Skip to content

Smoke Signals Analysis Essay

Jenise Johandes

In "Smoke Signals", we see the protagonist, Victor, challenged by two people who force him to redefine his self-concept and also the beliefs he has of his father. The first impression we get of Victor is that he has a bad attitude. However, it is evident that he is not a bad person. We are given the impression that he is a bit lost-- that he doesn’t really know who he is or wants to be. The movie takes us with Victor on his journey toward self-discovery.
On one hand Victor says many things that lead us to believe that he is very proud of his Indian heritage. On the other hand, he makes some derogatory statements. For example in the reflective scene where his father asks him who his favorite Indian is, young Victor says nobody. He is obviously disgusted with the alcoholism within his family and probably throughout the reservation. I think that he wants to be proud of his heritage, but that the Indians he is surrounded with are a far cry from the painted warriors of long ago. He probably tries to feel connected to the Indians as they were on the plains before the white man came. They were proud, strong and brave, which is how he wants to be. Victor himself has taken on the warrior role. He says to Thomas when they are on the bus, that "Get stoic…Indians aren’t supposed to smile…you gotta look like a warrior, like you just came in from killing a buffalo." When Thomas informs him that their tribe were fishermen, Victor disregards the information because it is incongruent with how he wants to think about himself.
Though Victor wants to think of himself this way, it is incongruent with who he really is. We see evidence of this when the two white men take his and Thomas’ seats. He confronts the men, but backs down quickly, showing that his "warrior" persona, is only skin deep. Victor has a lot going on in his unconscious that he will not let come up to the surface for him to deal with. Inwardly, Victor feels responsible for his father leaving. We see this in the scene right after his father left and Thomas confronts him. Thomas, as we see, stirs up trouble. He doesn’t mean to and there is nothing malicious about it, he is just very frank. Young Thomas asks the young Victor why his father left and if it was because he hated him. Victor proceeds to beat Thomas up and then run away. He believes that he is the reason why his father left, but he doesn’t want to face it.
On the conscious level, Victor thinks of his dad as a very bad person—one who was drunk all of the time, beat him and his mom, and then abandoned them. This notion protected him from his unconscious belief that his father left because of him. If Victor had allowed himself to think about it, he may have realized that the negative notion he had of his father was just a way of protecting himself from the guilt that lay in his unconscious. He may have then come to realize that he wasn’t the reason his father left and avoided a great deal of emotional distress. Instead, this notion had to be broken down by a wealth of new evidence presented by the antagonists, Thomas and Suzy Song.
Thomas is constantly talking to Victor about Victor’s dad in a favorable manner. He goes about it in a very interesting way. Instead of trying to pull Victor aside for a talk and make him think, Thomas rambles on as if he doesn’t know any better. I believe he does know. He knows exactly what he is doing. He knows that Victor is struggling, and that in order to be at peace, he needs to confront the issue. Despite Thomas’ efforts, though, Victor will have nothing of it. He assimilates the favorable things that Thomas has to say about his dad as just more of Thomas’ fanciful rambling. I believe, though, that it does get to him. Victor loses his temper with Thomas on a few occasions when Thomas is talking about his dad. This leads me to believe that Thomas is scratching the surface and it makes Victor uncomfortable.
Perhaps Victor would have gone on like this but with the addition of Suzy and the information she has, these beliefs (would it be correct to refer to them as constructs?) begin give way. Like Thomas, Suzy has many favorable things to say about Victor’s father. She says that he was a good man and that he was like a father to her. Victor scoffs at this, but it bothers him. When she finally tells him about the fire, Victor cannot support his theory anymore. It is then obvious that his father left because he was fleeing from the guilt he felt at having caused the fire.
The straw that finally breaks the camel’s back is when Suzy tells Victor about how his father went back into the burning house looking for him. Victor is then forced to acknowledge the fact that his father did love and care for him. Going into his father’s wallet and seeing the picture of his family reinforces this. Victor then pulls out his knife and cuts his hair. Earlier in the movie, he had told Thomas that an "Indian man is nothing without his hair". Perhaps cutting his hair is symbolic of giving up his old notions and starting over. Since he had built his entire self-concept around the feelings that he had toward his father, he is now left with nothing; he must, in a sense, start over.
Victor does make one last attempt at assimilating the new information. On the drive home, Thomas tells how Victor’s dad said that the only thing that Victor would ever be good at is Basketball. Perhaps Victor realizes the truth in this statement. He has been so busy playing the martyr and feeling sorry for himself, that he hasn’t done much but play basketball. Or perhaps, he held on to basketball because it was something that he and his father shared. Victor becomes angry, but Thomas stands his ground and tells Victor that Victor doesn’t know who he is; that he has spent ten years just moping around the reservation. Victor becomes very angry and retaliates by firing back at Thomas about how his dad was a drunk and an abuser. As they argue, he also says how his dad went back and saved Thomas, but not him. I believe that Victor is angry that his father at never coming back and "saving" him from the person he had become as a result of believing that his father was a bad man. Victor’s hostility may also be a reaction of realizing that what Thomas has been saying all along was really worth its salt. Victor realizes that Thomas knew his father better than he did, and perhaps that evokes feelings of sadness and regret because he wishes he would have seen it before it was too late.
Victor does get "saved", however. The car accident that he and Thomas descend upon is symbolic of this. Like the burning house, the car accident was a result of alcohol. The drunk driver accuses Victor of causing the crash. Victor sees this as absurd and at the same time realizes that blaming himself for his father running away is equally absurd. He realizes that he had as much a part in that as he did in the car accident. He then runs to find help, which is perhaps symbolic of him wishing that he had done more to find his father.
As he is running, his mind is also racing, putting together and accepting all of the information that he has learned. He runs himself to exhaustion, and is helped up by a man who he perceives (for an instant) to be his father. In a sense, his father comes back and saves him. In this we realize that Victor has completely let go of his old constructs and forgiven his father. We see this again when Victor and Thomas speak of where they are going to scatter the ashes. Victor speaks of it as "cleaning out the attic—like throwing things away when they have no more use." There is more here to just scattering ashes, though. Victor is also cleaning out his own mental attic; cleaning out the distorted and obsolete ideas that he had and starting over.

The relationship between Victor and Thomas in the movie Smoke Signals is what gives the stories that Sherman Alexie weave they're meaning. Their relationship grows from acquaintances, to veritable enemies, to close friends. This shifting in association gives the movie a very heartwarming effect. It showed that these young Indian boys overcame the obstacles that had separated them, and while doing this became close friends. In the opening scene we are exposed to how Thomas' family becomes indebted to Victor's. Victors father rescued Thomas from the burning building that killed his parents. We are not made aware of the fact that Victor's father had in fact started the fire as well. Leaving this detail unknown until the end of the movie allows the audience the chance to come to their own conclusions about Victor's father, before his personality is revealed by his neighbor. During the movie, Thomas tried to befriend Victor, but usually to no avail. The other children consider Thomas a "dork" and Victor did not speak to him very much. The scene after Victor's father left, where Victor beats Thomas into oblivion for making a rude remark about Victor's dad and the scene on the basketball court shows us this feeling of annoyance that Victor holds about Thomas. For unknown reasons, however, Thomas continued to try to befriend Victor. Thomas feels that he has a spiritual connection to Victor's father, and enjoys telling Victor stories about his absent dad. When Victor's father is reported to have died, Victor had to go to Arizona and gather his father's personal belongings as well as his trusty old pick up truck. Thomas, who had accumulated quite a sum of money over the years, offered to give the necessary money to Victor as long as he is allowed to come along. This journey is the turning point in the young men's lives. This journey allows each boy to find out who they really are and it forms a tight bond between the two boys. While on the trip to Arizona, Victor explained to Thomas why the way he dresses is not appropriate for a young Indian man. He had him change his appearance to fit the standard dress of the reservation.


Victor is annoyed with Thomas for most of the trip. His constant ranting about Victor's deceased family member wearied Victor. During the time that they spent together at his father's trailer, Victor came to appreciate life and becomes more open towards Thomas. Although he doesn't admit it outright, Victor befriended Thomas. In the closing scenes of the movie we are showed this compassionate side of Victor. In the end of the movie, when Victor spreads his father's ashes into the river, we are shown that Victor has come to peace with his father. He now realizes why he left, and why he never came back. When Thomas asks Victor why his father left, for the first time during the course of their relationship, Victor did not get upset. Instead he though about it, looked back on his life, thought about his father, and came up with an answer. "He didn't mean to," was what Victor decided. What a contrast this is from the beginning of the movie, when Thomas asks Victor about his father leaving and then gets beaten until Thomas' mother breaks up the fight. This proves that Victor and Thomas' relationships have undergone major changes during the course of the film. We are shown how two boys, alike only by race, are brought together as friends and equals.