single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie
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Describe the basic contrasts between the characters of Victor and Thomas in "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona."

In the short story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Sherman Alexie, there are several basic and obvious contrasts between Victor and Thomas, such as that Victor has friends on the reservation while Thomas is isolated because of his strangeness in always telling stories that no one listens to. They both have different types of relationships with Victor's father. Thomas is bolder in talking to strangers. Victor is a more confident driver.

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In the short story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Sherman Alexie, a Native American named Victor who lives on a reservation near Spokane, Washington finds out that his father has died and has to go to Phoenix, Arizona to get his father's ashes and his old pickup truck. When the tribal council does not give Victor all the money he needs, his old friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire agrees to give him the rest of the money if Victor takes him along.

As they fly to Arizona, retrieve the ashes and vehicle, and drive back, they bond to an extent. However, when they return to the reservation, they realize that since Thomas is ostracized by everyone, they cannot continue to be friends. As a farewell gesture, though, Victor gives Thomas some of his father's ashes.

To be able to contrast the characters of Victor and Thomas, we have to find out what the story says about them. At the beginning of the story, Victor is broke. He used to have a job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), but he lost it. When he hears of his father's death, he hasn't seen him for years. His mother is also poor, and "the rest of his family didn't have any use at all for him." Unlike Thomas, though, Victor has friends. Victor and Thomas were friends when they were ten years old, but by the time they were fifteen, they had stopped being friends. Once they got into a fight, and Victor beat up Thomas badly.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire is isolated on the reservation. Everyone avoids him because he is peculiar. He tells stories that no one will listen to. In spite of being ostracized, he is actually very intelligent. He is bold, too, being willing to talk to the white woman gymnast on the plane. He once saved Victor from a wasp's nest. He also had a special relationship with Victor's father, who once found him in Spokane, fed him, and brought him home.

We can now list some of the contrasts between these two characters. Victor has friends on the reservation, being considered more "normal," whereas Thomas is isolated, because he is considered strange for telling his stories. Victor has a blood relationship with his father, while Thomas's relationship with Victor's father exists because of a kindness done to him. Victor's normality causes him to be reticent to talk to people such as the white woman on the plane, but Thomas's intelligence and uniqueness make him bold, so he is willing to strike up a conversation. Victor is a confident driver, but Thomas drives only a short time, killing a jackrabbit on the road, and then Victor drives the rest of the way.

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