A Wall of Fire Rising

by Edwidge Danticat

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A Wall of Fire Rising Summary

A Wall of Fire Rising” is a short story about a man who dreams of escaping his life of poverty in Haiti.

  • Guy lives with his wife, Lili, and their young son, Little Guy. He obtains a job cleaning latrines at the sugar mill, while Little Guy is cast as the lead in the school play.
  • Guy helps Little Guy with his lines and tells Lili about his dream of taking the hot-air balloon stored outside the mill and flying away in search of a better life.
  • One morning, Guy flies the balloon and jumps from it to his death.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Guy and Lili are a young married couple who live in poverty in Haiti and have one young son, Little Guy. Guy, the protagonist, returns to their shack one evening with exciting news and enters as his wife prepares their meager dinner. But he isn’t able to share his news, because his young son rushes in to share his own excitement: he has been selected to perform in a play and has many lines to memorize. Guy strokes his son’s hair affectionately as he asks questions about the play and his son’s role. Lili gushes over both the significance of her son’s role and his ability to memorize lines so quickly; he has been given the starring role of the historical Haitian revolutionary Dutty Boukman. Little Bill prepares himself by focusing on the freedom Boukman sought and then begins his speech, which opens with the line “A wall of fire is rising and in the ashes, I see the bones of my people.” Guy listens with pride and applauds his son’s performance.

Little Guy continues to study his lines during the family’s supper that night. Afterward, the family uses the last of their trapped rainwater to scrub the gourds they ate their food from. On this night, the family has a bit of kerosene to light their home, so Little Guy returns to studying. Guy fondly tucks some wild mushrooms into his wife’s hair and asks her to go to the sugar mill for the evening. Little Guy is concerned that he will miss much-needed memorization time.

The government has installed a large television near the sugar mill so that the poorest of the shantytown’s inhabitants are able to watch the state-sponsored news at eight o’clock each evening. The space fosters a sense of community, with many citizens choosing to remain after the news to enjoy each other’s company. The owners of the sugar mill are wealthy, and their son has purchased a large hot-air balloon from America; he stores it at the sugar mill. Guy discovered the balloon on a previous night and is now drawn to it immediately. As he pushes his hand through the barbed wire fence, Lili knows that he dreams of sitting in the basket. Guy informs Lili that he is certain he could fly it if given the chance. He reaches into his pocket and produces a lighter and a crumpled piece of paper. He sets fire to the paper and watches it float through the air for a few moments before it is reduced to ashes, explaining to his wife that the balloon operates in much the same way. Little Guy returns, and father and son enjoy a game of hide-and-seek. When they finish, Guy reminds Lili that something happened that day, but he doesn’t have the chance to explain the details to her, because Little Guy runs between them, asking to recite his lines again.

Back at home after preparing for bed, Lili asks what news Guy needs to share with her. He is reluctant to tell her that he’s secured a few hours of work at the sugar mill, even though those hours are incredibly difficult to obtain, because the job will be to clean the latrine. His wife assures him that the job is honest work, but Guy despairs because he is still number seventy-eight on the permanent hire list. He casually mentions putting their son’s name on the list now so that he will have a chance of decent employment by the time he’s a man. Lili is aghast, forbidding him to do so; she is afraid that such...

(This entire section contains 1206 words.)

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a move will negatively influence Little Guy’s destiny. Guy’s thoughts return to the balloon, and he tells his wife that he has studied the way the balloon operates until it is no longer a “miracle” but an achievable feat. Lili doesn’t understand her husband’s desire to fly with the birds, and Guy reminds her that she doesn’t want their son cleaning latrines. She replies that Little Guy “can do other things.” Guy notes that he can do other things, too. At this moment, Little Guy awakens screaming because he cannot remember his lines. The next morning, Guy helps his son with his lines and takes him to school.

When Guy returns home, he learns that Little Guy has been given even more lines because he has memorized the others so well. After hearing the lines, Guy tightly hugs his son and then leaves the house. Lili explains to Little Guy that his father’s “heart hurts.”

Lili goes to find her husband after supper, and Guy tells her that she is an incredible mother. He mentions that she only sees the best in Little Guy and has “stars in [her] eyes.” He recalls how those same starry eyes were one of the things that first attracted him to her. He also tells her that he knows she wants nice things in life, like a house, but she also wants him to feel like a man. He appreciates that she can “take things as they come.” Again Guy returns to his dreams of flying away in the hot-air balloon, wanting to find a nice piece of land and become a new man with a different life. His dreams scare Lili, and she wants to know if she and Little Guy are in her husband’s wildest dreams. In response, her husband poses a question: how are men remembered when they are gone? His wife replies that they are judged by their deeds and that their son never goes to bed hungry. As if summoned by the reference, Little Guy appears, worried because he has forgotten his new lines. Just before bed, Guy tells his wife that he remembers his own father as a poor, struggling man—and one whom he would never want to be.

The next morning, Little Guy rushes to meet his mother on her way back from the public water fountain. She is confused about his clear distress, and he points to the sky. A rainbow-colored balloon floats above them; Guy is in it. Workers at the sugar mill cheer and call out Guy’s name. Assad, the owner of the balloon, emerges in confusion, not understanding how one man was able to launch the balloon when it typically takes an entire crew to achieve this feat. Suddenly, someone screams that Guy is trying to get out of the balloon, and people begin screaming. Lili presses Little Guy’s face into her skirt as Guy leaps from the balloon, landing near where Lili and Little Guy are standing. His blood immediately soaks the earth. Lili rushes to his body as Assad jumps into his car to chase down the balloon. People from the factory bring a sheet to cover Guy’s body, and Little Guy begins reciting the lines he’s memorized. Lili asks to look at her husband one final time and finds that there is little left of the face she loved. When they ask whether she wants to close his eyes, Lili refuses, noting that he always loved looking at the sky.