The Eye-motif in N. Scott Momaday`s "House Made of Dawn"

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2000

22 Seiten, Note: 1,3

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1. The connection between “vison” and “land”
1.1 Abels’s Ability to see on the reservation
1.1.1 The “whole” vision
1.1.2 The “irritated” vision
1.1.3 The eagle metaphor
1.2 Abel’s attempts to restore his vision
1.2.1 The tank experience
1.2.2 The Albino
1.3 Abel’s incapability to see in the city
1.3.1 Short-sightedness
1.3.2 Alcoholism
1.3.3 A further attempt to restore vision: Marinez, the culebra
1.4 Insight without seeing: the “runners afters evel”

2. Native Americans through the eyes of “outsiders”
2.1 The “look beyond”
2.1.1 Angela St. John
2.1.2 Father Olguin
2.1.3 The water-bird
2.1.4 The Albino’s death


Bibliography 21


Losing the ability to see is probably one of the most frightening scenarios one can imagine. Why do most of the thrilling and scary scenes in movies, novels and even real life take place at night, in a dark basement or at some other mysterious place of half-light and subdued vision? Because the ability to clearly focus and thus make sense of the world around oneself is fading. We tend to put so much emphasis on what is perceptible to our eyes that we seem to be at a complete loss as soon as this one and apparently all important sense is limited.

For Greek philosophers of the ancient world the sight was the master of the five senses. It was as early as Homer’s Odysseus when information given by eye-witnesses are more readily accepted.1 The new philosophical approach of understanding the world in a scientific way needed a reliable instrument. With the help of the eye it was possible to describe natural phenomena a lot more accurate than by hearing or feeling. Ancient scientists wanted to fully describe and comprehend the nature of all things around them. Thus knowledge was based on what was visible.2

However, it wasn’t just the outer, the material world that was of importance. Plato conceived the eye as a mediator between the outside and the inside of human beings. All perceptible, objective reality needs to be transformed into the ideas that lie behind their “blunt” material surface. Plato calls this the “inner eye“ or the “eye of the soul“. His concept is based on the “allegory of the sun“, where an apparent and visible object (the sun) transports the idea of an invisible but nonetheless inherent principle (the God Helios). The sun functions as the tertium comperationis for a second, deeper meaning that lies behind the obviously visible. Such ideas are formed by the human mind, behind the eyes. But as well as the eye reflects reality, it can also give off information about the inner world, about the feelings and ideas of people. Doctors, for example, can diagnose illnesses accurately by simple looking into the patients eyes, because the body’s macrocosm is mirrored in the microcosm of the eye.

In literature the eye-motif is widely used for various reasons. The sight is the one sense most reliable for the perception of true feelings when speech becomes doubtful or fails completely. It then can become a point of intersection between the outer and the inner world, between the “you“ and the “I“ reflecting inner truths similar to a mirror that reflects the soul. In that meaning, the “master of the senses“ can mirror the aberrations of one’s life even leading to blindness if a “true” understanding of reality is not achieved.3 So the eye can be a means or gaining insight into socio-psychological situations in a double meaning: through the actual physical act of seeing of the eyes, by having an object in sight, it is possible to gain insight to understand the idea behind it, to see beyond the surface appearance of reality and by grasping the philosophical as well as the religious scope of the world, master one’s one life to a point of satisfaction.

1. The connection between “vision” and “land”

The process of visualizing and gaining insight needs perceptible objects to focus on. The very beginning of the novel establishes the associations that will shape the thematic structure of the novel and at the same time introduces the main object: the land. For Native Americans it is very important to live in harmony with their land:

There was a house made of dawn, It was made of pollen and rain, and the land was very old and everlasting. There were many colors on the hills, and the plain was bright with different-colored clays and sands. Red and blue and spotted horses grazed in the plain and there was a dark wilderness on the mountains beyond. The land was still and strong. It was beautiful all around.

The first line of the book captures the title of the novel, “House made of dawn“, referring to an old traditional Navajo chant that is particularly used for healing sick people. The Navajo regard sickness as a lack of harmony, without making radical distinction between physical and mental illness. In the Navajo language a state of health is also a state of beauty.4 The beauty of the world is the beauty of the land in all its magnitude and diversity thus linking the idea of healing and myth closely to that of one’s relationship to the land. The characters in the novel, from Abel, the protagonist, to Angela St. John, Francisco or Tosamah, the Priest of the Sun, each one of them has a way of relating to the land they live in that expresses a degree of “being one“ with themselves or, in a negative sense, being estranged and alienated from the land as well as their own self: Abel loses touch with his traditional ways and can’t integrate into his former environment after returning from his military duties in World War II, Angela seeks peace of mind away from her usual home in Los Angela in the rural environment of the Jemez pueblo in New Mexico, and Tosamah shows in his sermon “The way to Rainy Mountain“ how he finds strength and rest in the land and community he comes from.

The ability to see and envision the land and the beauty it beholds is necessary to gain insight and to comprehend how all things in nature are linked and how they are in balance with each other. Once the mind becomes unbalanced, as is the case with Abel, the person’s identity needs to find healing. One possible way of healing in the Indian culture happens through the word as for Native Americans the oral tradition is very strong. The spoken word plays an essential part in the understanding of tradition, reality and healing. Because words are looked upon as accumulated energy with the power to visualize the physical world in the listener’s mind, they can interact with the nervous system and set off their energy.5 In House Made of Dawn Abel only finds healing after he found his voice again, after he is not inarticulate anymore. Words function as a transmitter between the inner and the outer world. Their potential to heal and restore identity lies in their ability to open the mind and to make the beauty of the world visible, uniting all things into wholeness. Words are a helper to visualize. Ideally, though, words are not needed to gain insight. When Abel finally finds back to his roots and his true identity by running the traditional dawn race at the end of the story, he “could see at last without having to think“6. He was able to take in the beauty of all the things around him and understand them in their broader context of universal wholeness and harmony.

As vision and perception seem to be closely connected with insight and understanding of tradition, myth, land and identity, I would like to focus on the imagery and metaphorical usage of sight and perception of the environment as well as the eye-metaphor in N. Scott Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn.

1.1 Abels’s ability to see on the reservation

There was trouble; he could admit that to himself, but he had no real insight into his own situation. Maybe, certainly, that was the trouble. (93)

Abel had left the reservation to fight in Europe during World War II, returned to his home land, killed a man (the Albino), was sentenced for murder and after having spent six years in prison was put on a federal relocation programme in Los Angeles. However, in L. A., he couldn’t adapt to a modern, mainstream and dominantly white society and his physical, mental and social decline becomes inevitable. After having been almost beaten to death by the vicious cop Martinez and lying shattered on the beach he contemplates his desperate situation for the first time. He understands that he has a deeply rooted problem. It is a problem of not seeing, a lack of insight into his own self, the inability of placing himself in a world he cannot grasp, which he cannot understand for what it is in relation to his own cultural background and identity. His lack of vision is mirrored in his physical condition: It was cold. It was dark and cold and damp, and he could not open his eyes. He was in pain And he could not see. He could not open his eyes to see. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. (87)

It is not just that he couldn’t see specific things, but rather an overall denial of the sense of vision. Something keeps him from opening his eyes. He hasn’t got any possibility to orientate in the darkness around and within himself. Abel has reached the point of absolute break-down and devastation, a point of near self-destruction apparently necessary to trigger a process of healing and regaining sight. His blindness and lack of orientation is further expressed in the following:

He stared into the blackness that pressed upon and within him. The backs of his eyelids were black and murky like the fog; mic roscopic shapes, motes and bits of living thread floated obliquely down, were buoyed up again, and vanished in the great gulf of his blindness. (106)

But what orientation did Abel have before? What made him whole and firm and not “floating obliquely down”?

1.1.1 The “whole” vision

At the beginning of the novel Abel is shown in a scenes out in the canyon, surrounded by nature, running the race at dawn “easily and well“. He is one with himself and the land he is running through. Here, in contrast to the passage on the beach, where he can’t even open one of his eyes, he can see. He is Abel, the man who is “able“ in general and “able” to see (homophonic to his name). Momaday narrates in the past tense using the auxiliary “could“ several times in a row within one paragraph and always in conjunction with the main verb “to see“. Why didn’t he simply say “... he saw the black angles and twins of wood... he saw the horses in the fields“. But instead he puts emphasis on the ability to see by writing “... he could see the black angles ... he could see the horses ... he could see the whole of the valley“ (1). In connection with land and nature Abel “can“ see, is capable of seeing, and thus able to link the outside world, of objects of beauty, with the inner world by letting them permeate through the eye into his mind and soul.

But it is not only the fact that he is able to see but also how he perceives things. Abel’s view in nature is always wide, clear and far into the distance. There is nothing that distracts the eye and the mind. The vision is perfect “as far as the eye could see“(10; 17), has no limits, goes as far as the horizon or beyond and the spectator encompasses the whole variety of nature by standing in the middle of it.

Tosamah, the Priest of the Sun, understands the importance of having a wide, towering view over the landscape as being a part of nature, too. Through the ability to physically see the vastness of the land, the solitude and singularity of all items is not only plain to see but it also kindles inspiration and insight into the whole process of creation and salvation:

Loneliness is there as an aspect of the land. All things in the plain are isolate; there is no confusion of objects in the eye, but one hill or one tree or one man. At the slightest elevation you can see to the end of the world. To look upon the landscape in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is to lose the sense of proportion. Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun. (112f)

Experiencing fulfilment in the beauty of creation by taking everything in through perfect vision without the “confusion of objects in the eye“ evokes an understanding in the whole concept of nature and one’s own place in relation to it. A perfect moment in nature is one when the inside is “still and cool” and aware of everything on the outside. An eternal moment is at hand because the unity with nature is achieved. There is nothing left to be said, no words are needed, and no one else to share it with. One could almost even spare to look at the scenery with all the beauty and brightness blinding the eye. It is a moment of eternal unity and being one with the land:

You felt good out there, like everything was all right and still and cool inside of you … And at first light you went out and knew where you were. … I was that way on the day you were born, and it would be that way on the day you died. … and the land was dark and still and it went all around to the sky. Nothing could fill it but the sun that was coming up, and then it would be bright, brighter than water, and the brightness would be made of a hundred colors and the land would almost hurt you eyes. At first light the land was alone and very still. And you were there where you wanted to be, and alone. You didn’t want to see anyone, or hear anyone speak. There was nothing to say. (148f)

1.1.2 The “irritated” vision

Such perfect moments Abel seeks several times after his return to the reservation. But somehow “the magic of the moment“ won’t settle in. At dawn of his second day back home on the reservation he stands at the top of the canyon scanning the whole valley. “He stood for a long time, the land still yielding to the light. He stood without thinking, nor did he move; only his eyes roved after something ... something.“ (23) His eyes are looking for something, they are restless and intent to find something to fix their view upon. Abel can’t put his finger on it yet. Here he tries to live the moment of beauty and wholeness as he used to in earlier days, but the restlessness of the eyes is hinting at some imbalance within him. This idea becomes even more plausible taking into account that “he could smell the sweet wine which still kept to his clothing“ and “that he had not eaten in two days, and his mouth tasted of sickness.“ (23) Abel’s body as well as his spiritual condition is slowly getting out of shape. A second scene focuses on Abel’s longing for a view over the wide land.

He quit the pavement where it rose and wound upon a hill, suddenly very much relieved to be alone in the sunlit canyon, going on in his long easy stride by the slow, shining river, the water cool and shallow and clear on the sand. He followed with his eyes the converging parallel rims of the canyon walls, deepening in the color of distance until they gave way to the wooded mountains looming on the sky and here and upward from this height to the top of the continent the air was distilled to the essence of summer and noon, and nothing lay between the object and the eye. (53)

As soon as he leaves the pavement, a symbol for the paved paths of the modern world, he is suddenly so “very much relieved“ heading out into nature, up the walls to the top of the canyon, the territory with which he associates well-being and wholeness. His sight goes upwards to the rims of the canyon and beyond it into the sky. He wasn’t to leave the narrowness and restriction of the valley bottom behind in order to find freedom and openness in the unlimited sky beyond the canyon. The movement of the eye described here is one from bottom to top. What Abel longs to see is the sky and the infinitude that is connected with it. Abel doesn’t seem to feel at ease down in the valley, surrounded by the canyon walls. He wants to be on top of it. Most of the scenes he recalls from his youth before he went off to serve in the US army picture Abel on top of the canyon or in the plain where he can view the land “as far as the eye can see“. It seems he wants to regain his ability to grasp the world by getting a clear and detailed view from above, from an elevated position that gives him the opportunity to encompass not only the broadness of the land but also every detail it holds.

1.1.3 The eagle metaphor

The relation of “top” and “bottom”, of being above the world or down on the ground, finds a metaphorical counterpart in the eagle-motif. For Native Americans, and thus equally for Abel, eagles are sacred, holy birds and the Eagle Watchers Society, a society that emphasises the traditional mythological role of the bird with seasonal rituals and initiating the youth into the act of watching and catching eagles, claims to have a superior status in Indian tradition and society. (14) The elders of the society are descendants of a people that had endured great suffering and once were very close to the point of being extinct. Through their hardship and uttermost peril and strive for survival they acquired a sense that gave them insight into the essentials of life. These men became the medicine men, the rainmakers, the seers and soothsayers.

Abel remembers a moment when he had witnessed a scenario of fundamental importance to him: He had seen a strange thing, an eagle overhead with its talons closed upon a snake. It was awful, holy sight, full of magic and meaning. (14)

Watching two eagles playing with a snake in the air leaves a remarkable impression on Abel. He follows their movements as closely as possible, he is “dumb with pleasure and excitement, holding on to them with his eyes.“ (16) Anxious not to disturb the birds of prey he hides behind a rock. It is a spectacular scene he is allowed to watch and he is “straining to see“ (17), eager to get as much excitement from the mighty and swift movements of the birds as possible. They play with a helpless snake. The eagles are in control. They have the power of the snake to either play with it or simply let go of it once they lose interest. The choice is entirely theirs. And that is the “awful“ meaning behind the scene, the fact that their dominance gives them the power to catch a living animal of their choice and use it for their interests, for food or for playing.

But what is its “meaning“ for Abel? What symbolizes the eagle? What does the snake stand for? What the lion is in the desert the eagle is in the air. It is the master, the ruler watching the world from above. Its quality to perfectly overlook the whole scenery, to use the complete width of the view but at the same time notice every minute movement on the ground and to have an eye for the detail, makes it attractive to Abel. The eagle is the master of vision.

They are sacred ... and there is divine malice in the wild eyes, an unmerciful intent. The eagle ranges far and wide over the land, farther than any other creature, and all things there are related simply by having existence in the perfect vision of a bird The other, latecoming things ... have an alien and inferior aspect, a poverty of vision and instinct, by which they are estranged from the wild land, and made tentative. (52)

In that sense the snake is an animal of restricted vision. It is bound to the ground and can only look as far ahead as the nearest higher obstacle permits it. Due to its incapability of overviewing things it is always in danger of being caught by an animal of superior vision. It is the aspect of vision, not one of short-sightedness but one of wide and broad vision, that gives people as well as animals a sense of identity, importance, power and wholeness.

A link is established between the poverty of vision and becoming estranged from the land. That is exactly what happens in Abel’s case. He becomes more and more estranged from his land and himself the more he loses his ability to see. He slowly merges from the seeing eagle into the blind snake. First signs of such irritation were mentioned above: first his longing to leave behind a civilisation he doesn’t get along with and head out into the country to the top of a canyon, and second, his attempt of regaining a feeling of wholeness by overlooking the wide land in which he doesn’t succeed, however, because his eyes are busy looking for something he can’t name yet. His eyes and his ability to see reflect an inner distortedness hinting at a begining deterioration of his identity.

1.2 Abel’s attempts to restore his vision

1.2.1 The tank experience

Abel’s experiences during the Second World War leaves serious marks in his consciousness. In Europe he was confronted with a way of life, with a kind of fighting he had never ever experienced before. Taking into account that he is very much confused by his first ride in a motorized vehicle leaving the reservation when he was drafted, one can imagine what extraordinary impression the whole machinery of war must have left on him. Abel couldn’t adapt properly to the “white“ way of fighting and in a moment of extreme danger he doesn’t behave sensible in a white understanding of the situation but understands an oncoming tank almost as some kind of evil spirit which can only be exorcised and driven away by ritual dances and ceremonies. In a sheer life-threatening situation he instinctively remembers his roots and uses traditional means to make sense of something he doesn’t seem to comprehend. His vision of the matter is entirely different from that of his white army colleagues. The omniscient narrator describes Abel’s encounter with the tank as follows:

His vision cleared and he saw the countless leaves dip and sail across the splinters of light. The machine concentrated calm, strange and terrific, and it was coming. He rolled over and scanned the ridge, looking into the sun. There was only the dark rim of the hill and the trees edged with light. His mouth fell upon the cold, wet leaves, and he began to shake violently. He reached for something, but he had no notion of what it was; his hand closed upon earth and the cold, wet leaves.

Then, through the falling leaves, he saw the machine, It rose up behind the fill, black and massive, looming there in front of the sun. He saw it swell, deepen, and take shape on the skyline, as if it were some upheaval of the earth, the eruption of stone and eclipse, and all about it the glare, the cold perimeter of light, throbbing with leaves He was shaking violently, and the machine bore down upon him, come close, and passed him by. (22)

The horrible machine is never perceived as a technical piece of machinery but rather as some “earthen” being standing against the sun. The prominence of earth and light is striking. Abel sees his attacker as a creature born from the face of the earth, not as something detached but as an inherent part of it. And in his fear he clings to exactly the same thing that is attacking him: his hands close upon the earth. From the description of Abel’s war comrade Bowker we find out that in his helplessness, Abel tries to “fight“ the tank:

And that’s when the chief here got up, sir. Oh Jesus, he just all of a sudden got up and started jumping around and yelling at that goddam tank, ... he was giving it the finger and whooping it up and doing a goddam war dance, sir. We couldn’t believe what was going on. And here he was, hopping around with his finger up in the air and giving it to that tank in Sioux or Algonquinn or something, for crissake. And he didn’t have no weapon or helmet even Then he finally took of through the trees kind of crazy and casual like, dancing ! (103f)

Somehow Abel tries to restore order by applying old rituals and dances to heal the spirits of the earth, to heal whatever has come out of balance.

1.2.2 The Albino

Back on the pueblo in Walatowa he has similar difficulties of settling back in with the old customs. Here Abel looks for an explanation and finds the reason for his imbalance in the existence of an evil being within the community: the Albino. The Albino is a hard to grasp character that can’t be understood as truly and only evil. It doesn’t do particular evil or cause deliberate harm to people apart from Abel at the rooster-pull ceremony where he thrashes the rooster on Abel’s body until it is dead. The Albino’s acts of malevolence must rather be seen as a metaphor for Abel’s failure to integrate into his old community. For Abel the Albino imposes a clear threat to him and the community. The natural equilibrium of things has become out of balance and needs to be healed. But this time, dancing and chanting is out of the question for Abel. As he is estranged from his former self by the influence of the white society he is inarticulate and unable to see a traditional way of solving his problem. He can’t chant and he can’t speak in his native tongue unlike his grandfather Francisco, who has understood and acknowledged the existence of Evil as a part of life with no need to fight against it. Abel instead, has not reached this level of insight yet and needs to kill the Albino because Evil must be eradicated. Father Olguin testifies at court on behalf of Abel trying to qualify the deed of killing a man:

“I mean,“ said Father Olguin, “that in his own mind it was not a man he killed. It was something else.“

“An evil spirit.“

“Something like that, yes.“ (89)

Abel understood the Albino as an evil spirit with the powers to transform himself into a snake. In the traditional mythology the snake is the symbol of negative forces, the creature of temptation and harm. But then again, if you look at the appearance of the Albino, he bears all characteristics of the “lesser“ animal, of the creature poor in vision and bound to the ground. Albinos in general must protect their eyes as the pigment disorder makes them very sensitive to light. The Albino wears black glasses, of which the colour itself hints at subdued vision. In the scene with Francisco working in the field and the Albino hiding close by, he has “nearly sightless eyes ... and the barren lids fluttered helplessly behind the coloured glasses.“ (60) When Abel has completed the act of killing the evil spirit “he knelt over the white man for a long time in the rain, looking down.“ (74) Abel towers above the dead man looking down on him just like the mighty eagle flies above the sightless snake. He is in charge and in control and finds himself in the desired elevated position that brings balance by permitting a full view on the land and the world around. Also it is the snake that is prey for the eagle and not vice versa. In Abel’s eyes order is restored. However, the discrepancy between Abel’s view of the world and the reaction of the people outside his Indian environment, who play along different rules, becomes apparent yet again when he is tried and sentenced to six years of prison.

1.3 Abel’s incapability to see in the city

After his release from prison Abel lives in the urban environment of Los Angeles being part of the Federal Relocation Program. His vision becomes more and more restricted to the point of total physical and mental blindness. As the federal programs were intended to abolish reservations and integrate the people into mainstream society and economy by providing transition benefits such as job training and health care, integration must fail with a person so closely bound to the environment of his birth place, a man who needs to live according to conservative traditional rules in order to define himself and give his life meaning. His progressing psychological decay manifests itself once again in the decline of his physical ability to see.

1.3.1 Short-sightedness

In contrast to the wide views of the open land on his home reservation in New Mexico, Abel’s vision shifts from an outward looking perspective to one that is restricted and short-sighted.

Benally, Abel’s friend, flatmate and colleague at the carton factory, describes Abel at work as someone of whom he could tell that “he was kind of shy and scared“ but “good with his hands catching on alright”. But already in the early phase of his time in Los Angeles Abel seems to be occupied with his own thoughts blocking off, not noticing his immediate surrounding: “He was looking right down at his work all the time, like I wasn’t even there.“ (133) Apparently it is not as if Abel wouldn’t have the chance to look up but rather as if he doesn’t want any contact with anybody outside of his protective wall. There is a touch of resignation and discontent in Abel’s work which is different from the one described by Angela St. John, for example, at her house on the reservation:

She had never seen a man put his back to his work before. Always there had been a kind of resistance, and angle of motion or of will. But it was different with him; he gave himself up to it. He took up the axe easily, and his strokes were clean and deep. The bit fell into the flesh of the wood and the flesh curled and spun away There was an instant in which the coil of his body was set and all his strength was poised in the breach of time, then the infinite letting go. (28)

Abel is not simply looking down on his work of chopping wood but more likely seems to be concentrated and entirely given up to the whole process. He is not detached from it by “looking down“ on it but united with it. Abel is one with the axe splitting the wood. Abel seems to be free of any preoccupation of the mind. On the contrary, Benally’s description of Abel shows him as someone who keeps a distance to his hands, who watches from above trying to make sense of what he is doing but at the same time is restricted to a vision that halts at the boundaries of his own body, at the end of his extremities, his hands. His body and soul are disjunct.

Later in the novel we see Abel sitting in his flat, his head sunken, looking down on his hands again. Abel’s first humiliation by the vicious cop Martinez, whom Abel calls culebra (Spanish for snake) had left a deep mark on his psychological well-being. For no particular reason he was beaten heavily on the hands by the policeman.

He didn’t say anything ... but he couldn’t forget about it. He would sit around, looking down all the time at his hands. Sometimes I would say something, and it was like he didn’t hear me, like he had something bad on his mind and he had to do something but he didn’t know what it was. Then he would look up after a while and ask me what I had said. (154)

According to Benally that incidence triggered an even more rapid fall. Abel resigns from the world around by not attending work, losing his job without looking for a new one, blurring his perception and seeking to forget by turning to heavy drinking.

1.3.2 Alcoholism

Abel’s alcoholism is a further sign indicating unhappiness and criticism of a world he doesn’t like to see. It is another vehicle on the road to blindness. He turns to a drug that shows him the world as he longs to see it but drastically distorts his vision, his way of thinking, his sense for reality, it distorts his identity.

Benally, a pueblo Indian who has managed to adapt to urban life, explains the “positive” effect of alcohol in connection with the Native American “problem“ of integrating into mainstream America:

You’ve got to put a lot of things out of your mind, or you’re going to get all mixed up. You’ve got to take it easy and get drunk once in a while and just forget about who you are. (140)

Alcohol makes you forget your social origins by annihilating the incompatibility of two different social and economic ways of life. In order to function in a modern world you have to block out all visible signs and, more importantly, the meaning and functionality that make life difficult for people unaccustomed to it. This is achieved by diluting their negative appearances with alcohol. The helplessness and the longing of not wanting to clearly accept and deal with reality as it presents itself in all its multitude and consequences finds a suitable means in sight-blurring drugs such as alcohol. When Abel returns to his pueblo after World War II, affected by alcoholism, he can’t grasp reality anymore:

He was drunk, and he fell against his grandfather and did not know him. His wet lips hung loose and his eyes were half closed and rolling. (8)

Francisco stands for the conservative traditional Indian culture Abel was brought up with. But he isn’t able to see and recognize the reality right before him. His eyes are “half closed“ and his overall facial expression is one of indifference towards the outer world. Abel’s own reality only takes place within himself and is one of self-deception.

1.3.3 A further attempt to restore vision: Marinez, the culebra

In his delirium of self-pity and intoxicated blurred vision Abel is trying to deal with his desolate situation for the third time. He searches along the lines of his traditional understanding of the world as a place where Good and Evil exists but where Evil needs to be chased and exorcised for it to cause no further harm. Just like the Albino represented an evil spirit which Able had to kill, he finds Evil reappearing in the shape of the cop Martinez. He is the evil spirit he wants to hold responsible for his own helpless situation. Abel disappears from his apartment to go out and “look for culebra “, “to get even with culebra “ (160). The eagle wants to catch the snake. But Abel has lost all senses of judging reality and is nearly beaten to death by Martinez.

In the most desperate moment of his entire life, on the verge of dying, “reeling on the edge of the void“, lying on the beach, nearer to the ground than ever, with broken bones and a swollen face, not able to see through his eyes, in a moment of absolute blindness and darkness he has a vision that will lead him to insight, will heal him and restore him in his traditional place.

... and soon he could see them in the distance, the old men running after evil. They passed in the night, full of tranquillity, certitude. There was no sound of breathing or sign of effort about them There was a burning at his eyes His skin crawled with excitement; he was overcome with longing and loneliness, for suddenly he saw the crucial sense in their going. They were whole and indispensable in what they did; everything in creation referred to them They ran with great dignity and calm, not in the hope of anything, but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and with respect. Evil was. Evil was abroad in the night; they must venture out to the confrontation; they must reckon dues and divide the world. (91f)

Abel finally understands the meaning of Evil. It is an eternal force present in nature and life. Fighting it and trying destroy it is futile because it can’t be wiped off of the face of the earth. Instead one must find a way of living with it and accept its importance as the counterpart of the Good in a balanced world. It is like Yin and Yang, black and white, female and male, light and dark, strong and weak, Good and Evil, two complementing forces which need each other in order to fully develop their own importance. One shouldn’t run away from the Evil but seek it out and face it with the intention of understanding its nature for it to be left alone afterwards and not to be afraid of anymore. Abel’s grandfather Francisco impressively demonstrates such a “handling“ of the dark spirits in the Albino-in- the-field scene. When you have understood the Evil as well as yourself, it isn’t even necessary to find it out and chase it anymore. Francisco is whole and one with himself. He is able to unite and combine Good and Evil because he acknowledges both their existences as inclusive parts of nature. (cf. 59f)

1.4 Insight without seeing: the “runners afters evel”

The vision of the “Runners after Evil“ is an eye-opener with a purifying effect to his vision similar to that of the purgatory. In the middle of Abel’s vision of insight Momaday puts in one single sentence referring to Able’s eyes and that “there was a burning at his eyes.“ His eyes were swollen and shut. He could not open his eyes to see and he “could not place the centre of the pain.“ (87) The feeling returns to his body and as with every healing process you can feel the damaged area as soon as it begins to heal. The ignited fire of insight hurts because Abel has to critically re-view his own life, ask himself where all the trouble had begun, dispose all wrong points of view he carries with him. From that point onward, his eyes slowly but continuously open up and are able to see again; his process of healing begins. He understands that his place is not in the city but on the reservation with a life lead according to Native American tradition. With the help of his friend Benally, who reminds him of his roots by singing the old healing chant “House Made of Dawn“ to him, and with the help of his grandfather Francisco, who shares important events of his initiation into the Indian tradition shortly before he dies, Abel restores himself and becomes whole again. This process finds its culmination in the dawn race at the end of the novel where Abel’s vision is completely restored:

And he got up and ran on. He was alone and running on. All of his being was concentrated in the sheer motion of running on, and he was past caring about the pain. Pure exhaustion laid hold of his mind, and he could see at last without having to think. He could see the canyon and the mountains and the sky. He could see the rain and the river and fields beyond, He could see the dark hills at dawn. He was running, and under his breath he began to sing. There was no sound, and he bad no voice; he had only the words of a song.

And he went running on the rise of the song. House made of pollen, house made of dawn.

In this last paragraph of the novel Momaday closes the circle by taking up the theme from the beginning of the book: the combination of nature, healing, tradition and being able to see and understand the everlasting beauty of wholeness. Four times within a few lines emphasis is put again on the phrase “could see“. Finally Abel is “able“ and capable of a clear perception again which enables him to sing a song, not to be inarticulate anymore, and to do all this without having to think about it. The beauty and wholeness of nature is in the eye of the beholder, finds its way from the outside through the transmitter of the eye directly to the inside right into the open soul of the restored Native American.

2. Native Americans through the eyes of “outsiders”

So far we have seen how Abel’s vision and ability to see reflects his longing for wholeness and mirrors the status of his identity and inner well-being. It is the view told by a Native American author. In the story, however, “white“ characters appear who live in an Indian environment: Angela lives there, for the reason of finding peace and rest from the hustle and bustle in Los Angels in the mineral baths of Los Ojos; and Farther Olguin, who is the catholic reverend of the Walatoba pueblo. By their depiction Indians’ eyes, light is thrown upon a culture which isn’t their own.

2.1 The “look beyond”

2.1.1 Angela St. John

Angela, just like Abel, has lost her own self and is in need of healing. She is pregnant and in a nervous condition, suffering from self-hatred and depression. She stays in the little village of Los Ojos in a house called Benevides. Both locations explicitly refer to “eyes“: Los Ojos is the Spanish translation for “The Eyes“ and Benevides is Latin for “You see well“. The house resembles a place of refuge and stronghold from where Angela can investigate and watch others but is safe from being watched herself. From the inside of her house, “from the upstairs window“ (28), she watches the environment around her several times and describes Abel, for example, who comes to do the wood chopping for her. Being behind the window, the eye of the house, Angela is looking from the inside at the world outside not taking part in it. She is in the eye of the house trying to see and make sense of the culture unknown to her. From her house Benevides she can observe well. She wants to know what it is that makes Native Americans so unapproachable for her. She is trying hard to see but somehow doesn’t fully comprehend, just like the wood in the fireplace she didn’t notice catch fire although she looked hard for it. (32) For her the answer seems to lie in their eyes. They are “still, black eyes just wide of her own“ (30). At a corn dance she visits, she notices the dancers’ facial expressions as being similar to Abel’s when he cut the wood:

The dancers had looked straight ahead, to the exclusion of everything It was simply that they were grave, distant, intent upon something that she could not see. Their eyes were held upon some vision out of range, something away in the end of distance, some reality that she did not know, or even suspect. (33)

She senses a seriousness in the performance of the dance, a seriousness which she transfers from a general concept of life to simple manual jobs like cutting wood. Such expressionlessness of the face and the eyes, the distance and the detachment from the world lets her perceive of Indians as “wooden Indians”. For the outsider, for Angela, their faces lack any sign of emotion and thus bear an enigmatic expression that is hard to read. But she ventures on and tries to make sense of the nothingness she detects in their eyes:

Probably they saw nothing after all, nothing at all. But then that was the trick, wasn’t it? To see something at all,, nothing in the absolute. To see beyond the landscape, beyond every shape and shadow and color, that was to see nothing. hat was to be free and finished, complete, spiritual To say “beyond the mountain,“ and to mean it, to mean, simply, beyond everything for which the mountain stands, of which it signifies the being. Somewhere, if only she could see it, there was neither nothing nor anything. And there, just there, that was the last reality. (33)

A whole spiritual microcosm is visible in their eyes. A spirituality that reveals an eternal wholeness and being one with the world by finding the “true“ reality and essence of life beyond the materialistic appearance of the world. Angela values such practiced spirituality highly and must attest Native Americans a superiority that is hard for her to accept. The only comfort she can find lies in the fact that even Indians have to return from their virtual trip “upon her everyday dense, impenetrable world” (33). Only for that reason and no other she can stand up to the Indians. Angela envies them for their ability to see beyond things and be untied from worldly entanglements because such a vision would be the cure for her own disruption with the world and the restlessness within herself.

The “look beyond“ as captured by Angela is a characteristic of Native Americans described by Indians and non-Indians alike. When Angela faces Abel after he completes his job outside her house, his “still, black eyes [were] just wide of her [Angela’s] own“ (30) meaning that they expressed a distance and a state of not-being-present. She sets Abel’s eyes in relation to her own eyes, which are hooked to reality, incapable of leaving matter behind and look “upon some vision out of range“, “some reality she did not know“.

The aspect of the outsider who is confronted with a hard to grasp Indian culture and philosophy is mentioned again when Angela and Father Olguin go to the village together for the feast of Santiago. On their way through the streets they see “faces in the dark windows and doorways of the houses, half in hiding, watching with wide, solemn eyes“ (36). The eyes are “wide“ and open with a seriousness about them that strikes the observer as being remote. The word “wide“ on the one hand suggests an openness with the ability of good sight, but on the other also a remoteness in the sense of “being detached and far away of“ the world. Such remoteness is further emphasised through the house metaphor. The Red Indians watch the “watcher“ in return from the inside of a house through windows and doorways, the “eyes” of a house; one culture looking at the other with cautiousness and wariness in an interesting scenario of insiders and outsiders brought about visually through architectural structures.

2.1.2 Father Olguin

On an other occasion Father Olguin gives a futher example of a person reflecting about eyes of Indians through his own. He is incapable of making sense of Native Americans in general by revealing contempt and rejection upon their general physical condition:

Everywhere he caught sight of men and women, bloated or shrivelled up with age, children running and writhing on the sheer tide of revelry; and a sameness of distance upon all their eyes, their one timeless enigmatic face constrained into idiocy and delight. (68)

He makes out a “sameness“ from which he can’t read, which is inaccessible for him. He has no clear understanding of what causes the mixture of “idiocy and delight“ upon their faces. In Abel’s trial he puts into words what he witnesses in his village every day:

We are dealing with a psychology about which we know very little. I see the manifestations of it every day, but I have no real sense of it. (90)

His role as a white outsider and thus as a person who is not perceptible to a different culture, a culture which seems to be a compilation of peculiarities to him, finds resemblance on the metaphorical level of his outer appearance: Father Olguin has only one functioning eye, the other being “clouded over“ (24) and “hard and opaque, like a lump of frozen marrow in the bone“ (48).

Solemn and detached eyes occur several times in the novel either to indicate a non-understanding on the side of the person watching Indians as in the cases of Angela and Father Olguin, or to hint at a philosophical understanding Native Americans have of nature, life and death.

2.1.3 The water-bird

In the first section of this paper I have analysed how Abel tries to restore himself in connection with tradition and nature. Whenever he feels at ease in nature, he looks as far out into the distance as possible. Momaday being a Kiowan Indian himself says through the words of Tosamah how important it is to see into the distance:

The Kiowas reckoned their statue by the distance they could see, and they were bent and blind in the wilderness. (114)

The direction of the sight often is connected with the infinitude of the sky, the horizon or the moon and the stars at night. They are symbols for continuity and a reliable system of guidance. But these symbols represent objects beyond worldly bonds and, having a fixed place in the “outer” cosmic world, imply a longing of the eye and the mind to go beyond and seek freedom and salvation in the “nothingness of the absolute“ behind the multitude of nature. This view doesn’t seem to be restricted to the living creatures but finds a paradoxical coexistence in death, too. Abel remembers being out in nature with his brother Vidal hunting water-birds. They shoot one and Abel goes to the dark river to fetch the bird:

The bird held still in the cold black water, watching him ... He carried it out into the moonlight, and its bright black eyes, in which no terror was, were wide of him, wide of the river and the land, level and hard upon the ring of the moon in the southern sky. (106f)

The bird’s eyes reflect unity of contrasts. The eyes are “bright” and “black” at the same time. Although the bird is dead and its eyes are distant and far apart from everything around them, they seem to be looking at the moon, establishing an eternal connection between nature and the cosmos, the living and the dead, brightness and darkness and combining all transitoriness in the “now” under “the southern sky“ of New Mexico. Life and death is interwoven by several views beyond borders of existence. Abel watches a dead bird, making a transition into the world of death. The bird in return is looking beyond its world of death into the world of the living and, once in it, onto an object that has its place in the sky, another world beyond the reaches of “normal” earthlings. Momaday here explains a “terrorless“ continuity of the circle of life and death through the symbol of the eye.

2.1.4 The Albino’s death

We find the same kind of transition between life and death in connection with a look that doesn’t really take notice of reality anymore, in the scene where Abel kills the Albino. Even the Evil, represented by the Albino, shares the same look beyond the obvious reality. In this respect, the Evil is a part of the Indian reality just like any other existing creature or thing in it. Here again, in the moment before death, there is no fear of death in the person or creature about to die - the horror rather lies on Abel’s side. Instead, the sight finds consolation in something beyond that takes away the “mundane“ character of reality, even of an act of a brutal killing:

There was no expression on his face, neither rage nor pain, only the same translucent pallor and the vague distortion of sorrow and wonder at the mouth and invisible under the black glass. He seemed to look not at Abel but beyond, off into the darkness and the rain, the black infinity of sound and silence The white hands still lay upon him as if in benediction and the awful gaze of the head, still fixed upon something beyond and behind him. (73f)


Momaday’s House Made of Dawn is a novel where the eye-motif plays a hidden but nonetheless important role in communicating the idea of “wholeness” of Native Americans. “Being one” with oneself and, more importantly, being one with the land they live on, is one of the fundamental issues according to which Native American Indians traditionally try to lead their lives and make sense of the world around them. Abel, our protagonist of the story, has difficulties in adapting to a modern mainstream and dominantly white urban society in the years after World War II. His lack of orientation is clearly perceptible in the functionality of his sight. The further Abel is estranged from his traditional roots, the more his ability to see diminishes to a point of complete blindness. Abel’s eyes will only resume their functionality after a moment of insight into the reasons for his own detachedness from his roots and thus himself. So the eye-motif’s function is twofold: on the one hand, it is an instrument capable of perceiving reality and mediating between the outside and the inside world of the observer. A clear vision guarantees full understanding and “wholeness”, physical blindness indicates mental blindness and being estranged from one’s own identity. However, on the other hand, Momaday establishes a connection between “seeing” and “insight” which doesn’t stop at the equation of “physical blindness” and “mental blindness”. The inner eye develops its importance by guiding the way out of the darkness into the light again only in a moment of sheer darkness, blindness and lack of orientation. Healing only becomes possible after the sight is restored and “able” to take in the beauty of the land again.

In House Made of Dawn eyes also have the function of “the mirror of the soul”. This becomes particularly obvious in the cases of Angela and Father Olguin, who are outsiders of the Native American culture. Through their eyes we see American Indians described, and here especially the look in their eyes. In the Native’s eye, a whole philosophical understanding of life becomes apparent to an outsider, who tries to see and understand a culture unknown to him/her. What is manifested in the “look beyond”, is the ultimate state of being detached from reality by fully accepting and worshipping it at the same time. Again, through the perception of an expressionlessness in the eye of Native Americans, through not being able to clearly see on the surface and to read from it, insight into a new culture is possible.

I would like to finish my analysis with the words of an old yogi emphasising the importance of being able to clearly see in order to grasp the world in its actual meaning:

Jede Beobachtung, um objektiv und realistisch zu sein, muss von kristallklarer Reinheit sein. Sie darf von nichts zerstreut, abgelenkt oder entstellt sein, weder von innen noch von außen, und der Akt der Beobachtung selbst muss frei sein, nicht behindert durch irgendein Motiv oder Vorurteil, weil jedes Motiv und jedes Vorurteil unweigerlich den reinen Akt beeinflusst und färbt und daher entstellt. Es ist eine Tatsache, dass die unfreie Psyche, d.h. eine Psyche, die belastet ist durch vergangene Eindrücke und angeborene Sympathien und Antipathien, die unweigerlich daraus entstehen, im Grunde unfähig ist zur reinen Betrachtung.7


Primary sources:

Homer, Odyssee, übersetzt v. F. G. Jünger, Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 1981.

Momaday, N. Scott, House Made of Dawn, New York 1968.

Patanjali, Die Wurzeln des Yoga, übersetz v. B. Bäumer, Barth, München 1976.

Secondary sources:

Daemmrich, Horst S., Themen und Motive in der Literatur: ein Handbuch, Franke Verlag, Tübingen / Basel 1995.

Evers, Lawrence J., Words and Place: A reading of House Made of Dawn, in: Wiget, Andrew (ed.), Critical essays on Native American Literature, Boston, MA 1985.

Gunn Allen, Paula, Studies in American Indian Literature, Critical Essays and Course Design, Modern Language Association of America, New York 1983.

Völcker, Mathias, Blick und Bild - Das Augenmotiv von Platon bis Goethe. Aisthesis Verlag, Bielefeld 1996.

Whitson, Kathy J., Native American Literatures. An Encyclopedia of works, characters, authors, and themes, ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara 1999.


1 Homer, Odyssee III. Gesang, V. 96.

2 Völcker, Mathias, Blick und Bild - Das Augenmotiv von Platon bis Goethe. S. 34.

3 Daemmrich, Horst S., Themen und Motive in der Literatur: ein Handbuch, Cf. p. 62ff.

4 Cf. Gunn Allen, Paula, Studies in American Indian Literature, Critical Essays and Course Design, p. 219.

5 Gunn Allen, Paula, Studies in American Indian Literature, p.171.

6 Momaday, N. Scott, House Made of Dawn, p. 185. All quotes from House Made of Dawn will be referred to directly in the text by the corresponding page number in brackets.

7 Patanjali, Die Wurzeln des Yoga, p. 91

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The Eye-motif in N. Scott Momaday`s "House Made of Dawn"
Universität Augsburg
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Eye-motif, Scott, Momaday`s, House, Made, Dawn, Hauptseminar
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Tilli Popilli (Autor:in), 2000, The Eye-motif in N. Scott Momaday`s "House Made of Dawn", München, GRIN Verlag,


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