Silko’s Ceremony: Notes, Links, Questions to Consider

A paper analyzing the embedded “poetic” texts which resemble oral narratives:

This next paper, by UCLA Professor Paula Gunn Allen, can be accessed by students using their “900” number or student ID number through their college library: “Special Problems in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 379-386. Published by: University of Nebraska Press Stable URL:

Here are a few more sources of information in the form of an annotated bibliography. You should be able to access these journal articles through the college library also:

  • Allen, Paula Gunn, “The Feminine Landscape of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, in Studies in American Indian Literature, edited by Paula Gunn Allen, New York: Modern Language Association, 1983, pp. 127-33.

    Allen looks at the close relationship between Native American ideas of nature and Silko’s writing. She particularly focuses on how Silko uses feminine attributes of landscape.

  • Manley, Kathleen, “Leslie Marmon Silko’s Use of Color in Ceremony, in Southern Folklore, Vol. 46, No. 2, 1989, pp. 133-146.

    Manley looks at the symbolic value of various colors in Silko’s most famous novel. Her insights about the importance of colors in Laguna mythology, though, apply to Silko’s poetry, as well.

  • Nelson, Robert M., Place and Vision: The Function of Landscape in Native American Fiction, New York: Peter Lang, 1993.

    Nelson examines the uses that Native American writers have for landscape and nature. Although Nelson’s subject is specifically fiction, the importance of nature and landscape is perhaps even greater in American Indian poetry.

  • Swan, Edith, “Laguna Symbolic Geography and Silko’s Ceremony,” in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1988, pp. 229-249.

    This discussion of the symbolic geography of Laguna mythology is crucial to any understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of the symbols in Silko’s writing.

Some links on Leslie Marmon Silko (from here🙂 I really like the paper “Fences from Freedom.”

These background links (some repeated from above but organized differently and some of which unfortunately don’t work but might lead you in a valuable direction) come from Cal Poly Lit Prof Steven Marx:

  1. Background
    1. Laguna Indians
    2. Geography of the area
    3. Silko’s biography
    4. Essays by Silko

These discussion questions come from the website of the publisher. Choose one which was not discussed in class to be an “expert” in and prepare to lead the class discussion on it.

1. Readers sometimes find the reading of Ceremony a disorienting experience, in part because Silko frequently shifts scenes and time frames without warning. How does this technique help the reader to participate in Tayo’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences? Is its influence on the narrative consistently the same, and is it always effective?

2. How does Tayo’s status as a half-breed influence his choices, his thinking, and the way he is perceived by other characters in the novel? What tensions and conflicts does his mixed ancestry contribute to Silko’s story?

3. For what reasons do Tayo and his cousin Rocky join the Army? In what ways do they and the other young Native American men benefit from their armed service, and why do these benefits evaporate once the war is over?

4. Ceremony has been described as a story of struggle between two cosmic forces, one basically masculine and one essentially feminine. Assuming this to be true, what are the images of masculinity and femininity that Silko presents? Is this gendered analysis an adequate way of understanding the novel? Are there important ideas that it leaves out?

5. Ceremony offers the suggestion that the European settlers of America were created by the “witchery” of a nameless witch doctor. What is the effect of this assertion? Does it make white people demonic by intimating that they are agents of evil, incapable of doing good? Or, to the contrary, does it somehow absolve them from blame because they are merely tools of the “Destroyers” and are not really responsible for their actions?

6. How do the poems and legends that are interspersed in Silko’s text influence your reading of the novel? Why do you think Silko centers Emo’s tale of debauchery (pp. 57–59) on the page in the same way that she centers the older, sacred stories?

7. One aspect of white culture that Tayo especially resents is the way in which its educational practices, particularly instruction in the sciences, dismiss Native beliefs as “superstitions.” What are the similarities and differences between the way Tayo feels about the treatment of his ancestral beliefs and the way in which a believer in the creation stories of Genesis might respond to Darwinism? To what extent is the novel a story of the struggle between technology and belief?

8. Silko’s use of symbolic imagery often makes use of contrasting opposites: dryness and wetness; mountains and canyons; city and country; sunrise and darkness. Choose one of these contrasts (or another one that you have observed); what values does each of the two terms represent? Do their meanings remain constant?

9. Blindness and invisibility are recurring motifs in Ceremony. What does Silko suggest through her repeated uses of inabilities or refusals to see?

10. How do the cattle and other animal presences in the novel function to illustrate the traditional values of the Laguna tribe and their conflicts with the principles and desires of white Americans?

11. Tayo believes that Emo is “wrong, all wrong” in his attitudes toward Indian identity and other aspects of life. What is the nature and what are the causes of Emo’s wrongness?

12. Because Silko presents a number of Native American characters with drinking problems, her novel has been accused of playing into a negative stereotype. Do you think this charge has merit? Why or why not?

13. Silko, who has suffered from headaches, depression, and nausea similar to those that plague Tayo in her novel, has said, “I wrote this novel to save my life.” How is Ceremony a novel of salvation, for Tayo, for its author, and for its readers? What are the limits to the salvation that it appears to offer?

Toni Morrison’s “Beloved:” some ideas to consider & some questions to ask

Some ideas to consider and some questions to ask when reading Part One of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Thanks goes to Stanford’s Great Works Program and to the observations of UCSC Professor Paul Skenazy.

Basic timeline:  Sethe came to Sweet Home at 13, chose Halle at 14, and was married to Halle for six years bearing two sons and one daughter by the time she is 20 and escapes Sweet Home pregnant with a second daughter in 1855 to live at 124 Bluestone Road outside Cincinnati, Ohio.

In the beginning of the novel, when Paul D. from Sweet Home turns up 18 years later, Sethe is 38 and her youngest daughter Denver is 18.

1. Consider the epigraphs (read the Wikipedia definition here.) Review the first episode of Beloved carefully, and discuss your reactions to it. What expectations does the opening scene raise for the work to follow

2. Consider the novel’s complex structure. Why does Morrison choose this particular way of telling Sethe’s story? What does the way the story is told suggest about Morrison’s view of the human mind and its workings?

3. Slave narratives, such as Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, are the starting point of the African-American literary tradition. One of the biggest themes in Frederick Douglass’s story is the question of his name, or his identity. How does this issue relate to Beloved? If you are familiar with slave narratives, can you find ways that Morrison refers to, uses, or reworks the slave narrative tradition in Beloved?

4. Morrison makes a point of including traditional, folkloric, non-literary African-American culture in Beloved, some of which is derived from ancient African roots. What is the effect of this inclusion?

5. Among other things, Beloved is a ghost story. What are the special problems for writer and reader in having a ghost featured as a main character?

6. Give some thought to the presence of (and commentary on) white people in the novel. Why does the author make the choices she does in her presentations of whites?

7.  What have you observed about how and where Morrison uses the words “niggers”? Blacks? Negroes?

8. Part 1 is bracketed by two comings and goings: Paul D. and Beloved. What do you make of this? What might bracket Parts 2 and 3?

9. Early in the Part 1, Amy Denver tells Sethe, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts” (page 35 in my edition). How does this foreshadow much of the novel?

10. One site explains Sethe’s “chokecherry tree” this way: “Upon Sethe’s back is a maze of scars, referred to by Paul D as a “chokecherry tree.” It is the remains of an operation schoolteacher performed upon her back in an effort to determine how much she resembled an animal. The tree, which is ever-present but can never be seen, is symbolic of the burden which Sethe carries. It is her past, and it is the prejudice of white men against her. It is a mark made by people who believed her to be an animal.” What do you think of this analysis?

Some ideas to consider and some questions to ask when reading Parts Two and Three of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Choose one question to be an “expert” on and prepare to lead a discussion about it.

SPOILER ALERT!! If you haven’t finished Parts Two and Three, go no further!

According to the website Ohio History Central, Margaret Garner escaped slavery with her husband and children, but a group of slave owners found the family shortly thereafter: “Before the slaveholders captured the runaways, Margaret Garner used a butcher knife to kill her young daughter. Garner also tried to kill her other children, but she was unsuccessful in her attempt. Garner did not want her children returned to a life of slavery. Margaret Garner’s story of her willingness to kill her own child to prevent her from being returned to a life in bondage received national attention. The story of Margaret Garner was the basis of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved by Ohio native Toni Morrison.”

1.    Now that you’ve completed the novel, review the first episode of Beloved carefully, and discuss your reactions to it again. How does it function in relation to book as a whole?

2.    What judgments does Toni Morrison make on Sethe’s killing of her daughter? How does Sethe’s community judge her? How does Paul D. judge her? How does she judge herself? How do you judge her?

3.    Give some thought to the presence of (and commentary on) white people in the novel. Why does the author make the choices she does in her presentations of whites?

4.    Reflect on the detailed attention that Morrison gives to experiences that will certainly claim your attention (and will probably shock and disturb you): Paul D. on the chain gang, locked in the box; Paul’s experience of the bit; the milking of Sethe; School Teacher’s recording of the slaves’ animal characteristics; Sixo’s death. What is the effect of those experiences, on those who live them and on us as readers?

5.    What’s the significance of the number 124? Of the little “i” ?

6.     Toward the end of Part 2, Morrison uses some unusual narrative devices. Take note of who is the narrator of each of the “sections” or chapters in Part 2 and who’s perspective does the narration come from. In the chapter full of short sentences starting with “you” or “I” or “we,” who is speaking? Why do you think Morrison writes in this way?

7.    When you finish the book, note your reaction to the last passage. How do you feel about the ending? Why do you suppose the book concludes (or doesn’t conclude) in this way?

8.    The novel asks many questions, among them, what it means to be a “man,” to be human, and what it means to be “free.” What do you think it takes to be human? What does it mean to be free?