A Wall of Fire Rising
Nathaniel Hawthorne And Edwidge Dadicant’s Portrayal of Symbolism as a Key Factor Depicted in the Birthmark and a Wall of Fire Rising
Symbolism in literature is the non-literal meaning of a word, but it takes a lot of critical thinking to understand symbolism. In the short stories “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne and “A Wall of Fire Rising” by Edwidge Dandicant symbolism is key to understand the meaning of the story. The birthmark and the hot air balloon both symbolize freedoms that the two main characters are trying to achieve. While Guy is successful with achieving happiness; Aylmer is not successful. Aylmer ends up killing his wife who he adores. Guy ends up dying, but him passing away signifies the opportunity to live a happy life in Heaven.
In “The Birthmark” Georgiana’s birthmark symbolizes mortality. The narrator infers that every living creature has a flaw of some sort; also every living thing eventually dies. Georgiana’s birthmark is the only thing about her that is not “perfect”, but this imperfection makes her human. Aylmer feels horror when he looks at his wife’s birthmark. He is a scientist and everything he tries to make perfect fails. Her cheek is an opportunity for Aylmer to get rid of something that it is imperfect and achieve. He wants to make her “perfect” because everything else is perfect about her except that. He tries the get rid of the birthmark, which he does but she passes a way. This symbolizes that no one can achieve perfectness it is impossible to have no flaws. Everyone has at least one flaw and it is okay to have flaws.
In the short story “A Wall of Fire Rising” the air balloon symbolizes mostly freedom. Guy uses the hot air balloon as an escape for his hard life working as the plantation for low pay. He also uses it to think about his life before he commits suicide. Right before he died he felt free; he didn’t think about his life of poverty. The hot air balloon for Guy also represents his family. This is because he is escaping the hopelessness of his family being able to live through the poverty. The hot air balloon means a better more free life to Lili. She now knows that her son is in a better place where he is happy and free. Lili constantly worries about. Little Guy sees the balloon as freedom from his father. Even though their families have had their hard times this is his father’s way to become happy.
The birthmark and the hot air balloon both symbolize death. Aylmer kills his wife trying to make his wife perfect and Guy commits suicide because his life is not perfect. There is a sense of a “perfect life” that no one can seem to achieve. These two things also symbolize mortality. Both the hot air balloon and the birthmark is the leading cause that makes these two people die. Aylmer tries to get rid of his wife’s birthmark, which causes her death. Guy dies on the hot air balloon to try to reach a freedom. These two people were both striving for a perfect life, which is clearly impossible to reach. The hot air balloon and birthmark are both symbols for happiness. Aylmer would be happy if Georgiana’s birthmark was gone because it wouldn’t distract him from how beautiful she actually is, and he fails. The hot air balloon symbolizes happiness because Guy does not have a good life at home. He is able to escape and go to Heaven and live the life he wants to live. Guy succeeds while Aylmer fails to achieve happiness and freedom.
The symbols in these to stories both signify achieving freedom. We learn that there is no such thing as being perfect except in Heaven. Georgiana no longer has her birthmark while she is in Heaven. Aylmer was able to get rid of her one defect, but he passed away after he did this. She is now “perfect”, but she is now dead. Guy was not able to achieve perfection while he was living but now that he is dead he can have perfection. He has no worries about his family living in poverty. Now he is able to live the life he has dreamed of living.
Edwidge Dadicant’s Description of the Historical Events in Haiti as Explained in A Wall of Fire Rising
Dye mon, gen mon means beyond the mountain is another mountain. This phrase is a popular Haitian Creole proverb which Haitian people use to describe life in Haiti (Wilentz 7). It might be hard to believe but Haiti was once known for its immense wealth of natural resources. Haiti was originally known as the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Explorers dubbed the colony The Pearl of the Antilles’ because of the vast resources available, such as sugar cane and coffee. In 1791, African slaves rebelled against the white slave owners of the island. The results of this rebellion gave Saint-Domingue credit for being the first country to abolish slavery (Coupeau 12). Fourteen years later, Haiti was established as an independent country. It’s unfortunate that even though Haiti gained its’ freedom, the country has continuously struggled to become prosperous and maintain an identity of its own. Edwidge Danticat is the author of the short story “A Wall of Fire Rising”. Her story connects readers to Haitian history in a way that would most likely be overlooked if the reader did not possess any knowledge of Haiti’s intriguing past. In “A Wall of Fire Rising”, references to Haiti’s history are necessary to provide relevance to the story, characters, and their motivations in the era in which they live.
The story begins in the home of the Guy family, where both Guy and Little Guy have big news. Little Guy has been given the lead role in a school play and his mother is very excited and proud. She is so proud of her son because he will be playing the role of Dutty Boukman who was the leader of the 1791 slave revolution. Dutty Boukman was a runaway slave and a voodoo high priest. Expert on Haitian history Steeve Coupeau describes the events based on his research.
The revolution began on the night of August 22, 1791 after a voodoo ceremony. The slaves began slaughtering every white man, woman, and child they encountered. Leaders of the slave gangs could be seen carrying a wooden spear complete with a skeleton of an impaled white baby on its top (Coupeau 187).
Little Guy recites his lines from the play for his parents, and it creates a hope inside of them that always had been there but never had manifested. He begins with a single word: “’Freedom!’ shouted the boy” (Danticat 368). The mere utterance of this word resonates deep for Guy and Lili. He continues with his speech:
A wall of fire is rising and in the ashes, I see the bones of my people. Not only those people whose dark hollow faces I see daily in the fields, but all those souls who have gone ahead to haunt my dreams. At night I relive once more the last caresses from the hand of a loving father, a valiant love, a beloved friend. (Danticat 368)
Once little Guy finishes, the narrator describes that “The experience left them both with a strange feeling that they could not explain” (Danticat 368). Danticat highlights that these aren’t Boukman’s real words, but a merely a European take on the events that occurred: “It was obvious that this was a speech written by a European man, who gave to the slave revolutionary Boukman the kind of European phrasing that might have sent the real Boukman turning in his grave” (Danticat 368). Lili tells her son that the voodoo priest was a “great rebel leader” (Danticat 368). Dutty Boukman could be noted a great leader, considering that after a week-long rampage more than 2,000 whites were murdered. It appeared that the former slaves accomplished what they had planned for. In The History of Haiti author Steeve Coupeau writes: “After the initial surge of attacks surviving white colonists revolted and turned their guns on the newly liberated slaves, leaving more than 10,000 dead (Coupeau 127). It is noted in the book as well that at least three hundred sugar plantations and fields were burned during the rampage and destroyed the island’s farming industry. Political advisor for the SACS (Secretariat of the Association of Caribbean States) Watson Dennis describes that the slave rebellion in Saint Domingue “sounded the bell heralding the end of slavery and the slave trade.” According to him, “the immediate and long-term repercussions of the slave rebellion of 1791 have made August 23 an unforgettable date in history” (News).
Freedom can mean a lot of things to different people. Haitians were living free during the 1950s, but they were slaves to their own poverty and unable to immigrate to another country where their circumstances could change (Brooke 1+). The economy was suffering from a so-called “brain drain” due to a large wave of well-educated professionals immigrating to the United States to escape the brutal dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier (Gail 259). With many of Haiti’s more educated men out of the country, the world view of Haitian men was not good. It is reported that 80 percent of Haitians were illiterate (Brooke). To further the assumption that Guy fit into the mold of the uneducated Haitian man, we see him struggling over Boukman’s name written in the play, and stating “I see some very hard words here, son” (Danticat 368). Guy feels responsible for his family’s plight, yet feels unable to change their situation. He seems to be desperate for freedom from his financial status and depression. Guy tries to find work when he can but is not able to provide consistently. He also mentions he would like to fly the balloon to “somewhere and keep floating until I got to a really nice place with a nice plot of land where I could be something new” (Danticat 375).
In the end of the story, Guy meets his demise by jumping out of the balloons’ basket while it is in the air. The hot air balloon can symbolize different ideas such as hope, freedom, and escape. The reader can pick up on those ideas without any historical knowledge of Haiti. Before Guy ever climbs in into the basket or reveals to Lili that he is “intelligent enough to do it” (Danticat 373), he stands at the barbed wire fence, staring at the balloon. He goes so far as to push his hand through the fence to try touch the balloon and sharpens his pocket knife on the metal surface, but he puts the knife back before Lili and Little Guy get close enough to see.
This may seem insignificant to most readers, but by knowing more information about voodoo ceremony that took place just before Boukman led the slaves in the Haitian Revolution, one would know that a knife was an important part. An excerpt from the article “The History of Haiti” details the events of the ceremony.
This meeting took the form of a Voodoo ceremony in the Bois Caïman in the northern mountains of the island. It was raining and the sky was raging with clouds; the slaves then started confessing their resentment of their condition. A woman started dancing languorously in the crowd, taken by the spirits of the loas. With a knife in her hand, she cut the throat of a pig and distributed the blood to all the participants of the meeting who swore to kill all the whites on the island. (Wilentz 167)
The knife represented in the voodoo ceremony was to perform the sacrifice of the pig, but also serves as a gesture of offering to the spirit Eruzile Dantor. Journalist Patrick Jordan points out in his article “The State of Haiti” that even though Voodoo was banned in Haiti until 2012, some form of voodoo has been practiced since the very first slaves came from Africa. (Jordan). Jordan interviewed a Catholic missionary that stated the following: “Haiti is 80 percent Catholic, 20 percent Protestant, and 100 percent Voodoo” (Jordan).
This is significant to the story not only because of the belief of the spirits’ involvement in the Haitian Revolution, but also how Guy’s knife has a subdued link to voodoo in the story. Eruzile Dantor is known as the mother of Haiti and the patron goddess of New Orleans (Coupeau). Visitors to Port Au Prince and other areas of Haiti, will see images of this particular loa all around depictured as a Black Madonna. Believers of voodoo describe a loa as a spirit or a god (Wilentz).
Eruzile Dantor is the goddess of love, jealousy, passion, and sex. She is also the patron goddess of women betrayed by their lovers, single mothers, and business women. She loves women and protects them at all costs. Some of the items placed at an altar when summoning this loa are sharpened knives, perfumes, and items with many colors. Bold colors are her favorites. A voodoo believer will leave these items at the altar for the loa they want to summon, and in return the spirit will bless them by granting what they desire (Wilentz 109).
It is very possible that Guy had already planned his own fate long ago. His obsession with the area where the balloon was kept was most likely because he had created an altar nearby in secret where he would bring the loa gifts. The image of Guy sharpening his knife on the fence is to represent the offering to Eruzile Dantor to secure protection for his wife and child. He can also request that this loa will provide him the confidence necessary to end his life and that she makes his passage to heaven easier (Wilentz 109).
Guy told Lili “you’re really good with that boy”, and that she can “take things as they come” (Danticat 375). Guy is convincing Lili that she is a strong and independent woman. He is also reassuring her that she does not need him to survive. Guy’s decision to end his life was final.
Haiti has a history for corruption in their government. The Duvalier era provided a dismal world view of their leaders (Brooke). Further showing the violent tendencies of Haitian residents, opportunities for uprisings were brought on by rigged elections and the unequal distribution of wealth. In the story, the residents walk from their homes in the shantytown to a central location near the sugar mill where the government has placed a television for the people to view a nightly state sponsored news broadcast. It would be safe to assume that this was created by the government to curb any ideas of uprisings by the people. A coercion network called the National Unity Party was created by Francois Duvalier under the ruse of Unity, they claimed more than 40,000 human lives. “The N.U.P. was made up of the Macoutes (Duvalier’s personal army), the Haitian Army, right wing paramilitary groups, and rural magistrates or prevent civilian resistance, and eliminate any political competition” (Coupeau 210). Residents of the shantytown in “A Wall of Fire Rising” would go a central location to watch the nightly news. “On most nights, the people stayed at the site long after this gendarme had gone and told stories to one another beneath the big blank screen. They made bonfires with dried sticks, corn husks, and paper, cursing authorities under their breath” (Danticat). The corn husks thrown into the fire could be a poppett doll, or voodoo doll representing someone in power. (Wilentz 201-260). This also is a reference to voodoo and the “wall of fire” Boukman and his army created in the 1791 slave rebellion. By Danticat referencing that they were staying at the location very late after the authorities left and they would say things under their breath about those in power, the villagers who stayed at the site were likely were holding secret voodoo ceremonies and planning an uprising. The rebel slaves from the slave revolution of 1791 met in secret and planned their revenge on the slave owners. Journalist James Brooke acknowledges that during the 1950s Haitians would meet secretly to discuss plans to overthrow Duvalier and the National Unity Party (Brooke).
Daily Haitian life is an uphill battle. Haitians today continue to struggle with disease, poverty, and natural disasters. Though these things are difficult to overcome they remain proud of their heritage and willing to face life’s challenges. Throughout this essay, specific examples have been given that proves historical relevance of the story “A Wall of Fire Rising”. Little Guy’s role in the school play links the reader to the Haitian Revolution and voodoo ceremonies that took place beforehand. Knowing more about the average Haitian man during the time the story was set allows the reader to understand more about why Guy was a slave to depression and felt the need to summon Eruzile Dantor. In the story, the reader is given some insight into the 1950s where citizens planned uprisings against the National Unity Party and Duvalier leadership by knowing about the villagers staying late into the night after the news broadcast is over. Guy and Lili are great examples of how the Haitian proverb Dye mon, Gen mon applies to daily Haitian life. Lili continued to climb the mountains before her, and Guy simply decided to go above the mountains where beyond them was only the unknown.
Edwidge Dadicant’s Depiction of the Struggles of Poverty in a Family as Illustrated in His Book, A Wall of Fire Rising
In the story “Wall of Fire Rising,” Edwidge Danticat tells the story of the endeavors a poor family living in Haiti must go through to make ends meet. Due to the story being told in third person, the reader gets an outside view of each characters life. The father, Guy, struggles to find a stable job to provide for his wife, Lili, and his son, Little Guy. When he finally gets a job at the sugar mill, his pre-established fascination of flying the sugar mill’s hot air balloon increases. Towards the end of the story, he finally fulfills his dream of flying the hot air balloon, while also taking his own life. Through actions and dialogue between the characters, the author foreshadows Guy’s death, which the reader may interpret as an act of freedom for himself or an act of abandonment towards his family.
In the story, even though in third person, the audience can see Lili’s perspective of Guy’s situation. Since she focuses most of her time with their son, Lili and Guy aren’t able to get much alone time, which could attribute to Guy’s feelings of neglect. This is exemplified when Lili says, “I wish I had paid more attention when you came in with the news”(152). This is a sign of how she feels guilty for neglecting her own husband. Danticat uses the literary device of foreshadowing in the story by sharing Lili’s superstitions that are common in the Haitian culture. For instance, he states, “She nearly didn’t marry him because it was said that people with angular hairlines often have very troubled lives” (152). By utilizing this technique of foreshadowing, he is able to hint at Guy’s troubled life. Lili may not have wanted to believe this superstition at first, but in the end, she wouldn’t have been able to predict just how troubled he really was. The first sign of her noticing Guy’s troubles was when he was acting distant as they went to the Sugar mill: “For the last few weeks, she had been feeling as though Guy was lost to her each time he reached this point, twelve feet away from the balloon” (151). She takes notice of his interest towards the balloon and feels as if she’s losing him. She knows that the balloon is drawing him in but she doesn’t find out until later the reason why. At the end of the story, she did not seem as shocked as her son when Guy jumped out of the balloon. She may have foreseen this coming through his actions and dialogue.
Danticat uses the literary tool of foreshadowing by describing how Guy’s actions correlate with his interest towards the hot air balloon. In the beginning of the story, Guy’s fascination with the balloon is introduced: “During the day, when the field was open, Guy would walk up to the basket, staring at it with the same kind of longing that most men display when they admire very pretty girls “(151). This quote initially shows that he takes a certain interest with the basket. He sees it with an alternative motive in mind that the reader wants to find out. He even disregards his own family whenever he is there at the sugar mill. This neglect can be exemplified through the quote, “As they approached the fence surrounding the field where the large wicker basket and deflated balloon rested on the ground, Guy let go of the hands of both his wife and the boy” (151). Guy shows this act of disengagement towards his own family due to this odd fascination he carries for the balloon. The reader could interpret this as him being more interested in whatever opportunities the balloon carry symbolically compared to that of his own family.
Through Guy’s dialogue regarding the balloon, the reader gets a sense of his longing for freedom. His choice of diction, especially while conversing with his wife, leads the reader to believe that he isn’t fully satisfied with his life, but does see an opportunity for change. While talking to Lili, he mentions, “I was born in the shadow of that sugar mill… If anyone deserves to work there, I should” (152). It is apparent that Guy sees himself as deserving for a job at the sugar mill. However, by reading between the lines, it can be interpreted by the reader that this job opportunity is seen to be his route to freedom. As the story progresses, Lili and Guy have an in depth conversation about Guy’s ability to fly the balloon. When Lili questions Guy’s intentions, he responds “Can’t you see yourself up there? Up in the clouds somewhere like some kind of bird”(153). While asking his wife this question, the reader can almost hear his voice light up talking about this dream of his. He plans on going somewhere else as an escape from his life in poverty. Later on in the story, Lili finds her husband sitting behind the sugar mill. As their son runs around them playing, he suddenly becomes the topic of conversation. Guy mentions, “You’re really good with that boy…You will make a performer of him. I know you will.” (154). When he says this, it appears as if Lili is the only one taking care of him because he does not mention any indication of himself. The way he words that quote makes the audience question where he will be in the course of his son’s life. This reveals that his idea of freedom is not only an escape from poverty, but possibly his family as well.
In the story, “Wall of Fire Rising”, Edwidge Danticat utilizes the element of foreshadowing through dialogue and actions of Guy and Lili in the story. Also, by writing in third person, the reader is able to get an outside perspective of each character’s viewpoint. This allows the reader to gather information from each character to analyze Guy’s reason behind his suicide, which can be interpreted as an act of freedom for himself or an act of abandonment towards his family.