Catholicism – A Lterary Analysis Essay, Research Paper
In the novel House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday, there are many religious references
(mostly Catholic references) intertwined within the story. One must wonder why the story of a Native American s struggle to return to his cultural roots would be laced throughout with Catholic references, especially predominate Catholic character names. However, these same religious characterizations go far in giving the reader a structure for understanding this complex work. Of all the religious names found throughout this novel, the most immediately evident are those of the main characters Abel, Francisco, Angela, and Milly.
The first character we encounter is Abel. In the Bible, we know that Abel is the second son of Adam and Eve. In the Book of Genesis, it says, Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. In the course of time . . . Cain was very angry, and . . . Cain said to his brother Abel, Let s go out to the field. And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him (Genesis 4:2-3, 5, 8). This image of Abel as the helpless victim can be applied to Momaday s character as well. First, it is interesting to note the altercation between Cain and Abel in comparison to Abel s killing of the white man. While the Bible portrays Abel as the sympathetic victim of a vicious crime of jealousy, in Momaday s story, Abel seems at first to have taken the position of the aggressor in killing the white man. However, despite Abel s violent crime, he still seems to mirror his Biblical namesake more so than the violent image of Cain. Furthermore, unlike Cain, Momaday s Abel has valid personal reasons for slaying the white man. We first see him as the victim of the white man. At the feast of Santiago, we see the white man brutally beating Abel. The narrator says, Again and again the white man struck him, heavily, brutally, upon the chest and shoulders and head, and Abel threw up his hands (Momaday 41). This event is somewhat confusing as is seems to be a ritual of the feast, yet we find in the next sentence that Abel is not used to this game. One must ask why, if this is the same place in which Abel grew up, he is unfamiliar with the game? While we cannot know the answer, it is still evident that, regardless of Abel s inexperience, the white man administers an especially severe beating with the rooster. Because of this malicious beating, we are able to begin to better understand Abel s motivations for killing the white man.
The second factor that helps us to justify Abel s killing of the white man is the inherent evil that Abel perceives surrounding the white man. This idea of stamping out evil at all costs is not very uncommon. We see similar incidences in the Old Testament of the Bible, such as the flood (Genesis6:5-8:4), the plagues of Egypt (Exodus 3:19-10:36) and the abandonment of the Israelites in the desert (Numbers 32:11-13), where God kills and plagues people because they are evil. In this way, the combination of Abel s victimization and belief that the white man is evil incarnate make his murder less malicious than that of Cain.
The next character we meet in the story is Abel s grandfather Francisco. While Francisco is a more secondary character, his name is also surrounded in Catholic symbolism. Because Francisco is the Spanish equivalent of Francis, Francisco could refer to Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis was a rich youth who spent considerable time failing to be a knight and drinking too much. However, once he realized his holy vocation, he lived a life of extreme poverty, choosing to return to the teachings of the gospel and to shun material wealth (Matz, n.pag.). While we know little about Francisco in order to compare him to Saint Francis, it is interesting to note that Abel is very similar. In one of the first scenes where we see Abel, he is competing in the rooster game at the feast of Santiago. Unlike his nemesis the white man, Abel fails in his attempt to grab the rooster making a fool of himself. The narrator at this time, tells us When it cameAbel s turn, he made a poor showing, full of caution and gesture. Angela despised him a little . . . (Momaday 40). We also see Abel after his prison sentence, living in Los Angeles and drinking to excess. While his friend Benally tries to convince him to get a job and to stop drinking so much, Abel pays no attention and delves deeper into his drunken depression (Momaday 148-149). This is very similar to St. Francis behavior after his failure in the Crusades. By remaining drunk, both St. Francis and Abel manage to escape their problems temporarily. Finally, Abel experiences a kind of catharsis after his accident and return to the pueblo. While his grandfather Francisco is dying, Abel is returning to life. Essentially, he accepts a second chance at life. We see him at the end running with dead runners, a symbol of his freedom from his past (Momaday 173-174). Likewise, St. Francis, upon renouncing his family and wealth also experiences a rebirth of sorts as a servant of God and healer (Matz, St. Francis). One must consider why Abel would be so similar to St. Francis, the namesake of his grandfather. It seems that, while Francisco was not overtly like St. Francis, he may have carried these characteristics inside. Through him, these characteristics were then passed to Abel, who embodied them. In this way, Abel is living the shadow of his grandfather, a shadow that he does not understand. As Abel grows throughout the story, we see him coming closer to his grandfather and subsequently his heritage. In the final moments of Francisco s life, Abel, like St. Francis, seems to experience a revelation, and sees the clear path towards who he truly is, just as St. Francis saw his religious calling.
One of the most religiously based characters is Angela. Her whole name is Angela Grace St. John a name that embodies a multitude of religious meanings. In essence, her name itself mirrors the passage of her life throughout the story. We begin with Angela. This first conjures the image of an angel, or in Angela s case, a fallen angel. While this is not to say that Angela is satanic, but she is certainly not an angel. In her second encounter with Abel, she seduces him, saying, Would you like to make love to me? . . . And do you imagine that I would like it, too? (Momaday 55). Not only does she blatantly seduce him, but at the time we know that Angela is pregnant and has a husband in Los Angeles. While Angela is not very angelic, she is similar to St. Angela of Foligno. While St. Angela is obscure, it is interesting how similar she is to Angela in the beginning of her life. St. Angela was a wealthy married woman with children and an active social life before she had a vision and joined the Franciscan Third Order (Catholic Online, St. Angela, n.pag.). Likewise, in her early life we see Angela pregnant, with a husband and life in a large cosmopolitan city. We can also infer that she is a wealthy woman, considering that she has come to Canon de San Diego to try the mineral baths and her husband is a doctor in Los Angeles (Momaday 29). If mineral baths and spa-like services were similar in the forties to what they are today, Angela would have had to pay a considerable amount of money to experience them. During the space of time from when we se Angela at the canyon to when she goes to see Abel at the hospital in Los Angeles, Angela matures a great deal. She has become a much more composed and sympathetic woman than the woman we first meet. Similarly, St. Angela, after the death of her husband, have way all of her possessions and cared for the sick and needy for the rest of her life (Catholic Online, St. Angela, n.pag.). We see this nurturing side of Angela when she visits Abel at the hospital. She tells Abel about her son and how she tells her son the story about a bear and a maiden (Momaday 153). This attitude is very different from her former contempt for Abel because he is a Native American. She now seems to revere him almost, and at the very least wishes her son to grow up in the image of Abel, who she sees as having a strong character.
Angela s last name, St. John, is also reminiscent of a saint, in this case St. John the Evangelist. St. John spent his entire life living as a religious man. He first followed John the Baptist and later became one of Jesus closest apostles. Throughout his ministry, he took care of others, including Mary until the time of her death. St. John was also the first to reach Jesus tomb after the resurrection. After the death of Jesus, St. John became a bishop and wrote his gospel (Baring-Gould, n.pag.). Like the practices of St. Angela, St. John was a caretaker. Angela, as we see at the end of the story, is also a sort of caretaker. We have seen how she comes to Abel and spends time with him in the hospital. In another way, she is taking care of herself at the same time. By going to Abel, she is giving herself closure. We can see from her bear and maiden story that Angela has not stopped thinking of Abel over the past years. By going to Abel and telling him her feelings and thoughts in such a non-threatening situation, Angela is in essence, cleansing herself. In this, Angela is subjecting herself to her own baptism into her new, caring life.
We must also note Angela s middle name, Grace. The dictionary defines grace in a number of ways, though the most traditionally accepted definition is, Help given man by God (Merriam-Webster 311). In this way we could interpret Angela s final interaction with Abel as being an act of grace. If we see Angela in the place of God, or as a messenger of God, we can interpret her conversation with Abel as her absolution of his sins and the aid that he needs to return to health and his life. However, grace can also mean, A temporary respite (Merriam-Webster 311). Using this definition, we can apply grace to both Abel and Angela. Abel has found reprieve from the outside world by being confined in the hospital. Angela has also found reprieve from her thoughts about Abel. By seeing him, Angela is able to release him. She has been thinking of him frequently for seven years and now she has the chance to have closure and say good-bye.
The last religious name in House Made of Dawn is by far the most obscure. We see Milly as a fringe character, someone very devoted to Abel, but it is questionable if Abel returns her devotion. However, Milly, a diminutive of Mildred, also has a patron saint of sorts. St. Mildred, while an ambiguous saint, also represents some of Milly most noticeable characteristics. St. Mildred was known for having a reputation for great holiness and for generosity and compassion to the poor and rejected (Catholic Online, St. Mildred, n.pag.). This is very similar to the few characteristics that we know about Milly. We know that she is very caring, first taking care of her sister Carrie when she was younger and then trying to care for Abel and Benally in Los Angeles. Benally tells us, Nobody but Milly and me gave a damn what happened to him (Momaday 133). Through this and other events, we can see Milly s caring and nurturing nature, very similar to that of St. Mildred.
It is interesting to note that so many of Momaday s characters in House Made of Dawn have Catholic names that also happen to correspond with religious figures that seem to embody or impact their own character. One must wonder whether Momaday did this deliberately, or whether this is just an interesting circumstance. It seems that the most likely explanation is a combination of the two. It is evident that Abel and probably Angela are given these names for a specific reason. Whether the other characters are named with such consideration is something that we can only ponder. Regardless of the motive, Momaday does an incredible job of manipulating the different religiously symbolic names and corresponding characters throughout his novel. By including Catholic references, Momaday makes his story all the more complex as well as giving his readers reference points to help them relate to a story that, in many cases, has few similarities to their own life experiences. In this way, we are all able to identify with his work in some way, from each of our own individual perspectives.