A Wall of Fire Rising

by Edwidge Danticat

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How do setting, symbols, and figurative language in "Volar" and "A Wall of Fire Rising" shape the characters?

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In both "Volar" and "A Wall of Fire Rising," the characters are impacted by their environments, and this is indeed reflected in setting, symbolism, and figurative language.

The setting in "Volar" is perceived primarily through a child's perspective. Therefore, there is an element of fantasy woven through the...

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setting. In reality, the setting is dismal. The narrator notes near the end that her mother's view from the kitchen was of "a dismal alley that was littered with refuse thrown from windows . . . it was never cleaned." The narrator overcomes this by imagining herself to be Supergirl, escaping to an alternate version of reality where she is "sleek and hard as a supersonic missile."

The setting of "A Wall of Fire Rising" is a shack in Haiti where there isn't enough to eat, and the father waits behind over seventy other people in hope of a full-time job where he sometimes works. In this town, there are no opportunities, and he dreams of escaping this setting that offers no hope. He tells his wife, "I'd like to sail off somewhere and keep floating until I got to a really nice place with a nice plot of land where I could be something new. I'd build my own house, keep my own garden. Just be something new." This desire for a setting that offers hope and a future drives him to escape in the balloon and ultimately sacrifice his life for the quest.

Both stories also provide symbolism relating to the setting as well. In "Volar," the narrator longs to be Supergirl, who symbolizes strength. As a child, she is completely subject to her own environment, but taking on the identity of Supergirl provides her with the ability to create her own story and to be in charge of her own setting, often spying on the settings of others, from the landlord to her teachers. In "A Wall of Fire," the balloon symbolizes hope. Guy visits the deflated balloon often, always dreaming of leaving his poor town with no opportunity. Guy climbs into the balloon because he envisions the balloon rising into the air, allowing for the hope of a different life—one where he can provide for his family and give his wife the "pretty house" that she longs for. At the end, his wife asks that his eyes be left open because "he likes to look at the sky."

The narrator's mother in "Volar" has chosen "white 'princess' furniture" for her daughter's bedroom. This represents the contrast between the reality of their small apartment and the aspirations she holds for her daughter—a life fit for a princess, not one lived with barely enough to survive and no money for pleasure. In "A Wall of Fire," the balloon that the narrator longs for is inside a barbed-wire fence, representing the inaccessibility of his dreams. They are always just out of reach.

All of these elements together are woven into tales of people who long for an escape from their settings of depravity.

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One interesting parallel between the stories is that both children pretend to be or wish that they were someone else. Cofer imagines being Supergirl. Little Guy pretends to be Dutty Boukman. Both are people admired by the children and are more powerful than a child; these figures give them someone to aspire to, outside of the less-than-privileged households the children grow up in.

Some of the figurative language in each story deals with the concept of flight. Guy wants to fly in a hot air balloon and Cofer wants to fly away like Supergirl—while her mother wants to fly in a plane to Puerto Rico to see her family. They dream about flight because they feel trapped in their environments. The Cofers aren't able to achieve flight, but Guy does manage to fly the balloon (before he leaps out to his death).

These environments are stifling because they don't offer the characters release or opportunity. There are dozens of people on a list for a permanent job before Guy. He can't imagine what other opportunities his son might have. Likewise, the Cofer family can't afford to visit their family.

The Cofer family doesn't come to any kind of conclusion, but Guy decides to die rather than to continue in the life he was living. In the end, his son recites lines from his play while his wife orders the onlookers to leave Guy's eyes open so he can see the sky he loved so much.

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"Volar" by Judith Ortiz Cofer and "A Wall of Fire Rising" by Edwidge Danticat both use a poetic language to convey a sense of magic realism—a genre often associated with South America that juxtaposes the fantastical with real historical events—but not fully create a fantastical story. Both authors use metaphors and symbolism to describe the respective story's setting, whether it's the "puddles between the shacks" in an impoverished Haitian shantytown or the concrete jungle of America.

Cofer uses these poetic techniques to describe the growth of the main character as well. She describes the girl in her story as if she was magical doll transforming into a young woman with sentences like, ". . . her hair would magically go straight and turn a golden color."

Danticat uses metaphors to describe the people of the Haitian shantytowns as well, but she also infuses some of her stories with folklore and local mythology, giving her work an ethnographic element that teaches the readers about the Haitian culture. This added dimension to her story helps illustrate how her characters develop holistically, meaning they do not just base their life lessons on painful personal experiences but through a spiritual journey as well.

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