Louise Erdrich

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What are some themes from Louis Erdrich's story "The Shawl"?

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The primary theme of "The Shawl" is the theme of inheritance. This is not to speak of some physical inheritance like money or property but rather of the trauma and emotions that we inherit from the people that affect our lives at an early age and that we, for better or for worse, pass on to those who come after.

"The Shawl" revolves around an unnamed boy who becomes an unnamed man. In his childhood, he is left with his father when his mother goes away with his sister to be with her true lover. He attempts run after the wagon but cannot reach it. Afterward, the husband finds that wolves attacked the wagon after it was out of sight and that the boy's sister was given as bait to the wolves so that the rest of the family could get away.

This ruins the boy's emotional health. He grows up to be an alcoholic, and he severely abuses his three children. When he gets into a fight with his oldest son, he finally comes to terms with the fact that he has inflicted his trauma onto his children. We can assume however, by the wizened and mature tone of the narrator who is the man's oldest son, that this pattern will not continue in this family.

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One recurring theme in “The Shawl” is that of loss. When Aanakwad leaves her husband for another man, she takes her daughter with her and leaves behind her son. She also takes with her the baby that she had with the other man. Both father and son are devastated by Aanakwad’s departure. In fact, the little boy literally runs after the wagon carrying his mother and sister. Later on, the little boy is told about his sister’s death—how Aanakwad, his mother, had thrown the girl to the wolves on the day of their departure. The little boy “went still,” perhaps from the thought of their own mother doing something like that to his sister. At this point, it is stated that “he knew that this broken place inside him would not be mended, except by some terrible means.”

As the story goes, the little boy grows up to become a father of three children, two boys and a girl. Again the little boy, now a father, experiences loss through the death of his wife. He is devastated by this loss and resorts to “heavy continuous drinking.” He is unable to take good care of his children because of his drunkenness. He finally stops drinking after a fight with his son (the narrator of the story at this point), when his son wipes his bloodied face with an “old-fashioned woman's blanket-shawl,” which is actually his sister’s shawl (left behind by the wolves and collected by his father to be safely kept in their house). This must have been a wake-up call for the narrator’s father.

The story also brings to light problems that ail American Indian communities. Problems such as alcoholism and child neglect, even abuse, are seen within the narrator’s family. Also, notice that the narrator states that “Most people understand how it was. Our story isn't uncommon.” This means that the story of their life is quite common in American Indian families.

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One of the themes in "The Shawl" is trauma and how traumatic experiences can be transferred and translated, in family life, from one generation to the next. The narrator relates a story about his father. His father's mother fell in love with another man. Eventually, she left and took her daughter with her. As the wagon left, the boy (father) chased the wagon until he could not run anymore. This was such a traumatic experience that it changed him: 

He watched the back of the wagon and the tiny figures of his mother and sister disappear, and something failed in him. Something broke. At that moment he truly did not care if he was alive or dead. 

What made this worse was that the boy discovered that his sister had later been killed by wolves. The boy kept the shawl his entire life. Therefore, he held onto the memory but also held on to the pain, to that trauma. 

The boy became a husband and father himself, father to the narrator of this story. When the now father began to drink, the narrator and his siblings began to view their father as someone to be avoided. The narrator fights his father when he feels strong enough to do so. This marks a change in his father's behavior. Finally, the narrator convinces the father that he should burn the shawl. This shows that the father might have finally accepted the fact that it would be wise to move beyond, or forgive, the trauma of his childhood. The narrator also suggests that his father's sister might have sacrificed herself (rather than the mother having pushed her to the wolves). 

Considering that the sister might have sacrificed herself, the narrator suggests a reconsideration of the past, a rewriting of the past. There is the sense that this is a way to make a tragedy at least somewhat positive (the sister's sacrifice) but it also speaks to a more general, unstated theme in the story which is about the plight of American Indians and their struggles to remember the trauma of their past (relative to European colonialism and the conflicts therein) but also to move past it and establish a better future. 

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