Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko features Tayo, a half-white Laguna Indian who just got home from The Battle of Bataan where he is stationed in the World War II. The horrors of the war plagues him. He is struggling to get rid of the unwanted and horrible memories. He wants to run from an unsavory past but the past won’t let him. He comes home to seek comfort and healing from the ancient rituals and the refuge offered by nature.
The ceremonies Tayo recreates help him change and overcome whatever mental anguish and past demons that haunt him. He attains peace only by "finally seeing the pattern, the way all the stories fit together -- the old stories, the war stories, their stories -- to become the story that was still being told."
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko is a story of alienation. That is why there are two opposing forces operating in the story: good versus bad, Indian vs “white” and the traditional practices vs. Modern views.
Silko employs a number of images and symbolisms to get the message across in the story. “White fog”, “white skin” and “snow” are some of these allusions.
Tayo feels alienated all his life. His “white skin” makes him different from the Indian people surrounding him. His mission in life seems to revolve around eradicating this seeming distance or imagined wall that separates him from the rest. He cries for his mother and feels happy when his aunt talks to him.
The “white fog” signifies his inner struggles. The images of “white fog” conjures images of confusion, invisibility and detachment. Tayo used to be a man lost in the fog. White fog represents Tayo’s need for invisibility and the need to detach oneself from others even from himself. It is the fog of fragmented identity that bewilders.
In the Veterans' Hospital in Los Angeles where he was confined after the war, Tayo feels like white fog: invisible, oblivious to his surroundings and unable to talk. At first, Tayo refers to himself only in the third person. He cries a lot to the point that he vomits.
But the psychological distance is aggravated by physical distance. Tayo finds himself sent to the Philippines to fight the Japanese in World War II. This causes some emotional and psychological problems in the process. Tayo experiences a breakdown as he begins to imagine his enemies as relatives.
When his brother-cousin, Rocky, and beloved uncle Josiah passed away, Tayo has no one left to live for. He is unable to deal with reality so he thinks of himself as invisible like a “fog.” He tries to detach from everything, even from himself. So much so that talks about himself in third person.
“He inhabited a gray winter fog on a distant elk mountain where hunters are
lost indefinitely and their own bones mark the boundaries.
The new doctor asked him if he had ever been visible, and Tayo spoke to him
softly and said that he was sorry but no one was allowed to speak to an
invisible one. . . . The sun was dissolving the fog, and one day Tayo heard a voice answering the doctor. The voice was saying, `He can't talk to you. He is invisible. His words are formed with an invisible tongue, they have no sound.”(15)
Tayo, who has long denied his being half-breed, finally admits it when he gets home. His friend and later, deadly nemesis, Emo taunts him in. Tayo’s admission, however, is an important part of his healing process. It signals the start of his willingness to embrace wholeness again.
Things finally to make sense and fall into place when he encounters Betonie – a half-breed (Indian and White) like him. He says to Tayo, “Nothing is that simple. . . you don't write off all the white people, just like you don't trust all the Indians." (128)
This is something Tayo knows all along but refuses to admit even to himself. He knows that Emo is a killer but he feels inclined to keep a blind eye to his faults because he is Indian. He also feels compelled to distrust all white people simply because they are white.
Betonie relates a story to Tayo which changes his life. Tayo begins to understand and pursue Josiah’s dream. He falls in love and realizes that love erases all distance. He begins to accept the strangeness surrounding him in order to accept his own uniqueness.
Living may be hard but not to live and be dead inside is worse. Such is the fate of the destroyers.
“There are much worse things, you know. The destroyers: they work to see how much
can be lost, how much can be forgotten. They destroy the feeling people have for each
other. . . . Their highest ambition is to gut human beings while they are still breathing,
to hold the heart still beating so the victim will never feel anything again. When they
finish, you watch yourself from a distance and you can't even cry -- not even for
From Betonie, Tayo learns that he is part of a family. Understanding this is the key to understanding what it means to really live as opposed to merely exist. Another lesson he learns is that reality can be predictable. It does not need to be exciting and extraordinary. It is to be found in the ordinary and routine.
The reference of “snow” in the story seems to pertain to accepting the nature of changes.
For instance, Tayo fears a white rancher named Floyd Lee. He wants to turn back because of this fear. However, as he lies under a pine tree, Tayo has an epiphany. He becomes “insubstantial” and free from the fear of Lee’s riders. Then sees a mountain lion:
“Relentless moton was the lion’s greatest beauty, changing substance and color in
rhythm... dark as lava rock and suddenly bright as a field of snow... (204).”
The lion teaches Tayo to have no hesitations as he moves with the natural rhythm like “snow.” In this instance, snow is associated with the nature of change. Tayo must have self-confidence in order to cope with this kind of change. This transforms Tayo from a lost person - as to the time when he got lost due to a fog - to someone who is able to grasp the significance of events and be able to act in response to it. This knowledge enables him to confidently confront his nemesis Emo in the latter part of the story.
Another instance where “snow” is mentioned is when Tayo walks off the mountain, he realizes that he and the lion have been saved by the falling snow “the snowflakes were swirlingin tall chimneys of wind, filling his tracks like pollen sprinked in the mountain lion’s footprints” (215). Snow here is significant as it pertains to help or aid extended to him and the lion at a crucial part of their lives.
Another mention of snow is when he meets a mysterious man carrying a deer. When they arrive at a cabin, the snow threatens to topple down the branches of a tree near them. He turns to Ts’eh saying “The tree... you (Ts’eh) better fold up the blanket before the snowstorm breaks the branches” (218). Ts’eh goes to the bedroom where a “black storm-patterned blanket” lays. The storm ends when she folds the blanket. One can glean that Ts’eh’s blanket can bring and end snow. Snow, in this instance, becomes a threat to their lives.
All these instances and Tayo’s encounter with the snow prepares him for any eventualities. Snow signifies changes which could sometimes be swift or sudden. Snow could be both life-saving and life-threatening at the same time. And it comes when you least expect it.
The symbolism of “snow” strengthens Tayo and his resolve to face any eventualities. The white fog signifies his confusion which is a mark of his former self. As the story progresses, one can sense changes in Tayo particularly in his ability to accept his “white skin” and thus embrace wholeness.
As Tayo learns acceptance, “the white fog” in his life clears. He tranforms from a man who was once lost in the fog into a compelling and strong hero. The “snow” signifies changes and his eventual acceptance of these changes. The struggles that Tayo needs to cope revolves mainly around his “white skin” which at the start of the story symbolizes a part of his life that is difficult to embrace. The thick white skin serves to shield him and keep him insensitive to the things around him. It numbs his feelings from love and grief.
‘Their highest ambition is to gut human beings while they are still breathing, to hold
the heart still beating so the victim will never feel anything again. When they finish,
you watch yourself from a distance and you can’t even cry—not even for yourself.’
“He recognized it then: the thick white skin that had enclosed him, silencing the
sensations of living, the love as well as the grief; and he had been left with only the hum of the tissues that enclosed him. He never knew how long he had been lost there, in that hospital in Los Angeles.
‘They are all around now. Only destruction is capable of arousing a sensation,
the remains of something alive in them; for each time they do it, the scar thickens, and
they feel less and less, yet still hungering for more’. ” (229- 230)
The quotation refers to the need to destroy. The numbness the destroyers feel can only be awakened by the sensation of destruction. This is the only way for the destroyers to feel alive. Yet each time they destroy something, a bit of themselves die, making them more insensitive than ever. Their feelings or possibly consciences are effectively drowned in the process and they hunger for more destruction to feel alive.
The different effect of “white fog’ and “snow” lead to the above quotation because “white fog” makes Tayo alive but he is actually dead inside. He does not live but merely exists because of this incompleteness inside him. The ‘snow’ is what transforms him later and gives him confidence to accept change and really live his life. It is a befitting end to Tayo’s quest of self, healing and redemption.
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