Literature Study GuidesCeremonySection 1 Battle Wounds Summary

Ceremony | Study Guide

Leslie Marmon Silko

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Ceremony | Section 1 (Battle Wounds) | Summary

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Summary

Ceremony opens with three Native American poems about the "Thought Woman" who invents the story the reader is about to read, before cutting to a scene where Tayo, the wounded Native American war veteran, lies in bed, struggling to sleep. Waves of memory wash over him as he thinks about fighting Japanese soldiers during World War II. Tayo has been sent home from the war with "battle fatigue," known today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His dreams don't make sense. He recalls battle scenes, but the faces of his loved ones, particularly his Uncle Josiah, are superimposed over the faces of enemy soldiers. Memories from the war entangle with memories from Tayo's past and present, leaving him feeling panicked. He remembers seeing a line of Japanese corpses and being certain one of them was Josiah. He screamed and clawed at the corpse, which is the reason the doctors sent him back home, noting that "hallucinations were common with malarial fever."

Tayo shakily climbs out of bed at Auntie's home, where he has been resting since returning to the reservation. He goes outside to tend to some of the farm animals, trying to push away thoughts of his Uncle Josiah. A terrible drought has covered the land in dust. Animals suffer, and no crops will grow. During the war Tayo had been stationed in the jungle, in a deluge of rainwater. The constant rain left men weak, sick, and injured. In a moment of desperation, Tayo prayed for "dry air, dry as a hundred years squeezed out of yellow sand." Now Tayo feels certain the suffering of this drought resulted from his prayer. He remembers the doctors sending him home from the war because he started crying and couldn't stop. Often he cries so hard he vomits. This hasn't gotten any better since he came home.

Tayo sits under the shade of an elm tree. He recalls crying and vomiting at the train station during his journey home. He collapsed and a Japanese woman helped him, which surprised him because he thought all of "those people" had been interned. While he's thinking, he sees his old army buddy, Harley, riding toward him on a too-small burro. Harley has also brought a blind mule and asks Tayo to join him at the bar. They have to ride the farm animals because the nearest bar is miles away. Tayo doesn't drink as much as the other army veterans, but Harley doesn't want to drink alone. Tayo mounts the blind mule tied to Harley's donkey, and they plod through the dusty air toward the bar.

Analysis

The importance of storytelling becomes apparent in the novel's opening poems, which depict the "Thought Woman" inventing Tayo's story. The poem's narrator states, "[Stories] aren't just entertainment ... They are all we have, you see, / all we have to fight off illness and death." This prepares the reader for the novel's main theme: the importance of storytelling. Tayo's "battle fatigue," or PTSD, is compounded by the fact that he cannot speak about what he's seen without vomiting. Memories make him physically ill. The poem's narrator notes, "You don't have anything / if you don't have the stories"—and the reader sees how Tayo has lost everything. He can barely move or speak, and he lies isolated in the dark of his Auntie's spare bedroom. The importance of stories takes on greater meaning when considering the position of Native American culture at large. Ceremony highlights the culture clash between white America and native America. Native American populations like the one Tayo belongs to are shrinking. White America has taken over the land, appropriated the culture, and educated the children to despise their heritage. The opening poems, however, remind Native Americans that "[t]heir evil is mighty / but it can't stand up to our stories." In Ceremony, storytelling is the most important way to save Native American culture. When the stories are forgotten, native culture is lost.

Tayo's sickness results from his overwhelming sense of guilt. He feels guilty for leaving the ranch to enlist, because while he was away his Uncle Josiah died. He feels guilty that Auntie's son, Rocky, died after Tayo promised to bring him home safely from the war. He feels guilt over the drought, which he blames himself for after cursing the rain while in the Philippines. There isn't a clear timeline in the novel—rather, it creates a world in which present moments intermingle with memories (as the narrator describes, "the tension of little threads being ... tied together [that] snagged and tangled" when separated)—but it appears the drought has been going on for six years. The whole ranch suffers: parched crops, hungry animals, and desperate farmers. This parallels Tayo's emotional state. Tayo calls his tongue "dry and dead, the carcass of a tiny rodent." When the doctor at the army hospital asks why he cries all the time, Tayo says, "They are dead and everything is dying." As the novel contrasts white culture and Native culture, it also contrasts the living world (the natural world) and the dead world of inanimate objects—neon signs, plastic bottles, and such. White culture threatens to overtake native culture in the novel, like the dead world threatens to overtake the living. The building blocks for Ceremony's main themes are presented in this opening section, although they won't be fully realized until much later in the novel.

Finally, this section creates initial contrasts between two war veterans, Tayo and Harley. Both saw extreme violence and trauma during the war, but Harley claims, "You were really sick when you got back, and there isn't a damn thing wrong with me." Although Harley appears more emotionally balanced than Tayo, it is quickly revealed that Harley abandoned his flock of sheep during the drought and feels no remorse that they were annihilated by wild animals: "They weren't worth anything anyway," he laughs. By the end of the novel, Tayo heals himself by learning to appreciate the importance of all living things, even animals as seemingly insignificant as ants. Harley's lack of respect for the sheep's lives hints that he has already lost his connection to his Native American culture and has, therefore, lost his soul.

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