The story “This is what it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” contains various symbolic elements and phrases representing the decline of the Native American culture and the gradual loss of traditions in favor of modernity.
This can be seen in phrases such as “who does have money on a reservation except the cigarette and fireworks people” and the symbolism attached to the scene involving the utter desolation of life when traversing Nevada which used to be an area with a rich Native American tradition. In fact it can even be said that the story itself is seemingly trying to indicate that the latest generation of Native Americans are in fact distancing themselves from various aspects of their culture.
This can be seen in the general treatment of Thomas Builds-the-Fire who is symbolic of the rich oral tradition that the Native Americans once possessed. The general teasing, cruelty, and even avoidance of Thomas due to his habit of telling stories is actually indicative of the current state of affairs of the Native American people who in successive generations have begun to embrace a more “modern” way of existence abandoning old traditions and cultural motifs in favor of embracing the American way of life.
A detailed examination of the actions and behaviors of Thomas and Victor are indicative of the fact that both characters are actually methods of symbolism with Thomas symbolizing the past tradition and culture of the Native American people while Victor represents the current path that this race is now treading.
What must be understood though is that while the story contains thematic elements of the decline of traditions and the embracing of modernity such concepts are not the true essence of the story. The title of the story itself hints at the fact that the journey undertaken by Victor and Thomas is not one that elaborates on the decline of the Native American culture but is rather indicative of a form of rebirth.
Understanding the Symbolism in the Story
There are 3 primary symbolic elements that should be taken into consideration in order to understand the rebirth analogy that is at the heart of the story, these elements are: the word Phoenix, heat and ashes. The use of the word “Phoenix” is important to take note of since not only does it mean the name of a place but it is actually symbolic of a form of rebirth.
The Phoenix as noted in various mythologies around the world is a creature that when it knows its death is near creates a nest of twigs from which it bursts into intense flames and is reborn from the ashes. In the story we see such elements in the form of Victor going to Phoenix, Arizona in order to collect the ashes of his father and it is also mentioned several times in the story of how hot it was. This fulfills 3 symbolic elements of rebirth namely the Phoenix, intense heat and ashes.
It is mentioned by Thomas towards the end of the story that he had a vision of casting the ashes into Spokane Falls causing them to turn into a salmon which is also a form of rebirth. It must be noted that research into Native American cultural concepts reveals that death and rebirth factors heavily into their oral tradition with resulted in the belief that people are either reincarnated as other people or as animals, thus its symbolic use in the story is not at all divergent from traditionally held concepts of this particular culture.
Understanding the Role of Thomas Builds-the-Fire
When examining the story from start to finish it becomes apparent that the life of Victor is in turmoil, he has recently lost his job and his father just died which facilitates the various events and conflicts seen in the story. What must be understood is that the role of Thomas throughout the story is not just as a mere companion to Victor but rather as a method of rebirth.
While various simplistic interpretations of the story may focus on the concept of the fostering of friendship and the development of bonds a more accurate description would be to state that Thomas was the fire that helped to kindle the flame in Victor to help facilitate his rebirth. It was even stated towards the end of the story that it would be unlikely that Thomas and Victor could ever truly become friends thus making any interpretation of the story along the lines of the development of friendship fallacious.
Further justification that the role of Thomas as a means of rebirth can be seen in his very name “Thomas Builds-the-fire”, while not in a literal sense Thomas did build the fire of rebirth in Victor by helping him obtain what was lost namely memories about his father, helping Victor come to terms with his own life and towards the end apparently enables Victor to grasp the ashes of his own life and start anew.
In this instance Thomas lives up to his namesake as builder of fire yet what he ignites was not a literal fire but rather a fire of understanding, purpose, and above all hope.
Underlying Point in the Story
When examining the relationship between Thomas and Victor in the story as well as its conclusion one cannot help but think of the symbolism between traditional Native American culture and the apparent antagonism it has with the new path that the Native American people are taking.
Throughout various parts of the story it can be read through various symbolic phrases that the author is trying to convey the fact that modern day Native Americans are becoming increasingly hostile towards old traditions, foregoing ancient traditions for more modern day beliefs and cultural attitudes as it can be seen in the various reactions of Victor towards the statements of Thomas.
Yet, what Sherman Alexie is trying to convey in this particular instance is the fact that there need not be any form of hostility between the two, rather co-existence can be achieved.
He even goes so far as to imply that the addition of cultural traditions into modern day attitudes would result in an apparent rebirth as it can be seen in the case of Victor. Thomas, as it can be seen, represents the traditional aspects of Native American culture while Victor represents the modern, it is only when the traditional helps the modern that the result is an apparent rebirth into something that was better than before.
This, I believe, is what is at the heart of the story wherein the author is trying to convey the message that modern day Native Americans need not let go of traditions in order to achieve what is for them a modern existence, rather, by incorporating aspects of the traditional with the modern a new and grand rebirth could occur resulting in a better Native American population.