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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to House Made of Dawn!