The Unbreakable Cycle
One of the worst feelings in the world is the one you get when it seems like you are trapped in the life you live. This is the feeling when the routine of your life gets so repetitive and tired that it’s stifling, and the city you live in becomes a dull, inescapable prison. For many Native Americans, this feeling can be amplified tenfold — namely, by living on a reservation with the same people for your entire life. There’s only so much to do and getting off the reservation is both terrifying and difficult. The outside world may offer a variety of opportunities, but many are not armed with the skills needed to take advantage of those opportunities and many more may face the forms of racism embedded in American life. It is this rational fear that, on the basis of contemporary literature, keeps so many Native Americans from breaking the constraints of the reservation and moving on with their lives. Victor’s life is the perfect example of this scenario. In the short story “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore” by Sherman Alexie, Victor and his friend Adrian seem to be caught in an endless loop. The whole story projects the trapped feeling that Victor experiences through various symbols such as the broken traffic light and rising basketball stars. Victor is a lost character, desperate for change; however, he is a follower and is too fearful to break the routine and face the unknown before anyone else does so.
Victor does not know what he wants to do. Actually, he knows what he wants but not how to free himself from his routine. The story begins with Adrian and Victor playing a form of Russian Roulette with a BB gun. When Adrian shoots the gun into his mouth and the BB is fired, Victor asks if he is dead yet. “Nope… not yet,” is Adrian’s response before he asks for a beer, having forgot that the two of them have quit drinking (44). This section of the story immediately gives the reader an unsettling feeling. The “not yet” implies that death is something Alexie’s characters are anticipating. The immediate request for beer afterwards is so automatic that it just seems routine. They are not used to change and are so lost in the same old cycle that they do not even think twice. What really makes this cycle seem so stifling and permanent is the way the story ends. One year passes, and Victor goes on to say that year has passed and that they have done stuff such as “ate and slept and read the newspaper” (50) in between. It is basically the same scene as at the opening of the story. Not only does the repetition of the scene close the circuit of the routine that the two seem to live, but the meaningless nothings are also the only thing that Victor mentions happening in between. Clearly nothing exciting enough has happened in that entire year to give him a different view on anything. He’s bored. He feels trapped.
The broken light on the reservation can be viewed as a symbol used to parallel Victor’s character. The fact that it is broken is a huge indication of the way Victor feels. He feels broken, just like the light. However, because it has been that way for so long, no one really notices anymore. And if they notice they do not care. The light does not do all that much because there are not many cars. “About only one car an hour passed by,” (48) so how useful was the light in any case? How useful does Victor feel if he is doing the same thing that everyone else is doing on the reservation over and over again? No one wants to fix the traffic light. No one makes it a priority. No one wants to fix Victor. He does not want to save himself. He is not making it his priority. So time presses on, and a year later the light is still broken, and Victor is still trapped and broken as well.
The biggest way that Victor copes with his feeling of helplessness is by watching others and hoping that they break the mold. In the beginning of the story Vicor and Adrian are discussing Julius Windmaker, the up and coming basketball star. Victor immediately flashes back to talk about how he used to play basketball and be good at it until he lost his edge and started drinking. The reader is immediately able to see the personal connection that Victor is making with Julius, clearly wanting him to succeed for more reasons other than just wanting to see a new sports star. After hearing some noise, they watch Julius being taken away by a tribal cop. When Adrian states that he thinks Julius is going to go bad and fail, Victor immediately denies that, claiming that “He’s just horsing around,” (49). He does not want to think that someone with such a bright future will ruin his future, even if he and everyone else before and after him has. Maybe if someone else makes it all the way and succeeds, it will give Victor the motivation to do the same. It will break the endless loop and maybe others will follow. At the end of the story Victor and Adrian go to see Julius’s game a year later to see that he is too drunk to play well. He ends up passed out on Victor’s floor the next morning after stumbling drunkenly into his house. The two friends start talking about a third grader named Lucy who is so good a basketball that she is playing with the sixth graders. “God, I hope she makes it all the way,” Victor says. He just puts all of his hopes into the next one. And the cycle continues.
Ultimately, Victor has found himself trapped in the lifestyle of any other self-confining Native American. Too afraid to leave the reservation and build a life off of it, he traps himself in a depressing cyclical routine. He is lost in his own life, unsure of where to go or what to do with himself. He’s broken and no one, not anyone else nor himself, seems to care enough to fix him. He is like the broken traffic light, just part of the scenery at this point. He is nothing special. Sometimes it just feels like an escape from yourself is impossible. Any routine can go from comfortable to stifling. Sometimes it is both, as it is in Victor’s case. Breaking the cycle is much easier said than done.
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