Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547

N. Scott Momaday’s choice of setting is important. Navajos traditionally believe that mountains are powerful places for healing ceremonies, and they believe that the Lukachukai Mountains are the most powerful mountains of all. Lukachukai therefore is the ideal setting for the protagonist’s year-long healing ritual.

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More important, Set’s healing ritual is an adventure of life and love, a celebration of what it means to be a part of—as opposed to apart from—the world. Paradoxically, Set becomes whole only as he becomes part of the world. His story is thus also an initiation ceremony, one in which the naturally and elementally pure forces of nature and love sustain and perpetuate life.

Throughout the story, the basic conflict hinges on whether Set, the outsider, can become part of the whole world to which Grey and her family already belong. This conflict stems not so much from Set’s non-Navajo origins, but from the knowledge that his past isolation from any type of unified or family-oriented society may interfere with his healing and joining process. The reader immediately sees that Grey is “beautiful in her whole being.” The question remains as to whether Set can also become beautiful in his “whole being.”

Lela describes Set’s situation succinctly with a Navajo metaphor, telling him, “The bear stands against you”; that is, something powerful and spiritually or physically dangerous threatens his health or plans. Set recognizes the threat, but he also knows that within himself rises a force capable of meeting and defeating the bear: His name, Set, means bear in Kiowa. The bear and he are thus one; he is the bear. (At first he feels like a mere “boy bear,” a Set-talee.)

The array of names with which Set refers to himself as he begins to enter the Navajo world (Set-talee, Tsoai-talee, boy bear, rock-tree boy) introduces a significant autobiographical element into the story. Tsoai-talee, which means “rock-tree boy” in Kiowa, is the author’s actual Kiowa name. However, another autobiographical note is the fact that Momaday’s mother, a Native American of non-Kiowa ancestry, was herself initially treated as an outsider among the Momaday family.

The Kiowa, like the Navajo (and perhaps most societies), also believe that the names people have greatly influence their lives. Names do more than simply describe people, with many societies allowing or requiring their members to adopt new names to signify changes in social status or role. Examples abound, even in English-speaking cultures, in which most people gradually acquire capitalized titles such as Mister, Ms, Miss, Missus, Doctor, Captain, Sir, Madam, or Judge. Although naming patterns may themselves change, marriage remains one of those occasions on which new names are commonly chosen. In Set’s quest, however, naming plays but a minor role in the overall process of becoming whole.

As Set becomes whole, largely because of Grey’s love—the force that has brought him to Lukachukai—he becomes part of the whole to which the bear, Grey, Lela, and everything and everyone else belongs. All comes together as a unified whole, with the union of Set and Grey in marriage a metaphor for the unified Navajo world. The story thus stands as a passionate and profound metaphor for one life, two lives, and all life together.

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