One of the most important themes in Erdrich’s story is that of female power. The situation at Kozka’s Meats is somewhat like a battle between the sexes, in which Fleur, Pauline, and Fritzie have their own methods of dealing with a brutish, dangerous group of men. Daring and fearless Fleur is the most overt wielder of female power, as Pauline emphasizes throughout the story. Fleur seems to draw this power from ancient Chippewa spirits, medicines, and charms, as well as her sexuality. This may be a reason why the men rape her, to maintain what they perceive as their rightful control over her, because they are sexist and masochistic. In the end, they realize they cannot understand or control her.
The fact that Pauline locks the three men in the meat locker indicates that she too has power, the ability to remain out of sight and then take revenge at the right moment. Unlike Fleur, Pauline is meek and insecure, unable to stand up for herself or for Fleur at the crucial time. Nevertheless, Fleur and Pauline connect, both in Argus and after Fleur leaves Argus. They have two different kinds of female power, one direct and confrontational, the other indirect and secretive. Fritzie, able to control her husband and censor him effectively, illustrates a third kind of female power, which is that of a wife over her husband.
Except for Pete, who is under Fritzie’s strict control to the point where he can talk about nothing but agriculture, the male workers attempt to make a show of their own power. They disdain women, then find themselves outwitted by Fleur and rape her to prove their dominance over her. Erdrich strongly suggests, however, that women have the real power at the same time that they can be abused by men (raped like Fleur, forced to keep out of sight within the walls like Pauline, or overworked like Fritzie). In fact, despite the fact that they are butchers, the men are continually compared to the meat and livestock, while the women are the ones sharpening knives, carrying packets, and boiling heads. The long passage describing Lily’s fight with the sow makes it clear that he is like a pig himself, and the final image of the men frozen in the meat locker suggests that these men have been reduced to the level of carcasses.
Erdrich frequently refers to Fleur’s sexuality and her good looks, beginning with her description of Fleur’s drowning. Fleur’s interactions with the waterman/spirit can be understood, in part, as a metaphor for her sexual development; Misshepeshu is a “love-hungry,” sexual creature connected to Fleur’s own sexual powers. Fleur is characterized as androgynous and fishlike: “her hands large, chapped, muscular, Fleur’s shoulders were broad as beams, her hips fishlike, slippery, narrow.” Fleur’s daring personality, which fascinates and infuriates the men at the butcher shop, exudes from her sexuality, particularly during the night when she is raped. She wears a tight, transparent dress and gives the men a “wolfish” grin when she wins the card game; in response the men try to convince themselves of their power over her by violating her sexually. Fleur returns to Lake Turcot where she has a child and is visited only by Pauline (although, apparently, some say she has relations with white men or Chippewa spirits). Though she has a child, she is not married, and she lives independently, apart from male control. The men who attempt to take possession of her, either by saving her or raping her, die.
Racism and Sexism
The men at Kozka’s Meats resent Fleur because she is capable, strong, beats them at cards (thus spoiling their chief source of pleasure), and because she is a Native American. Tor calls her a “squaw,” or a Native American woman, as an insult, and the men believe that they should be superior to her intellectually and physically simply because of their male gender. Erdrich’s story dramatizes white racism and male sexist beliefs, especially as these apply to Great Plains Native Americans. “Fleur” enacts the racism and sexism common in the 1920s that resulted in severe abuse and injustice.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Louise Erdrich, Published by Gale Group, 2010