Summary and Analysis
The Desert Sections 24-25
After a few months, city life starts getting to Dad. He hates the order as well as what he sees as a pervasive and incorrect view of wildlife. For example, when he reads in the newspaper that police have shot a mountain lion in someone's backyard, he takes the family to the zoo to prove his point that all wild animals can be handled safely if given the proper respect. The family's first stop is the alligator pen, where Dad stares down an alligator who swims off after a brief standoff. Next, he takes them to the cheetah cage and hops the barrier so that only metal bars separate him from the beast. After a few moments of quiet contemplation between the cheetah and Dad, he reaches through the bars and pets the giant cat's face. It nuzzles up to him and licks his hand. Jeannette hops the fence and stands beside him; the cheetah licks her palm. Soon, visitors and staff take notice and the family is asked to leave the zoo.
Dad's restlessness is not cured, however, and he begins losing so many electrician jobs he gets kicked out of the union. Again, Jeannette and her siblings are often hungry, but Jeannette's able to get a free hot lunch at school, so it is not as bad as it has been. Dad spends his days investigating union corruption, but often comes home drunk from these "investigations." Mom decides it is no reason to despair and encourages the children in throwing their hearts into Christmas this year, going so far as to suggest they celebrate it on the actual day and not a week later. For the month of December the kids and Mom decorate the house and wrap presents for each other. On Christmas night, the family attends Mass and Mom insists Dad joins them even though he is extremely intoxicated. At church he makes a scene. When the family gets home, Dad sets the tree on fire with one of the gifts he received from Mom, a vintage cigarette lighter shaped like a Scottish terrier. He sits on the sofa laughing while everyone else puts out the fire that has ruined all the presents.
Once again, fire emerges as a metaphor for the family's problems, and Walls provides further insight into Dad's character. In these sections, Dad's obstinate nature causes both delight and problems. First, Dad's refusal to accept society's attitude toward wild animals as things to be controlled, leads to a magical moment for Jeannette when she gets to touch a captive cheetah. The zoo scene shows that Dad's faith in himself can indeed lead him to do some of the extraordinary things he imagines. However, his obstinacy does not always yield such positive results, as his behavior at midnight Mass depicts. Dad, fueled by copious amounts of alcohol, is unable to observe the church service quietly. His stubborn behavior results in a horrible Christmas for the Walls family: not only do they get kicked out of church, but he sets their Christmas tree and the presents beneath it ablaze.
Walls again uses fire as both a literal and metaphorically destructive image. Recall the other fires the family has experienced: Jeannette's burns, the hotel fire in San Francisco, and Jeannette and Brian's laboratory fire. While the family survived those fires, each one left a different kind of emotional (and in Jeannette's case, physical) scar. In the Christmas fire, the entire family is scarred — not by the fire itself, but by Dad's behavior. Mom is unable to leave him; the kids are unable to change the situation. Therefore, the fire works as a symbol of the unending cycle of poverty and disappointment the family undergoes; as soon as something positive happens, it is dashed by some sort of disaster — in this case, Dad.