Themes and Meanings

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Like elegiac poems, “Lullaby” depicts the process of coming to terms with death and loss. Ayah has much to grieve: the death of her eldest son in an incomprehensible and distant war; the deaths in infancy of other children; the forced removal and then deliberate alienation of her two remaining children; the long estrangement from her husband, Chato.

Intertwined with these human deaths is the great loss of heritage, culture, and way of life. There will be no children and grandchildren to teach and nurture as Ayah had been educated and cared for by her mother and grandmother. Art, religion, language, natural history—all is being lost. Even the sacred compact with the earth seems broken in the persistent drought. Where once the land had produced all that the people needed—wool and bright dyes for strong, waterproof blankets, leather for leggings and shoes, meat hung on the rafters to dry—Ayah and Chato now find themselves reduced to the dull army blanket, boots with holes in them, and a meager welfare check that buys only dead flour and tinned peaches.

The harshness and emptiness of present life is reflected in the human society of strangers surrounding the Navajos. After Jimmy dies, the government can offer nothing for her grief but his corpse. Clinical efficiency rather than feeling or tradition rules in the white world into which Danny and Ella disappear. Fear and hostility similarly characterize the bartender and his patrons, who tolerate Chato only insofar as he is like them—speaking their language. His former employer tolerates Chato only so long as the man can be exploited; when Chato can no longer work, he is discarded like a broken machine.

Ayah makes her peace with loss by removing herself, as far as possible, from this world of hostile strangers and returning to the old life. Living in the house of her mother and grandmother with her husband to tend her flocks, she carries on the matrilineal tradition, though she will be the last of her line to do so. More than a physical return, however, is her spiritual return in thought, as on this snowy journey she relives her losses.

The story depicts her realizing those stages of grief recognized by psychologists: denial, of Jimmie’s death (“It wasn’t like Jimmie died. He just never came back”); anger, at herself and at Chato for being duped into betraying herself and her children; despair, in the long years of numbing depression and estrangement from Chato and the lost children; and finally, reconciliation and peace.

Reconciliation is bound up with memories of the past as well, and these recollections unite her spiritually with the natural world. The snow recalls the weaving and dyeing that she watched as a child, and she is then drawn to remembrances of childbirth. By the end of the story, those recollections come together in the aching love for her children, and in the words of the lullaby, which tell the child that all the universe is her family and she is related as child and sister to the entire natural world.

Themes

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Storytelling
The role of storytelling in Native American culture is a theme central to all of Silko's work. "Lullaby'' appears in a collection entitled Storyteller , which is especially concerned with ways of translating the oral tradition of storytelling into a written English format. Ayah, the old woman who is the main character, does not tell a story directly to another person; however, the story is comprised of her reminiscences, which function as a form of internal storytelling. This written story captures the structure...

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of an oral story, in that it weaves past memories and present occurrences through a series of associations, rather than in a set chronological order.

Tradition and Change
In all of her writing, Silko is concerned with the ways in which Native American traditions can be adapted to the contemporary circumstances of Native American life. Her characters are often caught between a traditional and a modern way of life. In this story, Ayah recalls such traditions as her mother weaving blankets on a loom set outside, while her grandmother spun the yarn from wool. This memory is evoked by Ayah's use of the old army blanket her son Jimmie had sent home from the war. Looking down at her worn shoes in the snow, she recalls the warm buckskin moccasins Native Americans had once worn. At the point of her husband's death, Ayah falls back on the singing of a traditional lullaby sung by her grandmother. The story suggests that, at such a profound event as the death of a loved one, such traditions such serve an important purpose, even in modern life.

Matrilinear Relationships
Silko's stories are often concerned with the granddaughtergrandmother relationship as a link between modern and traditional Native American culture. Silko herself learned much about her own tribal traditions from her grandmother and older female relatives. In this story, Ayah, as an old woman, recalls traditional forms of blanket-weaving, as practiced by her mother and grandmother. She also recalls giving birth to her first child with the aid of her mother. When her husband is dying, she turns to a traditional lullaby sung by her grandmother in order to comfort him through the process of death.

Death and Loss
Ayah's reminiscences focus mainly on the major losses in her life. The strong sense of nostalgia in the story expresses a sadness over the loss of traditional culture and ways of life, as well as pain and bitterness over the loss of all three of her children. Ayah had lost two infants already, but only to natural causes, and was comforted by burying them in the land surrounding her home. The loss of her other children to white authorities, however, she finds more traumatizing. Her first child, Jimmie, dies in a helicopter crash during the war. She learns that his body may have been burned, so she does not have the opportunity to mourn his loss in a more traditional way. She later loses her two young children, Danny and Ella, to the white doctors who intimidate her into signing an agreement allowing them to take the children to a sanitarium. Ayah's final loss comes at the end of the story, when her husband Chato lies down in the snow, and she realizes that he is dying. In this story, Silko is concerned with the ways in which storytelling can heal and transform the experience of loss—both personal and cultural.

Racial and Cultural Oppression
All of the major tragedies of Ayah's life are precipitated by the intrusion of white authorities into her home. The cultural oppression of Native Americans in general is indicated through the personal losses Ayah has suffered at the hands of white culture. It is a white man who informs Ayah and Chato of this loss, symbolizing the larger racial issue of Native Americans dying in service to a nation that has oppressed them. Ayah's coercion into signing away her children also has much deeper implications in the context of Native American history. The neargenocide of Native Americans by the U.S. government in the nineteenth century was in part characterized by the practice of tricking Native Americans into signing "treaties'' that worked to their disadvantage. Finally, the rancher who employs Chato is another symbol of oppressive white authority. When Chato breaks his leg on the job from falling off a horse, the rancher refuses to pay him until he is able to work again. And when he determines that Chato is too old to work, he fires him and kicks the old couple out of their home to make room for new workers. These actions add class oppression onto the conditions of racial oppression from which Ayah and her family suffer.

Language Barriers
The language barrier caused by her inability to understand the English or Spanish-speaking white people adds to Ayah's experience of being taken advantage of by white people. When a white man comes to the door to inform them that their son Jimmie has died in the war, Ayah is unable to understand him; her husband Chato has to translate for her. The white doctors take advantage of Ayah's inability to understand English by bullying her into signing a piece of paper that gives them permission to take her children away. Although the children are occasionally brought back to visit Ayah, they eventually forget their native language, and can only speak English. The loss of their native language signifies the complete alienation of the children from their traditional Native American culture, as well as from their family.

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