Culture Tradition And Identity English Literature Essay


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The world is constantly changing and there is a struggle to catch up with the times. Change though, is difficult and some people just cannot seem to let go of the old ways. Culture plays, and presumably always will play, a significant role in the character mould of most people. In Sherman Alexie's short story titled, ''This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona'', culture plays a significant role in the central theme of the story.

The story begins with the introduction of the first main character named Victor, who has recently lost his job and found out that his father lately died from a heart attack. Victor is broke and needs to go to Phoenix, Arizona to recover the remains of his father and pick up the rest of his personal belongings. Alexie depicts Victor as a poor, sheltered Native American living on a reservation. Thomas Builds-the-Fire is the second main character in the story. Thomas is on the whole, a local outcast whom people generally ignore. The author writes, ''Thomas was a storyteller nobody wanted to listen to'' (1). The tone of the story is mostly bleak as poverty seems to permeate all through the events portrayed in the story. The author uses flashbacks and symbolism to weave a very compelling story.

The author uses flashbacks in the story which touch upon the earlier days of the characters of the story. The innocence of childhood, and the bond of friendship between the main characters as they were younger is alluded to using flashbacks, though the characters in the present are portrayed as being wary and resentful, or at the very least, indifferent to each other. As Alexie narrates in the story, when they were ten years old, Victor liked to listen to Thomas' stories, as he said when they went for the Fourth of July celebration, ''Hey. Tell me a story'' (3). Going forward to the present time, Victor is reluctant to accept Thomas' help because he is not friends with Thomas anymore. Alexie writes, ''Victor knew he couldn't be friends with Thomas, even after all that had happened. It was cruel but it was real'' (10).

Alexie uses the setting to show the attachment to culture and tradition. The story is situated on a reservation where there are tribal ties and a sense of community. In the first paragraph, Victor is desperate for help and turns to the most obvious choice on a reservation, ''Victor called on the Tribal Council'' (1). The presence of a Trading Post which acts as the bank, post office and by and large the rallying point for business on the reservation, helps to give an indication of the time the story was written about, which would be the early twentieth century, essentially at a time when Native Americans were beginning to assimilate the norms of other cultures. Alexie's character, Thomas Builds-the-Fire is a storyteller who tries to cope with the passivity, disparagement and isolation that surrounds him and he retreats into his own world where his stories are his companions. Victor, on the other hand, is a bit of an outcast himself, as he is poor, broke, jobless and lonely, as, ''The rest of his family didn't have any use for him at all'' (1).

Tradition and culture stand out as key components in Alexie's story. The author uses irony in the relationship between Victor and Thomas Builds-the-Fire to show the strength of culture and tradition in shaping the personalities of people as well as the formation of the characters. Thomas greets Victor at the Trading Post and expresses condolences for his loss. The mystery of how Thomas learnt about the death of Victor's father is cleared in an ironic manner, as he says, ''I heard it in the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. Also, your mother was just in here crying'' (2). Victor describes Thomas as, ''a storyteller that nobody wanted to listen to. That's like being a dentist in a town where everyone has false teeth'' (2). Alexie uses the dentist metaphor to express a more intricate representation of false origin. Teeth have roots and these roots symbolize origin. Also, teeth are permanent parts of the body, and like origins, they can identify a person even after death. In the story, Victor's father had to be identified using his dental records. Thomas represents both a preserver of traditional practice and an ironic commentator on it. He is deeply ensconced within his tribal traditions, yet still willing and able to critique those traditions and articulate various ironies, like when they met the gymnast on the plane who complained about the government boycotting the Olympics, Thomas said, ''Sounds like you all got a lot in common with Indians'' (5). Thomas and Victor are compelled to undertake a journey together due to financial constraints. On the trip back to the reservation, they drive through Nevada. The journey through Nevada is symbolic as well as ironic. Victor drove for miles without incidence, while all through the trip it was Thomas who was verbal about the absence of life in the expanse of land. On taking over the wheels, from nowhere appears a jackrabbit which he immediately runs over. The irony is in the fact that the person who was most concerned about life was the one who ended the life of the single living animal they encountered during the journey.

The story by Alexie, ''This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona'', is augmented by the use of symbolism. The term Phoenix, in the title of the story, as well as other elements of the story is significant. Phoenix is a city in Arizona, but it is also the name of a bird in Egyptian mythology that rises from its own ashes and is reborn, making it a symbol of regeneration and immortality. (Oxford Dictionary) Storytelling is an important part of Native American traditions. According to critic Katherine Carroll, who writes that, ''Storytelling is the means through which modern Indians integrate their individual and tribal cultures. ...Thomas Builds-the-Fire continually tells stories that come to him through his spiritual connection to tribal culture even though modern tribal members generally ignore these stories'' (3 of 8). Thomas is gifted with storytelling, yet nobody wants to listen to his stories. He is incredibly lonely though gifted with knowledge of the unseen. People do not want to listen to his stories and he is generally avoided.

Victor and Thomas travel to Phoenix to get the remains of Victor's father. Upon their return to the reservation, Victor gives Thomas half of his fathers' ashes. Immediately, Thomas has a plan, and says, ''...I'm going to travel to Spokane Falls one last time and toss these ashes into the water. And your father, he will rise like a salmon, leap over the bridge, over me, and find his way home. It will be beautiful. His teeth will shine like silver, like a rainbow. He will rise, Victor, he will rise'' (11). Victor on the other hand is sceptical of that imagery and has a contrary view. His opinion is more pragmatic as he says, ''I was planning on doing the same thing with my half, ... I thought it'd be like cleaning out the attic or something. Like letting things go after they have stopped having any use'' (11). Thomas believes firmly in regeneration and immortality, and he says, ''Nothing stops cousin, nothing stops'' (11).

Respect is accorded to the dead in all traditions. Victor feels compelled to go to Phoenix, Arizona to bring back his father's remains. Though Victor and his father were not close and he had hardly seen his father, he still feels the compulsion to try to be a good son to his father and give his father a proper burial. As critic Jerome De Nuccio writes, ''Victor is situated at a boundary between cultural reflection and cultural connection, torn between scepticism towards the heritage of traditional spirituality and the desire to retain that heritage as a possible source of plenitude to 'fill up' a world seemingly bereft of continuity'' (7 of 9). Thomas symbolizes hope in time of need for Victor. In the same way, Thomas' help is always available.

However hard people struggle, they never seem to be able to escape their roots. Personalities and characters are shaped by culture and tradition. While change is often difficult, even if exciting, people usually cling to their roots subconsciously. The cultural environment is usually responsible for internal crises faced by people in trying to be true to their roots, and plays a significant part in shaping the identities of people. However much of other cultures and traditions are assimilated, people generally have a part of their roots in them and this does not change even they wanted it to.

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