House Made of Dawn | Critical Essay by Harold S. McAllister

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of House Made of Dawn.
This section contains 3,732 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Harold S. McAllister

SOURCE: "Incarnate Grace and the Paths of Salvation in House Made of Dawn," in South Dakota Review, Vol. 12, No. 4, Winter, 1974–75, pp. 115-25.

In the following essay, McAllister provides a character sketch of Angela Grace St. John and examines religious themes, images, and allusions in House Made of Dawn.

Angela Grace St. John is one of the most intriguing characters in Scott Momaday's novel, House Made of Dawn. It seems as if Momaday intended for her to have more thematic importance than is immediately apparent. Her thoughts are one of the centers of "The Longhair," and her affair with Abel suggests that she will have some influence on his future. Yet the major action of the novel, the murder of the albino, has no direct relation to Angela, and after confessing her adultery she disappears almost entirely except for two brief appearances in "The Night Chanter." With her Laurentian lust for dark flesh, she is sufficiently stereotyped to offend some female readers. If Angela is no more than a stereotype, she is a flaw in the novel, and if her significance does not extend beyond her brief but suggestive appearances on the forestage, then the novel is less well structured than a fine piece of fiction should be. There are many clues throughout House Made of Dawn which indicate that Angela is indeed more important than she seems and which connect her to the central theme of the novel, the way of salvation. Many of these clues relate to her Catholicism; some of them even indicate a symbolic identity with the Virgin Mary.

House Made of Dawn is filled with arcana, some of it coherent, some either incoherent or primarily of private significance to Momaday. There seems to be no strictly literary significance, for instance, to the very suggestive fact that Abel's age at the end of the novel is approximately the same as Momaday's when he finished it or that February 27th, 1952, one of the last dates in the novel, is Momaday's eighteenth birthday. One of Tosamah's sermons, delivered on January 26 and 27, 1952, had been published by Momaday as a personal reminiscence in the January 26, 1967 issue of The Reporter. A string of details, including the names of Angela St. John, Juan Reyes Fragua, and John Big Bluff Tosamah, links St. John the Evangelist to the novel. Tosamah's sermon on "The Gospel According to St. John" is delivered on the feastday of St. Polycarp, John's beloved disciple, and the "Rainy Mountain" sermon occurs on the feastday of St. John the Eloquent, author of the eighty-eight homilies on the Gospel of St. John. Dates and their significance form another set of "coincidences": July 20, the first day of the novel, is the anniversary of a cultural crisis for each of the three Indian nations most important in the novel; Kiowa, Navaho, and Jemez Pueblo. Twice Momaday mentions the day of the week; in each case his matching of day and date is correct, and February 27, 1952, was Ash Wednesday. The dates of the communications from Father Nicolas form a pattern based on the sanctoral cycle and the Feast of the Sacred Heart, and that pattern is a commentary on Nicolas's character.

Lending coherence to these apparently disjointed facts is not my present purpose; some of them may be immediately illuminating to readers of the novel, others much less so. What is surely clear, however, is that Momaday's novel is very carefully constructed and that Catholicism plays a much greater role in it than a first reading might suggest. Even disregarding such obvious items as the presence of two priests, four church services, and two fiestas, or the selection of names like Abel and Angela Grace St. John or Francisco and Porcingula, there remain details that illustrate Momaday's concern with making Christianity and, more particularly, Catholicism part of the fictive world of House Made of Dawn. Angela assists at a mass which is "a feast of Martyrs," with "scarlet chasuble." Waiting for Abel, she reads "from the lives of the saints." In at least three cases, Father Nicolas quotes the appropriate Gospel for the day's Mass at the beginning of his journal entry (November 22, December 25, January 5) and once he quotes a very pertinent section of the Credo.

This information suggests that House Made of Dawn may be a Christian morality play; its subject is spiritual redemption in a squalid, hellish temporal world. The Christianity of the novel is unorthodox, like the Catholicism practiced at the pueblos of New Mexico. It shares the chthonic, carnal nature of Pueblo Catholicism illustrated so well by Margot Astrov's description of a Christmas Mass at San Felipe:

When I reached the sanctuario to give my little offering, I set eyes on the most unexpected sight of my life. Maria and Jose were lying in a bed on the altar, offerings of bread piled at their heads. The Indian in front of me was just lifting the bedcover gently … and then kissing Maria, lightly, but with great devotion.

Abel requires reconciliation with his death, reunion with his culture; the spiritual redemption he ultimately finds through a return to his own place, his own center, at Walatowa. Angela comes to a similar peace with her own culture; she is saved through her affair with Abel and her contact with the Pueblo Indians, who teach her to accept her body and its needs. She shows Abel the path of salvation, serving as the mediatrix between his lost soul and the culture he is seeking to rejoin. Like the Virgin, she is not a savior but a model of salvation.

Among the structures of the book is a system of analogies between Angela and the Virgin Mary; the system begins with her name: since Mary was given to St. John's safekeeping after the death of Jesus, Angela's last name is appropriate, and her middle name may remind us of "Hail, Mary, Full of Grace." It is her first name that carries the most complex references. She is Angela because Our Lady of the Angels is the patroness of both her home, Los Angeles, and Walatowa. Her first name serves the double purpose of underlining her place of origin and hinting at some connection with the Virgin. Further analogies occur in the text; the last major one develops a thematic center of the book.

When she comes to visit Abel in the hospital, she recounts to him the story she likes to tell her son

… about a young Indian brave. He was born of a bear and a maiden, she said, and he was noble and wise. He had many adventures, and he became a great leader and saved his people. It was the story Peter liked best of all, and she always thought of him, Abel, when she told it.

Though Ben, who recounts the incident, recognizes that the story is "secret and important to her," he misunderstands the reference to Abel; he thinks Abel is the son in the story, but he is the father. In their love scene, Angela imagines Abel as a "great Bear." Though she is pregnant by her white husband, she fears and hates the fetus. Her story is the myth of Peter's birth, and Ben's Navaho version of a similar myth makes it clearer. Ben is reminded of the Mountain Chant story, of two girls who are seduced by a bear and a snake. The snake does not impregnate his lover, but the bear has a child by his and begins a generation of bearmen. If Abel is the bear, then Martin St. John, Angela's husband, should somehow be a snake. The witch of "The Longhair" was a "white man" and a snake, and Abel's assailant in "The Priest of the Sun" was a white man named Martinez and nicknamed "culebra" or rattle-snake. These parallels establish a clear connection between these two characters and Martin St. John; the implications of these correspondences is that Peter's white father is spiritually sterile, like the sterile snake of the Navaho story, and Peter's spiritual father is Abel. In Angela's mythmaking, her son becomes the savior Christ. Like Christ, Peter has dubious parentage; like Christ, he has a physical father and a spiritual father; and like Christ, he is to "save his people." That Peter's "people" are white adds an ironic overtone to this complex system of meanings and associations. But Abel's role in Angela's myth of her own transfiguration is clear. The great bear is a new agent of divine impregnation when it mounts her in the body of Abel.

Smaller, less important, but provocative contact points between Angela and the Virgin occur in the early part of the novel. She first appears on July 21, the feast of two Marys—the Virgin because it is Saturday, Mary Magdalene because the latter's regular feast falls on Sunday the twenty-second and hence must be celebrated on Saturday. Angela's appearance in the novel is immediately preceded by the ringing of the Angelus, a hymn of the Virgin. Later Momaday reveals rather circuitously the exact date of her arrival at Walatowa. Of July 25 and the Benavides house he says:

It was no longer the chance place of her visitation, or the tenth day, but now the dominion of her next day and the day after, as far ahead as she cared to see.

"Visitation" is the key word, referring to the visitation of a priest and to Mary's visit to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. "Dominion" is also a key word, with its religious connotations. But the strange fact is the selection of days. If July 25th was the tenth day, then Angela arrived on the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, July 16th. And the day on which this information is revealed is July 26th (it is after midnight), the feast of St. Anne, the mother of Mary.

One's immediate reaction to this data might be that Angela is a blasphemous caricature of Mary, but in fact she represents a revision of the orthodox mother of God, and the form of that revision suggests the form of Abel's salvation. Angela's physical appearance changes to dramatize the revision: when she first arrives at Walatowa, Father Olguin is attracted to her because she seems a proper type of the Virgin. She is beautiful but not sensual; her beauty is of the spiritual or ascetic sort. She is all black and white, with black hair and pale skin, pale nails, pale lipstick. She is thin though not unattractively so. She is, in fact, a-sensual, a hater of flesh and disgusted with the workings of her own body, which she speaks of in terms drawn from the anatomical and physiological preoccupations of a doctor, like her white husband:

She could think of nothing more vile and obscene than the raw flesh and blood of her body, the raveled veins and the gore upon her bones … She did not fear death, only the body's implication in it. And at odd moments she wished with all her heart to die by fire, fire of such intense heat that her body would dissolve in it all at once. There must be no popping of fat or any burning on of the bones. Above all she must give off no stench of death.

Her affair with Abel changes her attitudes, Olguin's attitude toward her, and even her appearance. When she reenters the novel, near the end, she is no longer black and white but "golden," "silver," and "copper." Her child is no longer a "monstrous fetal form … feeding upon her," but an object of almost religious adoration. And when she confesses to Olguin, immediately after making love to Abel, her confession is "far from desperate, underlain with perfect presence"; she confesses as a way of informing Olguin and of deflating his pretensions of understanding the Indians, rather than from a sense of sin. While Olguin is with her and after he departs in a rage, she communes with the rain, craving its touch and listening to it instead of him:

She closed her eyes, and the clear aftervision of the rain, which she could still hear and feel so perfectly as to conceive of nothing else, obliterated all the mean and myriad fears that had laid hold of her in the past.

Through the agency of her affair with Abel, Angela achieves the reconciliation of flesh and spirit which, ironically, Abel is seeking. The new savior is born of a sensual mating with a bear, not through the chaste agency of a dove. The virgin is not a virgin but adulteress, since Angela's spiritual lover is a sensate being. This integration of flesh and spirit is represented by Angela's transformation into a chthonic mother in the latter part of the novel, and her return to her own roots, to Los Angeles, points the way of Abel's salvation. Angela accepts the real world into which she must fit, and Abel must return to Walatowa for the same spiritual peace. Angela sustains her life with a self-fulfilling myth, the "lie" of Peter's paternity, and Abel must, in his fashion, create or adopt a myth to sustain himself.

Bleak and painful though the conclusion may be, clearly the implication of the final pages of the novel is that, for Abel, to live in holy poverty is better than to subsist in Los Angeles. Ben Benally, a Navaho who has "made it" in the big city, illustrates the hollow merits of low income living. He protests that in the Indian Southwest, "the land is empty and dead" and full of "a lot of old people, going no place and dying off," a view explicitly contradicted by the narrator. Ben talks of opportunity in Los Angeles, of getting "money and clothes" and "going someplace fast." Yet he has one Goodwill coat, which he gives away in a futile gesture of Christian charity; he lives in a flat with cobwebs and soggy floor. In this surreal environment, "it's dark all the time, even at noon, and the lights are always on. But at night when it rains the lights are everywhere." Even his wages are at the mercy of a sadistic policeman's whims. He sits alone in his room for some fifty pages of text, yet says of his town, "You never have to be alone," adding that you can always go downtown and mingle with the crowds of white shoppers—though they are people whose talk "you can't understand." Even Ben's sexual aesthetics are distorted by his environment. The beautiful women of Momaday's Southwest are characterized by slimness and grace, girls like Francisco's Porcingula, Abel's Angela, and even Ben's girl Pony. But in Los Angeles Ben says of Manygoats' girl, "She was goodlooking, that girl—you know, great big breasts" and he wonders at Abel's interest in Angela because "she was goodlooking, all right, but she wasn't young or big anywhere and I couldn't see anything to get excited about."

In spite of the consolations of peyote and sing-parties, even an enterprising go-getter like Ben leads a bleak, barren, and dehumanizing life in Los Angeles. Through the entire "Night Chanter" runs a thread of defensiveness and homesickness. In rainy Los Angeles, one can have money if he pays the price, as Ben does, but perhaps money without spiritual sustenance is as worthless as rain falling on asphalt streets. Water is wealth in New Mexico; rain is the greatest blessing of God in Indian country. But in the white world, as represented by Los Angeles, the rain is wasted; it ruins floors, ceilings, beds, and it fertilizes nothing.

It might appear that Milly, Abel's white girlfriend in the city, represents a way of coming to terms with the white world. But Milly offers a merely temporal assistance. As a social worker, her primary concern is with Abel's secular well-being. She offers the same stagnant life that Ben is trapped in:

… Milly believed in tests, questions and answers, words on paper. She was a lot like Ben. She believed in Honor, Industry, the Second Chance, the Brotherhood of Man, the American Dream …

Milly offers no more than the illusion of an escape; there is nothing she can do for Abel's soul, because she doesn't understand his spiritual needs. She can't even share her own heritage with him, because she comes from a childhood more painful, more barren, than his own. She, like Angela, has a myth of her motherhood, but hers is founded on the terrible, nihilistically final death of her daughter Carrie. Neither Milly nor Angela can offer Abel any relief from his physical situation. To stay with Milly means to become another Ben, cut off from all but the most meager spiritual benefits, living in too much rain, with enough money to stay drunk but not enough to escape a private, one-room ghetto, talking about getting ahead but running in place, a victim like the helpless grunions Abel imagines on the seashore. Not even Angela can intervene to save him. No real relationship is possible between her and Abel, since for Angela their relationship is not real or social, but mythic, something she has created from the raw material of her experience with him, and the myth can only be sustained in his absence. Her salvation is parallel to, rather than equal to, his; Abel must learn to live in his native world, just as Angela learns to function in her world.

Angela has learned to let her mind and body move evenly together; she alone of all the women is a successful mother, and aside from Tosamah's grandmother, Aho, only she can create nurturing myth and recognize its value. Milly, Porcingula, Abel's mother, all in some way fail their children. Of the three young men in the novel—Ben, Abel, and Tosamah—only Tosamah has achieved a significant melding of flesh and spirit and "seen to the center of the world's being." He attributes his good fortune to the teaching of Aho. Angela's role as analogue of the Virgin is not to provide salvation, but to aid and comfort Abel as he seeks it. By re-creating for him the myth of their affair, she demonstrates for him the sustaining power of mythic perspective, the redeeming strength of sacramental vision.

In her wholeness of flesh and spirit, Angela can survive in her own world; but the tragedy of Abel, and, by extension, of the Indian in white America, is that he must choose between spiritual and physical poverty, between the dehumanizing and spiritually sterile white world and the material poverty of the pueblo. Any romantic heroism in Abel's final choice is undercut by the fact that the decision is practically made for him. He does not so much choose to go back as permit himself to be driven back by circumstances beyond his control. [The critic adds in a footnote: "If Momaday had simply had Abel pack his bag and go back, surely he would be open to charges of romanticizing his hero. From a sociological viewpoint, his return to Walatowa is a defeat."] Nevertheless, his return is the proper end; he could never find peace—or prosperity—in the land's end hell of Los Angeles.

Bleak and ambiguous though Abel's return and the final moments of the novel are, Momaday loads his concluding pages with suggestions of potential, perhaps even imminent triumph. Francisco and Angela are the two models for Abel's redemption; these two, the "longhairs" of the first part of the novel, point a path to him from their different perspectives. In a deathbed dream, Francisco recalls the sacramental killing of a bear in his youth, his initiation into manhood, and the rite is in a sense Abel's initiation, the sacrament of Abel's atonement. After this rite, Abel can truly be the bear and feel its medicinal power. As Francisco and the bear act out their drama, they demonstrate that death is natural and not to be feared; Francisco sees death in a sacred manner, and the bear feels no fear, not even any hurt as Francisco shoots it, only sadness. Abel's inability to see the rightness of the death of creatures is part of the wound in his soul that must be healed. In a white man's way, he sees the empirical reality of things—a shot goose, a huddled captive eagle—instead of their transcendent, sacramental forms. After his experiences in Los Angeles, his skirmish with death, Abel has lost his paralyzing horror of mortality and learned, as Francisco has always known, that evil is abroad in the night and must be faced.

not in the hope of anything, but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and respect.

This vision of the dignity in dancing over the abyss, recalled by Francisco in his last delirium, is the motive for Abel's dawn run; this vision opens onto the path of salvation.

Angela adds one further undertone to these final moments of the novel, for she is in the background of February 28th, that last dawn, giving one last Catholic association to the theme of Abel's salvation. In 1952, the feastday of Angela of Foligno, the spiritual child of St. Francis of Assisi and the author of a book on the way of salvation, fell on February 28th, the day after Ash Wednesday. Described in Butler's Lives as one of the three great medieval mystics, her final vision closely parallels the last moments of the novel and sums up the theme of spiritual and temporal wellbeing: she saw an "abyss of light in which the truth of God was spread out like a road …" and the Lord said "Follow my footsteps from the cross on earth to this light." When Abel begins to run in the gathering light, pursuing the strong and healthy runners outdistancing him, running like Francisco after the shadows ahead, running beyond his pain, it is the morning after Ash Wednesday. When he joins the runners that morning, the day signifies not a resurrection, not a completed assimilation into his culture, but the beginning of forty days of penance. Abel's first act of penance, running in the rain, dusted with ashes, gives him back the words of Ben's song about the generative pollen, the rising sun; then gives him back his own language. The dawn is not a salvation but the beginning of salvation, the forty days in the wilderness from which Abel could return in triumph.

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