Themes and Meanings
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.
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...
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