I have seen A Nun’s Story several times but have never paid close attention to the characters and plot from a writer’s point of view. I will admit, that I have not read the book by the same title published in 1954 by the author Kathryn Hume. In my research for this post, I learned that due to matters regarding the estate of the author and of Marie Louise Habets, (whom the story is based upon) it is no longer being published. I do intend to try to find a used copy of the book and movie to add to my collections.
In this post however, I will be discussing the movie and there will be spoilers for those who have not seen it. Audrey Hepburn was iconic in this role and earned an Academy nomination for her stunning performance. The characterization of Gabrielle Van Der Mal, who became Sister Luke is what prompted me to discuss this today in the second part of February’s Character series.
Gabrielle is the daughter of a noted surgeon of prewar Belgium and she is clearly blessed with medical talent. She also has a very strong belief in God and wishes to serve him with her medical abilities. As a nun however, her devotion to God and obedience to the rules of convent life must come first. All personal desires must be cast aside. Though Sister Luke is a devoted nun, she constantly has to serve penance for infractions such as talking after 5 bells (the quite time). She does not mindlessly chatter but counsels other sisters or patients who may be in a moment of despair.
This in turn causes her to experience considerable inner conflict. She is torn by her determination to serve God obediently as a nun and to help heal humanity as a nurse.
At one point, a nun of lesser scholarly talents is experiencing dislike of Sister Luke, though Sister Luke has offered to assist her with her studies.( Sounds to me like the other sister was the one with the problem, just my opinion) This shows external conflict. Her mother superior encourages her to try to FAIL her examinations in order to prove to this other sister she has extinguished her prideful nature. The scene of Sister Luke sitting in from the examiners for this oral examination is tremendous. One professor who is a friend of her father’s, makes the statement that he is to call her father the minute she finishes the exam to tell him the results. Sister Luke is literally sweating and almost in tears as she fights the desire to answer the questions to the best of her knowledge.
All Sister Luke wants to do is to go to the Belgium Congo and help native people medically and spiritually. She ends up 4th in a class of 80 (not all at the medical school were nuns). The top three nuns are assigned to the Congo, including the one that disliked Sister Luke, who is in turn assigned to a mental hospital. More conflict ensues as she has to treat people with mental illnesses as opposed to the medical diseases, in which she has better training. There is a brief reprieve for her as she does go to the Congo, but is once again disappointed when she learns she will not be working with the native peoples. She makes small, but effective changes in some of the procedures and though the native people appreciate her success, she is rebuked by a mother superior for not following convent procedures.
The escalation of character conflict is resolved in the denouement. Her father is killed while helping members of the Belgium resistance. Sister Luke finds it impossible to remain neutral, as the nuns have been ordered, and not feel anger towards the German invaders. She makes the life altering decision to leave the convent to continue nursing without the strict rigid rules placed upon her actions. She wants to continue to nurse and be of aid to humanity, but leaves with a beaten spirit, feeling that she has faltered in her devotion to God. This character is on a mental, physical, psychological and theological roller coaster from the beginning of the movie.
Marie Louise Habets, on whom the book was based, did go on to serve as a nurse for the resistance and to work with refugees and other organizations. She continued to be a supporter of other Nuns and held them in high regard throughout her lifetime. Many years later, Audrey Hepburn was injured on a movie set and Marie Louise Habets, became her private nurse during the illness.
As I watched this movie, I thought about the conflicts this character faced and how I could use this as a learning experience in my writing. Though I do not list all of the plot points here, a definite pattern is seen. This type of pattern can be applied to characters in other situations. Think of your favorite characters from your own stories or those of others and see the pattern of conflict which they must face. Sister Luke faced some of the following:
1. Her conviction that she want to serve God as a Nun and help humanity.
2. Her almost natural talent of medical ability.
3. The pressures she confronts of giving up her past and any feeling of self and conforming to the rigid convent rules.
4. She is faces a humiliating task of feeling forced to fail at something she knows she can easily pass for the sake of showing humility and knowing her father will be disappointed in her grade as well as feeling she is almost lying to do so.
5. At one point, she works with an attractive, single though staunchly atheist doctor, which provides conflict as the rules bar her from even speaking to him. Though it is not romantic, a mutual respect forms, which of course is against the rules and once again she must confess and serve penance.
6. She often faces acts of trying to heal and assist others and by doing this she finds herself disobeying rules and having to do penance.
7. The act of having to do the penance causes her disappointment in herself. She sees that she is not a true servant of God. This forms a never-ending cycle of conflict.
8. Finally, to break that cycle she realizes she can continue to love God and serve him in other ways but ultimately not as an obedient nun.
For Part 1 of this series click here!
Watch for Part 3 of this series: Dimensions of Character Development