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Free Study Guide for House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday-Summary
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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS

Momaday plots House Made of Dawn on a series of flashbacks. Francisco lives half in the present and half in the past until his old age when he begins to live almost exclusively in the past. Abel also lives with one foot in both worlds and so do the other characters such as Benally, Tosamah, and Father Olguin. The novelís plot thus underlines the theme of the presence of the past in peopleís everyday lives. The past pushes them through their present lives and pulls them back to the values of wholeness and unity between people and the land.

THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS

House Made of Dawn comes back again and again to the beauty of the old customs of Native Americans and their viability for the newest generation. The old customs are tied to the rhythms of the land, a fact which receives is best image in the last one of the novel. This image is of the mesa which serves as a sort of platform for the play of the sun as it makes its way from dawn through the day. Before the end of the novel, Momaday prepares the reader to see its significance when he has Francisco remember the time he took Abel and Vidal to the mesa and told them to memorize it like they knew their own hands. He reminded them in slow and careful words of all the times of the Native calendar which are marked on the rock by the movement of the sun. It signals when harvest should be performed, when ceremonies conducted, and when planting should be done. In the last scene of the novel, Abel goes to the mesa to run with the old men runners in celebration of the seventh dawn, the dawn in which his grandfather died. As the sun breaks over the surface of the mesa rock, the runners take off as one and Abel behind them. He is out of step with them but recognizes the need to keep going. In this image, Momaday captures both Themes of this novel the importance of maintaining a connection to Native customs however revised they will be in the new generation and the difficulty with which the younger generation will make the transition from the reservation to the European-American dominated world of war and cities.


Momadayís novel is a tragic novel. It recognizes the passing of old ways and the imposition of newer and less noble ways in their place. Yet it is not a pessimistic novel. Momaday gives his readers characters who have found ways to make it in the new world while retaining a connection to their cultural heritage. Abel, Benally, and Tosamah each represents a different way of making it in the modern world as Native men.

Abel is the most damaged of the three. In part, he began wounded when his father abandoned the family and left Abel to feel like a foreigner among his people. He never even knew his fatherís tribal affiliation. Next, Abelís mother and then is elder brother Vidal died. Abel seems to have had a sad childhood raised by his kindly by very silent grandfather and consoled by the comic but nurturing Fat Josie. Abel represents the Native American men who fought in the second World War for a country that had waged war and genocide on his own people. Fighting in the war, Abel retained the status of an outsider. His fellow soldiers called him "chief," a term of derision. They regarded him as an alien, inscrutable in his every action. Abel must have felt inordinately alone when he went to war never enjoying the camaraderie that is the consolation of so many soldiers. He responded to his isolation and estrangement with alcoholism. He came home from the war not as a proud soldier having served his country well, but as a drunk who shames his grandfather into tears.

The novel in no way makes it clear what its climax--Abelís murder of the albino--has to do with this theme of alienation and estrangement among the newer generation. Situated in the flow of narrative as it is, just after the description of the spectacle of the feast of Santiago when the albino plays the figure of Santiago who sacrifices the rooster, beating Abel with it corpse, it seems like an extension of that pageant. Abel seems to have killed his enemy as a natural act of war. However, the act was clearly not condoned by his community. His grandfather is forced to stay at home the next day instead of participating as he has done every year of his life in the feast of the harvest. Abelís killing of the eagle seems to be a similar act. It is clearly outside the parameters of the usual eagle hunt to catch an eagle and then kill it. These two acts demonstrate Abelís distorted thoughts. He is participating in his cultureís rituals, but distorting them to violence and death. The last image of Abel provides the reader with some hope. Running with the old men to celebrate the dawn is a positive image, an image of hope for Abelís reintegration into tribal life on the reservation.

The tragic tone of the novel continues with the portraiture of Benally and Tosamah. Benally is a gentle man who has found it necessary to adopt a new way of thinking in order to survive in the city. Still, he has retained his cultural values. He practices solidarity with Abel as he tries to help Abel adjust. He prays and participates in present-generation versions of old rituals. Tosamah is also a tragic figure, but tragi-comic. He is a charlatan who also does some things with true feeling. In the mix that is these two characters, Momaday paints the picture of modern Native American manhood, women being peripheral to Momadayís vision.

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