Reservation Blues

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Guitars Symbol Analysis

Guitars Symbol Icon

Guitars, and most prominently Robert Johnson’s guitar (which in turn becomes Victor’s guitar), represent the powerful temptations of fame and the sacrifices that must be made to attain it. There is a legend that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for becoming a great guitar player. As a black Blues musician in the American Old South, Johnson would have faced oppression and violence, and would have had very few civil rights, so his fame as a musician (which mostly came about after his death, unfortunately) was a way for him to escape and rise above this life of suffering. In the novel, then, Johnson’s guitar acts similarly for the members of Coyote Springs, offering them the chance to escape the cycle of poverty and alcoholism on the reservation through musical fame and money. The guitar seems imbued with magical powers and to have a life of its own, bringing the band great success, but it is still linked to the devil (the Gentleman), and so in a way it is a cursed object. The guitar ultimately ruins the band’s big moment when it “rebels” against Victor during their performance for Cavalry Records, thus showing how a “deal with the devil” always ends badly, and how fame can be a curse as well as a blessing. Coyote Springs brings joy and meaning to the band members for a while, but it also causes them great suffering. Likewise the mystical guitar has the power to produce incredible, life-changing music, but always at a terrible cost to whoever plays it.

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Guitars Symbol Timeline in Reservation Blues

The timeline below shows where the symbol Guitars appears in Reservation Blues. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
...a black stranger arrives in Wellpinit, Washington on the Spokane Indian Reservation, waiting with his guitar at the town’s crossroads. Word of his arrival spreads rapidly, but no one has the... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
...won’t make the whole journey to Big Mom, so Johnson sets out alone, leaving his guitar behind. (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
...with hair like Indians in the movies,” interrupts his curbside meal to ask about the guitar. They are bullies—Victor is an “asshole,” and Junior can be too, because “Victor [is] extremely... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Thomas tells them the guitar has a secret name, and Victor pulls him into a sudden headlock to make him... (full context)
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Suddenly, Victor smashes the guitar against the sidewalk, and then gives it to Thomas to play. Thomas, knowing that Junior... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Thomas plans to burn the broken guitar to smoke some salmon, but the instrument repairs itself overnight, and speaks to him in... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
The sound of the guitar’s song washes over the reservation like rain, waking Victor and Junior, who, angry and hung... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Victor and Junior arrive, and Thomas invites them to join a band, offering Victor the guitar, which burns him slightly. Victor protests, but the guitar has him seduced already—Thomas sees it... (full context)
Chapter 2
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
...for himself and Junior are no match for the sound produced by Robert Johnson’s mystical guitar. After a few days, crowds come to watch them rehearse—first Lester FallsApart (a friendly alcoholic),... (full context)
Chapter 3
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Victor’s guitar pulls him back on stage with Junior and Thomas, and Thomas announces that the next... (full context)
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
...hopes they don’t make it big, because it might ruin them. He holds Robert Johnson’s guitar in the dream, and plays it, feeling sweet pain, until Victor shouts at him. He... (full context)
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
...The sisters are still unconvinced, so they begin to play music. Victor resists, but the guitar speaks to him in a strange voice and he joins in, shredding on a solo... (full context)
Chapter 4
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
...hello to the sky, he says help to the ground. He wants to make his guitar sound like a waterfall, “like a spear striking salmon,” but it only sounds like a... (full context)
Chapter 5
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
...check—but now Victor is missing. Suddenly they hear a beautiful voice singing, accompanied by a guitar. They find Victor playing with an old Indian singer who has bandaged and bloody hands.... (full context)
Chapter 6
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
...up on Big Mom’s front porch with Robert Johnson. Johnson remembers his time with the guitar, how he would escape for weeks at a time before the guitar found him again—but... (full context)
Chapter 7
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
...hard enough. She is a musical genius, and shaped the history of music. Musician and guitar builder Les Paul took the original blueprint for the electric guitar from her home, and... (full context)
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
...She tells Thomas that Robert Johnson is gone looking for wood to build a new guitar. She tells Victor that, if he wants, she can throw his guitar away for him.... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
...from the other room, Big Mom plays the “loneliest chord” they’ve ever heard on a guitar made from “a 1965 Malibu and the blood of a child killed at Wounded Knee... (full context)
Chapter 8
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
...counts off as, somewhere, horses scream. At first, all is well, and then suddenly Victor’s guitar begins to rebel, bucking in his arms, and he feels a razor slice his palms.... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
...be able to try again in a couple of months. Victor is furious, throwing his guitar and harming studio equipment. He then attacks the executives, who are angry that the “Indians”... (full context)
Chapter 9
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
...would follow into the next life. Victor had cried, silently, mourning the loss of his guitar. In the church, Checkers tells Father Arnold he can’t leave her alone. He admits that... (full context)
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
...to the Tribal Cops outside. Victor follows the music to the basement and finds the guitar waiting. Before the guitar lets itself be taken, though, it tells Victor that he can... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
...Spokane airport, they wait for Victor’s luggage. Just before they decide to abandon it, a guitar case slides down the carousel. Victor grabs it, but a young white man runs back... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
...House let him play harmonica with him from time to time. Johnson wanted to play guitar, but couldn’t. He then left town and disappeared at a crossroads. Now, Johnson has given... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
...the Mississippi heat. In his memory, Johnson tells the Gentleman he wants to play the guitar better than anybody ever. When the Gentleman asks him what he loves the most—what he... (full context)