Figurative language and theme development in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams

Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremonyand Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreamsare both novels of the American Southwest that explore themes of shame, alienation, psychological trauma, recovery and people’s relationship to their natural environment. Silko’s novel is written in a style that emphasises the importance of storytelling in the traditions of Pueblo Indian people, while Kingsolver’s dual mode of narration highlights Codi’s traumatised and unreliable memory. Figurative language is used by both authors to establish symbolic links of meaning between natural imagery and the psychological trauma and journey to recovery faced by their protagonists.

According to Paula Gunn Allen, Tayo’s illness stems from his separation from the land, his people and ceremonies; he must enter into certain rituals in order to heal his illness, the deteriorating physical landscape and his community (qtd. in Goldstein 246). Silko uses simile early in the book to establish a link between Tayo’s illness, his troubled mental state and natural phenomena. Tayo’s “humid dreams of black night” roll him “over and over again like debris caught in a flood” (Silko 5), and shifts in these dreams are “like a slight afternoon wind changing its direction” (Silko 6). These similes evoke natural imagery and signal the symbolic importance that weather will play in the narrative.

One of the important themes in Ceremony is shame, particularly the shame that Tayo feels due to his mixed heritage and having survived the war, unlike his cousin Rocky. As Mayo writes, “Tayo believes that his existence is a source of shame for Auntie, his family, and thus, his community”, and Aunty “purposefully makes Tayo feel ashamed that his mother ‘went with white men’” (55). Tayo’s shame and trauma are symbolically reinforced by the drought that comes to the reservation. He believes he caused this drought after he “damned the rain until the words were a vocal chant” (Silko 12). The anger of the community is like a pollutant that “must leak out and soak into the ground under the entire village” (Silko 69), and while Auntie generally thinks of the feelings and thoughts of the villagers as “like willow twigs” that could be tied up “into a single prayer bundle” to “bring peace”, in this case the feelings have become “twisted, tangled roots” (Silko 69). The use of figurative language connects Tayo’s problems to the entire community and to their land. This pattern continues with the treatment of Tayo’s psychological trauma, a mental illness that is physically manifested in his nausea, but can only be recovered from in ceremonies that have a strong link to the land.

The repeated motif of nausea and vomiting is an important figurative element in Ceremony. Writing of traditional Pueblo storytelling, Silko states that “repetitions are, of course, designed to help you remember” (“Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective” 57) and are used commonly in Pueblo storytelling. The repetition also highlights the symbolic importance of Tayo’s nausea in representing his mental illness. Ceremony is the story of Tayo’s journey to recovery, and this symbolism serves to parallel his recovery with that of the land and community. As Satterlee writes, “nature acts as a symbolic metaphor as well as a real landscape that the individual walks in and through during recovery” (86). Silko uses metaphor to describe Tayo’s illness, writing that “he was brittle red clay, slipping away with the wind, a little more each day” (27), evoking imagery of the dry land. It is in the soiled landscape of the uranium mine that his epiphany comes—“the pattern of the ceremony was completed there” (246). Silko uses beautiful figurative language to emotively reinforce what the white “destroyers” have done, describing the “powdery yellow uranium, bright and alive as pollen; veins of sooty black formed lines with the yellow, making mountain ranges and rivers across the stone” (246).

Environmental issues are a central concern in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams and there is again a strong connection between the healing of polluted land and the psychological recovery of the protagonist. The environmental health of the community is symbolised by the health of the orchard trees and the river, and water imagery is used repetitively. When Codi first has sexual intercourse with Loyd, her narration uses simile: “I felt like a patch of dry ground that had been rained on” (Kingsolver 133). As Stevenson points out, “Codi repeatedly associates memories with imagery of water in the desert, suggesting their preciousness and life-sustaining power” (338). As well as water and the landscape, Kingsolver also uses animals as figurative elements that create meaning.

In the very first line, Homer describes Hallie and Codi “curled together like animals whose habit is to sleep underground” (Kingsolver 1). Tang states that this “equality between human beings and animals, as an important part of environment justice, has set the keynote for the whole story”, and “just as Codi claims, ‘we’re born like every other mammal and we live our whole lives around disguised animal thoughts’” (43). This equality is in fact subverted by the cock fighting, which symbolises mankind’s corruption in practising war and forcing this unnatural behaviour upon animals. Codi points out that “no animal has reason to fight its own kind to the death. A rooster will defend his ground, but once that’s established, he’s done” (Kingsolver 193).

Similarly, the peacock piñata that Codi mistakes for a real animal and the humane killing of roosters for family sustenance stand in binary opposition as two contrasting ways for humans to co-exist with nature. The violent peacock scene that Codi believes she’s witnessing, while not real, is still terrifying in her imagination of it. Stevenson writes that “her reaction is extremely telling” in that it exemplifies “the trauma survivor’s tendency toward guilt and self-criticism” (333). She doesn’t feel empowered to act, and when she realises her mistake she feels like a “trespasser on family rites” (Kingsolver 16) who is “cut off from the town” (Stevenson 333). In contrast, Emelina’s slaughtering of the roosters is “real murder and mayhem” (Kingsolver 26), but Stevenson describes the scene as “surprisingly positive”, with Emelina “showing her twin sons how to make sure the animals feel as little pain and fear as possible” (334). This scene establishes Emelina as a mother figure who will aid Codi’s psychological healing by caring for her and filling in the holes in her memories.

Codi suffers from amnesia and is reminded of this by Emelina and others in the town. Stevenson claims that “her amnesia becomes a metaphor for the widespread tendency of responsible citizens to ‘forget’ unpleasant social realities” (330). Codi uses simile to describe memory as running along “deep, fixed channels in the brain, like electricity along its conduits” (Kingsolver 275) and Stevenson links this to research showing that “traumatic memories are deeply imprinted” (340). Kingsolver connects Codi’s trauma and amnesia to the phenomena of rain and drought, writing that “during those brittle months [of drought] the taste and smell of rain would be lost to us, beyond the recollection even of children and the deepest root tips of trees” (276). In a similar way, Codi’s memories are forgotten beyond recollection due to the traumatic events of her past.

The mortality and instincts that humans share with animals are highlighted throughout the novel by the motif of bones. Stevenson writes that the “repeated image of bones and bone-fed soil … becomes one of the novel’s recurring metaphors” (331). Homer, thinking of his daughters, reflects that the door frame is “exactly the width of a newborn’s skull” and thinks of the cemetery holding his family’s heritage that he’d like to keep secret: “there are too many skeletons down there” (Kingsolver 4). Stevenson interprets Codi’s narration of the battleground in France, where “the farmers’ plow blades kept turning up the skeletons of cows” (Kingsolver 7) as a “superb indirection” (331) of the danger that Hallie is facing in Nicaragua. Codi uses the skeleton of Mrs Josephine Nash to instruct her class, insisting the remains be treated with respect, and this motif returns at the novel’s climax when Codi learns of Hallie’s death:

While I brushed my teeth I watched the mirror closely and became aware of my skull: of the fact that my teeth were rooted in bone, and that my jawbones and all the other bones lay just under the surface of what I could see. I wondered how I could have missed noticing, before, all those bones. I was a skeleton with flesh and clothes and thoughts. (Kingsolver 309)

In facing Hallie’s death, Codi is also facing her own mortality as the motif of bones comes full circle.

Ceremony and Animal Dreams are both very rich in their use of figurative language, and there are boundless examples of how these techniques are used to generate meaning and connections for the reader. The novels use figurative language to convey their shared themes of shame, alienation, psychological trauma and the relationship of people to their land. Silko’s novel is focused through the lens of traditional Pueblo narrative threads and storytelling structure, and her imagery focuses heavily upon weather and the land. Kingsolver draws upon similar images, while also using simile and metaphor to draw parallels between human and animal existence, and symbolic motifs such as bones to reflect upon our mortality. The use of figurative language helps readers to appreciate the journeys of Tayo and Codi as they recover from their psychological trauma and lead their communities and natural environment to a life-affirming recovery and equilibrium.

Works Cited

Goldstein, Susan Coleman. “Silko’s Ceremony.” The Explicator 61.4 (2003): 245-248. Web. 29Th June 2013. <>.

Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal Dreams. New York: Harper Collins, 1990. Print.

Mayo, James. “Silko’s Ceremony.” The Explicator 60.1 (2001): 54-56. Web. 29Th June 2013. <>.

Satterlee, Michelle. “Landscape Imagery and Memory in the Narrative of Trauma: A Closer Look at Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 13.2 (2006): 73-92. Web. 29Th June 2013. <>.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. London: Penguin, 1986. Print.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective.” Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today. New York: Touchstone, 1997. 48-59. Print.

Stevenson, Sheryl. “Trauma and Memory in Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 11.4 (2000): 327-350. Web. 29Th June 2013. <>.

Tang, Jiannan. “Environmental Justice in Animal Dreams.” English Language and Literature Studies 2.1 (March 2012): 42-46. Web. 29Th June 2013. <>.

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