Download Lullaby Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.


(Short Stories for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1,436 words.)