In Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich and You Must Remember This by Joyce Carol Oate's, these stories portray iconic characters in their different cultures. Gerry Nanapush is an icon of the Native American Culture while Felix Stevick serves as a local legend of the American culture. Both characters have their own individual strengths and weaknesses that represent their culture. These two novels are held in two different time periods and each has their own theme.
In Love Medicine, Gerry encompasses many qualities of the Native American Chippewa tribe, and is therefore an iconic figure, representative of the Native Americans living on Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Some of the ways in which Gerry is representative of the Native American culture are from his androgynous characteristics, trickster nature, and that he doesn't plan out his life.
The first way that Gerry represents the Native Cultures is by his character. There are several instances throughout the novel in which Gerry is described with very feminine qualities. Although he is a male, by possessing these additional female qualities, Gerry shows a balance in his persona that is representative of all of the Native American people in this story. 'It was the hands I watched as Gerry filled the shack. His plump fingers looked so graceful and artistic against his smooth mass. He used them prettily' (Edrich 205). Edrich describes Gerry in this way to show that he is not just a manly-man; Gerry has a softer feminine side which is representative of the female aspect of society as well. When Gerry was escaping from the police officers, his actions were again described in a very feminine way, despite his brave actions: 'Behind him there was a wide, tall window. Gerry opened it and sent the screen into thin air with an elegant chorus-girl kick' (Erdrich 209). Because Gerry is one of the stronger men in the North Dakota Reservation but also has androgynous characteristic, he is a perfect icon of the Native American culture.
Secondly, Gerry has a very trickster nature. Tricksters are commonly found in the Native American culture, and because Gerry possesses these qualities, he is representing the Native American culture. For instance, when Gerry, Lipshaw, and King were playing poker and playing for June's car, Gerry allowed Lipshaw (who is also a trickster, since he is Gerry's son) to shuffle the cards and deal them out, knowing that Lipshaw would deal the cards in a way to make a point to King about how he can't keep June's car, because it is really June's; and because she is dead, anyone of them could be keeping it for June. Gerry and Lipshaw are tricksters and Lipshaw had the magic touch given to him by Gerry, King was already at a disadvantage in this situation, 'Gerry shoved the deck across the table to me and nodded that it was my deal. His face was cool and serene' So I shuffled carefully. I saw the patterns of it happen in my mind. I dealt the patterns out with perfect ease'' (Erdrich 358). As a result, Gerry got a straight and Lisphaw dealt himself a royal flush. Gerry allowing Lipshaw to do this so that King would hand over the car is an example of Gerry's trickster nature, and important aspect in the Native American culture. In this way, Gerry is an icon, showing the trickster nature that is found in the Native American Chippewa tribe.
Thirdly, a common theme in the Native American culture is not planning ahead for the next step on the journey in life. The Native Americans lived their lives like this because it wasn't possible for them to make plans in advance when everyday presented a new challenge which they had to live in the moment to overcome. This stems from the belief that they didn't control their lives, instead luck and chance where the major driving forces which decide the course their life takes. Gerry is a great example of this theme in Native American culture because he served as a rebel character that was always on the run, living each day in the present moment. This idea of luck and chance controlling their lives is seen in the last chapter with King, Gerry and Lipshaw playing poker, and even using lucky charms cereal as poker chips. Gerry states a very important quote in this chapter which wraps up the idea that their lives are based on chance, 'society? Society is like this card game here, cousin. We got dealt our hand before we were born, and as we grow we have to play as best as we can' (Erdrich 357). Although King continues to rebuttal that 'it really ain't fair' after Gerry makes this statement, this sceneillustrates that life isn't about being fair. In the Native American culture, they consider it pure luck when being dealt the hand you're given, and you just have to continue on the best you can from that point. Gerry's quote perfectly describes this theme in their culture and for that reason Gerry's character is representative of Native American culture.
Gerry is an iconic figure, representative of the Native American from his androgynous characteristics, trickster nature, and the lack of plan for his life. In these ways Gerry is an example which encompasses the themes of Native Americans. It is in this character we can better understand qualities that make up the Native American people, from the stories which are passed down that make up the Native American's history.
The Ojibwa tribe characters in this novel struggle internally and externally. Their struggles, often as painful for the reader as they are for the characters, focus around the themes found prominently in Native American literatures. For instance, themes such as the search for identity, successfully incorporating the past into the present, holding on to community, and refiguring family in the wake of colonization. Most often these struggles are transformed into individual and cultural survival through storytelling. Thus, storytelling constitutes both theme and style. Also, it is an effort to pass down their history, since documentation of events is not a characteristic of Native American culture. In this way, not only can common themes and qualities of the Native American people are taught to the younger generations, but also to people of other ethnicities. In Love Medicine, stories are told through various characters' perspectives to gain insight on the common themes which are presented in the Native American culture.
On the other hand, Oate's epic novel of an American family in the 1950's probes the tender division between the acceptable and the prohibited, between ordinary life and the secret places of the heart. This novel presents the lives of family members that break every convention in the search for meaning and fulfillment. Although the story is set in an era when people valued conservative ideas and conformity, this convention breaks in order to pursue sexual and personal fulfillment. Any notion of the 1950's as a time of contended families or respectable morals is shattered with this profile of the Stevick family of upstate NY filled with Oates' desired topics (family strife and secrets, sexual awakening and violence, and the notion of redemption through violence). Although Oates sums the novel up as a family chronicle, it is Felix who interests the reader most by his iconic figure.
Felix is the novel's most vital character in this novel. Felix's wretched childhood drove him into the streets, then into the ring. He rose through Golden Gloves to become a middleweight champ and a local legend. Felix knows a secret, which, from the perspective of this novel, strikes us as perfectly true: 'The sport wasn't a sport at all. It was just life speeded up'. Retired after a humiliating knockout, Felix now makes shady property deals and cruises around the in pricey cars. Felix is a confusing character. Also, the author states him as being 'a total reprehensible immoral jerk'. For example, his character is dark, threatening and glamorous. Also, he gambles, womanizes and lives dangerously. Enid, a quiet, intelligent and always well-behaved girl falls in love with Felix. When he ignores her, she writes him a note saying, 'Felix I want to die. I love you so much'. When he still doesn't respond, she becomes obsessed with the idea of committing suicide. Felix, taken by her willingness to die for him, comes back to her, and they carry on a passionate, destructive love affair.
Although Felix takes advantage of his niece for selfish desires, the author never paints him as an evil character. In fact, Enid warms immediately to the sexual relationship with her uncle; the only difference is how each views what they are doing. Felix dismisses it as "just something they had to do" (307). He insists that what is between them isn't love. On her 16th birthday Felix leaves her a heart-shaped locket and chain with her mother, but when she calls to thank him, he is careful to explain that it "doesn't mean anything" (182). Therefore, their love affair was strange.
The metaphor of boxing is continuously used throughout Enid and Felix's love affair. Their relationship begins when Felix playfully teaches Enid how to box at a family barbecue. The game develops from horseplay to a more sexual bond. Later in the novel, Felix describes his relationship to Enid: 'a blood bond as if between two men who'd fought each other to a draw. Or say one of them beat the other decisively but the losing fighter fought a courageous fight and pushed himself beyond the limit- the winner was forever in his debt.'
The proposition that life is a metaphor for boxing- for one of those bouts that go on and on, round following round, clinches, missed punches. Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. Boxing is about being hit rather more than it is about hitting, just as it is about feeling pain. Oates is somewhat of a rarity among female authors-she has never been hampered by her sex, and it`s hard to say whether that is because her writing surpasses gender or because she has never created any really fundamental women. Her heroines are headstrong, deep-thinking and complex, and often they`re the victims of male obsession and manipulation. But though many of these women survive, they rarely do so by the strength of their own intelligence or will.
All in all, each novel consists of its own iconic characters. More significantly, keeping track of the characters, and understanding how they are tied together, the reader becomes a part of the linking and intertwining of each novel's theme. Despite aspects of sadness and bitter pain, Louise Erdrich and Joyce Carol Oates both create a world of life, survival, love, and great power in their novels.
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