single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie
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How is the the title "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" significant to the story?

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The title is significant because, like the mythological creature the city is named for, Victor experiences rebirth through his journey to deal with his father's ashes.

A phoenix bursts into flame at the end of its life and is reborn again. It grows, matures, changes, and then burns out so...

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The title is significant because, like the mythological creature the city is named for, Victor experiences rebirth through his journey to deal with his father's ashes.

A phoenix bursts into flame at the end of its life and is reborn again. It grows, matures, changes, and then burns out so that it can be reborn. This is where the name of the city comes from and it is this idea of rebirth that Alexie is treating in the story. Just as a phoenix has to change and be set on fire in order to be reborn from the ashes, so too does Victor have to change, with the help of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, as they travel to get Victor's father's ashes. This transformation, like that of the phoenix, allows Victor to achieve a kind of spiritual rebirth.

It wouldn't have been possible for Victor to change as he did without the help of Thomas. Though he thinks he only needs Thomas's money at first, he comes to realize that he needs the man's wisdom and compassion. Alexie writes, "He knew he needed more to make it to Phoenix and back. He knew he needed Thomas Builds-the-Fire." Victor comes to find that he needs Thomas more than he thought.

Since they're traveling to Phoenix, Arizona, and then home again in the story, Phoenix itself is the setting and midpoint of the journey of Victor's rebirth. Understanding his father and himself by traveling to Phoenix and the act of reclaiming the ashes of his past is a large part of why the title is significant.

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The title of the story is actually quite meaningful. "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Sherman Alexie is a story about the importance of family, self-discovery, identity and, ultimately, a story about change and rebirth. In it, a man named Victor goes to Phoenix, Arizona, to reclaim his father's ashes. However, Victor also goes on a journey of self-discovery and transforms into a new and better version of himself.

With the help of a man named Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who represents Native American tradition, Victor—who, in contrast represents modern Native American culture—reconnects with his father and with his past and origin. Just like a phoenix is reborn by rising from its ashes, so too is Victor reborn from the ashes of his father, whose spirit lives on in his son. Thus, the title of the story is relevant as it represents the theme of rebirth and reawakening.

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In addition to the symbolism of the phoenix mentioned above, I would add the importance of the title's suggestion that the meaning of "Phoenix, Arizona" is different than what one might assume.

We see this same idea with both Victor and Thomas, both in relation to each other and toward the other familial relationships in each of their lives. The perceptions and impressions each of these characters holds about each other and other individuals in their lives proves to be incomplete and in many ways inaccurate. Through their conversation during their journey to and from Arizona, Victor and Thomas have a chance to explore those misconceptions, and although they are not able to fully repair their relationships, we sense they are beginning to see their world from one another's perspective. We sense that the "meaning" of such things that have been taken for granted are finally beginning to change.

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