Major Themes in "What You Pawn, I Will Redeem"

Desperation, loneliness, and uncertainty are typically emotions homeless people endure while living through this difficult predicament. In the short story, “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” by Sherman Alexie (2003), these three elements are intertwined as they follow the journey of Jackson Jackson. Jackson, whom is a homeless man, raised as a Spokane Indian boy, has found himself living on the streets of Seattle (Alexie, 2003). Jackson has become accustom to this unsettling lifestyle, and seems to thrive on the unknown. One day, Jackson noticed his Grandmother’s regalia in the window of a pawn shop for sale (Alexie, 2003).

Understanding that he is a broke homeless man, Jackson knows the chances of rightfully earning the money is near impossible. As determined and committed as Jackson is, it’s hard to imagine that he would use his earned money for anything but the regalia. Unfortunately, the temptations of the precarious streets of Seattle lure him into making poor decisions. Jackson’s predicament of homelessness will ultimately become a barrier in achieving his objective, but the kindness shown by his fellow community members will help strengthen his humility.

As a result, there are many life obstacles that Jackson has endured which make up his character and becoming homeless for the last 6 years has played a large part in this. Alexie provides a flashback glimpse into Jackson’s past. Prior to Jackson beginning his desperate attempt in doing whatever it takes to retrieve his Grandmother’s regalia, the setbacks he encounters test his aspirations. Jackson cannot pinpoint exactly what got him to this place of homelessness, but he has an insight on what could have led him here, “I grew up in Spokane, moved to Seattle twenty-three years ago for college, flunked out after two semesters, worked various blue- and bluer-collar jobs, married two or three times, fathered two or three kids, and then went crazy” (Alexie, 2003, P.

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2). Alexie provided the reader a piece of what Jackson’s life was like prior to being homeless. Jackson discusses his dating life, how he was a heart breaker and disappeared little by little. Alexie used a flashback technique during this piece of the story, as Jackson reflected on his former life. Flashbacks are often used, “when a writer can give the reader background information relevant to the conflict the character is now facing” (Skwiot & Clugston, 2019, Ch.4.1) Alexie doesn’t go deeply into detail with this flashback, but one is to believe that many stresses of being a father, holding a job and being a husband had something to do with Jackson’s downward spiral.

During the story, Alexie did an exceptional job explaining the identifiers that could have led up to Jackson’s homelessness predicament. In the journal, Understanding Homelessness by Peter Somerville, he discusses that these specific life events could place people in this situation, and realize it’s harder to get out. Somerville describes these elements as, “sin talk”, “sick talk” and “system talk” (2013, p.388). “Sin talk” encompasses drugs & alcohol, “sick talk” is a reflection of one’s mental health, and finally, “system talk” is lack of a job or employment. Alexie makes it apparent that Jackson may suffer from a little bit of all of these, his main conflict and ultimate barrier is his alcohol addiction. As Skwiot and Clugston describe, “conflict is the structure of the plot that shapes the story” (2019, Ch.4.1). Jackson experienced how alcohol had a direct effect on his loneliness when he got black out drunk at a bar, and curled up by himself in a dark alley with a tarp to keep warm.

Equally important, is knowing the background of the Native American culture and how it played a critical role in understanding some of his decisions throughout his journey. Prior to discussing the bond that American Indian’s have with one another, and the fact that their bond runs as deep as their history, Alexie describes one of Jackson’s lowest points of his life. As the kind police officer offers Jackson a ride back to the shelter, Jackson tells him how his Grandmother’s passing affected him deeply, “I’ve been killing myself ever since she died”, Jackson states (Alexie, 2003, para.42). Homelessness has created an uncertainty for Jackson, and he was losing hope along the way that he would be successful in purchasing the regalia. One of the most important pieces in the story, is the connection that Alexie narrates between Jackson, his Grandmother and his homeless Indian community. The reader can easily identify that Jackson is a dynamic character. The dynamic character role is used to expand and broaden their insights throughout the story (Skwiot & Clugston, 2019, 5.2). Chasing his destination, Jackson crosses paths with other Indians, and the kind Police Officer whose name is Officer Williams. Alexie discusses the people who take advantage of Jackson, and the people who help him along the way. The story focuses on the closeness that the American Indian cultures have with one another. As described by Wendt & et al in the journal, Religious and Spiritual Practices among Homeless Urban American Indians, the unbreakable bond that the American Indian community shares, as many have experienced intergenerational trauma together. These life events bring them closer throughout their community and are more likely to provide kinship and demonstrate gratitude to one another” (Wendt & et al., 2017, p.42). Jackson describes this in the beginning of the story, that they’re tied together somehow and feel as though they need to look out for one another. Throughout the story Jackson was giving to all of his fellow Indians, and even though he didn’t receive anything immediately in return, he was humbled when he found himself back in the pawn shop.

As a result of his decisions Jackson feels as though he has nothing to lose, and gives it one last attempt to retrieve the regalia back. Jackson took a leap of faith and swung the door open to the pawn shop. Alexie has set the tone to show the highs and the lows. Expecting no change, Jackson goes back and forth with the pawn broker and asks him about the five dollars he had left, and asked Jackson if he has worked hard to earn the money? Jackson, replies with, “yes”. The pawn broker eventually gives Jackson the regalia, and says, “take it”. The story portrayed Jackson’s barriers throughout, and he continued to give to others, and it finished with it paying off in the end. Jackson then knew that there were still good people in the world, and found himself humbled, regardless of him being homeless.

Although Jackson had many conflicts, Alexie was sure to reflect on the fact that Jackson’s personal conflict was individual versus society, along with individual (Skwiot & Clugston, 2019). He battled knowing where he fit in, and feeling the weight of letting his family down in a culture that was so tightly binding, which ultimately wore on him. Alexie was able to bring Jackson’s character to life due to his past personal life experience. After researching Alexie’s background, the story of Jackson’s personal conflicts came additionally clearer to me. Alexie took his most intimate moments as a young boy, and shared them throughout the theme of the story. Alexie grew up as a Spokane Indian, in a tribe very similar to what is described. He saw firsthand what alcoholism can do to someone, as his parents both struggled with this terrible disease. Even though his Mother was able to gain sobriety, his Father was not. Alexie’s psychological state led him to write about, “novels and short stories evoke sadness and indignation yet also leave readers with a sense of respect and compassion for characters who are in seemingly hopeless situations” (Poetry Foundation, 2010). Being able to understand this theory allows the reader to gain a personal insight, and what Alexie’s true motivation was behind the conflicts along with his cultural ties.

In conclusion, the short story of “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” by Sherman Alexie (2003), is a tale of how Jackson, was challenged by his personal barriers, in which were his homelessness and his dreaded alcohol addiction. These barriers were brought out by the Author throughout the story. The desperation, loneliness, and uncertainty Jackson experienced were clearly defined as he went through his highs and lows, in the quest to get his Grandmother’s regalia back. During the story, Jackson sees himself as a failure whom has given up on his family, but was ultimately humbled by the help from his friends and complete strangers. Jackson was reminded that no matter what stage of life someone is in, there are still acts of kindness that exist.

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Major Themes in "What You Pawn, I Will Redeem". (2021, Mar 26). Retrieved from

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