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House Made of Dawn | Study Guide

N. Scott Momaday

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House Made of Dawn | Themes


Holy Men

House Made of Dawn has numerous holy men: Father Olguin, Fray Nicolás, the Priest of the Sun (John Big Bluff Tosamah), and Ben Benally (a Navajo who is called the Night Chanter). Abel's journey is the center of the book, but his journey includes encounters with men of faith both on and off the reservation.

Father Olguin is an outsider within the Native American reservation community. Abel—as with most of the people in his life before the war—knew the priest, even though there is no direct mention of Abel participating in the priest's religion. At the end of the novel, however, Abel goes to the priest to tell him his grandfather has died and "you must bury him." Father Olguin is also the man who sends Abel to work for Angela St. John. He is a part of Abel's journey, even if he is not an overt influence.

Similarly, the connection between Abel and Fray Nicolás is distant. In this case the deceased priest is an influence only via his role in the lives of Father Olguin and Abel's grandfather, Francisco, who is mentioned by name in the dead priest's writing. The priest says Francisco is "evil & desires to do me some injury." He further notes he thinks Francisco was intimate with Porcingula Pecos, whom he calls "vile." (This relationship is referenced again at the close of the novel as Francisco is dying.) Fray Nicolás also wrote of the birth of Juan Reyes, the albino Abel kills. The deceased priest and his letters serve as a way to transfer information clearly (although still with bias), from the past to the reader.

The Priest of the Sun, John Big Bluff Tosamah, is a more direct presence. One full section of the novel is entitled, "The Priest of the Sun." He is a strong presence in the Native American community Abel finds when he arrives in Los Angeles, and in significant ways, he denotes a connection between the off-reservation world and the world of Abel (and Ben's) past. He is not reservation-raised, and he is uncomfortable with Abel, who is unable to assimilate. Tosamah is not portrayed as a negative character, however. Most characters in the novel are not assigned roles as villains or heroes; even the religious figures are humanized. Tosamah shares mythic stories, and draws connections between Christian faith (a gospel referencing "the Word") and the Kiowa story of Tai-me. He speaks of his grandmother and her strong relationships to faith and words.

Interestingly, the character of Ben Benally isn't identified as a holy man. He does not speak of evil or offer sermons. He feels the need to pray though: "It was good going out like that, and it made you want to pray." It is not a thing he does loudly or for attention. "I kept it down because I didn't want anybody but him to hear it." Ben's faith is the one religious presence in the text that overtly influences Abel. The prayer he prays begins: "Tségihi. House made of dawn. House made of evening light." Ben's influence, his incorporation of faith as part of living, appears in the section directly before Abel's return to his grandfather's house. The section closes with another reference to a prayer.


Most of the main characters experience extreme alienation. Abel has been isolated his entire life. In childhood many of his cultural connections were absent in key ways: not knowing his father's origin, his mother dying, and then his brother dying. In his early adulthood he was alienated as a soldier in a war on foreign soil.

When he returns to the reservation, Abel struggles to connect. He had "returned to his grandfather's house, but the old man was not there." The initial experience has Abel not capable of staying inside. He "paced about the rooms" and feels lost. So he goes out, walks to the river, the incline along the fields, and "[sits] down and [looks] out" over the land. He sees his grandfather and the breeze "bore the scent of earth and grain." This passage, along with others with the sense of nature and being of the land, counters the sense of alienation that fills the novel. When Abel murders the albino, Juan Reyes, he goes to prison—and from there, he goes to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles there is no connection to the land or people. He does not "understand" the sea. He has no community, and the work is menial. Ben Benally tries to help Abel connect, and Milly (the social worker) attempts the same. John Big Bluff Tosamah attempts to create a Native American community via his mix of Christian and Native American story and faith. In all of these cases, however, the characters are unconnected. The brief connectedness comes about through sex with Angela St. John or with Milly. For Ben it is the same with a woman called Pony. Connection via community is absent outside the reservation, and in returning to it after the war, it is likewise unattainable to Abel. The only moments where the overwhelming isolation is seemingly relieved happen because of the physical connection to women or the connection to Earth.


The importance of story and the power of word is a theme that runs throughout the book. The most obvious example of this is in the section entitled "The Priest of the Sun." John Big Bluff Tosamah's first sermon in the book is on the power of the word. He says "It was almost nothing ... a single sound, a word." That word, however, "was, and everything began." In both the Native American story he tells of Tai-me and the Christian Bible he cites, the word is power, beginnings, and makes reality. That is a powerful theme in a book since books are, at their core, about taking words and making a reality.

Within the scope of House Made of Dawn, all of the characters experience the power of words in some way. Father Olguin reads and rereads Fray Nicolás's letter and journal. He looks to these words to make sense of his experiences and life. Even the encounter with the pages is meaningful for Father Olguin. He opens the journal and slides his fingers "slowly upon the dim lines of script, as if it were somehow possible to feel the raised shape of the words."

In terms of the vast distance between reality and words, Abel thinks that "He could not understand the sea; it was not of his world." Nature provided clarity, but not at the sea. It was the mesa and southwestern landscape that spoke to him.

Even literal words are complicated. Trying to communicate with the people outside the reservation is perpetually challenging because "they have a lot of words, and ... your own words are no good."


Nature is related to the title of the book, and it is a central theme in the novel. It is within nature Abel searches for clarity. When he first returns to the reservation, Abel goes out into the land to think: he "stood without thinking, nor did he move, only his eyes roved after something ... something." This connection to nature is not restricted to Abel. Most of the characters within House Made of Dawn have an awareness of nature and its rhythms.

Angela St. John envisions Abel as a natural creature. She watches him chop wood and recalls she had seen "an animal slap at the water, a badger or bear." She thinks how she would have liked to "cup her hand to the wet black snout" and hold "the hot blowing of the bear's life." In her narrative she conflates nature and Abel.

Later, when Ben Benally shares the Night Chant with Abel he notes the prayer is about "the way it used to be, how there was nothing all around but the hills and the sunrise and the clouds." For him, as well as so many other characters, nature is a source of clarity. Being within it is powerful.

N. Scott Momaday's language regarding nature is also keenly poetic. In describing a coming storm, he writes the "thunderheads ... seemed always to have been there, dark and unchanging in the end of vision, in some sense polar and nocturnal." Later a storm is "like a great black snake writhing," and the sky is "a sheer and perfect arc of colors." The presence of nature is captured in visceral details.

Questions for Themes

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Oates has specifically mentioned the "Death and the Maiden" folktales as one inspiration for this story (see "Death and the Maiden" under " Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory "). Some literary critics have
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