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Home » The State (2016) by Tommy Orange: A Critical Literary Analysis

The State (2016) by Tommy Orange: A Critical Literary Analysis

Tommy Orange’s debut novel, “The State” (2016), is a powerful exploration of Native American identity and the legacy of colonization. Through a series of interconnected stories, Orange examines the lives of urban Native Americans living in Oakland, California, and the ways in which their experiences are shaped by historical trauma. This critical literary analysis will delve into the themes and motifs of “The State,” as well as the stylistic choices Orange makes in telling his stories.

Historical Context

The State, a novel by Tommy Orange, is set in contemporary Oakland, California, a city with a rich and complex history. The city has been shaped by a variety of factors, including the Gold Rush, the growth of the railroad industry, and the civil rights movement. In the 1960s and 1970s, Oakland was a center of activism and political organizing, particularly among African Americans and other people of color. The Black Panther Party, founded in Oakland in 1966, was one of the most influential and controversial political organizations of the era. The State takes place in the aftermath of these movements, as Oakland struggles to come to terms with its past and present. Through its portrayal of characters from diverse backgrounds and experiences, the novel offers a nuanced and complex view of the city and its history.

Themes

One of the central themes in Tommy Orange’s The State is the struggle for identity and belonging among Native Americans living in urban areas. The novel explores the experiences of several characters who are grappling with their cultural heritage and the pressures of assimilation into mainstream American society. Through their stories, Orange highlights the complex and often painful process of reconciling one’s personal identity with the expectations and stereotypes imposed by society. Another important theme in the novel is the legacy of colonialism and its ongoing impact on Native American communities. Orange portrays the ways in which historical trauma and systemic oppression continue to shape the lives of his characters, even as they strive to build new lives for themselves in the city. Overall, The State is a powerful and thought-provoking exploration of the complexities of Native American identity and the ongoing struggle for social justice and equality.

Characters

The characters in Tommy Orange’s The State are complex and multifaceted, each with their own unique struggles and experiences. The novel follows a diverse cast of characters, including Native Americans, immigrants, and non-Native Americans, as they navigate life in Oakland, California. The protagonist, Dene Oxendene, is a young Native American filmmaker who is creating a documentary about the lives of Native Americans in Oakland. Other notable characters include Edwin Black, a Native American who struggles with addiction, and Calvin Johnson, a non-Native American who is married to a Native American woman and is grappling with his own identity and place in the world. Through these characters, Orange explores themes of identity, community, and the legacy of colonialism.

Plot

The plot of The State revolves around the lives of twelve Native American characters living in Oakland, California. The novel is divided into four parts, each focusing on a different character and their experiences. The first part introduces us to Tony Loneman, a young man with fetal alcohol syndrome who is planning to rob a powwow. The second part follows Dene Oxendene, a filmmaker who is interviewing Native Americans about their experiences in Oakland. The third part centers around Edwin Black, a former alcoholic who is struggling to reconnect with his family. The final part brings all the characters together at the powwow, where their lives intersect in unexpected ways. Through these interconnected stories, Orange explores themes of identity, community, and the legacy of colonialism.

Symbolism

Symbolism plays a significant role in Tommy Orange’s novel, The State. Throughout the book, Orange uses various symbols to represent different themes and ideas. One of the most prominent symbols in the novel is the powwow. The powwow represents the Native American culture and tradition, and it is a place where the characters come together to celebrate their heritage. The powwow also symbolizes the struggle of the Native American people to preserve their culture and identity in a world that is constantly changing. Another symbol in the novel is the eagle feather. The eagle feather is a sacred object in Native American culture, and it represents strength, courage, and wisdom. The feather is also a symbol of the connection between the Native American people and the natural world. Orange uses these symbols to convey the themes of identity, culture, and tradition in the novel. The powwow and the eagle feather represent the struggle of the Native American people to maintain their cultural identity in a world that is constantly changing. Overall, symbolism is an essential element in The State, and it helps to convey the themes and ideas of the novel.

Writing Style

The writing style of Tommy Orange in The State (2016) is unique and captivating. He uses a combination of different literary techniques to create a powerful narrative that draws the reader in and keeps them engaged throughout the book. One of the most notable aspects of his writing style is his use of multiple perspectives. Orange switches between different characters’ points of view, allowing the reader to see the story from different angles and gain a deeper understanding of the characters’ motivations and experiences. Additionally, Orange’s use of vivid imagery and descriptive language creates a rich and immersive reading experience. Overall, Orange’s writing style in The State (2016) is both thought-provoking and engaging, making it a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary literature.

Point of View

The point of view in Tommy Orange’s The State is a crucial aspect of the novel’s success. The story is told from multiple perspectives, including those of Native Americans living in Oakland, California, and non-Native Americans who are connected to them in various ways. This approach allows Orange to explore the complex relationships between different groups of people and to give voice to a wide range of experiences and perspectives. By using multiple narrators, Orange is able to create a rich and nuanced portrait of a community that is often overlooked or misunderstood. The different points of view also allow the reader to see how the characters’ lives intersect and how their actions affect one another. Overall, the point of view in The State is a powerful tool that Orange uses to tell a compelling and thought-provoking story.

Setting

The setting of The State by Tommy Orange is a crucial element in understanding the themes and messages of the novel. The story takes place in Oakland, California, a city known for its diversity and history of social activism. Orange uses the setting to explore issues of identity, race, and gentrification. The characters navigate through different neighborhoods, each with its own unique culture and struggles. The setting also serves as a backdrop for the political tensions and protests that occur throughout the novel. Overall, the setting of The State plays a significant role in shaping the narrative and highlighting the complexities of contemporary American society.

Tone

The tone of The State is one of urgency and frustration. Orange’s characters are all struggling with the weight of their past and present circumstances, and the author’s writing style reflects this sense of urgency. The language is often raw and unfiltered, with characters speaking in a mix of English and their native languages. This adds to the sense of authenticity and immediacy in the novel. However, the tone is not entirely bleak. There are moments of humor and tenderness that provide a much-needed respite from the heavier themes. Overall, the tone of The State is a reflection of the complex emotions and experiences of its characters.

Imagery

The use of imagery in Tommy Orange’s The State is a powerful tool that enhances the reader’s understanding of the characters and their experiences. Orange’s vivid descriptions of the landscape and environment in which the story takes place create a sense of place that is both familiar and foreign. The imagery of the city and its surroundings is used to highlight the contrast between the Native American characters and the dominant culture. The use of color imagery is also prominent throughout the novel, with colors such as red and blue representing different emotions and experiences. Overall, the use of imagery in The State adds depth and complexity to the story, making it a rich and engaging read.

Irony

Irony is a prominent literary device used in Tommy Orange’s The State. The novel is set in Oakland, California, a city known for its diversity and progressive values. However, the characters in the novel are struggling with issues of identity, displacement, and marginalization. The irony lies in the fact that despite living in a city that prides itself on inclusivity, the characters are still facing discrimination and prejudice. This irony is further emphasized by the fact that the novel is set on the day of a powwow, a celebration of Native American culture and heritage. The powwow is meant to be a symbol of unity and pride, but it also highlights the struggles and challenges faced by the Native American community. The use of irony in The State adds depth and complexity to the novel, forcing readers to confront the harsh realities of life in a supposedly progressive society.

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is a literary technique that is used to hint at events that will occur later in the story. In Tommy Orange’s novel, The State (2016), foreshadowing is used to create tension and anticipation in the reader. One example of foreshadowing in the novel is the recurring image of a red car. The car is mentioned several times throughout the story, and each time it appears, it is associated with danger and violence. This foreshadows the violent climax of the novel, in which the red car plays a pivotal role. Another example of foreshadowing in the novel is the repeated references to the character’s troubled pasts. These references hint at the fact that the characters’ pasts will come back to haunt them in some way, and this creates a sense of unease in the reader. Overall, foreshadowing is an effective technique that is used to build suspense and keep the reader engaged in the story.

Conflict

In “The State” by Tommy Orange, conflict is a central theme that drives the narrative forward. The novel explores the tensions between Native Americans and the dominant white culture in America, as well as the internal conflicts that arise within the Native American community. The characters in the novel are all struggling to find their place in a society that has historically marginalized and oppressed them, and this struggle often leads to conflict with others and within themselves. Through his portrayal of these conflicts, Orange highlights the ongoing struggle for Native Americans to assert their identity and reclaim their cultural heritage in a world that often seeks to erase it.

Motifs

One of the most prominent motifs in Tommy Orange’s The State is the concept of identity. Throughout the novel, characters struggle with their sense of self and their place in the world. This is particularly evident in the character of Tony Loneman, who is constantly grappling with his Native American heritage and the stigma that comes with it. Another recurring motif is the theme of violence, both physical and emotional. The novel explores the ways in which violence can shape individuals and communities, and how it can be perpetuated across generations. These motifs work together to create a complex and nuanced portrait of contemporary Native American life, one that is both deeply personal and politically charged.

Literary Devices

One of the most prominent literary devices used in Tommy Orange’s The State is the use of multiple narrators. The novel is told from the perspectives of twelve different characters, each with their own unique voice and story to tell. This technique allows Orange to explore the complexities of Native American identity and experience from a variety of angles, highlighting the diversity within the community and the ways in which individual experiences intersect with larger social and historical forces. Additionally, the use of multiple narrators creates a sense of polyphony, with different voices and perspectives blending together to create a rich and nuanced portrait of contemporary Native American life.

Cultural Significance

The State by Tommy Orange is a novel that holds immense cultural significance. The book explores the lives of Native Americans living in Oakland, California, and their struggles with identity, culture, and community. Through the characters’ experiences, Orange sheds light on the complex issues faced by indigenous people in modern-day America. The novel also highlights the importance of preserving Native American culture and traditions, which have been eroded by centuries of colonization and assimilation. The State is a powerful work of literature that not only entertains but also educates readers about the challenges faced by Native Americans in contemporary society. It is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the cultural significance of indigenous people in America.

Reception

The reception of Tommy Orange’s debut novel, The State, has been overwhelmingly positive. The book has been praised for its powerful portrayal of contemporary Native American life and its exploration of themes such as identity, trauma, and the legacy of colonialism. Critics have also lauded Orange’s skillful use of multiple perspectives and narrative styles, which give the novel a rich and complex texture. Many readers have found the book to be both moving and thought-provoking, and it has been widely recommended as an important contribution to contemporary literature. Overall, the reception of The State suggests that Tommy Orange is a writer to watch, and that his work is likely to continue to resonate with readers for years to come.

Analysis of Specific Passages

One of the most striking passages in Tommy Orange’s The State is found in Chapter 3, where the character of Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield reflects on her family history and the legacy of violence and trauma that has been passed down through generations. The passage is notable for its raw emotional intensity and its unflinching portrayal of the ways in which historical injustices continue to shape the lives of contemporary Native Americans. Through Opal’s voice, Orange offers a powerful critique of the myth of the American Dream and the false promise of upward mobility for marginalized communities. This passage is a testament to Orange’s skill as a writer and his commitment to telling stories that are often overlooked or silenced in mainstream culture.

Comparison to Other Works

When comparing “The State” to other works of contemporary literature, it stands out for its unique blend of genres and themes. While it shares some similarities with other works that explore the experiences of Native Americans, such as Louise Erdrich’s “The Round House” and Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” “The State” also incorporates elements of magical realism and dystopian fiction.

In terms of its themes, “The State” tackles issues of identity, trauma, and the legacy of colonialism in a way that is both poignant and thought-provoking. It also offers a nuanced portrayal of the complexities of modern Native American life, highlighting the ways in which individuals navigate their cultural heritage in a world that often seeks to erase it.

Overall, “The State” is a powerful and timely work of literature that deserves to be read and discussed alongside other contemporary works that explore the experiences of marginalized communities. Its unique blend of genres and themes make it a standout contribution to the literary landscape, and its message is one that is sure to resonate with readers of all backgrounds.