Death As The Focal Point Essay, Research Paper
Death as the Focal Point
Tony Hillerman expresses many themes throughout his novel,A Thief of Time.
Themes such as jealousy, deceit, murder and the clash of cultures are just a few of them.
While A Thief of Time is a part of the mystery genre and shares the uniform qualities
which make it a part of that genre. However, the primary theme that is expressed in A
Thief of Time is death.
The theme that is emphasized the most in A Thief of Time is death. Death is a
constant presence in the novel, it looms over various parts of the novel. Every major
character in the novel is affected by death at one point or another throughout the novel.
The points that will be discussed in this essay are the Navajo traditions and superstitions
concerning death, how death affected the novel?s main character, how other characters are
affected by death and the constant presence of death throughout the novel.
Unlike Christians of various denominations, the Navajo people see death as a
terrible thing. While Christians hold funerals for their dead and celebrate that person?s
passage into heaven, the Navajo believe that they should have no contact whatsoever with
the dead. The reason that the Navajo people avoid contact is because they believe in sprits
called chindi. Chindi are believed to be the spirit of all that was evil in that person. For
fear of the chindi, traditional Navajo will move out of a dwelling place where a person has
died. If a person comes into contact with the chindi, they are to take what is known as a
?sweat bath? to purify themselves. Stories about the chindi are probably told because they
want to discourage people from having very close contact with the dead for health
reasons, not just spiritual reasons. The following passage highlights fear of
death:?Standing there, amid the dislodged stone, amid the scattered bones, Chee felt the
familiar uneasiness. Too many chindi here, finding freedom from the bodies that had
housed them.(Chapter 9, page 149, last paragraph.)
Death probably had the most affect on the main character of the novel, the main
character is a man named Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn. Leaphorn is a veteran of the Navajo
Tribal Police. Leaphorn is melancholy and depressed because of the death of his Wife,
Emma. Emma had a brain tumor, the doctors operated on her and they informed Leaphorn
that she actually had a chance of surviving the operation. Emma Leaphorn died due to
complications related to the surgery. The death of Emma Leaphorn has caused Joe to go
on terminal leave, he is preparing to resign from the Navajo Tribal Police. One of the
reasons that Leaphorn loved Emma so much is because she would offer him insight when
he was baffled on a case. Even the most trivial of things could produce a thought of Emma
on the part of Leaphorn. The sight of the sauerbraten in the refrigerator sparks a thought
of Emma. The following passage shows how something trivial could translate into a
thought of Emma:?He put down the calendar, walked into the kitchen, and opened the
refrigerator, remembering how Emma liked to make sauerbraten. (Chapter 2, page 40,
second paragraph) Coming to terms with the death of Emma was probably more difficult
for Leaphorn because he was not a traditional Navajo, he was not a follower of
Christianity, either. The lack of any religious faith probably made it difficult for Leaphorn
because he wouldn?t have any real closure. The fact that Leaphorn did not follow the
Navajo tradition of moving out of his home didn?t help matters, either. Grief over the
death of Emma has also caused Leaphorn to work on the Eleanor Friedman-Bernal case
despite the fact that he?ll be gone in two weeks. The following passage confirms that
Leaphorn chose to work on the Bernal case because of Emma:?A good woman, Leaphorn
thought. Emma would have liked her. He had two weeks on his terminal leave. He?d see if
he could find her.?(Chapter 2, Page 42, Last paragraph)
The other major and minor characters are also affected by death. One character
that is affected by death is Harrison Houk. Harrison Houk is an old man who is a
Mormon. Houk is not a very moral man, he acts as a fence for pot hunters, he is also
known to have cheated people. Every member of Houk?s family is dead. His family was
murdered by his schitzophrenic son, Brigham. When the Navajo Tribal Police hunt down
Brigham, they find his hat washed up on the San Juan River, they assumed that Brigham
had drowned. As a result of losing his family, Houk lives alone. It is very possible that
Houk may blame himself for what happened to his family, this is seemingly apparent
because Houk refused to have Brigham put in a mental hospital. The following passage
indicates that Houk may have blamed himself for what occured:?I remember thats what
Houk said they should?ve done. He said his wife wanted to, but he wouldn?t do it. Said he
thought it would kill the boy. Locking him up. Said he wasn?t happy unless he was
outdoors.? (Chapter 8, page 144, third paragraph) While this passage does not say
directly that Houk was blaming himself, there are a few key words that indicate it. For
example, the word:?should?ve? indicates that he was expressing regret over not not having
Brigham locked up. Major characters are the not the only characters that are affected by
death. For example, Irene Musket who was nothing more than Harrison Houk?s servant.
Houk may have been described as a scoundrel by most people who knew him, but Irene
Musket did feel a sense of loss. The following passage illustrates that Irene Musket felt
sorrow after the death of Houk:?He was a good man. People talked about how mean he
was. He was good to good people and just mean to the mean ones. I guess they killed him
for that.? (Chapter 16, page 267,tenth paragraph) There is also another passage that
illustrates Irene Musket?s sense of loss:?I wish they would have killed me, instead.?
(Chapter 16, page 267,eighth paragraph)
Death is a constant presence in the book. It seems to permeate every element of
the story. Even the title A Thief of Time refers to death. For example, much of the novel
has anthropological and archeological work going on in the background. In order for this
type of study to take place, a culture or something that was sentient at one time must
cease to exit. Of course, that mostly applies to archeology rather than anthropology. Since
this novel also deals with the stealing of artifacts, there are many descriptions of bones and
desiccated remains throughout the story. The following passage illustrates the descriptions
of bones and desiccated remains:?Standing there, amid the dislodged stones, amid the
scattered bones.? (Chapter 9,page 149, sixth paragraph) The constant presence of death
is only added to by the occurrence of the grisly murders of Jimmy Etcitty and Joe B. Nails.
Richard Dumont, the collector of ancient curious also added to the presence of death, Mr.
Dumont wishes to know every morbid detail of the case when Leaphorn visits him. An
example of Mr. Dumont?s interest is shown in the following passage:?Call me with all the
details. When you find her body.? (Chapter 12,page 202, third paragraph.
In conclusion, it is evident that the primary focus in Hillerman?s A Thief of Time is
death. The Navajo tribal who inhabit the setting of the book have many traditions and
superstitions concerning death. In fact, they try to avoid all contact with the dead.
Lieutenant Leaphorn, the main character in the novel is affected most by the death of his
wife. The death of his wife is the reason that he is resigning from the police force and it is
also the reason that he is working on the Eleanor Friedman-Bernal case. The topic of
death seems to permeate every element of the book, the force that most of the characters
are affected by is death. Not only the major characters are affected, even minor characters
such as Irene Musket are affected by it. Even the novel?s title A Thief of Time relates to
death. This is all strong evidence that indicates that Hillerman intended death to be the
primary focus of his novel.