single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie

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

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The antagonist in "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" is not a person but fate, or the specific circumstances of Victor's hard life. In the beginning of the story, Victor both loses his job and finds out that his father has died. The Tribal Council itself does not have enough money to be able to adequately help Victor, but thanks to Thomas, he is able to retrieve his father's remains.

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There are only two substantial characters in Sherman Alexie's "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona." Victor is clearly the protagonist, and he has not had an easy relationship with Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the other principal character. At the time the story begins, the two men are not friends, and both recall the time when Victor beat Thomas up in a drunken fistfight. However, it is clear as soon as Thomas speaks to Victor and expresses sympathy for the death of his father that, whatever their past relations, he is not now acting as an antagonist to Victor. On the contrary, he offers to help him, and the two become accomplices on Victor's quest.

The true antagonist in the story could be identified as fate or circumstances, more specifically the hardship that is part of daily life for Victor and his community, including Thomas. The story begins with Victor losing his job and finding out that his father has died, both of which circumstances are mentioned in the first sentence. Immediately after this, the Tribal Council reveals that they are only able to provide $100 for Victor to go to Phoenix, not even enough for a plane ticket. These events emphasize how hard life is for Victor in particular and the Native American community in general.

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

The protagonist of a story is its main character, the character who drives the plot. In Sherman Alexie's story, Victor is the protagonist.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire is the wisest and most compassionate character in the story, a storyteller who teaches and comforts both the reader and Victor. Nevertheless, the story is told from Victor's point of view, and it is his need to get to Phoenix to pick up his father's ashes and deal with the practicalities of his father's death that drives the plot. Victor is also the one who learns and grows, at least to some extent, through his experience of traveling to Phoenix with Thomas.

Victor is assimilated to Western society in a way that Thomas is not. Victor lives a secular, Americanized life; he drinks, bullies Thomas, has very little money, and does not think very deeply. He has internalized an Americanized crudeness and pragmatism that reveals the pathologies of a marginalized life on a reservation and looks down with superiority and a sense of ridicule at Thomas's reliance on the old ways of believing in dreams and telling stories.

At the same time, Victor derives comfort at a time of transition, as he copes with his father's death, from Thomas's stories. (Victor is, on the surface, emotionally divorced from this death, as he has not seen his father in many years, but beneath that it is a shock.)Thomas occupies the position of the artist-sage, telling Victor,

We are all given one thing by which our lives are measured, one determination. Mine are the stories which can change or not change the world.

Thomas's stories offer comfort. He says Victor's father's life after death

will be beautiful. His teeth will shine like silver, like a rainbow. He will rise, Victor, he will rise.

At the end, Victor shows his change in his openness to listen to Thomas tell another story:

Victor waved his arms to let Thomas know that the deal was good. It was a fair trade. That's all Thomas had ever wanted from his whole life. So Victor drove his father's pickup toward home while Thomas went into his house, closed the door behind him, and heard a new story come to him in the silence afterward.

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