The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down Themes

Themes and Colors
Cultural Values, Spirituality, and Medicine  Theme Icon
Blame and Power Theme Icon
History and Ethnic Identity Theme Icon
Integration and Assimilation Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down examines the ways in which people cling to various strongly-held tenets set forth by their cultures. By studying miscommunication between Hmong patients and their American doctors, Fadiman demonstrates that many cross-cultural misunderstandings hinge on a disconnect between the two parties’ priorities. The differences between Hmong and American ways of interpreting the world are exacerbated by shoddy communication, which fails—both linguistically and ideologically—to establish any kind of common…

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As a way of coping with the grief and uncertainty of Lia’s medical complications, both the Lee family and MCMC’s team of doctors try to assign blame. They are constantly seeking to decide if the other party has acted ethically or unethically, which is in part due to the fact that both the family and the doctors believe that their power hierarchies have been undermined. The doctors feel disrespected by the Lees’ unwillingness to…

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The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down frequently evokes Hmong history to illuminate the circumstances of Lia Lee’s medical crisis. Writing both a literary profile and an in-depth ethnography, Fadiman devotes whole chapters to the history and context of the Hmong ethnic identity, which she characterizes as “independent, insular, antiauthoritarian, suspicious, stubborn, proud, choleric, energetic, vehement, loquacious, humorous, hospitable, generous.” This is a characterization that she draws from tracing the Hmong all the…

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Because the Lees—like most Hmongs—came to the United States to escape war-torn Laos, their relationship to assimilation is complicated. The United States thinks of itself as a nation made up of many diverse populations, a “melting pot” of ethnicity. In the 20th century, though, being part of this “melting pot” seemed to require melting into the preexisting American culture. Historically resilient to coercive cultural changes, the newly-arrived Hmong had no interest in becoming Americans; they…

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