Group Work: Analyzing Themes
Meticulously record your answers, either on paper or on a Microsoft Word document. Be prepared to present your answers to the class for whole-group discussion.
1. Certain significant symbols and practices are the key to understanding a culture. In the novel Alexie represents basketball as one of those symbols in our American culture. Analyze the symbolic and ritual meanings of basketball, particularly its relevance to masculinity, in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Think, for example, about how basketball plays a part in representing the dichotomy between the sexes. How does this sport symbolize both the physical and cultural values of masculinity? In what ways does Alexie also envision the sport as an arena for the sorting out of ethnic differences? A transcendence of cultural barriers and/or restrictions?
2. If Cisneros’s text was a novella about women and “to the women,” one could just as easily say that Alexie’s text is about men and “to the men.” What arguments exist in the text about the experience of coming-to-age for young males? How, for example, is male adolescence like a Darwinian “survival of the fittest”? Who is “the fittest,” and in what ways is this rubric for “the fittest” culturally-situated? What cultural expectations (i.e., cultural values of masculinity) does the narrator, Junior, face? Do these expectations change or alter off the reservation? (Think, for example, about the “warrior” archetype that manifests frequently in Junior’s narration. Is this warrior archetype a phenomenon only in American-Indian culture, or American culture more broadly?). Is Junior, in some respects, a redefining of masculine ideals—and if so, in what ways?
3. Locate two different metaphors or symbols in the novel that embody the idea of transcendence: transcendence of class/economic barriers, ethnic and cultural barriers, etc.
4. What role do stereotypes play in the novel (Hint: Alexie shows stereotypes of all kinds and not all are simply “negative”)? What is the basis of stereotypes, and how does Alexie, through his portrayal of various characters, challenge those (mis)conceptions? What happens when one individual (or an entire community) internalizes negative stereotypes?
5. Alexie’s novel shows a myriad of coping mechanisms that people employ as a means of psychologically and physically coping with pain: the pain of poverty, the pain of hunger, the pain of trauma, loss, sadness and self-defeat. Locate four different examples in the text of different people who cope with their pain in different ways. What is Alexie suggesting about these coping mechanisms, about the afflicted individuals themselves? What cycles of self-destruction incur? Who embodies the healthiest way of dealing with life’s problems, and why?
6. What sorts of “communities” does Alexie portray in the text (sports, familial, academic, etc, etc). How do these communities both foster growth in the narrator (psychologically, mentally, etc) as well as complicate his journey toward self-improvement and self-awareness? Based upon the end of the novel, can one negotiate these different communities and take away something positive from them—and if so, how? Does this make Junior “not” Indian?
7. Explore one of the novel’s leading themes: poverty of the soul (mind, will, and emotions) versus poverty of living (one’s material, physical circumstances). Which comes first? Which is worse, mental or physical poverty? What keeps people oppressed—physically and mentally? And, perhaps more crucially, how (and why) do people perpetuate the conditions of their own oppression?
8. WILD CARD: chose any theme not described above. Locate examples in the text and develop arguments for how that theme fosters some kind of understanding of the text’s broader arguments.