Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 843

Leslie Marmon Silko’s work is about the importance of stories, how they serve to orient one in the world and how they keep people and cultures alive. Her later work Storyteller (1981) is an attempt to weave together legends from Laguna mythology and lore, stories told by her family, her...

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Leslie Marmon Silko’s work is about the importance of stories, how they serve to orient one in the world and how they keep people and cultures alive. Her later work Storyteller (1981) is an attempt to weave together legends from Laguna mythology and lore, stories told by her family, her own short stories and poems, and her father’s photographs of the Laguna area. The themes that are developed in Ceremony regarding story and ritual are taken up in a different way in the labyrinthine and copious Almanac of the Dead (1991). In all of her work, however, Silko sees herself continuing what is essentially an oral tradition via the written word. The line breaks and spacing in Storyteller and in the verse portions of Ceremony are attempts to convey the pauses and stops in oral discourse, which is the way she heard these stories originally. Silko believes that stories are the lifeblood of a culture and can effect great changes in the world.

Ceremony is a multidimensional work in both form and content. The reader is immediately struck by the “interruptions” in the story. The opening pages of the novel are not prose, but verse, and speak of the mythological figure Thought-Woman “sitting in her room and whatever she thinks about appears.” This figure, linked in the novel with the character Ts’eh, is associated with Grandmother Spider, a prominent figure in Laguna mythology; she is, in fact, the Creatrix herself. Versions of Laguna tales are woven into the narrative throughout the novel and parallel the story that Tayo is living. Silko’s point is to show that which Tayo learns at the end of his ceremony, that “all the stories fit together—the old stories, the war stories, their stories—to become the story that was still being told.”

Tayo is not so much finding himself as he is finding his place in the world. Native American writers and critics are careful to point out that finding one’s place is a primary element of their culture and literature. Tayo is not the only sick one in this novel; Laguna society and the earth itself are out of sorts. Emo graphically depicts the attitude of the society when he remarks, “Look what is here for us, Look. Here’s the Indians’ mother earth! Old dried-up thing!” Tayo knows that Emo is wrong, but he feels disconnected from the earth as well. In fact Tayo blames himself for the drought that has made the earth an “old dried-up thing.” He needs a ceremony that will restore his sense of place.

Women play a vital role in Tayo’s ceremony. The encounter with The Night Swan foreshadows other ritualized encounters with women. Unlike his war buddies, who see women as conquests of war, Tayo experiences love and sex with the mysterious mountain woman, Ts’eh. Ts’eh is no doubt a shortened form of Ts’its’tsi’nako, or Thought-Woman, who begins the novel by thinking of a story. She appears in various forms but is always associated with Mount Taylor, which in Laguna is Tse’pina or Woman Veiled in Rain Clouds. She is the spirit of Mount Taylor and an extension of the earth itself. She is the feminine principle embodied and, thus, is Yellow Woman, Corn Woman, and other female figures from Laguna mythology. When Tayo makes love to these different expressions of Thought-Woman, he feels himself connected once again to a fertile and nurturing earth. He loses himself in the unity of all life and is no longer an invisible outcast; he has a place.

It is easy to see the importance of women in this novel, but an equal significance is given to language. In fact, the image of the web, Spider-Woman’s web, appears throughout the novel. The spinning of the web is the spinning of tales, and these tales, if understood in the appropriate way, can effect healing for individuals, society, and the earth. On the first page of the novel, the spider is thinking of a story, and the reader is told the story she is thinking. The stories are “all we have to fight off illness and death.” The stories connect everything in a web that is paradoxically both strong and fragile. When Ku’oosh first comes to offer a ceremony for Tayo, he remarks, “But you know, grandson, this world is fragile.” The reader is informed that the word “fragile” is “filled with the intricacies of a continuing process” and “with a strength inherent in spider webs.” Tayo realizes that even one person, acting inappropriately, can tear away the delicate web and injure the world. These descriptions of storytelling as a web of words offer a profound explanation of the nature of language in oral cultures. Silko, in writing the novel, is continuing to spin the web.

Few Native American writers have so provocatively and dramatically woven oral tradition into her work as Leslie Marmon Silko has done. Hers is a powerful voice that offers a tribal interpretation of contemporary American culture and values.

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