single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie

Start Free Trial

What does the title "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" signify?

Quick answer:

The title "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" refers to the rebirth Victor undergoes on his journey to collect his dead father's ashes in Phoenix. Like the mythical phoenix, Victor will undergo a rebirth, in his case because of Thomas Builds-the-Fire and his stories.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The title refers to the deeper meaning beneath what starts out for Victor as a practical chore of going to the literal Phoenix, Arizona to collect his dead father's remains and belongings.

While on one level "Phoenix" simply refers to the place where Victor's father lived and died, the word...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

has a symbolic meaning. It is the name of a mythical bird that when thrown on a fire is burned and reborn from its ashes to begin a new cycle of life.

Like the phoenix, Victor undergoes a form of rebirth on his trip. This is because of Thomas Builds-the-Fire (this name is also symbolic), his old childhood friend, who accompanies him on the journey. To travel to Phoenix with Thomas means to hear his stories. Thomas, who Victor looks down on as an outcast, is in touch with old tribal ways and believes it is his role in life to be a storyteller.

Thomas's stories are healing, and they provide Vincent with an unexpected solace. They offer a deeper, more beautiful, traditional, and poetic way of looking at life than the Americanized Vincent is used to experiencing. Thomas speaks of dreams, of the warrior past of their people, and he envisions Vincent's father leaping like a salmon to a better place and finding a heavenly home.

Vincent's rebirth is symbolized at the end by a new willingness to listen to the stories Thomas has to tell.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How is the the title "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" significant to the story?

The title is significant because, like the mythological creature the city is named for, Victor experiences rebirth through his journey to deal with his father's ashes.

A phoenix bursts into flame at the end of its life and is reborn again. It grows, matures, changes, and then burns out so that it can be reborn. This is where the name of the city comes from and it is this idea of rebirth that Alexie is treating in the story. Just as a phoenix has to change and be set on fire in order to be reborn from the ashes, so too does Victor have to change, with the help of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, as they travel to get Victor's father's ashes. This transformation, like that of the phoenix, allows Victor to achieve a kind of spiritual rebirth.

It wouldn't have been possible for Victor to change as he did without the help of Thomas. Though he thinks he only needs Thomas's money at first, he comes to realize that he needs the man's wisdom and compassion. Alexie writes, "He knew he needed more to make it to Phoenix and back. He knew he needed Thomas Builds-the-Fire." Victor comes to find that he needs Thomas more than he thought.

Since they're traveling to Phoenix, Arizona, and then home again in the story, Phoenix itself is the setting and midpoint of the journey of Victor's rebirth. Understanding his father and himself by traveling to Phoenix and the act of reclaiming the ashes of his past is a large part of why the title is significant.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How is the the title "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" significant to the story?

The title of the story is actually quite meaningful. "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Sherman Alexie is a story about the importance of family, self-discovery, identity and, ultimately, a story about change and rebirth. In it, a man named Victor goes to Phoenix, Arizona, to reclaim his father's ashes. However, Victor also goes on a journey of self-discovery and transforms into a new and better version of himself.

With the help of a man named Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who represents Native American tradition, Victor—who, in contrast represents modern Native American culture—reconnects with his father and with his past and origin. Just like a phoenix is reborn by rising from its ashes, so too is Victor reborn from the ashes of his father, whose spirit lives on in his son. Thus, the title of the story is relevant as it represents the theme of rebirth and reawakening.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How is the the title "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" significant to the story?

In addition to the symbolism of the phoenix mentioned above, I would add the importance of the title's suggestion that the meaning of "Phoenix, Arizona" is different than what one might assume.

We see this same idea with both Victor and Thomas, both in relation to each other and toward the other familial relationships in each of their lives. The perceptions and impressions each of these characters holds about each other and other individuals in their lives proves to be incomplete and in many ways inaccurate. Through their conversation during their journey to and from Arizona, Victor and Thomas have a chance to explore those misconceptions, and although they are not able to fully repair their relationships, we sense they are beginning to see their world from one another's perspective. We sense that the "meaning" of such things that have been taken for granted are finally beginning to change.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the symbolism in "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"?

The main symbol in the story is the phoenix. Vincent must go to the city of Phoenix to pick up his father's cremated remains, but more importantly, the story's title refers to the mythological bird called the phoenix. According to ancient lore, if thrown on a fire, the phoenix would burn up but then be reborn from its ashes to start life anew. The bird symbolizes Vincent, who undergoes a rebirth as he collects the literal ashes of his dead father. He does not just go to the city of Phoenix, he symbolically becomes the phoenix.

In this context, it is easy to see how Thomas Builds-the-Fire's name becomes part of the story's symbology. Thomas, a storyteller deeply and intuitively connected to his tribal past, builds the fire (becomes the catalyst) for Vincent's renewal. He builds this fire through the stories he tells, which are rich, imaginative, connected to Vincent's and Thomas's heritage, and uplifting. Through these stories, Vincent's narrow, pragmatic, somewhat cruel worldview expands and becomes more generous, to the point that he is open to hearing more of Thomas's stories and thus open to connection with his more creative self and his tribal past.

Flying, also related to the phoenix that flies away after its rebirth, is another symbol. Thomas, for a moment as a child, dares to try to fly. He breaks his arm but deeply impresses the other children by hovering for a long moment as if in flight. Thomas and Vincent also fly together to Phoenix. Flying is a symbol of transcending the mundane and ordinary. Thomas leads Vincent in his own symbolic flight or soaring to a higher imaginative level.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of the story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"?

One theme that emerges through Victor's conflict is alienation. Victor's father has abandoned him, spending his final years in Phoenix, Arizona, far from where Victor lives near Spokane. When Victor needs to travel to Phoenix in order to finalize his father's affairs following his death, the Tribal Council refuses to give him more than one hundred dollars toward the trip. This forces Victor to accept the help of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, whom Victor alienated during his teenage years despite being close childhood friends. Thomas is fairly ostracized by society because he is a storyteller, which Victor finds "embarrassing." When they were children, Thomas had told Victor about the way Victor's father felt alienated even while living on the reservation:

Your father's heart is weak. He is afraid of his own family. He is afraid of you. Late at night he sits in the dark. Watches the television until there's nothing but that white noise. Sometimes he feels like he wants to buy a motorcycle and ride away. He wants to run and hide. He doesn't want to be found.

When they board the plane to journey to Phoenix, Thomas strikes up a conversation with the woman who sits by the window on their row. Victor is embarrassed by Thomas's appearance as he chats with this former Olympic athlete, but Thomas doesn't seem self-conscious of their differences. When they disembark, he comments to Victor, "She was really nice," and Victor replies, "Yeah, but everybody talks to everybody on airplanes." This demonstrates the alienation that surrounds Thomas and the sense of societal rejection that he constantly faces.

On this journey, Victor is reminded of the loyalty that Thomas has shown him over the years and the way that he continues to support him during this time of great need. This eventually prompts Victor to become more compassionate toward Thomas, promising to stop and listen to his storytelling sometime. The ending provides hopeful closure that Thomas is being given a "new story" after spending time with his former childhood friend and that Victor himself is being reminded of the value of true friendship, breaking the pains of alienation which have surrounded him.

Last Updated on