single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie

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What are some literary elements present in "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"?

"This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" is a story told by Victor Joseph. He tells of his childhood and the events that led up to his graduation from high school. Victor grew up during a time when members of the Indian community on the Spokane Indian Reservation were trying to assimilate into mainstream America. They were encouraged to leave their tribal homes and attend boarding schools in an effort to learn English and white American customs. Victor’s father was one such person who felt this was best for his son so he sent him away. Victor did not want to go, but once he arrived at the school, he struggled with the separation from his family and friends.

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Sherman Alexie employs numerous literary elements in the story. These include dialogue; several types of comparisons, such as metonym, simile, and metaphor; and hyperbole.

In presenting Victor’s story about obtaining the necessary funds to get to Phoenix, Alexie uses the form of dialogue between Victor and the tribal council representative. A metonym is a word that is substituted for another equivalent concept or object. whole. In this telephone conversation, the narrator calls the representative “the council” although Victor is obviously speaking to one person not the entire tribal council.

The narrator also uses a simile to compare Thomas-Builds-a-Fire’s position as a storyteller without an audience. Using “like,” the narrator says that was “like being a dentist in a town where everybody has false teeth.”

A metaphor, a direct comparison between unlike things, is employed to describe the behavior of the white woman sitting next to them on the airplane. In the next sentence, the narrator explains its meaning. “She was busy twisting her body into pretzels. She was flexible.”

Hyperbole is an extreme exaggeration. Within his childhood memory, Victor mentions another Indian boy, “Junior.” Thomas replies, “Which Junior? Everybody on this reservation is named Junior.”

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One motif runs throughout the story "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" and is present in most other Sherman Alexie works. Remember, a motif is something that repeats throughout a work. This could be a theme, an image, a symbol, and so on. In this story, the motif of US injustice toward Native Americans is repeated throughout the work.

As in most Alexie works, there are several comments about the state of Native American affairs. The story opens with Victor losing his job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the (probably) federally funded Tribal Council not giving him the money he needs to bring back his dead father's body. In addition, both Victor and Thomas Builds-the-Fire make comments about the violence and oppression that the American government has inflicted upon the native people. During a flashback to their childhoods, Victor and Thomas are excited about lighting fireworks for the Fourth of July, and Thomas says, "It's strange how us Indians celebrate the Fourth of July. It ain't like it was our independence everybody was fighting for." Then, when Thomas and Victor meet the American gymnast on the airplane and learn that her team could not compete in the 1980 Olympics because the United States protested the games, Thomas tells her, "Sounds like you all got a lot in common with Indians."

This matters because it tells the reader that Thomas and Victor are oppressed people and that the condition of their community is not entirely their fault; the US government has played a major role in their oppression.

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In addition to the elements of plot which are nicely exhibited within "This is What It Mans to Say Phoenix, Arizona," this is a wonderful frame story containing fabulous examples of flashback, tone, and symbolism.  First, there are a total of six flashbacks within the story each of which allude to a more innocent time of friendship for the main characters.  These are embedded in the main frame where both Victor and Thomas are older, more experienced, and less idealistic.  Secondly, this story has a definite bleak tone that can be traced throughout the entire work.  Poverty and alcohol abuse seem to penetrate all of the US and Native American relations.  Even the last flashback where Thomas has been orphaned and spouting stories that no one listens to is an incredibly sad and bleak image.  Finally, the most important element in the story is symbolism.  One must not neglect the importance of the title.  A phoenix is a mythical bird that dies and regenerates from its own ashes again and again.  Phoenix, of course, is also a city in Arizona.  Victor and Thomas are going on a journey to reclaim what is lost.  By going on this journey, Victor attempts to regenerate from the ashes of his own life.  All of these things together make "This is What It Mans to Say Phoenix, Arizona" a treasure trove of literary elements. 

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