Study Guide

American Gods

by Neil Gaiman

American Gods Summary

Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

Shadow’s Story

As American Gods begins, a man called Shadow nears the end of a three-year prison sentence. He is a big man who looks tough enough to get through a sentence without being harassed. He has done his time quietly, waiting to get back to life with his wife, Laura.

In prison, Shadow has taught himself to do coin tricks. At the prompting of his cellmate, Low Key Lyesmith, he also read a book by the Greek historian Herodotus. Low Key was transferred away from prison recently, and he left Shadow his copy of Herodotus and a nickel.

As Shadow’s release approaches, he grows worried that something will go wrong. He calls Laura, who says everything is fine at home. He watches the goings-on in prison carefully, expecting some problem to blow up and hurt him.

A few days before Shadow’s release, he is called to speak with the warden of the prison—a highly unusual occurrence. The warden explains that Laura has died in a car accident. Shadow is going to be released immediately for the funeral. In a daze, Shadow returns to his cell and packs.

Shadow takes a bus and then a plane toward Eagle Point, Indiana. On the way, he thinks about his first date with Laura. She pressured him to taste her drink, a strawberry daiquiri, and seemed thrilled when he took a sip. Shadow thinks, “Laura loved people to taste what she tasted.” His thoughts linger on these sorts of little things, as if he cannot bring himself to think about the huge fact of her death. Still, it is clear he loved her deeply.

On the flight home, Shadow falls asleep and dreams about a man with the head of a buffalo. The man says, “If you are to survive, you must believe.” This confuses Shadow even in the dream, and his confusion remains when he awakes. He stumbles out of the plane to find himself in the wrong airport. The desk agent tells him that his plane was forced to land early because of...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

Shadow’s Story

Shadow returns to his table at the bar, where he is in the middle of dinner. Wednesday joins him and asks him to accept a job as a bodyguard and messenger. When Shadow replies that he is planning to work at his friend Robbie’s gym, Wednesday hands over a newspaper article. It tells the story of the accident that killed Laura—and it turns out that Robbie was driving the car. He is dead, too.

Feeling numb and figuring he has nothing to lose, Shadow agrees to take the job. Wednesday makes him drink three glasses of mead—a kind of honey wine. Shadow finds the drink disgusting, but Wednesday insists that it is traditional to drink mead to seal a deal.

During this conversation, the men are joined at their table by a tall, red-haired man who claims to be a leprechaun. His name is Mad Sweeney, and he performs tricks with large gold coins. Shadow—though he is good at coin tricks himself—cannot figure out how they are done. Sweeney claims he just grabs the coins “out of the air.” They get drunk, and Mad Sweeney challenges Shadow to a fight. Shadow wins, and Mad Sweeney gives him a coin.

The next day, Shadow attends Laura’s funeral. Laura’s best friend and Robbie’s wife, Audrey, also attends the service—but she spits in the corpse’s face. When Shadow demands an explanation, Audrey provides one: “Your wife died with my husband’s [penis] in her mouth, Shadow.”

This news makes Shadow feel even number than before, and he remains silent during his wife’s burial. After everyone else leaves, he stays behind, staring into the grave. Eventually he tosses Mad Sweeney’s gold coin into the open grave.

Shadow cannot bear to sleep at his old apartment without Laura, so he heads toward the Motel America, where Wednesday has promised to get two rooms. On the way, Shadow is attacked and drugged.

Later, Shadow awakes inside a limousine. Across from him sits a fat, pimple-faced young man who demands to know what Wednesday is doing. Shadow says he does not know, but the young man does not believe this. He insists that Shadow give Wednesday a message:

You tell him he’s history. He’s forgotten. He’s old. Tell him that we are the future...He has been consigned to the Dumpster of history while people like me ride our limos down the superhighway of tomorrow.

This speech makes no sense whatsoever to Shadow, but he promises to relay the message anyway. Then he asks to be let go. The young man drops him off not far from his motel.

Chapter 3 Summary

Shadow’s Story

At the Motel America, Shadow gives Wednesday a garbled version of the message from the fat kid in the limo. Wednesday shrugs it off, calling the kid a “little snot," but says he wants to leave town as soon as possible. Shadow replies that he needs to get rid of Laura’s possessions first.

That night, in his motel room, Shadow dreams that he is in a strange museum full of statues of people with mammoth heads or monster genitals. While he stares at the statues, a voice tells him that these are the gods of the past. They are dead because people stopped worshipping them and forgot they ever existed. The voice adds, “Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”

Shadow wakes up terrified from this dream, and it takes him a while to feel sure he is back in real life. As he calms down, he sees a woman sitting on his bed. It is Laura, and although she is sitting up, she looks dead in the darkness. Strangely, she does not scare him nearly as much as the dream did.

Laura says she is still dead, and she cannot explain why she is able to walk around. She seems upset and asks Shadow for a cigarette. This confuses him because she quit before she died. “I did,” she said. “But I’m no longer concerned about the health risks.” Unable to argue with this, Shadow goes down the hall and buys a pack of Virginia Slims from a machine.

Back in his room, Shadow asks Laura if she really had an affair with Robbie. She admits that she did but says she never planned to continue the affair after Shadow got out of prison. The oral sex she gave Robbie in the car was meant as a goodbye, but it ended up causing an accident and killing them both.

During this conversation, the reader learns that Shadow went to prison for Laura’s sake. Neither of them explains precisely what he did for her, but Laura thanks him several times. She also...

(The entire section is 631 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

Shadow’s Story

In the morning, Shadow says he thinks Laura’s visit was a dream. Wednesday calls this “a healthy attitude to have” and asks if Shadow slept with her. Shadow says he did not, but he refuses to say whether he wanted to.

The two men drive to Chicago where Wednesday leads the way to a small apartment inhabited by a family of strange people with Eastern European accents. There are three strange sisters, Zorya Utrennyaya, Zorya Vechernyaya, and Zorya Polunochnaya. The first two sisters spend the day cooking and bickering about fortune telling, but the third sister sleeps the daylight away.

The sisters live with a relative, an old man named Czernobog, who calls Wednesday by the name Votan and speaks longingly about his former job in a slaughterhouse. He informs Shadow that there is an art to killing a cow with a single blow to the head.

Wednesday tries to convince Czernobog to help with a plan nobody explains to Shadow. Czernobog refuses, saying that his brother would help with a plan like that, but his brother is “gone.” Shadow, attempting to be kind, asks if the two brothers were close. Czernobog seems confused by the question. “How could we be?” he says. “We cared about such different things.”

As the afternoon wears on, Czernobog challenges Shadow to a game of checkers. Against Wednesday’s advice, Shadow agrees to a bizarre bet: if Shadow wins, Czernobog helps with Wednesday’s mysterious plan. But if Czernobog wins, he gets to murder Shadow by hitting him in the head with a hammer. In the end, they each win one game, and they agree that Czernobog must fulfill his part of the deal before killing Shadow.

Afterward, Wednesday talks to Shadow in private about the game. “That was good,” he says. “Very, very stupid of you. But good.”

That night, Shadow dreams of dying in an explosion. He awakes to find Zorya Polunochnaya,...

(The entire section is 768 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

Shadow’s Story

After leaving the home of Czernobog and the three sisters, Wednesday takes Shadow to rob a bank. On the way, Wednesday admires Shadow’s silver dollar and tells him to be careful with an important gift like that. He comments that Lady Liberty, on the coin, was originally French—but then he adds that all Americans are originally from somewhere else.

Offhand, Wednesday says that it would be good if it snowed. He tells Shadow to think of snow, and Shadow does so. Eventually, Wednesday says to stop thinking about snow quite so much. Sure enough, the sky is full of clouds, and snow is beginning to fall. Shadow thinks this is a coincidence.

The bank is closed....

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Shadow’s Story

In the place of the gods, Wednesday’s companions take on many forms. Mr. Nancy is still a black man with a moustache—but somehow, at the same time, he is also a man with three arms and a small brown spider. Shadow cannot work out how this is possible.

All of Wednesday’s companions look dramatically different now, and Wednesday himself is a larger, prouder, with one gleaming eye. He is accompanied by a wolf and two ravens. Shadow—though he struggles to believe what is happening—recognizes his employer as Odin, king of the gods in Norse mythology.

Only about ten gods have appeared at this meeting, and Wednesday is disappointed by the poor turnout. They...

(The entire section is 631 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

Shadow’s Story

Shadow walks south for hours in the cold and snow. He hides from cars and helicopters because he worries he might be pursued for the murders of the men who attacked him. He feels numb, not only because of the freezing weather, but also because of the strange, upsetting experiences he has been having. He struggles to figure out what he wants from life, but all he can think is that he wishes “for none of this ever to have happened.” If he could, he would go back to life before prison, when Laura was alive and things were simple.

After a long time, Shadow comes upon the corpse of a dead deer being eaten by a raven. “You shadow man,” the raven says. Shadow knows that the...

(The entire section is 826 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

Shadow’s Story

Shadow goes out to eat with Mr. Ibis, who says that he and Jacquel have been in America for over three thousand years. They were brought by a trading expedition from Ancient Egypt. Shadow is skeptical, but Mr. Ibis says that people have been coming to America forever, from every culture. Scientists can’t piece it together because they don’t allow for the possibility that the impossible could be true.

Mr. Ibis takes Shadow to his house, which turns out to be a funeral home. There, Shadow meets Jacquel in human form. He is in the process of embalming the dead body of a teenage girl. As he works, he eats small slices of her heart, liver, and kidneys, but Shadow is not...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

Shadow’s Story

Shadow and Wednesday drive to Wisconsin. On the way, Shadow asks who the people were who kidnapped him. Wednesday shrugs and says they were “spooks” for the bad guys. Shadow observes that they seemed to think they were the good guys, and Wednesday agrees. Wars, he says, are always fought between people who think they are in the right.

Eventually they stop for dinner, and Wednesday tells Shadow stories about some cons he used to play to make money. Shadow notices that they are all two-man cons and asks if Wednesday used to have a partner. Wednesday says yes, and he seems regretful.

During the meal, Wednesday tries to seduce the waitress, who looks barely...

(The entire section is 622 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

That night, Shadow dreams he is a child kept underground in the dark. When he is finally brought out into the light, he does not know what a knife is. He laughs at the glint of light on it. Then it cuts him open—a human sacrifice.

In the morning, it is terribly cold. Shadow has no winter clothes, no food in the house, and no car. He begins the walk into town to buy clothes and food—but he soon realizes the temperature is dangerously low. He grows so cold he is not sure he can make it all the way to town—or back to the apartment, either.

A police officer, Chad Mulligan, sees Shadow on the road and picks him up. Mulligan lets Shadow warm up in his car and then takes him to a restaurant for breakfast....

(The entire section is 617 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

Shadow's Story

A few days after his trip, Shadow visits Hinzelmann’s store. Every year, he parks an old car on the frozen lake. When the ice begins to melt, the car breaks through and sinks. People make bets about when this will happen, and they buy raffle tickets from Hinzelmann—each ticket tied to a five-minute window of time when the car might fall through the ice. Whoever guesses the closest time wins some money.

Shadow buys raffle tickets for a thirty-minute time window on a morning in March, and afterward, he tells the lake to melt that day, the same way he once told the sky to bring snow. But he doesn’t really believe it will work.  

After chatting with Hinzelmann,...

(The entire section is 652 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Shadow’s Story

Shadow and Wednesday take a three-day drive to the Dakotas in a Winnebago that smells like cat. Everything goes fine until they come upon a roadblock set up to stop them. A car is behind them, in pursuit, so there is nowhere else for them to go.

Wednesday pulls a chalk-like object out of his pocket and writes something in strange runes on the dashboard of the Winnebago. Then he tells Shadow to drive off-road, and Shadow obeys. The Winnebago lurches out of the snowy day and into a strange, starry, nighttime place.

When Shadow takes this change calmly, Wednesday seems flustered. “Why don’t you exclaim that it’s all impossible?” he asks. Shadow thinks this...

(The entire section is 864 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

Shadow’s Story

One morning, Marguerite Olsen knocks on Shadow’s door and invites him to dinner. She does not smile during the conversation, and she emphasizes that “this is a social gesture, not a romantic one,” but Shadow is excited anyway. He has not been invited to a normal social event since before he went to prison.

That afternoon, Wednesday calls to say he is about to attend a meeting with the new gods, who are calling for a treaty. He sounds nervous, and he suggests that he may be killed. Shadow reflects aloud that the pain of death might not hurt a god, but Wednesday dismisses this:

If you move and act in the material world, then the material...

(The entire section is 753 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

Shadow’s Story

Czernobog and Mr. Nancy drive all night, with Shadow in the back of the car, putting distance between themselves and Lakeside. In the morning, they stop and speak to someone who calls himself Alviss, son of Vindalf. Alviss tells Czernobog and Mr. Nancy that he and his fellow dwarves are now willing to fight. None of them took Wednesday seriously before, but they never believed the new gods would kill Odin himself.

Shadow, Czernobog, and Mr. Nancy continue on, driving south. When they stop for burgers and fries, an unidentified person calls the restaurant’s pay phone and offers to give them Wednesday’s body. The speaker offers a truce for the occasion, but Shadow and his...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

Shadow’s Story

On Shadow’s first day hanging in the tree, he feels very uncomfortable. After that, he feels worse. His whole body hurts. He hallucinates flashes of color, and he dreams about a man with an elephant head who hides a mouse in his trunk. “In the trunk,” the elephant man says. He urges Shadow to remember this detail.

After a while, a thunderstorm comes, and rain falls hard on Shadow’s naked body. He is terribly thirsty, so he opens his mouth and lets the storm wet his lips and tongue. He catches some water in the cup of his collarbone and slurps as much as he can. As lightning crashes overhead, he feels giddy with life—more alive than he has ever felt before.

...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

Shadow’s Story

When Shadow wakes up again, he is dressed but barefoot, standing at the top of a stone staircase. Zorya Polunochnaya appears and asks him to show her the silver dollar she gave him. He hands it to her, and she says that it has brought him out of imprisonment twice (once when he was kidnapped by the men in black suits and once, more recently, when he was arrested for breaking parole). Now, she adds, it will light his way into the dark. She lets it float into the air above his head, where it hangs, looking like the moon.

Zorya Polunochnaya offers Shadow two paths. One holds the painful truth, and the other holds comforting lies. Shadow chooses truth, and this seems to make her...

(The entire section is 543 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

Shadow's Story

From all around, gods arrive at “the most important place in the Southwestern United States.” This place is called Rock City, a roadside attraction that was once a holy site for the Cherokee Indians. The site is on a tall hill, and the Cherokee believed that any battling force that held that hill would win a war. This held true for them until the United States took it over and forced them away. It held true for the Union forces in the Civil War. Now, perhaps, it will also hold true for the battle between the old and new gods.

Gods arrive from everywhere, on foot and in every kind of vehicle. The old...

(The entire section is 841 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

Shadow’s Story

Chapter 18 begins in the voice of the narrator, who comments, “None of this can actually be happening.” He suggests that it may be more “comfortable” for readers to think of the story “as a metaphor.” After all, that is all religion is in the first place.

The story resumes with Shadow suspended in a place of nothingness. “Even Nothing cannot last forever,” the narrator says. Whiskey Jack appears amid the nothingness and says Shadow was hard to find. “You didn’t go to any of the places I figured,” he says. He adds that Shadow will not be staying dead: “They are coming for you.”

Shadow protests that he...

(The entire section is 994 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary

Shadow’s Story

Shadow drives Mr. Nancy home to Florida. On the way, Shadow observes that Mr. Nancy looks gray-faced and sick. But no matter what Shadow says, the old god insists that he is not wounded and nothing is wrong. They chat about life, and Mr. Nancy asks if Shadow has learned anything from his experience. After musing on this question for a moment, Shadow replies:

It’s like one of those dreams that changes you. You keep some of the dream forever, and you know things down deep inside yourself, because it happened to you, but when you go looking for details they just kind of slip out of your head.

At Mr. Nancy’s house, Shadow feels...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Chapter 20 Summary

Shadow’s Story

When Shadow arrives in Lakeside—a town he never intended to visit again—he sees the old clunker car still sitting on the ice. But the ice is beginning to melt, and there are pools of water on the surface. Thin Ice signs warn pedestrians not to walk out on the lake, but Shadow does exactly that. He has to know the truth.

After a struggle, Shadow manages to break into the car’s trunk. There he finds what he guessed he would find: the dead body of Alison McGovern, the girl who went missing in the middle of the winter. Shadow thinks of the stories of the other children who were lost. On some deep level, he knows that one child has died this way in Lakeside every...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

Postscript Summary

For a long time after his adventure with the gods, Shadow travels the world. At one point, he visits Reykjavik, in Iceland, where he simply wanders and watches the people. The women there are pale and pretty—the kinds of girls Wednesday would have liked.

One day, Shadow eats a meal in a restaurant, where a waiter asks if he is American. When Shadow says yes, the waiter wishes him a happy Fourth of July. At this stage in his travels, Shadow has forgotten the date, so he is surprised to learn that it is Independence Day. He thanks the waiter and reflects idly that independence is a good thing.

After his meal, Shadow walks around and sits down in a nice spot in some grass....

(The entire section is 438 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear