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House Made of Dawn

N. Scott Momaday

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


The main protagonist of House Made of Dawn, Abel is a young man who has just returned from armed service in World War II. Details of his most recent past are sparse, except for one account that holds him as being completely fearless and reckless. Abel's recklessness is a symptom of the disillusionment he feels as an American Indian faced with the jarring disparity between reservation life and the lifestyle of the modern American city. One of the most climactic moments in the novel is Abel's largely unexplained murder of the albino. Some characters, such as Father Olguin, see Abel's actions as instinctual. Olguin believes Abel, under the influence of peyote, misinterpreted the albino as some other being that was pure evil. Faced with such a nemesis, it was only natural and instinctual that Abel would kill the albino.

Years later, when Abel is relocated to Los Angeles, Ben observes a similar disconnection in Abel's relations with the rest of society. The reserve that Angela had seen in Abel has grown into a more disillusioned quietness after several years in prison. The Abel we see in Los Angeles is wary and out of his element, rarely allowing others a glimpse into his thoughts. When he finally gives up, losing his job and drinking more and more heavily until it consumes his life, he becomes dissipated and self-loathing. It is in this state that Abel lashes out drunkenly at the Priest of the Sun, very much in the fashion of his youth at Walatowa. Yet Abel's decline in Los Angeles does not hurt anyone other than himself, as he returns to Ben's apartment nearly beaten to death. When Abel returns to Walatowa and fulfills the obligation to his dying grandfather, he is transformed. After his own personal brush with death he returns home only to facilitate the passage of the last member of his family into the afterlife. Abel is now the father figure of his family—in reality, the only one remaining—and his act of participating in the ceremonial run at dawn, as his grandfather had once done in his youth, is an act that signifies a transfer of roles from generation to generation.


Francisco, Abel's grandfather, has one foot in the distant past and one foot dragging through the present day. He has taught Abel everything he knows of the history of the land around him and the history of his people. When Francisco was young, the experiences of his people were far different than they are today: the races still occurred, he could run for miles to hunt a deer, and the women were enchanting and powerful. Now in his old age, Francisco sees that some of the old ways remain, but he is devastated to see that his grandson is so ravaged by the rigors of existence and entrapped by alcoholism—hardships that Francisco himself never experienced as a young man. Francisco is not only sensitive to what the environment has to tell him, but also seems to have the power to know what will happen next. Indeed, in the narrative, Momaday establishes a strong connection—almost psychic—between Francisco and Abel. The night Abel kills the albino, Francisco senses it, and realizes that he soon will be alone again. The vacancy that surrounds Francisco at the end of the first section suggests not only loneliness, but also a finality that eventually becomes apparent when he dies.

Ben Benally

Of all the main characters of House Made of Dawn,a Ben Benally is the most straight talking and transparent. He exhibits a simplicity and pragmatism that makes him a stable and grounded member of the Indians who have relocated in Los Angeles. Ben extends considerable generosity to Abel when he first arrives in Los Angeles, helping him out at work and giving him a place to stay. Ben and Francisco are both lonely—though Ben expresses it more explicitly—and it is therefore no surprise that both men would provide for Abel. Indeed, the first thing Ben mentions in his section of the narrative is the fact that he gave up his only coat so that Abel would be warm on the trip back to Walatowa.

In terms of the novel's structure, the similarity between Ben and Francisco reveal a parallelism between Abel's life in Los Angeles and his life in Walatowa. There are two father figures, Ben and Francisco; no mothers; two people in love with Abel, Milly and Angela; and two spiritual figures, the Priest of the Sun and Father Olguin. Ben, like Francisco, is left behind by Abel, but with a promise of return—to sing the song "House Made of Dawn" together.

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