Volume IX, Number 1, Spring 2013

"“Privy to both worlds”: The Meeting of Languages in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine" by Zsófia Gregor

Zsófia Gregor earned a Masters degree in American Studies at Eötvös Loránd University in 2013. The article featured here is an abridged version of her thesis, the goal of which was to investigate the relationship between Western and Native American Chippewa culture in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. Email:

This essay was written under the guidance of Profesor Enikő Bollobás, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest.

1. Introduction

Published in 1984, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine is a representative novel of postcolonialism. Similarly to other pieces embedded within that school of thought, Erdrich’s novel is governed by the combination of multiple distinct viewpoints. The daughter of a German American father and a French Chippewa mother, Erdrich grew up as a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa (McNally and Dalal) in a community whose culture has defined her entire oeuvre. Having received in addition to her Native American upbringing a Catholic American education, Karla Sanders explains (130), Erdrich’s hybrid perspective, as well as the cultural duality manifest in Love Medicine, comprises the Chippewa world view together with Western literary and cultural traditions.

Critical discourse concerning Love Medicine has primarily centered on the novel’s blurring of the boundaries between the Chippewa and the Western discourse. For example, E. Shelley Reid has addressed the formal duality of the novel, pointing out that the juxtaposition of Western narrative forms with Native American oral practices places the piece, as she says, at “middle ground” between the two literary traditions (67). Karen C. Cox discusses a related matter, namely the genre of the novel, in connection with which she claims that the fragmented story cycle of Love Medicine can be read both within the framework of postmodernism and in the light of the communal story-telling practices common among Native American tribes (151). Likewise, Robert Silberman has interpreted the chronology of the narrative—linear and cyclical at the same time—as a manifestation of the novel’s liminal position between the Western and the Native American discourse (106).

It is to such interpretations of Erdrich’s bicultural discourse that this paper attempts to contribute by identifying further aspects in which the novel integrates both the Chippewa and the Western context. In order to systematically study the influence of cultural codes in Love Medicine, I will follow Zoltán Abádi-Nagy’s framework of cultural narratology and consider the intersections of the Native American and the Western discourse at the fabula, story, and text level of the novel. My main claim is that the multiple facets of cultural interplay in Love Medicine disrupt the possibility of relating occurrences from a single viewpoint, thus presenting bivocality as the inevitable state of affairs in the fictional world. Concentrating on the encounter of Western and Chippewa culture at the fabula and story levels, I hope to show that both narrative levels of the novel portray the two discourses as inseparable. Not only does Erdrich depict bivocality as the central condition of the narrative, though; due to the manner in which she configures her episodes, the reader comes to understand that the combination of cultural codes is an accommodating state of affairs. At the text level, then, I will investigate Erdrich’s constant reliance on both the Chippewa and Western traditions, through which, I believe, she presents the two discourses as permeable and their perspectives as equally valid.

In the following sections I am going to position Love Medicine in relation to postcolonialism and the Native American literary tradition, and I am going to introduce Abádi-Nagy’s method for studying the influence of cultural codes in narratives. Using his theoretical framework, I am going to address Erdrich’s mode of blending discourses first at the fabula and story levels—addressing the diegesis together with the focalization—and then at the textual layer of the novel. Instead of giving a full analysis of every character and episode related to my main theses, I will rely here on close readings of only the most representative instances at each level, through which I hope to show that Erdrich’s entire narrative functions to construct a bicultural epistemology.

2. Postcolonialism and the Native American Literary Tradition

The fundamental bivocality of Love Medicine reflects a prevalent characteristic of the postmodern era. Within that episteme, Erdrich’s portrayal of polyphony as a comforting rather than an alienating trait of the human condition reflects ideas associated with postcolonialism. In her discussion of postcolonial writers, Elleke Boehmer observes that a need for hybridity and an emphasis on the multiplicity of voices as a mode of disrupting authority is at the heart of postcolonial works (227). In fact, she argues, in the postcolonial discourse only heterogeneous works, displaying a mosaic of various codes, are viewed as capable of expressing coherent stances.

Postcolonial theorist Gloria Anzaldúa elaborates on the relevance of such a welcoming approach towards heterogeneity in relation to races by adopting José Vascocelos’ notion of a fifth, fused race, called the mestiza. First, Anzaldúa explains the way in which the concord of diverse narratives becomes possible through a unifying perspective:

The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. […] She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode—nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. (2213)

Then Anzaldúa asserts that the eradication of binary oppositions is not enough for truly eradicating the notion of a dominant culture; only an amalgamating paradigm like that of the mestiza can provide sufficient grounds for establishing a new, all-encompassing consciousness (2213).

While Anzaldúa developed her theory of border-crossing in relation to her contemporary Chicano/a discourse, her general goal of upsetting racial boundaries suggests that her concept is applicable to Erdrich’s Native American context too. The in-between position of Love Medicine, grounded in both Chippewa and Western culture can be seen in terms of the racial politics that Anzaldúa calls for: what Erdrich achieves through her seamless intermingling of cultural discourses is the construction of a new mestiza consciousness.

However, apart from displaying the postcolonial understanding of multivocality, Erdrich’s particular treatment of pluralism as being a prerequisite for unity reflects a pattern ubiquitous in Native American cultures as well. In a discussion of Native American literary traditions, Paula G. Allen applies the metaphor of the medicine wheel, referred to as the sacred hoop, in order to present the harmony and circularity which she considers to be the primary paradigm of Native American thought. In her expansion of the metaphor, Allen notes that the world views of the various Native American tribes defy hierarchy and dichotomies (58). Regarding that attribute, the Native American approach suggests a likeness to postmodernism. Nevertheless, tribal approaches directly contradict postmodernism in the conclusions drawn from the phenomenon that Allen calls the egalitarianism of discourses (59). Whereas the governing experience of the postmodern episteme is the loss of coherence, Native Americans view concurrent discourses as contributing to the wholeness of the world.

Erdrich’s aesthetics, then, treating the Chippewa and Western discourses as alternative accounts of the fictional world of Love Medicine, can be seen as grounded both in postcolonialism and in the Native American epistemology. While the former considers fragmentation a postmodern development that gives rise to the democratizing cultural identity of the hybrid, the latter treats heterogeneity as the bedrock of Native American thought from the outset, be its concern religious beliefs, notions of time and space, or the interaction of diverse cultures. Although the two discourses thus provide different explanations regarding the origin of pluralism, in both cases, like in the narrative of Love Medicine, the multiplicity of viewpoints is the unquestioned configuration of human experience.

3. A Framework of Cultural Narratology

As the focus of this paper is the influence that cultures exert on the fictional narrative of Love Medicine, I have adopted Abádi-Nagy’s framework of cultural narratology. Abádi-Nagy has developed his method for examining the African American roots of Toni Morrison’s Jazz, which he explains in “Fabula and Culture: Case Study of Toni Morrison’s Jazz” and “A trópus mint kulturalizációs narrativitás” (“The Trope as Cultural Narrativity”). Abádi-Nagy’s goal being the pinpointing of the narrative level at which the interface between culture and narrative occurs, he relies on Mieke Bal’s three-layer division of narratives into fabula, story, and text, and on her treatment of cultural determination in relation to those levels.

Addressing the relationship between culture and narrative in Narratology, Bal contends that the two intersect at the story level (50); that is, at the layer which not only introduces events, but also “the way in which these events are presented” (5). According to Bal, the level of story adds to the fabulaic core of a narrative the sequential ordering of events, the amount of time allotted to recounting certain elements, the distinct traits which lead to actors becoming characters, the specificity of places, and the application of various perspectives (7). From the variety of aspects characterizing the story of a piece, the present discussion will concentrate on perspective, termed focalization in Narratology, because it is that facet through which the influence of the intersecting cultural codes is the most visible.

While accepting Bal’s position regarding the cultural determination of the story level, Abádi-Nagy exposes that cultural influences are also indisputable at the other two levels of narratives. In “Fabula and Culture,” Abádi-Nagy offers a detailed investigation of the fabula, or in other words, the diegetic program of Morrison’s Jazz, through which he convincingly argues for an understanding of that primary narrative level as being culture-specific. By demonstrating that African American idiosyncrasies are observable in connection with the actors of the novel, their actantial power, and their competence as well, Abádi-Nagy shows that the removal of the cultural factor would fundamentally alter the motivations and causes governing Jazz.

In “A trópus,” Abádi-Nagy addresses the cultural aspects of Morrison’s tropes which, being rhetorical devices outside the diegesis, belong to the textual level. Abádi-Nagy argues for an understanding of the various metaphors and metonymies included in characters’ names as aesthetic means partaking in the generation of the figures’ fates (11). An example that Abádi-Nagy provides is that of Joe Trace, whose surname foreshadows the limitations that the African American character has to endure in his contemporary American society. As Morrison’s tropes in such a manner reflect the particular African American conditions delimiting the characters’ options in the given historical period, Abádi-Nagy observes that they lead to the appearance of cultural determination not only at the fabula and story levels, but also at the textual level (11).

Abádi-Nagy’s conclusion serves as the main premise of the present paper. That is, I will read Erdrich with the aim of identifying the influence of the Native American and Western discourses at all levels of her novel. As my final goal is to unravel Erdrich’s politics concerning bivocality, the discussion of each narrative layer will center on the relationship between Chippewa and Western culture.

4. Blending Cultures at the Fabula and Story Levels

Both the fabula and the story level is grounded in the understanding that will later prove fundamental at the textual level too; namely, that identification with a single unified cultural discourse—either Chippewa or Western—is impossible within the fictional world of Love Medicine. The clearest summary of such a state of being is provided by Lipsha Morrissey. In the passage in question, Lipsha addresses the dualism of the Western and the Chippewa discourse through talking about the two sets of religious beliefs associated with the two contexts. Contrasting the God of Christianity with the spirits of the Chippewa, Lipsha explains that while Native Americans experience isolation from the former, they also lack a true understanding of the latter:

Since the Old Testament, God’s been deafening up on us. […] Here God used to raineth bread from clouds, smite the Philippines, sling fire down on red-light districts where people got stabbed. He even appeared in person once in a while. God used to pay attention, is what I’m saying. […] Now there’s your God in the Old Testament and there is Chippewa Gods as well. […] Our Gods aren’t perfect, is what I’m saying, but at least they come around. They’ll do a favor if you ask them right. […] But you do have to know, like I said, how to ask in the right way. That makes problems, because to ask proper was an art that was lost to the Chippewas once the Catholics gained ground. (236)

Besides Lipsha’s observation, the fabulae of other characters also prove that neither of the two cultural discourses involved can act as an absolute point of reference. Many of Erdrich’s characters attempt to assimilate into mainstream culture and leave behind their Chippewa background, while others cling to their roots and endeavor to conserve ancient Chippewa rites in their everyday lives. However, neither of those routes proves to be successful. Nector Kashpaw, for instance, who leaves the reservation to star in Hollywood westerns, finds the stereotypes of those movies delimiting and intimidating; thus, he decides to return home. Lulu Lamartine, in contrast, comes to realize that her efforts to repopulate the reservation with buffaloes and adopt the traditional Chippewa language are incongruous with reservation life in the twentieth century. The only valid solution that the novel offers to the duality of cultures is a perspective that fuses the two discourses. Only those characters who intertwine Chippewa and Western elements in their viewpoints manage to thrive.

Besides the central figure of Lipsha Morrissey, whose language, cultural references, and religious worldview is evidently grounded in the interweaving of discourses, the episodes which best bring to light the novel’s cherishing of bivocality center around the childhood of Lipsha’s adoptive grandmother, Marie Lazarre.

The fabula relating the narrative whose subject is Marie Lazarre involves the encounter of Chippewa and Western cultural codes through the conflict of the two religions associated with those discourses, namely Chippewa shamanic beliefs and Catholicism. The object that Marie aspires to reach is a sense of identity and belonging. Her means of attaining that object, however, adjusts over time, the course of which adjustment is at the focus of Marie’s fabula. While at first Marie attempts to embrace Catholicism wholesale at the expense of discarding her Chippewa background, due to a series of disappointments connected to Catholicism, she recognizes the impossibility of her original plan. Instead of switching from the Chippewa religious code to the Western, then, it is the blending of the two discourses that ultimately provides her with a feasible epistemology.

Fourteen years old and eager to escape from the reservation by any means, Marie decides to join the Sacred Heart Convent at the beginning of the novel. In the hope of finding acknowledgment and love by passing for being non-Native and living a Catholic life, Marie decides to devote herself to living a pious life. In fact, at first Marie is so zealous in her commitment to Catholicism that she marks her ultimate goal as the achievement of sainthood. Grasping sainthood through one of its palpable manifestations, Marie formulates her aim by envisioning herself as a golden statue, revered by the nuns at the convent: “they never thought they’d have a girl from this reservation as a saint they’d have to kneel to. But they’d have me. And I’d be carved in pure gold” (43).

The narrative shows, however, that Catholicism cannot function for Marie as a means of the elevation and appreciation she seeks. Viewing her childhood in retrospect, Marie makes it clear that her disappointment was not grounded in the nature of the religion itself, but in the distortion that it had undergone by the time it reached the reservation. That is, in Marie’s case it is due to the particular version of Catholicism presented to Native Americans that hinders the girl’s identification with it. Being the focalizor of her own experience, the grown Marie relates how the Sacred Heart Convent was a home for nuns who were unwanted in other parts of the country. Surrounded by nuns who, according to the focalizor Marie, had “los[t] their mind” (45), the young Marie’s attempt to embrace Catholicism was doomed to fail.

Upon arriving at the convent at the beginning of her narrative, Marie is ignorant of such circumstances, and thus identifies with the Catholic creed to the full. Therefore, at the start of the fabula it is the Catholic discourse that delineates what Bal would call Marie’s actantial competence; her possibilities, that is, for achieving her final aspiration. Marie’s initial actantial competence consists of praying, constantly struggling to defeat the Devil, and thus ultimately becoming a saint—all of which serve the purpose of finding love and acceptance.

Marie’s perception gradually shifts, though, primarily as a result of her relationship with Sister Leopolda, the nun who takes on her mentoring. At first, Leopolda appears to fulfill the role that Bal calls helper, as her endeavors to exorcize the Devil from Marie apparently serve the girl’s aim of spiritual purity. Nevertheless, before long the nun’s heartless conduct prompts Marie to adjust her ideas regarding the way of obtaining sainthood, which in turn reverses Leopolda’s role from helper to opponent. As Marie realizes that Leopolda’s real intentions in disciplining her were not aimed towards her spiritual salvation but rather towards her subordination, she loses faith in the nun, as well as in moral virtue being the way leading to sainthood.

While Marie does not fully abandon Catholicism, her perception changes in accord with the modification of her beliefs. Having lost from her devoutness and developed, in turn, a strong desire to take revenge for what she now views as Leopolda’s fraudulent and cruel behavior, Marie incorporates profane elements into her earlier design of piety. More specifically, she retains her goal of Catholic sainthood but comes to see it as serving two purposes at the same time: besides lending Marie appreciation and love, sainthood also obtains the function of retaliation against Leopolda. Envisioning the double pursuit which will then govern the remainder of the fabula, Marie explains her concrete plan, according to which she will reach sainthood earlier than the nun, thus gaining sufficient powers for excluding Leopolda from Heaven.

As is evident from Marie’s scheme, due to the inefficacy of the convent in providing spiritual guidance, the girl’s interpretation of the Catholic discourse is rather twisted. Ironically, though, Marie’s bizarre beliefs go unnoticed by her surroundings. In fact, in the outcome of the program Marie’s convictions prove to be far less ludicrous than the nuns’ conduct, the latter of which becomes the ultimate source of Marie’s disillusionment with Catholicism.

The climax of the chapter occurs when Marie—while assisting Leopolda in baking bread—voices her conviction that the suitable occasion had come for accomplishing her design. Led by a very strong feeling that her turning into a saint had begun, Marie contemplates thrusting the nun into the open oven. Marie expresses her justification for that idea through the imagery of the golden statue, which she had already applied earlier as a metonymy for sainthood: “Yes, this is part of it. […] My skin was turning to beaten gold. It was coming quicker than I thought. The oven was like the gate of a personal hell” (56). Confusing her goals with her methods, Marie no longer views the defeat of Leopolda as the motivation for achieving sainthood but as the primary means thereof. It is in the belief that the nun’s demise would bring Marie salvation that she finally pushes Leopolda into the flames.

Shortly afterwards, however, Leopolda escapes the fire and in her fury stabs Marie’s hands with an iron shaft, resulting in the girl’s loss of consciousness. From the point that Marie awakens from her stupor, the other nuns of the convent appear on the scene, worshipping Marie as a true saint. The reader finds out together with Marie that the nuns are motivated in doing so by the scars on Marie’s hands, which Leopolda presented to them as the stigmata, thereby escaping charges of having harmed the girl.

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, the stigmata are bodily wounds in places, for example the hands, which correspond to the scars of the crucified Jesus. In the Roman Catholic Church, the encyclopedia explains, such marks are associated with religious ecstasy and often lead to the people experiencing them being declared saints. Relying on such Catholic practices, in order to protect herself from accusations, Leopolda successfully tricks the nuns into believing that Marie had received the stigmata and had thus become a saint.

From the nuns’ viewpoint, Marie’s narrative is concluded by what Bal would call a process of improvement. Marie’s original goal of becoming a saint is achieved, the respect and devotion of the whole convent gained. In contrast, from Marie’s perspective the development of the fabula is definitely a process of deterioration. Upon recognizing Leopolda’s success in deceitfully presenting Marie’s scars as being of divine origin, the girl loses her faith in the Catholic discourse, abandons the possibility of adopting Western cultural codes to replace her Chippewa background, and decides to return to the reservation. Similarly to Marie, the reader also understands from her experience that the particular version of Catholicism practiced at the Sacred Heart Convent cannot provide a coherent epistemology for the Chippewa: the distorted concepts that Marie assumes at the convent and the nuns’ limited outlook indicate that Catholicism in itself does not offer Erdrich’s characters a valid point of identification.

That problem is addressed in the focalization of the above considered episode, as well as in the presentation of Marie’s later life, both of which reveal that Marie adopts bivocality in order to arrive at a feasible epistemology. As I have mentioned earlier, the focalizor of the discussed chapter is the grown Marie, recounting her teenage experience in retrospect. That is, even before the reader learns later in the novel at the fabula level that Marie comes to embrace the duality of discourses in her adulthood, the focalization of the events at the convent already forecasts such a change in her approach.

Marie’s simultaneous embracing of Catholicism and Chippewa beliefs can best be seen when the focalization of the narrative likens Sister Leopolda to Marie’s grandmother in their religious susceptibility. As opposed to young Marie, who is the actor of the related episode and goes to great lengths to transcend her Chippewa background, the focalizor claims that the beliefs of the two women, one Catholic and the other Chippewa, intersect in their understandings of evil forces. The comparison of the two women shows that the two discourses do not contradict each other but rather embody different approaches to the same spiritual matters, in this case to Satan: “She [Leopolda] knew as much about him as my grandma, who called him by other names and was not afraid” (45). That is, looking back as an adult on her earlier experience at the convent, Marie no longer emphasizes the distance between the Catholic and Chippewa discourses; instead, she demonstrates the permeability of the two understandings.

Marie’s later appearances in the novel also reveal her twofold reliance on both the Catholic and the Chippewa discourse. Although Marie emphatically maintains a distance from the former, she is still known for going to church and providing her children with a Christian upbringing. Moreover, at the most trying moments of her life, such as when she finds out that her husband had left her, it is within the Christian framework that Marie seeks solace.

At the same time, the grown Marie also professes a number of Chippewa beliefs, treating them as being compatible with her Catholic convictions. For instance, when endeavoring to regain the love of her disloyal husband Nector, Marie exhibits an inclination towards traditional tribal love medicines. Likewise, later in the same episode, she displays a strong belief in the Chippewa notion that dead persons’ spirits return as long as they are uneasy for some reason, in accordance with which she recounts the appearance of her husband’s ghost.

Marie’s amalgamation of religions becomes the most visible in the novel through a symbolic object, namely the chain of beads that she takes from the young June Morrissey’s neck upon welcoming her into her family. From the moment that Marie sees those beads, they are associated with Native American beliefs, as well as Catholicism. On the one hand, June’s companions explain that the girl had received the beads from Cree Indians who wanted to protect themselves via the chain from evil spirits who had possibly possessed June. On the other hand, Marie initially calls the beads a rosary, which is also how her grandson Lipsha refers to them. Marie reinforces the connection between the beads and Catholicism when claiming that the chain substitutes the act of praying for her: “I don’t pray, but sometimes I do touch the beads” (96). Although that passage expresses Marie’s deliberate distance from Catholic practices, it also indicates her spiritual need thereof.

Representing both the Native American and the Catholic context, the beads become the epitome of Marie’s simultaneous reliance on the elements of both discourses. According to Catherine Rainwater’s interpretation, the symbol of the beads bridges the two religious frames of reference which traverse in Marie’s figure, revealing Marie’s awareness of her own liminality (413). The beads thus illustrate the conclusion of Marie’s entire religious experience, showing that only a bicultural identity can provide a viable perspective and a harmonious existence in the fictional world of the novel.

5. Cultural Interplay at the Textual Level: Archetypal Characters and Chapter Titles

At the level of text, the most unique mode in which the novel combines cultural discourses is by means of interweaving archetypes associated with the two distinct contexts. For my purposes, the concept of archetypes refers to culture-specific elements—characters or situations—which have gained the status of topoi in the discourse of a particular culture. That definition is grounded in Carl G. Jung’s and Northrop Frye’s theories. According to Jung, an archetype is a primordial image existing in the collective unconscious of humanity (3). Frye’s elaboration is also instructive because he addresses the specific role of archetypes in literature. As Frye explains in his essay offering an archetypal theory of literary criticism, archetypes in literature always operate as tropes, with the specific nature of the trope—either metaphor or metonymy—depending on the genre of a piece (136). According to Frye’s division, Erdrich’s use of archetypes can be likened to metaphors, which identify episodes and characters with certain similar precursors.

While Jung’s definition of archetypes and Frye’s theory of their literary function is inevitable to my discussion, both are embedded in the modern episteme and thus cannot be fully applied to the postmodern multiplicity of discourses in Love Medicine. In order to arrive at a definition pertaining more directly to the postmodern treatment of cultures in the novel, I have followed Abádi-Nagy’s theoretical framework, which assumes a poststructuralist perspective in investigating the cultural determination of literary works. Although Abádi-Nagy does not specifically consider archetypes in his works, as I have shown earlier, he does develop a scheme concerning the culturalization of literary tropes, arguing that such rhetorical devices are inseparable from the cultural context of a particular literary work (“A trópus” 11). Given Frye’s previously mentioned contention according to which archetypes may operate as metaphors or metonymies—certain types of tropes, that is—Abádi-Nagy’s findings concerning the culturally governed nature of tropes hold true for archetypes too.

In addition to Abádi-Nagy’s claim regarding the cultural determination of tropes, Régis Boyer’s claim relating to the cultural specificity of archetypes also contributes to my discussion. Instead of conceiving of archetypes in the Jungian universal manner, Boyer describes them as primary models grounded in a concrete cultural background (110). Although his wording conveys a sense of essentialism, Boyer’s observation is fundamental to my argument, as he contends that archetypes “condense or sum up the most profound spirit of a culture” (110). If archetypes indeed operate as models engrained so deeply in their cultural background, Erdrich’s use of them as bicultural interfaces is all the more powerful as a statement concerning the permeability of cultural discourses: not only are the Chippewa and Western cultural codes understandable in each other’s terms, but they are actually mutually translatable to the very depth of their particular archetypes.

Boyer’s examination is also enlightening with regard to the exact working of archetypes in literary works. He notes that texts most typically introduce archetypes through evocative features of situations or characters (114). In Love Medicine, it is in a comparable manner that archetypes operate. Through a number of features connected to a character or an episode, Erdrich evokes one or more archetypes, either Chippewa or Western, which then endow that character or episode with all of the associations related to the particular topos. In the case of characters, it is mainly personality traits and distinctive situations that provide an archetypal frame of interpretation. In the case of episodes, Erdrich typically relies on chapter titles for serving the same purpose. Both archetypal characters and chapter titles ultimately function to parallel a concrete entity with one or more archetypes, in order to apply the latter as the interpretive framework for the former.

From Erdrich’s various archetypal characters, those contribute to the novel’s bicultural discourse whose features allow the reader to simultaneously associate them with several distinct archetypes, some grounded in the Chippewa discourse while others in the Western context. Such a combination of archetypes through characters serves to liken a single figure to two or more contrasting models at the same time. The result of Erdrich’s handling of archetypes is the reader’s constant shifting between the two culturally distinct frames of interpretation, without ever being able to select one of the codes as more fundamental. By interweaving Chippewa and Western culture through multiple topoi, Erdrich unsettles the borderline between the two cultures, presenting them as mutually understandable and complementary accounts of the fictional characters. Thus promoting an egalitarianism of discourses, Erdrich’s archetypal characters epitomize her greater aesthetic scheme, according to which bivocality is the sole mode of producing a valid narrative in Love Medicine.

One of the best examples for Erdrich’s archetypal characters is June Morrissey, the mother of the central figure, Lipsha, who, however, is unaware of that connection until the end of the novel. In the case of June, the first archetype her character evokes is the Trickster, a shape-shifter figure that, according to Alan Velie, is the governing archetype of Native American fiction to date (121). The main feature of the Trickster in Native American literary traditions is that it transcends all categories. Andrew Wiget explains that the Trickster figure does not exist in any specific historical time (86), nor is strictly associated with either of the sexes (89). The figure also surpasses ethical domains and is thus, according to Velie, amoral (122). Furthermore, Wiget adds that the Trickster constantly changes appearances and even resists being defined as one particular species (87). Whatever form the Trickster may take, Connie A. Jacobs argues, it acts as a mediator between the material world and the realm of spirits (73).

Louis Owens calls attention to the fact that already the opening of the novel suggests a likeness between June and the Trickster, because the scene of June setting off on a journey home mirrors the start of the traditional Trickster story (195). Owens explains that the motif of being on the road in tribal narratives implies a sense of displacement—an interpretation which is readily applicable to June’s situation (195). The feeling of dislocation at the beginning of Love Medicine later becomes even stronger through the image of June’s bus ticket which never expires, thus rendering its owner a permanent traveler who can never truly arrive home.

Erdrich’s text also contains direct references to June’s Trickster-like lack of unity. For example, when she is lying under the truck driver’s body with whom she departed instead of getting on the bus towards the reservation, the narrator observes her fragmented sense of herself: “she knew that if she lay there any longer she would crack wide open, not in one place but in many pieces” (6). Importantly, though, Owens contends that fragmentation in the Native American discourse does not have the same connotations as it does in Western culture (195). While in the latter it is linked to alienation, claims Owens, in the Chippewa context the Trickster’s fragmentation suggests the obliteration of identity which is necessary for achieving unity with one’s surroundings (195).

While June’s dislocation is best understood through the Chippewa archetype of the Trickster, a Western archetype arising in connection with her figure provides an interpretive background for a different segment of her narrative. The time frame of June’s death in the snowstorm is marked Easter Sunday, so the Christian context of crucifixion and resurrection is present from the outset. The narrator’s postulation according to which June walked over snow “like water” (7) further strengthens the association between June’s figure and the archetype of Christ, because Christ was known for having walked to his disciples on water when they were sailing on the Sea of Galilee (New Jerusalem Bible, Mt. 14.25).

The Christian archetypal reference is important in the case of June because it helps account for the role of her decease at the beginning of Love Medicine. The analogy of June’s death with the frame of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection implies that June’s demise might also exert a positive, renewing effect on her community. That is, although the reader initially senses only that June’s death catalyzes the series of events forming the core of the novel, such as the reunion of her family, the surge of conflicts arising from her life insurance money, her husband Gordie’s self-torment, and her son Lipsha’s search for his true identity, the archetype of Christ provides hope that the outcome of those storylines will be the restoration of unity. Indeed, the happenings commencing at the beginning of the narrative do conclude with Lipsha’s understanding of his background and his settling of family tensions.

According to Sanders, a third archetype also appears in June’s episode, albeit very briefly, also serving to underpin the understanding of June as bringing healing to the community. Erdrich inserts the Chippewa archetype of coming home at the cryptic end of June’s narrative, which does not explicitly mention her death but merely states that she “walked over [the snow] like water and came home” (7). While in the Christian frame the concept of home could be taken as referring to Heaven, Sanders’ explanation is also enlightening in interpreting that line. She exposes that the archetype of coming home in the Native American discourse equals an arrival to well-being and to communal knowledge (148). Thereby Sanders demonstrates that both the Christian model and the Chippewa archetype conjured in the final sentence of the episode signals a sense of hope.

In the case of June, then, Erdrich’s intercultural combination of archetypes serves two purposes. First, such a presentation exposes that different elements of June’s narrative can be accounted for via different archetypes. While June’s dislocation and fragmentation is easier understood in terms of the Chippewa Trickster who is always on the move and can never be confined, her relation to the community can be grasped through the Biblical archetype. Furthermore, the Chippewa archetype of homecoming bolsters the reader’s perception of June’s death as bringing the hope of well-being.

Second, Erdrich’s intertwining of archetypes functions as a statement regarding bivocality. Entwined via the figure of June, distinct cultural discourses appear to be permeable. In fact, not only does Erdrich present those discourses as mutually understandable but also as equally necessary for constructing a valid narrative of June’s last hours.

The second mode in which Erdrich relies on archetypes as interpretive frames is by overtly incorporating them into chapter titles, thus guiding the reader’s understanding prior to reading the actual chapters. In this case, it is consistently Western archetypes that act as titles for chapters which mostly relate scenes from reservation life. That is, in the case of chapter titles Erdrich unmasks the permeability of discourses by adding to the presented events of tribal life the indication of a Western perspective at the textual level of the narrative. Initially, such a presentation of the Chippewa context through Western terms may seem to convey a colonialist perspective. Nonetheless, by having Native American characters narrate all of the episodes in question, Erdrich in effect provides the Chippewa with agency, thus avoiding the pitfall of totalization.

When addressing the matter of Biblical titles—comprising six of the total eighteen chapters— as applied to the reservation setting of Love Medicine, Rainwater claims that such a narrative device functions to trigger a particular interpretive framework in the minds of readers (407). Although the images in such titles do intertwine with the events of the particular chapters in numerous ways, the symbolic, archetypal value of the titles remains outside the consciousness of both the actors at the fabula level and the focalizors at the story level. With the chapter titles acting in such a manner, they remain purely rhetorical devices that bring in the Western context as an interpretive frame at the textual level of the narrative. Through her archetypal chapter titles, Erdrich juxtaposes the Biblical viewpoint with the narrated Native American lives and traditions, thus constructing, as Rainwater puts it, an “undecidability” of codes (407). Moreover, since the Biblical references do not merely interpret the narrated scenes but also contribute to a fuller understanding of certain aspects otherwise not addressed, Erdrich’s archetypal chapter titles reinforce the necessity of bivocality in comprehending the fictional world of Love Medicine.

For example, the undecidability of cultural codes materializes through the archetype of the disciples, which Erdrich refers to in the title of her first and last chapter. As the first chapter in the novel is entitled “The World’s Greatest Fishermen,” the reader is immediately prompted to recall the scene in the New Testament when Jesus promised to make his followers “fishers of people” (Mt. 4.19). Opposed to such preliminary expectations, however, the opening of the novel abounds in chaos and suffering. Following the scene of June Kashpaw’s death, the reader encounters a portrait of a disintegrating family, full of internal tensions. Not having been notified in due time of her aunt June’s funeral, Albertine Johnson arrives home frustrated, only to find arguments ranging in topic from racism against whites to hatred towards June’s son, King, for already having spent the money from his deceased mother’s life insurance. King Kashpaw arrives home unwelcomed with his white wife, who clearly refuses to show the expected respect for elders; ultimately, in a grand fight the two of them wreak havoc. Self-conceited and unable to communicate, most characters suggest no likeness to the Biblical disciples whatsoever.

Nevertheless, the text does include a literal connection with the chapter title, namely a patch on King’s hat, which claims its wearer to be the “World’s Greatest Fisherman.” In the context of the chapter, King’s hat appears to be one of the many means which its wearer employs for construing a strongly masculine image. Viewed in the light of King’s invented anecdotes concealing his lack of hunting skills and his lies concerning his participation in the Vietnam war, the label of the greatest fisherman appears to be highly ironic. A possible interpretation of the chapter title, then, is one that broadens the range of that irony: the plural label of the greatest fishermen is as disparate from the array of characters portrayed in the chapter as the patch on the hat is from King. According to this understanding, contrary to the primary expectations raised by the chapter title, the presented characters appear as fallible as King, and it is only their distorted self-perception that likens them to the archetypal fishermen.

Were such an ironic interpretation the only conceivable understanding of the title, it would already entail an essentially bicultural narration in which Chippewa characters become knowable within a Christian framework. In that reading, however, the intersection of cultures would seem to measure and devalue Chippewa characters against Western traditions, which is not the case in Love Medicine. With the archetype of the disciples also included in the title of the last chapter, called “Crossing the Water,” the novel returns to the framework of the first chapter and significantly contributes to the interpretation thereof.

Primarily, the last chapter title, as well as the portrayed situation of Lipsha Morrissey who is said to be “crossing water” (367) when walking across a bridge, invokes the Gospel and, more specifically, the occurrence that June’s portrayal at the beginning of the novel had already referenced. Having fed five thousand people, the disciples set off in a boat on the Sea of Galilee while Jesus remains on the mountain to pray. Due to a growing storm, the disciples start fearing their demise on the water, but ultimately Jesus appears and saves them. The motif of crossing water occurs three times in that sequence of events. First, Jesus walks on water to join his disciples in their boat. Then, in order to convince Peter that the figure they see is not a ghost, Jesus enables Peter to walk to him “across the water” in order to convince the disbelieving disciples that whom they see on the water is not a ghost but Jesus (Mt. 14.28). Finally, with decreasing winds following Jesus’ appearance, the boat successfully makes “the crossing” to the land of Gennesaret (Mt. 14.34). That is, the motif of crossing water in the title of the last chapter simultaneously evokes Jesus’ comforting presence and the disciples’ relief, dependent on their strength of faith. The reader’s consequent association of Lipsha with either Jesus or the disciples suggests that the central events of the final chapter, namely Lipsha’s assistance in his father’s escape to Canada and his bringing home of his mother’s ashes, have great significance in the fictional world. Erdrich portrays Lipsha’s role in completing those missions comparable to the good deeds that Jesus and his disciples performed in the world.

By referring to the incident involving the disciples, the final chapter of the novel concludes with the same archetype that it starts with. Moreover, the tie with the first chapter is reinforced by the fact that an identical image of crossing water was already included in the scene narrating June’s death. On the one hand, then, the Biblical archetype emphasizes the unity of the initial and final episode, thus providing the novel with a frame. In such a manner, the chapter titles signal to the reader that the events triggered in the first chapter by June’s death—her husband Gordie’s death, her son King’s tensions with his relatives, and most importantly, her illegitimate son Lipsha’s search for his true identity—are brought to rest in the concluding chapter by Lipsha’s endeavors.

On the other hand, the Biblical framework implies that although the likening of the characters to the disciples may have been ironic at the beginning of Love Medicine, by the end, the archetype becomes truly applicable. Lipsha explains in the last scene of the novel his ultimate sense of harmony in terms of the Chippewa tradition as being covered by waves that “solved all our problems” (367). Through the Biblical motif of crossing water, Erdrich shows that the same phenomenon can also be grasped in the language of the Christian tradition, by evoking the disciples’ associated relief in the Gospel. With the Christian context proving to be applicable to elements of the Chippewa discourse, the chapter titles “The World’s Greatest Fishermen” and “Crossing Water” function to demonstrate that the two intertwined cultural codes offer not exclusive but mutually intelligible interpretations in the narrative of Love Medicine.

6. Conclusion

The focus of this paper has been Erdrich’s politics in incorporating both Chippewa and Western culture into Love Medicine. By studying the novel through the framework of cultural narratology, I have suggested that Erdrich presents the bivocality of discourses in accord with the postcolonial notion, as well as with the Native American perception of pluralism: hybridity is inevitable in the fictional world, yet rather than being a discomforting circumstance, the blending of cultures in Love Medicine offers a reassuring epistemology.

The examination of the fabula and story level of the novel has shown that the deep structure of the narrative, as well as its focalization is grounded in the understanding that bivocality is the defining condition of the fictional world. The narrative of Marie Lazarre’s experience at the Catholic convent served to demonstrate that only the concurrent application of the Native American and Western perspective can provide Erdrich’s characters with a balanced world view.

In addition to establishing the duality of discourses as an accommodating state of affairs, Love Medicine portrays the Chippewa and the Western contexts as consisting of transferable rather than exclusive categories. Erdrich constructs such an understanding of cultural dichotomies at the textual level of her narrative by means of archetypes, which she employs as one of the main scenes of cultural interplay in the novel. I have discussed two distinct forms in which archetypes are manifest in the narrative. First, I considered June Morrissey, whose portrayal, grounded in both Chippewa and Western archetypes, exhibits that the limits of cultural codes are easily transgressed in the fictional world. Second, I explored two chapter titles applying the archetype of Christ’s disciples to events taking place on the reservation. Similarly to other archetypal chapter titles, the primary function of the Biblical topos in those titles was to indicate that only through the combination of the Western and the Chippewa interpretive frameworks can the reader truly comprehend the narrative of Love Medicine.

According to Rainwater, the implications of fictional works, and especially of Native American narratives, are wide-ranging because, as she says, “the world takes on the shape of the stories we tell” (422). In the case of Love Medicine, that is doubtlessly the case. Due to Erdrich’s construction of a bicultural narrative, neither the Native American nor the Western reader enjoys a privileged position when reading the novel. Neither reader encounters a familiar narrative that merely reinforces their understanding of their own cultural categories. Instead, Erdrich requires the readers of both backgrounds to make an effort to grasp the twofold cultural references and thus adopt the bicultural approach that the novel is grounded in. In such a manner, the reader’s world does, indeed, take the shape of the story that Erdrich tells in Love Medicine.


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