Ceremony is a novel about wholeness and what happens to a person, a community, and a universe when any one part or person is not integrated into that whole. Separation, alienation, and disease, Silko and the Laguna people claim, result from failing to remember the stories and one’s role in them, to recognize the integral connection of all things and all people, and to acknowledge the need to maintain the balance of the world through the creation of new ceremonies. Tayo’s discovery that “it took a great deal of energy to be a human being,” that human beings are inextricably connected to everything around them, is the focus of this novel.
The world to which Tayo awakens from his catatonic “white smoke” consciousness following his imprisonment by the Japanese in the Philippines is first a veterans’ hospital and then his aunt and uncle’s ranch on the Laguna reservation. It is all he can do to get up from his bed without being overwhelmed by nausea. The six-year drought has transformed the landscape to desolation. Drunken veterans recount their uniformed heroics—sleeping with white women who thought they were Italians, killing Japanese soldiers, and returning to an Indian world where their military and macho exploits mean little. They fill the time with war stories; they have become agents of fragmentation and destruction. Participating in war has defiled them. They embody the witchery described in the poem: Just as the gambler stole the rain, the veterans have driven it away with their killing.
The Laguna abhor warfare, and they have developed cleansing rituals for those who have killed. While Pinkie, LeRoy, Emo, and Harley are lost, Tayo must be purified. The process begins at Betonie’s hogan, where the old man tells him that “the ceremonies have always been changing” and that he, like others before him, must create new ceremonies to ward...
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In her novel Ceremony Leslie Marmon Silko explores several themes through Tayo’s struggles with alcoholism and healing after returning from WWII, the Pueblo myths, and the interactions between these two stories.
The first major theme Silko delves into is that of unity and oneness. Throughout the novel, Tayo’s own difficulties are being mirrored by those of the characters in the poems. Both are struggling with drought, loss, and a disconnect between the way things are and the way they should be, which is the source of all the problems, and both learn to heal these problems by rediscovering their roots and participating in ceremonies that are designed to reconnect them to the truths that they have lost sight of. Silko creates a world in which all stories are the same story, they all start and end at the same place, and repeat themselves endlessly. In this way, there is nothing unique or special, but there is also no reason for fear, as all beings have undoubtedly encountered the same struggles at some point in life, and all beings have come through such trials with a few scratches, but wiser overall. This theme of each of us living the same story with slightly different variations is becomes incredibly apparent at the end of the novel when Tayo’s grandmother, upon hearing of an old friend of Tayo’s who had died says, “I’ve heard all these stories before… only thing is, the names keep changing” (Silko 238).
Ceremony also serves as a sort of warning to Native American peoples of the danger their culture is in. Throughout the novel Tayo and his friends are all struggling to find some sort of identity. Many of them turn to alcohol, as they do not have jobs, positive relationships, or aspirations to define them. This is very detrimental not only to their personal health, but to the health of their relationships with each other, the reservation, and the earth in general. Silko is obviously warning about the dangers of alcoholism, but more than that, she is stressing the importance of being connected to one’s culture because of the power it has in shaping identity and patterns of thinking and behavior. Tayo, unlike his friends, does rediscover his Native American heritage after returning from war. When he does this, he learns of the healing powers of ceremony, of feeling connected to something beyond the mundane world of people and business transactions. Throughout the novel Silko stresses how important it is that ceremonies are passed down and carried on, but that they do not have to be exactly the same every single time, as the differences are what make them special. Ceremonies must be willing to adapt to the time and the circumstances in which they are being played out, otherwise they risk becoming trite and losing significance. Silko is making the same argument for Native American cultures in general. While tradition should be preserved and treasured, Native peoples must also be willing to adapt and adjust to the larger society in which they find themselves, as being compromising and fluid is the only way to retain a traditional culture without having it face destruction.
Another important theme in Ceremony is the interconnectedness of all beings. While he was being held prisoner by the Japanese, Tayo found himself cursing the rain, he blamed it for the deaths of his cousin and his uncle and for his own misery. He prayed and prayed that the rains would go away, and finally they did. Upon returning home to the reservation, Tayo finds himself in the middle of a long drought, one he blames himself for. When Tayo uses ceremony to heal himself, he is able to set things right in the world on a larger scale. Rain returns to the reservation, the bad guys all get justice, things end up just the way they should be.
– Kasey Gardner