The End of Old Horse

by Simon Ortiz
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707

Simon J. Ortiz’s deceptively simple story provides the vehicle for a penetrating analysis of two children’s first encounter with loss and of adult strategies for coping with grief and guilt. Old Horse’s death is so unexpected that it takes everyone by surprise. Neither boy has developed a strategy for dealing with the losses and diminutions that come unexpectedly; nor, as it happens, has Tony. When the narrator says aloud what Tony has merely been thinking—that he should not have tied up the dog—Tony angrily lashes out in order to mask his grief and feelings of guilt. On their way home, the boys cannot discuss what has happened; both try to hold back the tears that they believe would be an inappropriate and “unmanly” reaction to a dog’s death. Much of the boys’—and Tony’s—physical and psychic energy is expended in the effort to act like “men,” which means keeping silent, hiding emotions, and pretending to be unmoved by loss. Ortiz shows how the masking of grief can result in a lashing out at others that may be inappropriate and even cruel and brutal.

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At the end of the story, the mother responds to Gilly’s wrenching announcement of Old Horse’s death with an irrelevant rebuke for his use of the word “hellfire,” language he uses to demonstrate his “manliness.” The father invokes his own posture of manliness by remaining silent, depriving the boys of the opportunity to develop appropriate strategies for dealing with loss and, by his example, seeming to validate their dysfunctional and repressive responses. In this world, there can be no sharing of grief, not even any outward acknowledgment of it. The adults are no wiser or better prepared to cope with loss than the boys are, and the ideas about “manliness” shared by the male characters are revealed as immature and unworthy.

Ortiz also presents a wonderfully subtle and understated commentary on the freedom of youth. This theme is developed primarily through the contrast between the freedom that the two boys enjoy and the confinement to which the dog is subjected. The boys, who never realize that they unconsciously identify themselves with Old Horse, are free to spend their days as they wish, visiting neighbors, wandering down to the creek, unfettered except for the injunction against cursing that their mother tries to enforce—against the example of the adult males—and which the boys recognize as her attempt to confine them to childhood.

The dog, on the other hand, is tied up, and his inability to adapt himself to confinement results in his choking himself to death. All creatures, including boys, should be free; confinement means death, if not to the body then to the spirit. However, Ortiz implies that a responsibility goes with freedom, and Old Horse has not shown himself sufficiently responsible to be free. The boys, too, seek freedom, not just physical freedom but also the freedom to use “cuss words” as Tony uses them, and they chafe at the restraint imposed by their mother on their exercise of language that will make them feel “manly.” It is, Ortiz implies, through maturity and responsibility that one earns freedom.

Ortiz also uses Old Horse’s death to comment on how the crucially important and formative events of people’s lives—such as one’s first encounter with death—come about without warning. They give one no opportunity to prepare, to anticipate, and thereby to steel oneself for what will come, just as the boys have no opportunity to prepare themselves for news of Old Horse’s death. Instead, one is left with the struggle to formulate a response to what one never expects to happen; out of that struggle and under the pressure of the immediate trauma of events, the person that one will become is shaped by forces only dimly glimpsed and far beyond one’s ability to control. As the narrator says, “I used to wonder what was the use for important things to happen when it was too late to do anything about them, like to jump out of the way or to act differently or to not think so much about them. But it never worked out like that.”

Themes

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 915

Language and Meaning

Ortiz uses language, and in particular obscene language, to represent the confused emotions that his characters are feeling. The narrator of this story shows his awareness of the special power of obscene language in the beginning of the story, when he notes that his younger brother Gilly liked to swear and that he did too, only not as much. At that point in the story, the use of obscenity just seems like a way for a younger boy to act older, like Gilly imitating Tony.

As the story progresses, though, it becomes clear that obscene language is not so much a posture, a way of acting cool, as it is an act of desperation, of venting emotions that one cannot show in any other way. When he first learns of Old Horse’s death, Gilly does not swear, but instead becomes silent, in an attempt to stop all emotion: he does not let out a torrent of curse words until he passes Tony’s house and is overcome with thoughts of the dog’s death. His obscenities correspond with open sobbing. Later, when he uses the word “hellfire” at the supper table, it is clear that he does not do it consciously but that it has slipped out of him in his sorrow while talking about what happened to Old Horse. The words that the boys use are powerful, but the story makes it clear that they use the power of these words, not as expressions of emotions, but as substitutes for them.

Stoicism

The central theme of stoicism is examined in this story when the narrator compares Tony, whose dog has just died, with a joke that his father often made about people being “blank as a stoic Indian.” The characters here are in fact Indians, and they are struggling to remain stoic in the face of a terribly emotional experience.

The fact that Tony has to struggle to keep his stoic demeanor is obvious from the fact that he loses his composure temporarily and apologizes for it immediately. He is trying to be emotionless, but when the narrator angers him he responds angrily. He has every right to be angry, but anger is too emotional, and so he tries to bury his feelings, helping the boy to his feet almost the same moment that he reached out to shove him.

The narrator uses physical motion to put forth a stoic attitude. When he feels that he is about to cry, he runs instead, burying his feelings under the stress to his body. Just before he runs, he curses Tony and his brother Gilly: after he has run, those angry feelings are gone.

The end of the story shows how much stoicism is a preferred way of life for the grownups in general—the males, at least. When they hear Gilly curse out loud, the narrator and his father are not shocked, nor are they angry. They both recognize his cursing as being all that he can do, and they expect Gilly to quit grieving once he has gotten it out of his system. The story ends with the expectation that this emotional incident can now be forgotten: the narrator thinks that Gilly’s use of a forbidden word will be “the end of everything that happened that day.”

Gender Roles

In this story, the boys, their father, and Tony all share a similar outlook, trying to repress their emotions and forget about the problems that are upsetting them. The mother, on the other hand, is more inclined to examine problems, to encourage her sons to face up to what is upsetting them in order to understand it. These two different approaches to life might just reflect their different philosophies, but they come to indicate the parents’ places in traditional gender roles. In this family, the mother is more upset than the father about appearance (she is the one they expect to raise a fuss about the dirt on Gilly’s jeans, even though it is the father who notices it) and about obscenity. That she values such matters and the males do not divides the family along gender lines.

Poverty

The narrator of this story does not dwell upon the financial situation of the pueblo where he lives, but the story gives enough hints for discerning readers to understand it. For instance, when the boys first talk to Tony, he is working on an old horse stall, trying to nail it together so that it will cover his truck securely. He does not have a garage or the money to build a new structure or have one built but has to make do with fixing what is already old. Later, Gilly spends much time while they are at the creek trying to wash a smudge of mud off of his jeans. Insisting that they care for the condition of their clothes might reflect their parents’ interest in having the boys look good in public, but since they are just going home at the end of the day, it is more likely that the parents are concerned that the clothes will not wear out from excessive washing and that he does not have many extra pairs of jeans to wear while these are being laundered. The boys’ plan to catch trout in the creek and fatten them up indicates that they do not have much spending money and are conscious of finding the way to turn their playtime activity into cash.

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