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House Made of Dawn

N. Scott Momaday

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Prologue–The Longhair (Walatowa, Cañon de San Diego, 1945)

Themes

The Expression of Native American Culture Through Storytelling

Many historical and cultural stories are told by the different priests in House Made of Dawn. The character of the Priest of the Sun sermonizes many of the Kiowa legends Momaday has addressed in his other works, such as The Way to Rainy Mountain. Momaday had learned these stories as a child, and in this novel the method of transmission is the same—orally—though now in the context of a sermon. Similarly, the Priest of the Sun had learned the stories from his grandmother, who was "a storyteller, she knew her way around words. She never learned to read or write…." The priest of the sun goes on to say that the difference in language between the two cultures, Native American and the "white man's world," is the value placed in words. In the white man's world there are words by the millions, on pamphlets, papers, receipts, advertising, and so on. For his grandmother, on the other hand, the word was a sacred object, attached to a story close to her thoughts and her experience. Words could never be sold, and she would never throw her words away. In this context of the sacredness of just a few meaningful words, Abel's mysterious reserve and quietness make sense.

The Tempo of Life

In the third section, "The Night Chanter," Ben Benally dwells on the conflict between the pace of life in a more rural setting of the reservation—such as Walatowa or the Wild Ruins where he grew up—and city life as a factory worker in Los Angeles. Life in L.A. is "all around you and you can't get a hold of it because it's going on too fast…." There is no such thing as taking it easy or having a festival day in Los Angeles—the only way of life is working twelve hours a day and than going straight to the bar and drinking to unwind. The aim of all this work is to get a piece of something: a house, a car, anything. Back at home on the reservation, however, a completely different pace and set of goals dominates. When Abel cuts wood in the novel's opening section, he takes his time, coming back three days later to finish his job. On the reservation, however, that is accepted, as there is a feast and ceremonies that take precedence in the meantime. Material goods, which take such precedence in the modern society of L.A., can be traded for or worked out in different transactions on the reservation. Whereas Ben is able to reconcile these two vastly different paces of lifestyle in the city and reservation, he sees that Abel is unwilling or unable to do so, and likely never will.

Historical and Personal Relationships with Nature

When Francisco listens to the fields and sounds around him, what he hears often foreshadows an event relating to Abel. When Abel comes into town Francisco hears the low whine of the tires coming through the fields to the wagon road. Likewise, several nights before Abel's murder of the albino Francisco hears "whispers [rising] up among the rows of corn" and cannot put his finger on what the whispers mean until later, when he becomes conscious of an "alien presence close at hand." Three days later, a sequence of events play themselves out, resulting in the death of the albino and Abel's arrest, and Francisco realizes, also out among nature in the fields, that he is alone again.

Motifs

Priests

Throughout the novel Momaday creates parallel between the locations of Walatowa and Los Angeles. One strong parallel element, like the one between Angela and Milly, is the doubling of the priests or spiritual leaders. Father Olguin and Tosamah, the Priest of the Sun, both tell stories of the past, act as examples to follow, and help those around them. They act as the center of social activity from which events in the novel spiral forth.

Flashbacks

A recurrent literary device Momaday uses is the flashback. In the novel, flashbacks are often triggered by a place or an object in the landscape, such as when Francisco passes the place called Seytokwa in the novel's first section, "The Longhair." Passing the place causes Francisco to remember the races held there when he was young. Another similar flashback occurs for Abel after he sees an eagle fly overhead and remembers the Eagle Watchers Society he became a part of when he was young. These pervasive flashbacks highlight the inextricable connection between past and present, and emphasize the repetition and handing down of events and traditions through the generations.

Running

The act of running has a significant role in the novel. Both the first and last scenes of the novel portray Abel running the race that Francisco remembers running when he was young. Furthermore, during the festival in Walatowa, clowns run after the bull, and Abel also sees some men run past him while he is hiding in a ditch by the beach in Los Angeles. Descriptions of running are also central to two coming of age events for both Francisco and Abel—Francisco's bear hunt and Abel's return from his eagle hunt. In repeating his grandfather's action of running, Abel signals his recognition of his status as the new torchbearer of his ancestors' traditions, now that his grandfather, mother, and brother have all passed away.

Symbols

The Moon

The moon often lends its light in a pragmatic but enchanted way in the novel. It symbolizes a sinister luck: the smelt fish throw themselves on the beach in the light of the moon, allowing any fisherman to pick them up with his hands; furthermore, the light of the moon allows the entire community to work all night on the farm, as Francisco recalls. Like the fish, the geese Abel and Vidal hunt are distracted by the moon, allowing Abel to successfully shoot one of the birds

Rain

The rain in various scenes of House Made of Dawn symbolizes a form of convergence that results in dramatic events. It rains when Abel and Angela first make love, it rains after Francisco dies, and when Abel leaves Los Angeles to return to Walatowa. Abel's murder of the Albino—arguably the climax of the novel—happens during a torrential rain that spreads the albino's blood all over the surrounding earth.

The Eagle

One of Abel's most notable childhood experiences was his membership in the Eagle Watchers Society. He sees an eagle carry a snake across the sky, and after telling the leader of the society of what he has seen he is allowed to go with the society on an eagle hunt. After he captures a magnificent eagle and another member captures a second eagle, they let one of the birds go and watch it fly off. As Abel watches the eagle disappear, he is filled with longing, as for him the eagle is symbolic of an unknown form of freedom.

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