Native American tradition plays a prominent role in Ceremony, but also occupies an unusual or uneasy position in the narrative. For Tayo, re-connecting with traditions such as sand painting, storytelling, and nature myths is a central part of the healing process; this connection is facilitated by a variety of characters (Old Ku'oosh, Betonie, Ts'eh) who are themselves immersed in older ways of life. But part of Silko's narrative mission is to immerse the reader in the world of tradition that a figure like Ts'eh embodies. Rich in personification, symbolism, and mysticism, the poems that appear throughout Ceremony transport the reader into the realm of folklore, and thus offering a narrative counterpoint to the forward-moving world of science and technology that has in many ways wronged Tayo and his family.
Modernity and Its Drawbacks
As depicted in flashbacks throughout Ceremony, Tayo's cousin Rocky professes his belief that Native American customs can be abandoned in favor of the forces of modernity: technology, science, and education, principles that can guide everything from the fate of civilization to the everyday procedures for raising cattle. However, much of Silko's novel is designed to call attention to the tragic underside of 20th-century scientific, technological, and economic advancement. With new technologies come new methods of destruction, as is clearly indicated by the atomic bomb explosion that startles Old Grandma. Moreover, with advances in education and medicine come the possibility that poorer people will be left hopelessly far behind, people such as the slum-dwellers of Tayo's youth and the beggars that Robert and Tayo meet on their way to see Betonie.
Ceremony is at times merciless in its depiction of extreme poverty. When describing life in the arroyo shantytown, Silko does not shy away from the miserable lifestyle—a lifestyle marked by drunkenness, prostitution, and child murder—that engulfs young and old alike. Yet Ceremony may be as much a diagnosis of the conditions that cause extreme poverty as a study of its effects. Characters like the Native American war veterans and Helen Jean have not given in to their worst impulses to such an extent that they live in destitution, but destitution may be their fate unless they break the cycle of drunkenness, promiscuity, and irresponsibility that has overtaken them.
Physical and Spiritual Travel
In the second half of Ceremony, Tayo sets off on a quest to find Josiah's cattle and, concurrently, to redeem and heal himself. Somewhat like a traditional folkloric hero, Silko's protagonist leaves his community, confronts a series of obstacles (the metal fence) and enemies (the border patrol), and returns home with his reward (the cattle). Healing and transformation in Ceremony are not simply matters of reflection and therapy: healing, instead, is linked to dynamic processes, to journeys that force characters to abandon the conditions they know and face possible fears. It is no surprise in this respect that Tayo's journey to a better state of mind has an obvious parallel in the story of the Sun and the Gambler, which similarly draws strong parallels between restoration and travel or adventure.
Perception versus Reality
Ts'eh, a mysterious young woman, is one of the central figures in Tayo's healing process. However, there is a considerable ambiguity about her status in the narrative: this major, important character may (at least in some respects) be a product of Tayo's imagination. The only other character who interacts with Ts'eh at any length whatsoever is an older man, a hunter in traditional garb who appears during a snowstorm and who may also be one of Tayo's visions. Although the question of Ts'eh's status lends some ambiguity to the narrative, it does not in fact cloud Silko's message: whether Ts'eh is real, imaginary, or something in between, her presence is a sign that detachment from society and communion with nature can heal psychological ills.
The issue of alcoholism is central to the plot of Ceremony; in fact, this issue is bound up in the novel's origins. By Silko's own account, the novel was conceived as a comical account of Harley's attempts to find alcohol but gradually shifted to a new, tragic tone and centered on a different protagonist in Tayo. The final version of the novel is a blistering commentary on how alcohol can undermine individuals (such as the final version of Harley) and entire generations (such as the other veterans who join Harley on his adventures). Yet perhaps the most destructive effect of the alcoholism depicted in Ceremony is that it renders alcoholics themselves blind to its ravages. The reader can see that Harley is wasting his life, energy, and potential, but Harley has grown accustomed to his binges—indeed, dependent on them—and approaches them in a tone of lighthearted adventure.
Ceremony only focuses on a single family, Tayo's, but does so in a manner that calls considerable attention to how carefully a family's reputation must be maintained and how easily that reputation can be broken. Auntie in particular is haunted by the poverty and promiscuity of Tayo's mother, and Josiah's contact with the Night Swan is a similar source of ill repute in her mind. Nor does the younger generation offer much hope for renewing her family's good name, at least in the early stages of the novel: the promising Rocky dies at war and the somewhat less talented Tayo is reduced to a vulnerable, sickly version of his former self. As Tayo heals, he begins to re-connect with his relatives and to re-earn their trust. While Auntie may never forget the loss of Rocky or the disgrace incurred by Tayo's mother, she at the very least can take some comfort in Tayo's return to normality and discovery of meaningful, responsible work with Josiah's cattle.
Ceremony Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Ceremony is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.