November 20, 2012
“I like addressing the mystery of identity, probably because I have a variety of identities of my own”, reported Louise Erdrich. Louise Erdrich was born in South Dakota to a mother of Ojibwe descent and a father of German ancestry. She attended a Catholic school, although identifies with the Ojibwe belief system. Erdrich’s multiple identities shapes her novel, The Last Reports on the Miracles at Little No Horse, into wrestling with the question of identity, specifically through the character of Agnes Dewitt/Father Damien. Agnes struggles with her identity throughout the novel as identities are developed and rediscovered.
Throughout the entire novel, Agnes struggles between her sensual and her spiritual self, as both Sister Cecilia and Father Damien. She seemingly blurs these two worlds together. Agnes’s passion with Chopin’s composition and playing the piano becomes a sexual experience for her; “experience(ing) a sexual climax…that nearly drove her insane”(Erdrich, 15). This struggle between Agnes’s status as a nun, someone who is suppose to abstain from any sexual or erotic activities, and her musical passion drives her to leave the covenant for she was “married and unfaithful, in her mind” (Erdrich, 21).”Agnes’s sensual personality leads her to much questioning and doubt within herself, as occurs in her affair with Father Gregory Wekkle. Gregory knows himself and knows his love for Agnes is a good love, for “he tortured himself in his prayers to find evil in his actions, but knew only harmony and righteous peace” (Erdrich, 204). Agnes, on the other hand, looked to her Catholic teachings that tells her that extramarital sex is as mortal sin; however, “her desire was one with a kind regard that fell both sinless and irresistible (Erdrich, 204).” Agnes can’t bring herself to honestly feel bad about what her and Gregory are doing. This questioning places Agnes again between her two conflicting identities, the sensual, erotic identity and the religious, spiritual identity. In an interview, Louise Erdrich comments on this mixing between the sensual, erotic personality and the spiritual realm; “ I believe that the faith is erotic in the sense that our yearning is toward union, toward the absolute. I interpret erotic to be a much more inclusive and embracing word than, say, purely sexual (Bookbrowse).”
Agnes’s physical transformation occurs after the flood when she finds Father Damien dead. She physically changes and swaps her look with Father Damien’s appearance:
Her heavy nightgown was his shroud. His clothing, his cassock, and the small bundle tangled about him, a traveler’s pouch tied underneath all else, Agnes put on in the exact order he had worn them. A small sharp knife in that traveler’s pocket was her barber’s scissors---she trimmed off her hair and then she buried it with him as though, even this pitiable, he was the keeper of her old life (Erdrich, 44). She left her identity of Sister Cecilia and Agnes Dewitt behind and fully took on the character of Father Damien, establishing “some rules to assist in [her] transformation” making sure she was consistent with the male gender (Erdrich, 74). Everything that made her who she was became forgotten, as she fully took on a completely new, male identity. Despite her gender change, Ages realizes that the definitions of male and female are inadequate to describe someone’s true being or identity. As Agnes/Father Damien simultaneously exists as both male and female, “where was the real self? It came to her that both Sister Cecilia and then Agnes were as heavily manufactured of gesture and pose, as was Father Damien. And within this, what sifting of identity was she? What mote? What nothing?” (Erdrich, 76). As she becomes Father Damien, she feels a pang, a loss, an eerie rocking between genders” (Erdrich, 78). Agnes then decides to fully embrace Father Damien as her own identity and...