Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 868

Silko's reputation was established immediately when critical reception of Ceremony in 1977 was not only positive but appeared in big magazines—no small accomplishment for the first female Native-American novelist in the late 1970s. Critical acclaim has been even more laudatory as the novel has become required reading across the nation....

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Silko's reputation was established immediately when critical reception of Ceremony in 1977 was not only positive but appeared in big magazines—no small accomplishment for the first female Native-American novelist in the late 1970s. Critical acclaim has been even more laudatory as the novel has become required reading across the nation. One facet of the novel particularly applauded was the success with which the novel challenges the reader to merge cultural frameworks.

However, the criticism also revealed cultural gaps. Critics tried to lump Silko's novel into pre-fabricated genres of American literature. There seemed to be great discomfort with viewing the novel as challenging and good on its own merits. Instead, the story is often patronizingly viewed as an effort to preserve Native-American legend. Surprisingly, not one reviewer commented on the fact that the novel was set in the period of World War II when the problem of 1977 was the phenomenon of the Native-American Vietnam Vets (there were more than 43,000 nationwide).

In his review for The Washington Post, Charles Larson makes an unqualified statement that "the war becomes an incredibly enlightening experience for Tayo—as it did for so many American Indians." He later comments that Tayo's story might fit in with fiction about World War II except that the novel is "strongly rooted within the author's own tribal background." That rootedness, for Larson, is the novel's value.

Hayden Carruth is not any more helpful in Harper's magazine. She attempts to link Tayo with Taoist philosophy because Tayo is seeking his "way." Unfortunately, Carruth continues her review to say that the narrative repeats the old tale of the man returning rain and bounty to the people. This is done, she says, with the novelty of "native [sic] American songs, legends, parables, a religiocultural mythology in the fullest sense...."

Carruth also has two negative criticisms of the novel. First, the story might bother some whites because they might feel blamed, and some Native Americans because it does "not soften either the disagreements in the Indian community." Second, the novel "is flawed," she says, "by narrative devices that seem too contrived and by occasional stylistic inconsistencies."

Writing a review called, "Ghost Stories," Ruth Mathewson was less forgiving and more confused—but she liked the story. She described Silko as a "saver" whose "determination to preserve so much ... makes great demands on the reader, who must exercise a selectivity the author has not provided." That is, Silko has not succeeded in blending the roles of curator and scribe.

Mathewson also brings her understanding of ceremony to bear on the novel when she says that the hero's effort to heal the people "calls for a slow, meditative response." However, Silko also "exploits popular fictional elements, raising expectations of speed and suspense that she does not satisfy." Mathewson admits many of the "interrupting" poems "fell flat for me." Finally, she says Silko's prose style is "reminiscent of long-forgotten novels of the '20s" and achieves a "gratuitous realism."

Frank MacShane, in The New York Times Book Review, asserts: "the literature of the American Indian is ritualistic." Furthermore, he views the purpose of this literary tradition as the establishment of "a sense of unity between the individual and his surroundings ... [and] ... Silko's first novel, aptly titled 'Ceremony,' fits into this tradition." Although offering a favorable assessment of the novel, his comments often sound like he is talking about a work of nonfiction instead of the first novel by a Native-American woman who is trying to bind her oral traditions with the demands of print culture.

Peter G. Beidler, in American Indian Quarterly, places Silko with other distinguished Native-American authors such as N. Scott Momaday and James Welch. Here the developing similarities of Native-American literature are explored—the male Native American begins confused but reorients himself to his tribal identity. He also discusses the historical consciousness evident in the stories. He does offer some negative criticism, however, when he faults Silko for not developing her women characters.

Elaine Jahner offered considerate insight into the novel in the Prairie Schooner by acknowledging Silko as a novelist. She said,

"it is Silko's profound and efficient understanding of the relationship between the tribal sense of order that is perpetuated through oral storytelling and those other models of narrative order—the novel and the short story that makes her a writer whose works enable Indian and non-Indian alike to understand that the traditional written genres can perpetuate some of the creative impulses that were formerly limited to the oral mode of transmission."

More recent criticism has followed Jahner. James Ruppert, for example, wrote in 1988 that Silko fuses "contemporary American Fiction with Native-American storytelling." By the time of Ruppert's review, however, Ceremony had almost reached the status of canonical work in college syllabi across the nation. It remains a favorite book for people of all backgrounds who are slightly disillusioned with America and who want to understand how to construct a new identity. With that motivation, there are many people actively identifying with Tayo as a new American hero.

Unfortunately, as Silko recently told Thomas Irmer during an Alt-X interview, her critical reputation as a writer has been influenced by her more political and very anti-capitalist 1991 novel, Almanac of the Dead.

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