Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523

At first glance, “Yellow Woman” is a common version of the old story of a married woman seeking to escape from her boring and unfulfilling family life by having an affair with an exciting, unconventional male. The woman here seems to be rather aimless, listless, and irresponsible: She does not...

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At first glance, “Yellow Woman” is a common version of the old story of a married woman seeking to escape from her boring and unfulfilling family life by having an affair with an exciting, unconventional male. The woman here seems to be rather aimless, listless, and irresponsible: She does not really “decide” to go with Silva or to leave him, but rather finds herself doing certain things. She does not appear to have a very strong attachment to her husband or child, nor does she believe that they will mourn her loss very much. When she does return to her pueblo, she holds on to the belief that the “strange” man will come back to get her one day.

Closer scrutiny reveals “Yellow Woman” to be a rich and melancholy story written by a Native American author who is well acquainted with tribal folklore and quite sensitive to the pathos of the American Indian’s life in the modern world. The woman longs not so much for a lover as for a richness, a oneness of life that she has heard about in the stories of her grandfather. She lives in the banal poverty of a modern pueblo with paved roads, screen doors, and Jell-O. She seeks to make contact with the vital world of Coyote (a traditional Native American figure of the creator-trickster), ka’tsina spirits, blue mountains, and cactus flowers—a world in which human, animal, spirit, and nature are one, a dynamic world where reality itself is multidimensional and mystical.

“Yellow Woman” is not a simple story of an unfulfilled housewife seeking excitement, nor a tribal folktale of a woman lured out of sight of her pueblo by a spirit (who is linked to Coyote) and who is then unable to escape from his power. Rather, it is a fusion of those stories and more. The woman is not seduced by a man or a ka’tsina spirit so much as by the possibility that “what they tell in stories” may be true in the present, that the world may not have been wholly stripped of its magic and its unity. She is not deceiving herself when she thinks that she might be Yellow Woman; rather, she is trusting to her Indian heritage, which would free her from the white dogma that personal identity is both absolute and final.

She returns to the pueblo somewhat chastened, for she knows that Silva is, among other things, a rustler and a murderer; she knows, too, that he is fierce and free of white domination and that he may be a ka’tsina as well as a man. She has not lost faith in stories, in Yellow Woman or Coyote. It is clear that the poverty of life in the pueblo is spiritual as well as economic, and that the Native American (but not Yellow Woman) is in grave danger of following the white man into his sterile, rational landscape where Mother Earth is plowed up and paved over, Father Sky is polluted with “vapor trails” and acid rain, Coyote is merely a coyote, identity is a prison, and stories are only stories.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 977

Like many other contemporary Native American stories, "Yellow Woman" is concerned with liminality, a state of being between two worlds or two states of existence. In the Native American world view, in addition to the land "nature" includes the spirits as well as the animals and people who inhabit the land. The unnamed narrator of "Yellow Woman" finds herself between two worlds—that of her everyday life and that of the mythic history of her people. It is also significant that from the bluff in front of Silva's house in the foothills, he can point out both Texan and Mexican lands to the narrator, underscoring that the story itself takes place in a borderland region.

That Silko never names the narrator of "Yellow Woman" adds to the story's ambiguity. The narrator and her companion potentially occupy several realms of reality at once. On one level she is a young Native American woman possessing a certain identity. She lives in real time, in a world dominated by automobiles and trains and the bustle of modern life. She has received a formal education; she is a wife, mother, daughter, and granddaughter. She is also identified with the Yellow Woman of Laguna folktale or legend. She meets and has a brief affair with a mysterious man and then returns home. He is seemingly a Navajo cattle rustler named Silva who has been sought by local Texan and Mexican ranchers for some time. On another level, he is closely identified with the mountain spirit or ka'tsina, Whirlwind Man, who in the legend makes off with Kochininako, or Yellow Woman.

As "Yellow Woman" progresses, the narrator undertakes what Bernard Hirsch calls "a journey beyond the boundaries of time and place." She confuses her own identity with that of Kochininako, or Yellow Woman, and that of Silva with Whirlwind Man. By the time the story draws to a close, the reader sees her as both: a contemporary young woman who lives in real time with her ordinary family and as Yellow Woman, a living embodiment of Native American traditions and values. She now understands that her everyday experience and the timeless, all-inclusive mythic reality of her grandfather's stories are inextricably connected.

Another important theme in "Yellow Woman" is the centrality of storytelling to a community's history and sense of itself. Native American cultures, including the Laguna, about whom Silko writes, have a rich oral tradition, in which favorite stories are repeated over and over again in family and ceremonial settings. Through the verbal retelling of ancient myths, the community is able to see the relationship of its presence to its past. But in the face of modern lifestyles, the oral tradition is dying; the narrator's grandfather, who loved the old stories, has passed away, and the narrator does not know anyone who can tell the ancient myths the way he did.

In "Yellow Woman," the narrator repeatedly insists that the story of Yellow Woman bears no meaning in her own life, that it could not happen in contemporary times. She suggests that the story exists only in the past and that it has no relevance for her own life or for that of a late-twentieth-century Native American community. "The old stories about the ka'tsina spirit and Yellow Woman can't mean us," the narrator comments. "Those stories couldn't happen now."

As the narrative progresses, the narrator begins to realize that she, too, has a tale to share with her community: "I decided to tell them that some Navaho had kidnapped me." By contributing her own story to the community's rich oral traditions and by seeing the resemblance of her own experience to that of Yellow Woman, the narrator transcends her individual identity. True, she is a contemporary young mother who has been to school and has followed a strange man on an adventure, but she is also more than that. She is an incarnation of the mythic Yellow Woman. As the narrator's story is repeated among the people in her community, her individual narrative will become part of the larger narrative of the community and its history. As Silko says in Melody Graulich's book, Yellow Woman: Women Writers: Texts and Contexts, "Within one story there are many stories coming together."

In many ways, "Yellow Woman" is a story about transgression and power through sexuality. The young narrator leaves her husband Al and her child to follow the mysterious Silva. Although she is a married woman with many responsibilities, the encounter by the river leads her to leave her old life behind with scarcely a second thought. In The Desert Is No Lady, Patricia Clark Smith and Paula Gunn Allen explain that "the ultimate purpose of such ritual abductions and seductions is to transfer knowledge from the spirit world to the human sphere, and this transfer is not accomplished in an atmosphere of control or domination."

The theme of nature plays an important role in "Yellow Woman." Prior to her experience with Silva, the narrator has lived in a time-bound, historical world, in which she lives an ordinary life with her family. She has been to school, married, and given birth. Her grandfather's stories have given her a link to her past, but she, her mother, and grandmother live primarily in the present. The pueblo in which she has lived her whole life is her entire world.

In "Yellow Woman," nature seems mythic and timeless. When she is alone with Silva in the mountains, there is nothing—no highways, cars, or people—to indicate the reality of the late twentieth century. However, once she is making her way home again, she notices the trails of jets in the sky. The world to which the narrator eventually returns may seem mundane—her mother and grandmother are making Jell-O, her husband is playing with their baby—but the narrator now knows these two worlds are inextricably connected.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1078

Ambiguity and Identity
Like many other contemporary Native American stories, "Yellow Woman'' is concerned with liminality, which is a state of being between two worlds or two states of existance. In the Native American world view,"nature'' includes the spirits as well as the animals and people who inhabit the land, and the land itself. The unnamed narrator of ‘‘Yellow Woman’’ finds herself between two worlds—that of her everyday life and that of the mythic history of her people. It is also significant that from the bluff in front of Silva's house in the foothills, he can point out both Texan and Mexican lands to the narrator, underscoring that the story itself takes place in a borderland region.

That Silko never names the narrator of "Yellow Woman’’ adds to the story's ambiguity. The narrator and her companion potentially occupy several realms of reality at once. On one level she is a young Native American woman possessing a certain identity. She lives in real time, in a world dominated by automobiles and trains and the bustle of modern life. She has received a formal education; she is a wife, mother, daughter, and granddaughter. She is also identified with the Yellow Woman of Laguna folktale or legend. She meets and has a brief affair with a mysterious man and then returns home. He is seemingly a Navajo cattle rustler named Silva who has been sought by local Texan and Mexican ranchers for some time. On another level, he is closely identified with the mountain spirit or ka'tsina Whirlwind Man, who in the legend makes off with Kochininako, or Yellow Woman.

As "Yellow Woman'' progresses, the narrator undertakes what Bernard Hirsch calls ‘‘a journey beyond the boundaries of time and place.’’ She confuses her own identity with that of Kochininako, or Yellow Woman, and that of Silva with Whirlwind Man. By the time the story draws to a close, the reader sees her as both: a contemporary young woman who lives in real time with her ordinary family and as Yellow Woman, a living embodiment of Native American traditions and values. She now understands that her everyday experience and the timeless, all-inclusive mythic reality of her grandfather's stories are inextricably connected.

Storytelling, Transience, and Transcendence
Another important theme in ‘‘Yellow Woman" is the centrality of storytelling to a community's history and sense of itself. Native American cultures, including the Laguna, about whom Silko writes, have a rich oral tradition, in which favorite stories are repeated over and over again in family and ceremonial settings. Through the verbal retelling of ancient myths, the community is able to see the relationship of its presence to its past.But in the face of modern lifestyles, the oral tradition is dying; the narrator's grandfather, who loved the old stories, has passed away, and the narrator does not know anyone who can tell the ancient myths the way he did.

In ‘‘Yellow Woman,’’ the narrator repeatedly insists that the story of Yellow Woman bears no meaning in her own life, that it could not happen in contemporary times. She suggests that the story is exists only in the past and that it has no relevance for her own life or for that of a latetwentieth-century Native American community: ‘‘The old stories about the ka'tsina spirit and Yellow Woman can't mean us,’’ the narrator comments. ‘‘Those stories couldn't happen now.’’

As the narrative progresses, the narrator begins to realize that she, too, has a tale to share with her community: ‘‘I decided to tell them that some Navaho had kidnapped me.’’ By contributing her own story to the community's rich oral traditions and by seeing the resemblance of her own experience to that of Yellow Woman, the narrator transcends her individual identity. True, she is a contemporary young mother who has been to school and has followed a strange man on an adventure, but she is also more than that. She is an incarnation of the mythic Yellow Woman. As the narrator's story is repeated among the people in her community, her individual narrative will become part of the larger narrative of the community and its history. As Silko says in Melody Graulich's book, Yellow Woman: Women Writers: Texts and Contexts, "Within one story there are many stories coming together.’’

Transgression, Sexuality, and Power
In many ways, ‘‘Yellow Woman’’ is a story about transgression and power through sexuality. The young narrator leaves her husband Al and her child to follow the mysterious Silva. Although she is a married woman with many responsibilities, the encounter by the the river leads her to leave her old life behind with scarcly a second thought. In an essay entitled ‘‘Yellow Woman and the Beauty of the Spirit,’’ Silko writes: ‘‘Kochininako, Yellow Woman, represents all women in the old stories. Her deeds span the spectrum of human behavior and are mostly heroic.... Yellow Woman is my favorite because she dares to cross traditional boundaries of ordinary behavior during times of crisis to save the Pueblo; her power lies in her courage and in her uninhibited sexuality, which the oldtime Pueblo stories celebrate again and again because fertility was so highly valued.’’

In The Desert Is No Lady, Patricia Clark Smith and Paula Gunn Allen explain that ‘‘the ultimate purpose of such ritual abductions and seductions is to transfer knowledge from the spirit world to the human sphere, and this transfer is not accomplished in an atmosphere of control or domination.''

Nature
The theme of nature plays an important role in ‘‘Yellow Woman.’’ Prior to her experience with Silva, the narrator has lived in a timebound, historical world, in which she lives an ordinary life with her family. She has been to school, married, and given birth. Her grandfather's stories have given her a link to her past, but she, her mother, and grandmother live primarily in the present. The pueblo in which she has lived her whole life is her entire world.

In ‘‘Yellow Woman,’’ nature seems mythic and timeless. When she is along with Silva in the mountains, there is nothing—no highways, cars, or people—to indicate the reality of the late twentieth century. (However, once she is making her way home again, she notices the trails of jets in the sky.) The world to which the narrator eventually returns may seem mundane—her mother and grandmother are making Jell-O, her husband is playing with their baby—but the narrator now knows these two worlds are inextricably connected.

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