Sherman Alexies short story “This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona” tells a story about Victor, a broken, lonely young Indian man, who is shaped by the circumstances of the reservation. He not only finds out that he lost his job but also that his father has passed away due to a heart attack. These series of unfortunate events lead Victor his childhood friend Thomas Build-the-Fire to embark on a journey to Arizona to obtain Victor’s father’s ashes. Although the two former friends haven’t talked in years they both set out to find closure.
In this short story the setting plays a very important role because it emphasizes the social circumstances of the reservation life through character, tone and symbolism. In order to really understand the story we have to understand the characters. Alexie depicts Victor as a round dynamic character, he is well developed and close to the action of the story but with the help of Thomas build-the-fire we see Victor open up more towards the end of the story. Victor didn’t really have any ties to his culture. Unlike Victor, Thomas is more of a traditional Indian, he follows more a stereotype.
Thomas is more of a complex character, and he is influenced strongly by his environment. He becomes known as an outcast on the reservation for his crazy repetitive stories, although he is ignored by many he doesn’t let that stop affect who he is. Thomas is Victor’s foil, they both experience the same events but since Thomas’s values are different, in the sense that he’s more of a traditional Indian, his choices and behaviors will be different than from those of Victor. This is what helps Victor change along their journey. In the beginning of the story Victor was melancholy, and just not a very pleasant character.
Towards the end of the story Victor is in his father’s trailer because “there might be something valuable in there. ” Victor isn’t talking about something that will be valuable in the material sense he is looking for sentimental objects such as letters or photographs. After entering his father’s “house,” Victor is then able see his father in a more sympathetic way. The overall tone of the story is bleak or even melancholy at times because of the way the reservation life is described. Unfortunately, many of the reservations contain unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, and many other social problems.
Just in the beginning of the story we find out that Victor needs money to travel to Phoenix, Arizona to get his father’s ashes. The only problem is that he just lost his job and has no money to do this, and the tribal council can only give him one hundred dollars, because they do not have sufficient funds to help him. This is where Alexie depicts Victor as poor and because of this it forces Victor to look for a “sudden need for tradition. ” Which leads him to talk to his former friend. According to the story the only people who truly have money on the reservation are the cigarette and fireworks sales people.
So it is basically stating that if you don’t sell either cigarettes or fireworks you won’t have any means of income. This just goes to show how financial issues are a big problem on the reservation. However, this tone is offset by Thomas Buildsthe-fire who brings hope into the story with stories and sarcasm. We see this happen in the beginning of the story when Thomas informs Victor that he’s heard about his father’s passing. This is when Victor proceeds to ask how and Thomas responds “I heard it in the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight.
Also, your mother was just in here crying. ” Thomas adds a comic relief to not only this situation but many more. The title of this short story is a great example of symbolism because Phoenix is not only a place in Arizona but it also represents a mythological bird that rises from its own ashes and is reborn, making it a symbol of strength and immortality. Because Victor never had a relationship with his father, in a way, he resented him for leaving their family. During the course of their journey Victor and Thomas reminisce about their childhood innocence and their pain.
Victor remembers everything bad and good about his father, and acknowledges that his actions have hurt Thomas. At the end of the story Thomas tells Victor that his “father will rise like a salmon… and find his way home” symbolizing Victor as the phoenix. Alexie implies that it is Victor who will arise from the ashes and be born again, maybe not a new man, but with a brighter look at life. Victor and Thomas have come to a full circle and even though they probably won’t talk to each other again Thomas views this as a fair trade by asking Victor “Just one time when I’m telling a story somewhere, why don’t you stop and listen. This gives Thomas closure as well because in a way it settles their friendship. Another form of symbolism in this short story is Thomas. Thomas has dreams and vision which make him unique, and more of a traditional Indian.
When Thomas tells Victor the story of his journey to Spokane Falls when he was only a teenager, to find his vision, he tells Victor “So I walked all the way, took me all day, and I finally made it to the fall. I stood for an hour waiting. Then your dad came walking up… or a long time I was mad because I thought my dreams had lied to me but they didn’t. Your dad was my vision. Take care of each other is what my dreams where saying… ” Victor recognizes the tie between his father and Thomas and that Thomas plays a part in his self-realization. Sherman Alexie’s short story “This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona” is a wonderful story full of hidden messages and wonderful characters who help us understand the meaning behind these messages.
Victor and Thomas are both lonesome people who have lost a lot in the world. They come together and embark on a journey of selfrealization. Although in the end we know they don’t stay friends, we know that they have both found closure through each other. Sherman Alexie does a great job creating characters such as Victor and Thomas, who make the story come to life. Alexie’s use of setting in this short story plays a very important role because it emphasizes the social circumstances of the reservation life through character, tone and symbolism.