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Pauline Prepares the Dead

Updated on August 2, 2014

Who is the Harbinger of Death

In an unspoken competition with Fleur, the character of Pauline in Louise Eldrich’s Tracks has no hope of competing as she will always be the invisible, scrawny, unattractive girl in the shade of Fleur’s exciting charisma. As Pauline first begins to narrate, she describes herself as “fifteen, alone, and so poor-looking I was invisible to most customers and to the men in the shop…I blended into the stained brown walls, a skinny big-nosed girl with staring eyes” (15-16). Where Pauline was skinny and invisible, Fleur is described not so much as attractive, but charismatic. She has an “effect” (16) on men that makes them “curious about her habits” (16). She is kind to the child Russell, has “glossy” (18) black hair, white teeth, and gambles audaciously with the men. As if being a half-breed in the Indian community hasn’t set her apart enough, in her eyes, Pauline views Fleur jealously as a rival and that rivalry leads Pauline to see Fleur as larger than life, mystical, and an evil creature of death. To be able to compete with Fleur, Pauline must embrace death. She is attracted to the job of preparing the dead because it brings her closer to Fleur, it gives her a new role in the community, and it gives her a modicum of god-like control as comforter or Grim Reaper. Pauline’s association with death is symbolic of the owl in Native American culture: she is the harbinger of doom.

Throughout the book, Pauline gives examples of Fleur’s ability to supernaturally kill others. Pauline tells of two near death incidents where Fleur almost drowned, but was rescued. As a child, her two rescuers died mysteriously after saving her. As a teen, the man who found her, George Many Waters, died in his bathtub years after Fleur apparently cursed him saying he would “take my place” (11). In another incident, after Fleur wins all of the money in a gambling game, the men plan to do her harm. Lily grabs her first, but she pushes him and the pig acts as an obstacle to Lily, attacking him. Lily and Dutch chase Fleur to the smokehouse and it is unclear if they successfully rape her or just attempt to. According to Pauline, Fleur became a tornado, forcing the men to hide in the giant meat freezer and days later, the men were found, Lily dead and Dutch almost dead. In this scene, although Pauline first mentions that it was Russell who locked the men in the freezer, she later reveals it was her.

Competition vs. Protection

This first action of protecting Fleur, conscious or unconscious may have been the catalyst setting her off the deep end, taking her from jealously to obsession and mental illness. Almost like a serial killer’s first kill whets his appetite for more murder, Pauline’s protecting Fleur opens a door into Pauline’s psyche. She has power, something she never had before. In locking the men in, Pauline becomes like Fleur, someone who is able to cause death to men who wrong her. Her action haunts her and she has nightmares for a while and dreams obsessively of Fleur. Pauline becomes as “evil” as Fleur as she realizes “at the Judgment, it would be my soul sacrificed, my poor body turned on the devil’s wheel…despite the future, I was condemned to suffer in this life also” (66). Pauline views the events as if they happened to her, and not Fleur. “My shrieks poured from her mouth and my blood from her wounds” (66). Pauline is unable to distinguish who is living certain moments as she vicariously lives through Fleur and then others. Pauline is also not able to rest until she is witness to a second death.

Pauline’s guilt encourages her to move out of her aunt’s home when her aunt nurses Dutch back to health and marries him. Pauline moves in with Bernadette Morrissey, Bernadette’s brother Napoleon and two daughters, Sophie and Philomena. In helping Bernadette around the house and taking care of the chores that the girls find too distasteful, Pauline accompanies Bernadette to Mary Pepewas house to care for the sick and dying girl, taking on the widow’s role of caretaker of the dying and midwife to the pregnant. At her age, she should be married (64), but since that was an unlikely possibility, becoming a widow gives her status, making her someone who is needed by the community to do the tasks no one wants to see to, like taking care of the dying and helping give birth. As the rest of the family goes to sleep, Pauline is keeping watch. Mary struggles to breathe and is compared to a boat about to leave the shore. Pauline thinks she has the power to “[draw] her back to shore, but I saw clearly that she wanted to be gone. That is why I put my fingers in the air between us, and I cut where the rope was frayed down to string” (68). In this instance, Pauline both becomes a widow woman and gains some control. In her mind, she now has control over life and death and as she comforts the dying, it is her actions which choose if that person is comforted or if that person is greeted by the Grim Reaper or some twisted angel of death.

Her new role in the community and her imagined control over life and death set her up symbolically as the owl, Kokoko, the harbinger of doom (67). After Mary dies, Pauline feels at rest and somehow ends up in a tree, like the owl, laughing into the leaves at how light she felt. As she sees the others somber by the death, she sees them as “stupid and small” (68) and realizes that “I alone, watching, filled with breath, knew death as a form of grace” (68). This second death prepares Pauline for her role as death’s partner. She dresses like a nun, becomes “devious and holy” (69), works harder than the widows, and “enter[s] each house where death was about to come, and then made death welcome” (69), handling death so much, that she stopped bathing between visits, but “touched others with the same hands, passed death on” (69). All of these deaths, these visits, gave Pauline “peace” (69).

Attempts of Peace

Pauline’s only measure of peace seems to come from her association with death. Working in Bernadette’s home, she is scorned by the daughters, teased by Napoleon and when she sees herself, she grows no prettier and “acquire[s] no softening grace in my features” (71). She is still invisible and unable to control the people around her. The tales she spreads seem to have minimal affect on those she shares them with. She has sex with Napoleon for unknown reasons, aids Bernadette, even going out on her own, and becomes the person in black that “when people saw me walking down the road, they wondered who was being taken, man, woman, or child” (75). She becomes the owl, the harbinger of doom. And as she falls into this role, she assumes that “death would pass over just as men did, and I would live a long, strict life” (75).

In several ways, she seems to be torturing herself for the first death, although it is not mentioned again. As she watches others, her obsession with Fleur begins again and since she is now her equal in death, she covets Eli, sex, the relationship Eli and Fleur share. She vicariously lives through Eli and Fleur’s sexual encounters and giving a love potion to Eli, causes the man to stray to Sophie. In that encounter, Pauline also puts herself in the center, believing that she is controlling the copulations of the couple. Even when Sophie gets beaten by Bernadette, Pauline “felt it, too, the way I’d absorbed the pleasure at the slough, the way I felt everything that happened to Fleur” (86). Her skewed sense of empathy shows another prism of her descent into mental illness.

The Sanitarium Inside The Convent

An unwanted pregnancy, failed abortive attempts, and giving up her daughter Marie to Bernadette cause further feelings of disassociation and make her mental disorder worse. Her next series of choices she makes cause her to think that she will become visible, important and godlike. She joins a convent, believing that she has a connection to her next obsession, the Virgin Mary. In the convent, her delusions bring her a visit in the form of God, whose conversation convinces her that she is a white orphan girl and not a half-breed. She finds forgiveness, lies about her skin color, pays penance, and in her conversations with her hallucinations, feels that God is telling her to “fetch more amusement and mockery, and although their treatment of her as an annoying sibling could be seen by some as affectionate, and Fleur’s care of her in feeding her and bathing her at her most dirtiest could be seen as compassionate, Pauline’s mindset is far enough gone that every behavior towards her is suspect. She wants to suffer like Christ and so she invites their teasing, turning it into scorn, feeling comfort in her persecuted status. “I had to bear such torment” (143), she says of Nanapush’s teasing comments about her potato sack underwear, her unwashed state, and her self-denial in using the bathroom.

Although, they tease Pauline, it does seem they care for her in some way, but she is deaf and blind to it. However, in her status as future nun, Pauline sees herself as a creature that rises above the world. She believes she has the control to heal and bring death. And in the scene with Fleur’s baby, Pauline believes she can bring forth a miracle and plunges her hands into a boiling cauldron of water, causing her newfound belief that “Christ was weak” (192), and putting herself into the shoes of a god, setting herself up as the greatest martyr there was and in her delusions, she fights the Devil, agreeing to meet him in the desert just as Christ faced his temptations in the desert. In a convoluted chapter about taking Nanapush’s boat out on Lake Matchimanito, Pauline believes the lake is her desert and the demon of the lake is her demon to fight. It is unclear how and why Napoleon appears and why Pauline is naked. It is possible, she unclothed in her insanity, disrobing randomly as mentally ill people sometimes do. It is possible, Napoleon saw her naked and intended to have sex with her and the first physical contact sent her delusional mind over the edge. In a battle with Napoleon, Pauline visualizes he is Satan or the lake monster and fights him, strangling him with her rosary. This is the final act of her control, making her a “god” who has the power to give life or take life away and in this instance; she takes life away, becoming the Grim Reaper, or Kokoko, the harbinger of Napoleon’s doom. Rolling around in the earth, dirt, animal scat, and leaves, she sees herself “like Christ” (203) and this final death leaves her “sanctified, recovered” (204) and ready to take her vows so that she can “add their souls to those I have numbered” (205).

A Reason To Be

It is a long road to travel when mental illness is the vehicle. I’m certain Fleur had no idea of the power she had over Pauline and the competition that Pauline would feel was ever present between the two women. This contention caused a twisted obsession and love/hate relationship that Pauline had with Fleur. In trying to be like Fleur, Pauline had to embrace death because she believed Fleur had some supernatural hold over peoples’ lives. In taking the job of preparing the dead, Pauline becomes more like Fleur, she becomes noticed by the community who will know that she is there to welcome others to death, and she gains control over life and death, becoming a god. Preparing the dead gives Pauline a raison d’être, a purpose, a life’s mission.

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