Painted Turtle Themes
by Clarence Major

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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Painted Turtle is an emotionally complex yet psychologically distant character. In some ways, she represents no one but herself; in others, she is everyone. To some extent, she is the eternal poet, always searching for herself in a lyric, always revealing herself in a song. While Major wants readers to see Painted Turtle as a character representative of Native American culture in general and Zuni culture in particular, Painted Turtle is not sufficiently developed; thus, the other characters are utilized to display the dynamic ways in which earth, wind, fire, and air connect to sustain life. The stereotypes and minor characters in this novel all serve functions necessary to an understanding of the story. An example of this is Baldy’s Aunt Franny, who represents the stereotype of the “drunken Indian” but who also symbolizes what happens to women who leave their ancestral home and forsake the old ways. Her presence evokes more shame than pity. As she eats with Painted Turtle and Baldy, the rose Franny puts in Painted Turtle’s hair serves more to anoint her own independence of spirit and defiance of tradition than it does to recognize the beauty of her nephew’s friend. Aunt Franny is drunk because she lost her soul by marrying an “anglo.” Thus, the message is clear: Step outside the acceptable boundaries of the culture and invite disgrace and misfortune.

This point is made quite clearly when Old Gchachu, as patriarch and senior mystic, tells Painted Turtle that if she ventures from the clan her soul will die. A Zuni soul cannot live too far from home. His words have power, yet she continues to defy his wishes. In one instance, when he and Painted Turtle are alone in his home, he seeks to engage her sexually; she refuses, and he summons evil spirits. They come and dance around her; she refuses their advances also, and they possess her. She has no power to fend them off. Painted Turtle awakens in her own bed only to realize that perhaps this was all just a bad dream. The point has been made, however: To be disobedient is to crave punishment.

The interaction that Painted Turtle has with her Grandma Wilhelmina is never frightening, harsh, or unpleasant; it is, however, very complex. Grandma Wilhelmina says little, listens a great deal, and renders few opinions. This is the comfortable and special relationship that...

(The entire section is 599 words.)