Critical Essays Varieties of Narrative Strategy


Ambiguity and Instability

House Made of Dawn is a complex novel which some readers find difficult to read because it does not follow a single chronological story line nor remain within a single consistent point of view. The seeming fragmentation and dislocation of the text is, of course, a deliberate choice on the part of the author, and it actually offers an indication of how the reader is to proceed. At the outset, it is important to recognize that the way the story is told is as much a part of the story — and of the act of reading it — as are such familiar elements as plot and character. House Made of Dawn challenges the reader to do more than follow (or "swallow") a plot: the reader must take an active part in the "construction" of the story, sorting and sifting through different kinds of texts related through varied points of view. The book presents a challenge similar to that of a puzzle, which must be pieced together from apparently random shapes in order for a coherent picture to emerge. In other words, the reader must pay attention to the writing itself, as well as to the story that is told in the writing.

Many of the characters in House Made of Dawn are enigmatic and mysterious, although vividly realized. Their motives are frequently unfathomable. Readers often wonder, for instance, why Abel kills the albino: Is it because he fears some personal injury? Or is he trying to rescue the community, as in the old folk tales, by eliminating an evil person? Is it revenge for being publicly battered and bloodied with the dead rooster? The albino himself is an enigma; he is never seen threatening anyone or in association with any evil that occurs in the village, yet Abel regards him, without question, as an enemy. The text does not answer the question of why the albino seems to go willingly with Abel out to the dunes: Is he aware, as the text suggests, that he will meet his death?

Angela St. John is another mysterious character: Is she simply a sinful temptation for Abel? How do the affair they have and the story she tells him much later, affect his healing process? What about Tosamah, who appears to make fun of everything, including the peyote that centers his worship?

The organization of the book, which seems to depend on a principle of fragmentation and reconstitution, also lends itself to gaps in plot development. One such significant gap is the question of who beats up Abel, breaks his hands, and leaves him on the beach. Benally recounts a scene in which the sadistic police officer, Martinez, bludgeons Abel's hands with a flashlight but does not break any bones, and Abel leaves the apartment days later with the announced intention of finding the culebra and presumably evening the score. Abel awakens on a beach, about fifteen miles from the inner city neighborhood where he lives, with his hands broken. Later, Abel turns up at the apartment, more dead than alive. Questions arise: was it Martinez who injured and nearly killed Abel? How did Abel manage to return to the apartment in his semi-conscious, mangled condition? This is one of several examples of the discontinuity of the plot, of significant elements that tend to disappear in the interstices of the patchwork narration.

With all of these questions, and others like them that emerge in the course of reading the book, the best approach may be to acknowledge and explore the ambiguities themselves rather than trying to resolve them. House Made of Dawn is a profoundly religious book, and the province of religion is the mysterious, the mystical, and the irrational. While religion may offer answers to the problems and questions of life, the answers are rarely reasonable and often seem wildly irrational. The following discussion covers seven textual strategies that Momaday employs in his novel; paying attention to these different types of narration and text can assist in an exploration of mystery and ambiguity.

Omniscient Narrator and Limited Point of View

The omniscient narrator is a detached, third-person voice that often tells the story from a panoramic point of view. The opening prologue of House Made of Dawn is an example of this type of narration, and throughout the book, the author tends to open chapters or sections with this scene-setting voice. This is the most authoritative storytelling voice, comparable to the narrative voice in oral tales and myths. There is no ambiguity regarding the reliability of the narrator with respect to events related.

The phrase "limited point of view" refers to an omniscient third-person narrator who, throughout a story or in part of it, relates the story as it is perceived by one or several characters. Many passages in House Made of Dawn are related from Abel's point of view. A crucial example is the scene — told in several separate fragments — in which Abel awakens on a beach after having endured a brutal beating. The narration follows Abel's consciousness as he tries to sort out the events in his life that have led him to this horrible situation. These particular passages exemplify the profound ambiguity of the novel, for it is here that Abel justifies his murder of the albino; however, it is also evident that Abel's thinking is distorted by pain as he drifts in and out of consciousness and loses awareness of time and his surroundings. The reader is required to ponder the question: What validity, if any, does the novel ask us to ascribe to the perception of witchcraft as a defense against the accusation of murder? Is Abel's judgment of the albino an expression of a culturally coherent set of values, or is it the product of distorted thinking?

Other episodes in the story are narrated in whole, or in part, through the points of view of Angela, Father Olguin, Francisco, and Tosamah. In each case, the biases and personal agendas of the character must be taken into account as part of the storytelling. The text is destabilized as conflicting points of view subvert the reader's confidence in knowing what was supposed to have happened and how it is supposed to be judged.

Stream of Consciousness

Stream of consciousness is a narrative technique that was highly developed early in this century under the influence of psychological theories that focused on association of images as the foundation for mental processes. Stream of consciousness may be regarded as an extreme rendering of limited point of view, in which the focus of the narration is confined exclusively to the often erratic thought processes of a character's consciousness. This technique frequently includes distortion of time, disruption of chronological sequence, and general temporal uncertainty, all of which are characteristic of House Made of Dawn.

Reverie and daydream are terms also associated with stream of consciousness; they refer to a continuum of associational organization that ranges from examples like the lucid, self-contained memories of the dying Francisco to the gently inebriated ramblings of Benally, to the chaotic, disjointed fragments of consciousness of the wounded Abel. The reader can follow some of the stream of association in Benally's monologue as he recollects a horse story told by Abel, which suggests memory of a horse he once owned, which in turn recalls a girl named Pony, with whom he had a brief and sweet encounter. Stream of consciousness may be rendered through first-person or third-person narration, and House Made of Dawn incorporates both: First-person stream of consciousness occurs in passages narrated by Milly and Benally, and third-person stream of consciousness in passages narrated by a third-person narrator through the points of view of Abel and Francisco.

First-Person Narrator and Internal Monologue

First-person narration refers to a narrator who is a character in the text and who tells the story from the subjective, first-person, or "I" point of view. The third section of the novel, titled "The Night Chanter," is narrated by Ben Benally in the first person. Like narration from limited point of view, first-person narration can range from authoritative and reliable to destabilizing and unreliable. The possible biases, misunderstandings, agendas, and persuasive motives of the narrator must be taken into account. For instance, near the end of the section that he narrates, Benally criticizes Tosamah as utterly cynical and without understanding. This judgment must be read against Benally's consumption of a bottle of wine through the night and his naive acceptance of doctrines of consumption and materialism. Benally's section of the novel is represented as his internal monologue. There is no audience; Benally is talking to himself with the reader allowed, as it were, to eavesdrop on his daydream.

The second chapter of the section, titled "The Priest of the Sun," is also rendered as internal monologue, notwithstanding that it is announced on the signboard of his storefront church as the second of Tosamah's two sermons. This reverie is more focused than Benally's, almost expository in its development of related themes — and indeed, it reappears again as a single unit in the author's subsequent book, The Way to Rainy Mountain. Tosamah's second sermon challenges the reader to fathom the complexity of this character, whose nostalgic, deeply felt second sermon contrasts so poignantly with the cynicism and bitterness in the first.

Oration and Sermon

House Made of Dawn incorporates two formal sermons preached by Tosamah, the Priest of the Sun. The first, "The Gospel According to John," follows the conventional format of a Protestant sermon: A biblical text is announced, and the sermon then elaborates on its meaning and application. The text is the opening of the Gospel of John, and Tosamah uses the verse as a critical commentary on Christianity and the European civilization that supposedly embodies it. The sermon and Tosamah's language throughout this chapter are an awkward mix of serene lyricism, self-conscious pontification, and equally self-conscious street slang. This uneasy mixture again destabilizes the text, as Tosamah at times seems to be making fun of his own point of view and thus calling into question the seriousness of his critique. The two sermons also represent the novel's challenge to the reader to enter into the text and cooperate in "putting the story together." The first sermon is represented as preached to Tosamah's congregation during the peyote ceremony, but the second one is directed towards the reader.

Diary and Documentation

Written texts form a significant part of House Made of Dawn. Two examples of private, personal writing are important: Francisco's ledger book record of his life, and the diary of Fray Nicolás that Father Olguin pores over again and again. Francisco keeps a ledger book with figures denoting important events of the year. Such ledger books form an important sub-genre of the art of nineteenth-century Indians, and Kiowa captives at Fort Marion produced a substantial body of work in this mode. Father Olguin, for his part, in the journal of his predecessor, Fray Nicolás, finds references to people and events that appear to be part of Abel's history.

Another significant textual form in House Made of Dawn is what might best be termed bureaucratic documentation. Fragments that appear to be parts of psychological tests, employment forms, social worker paperwork, and court testimony are interspersed at crucial points in the narrative. Tosamah's first sermon, in which he excoriates the debasement of language that he finds in the white man's culture, offers a commentary on this verbal flotsam. Nevertheless, while often meaningless, the language of bureaucracy is powerful and can induce the kind of bitterness and despair that Tosamah occasionally expresses.

Folk Tale and Lyric Poem

Momaday incorporates several folk tales in the telling of House Made of Dawn. Early in the novel, the folk tale of Santiago and the rooster is offered as a recitation by Father Olguin. Another important story is the legend of the sisters pursued by a bear, which is retold as part of Tosamah's second sermon. The legend is part of the complex of images associated with bears and bear power. Benally becomes associated with the same thematic thread when he retells the tale of Changing Bear Maiden, after summarizing Angela's bear story. One function that these stories have, as do the poem texts, is to provide the reader with a mythic background and context for understanding the significance of the events in the story to the characters. A story based in European tradition might allude to Cinderella, for instance, or to angels; the author would not necessarily consider including explanatory material on these allusions because they are expected to be familiar to an American audience. Much, if not all, of the cultural context of traditional American Indian life will be unfamiliar to most potential readers, and an author writing from such a context must determine how much and what form of background assistance to provide the reader. Of course, the folk tales are primarily important as thematic developments of the story of Abel and the process of his healing journey that forms the core of the novel.

The two translations of Navajo texts are incorporated into the story intact as lyric poems complete in themselves. Navajo is an extremely complex language, and there is much debate over the extent to which these poems — torn from their ceremonial context and translated very cryptically — can be considered authentic representations of Navajo thought. What is evident is that both are English poems of great power. Their stately rhythms, rich imagery, and incantatory structure make them compelling pieces of literature. Moreover, the reader is invited, especially in view of Momaday's appropriation of a line from one of the poems, to regard House Made of Dawn as essentially a lyrical text — as much poem as story. This approach to the book requires a meditative, contemplative attitude — the same intense reading that would be required of a poem by Emily Dickinson or Wallace Stevens (both poets much admired by Momaday).

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