Social Issues in "War Dances" by Sherman Alexie

Categories: Sherman Alexie

Kinship and community have always been a big part of Native-American culture, with the father holding the great honor and respect. Nowadays, these values are fading. Crime, alcohol, and poverty keep increasing and resulting broken families. The children are the ones who get the most impact on this. The lack of leader and role model are the major factor of why they struggle to find their real identity, they feel lost eventually. This is why the majority of Native-American male find it hard to have a harmonious and compatible family.

Sherman Alexie is no exception. He himself struggled with an alcoholic, diabetic, and careless father. These reasons are what motivated him to write, to expose how the majority of Native-American family struggle with. He also parallels this problem with his fear about his mortality.

In the short story of 'War Dances', the author, Sherman Alexie, uses symbolism, imagery, and humor to express his fear of his own death, projects his struggle with the cultural difference, and to try and stay optimistic.

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The symbolism that the narrator uses can be seen at the beginning of the story when he found a dead cockroach in his baggage after returning from a trip to Los Angeles. He wonders when, where, and how can it reach the inside of his baggage and died. Cockroaches are animals that don’t die easily and they are usually in groups. So, it is an unusual thing that there is one dead cockroach inside his baggage. He feels the sympathy for the cockroach and begins to connect it with his own life.

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He writes, “As he died, did he feel fear? Isolation? Existential dread?” (Alexie 49).

The narrator uses the dead cockroach that died alone in the baggage as a symbol to portray his loneliness, feeling of isolation from his tribe, and his deep thoughts about mortality. Later, the narrator depicts his hearing loss on his right ear that happened because of his reaction to various allergies in the past summer. He could not hear a single from that ear. He then starts to recall about a man that went to the emergency room because he had lost most of his hearing. When the doctor examines him, he found a cockroach in his ear, and a larger cockroach in his other ear. Remembering that story makes the narrator tries to examine his own ear. He stands in front of the mirror and tries to see deeply into his own congested ear. He then begins to sing hymns and prays that he would see “a small angel trapped in the canal” (Alexie 50). He identifies the cockroach as a “small angel”. And then he writes, “I would free this poor thing, and she’d unfurl and pat dry her tiny wings, then fly to my lips and give me a sweet kiss for sheltering her metamorphosis” (Alexie 50).

The transformation of the cockroach to an angel project the narrator’s expectation and hope for a happy ending. So, the cockroach, aside from being a symbol to portray the narrator’s loneliness and fear of mortality, could also be a symbol of hope for a happy ending. Furthermore, the narrator also uses a blanket as a symbol. After his father’s surgery, his father feels so cold and so the narrator asks for an extra blanket to a black nurse. The nurse then gives him a white blanket but it is a too “thin blanket, laundered and sterilized a hundred times” (Alexie 52) that can’t keep his father warm. The use of a blanket in this story can help the readers to understand that life itself also reaches the point where it becomes obsolete like a blanket. It is also supported when the author writes, “For the first sixty-seven years of his life, my father had been a large and dark man. Now he was just another pale, sick drone in a hallway of pale, sick drones” (Alexie 53).

Imagery is also used in many parts the story to conveys the narrator’s feelings and situations. The imagery can be seen when he finds a dead cockroach in his baggage and describes the cockroach as “stiff and dead”, “his legs were curled under his body”, “his head was tilted at a sad angle” (Alexie 49). The images depicting how the cockroach’s dead was so miserable and sad. The imagery element can also be seen when the nurse gives him a blanket but the blanket is too inappropriate. He writes, “It was a thin blanket, laundered and sterilized a hundred times. In fact, it was too thin. It wasn’t really a blanket. It was more like a large beach towel. Hell, it wasn’t even good enough for that. It was more like the world’s largest coffee filter” (Alexie 52).

The repeated use of the word “thin” makes the readers feel how miserable it was for him at that time when his loved one needs something but he can’t find it, the readers can also feel sad for his father because on his illness and pain, he can’t get the comfort he needs. The words “large beach towel” and “world’s largest coffee filter” also shows how inconvenient it is. The author also uses humor to try and stay optimistic. The humor that is used helps him to live through all of the struggles of his life. The humor can be seen when the narrator is worried that he might have a brain tumor or that his hydrocephalus has returned. Then his doctor calls him after checking his MRI result and says that there are some irregularities in his head and he replies the doctor by saying that his head has always been irregular. The doctor then replies, “It’s good to have a sense of humor” (Alexie 65). Even though the doctor is telling him something really serious about his health, he is still calm and does not panic, he even replies it with humor. The humor can also be seen when he remembers the side effects of phenobarbital, an antiseizure medication take he had to take when he suffered hydrocephalus, that includes “sleepwalking, agitation, confusion, depression, nightmares, hallucinations, insomnia, apnea, vomiting, constipation, dermatitis, fever, liver and bladder dysfunction, and psychiatric disturbance” (Alexie 59).

He then absurdly points it at the cockroaches in his head by saying “How do you like them cockroaches?” (Alexie 59). The narrator also states the humor himself at the story when her wife returns from Italy and he finally has the chance to tell to her about the tumor. Alexie writes, “There was a rumor that I’d grown a tumor but I killed it with humor” (73). Tumor is a very serious thing and instead of talking seriously, he plays it off like the tumor is not a big deal and there is nothing that his wife has to worry about. Humor has become the narrator's helper. In conclusion, even though the narrator has suffered from loneliness, unfairness, health problems, and other problems in life, he kills it with humor and still continue his life. His father acknowledges and was not a good father to him but he still forgives and loves him. This shows us that life goes on. It is our choice if we want to make it worst or move on and take the good lessons out of it, just like what the narrator does.

Work Cited

  • Alexie, Sherman. “War Dances.” Best American Non-required Reading 2010.
  • Ed. Dave Eggers. Houghton Mifflin, 2010. pp. 49-74.
Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Social Issues in "War Dances" by Sherman Alexie. (2021, Oct 08). Retrieved from

Social Issues in "War Dances" by Sherman Alexie essay
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