House Made of Dawn | Martha Scott Trimble

This literature criticism consists of approximately 9 pages of analysis & critique of House Made of Dawn.
This section contains 2,504 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
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Martha Scott Trimble

SOURCE: N. Scott Momaday, Boise State College, 1973, 46 p.

Trimble is an American educator and critic. In the excerpt below, she briefly analyzes some major themes and symbols in House Made of Dawn.

Invited to submit to Harper & Row some poetry for publication, Momaday instead submitted the prose manuscript of House Made of Dawn for the Harper Prize Novel Contest, even though he had missed the deadline. Harper & Row published the book in 1968; Signet followed with a paperback edition in 1969. "Three Sketches from House Made of Dawn" had appeared in the October 1966 issue of The Southern Review, with a footnote announcing the pending publication by Harper & Row, and with a statement by the author:

The novel is about an Indian who returns from World War II and finds that he cannot recover his tribal identity; nor can he escape the cultural context in which he grew up. He is torn, as they say, between two worlds, neither of which he can enter and be a whole man. The story is that of his struggle to survive on the horns of a real and tragic dilemma in contemporary society….

The three sketches were incorporated into House Made of Dawn: "The Sparrow and the Reed" principally as the first chapter; "Homecoming" as the first part of the second chapter; and "The Albino" as part of the fourth chapter. A comparison of these sketches in their journal form with the form they have in the novel shows that Momaday had carefully revised them to achieve greater clarity and precision.

The seminal forms of other chapters were also printed in a literary journal before the novel was published. "Two Sketches from House Made of Dawn" appeared in the New Mexico Quarterly (Summer 1967): "The Bear and the Colt" was incorporated into the next to the last chapter of the novel; and "The Eagles of the Valley Grande" was placed just after what had been "Homecoming" in the first chapter.

House Made of Dawn, a novel of only sixty-five to seventy thousand words, appeared on the editor's desk. It was not a book of poems as the editor had anticipated. Frances McCullough was the editor who saw the literary value of the book and backed it. House Made of Dawn was dismissed casually by some reviewers, and sadly misunderstood by others. Only a handful recognized its merit. Then to the surprise not only of the author but also of numbers of incredulous reviewers and others in the publishing world, the judges for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction named House Made of Dawn—a first novel by an unknown author—the 1969 winner….

House Made of Dawn opens with a brief prologue that describes Abel running in an early spring dawn on the reservation. Abel's running with the dawn at the end of the last chapter, however, emerges as a religious act leading to self-realization. The intervening chapters describe the events that help explain Abel's run. Momaday divides these chapters, each one headed by a specific date, into four parts of varying lengths. The first part, entitled "The Longhair," contains seven chapters having dates ranging from July 20 to August 2, 1945. It is set in a pueblo at "Walatowa, Cañon de San Diego." Parts two and three take place in Los Angeles in 1952—the former, "The Priest of the Sun," occurring on January 26 and 27, and the latter, "The Night Chanter," on February 20. The final part, "The Dawn Runner," returns the reader to Walatowa and contains two chapters dated February 27 and 28, 1952.

Momaday's combination of specific chronological ordering with the circular repetition of the scene showing Abel's run emerges as a key to understanding the novel's essential nature. The book contains oppositions arising from two points. One relates to the point of view Momaday expressed in his [January 31, 1971 lecture at Colorado State University entitled "The American Indian in the Conflict of Tribalism and Modern Society"]: the differences between the white's and the Indian's view of the world and the need to reveal to each culture the knowledge possessed by the other.

The haunting descriptions of the always acutely present landscape contained in the novel spring from Momaday's background. As he says in "What will happen to the land?": "Landscapes tend to stand out in my memory. When I think back to a particular time in my life, I tend to see it in terms of its setting, the background in which it achieves for me a certain relief. Or, to put it another way, I am inclined closely to associate events with the physical dimensions in which they take place … my existence is indivisible with the land."

The other opposition has something of the same nature, is, if one likes, a concretization of the first opposition. What the reader initially thinks he knows about what happens in the novel, and why, sometimes turns out later to contrast with what he actually does know. As a minor illustration, ask what theater Abel served in during the Second World War, and then ask what is the basis of that knowledge.

As the novel continues, the effect of these oppositions grows more profound. At least with reference to the book, if the contrasts between actual knowledge and apparent knowledge can be reconciled, it will be clear that the materials Momaday presents have not been merely organized into unity by the artistic conventions available for that purpose but rather have become fused into unity through the combined efforts of both author and reader. These efforts might eventually yield cultural results also.

Plotting the events of this novel has some conventional aspects. In House Made of Dawn specific dates stand at the head of the chapters. But the events Momaday depicts are forced into an apparently plotted order by those dates. In actuality, they explode out of their chronological patterns, and not only because Momaday depicts them more than once. Many have taken place at some period before the date on which we see them described. We are sometimes not clear about the specific time of their occurrence. We are not sure, for example, how old Abel was when he captured the eagle as a member of the Eagle Watchers Society, nor how old "old enough" was when Francisco took Abel and his older brother, Vidal, to explain to them the movements of the sun along the silhouetted rim of Black Mesa.

In one sense, it is important that we not be sure when such events occur; their having happened becomes more pervasively influential that way. Their mystery, part of their significance, increases.

The book, then, is a pool, circular in structure, not a rising-action-climax-falling-action-all-from-the-same-point-of-view piece of fiction. Momaday patently does not use a consistent point of view, for example. In Part Three, "The Night Chanter," Momaday presents Benally, Abel's Navaho friend in Los Angeles, as a conventional first person narrator. The other three parts are not so conventional. For example, Part Two, "The Priest of the Sun," utilizes an essentially omniscient point of view, but one noticeably modified by stream-of-consciousness when it portrays Abel's agonized return to a hazy awareness after his severe beating by Martinez, a Los Angeles policeman who took pleasure in tormenting the Indians he came into contact with.

A strong sense of the mystery of what goes on in the novel emerges most clearly from Momaday's characterizations. As there seems to be no likely cause-effect pattern in parts of the plot, so there is no fully graspable sense of motive behind the characters' behavior. In fact, the vivid descriptions of the land are balanced by a vagueness, a mysteriousness in the descriptions of the appearances and behavior of the characters, with only a few exceptions. Momaday describes Angela St. John thoroughly, and the Albino. The others, even the central figure, Abel, are not thoroughly described. However, even the detailed descriptions of Angela and the Albino add to the novel's sense of mystery. Especially bewildering are the motives behind their conduct—conduct having extremely important consequences in Abel's life. The scene during which Abel kills the Albino provides the most striking instance of Momaday's refusal to give an explicit explanation of motives, Abel's as well as the Albino's.

Generally speaking, those figures whom we meet at Walatowa, including Francisco (Abel's grandfather), and the Catholic priests, Father Olguin and his distant predecessor, Father Nicolàs, remain in deeper shadow than do people like Milly and the "relocated" Indians Tosamah and Benally, all of whom we see in Los Angeles.

If we as readers remained in shadow, the novel could not challenge us so deeply as it does. Before we can grow enlightened about the sometimes mysterious characters in the book and their sometimes bewildering conduct, we have to recognize that, as in his poetry, Momaday writes with symbolic intent. When we look for symbolic significance, we no longer need be discomfited by the lack of information about, for example, the disease that had "stiffened" one of Francisco's legs. Instead, we can hypothesize about the significance of the disease and its bearing on the novel's themes. Then if we wish to guess which disease had afflicted Francisco, we have a basis to use. We work backward from the significance of the crippled leg to what might have been its literal cause rather than the other way around.

The Indian subject matter of the novel contributes a source of symbolism external to but complementing the symbolism created within the context of the novel by such things as Abel's and Angela's names and the Albino's sickly whiteness. We may resolve many of the mysterious things unique to House Made of Dawn, but Momaday, in making his points about the range of relationships possible between cultures, wishes to leave at least the non-Indian reader with an abiding sense of what he does not know. The novel's many scenes depicting Indian religious activities are the primary means of presenting the mystery that must remain. The activities associated with the feast of Santiago, a Catholic saint who metamorphosed into the originator of the pre-Christian Pueblo culture, provide one example, for one has only a general idea of the dynamics of the "rooster pulling" ceremony, even after reading Father Olguin's tale exposing the possible origin of the ceremony; and the ancient ceremony enacted seven days later, on August first, remains as essentially mysterious to the reader as it is unsettling to Father Olguin. As Momaday says of the people of the town: "after four centuries of Christianity, they still pray in Tanoan to the old deities of the earth and sky."

Of course this sort of symbolism connects to the symbolism unique to the novel. The song Benally sings ("House Made of Dawn": hence the novel's title) to his battered friend the night before Abel leaves Los Angeles to return to Walatowa is one version of the last song of a formal nine-day purification ceremony in which the major participants are a priest and a patient. Within the context of the work, Benally would be serving as a symbolic priest preparing Abel for his return to the reservation and his subsequent ability to make the ritual run in the dawn after Francisco's death. Abel makes the run either despite or because of his great physical and psychological anguish.

In the recurring ritual running, the themes of the novel most intensely fuse with the traditional symbolism of the Indian religious beliefs. As Abel resumes consciousness after his beating at the hands of Martinez, a beating ultimately arising from his refusal to fear Martinez, he remembers what he saw after knifing the Albino. He was hiding and saw one group of runners, the "runners after evil," go by "with great dignity and calm, not in the hope of anything, but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and with respect. Evil was."

The mystery still remains, for although Momaday explains that Abel "suddenly saw the crucial sense in their going," he does not say whether the insight came as Abel watched from hiding on the night of August 1, 1945, or as he remembered the event during his struggle back to life on the night of January 26, 1952.

Whichever the case, the insight implies a recognition of the need for forgiveness that a neutral or resigned response to the presence of something negative or evil involves. This process also includes the forgiveness of those who called him from his life to fight a war he did not grasp and who put him in prison for six years for killing a being he considered a snake, and therefore evil, i.e., the Albino. Perhaps he could run, finally, because he recognized that the snake, too, should continue to exist—a recognition that goes beyond the Christianity which for so many years in the Pueblo preached forgiveness.

In addition to Momaday's treatment of evil, other themes appear in the book. Perhaps the suffering of the urban Indians is the most noticeable of these, rendered more painful to watch because of their reluctance to admit to themselves that they suffer. Their strategies for avoiding such recognition make up much of the material in Parts Two and Three of the novel. Momaday does not assert that suffering is an Indian prerogative, of course, for all the non-Indian characters of any importance to the novel also suffer. What he does suggest is that Indians may have ways to overcome suffering which others might profit from knowing about. These others might risk the loss of some of their own culturally determined portions of their sense of self, but that risk would be no more than that which cultures subordinate to Western Civilization were forced to take. Growth to maturity requires some such risk for every individual anyway. Benally, however, sometimes yearns rather sentimentally for the tribal way of life. We see this longing in his description of the night before Abel returns.

In-depth scholarly evaluation of House Made of Dawn has been slow in appearing. The complexity of the novel and the layers of possible interpretation may delay what will be a growing body of evaluative work. Hopefully, if studied for sociological or anthropological reasons, the book will not be dismissed without adequate attention to its literary value. So, too, if studied as literature, it should not be accepted as art only but also as a re-creation of unique human experience….

[House Made of Dawn] is a complex, symbolic expression of how language and culture tend through their own territorial imperatives to encompass one, sometimes to a point of isolation. If one voluntarily or forcedly intermixes with another culture and its language, he may find that in the interim he has lost both cultures and must become reacculturated. House Made of Dawn transcends any Indian problem; that the novel is a universal statement does not make the effect of Momaday's portrayal of the deculturation of an Indian youth any the less lamentable. If man is the archetypal Adam, in the archetypal Eden, year by year, society by society, generation after generation—if he is the "house made of dawn," the regeneration comes about.

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This section contains 2,504 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Martha Scott Trimble