigger picture. Marie’s faces judgment from people in the tribe and pursues power in the community through her husband and eventually gain respect and power. In womanhood, she embraces her culture and language abandoning her previous inclinations towards Catholicism altogether. In her later years, she becomes an activist and elder of the tribe and a respected individual in the Native American community. Throughout her life, she has attained all her goals deliberately and unintentionally from her childhood to an elder. The experiences through the stages of her life shaped and prepared her physically and emotionally ready for what was to come. Marie’s self-empowerment and self-worth molded her to the individual she finally becomes in her later years.

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