Sherman Alexie’s short stories “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” and “War Dances” portray two native American men, who lead different lives, yet whose narratives share common features and explore similar topics. In the first story, the reader witnesses a day of a homeless person in Seattle who spots family regalia in a pawn shop window and attempts to earn money to buy it. The second story tells about a man who experiences hearing loss and thus becomes lost in his thoughts and memories, remembering the times when his father was alive. Both Alexie’s works are packed with powerful and thought-provoking scenes that can make readers understand better the experience of people who lost their loved ones. There are many themes present in the two stories, yet the topics of alcoholism, family relationships, and death and illness seem to be most relevant and elaborate.
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The main character of “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” struggles with alcohol abuse, which impairs his desire to lead a normal life and keeps him in his position as a homeless man. The addiction has consumed him to the point when he can no longer function without it, he turns to spirits to find a way to make money, “bought three bottles of imagination” (Alexie, 2003, p. 7). A similar situation happens to the father of the man from the second story, but he eventually dies because of it (Alexie, 2009). Alexie paints a vivid picture of how alcoholism can crush individuals’ will and make them dependent, unable to recover, and gradually move them into the grave.
The second topic of significant importance is the family relationships, which play a central role in the stories’ narratives. The main character of the first story is attached to his grandmother, Agnes, and the memories of her, at one point, he thinks that returning the family regalia will bring her back. Such is also representative of the main character of “War Dances”, who does not stop thinking about his father. Even after his passing, he needs his presence, for example, when a doctor tells him a strange compliment about his beautiful brain, he wants to share the joke with the father (Alexie, 2009). Both characters experience strong feelings towards their family members, and their thoughts are often preoccupied with the memories of the time when they were alive.
All the events presented in the stories seem to revolve around the theme of death, which manifests itself in many aspects, and not only the loss of dear family members. The passing of Agnes becomes the turning point in the life of the first story’s main character, at one point, he says, “I’ve been killing myself ever since she died” (Alexie, 2003, p. 21). Thus, the death of his grandmother triggers his self-destructive mechanism, which is gradually progressing and pushing the main character to his demise. At the same time, the “War Dances” the main character fears his death because of the alleged tumor in his brain, “I was scared that I would die if I slept” (Alexie, 2009, p. 15). Death follows every step of the characters, prompting them to think about or even move towards it.
“What You Pawn I Will Redeem” and “War Dances” explore the themes that often become taboo in contemporary literature, alcoholism, family relationships, and death. The main characters of the stories experience them in different ways, yet remain significantly affected by them. Alcoholism drives the first story’s main character to the extremes and makes him homeless while leaving the “War Dances” main character without his father. Death pursues both characters, constantly reminding them of its presence, killing their family members, and waiting for them to follow suit. Yet, despite all the darkness, the main characters constitute examples of empathic and compassionate people who just miss their loved ones.
Alexie, S. (2009). War dances. The New Yorker.
Alexie, S. (2003). What you pawn I will redeem. The New Yorker.
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