Storyteller Essays and Criticism
by Leslie Marmon Silko

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The Imagery of Silko's Short Story

(Short Stories for Students)

The most pervasive motif in Leslie Marmon Silko's ‘‘Storyteller'' is that of landscape losing its boundaries. A "motif" is the reoccurrence of a literary device (for example, an image, symbol, or scene), not necessarily to achieve precisely the same effect or meaning each time. For example, landscape losing its boundaries in "Storyteller" is first alluded to in the first paragraph of the story:"She told herself it wasn't a good sign for the sky to be indistinguishable from the river ice. . . .The tundra rose up behind the river but all the boundaries between the river and hills and sky were lost in the density of the pale ice.’’ As the young woman's thoughts make clear, this instance of a loss of horizon is ‘‘not a good sign.’’ Yet, as the story progresses, this landscape motif proves not always to signal something definitively "bad." Later, for example, it is the indicator of when the young woman must act out her revenge: ‘‘On the river bank in the distance she could see the red tin nailed to the log house, something not swallowed up by the heavy white belly of the sky or caught in the folds of the frozen earth. It was time.’’ Whereas at the beginning of the story this special state of nature is visited upon the girl and her region, in this latter instance it is a state of nature that "speaks" to her personally. Or, to put this another way, in the first instance she passively reads the signs and in the second, nature is implicit in her own designs. "Storyteller,’’ therefore and rather cleverly, manages to suggest the very essence of a literary motif in the image that is repeated: landscape losing its boundaries suggests ambiguity and indistinctness, and a repeating motif is always an highly ambiguous literary effect. This narrative ploy points to the mechanics and method of ‘‘Storyteller'' as a whole. Almost all of Silko's technical expertise in this story is mustered to suggest indistinctness, ambiguity, and shifting meaning.

Next to landscape losing its boundaries, the use of the color red, or things red, is perhaps second in suggestive importance. Things red are associated with her parents' death and her plans for revenge, even if always ambiguously or indirectly so. The story takes place during winter time, and although there are some references to the past that include descriptions of summer's green grass, the reader's impression of the story's world is that of overwhelming whiteness. This is reasonable, to be sure; the story is set, after all, in Alaska during winter, and it is also a story about the imminent demise (winter) of a culture to the encroachments of various "white people'' or "white'' cultures. For this reason, on the few occasions that red objects or references to the color red occur, they strike the reader at once. The first reference to the color red is when the young woman thinks how she has "nailed scraps of red tin over the logs’’ of her cabin the previous summer. She has done this "for the bright red color, not for added warmth the way the village people had done.’’ This detail distinguishes the young woman intriguingly from other villagers, but it is unclear at this juncture why she has done this (given that she is uninterested in the extra warmth). This sense of reading something significant, but having little clue as to its significance, is felt again upon noting the strange, seemingly random details of her boots having "bright red flannel linings'' and "red yarn tassels’’ (and her lover having red hair).

However, these disparate references to red are pulled together finally when the story broaches how her parents died: ‘‘'Grandma,' she said, 'there was something red in the grass that morning. I remember. ''' Then, later in the story:'"I heard sounds that night, grandma. Sounds like someone was singing. It was light outside. I could see something red on the ground.'’’ In keeping with the rule of ambiguity, it is never learned what this...

(The entire section is 14,955 words.)