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What is the Significance of a Nameless Narrator
In James Welch’s novel Winter in the Blood, the reader encounters a first person narrative told by a young man who is never named. The unnamed narrator is returning to his home near the Indian reservation after an absence. In the Indian culture, naming gives a person a sense of self, personal power, and a grounded reality as to that person’s identity. For the narrator to be named, he would be forced to come to grips with the death of a parent and sibling. Without an identity, he is able to forget the past, therefore, not having to deal with his feelings. No name equals no responsibility to the past, present, or future. Having no name symbolizes the narrator’s disconnect with the people around him, his past, and himself.
As the narrator reflects upon his apathy, he says “I felt no hatred, no love, no guilt, no conscience, nothing but a distance that had grown through the years” (2) and “The distance I felt came not from country or people; it came from within me. I was as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon” (2). This distance caused by past grief and the inability to cope with that grief causes the narrator’s disconnect with everything. As long as he is unable to connect with the people around him, his past, and himself, he will never truly be able to become himself. Coming home, as reluctant as he is to do so, serves as a catalyst for memories that he would rather bury in drink and women. He remembers his father telling humorous stories to his bar friends (5), the flood (6), his brother, Mose and him taking care of the cows (8), and their pet ducks that died (12-14). These memories are further stifled by his own disconnect and the inability of his memory and his mother Teresa’s memory to reconcile the same facts.
It is unclear if he himself found his father dead in the ditch of if he has heard the story so often that it has become a real memory. The winter of his dad’s death is almost a crystallizing event as it serves to further freeze the narrator’s heart, distancing himself from his personal reality. He disconnects from his father’s death in remembering the body. “But that was a different figure in the ditch, not First Raise, not the man who fixed machinery, who planned his hunt with such care that he never made it. Unlike Teresa, I didn’t know the man who froze in the borrow pit. Maybe that’s why I felt nothing until after the funeral” (16). Disconnecting from a second death in his family, his father’s, protects the narrator’s feelings.
The narrator experiences his first loss as a young teen. The death of his brother, Mose, functions as the first event frozen in his mind that he is incapable of rationalizing, pardoning, or finding healing from. The reader discovers that First Raise, the narrator’s father, changes after Mose’s death. “He stayed away more than ever then, a week or two at a time…He never really stayed and he never left altogether” (17). First Raise’s own dissociation serves as an example for dealing with grief. First Raise passes on the generational trait of alcoholism as a coping mechanism. The narrator’s failure to cope sets off a chain of events disconnecting him from himself and his relationships.
His disconnect with the people in his life is illustrated in page after page of scenes and reflections where characters unnamed by the narrator appear. He doesn’t name Agnes or refer to her by name. She is just “the girl who was thought to be my wife” (27) and “the girl who had stolen my gun and electric razor” (138). His grandmother is “the woman who was Teresa’s mother” (27) and not referred to as “my grandmother.” His own mother is “Teresa” and not mom or mother. Although some of the women he engages in intercourse with have names, there is no emotional connection. The same goes for several of the men he meets. People are referred to as “the bartender” (37), “the barmaid” (38), “two suits” (38), and the “airplane man” (41). The barmaid he later remembers he may have slept with her. “Deep inside, I felt uneasy about the barmaid, a feeling almost of shame…I couldn’t even remember – nice twitch – her hips or her breasts – the button of her blouse strained between them…but it must have happened. She must have come to the room with me” (46). Alcohol has made his memory a haze of possibilities and forgetfulness, further disconnecting him from reality.
Unable to Move Forward
The narrator is a static character. He cannot move forward. The little flashes of memory can’t be dealt with in any way other than alcohol and sex. He is like the cow stuck in the mud in chapter 41. The pain of death is dealt with through disconnecting with everything around him, un-naming himself and becoming “nothing to anybody” (46). If he is unimportant to anybody and nothing, then nothing really matters and no emotions need to be managed. The narrator is a half dead individual. He recognizes it in Yellow Calf, but doesn’t see it in himself. “How is it you say you are only half dead, Yellow Calf, yet you move like a ghost? How can I be sure you aren’t all the way dead and are only playing games?” (54). The narrator has been walking wounded for so long that he has become a zombie. His disconnect, his inability to cope, have reduced him to someone who is already dead. Alcohol and women numb him to the past and he travels through life as if he is the ghost, never touching anybody and never making any difference.
In his relationships, this disconnect is seen in the woman “down the bar” (61) who is eavesdropping on a conversation that Lame Bull, Larue Henderson, Beany and the narrator are having. She responds with an expletive and an order to “buy me a drink” (61). Lame Bull, Larue and Beany leave the narrator alone at the bar. Although she has a wedding ring on, their conversation is full of evasions. He wakes up later in her home. “I couldn’t figure out how I ended up on the couch” (65). He finds her 5 of 6 year old son in the kitchen eating breakfast and visits the woman in her room. The reader learns that her name is Malvinia and as the narrator attempts and fails to engage her in morning copulation, there is never a personal reference nor does the narrator try to connect with her by calling her by her name.
The chase after Agnes, the woman who is not his wife, seems to ignite some feeling in the narrator. Initially, he had no feelings for her and seemed disinterested in her absence minus a sense of disgruntled annoyance that she had absconded with his gun and electric razor. He meets up with her several times in his quest to get his things back. When he sees Agnes, he realizes “I wanted to be with her, but I didn’t move. I didn’t know how to go to her. There were people counting on me to make her suffer, and I felt too that she should suffer a little. Afterwards, I could buy her a drink” (81). This moment is the first thawing in the narrator as the reader sees a man who is realizing he might actually desire to connect with this woman; however, he will let not only his family’s expectations of his own inability to connect, but his own desire to punish her a bit before reconciling hinder him from taking any action. His family’s view on him is seen in a different instance while driving with Lame Bull and Teresa who are arguing about Lame Bull’s driving. Teresa turns on the narrator to nag him about his shirt disappearing and being too hard on the horse Bird. Lame Bull tells Teresa to leave him alone and the mother shares that “you never recovered” (57). His family recognizes his static inability to move, to cope, to connect. His family expects him to continue in his impotence in moving forward; however, the memories cannot be fully dulled.
With the airplane man discussing the trip to Canada, the narrator experiences “a funny feeling of excitement and sadness. If I went through with it, I would become somebody else and the girl would have no meaning for me” (82). In this second moment of defrosting, the narrator is slowly allowing himself to feel. “Seeing her in front of The Silver Dollar had sparked a warmth in me that surprised me, that I couldn’t remember having felt in years. It seemed funny that it should happen now, since I felt nothing for her when we were living together” (82). The fruitless chase for Agnes opens up a need in him that he cannot drown anymore with alcohol and women. When one emotion peeps through, his memories start to resurface with greater intensity. A John Wayne movie poster takes him back. “Twenty years slipped away and I was a kid again, Mose at my side” (82). He flashbacks to him and Mose bringing in the cows. He returns to the present for a scene with the “barmaid from Malta” (87), but a confrontation with Agnes’ friends leaves him on the pavement. “Randolph Scott had plagued me with a memory I had tried to keep away” (87). This statement leads the narrator to reminisce further until he awakens on the sidewalk with a woman, Marlene, standing over him. As he wanders in and out of reality and situations, the airplane man is arrested and he re-encounters Marlene who he takes back to a hotel for a horrible scene where he abuses her. This first indication of rage appears not to horrify the reader into mistaking the narrator for a misogynist, but is the reawakening of the narrator’s feelings of anger, betrayal, and loss over his brother and father’s death.
When the Status Quo is Not Enough
As he leaves her, he realizes that he has “had enough of town, of walking home, hung over, beaten up, or both. I had had enough of the people, the bartenders, the bars, the cars, the hotels, but mostly, I had had enough of myself. I wanted to lose myself, to ditch these clothes, to outrun this burning sun, to stand beneath the clouds and have my shadow erased, myself along with it” (100). This passage is his first realization that he must revisit and come to terms with the past because his disconnect will kill him. He has already lost himself by drowning his memories in alcohol and sex and those activities have not served as the vehicle to finding himself. He IS the dead man walking through life in a haze. And so, he begins his journey homeward again, catching a ride with a family.
As the car stops off the road for the frail daughter to get sick in the bushes, the narrator’s newly awakened self hears “the waters of the White Bear whispered to the sun” (102). He is beginning to reconnect with nature. He reminisces more about Mose and returns to the house to find his grandmother gone, presumably dead. Bathing literally and figuratively washes away the grime of his wanderings. “It was good to be home. The weariness I had felt earlier vanished from my bones” (105). Working with Lame Bull to dig the grave allows the narrator time to not only visit his father’s grave, but to recall Mose’s death. He remembers, for the first time, the past in its entirety. In remembering, he has the first tool to be capable of moving forward.
He rides Bird over to Yellow Calf’s home, taking greater care in this ride to connect with the horse. He reflects on the unfairness of men making the horse into a machine and taking away its true purpose. This consciousness could not have taken place earlier as the narrator had no way to connect with the creatures and people around him. His ability to connect to the horse further opens up the pathway to his connection with the past as he is able to get rid of “the final burden of guilt” (116) and truly grieve his dead brother. His visit to Yellow Calf is a further attempt to connect and he discovers that Yellow Calf is his grandfather. His parting words of “I’ll think about you” (125) show a change in him as before he had thought about no one, not even himself.
In the following scene, trying to rescue the mired cow that had caused his brother’s mad dash to round up the stray so many years ago, the narrator lets loose some of his rage, cursing the cow that caused Mose’s death, cursing the horse, cursing Ferdinand Horn for not coming to the house to help, cursing Horn’s wife for asking too many questions, and cursing Lame Bull, Teresa, and the entire country. Reconnecting with his rage and venting it at these absent parties allows him to reconnect with them later. The death of the cow and his horse symbolically put to rest his anger, guilt, and grief, allowing him to finally move forward. His final decision is to stay home so that he can reconnect with Agnes. “Next time I’d do it right. Buy her a couple crèmes de menthe, maybe offer to marry her on the spot” (138). The entirety of the novel follows the nameless narrator in his journey to self. By the end, he has not fully recovered himself, but with reconnecting with his past, he is on the path to reconnecting with the people around him.