Epiphanies are supposed to be rare moments in which a person uncovers some great realization about their lives, and this realization is life-altering. Sherman Alexie is not the first author to use epiphany in his stories, but he is perhaps one of the few to use it in such a new, and perhaps more genuine and realistic fashion. Instead of giving his audience stories that utilize their epiphanies as possible turning points for characters, Alexie uses these moments to demonstrate something that is not so uncommon in real life: moments where epiphany is acknowledged but then ignored, continuously, which creates a volatile circle of human unhappiness. Put against James Joyce’s model of epiphany in literature, Alexie appears to establish a new form of epiphany in literature in which epiphany transcends the literary world and adopts a more realistic style: epiphany ceases to be metaphorical and controlled and becomes a continuous and hard pattern for the main character to endure. Sherman Alexie examines the idea of epiphany in an attempt to work through how and why people become miserable by offering a picture of American failure that holds a total disregard to these moments of clarity. In What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?, Alexie suggests that many people lose sight of the opportunity for change, or revelation, because they are too preoccupied with living in their past, and Frank Snake Church is a living example of the truer form of epiphany many humans experience: a type of pseudo-epiphany where the character momentarily views the other side but brushes off the idea of a permanent psychological shift because change is hard whereas the past is a safe, pre-constructed, world that provides a safe place for blinding hope.
First, it is important to define what an epiphany is because there are many types of epiphany and many writers throughout the years used this literary device in different ways with various notions in mind. In What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?, epiphany comes in two forms: pseudo-religious and the definition as described by James Joyce. Since Frank is not directly experiencing a religious revelation, his epiphany cannot be equivocated with a directly religious experience, but it is comparable. According to The Poetics of Epiphany, by Ashton Nichols, the religiously historical use of the word epiphany derives significance from the Feast of Epiphany, which “…celebrate[s] the manifestation of Christ’s divinity to the magi” (Nichols 7) and more broadly speaking “…celebrates when God clearly and directly made himself manifest in the lives of men” (Nichols 7). Epiphany is the spiritual manifestation of a higher truth that was formerly unknown to mankind. According to Nichols, the circumstances surrounding epiphany should be “…lowly or mundane” (Nichols 7), but these simple circumstances should also receive intervention from a higher truth; the “…affairs of humanity” experience a temporary intervention of divinity (Nichols 7). Biblically, this intervention occurred between the magi and Christ/God. This then, the religious definition, is often seen as the traditional form of epiphany but since Frank (the narrative’s main character) is not directly experiencing a religious revelation, his epiphany cannot be equivocated with a directly religious experience. However, it is comparable and lends itself to a more pseudo-religious diversion of the term and its ideas.
Epiphany, in the literary sense, was not coined until the 20th century when James Joyce began his exploration of the phenomenon of revelation as it may occur in people and as it often occurs with the characters of his literary works. According to Nichols, “[i]n the process of redefining the term…” for a broader scope, rather than a narrow religious context and in order for the epiphany to function well within Joyce’s works, “…he focuses on a central psychological question…” (Nichols 7) relating to time which is essential to consider while concentrating on the way Alexie seems to be examining a more true-to-life epiphany in his own work. That is: “…what is the relationship between immediate perception and the value we ascribe to that perception” (Nichols 7-8), and by “we” Nichols seems to mean the receiver of epiphany. According to Joyce’s definition of epiphany, he meant a “…spiritual manifestation whether by vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of mind itself” (Nichols 8) and in Jack Barry Ludwig’s article “James Joyce’s Dubliners”, he adds that these epiphanies make a character “…recogni[ze] his inadequacy and his defeat” and this occurs in one of Joyce’s most famous short stories, The Dead (Ludwig). Alexie’s story reflects both forms of epiphany in noteworthy and fresh ways, such as when he delivers Frank’s experience of epiphany in a slightly religious fashion.
In Frank’s world basketball and certain friends serve as these pseudo-religious models of epiphany. Near the end of the story, Frank returns to college in an attempt to redeem himself and answer the question on everyone’s mind, including his own: what ever happened to Frank Snake Church? It is a question of identity. Frank pleads with the coach of the basketball team to give him a shot at redeeming his reputation as a star basketball player by becoming a part of the team. The coach can tell Frank is a loss, but he thinks: “What did he have to lose? If basketball was truly a religion, as…[the coach] believed, then he needed to practice charity in order to be a truly spiritual man” (Alexie 238). Through basketball and the coach’s sympathy, Frank plays and ultimately discovers, hardly for the first time, that he is just too old; that he is not the Frank he used to be. Basketball serves as Frank’s constant source of truth and the closest thing to religion in the text. Frank’s basketball friend Preacher appears to stand in for the manifestation of epiphany in Frank’s life. Preacher constantly reminds Frank of his delusions; that he is too old and is making sad attempts to hold onto his washed up life. Preacher is an epiphany, in the flesh, screaming in Frank’s face. Preacher’s name on its own directly connects to religion and revelatory experience and Frank expects Preacher to shed light on his dilemma eventually because of Preacher’s title. Preacher preaches and provides Frank with insightful revelations. He tries to convince Frank of his delusion when the two play on the court one day, leading up to one of Frank’s biggest and most intense epiphanies: “But why are you still playing so hard?…What are you trying to prove? You keep trying to get all those years back, right? You’re trying to time machine it, but one of these days, you’re going to come down wrong on one of your arthritic knees, and it will be over” (Alexie 226). Frank finally breaks down after Preacher mocks him: “You’re talking about my whole failed life”, Frank admits (Alexie 228). Preacher insists he was just trying to distract Frank from the game, but Frank sees the other side and experiences this divine intervention in his life. Frank did not go to play ball looking for answers; he came to play and when Preacher starts talking the truth, Frank experiences a type of divine intervention which Preacher can help facilitate since he is experienced and sees through Frank’s delusions. Preacher gets to the core. “Don’t you look inside me and then pretend you didn’t…”, Frank threatens. In Robert Scholes’s article “Joyce and the Epiphany: The Key to the Labyrinth?”, he also discusses this idea of “spiritual manifestation” (Scholes 69) or intervention as a “climactic moment” when “…a god makes his appearance to resolve…[an] action” (Scholes 69). In this way, Frank experiences a religious form of epiphany, through non-traditional means which allows him to experience this “…sudden spiritual manifestation” (Nichols 8) that Joyce would go on to describe in his literary epiphanies.
Epiphany, in the literary sense, was not coined until the 20th century when James Joyce began his exploration of the phenomenon of revelation as it may occur in people and as it often occurs with the characters of his literary works. According to Nichols, “[i]n the process of redefining the term…” for a broader scope, rather than a narrow religious context and in order for the epiphany to function well within Joyce’s works, “…he focuses on a central psychological question…” (Nichols 7) relating totime which is essential to consider while concentrating on the way Alexie seems to be examining a more true-to-life epiphany in his own work. That is: “…what is the relationship between immediate perception and the value we ascribe to that perception” (Nichols 7-8), and by “we” Nichols seems to mean the receiver of epiphany. According to Joyce’s definition of epiphany, he meant a “…spiritual manifestation whether by vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of mind itself” (Nichols 8) and in Jack Barry Ludwig’s article “James Joyce’s Dubliners”, he adds that these epiphanies make a character “…recogni[ze] his inadequacy and his defeat” and this occurs in one of Joyce’s most famous short stories, The Dead (Ludwig). It is true that Frank experiences an epiphany, at least once or twice, that meets with these Joycean standards. Several times, Frank understands his inadequacy such as when Preacher confronts him and he specifically acknowledges the fact that Preacher has taken an unwarranted glimpse inside of Frank. Consequentially, Frank breaks down in front of Preacher (Alexie 229) and admits his sense of loss in the world. However, this never stops him from trying, once again, to reclaim his earlier basketball fame and this is what makes his epiphany less in line with the Joycean literary style and more realistic. According to Ludwig, the epiphany in Joyce’s works revolves around the character’s recognition of his inadequacy and/or defeat (Ludwig), but in Alexie’s story, Frank never really recognizes either of these things. A perfect example of this fact comes at the very end, with Frank’s last words: “I know” (Alexie 243). He is injured on the basketball court after playing against the young college team. Laying on the floor, the coach assures him he will be alright and as the scene passes all Frank can think is “…what…[he will] do next…[or] if the pain w[ill] ever subside. He wondered if he’d ever step onto a basketball court again” (Alexie 243). This could be seen as his realization that his days as a basketball all-star may be over, but just before these thoughts occur, Frank was screaming and chanting good-bye to his mother and father: his past and his reason for playing basketball in the first place. He finally has this emotional break with his past, but then this makes him remember why he is out there playing in the first place: for his parents. As long as he thinks of his mother and father, basketball and his past, he is fettered to his pathetic desire to stay young and also keep their memory alive. The coach ends with saying, “…You’re going to be fine” (Alexie243). Frank says, “I know it…I know” and it sounds like his certainty is still merely a delusion.
Frank has a disregard for time. Frank’s immediate perception of his epiphanies always give way to his nostalgic obsession with the past, which Ludwig refers to in his essay as a type of psychological “net” (Ludwig). These nets are often present in Joyce’s work Dubliners; they are the “…fetter[s]…” of the mind and Ludwig claims that when Joyce uses these mental fetters it means that “…feeling has become sentimentality, intellect has become slogan and cliché, [and] imagination…[a] lie and romantic illusion” (Ludwig). Preacher even says at one point during his conversation with Frank regarding his age, “[N]ostalgia is a cancer” (Alexie 228). Frank’s obsession with the past is what hurts his ability to truly realize the importance of his epiphanies. Nichols includes a quote from Emerson that comments on the Joycean epiphany. He adds that these epiphanies create “…value out of seemingly insignificant events” and that it sometimes takes time for epiphanies to build up; they need to ripen. He says: “Putrefaction is loathsome; but putrefaction seen as a step in the circle of nature, pleases. A mean or malicious act vexes me: but if I can raise myself to see how it stands related to past and future…it becomes…pleasant…and prophetic” (Nichols 8-9). According to Emerson, and to what Nichols seems to be hinting at with the earlier mention of the value and relation between an epiphany and its meaning, it is permissible for an epiphany to possess a bit of reflection on the past, but when a person focuses too heavily on the past itself then the epiphany ceases to have any real power to its witness. The obsession with the past will only stagnate the true message of an epiphany while balancing the past with present may reveal truths, which can foster progress and/or the acceptance of what was once unclear or askew. It rejuvenates; it does not rot. Alexie’s character does not possess the capability, or possibly desire, to analyze the situation(s) he is in with this same embracing attitude, and perhaps this is understandable and intentional given Alexie’s realistic treatment of epiphany in Frank’s truer to life world.
Something else interesting to consider in the article “James Joyce’s Epiphany and Virginia Woolf’s ‘Moment of Importance’” regarding time is that an epiphany is said to usually occur suddenly at the “…climax of the story…[and then] the story ends suddenly…” (James Joyce’s Epiphany 117), but in Alexie’s work, Frank experiences multiple epiphanies. So, are they then even truly epiphanies? They are epiphanies, but they are a different type of epiphany: less literary and more realistic. Alexie’s treatment of the epiphany in Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church plays with the authenticity of the epiphany. It appears that Frank does have multiple epiphanies at first glace, but when one considers the lack of attention Frank pays to these pivotal moments and given the fact that he often disregards them and then gains a similar insight soon thereafter in somewhat of a morbid cycle of building himself up and tearing himself down, it seems he certainly could not be having the same type of epiphany experience that Joyce writes about, and perhaps Alexie wishes to claim that those moments are not very realistic ones to have in the first place. Alexie suggests a more realistic version of what really happens when people have epiphanies, and explains why Frank has such a miserable life without even having to expressly explain it by the end of the story.
In order to see why Frank is incapable of having the Joycean epiphany and why he may be indefinitely miserable, his experience and interaction with the Joycean epiphany must be explored first. Ludwig describes the culminating scene in Joyce’s The Dead:
Gabriel’s patient wait for…[Gretta] to come to him as he wishes her to is destroyed by
the tale she tells of Michael Furey. Gabriel finds that Gretta—and Michael—were
capable of a kind of love he can conceive of only dimly. His defeat is completed.
In the epiphany which follows, all his temporizing, all his illusions, all his sentimental nostalgia,
appear to him for what they are. He sees himself whole, giving up in the act
the possibility of a future with meaning. (Ludwig)
Frank experiences a similar, but of course temporary, sense of defeat with his confrontation by Preacher (Alexie 226). Preacher erases any sense of Franks hope that he can drown “Mr. Death…before [he] drowns [Frank]” (Alexie 209) and he completely obliterates Franks delusional notion that “[a]ge mean anything” (Alexie 225) and this proves an outstanding blow to Frank’s prevailing attitude up to this point in the story. Preacher is both Alexie’s Gretta and Alexie’s embodiment of the epiphany in this moment for Frank:
…Your mind is stuck somewhere back in 1980, but your eggshell body is cracking here
in the twenty-first century….[W]hy are you still playing so hard? What are you trying to
prove? You keep trying to get all those years back, right? You’re trying to time-machine
it, trying to alternate-universe it, but one of these days, you’re going to come down
wrong on one of your arthritic knees, and it will be over. What will you do then? You’ve
bet your whole life on basketball…and what do you have to show for it? Look at you…
You’re just Frank the Pretty Good Shooter for and Old Fart… (Alexie 226)
Preacher is able to sum up the sad truth about Frank’s life and it hits Frank hard (Alexie 229): “After Preacher’s devastating sermon, Frank didn’t play basketball for two weeks” (Alexie 230). Aside from the comical fact that it only crushed Frank for two weeks, Frank experiences a real depression here and realizes his defeat- if only for a moment. He experiences several other epiphany-like moments, although Preacher’s serves as the highlight. Later, Frank decides to try to improve himself by going back to college but realizes that it is not what he is made for: “He didn’t want to go to college; he wanted to walk the quiet forests and think about nothing as often as he could (Alexie 233), and earlier he realizes his health is in jeopardy and tries to improve his life by regimenting exercise and throwing away all his old clothes, including basket ball attire (Alexie 210). In “Joyce and the Epiphany Concept: A New Approach”, Jack Bowen agrees that people, throughout there lives, may experience several epiphanies of varying degrees; sometimes they may even be “false” (fake-outs like Frank has?) due to the person’s self delusion, but they are epiphanies none-the-less (Bowen 105-106). Bowen describes Gabriel’s final epiphany as being brought on by a small set, a series of three, epiphanies that culminate in that one great epiphany which reveals to Gabriel his delusion and inadequacy as Gretta’s husband: “Gabriel, in effect, suffers three disparaging epiphanies of his own ineffectuality, prompted in turn by Lily, Miss Ivors, and Gretta. The epiphanies increase in intensity and depressing effect on Gabriel” (Bowen 108). This model serves true for Frank as well. First, he experiences an epiphany with his heart failure followed by three zaps of lightening while he takes a walk (Alexie 196). This incident makes him aware of his old age and unhealthy condition. His second epiphany comes from Preacher’s talk. His third comes with his application to college (Alexie 233), and his fourth and final comes at the very end when he attempts a break with his past, screaming: “Mother, Father, way, ya, hi, yo, good-bye (Alexie 243) while dribbling down the college court. In this sense, Frank has authentic epiphanies and it appears Alexie follows a Joycean model, but Frank’s experience with epiphanies, what he actually does with each epiphany, is exceptionally different than the Joycean epiphany. With this diversion Alexie works through the truer way that humans experience and utilize epiphany, and seems to question and suppose an answer as to why despite having these revelations many fall prey, constantly, to the same old tragedies of life: ignorance of the epiphany and a blinding obsession with one’s past.
Frank has several genuine and significant epiphanies throughout the text, and these all lead up to the final scene in Frank’s story. Alexie gives Frank at least 3 solid moments of clarity in the text and although he partially utilizes them, sees the error in his ways and then attempts to make necessary changes in his life…up to the final point in the story he is less than successful in obtaining happiness. In order to better understand why or how he still remains unhappy by the end of the story despite these epiphanies, Alexie makes a few subtle differences in the culminating point of Frank’s final scene. His last epiphany. His pseudo-epiphany. The reason for naming it such, pseudo-epiphany, is because although Frank experiences several key distinctions that Joyce and his scholars agree comprise an epiphany, Frank’s epiphany lacks something: the ability to permanently realize, in the end, that something in his life really needs to change in order for him to pull himself out of the hole he dug- maybe even his grave, literally. Epiphanies are not necessarily moments which prompt definite changes in the future of the receiver’s life. Matter of fact, most epiphanies come right at the end of a story and stop with the realization, leaving the readers to wonder what will happen next, but by the end of the story it is quite clear where Frank will end up: right back where he always attempts to begin. In insinuating this continuing cycle of misery, Alexie demystifies Frank’s future and this seems to lessen the effect of the final epiphany. Frank experiences a moment quite similar to what Ludwig describes when summarizing Gabriel’s arrival to epiphany in The Dead; the moment where he and Gretta are alone and he feels he has finally figured out how to fix all his problems, only to discover his unrelenting inadequacy as usual: “Gabriel believes he has escaped, that he and Gretta have flown the world of ugliness…But once alone with Gretta, once in the hotel room where, like Lochinvar finding an unattended Guinevere, he locks the door in readiness for his great moment of love…but what he says is dull, inspiring neither love nor lust in Gretta” (Ludwig). Gabriel attempts to put the past behind him and move on to a new chapter in his life, but it proves that his words cannot hold up to his emotions, thus he leaves an ineffectual mark on his target, Gretta. Similarly, in those last moments of Frank’s college basketball triumph, he falls flat after having his own uplifting and motivating experience where he too gets the chance to say goodbye to the past he clings to:
‘It’s comeback time, baby,’ the point guard said…Frank could barely move…[He]…ached.
His lungs felt like two sacks of rocks. But he was happy! He was joyous! He caught a
bounce pass from a teammate and faced the point guard…Smiling, Frank head-faked,
dribbled right, planted for a jumper, and screamed in pain as his knee exploded. (Alexie
Frank experiences that same moment of hope that Gabriel does, followed by a similar let down and reminder of his inadequacy…in Frank’s case, his age. However, whereas Gabriel takes this moment to truly realize and reflect upon his inadequacy, Frank does not. Gabriel accepts his defeat at this point: “Gabriel finds that Gretta- and Michael [,her former lover]- were capable of a kind of love…[Gabriel] can conceive of only dimly. His defeat is completed. In the epiphany that follows, all his temporizing,…illusions,….[and]…his sentimental nostalgia, appear to him for what they are” (Ludwig). Frank goes on to make another, and his last, desperate attempt to break with his past. In this case, it appears Frank may finally realize that he is too old to play, so he says farewell to his deceased mother and father: “Frank rolled onto his face and screamed, He pounded the floor like a drum and sang: Mother, Father, way, ya, hi, yo, goodbye, goodbye. Mother, Father, way, ya, hi, yo, goodbye, goodbye…” (Alexie 243). When it might be safe to suppose Frank has come to the similar conclusion that Gabriel has and accepts his defeat the tables turn yet again. The point guard compliments Frank on the attempt: “That was a good run” (Alexie 243). Frank thinks to himself, with this hopeful compliment in mind, “Yes, it was [a good run]…” (Alexie243) and then he wonders when his pain will stop and what he will do next, considering still whether or not he may ever step onto a basketball court again. The fact that Frank is still holding onto the idea of basketball at this point is absurd, but the exact point that Alexie wishes to illustrate. People do not experience these Joycean epiphanies as James Joyce neatly packages them. Epiphanies may reveal truths to the receiver, sometimes hard to digest, but it is less realistic to imagine the quiet acceptance Gabriel presents in obtaining insight to his failure. More often than not, people will kick and scream until the end. People do not like to give up on a broken dream not matter how evident it may be that the dream is just a dream.
The Joycean epiphany denotes deep insight (James Joyce’s Epiphany 115), but how can Frank have an actual, genuine, revelatory epiphany if he obviously never obtains this deep and meaningful insight in the same way that Gabriel does by the end of The Dead? It is no question that Alexie models the story off of the Joycean epiphany, but Alexie is an author that constructs fictions from stark realities and if that holds true, there is no question that the Joycean model cannot hold completely true when used in an Alexie work. Alexie had to make some alterations in order for the epiphany to work in his story, and by work it may be assumed that Alexie needed the epiphany to function in a more realistic manner. That means, Frank does not get to silently accept his plight. Frank gets to have his face bashed into the gymnasium floor, kicking and screaming, holding on to every last bit of hope his over-the-hill body can muster. For Alexie, the epiphany is an unending realization that comes in unending waves. Similarly, in his article, Zack Bowen describes that in epiphany characters somehow come to the realization of their tragic flaw (Bowen 105) and that what follows should be a “…gaining of self-knowledge, a prime requisite of protagonists in tragedies…[which] very often manifests itself in what we and Joyce like to call epiphanies” (Bowen 105). It is true that Frank, often throughout the story and certainly at the end, experiences moments of insight and knowledge; he does have epiphanies, but he gains nothing. What Frank is at the end of the story is exactly what Frank was at the start, both physically and mentally. Gabriel experiences a mental shift; Frank still holds on to the same hopes and desires he always had. In the beginning, Frank is at his worst: possible heart failure, struck by lightening, old. Alone. In the end, Frank is struck down by defeat and his youth has manifested into the form of young college basketball players that make it quite obvious he is out of his league. Gabriel experiences a “…shameful consciousness of his own person…” and sees himself as “ludicrous” (Ludwig). Frank “knows”; he has this blind faith that he will be alright at the end of the story and still explores the possibility of playing again (Alexie 243). Frank’s epiphany is a pseudo-epiphany because of his ability, more than once, to experience epiphany and then unravel it thereby distorting the message and disregarding the signs. The pseudo-epiphany is Frank’s anticlimactic encounters with revelation; his ability to see these moments and then retract from them wholly.
Sherman Alexie writes several epiphany stories into his short story series, Ten Little Indians, but Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church is one of the most striking in the way it questions the state and condition of human unhappiness. Alexie seems to be playing with the cause of human misery and tragedy despite the gift of epiphany that humans may readily receive. Alexie does not have the solution to the abolishment of this unhappy state, but he points out the irony, perhaps, in the fact that people get to have these gifts of epiphany and that despite this they still end up miserable. He uses the Joycean model of epiphany to posit the difference between real and literary versions of the epiphany phenomenon with the possible hope of explaining human failure in utilizing revelatory moments, or epiphany. The distinction Alexie makes, when his work is compared to something like Joyce, is that real epiphany is a constant state, an ever-changing presence of truth in the mind of the receiver and they are not calmly accepted in the same controlled manner of its literary counterpart because life is a struggle in itself. No truth is ever easy to digest. Epiphany is no different. In establishing this, Alexie suggests that the human condition of misery, despite epiphany, is quite understandable and that the human ignorance of epiphany may partially handicap the human capability of progression and happiness.
Alexie, Sherman. “What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church.” Ten Little Indians. New York: Grove Press, 2003. Print.
Bowen, Zack. “Joyce and the Epiphany Concept: A New Approach.” Journal of Modern Literature 9.1 (1981-1982): 103-114. Web. 9 December 2013.
“James Joyce’s Epiphany and Virginia Woolf’s ‘Moment of Importance.” Studies in Literature and Language 2.1 (2011): 114-118. Web. 9 December 2013.
Ludwig, Jack Barry. “James Joyce’s Dubliners.” Short Story Criticism Vol.186 (1953): 384-391. Gale. Web. 9 December 2013.
Nichols, Ashton. The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth-Century Origins of the Modern Literary Moment. The University of Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa and London, 1987. Print.
Scholes, Robert. “Joyce and the Epiphany: The Key to the Labyrinth?” The Sewanee Review 72.1 (Winter 1964): 65-77. Web. 9 December 2013.
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