single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie
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What do the fire and ash represent in the story?

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The city of Phoenix, Arizona is named after the ancient mythical bird, a symbol of regeneration which is reborn again and again from the ashes of its previous incarnation. Victor travels to Phoenix with Thomas Builds-the-Fire to reclaim his father's ashes. In doing so, he is also reclaiming a part...

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The city of Phoenix, Arizona is named after the ancient mythical bird, a symbol of regeneration which is reborn again and again from the ashes of its previous incarnation. Victor travels to Phoenix with Thomas Builds-the-Fire to reclaim his father's ashes. In doing so, he is also reclaiming a part of his past. In that sense, one could say that he is experiencing a Phoenix-like rebirth of his own.

The appropriately-named Thomas Builds-the-Fire acts as a catalyst in this regard. It is he, with his vivid, colorful imagination—the imagination of one of life's inveterate story-tellers—who kindles Victor's own imagination and encourages him to follow his dreams. Fire isn't just a traditional symbol of destruction, but also one of creation. And it is Thomas's "fire" which creates one fascinating story after another and which eventually inspires Victor to embark upon his quest.

Fire is also embodied in the sun, which rises symbolically just as Victor and Thomas return home after their long journey. This new dawn is itself like a phoenix and heralds the opening of a new chapter in Victor's life: one that will be attended by greater understanding and self-awareness. In that sense, a phoenix will have arisen from the ashes of Victor's father.

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