An Essay on Race and Ethnicity in American Literature
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Complacency Versus Transgression: Resistance and Acceptance In Mirrored Story Arcs in Silko’s, “Gardens in the Dunes”
Throughout history, particularly in the periods following the rise of capitalism, there have been international parallels characterized by local material conditions, ideologies, and cultures. We can see justifications such as the vacant land theory, the “white man’s burden”, and proselytizing as justifications for colonialism and imperialism from India to the Congo to the Americas. Different colonial governments formed similar colonial structures, enforced similar tools of repression, and all held goals of personal enrichment and destruction of indigenous life. While there are obvious nuances that are incredibly important to recognize (differences between French African Colonies and British create material impacts today), Silko draws on these similarities in structure across cultural gaps in her novel, “Gardens in the Dunes”. Using storylines that mimic each other in overarching structure, are shaded by the nuances of identity, culture, and positionality in society. In contrast to these adjacent historical forces, there are international examples of opposition, resistance, and assimilation. Reactions to the oppressions of colonialism, all influenced by identity, social positionality, and culture. Silko, abundantly aware of the historical parallels within colonialism, and the ways in which each locale and victimized community finds itself to be intrinsically unique, she exhibits these historical and characteristics through characters who mirror one another. Foils, parallels, and simaltenous but divergent trajectories show both the ever-repeating mechanisms of capitalism entailed by dialectical materialism, and the specific material and cultural differences that lead to disparate reactions beneath capitalisms pressure.
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The Sand Lizard people Silko introduces us to is a great example of this simultaneity Silko sees in our world. They are a fictionalized indigenous North American tribe. However, through this group we can understand and contextualize the horrors that truly occurred in the colonization for which The United States was responsible. Indigo becoming victim to a boarding school, the true historical event of Wounded Knee, the exploitation of all but Mr. Wiley on the Dam Project. Silko, due to the historical structures of colonialism, is able to create a fictional group through which to tell a factual story.
Indigo and Edward serve as prominent foils for one another. Wholly aware of the oft found confusion beside the literary term, Edward and Indigo have similarities, but they do not mirror one another bit to bit. Indigo as a character exemplifies the short comings of Edward. Both are characters connected to nature, indeed, even Indigo’s name serves as an allusion to indigenous plant life and knowledge. Edward is a botanist, a western scientist deeply attached to the natural world. However, as Silko clearly delineates, these comparisons are not ones that can be entirely extrapolated out. Edward is not only white in contrast to Indigo’s Sand Lizard heritage; he is college educated beneath western conceptualizations of science. As made aware to us by the symbol of the pet monkey Linnaeus, western science has often been far from objective, finding itself to be a tool manipulated by dominant ideology to justify racism, sexism, homophobia, and truly any form of fascistic bigotry one could think of. He is entirely a condition of racist, colonialist, western thought.
Indigo, as we see in the very opening of the novel, is someone who relies heavily upon nature for survival. In an attempt to avoid the stereotypical and racist trope of indigenous people being, “one with the earth”, we will characterize her ecological relationship as one of sustenance, respect, and understanding. The Sand Lizard people have historically relied on careful nurturing of the landscape for survival, waiting for produce to arrive that will sustain them sufficiently, while allowing nutrients and seeds to return to the earth to bring food the next season. It is certainly arguable that Edward similarly relies on nature. After all, his profession is botany, nature quite literally puts food on the table (albeit a degree or two more of separation than is the case for Indigo). However, grand differences lie in the attitude with which nature is viewed. Indigo and the Sand Lizard people’s view of nature is one of careful nurturing and gentle survival. Edward’s attitude is one of a capitalist’s, one of exploitation and maximization of profit. Even the lessons of western assimilation Indigo is taught by Edward and Hattie (however innocent), are processed, recontextualized, and understood, through her own personal lens.
In these two characters we see clear parallels. Indigo collects seeds while Edward searches for diverse plant life, and clearly both have great passion for it. But in this, Silko manages to leverage similarity in a way that emphasizes difference. All the more attention is called to Edward’s greed, his attachment to the status quo, and his own wealth, we find not only difference within their respective backgrounds, but in a viewpoint of individualism. Edward is an individualist, he seeks wealth and success and stability for his own family, regardless of how his escapades affect those around him. Indigo is a communalist, her greatest desire is to return to the life she once knew, reunite with her sister, and do everything in her power to bring her (thankfully matrilineal) people, back from the brink.
Further examples of simultaneity, we can examine the characters of Big Candy and Delena. Both indigenous, Big Candy being Black and indigenous, and Delena being of the Yaqui ethnic group, these characters are victims of colonialism. However, as a victim of the bourgeoises, Big Candy has been indoctrinated with individualistic ideals of the capitalist system around him. His greatest dream of success is in owning his own restaurant in Denver. While it is not a crime to desire to be the master of your own labor, his desire for the ownership of other’s labor, success for one’s self, and material wealth found within the context of an exploitative system, is purely complacent acceptance and assimilation of western capitalist ideals. It is accepting the definition of success of a horrific world and system.
Delena on the other hand, is a resistance fighter in her people’s revolution against the Mexican government. Acting as a foil to Big Candy, dashing his hopes and literally foiling his plans, she pulls out his weaknesses in robbing him. But again, we see nuances and important distinctions in the actions of these seemingly similar characters. Delena is absolutely after money, as is Big Candy, but similar to Indigo, her goal is the preservation of her indigenous peoples’ sovereignty, rights, and humanity. Her theft surrounded by a diversionary dog circus done with the express purpose of buying weapons to aid in the revolution against the colonial Mexican government. Emphasizing both these shades of difference in reaction to colonialism, and the similarities of its victims, Candy ultimately finds how ridiculous his pursuit of selfish self-fulfillment truly was. Nearly dying in the desert opening his eyes to the futility of individualistic desire and capitalist ideals, rather than being foiled by Delana’s character, they move towards mirrors of each other. Big Candy as an Indigenous person rejects the ideals foisted upon him, and moves from assimilation, towards direct and active resistance, in helping Delana.
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Examining these manifestations of reactions towards western ideology and colonialism, we can find similar parallels. Big Candy mirrors Edward in acceptance of the ideals that dominant ideology has laid forth for them. Both individualists, concerned primarily with their own success, their own fulfilment, and their own dreams. Even with both of these dreams being centered around what are traditionally considered to be connective, healing, and nurturing fields. Cooking, as loved by Big Candy, is a way to bring people together, to nourish. It is a tool of community. Horticulture is quite literally nurturing the earth, gently caring for it for (hopefully) the purpose of beauty to be shared with others, or for the growth of food. However, both Big Candy and Edward, in their individualistic capitalistic goals, pollute these foundational aspects of their passions pervert them into empty and hollow tasks completed for wealth. Big Candy nearly finds his own demise striving for wealth, Edward is successful in finding his.
Looking finally at Indigo and Delana, we find a final point of comparison in resistance. While not identical, here we can see Silko building upon the idea of difference in forms of reaction. Delana is engaged in active, direct, and violent revolution in Sonora. Arguably the most materially impactful form of opposition and resistance that could be given. Indigo collects seeds, transgressively preserving her own culture, and working towards a point in which she can return to her ancestral home. She is fighting marvelously against a world that literally attempted to destroy all aspects of her people, her culture, her existence. In this, we do not see a direct parallel. But we see the characterized differences in two indigenous women fighting back against a horrific system, in the ways that are materially available to them.
In all of this, we can draw and form associations and relations to characters and events: ecological destruction in South America and massacre in the north — collector of seeds and a botanist — an individualistic cook and a selfish horticulturist —two indigenous women fighting against a world striving to kill them. But Silko wants us to go beyond these similarities and find where their uniqueness lies. We are meant to understand the material conditions of numbers, money, and history, that allow Delana to actively fight in a revolution. Examine Big Candy’s relationship between individualism and assimilation; distinguish that individualism from the chauvinistic individualism of Edward. Silko writes a story that recognizes historical simultaneity, the recurring forces and patterns of colonialism, and she does so while pushing us to recognize the importance of difference in experience, and action. To look beyond similarity and pattern that might be easy to accept, and understand, accept, and process, the oft discomfiting differences.
Silko, Leslie Marmon, 1948-. Gardens in the Dunes : a Novel. New York :Simon & Schuster, 2005.
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