Sunday, October 10, 2021

The God Stealer by F. Sionil Jose (Short Story) - Literary Analysis

First published in 1959, The God Stealer is without a doubt F. Sionil Jose's most popular short story. It's a mainstay in anthologies featuring short works of fiction in Philippine literature. It's also one of the most studied stories in literature classes in the Philippines. The story won first prize at the 1959 Palanca Awards. It's a tale that's popular among Filipino readers because of the themes it covers and the deeper meanings it attempts to explore.

The Main Characters

1. Sam Christie - A 28-year-old American from Boston who went to work in an "Agency" in the capital city of Manila in the Philippines.
2. Philip Latak (Ip-pig) - A 26-year-old Ifugao man who became friends with Sam Christie because he worked at the same agency. Philip is Sam's assistant. Philip has converted to Christianity and embraced western culture.
3. Sadek - Philip's older brother.
4. Pilip Latak's grandfather

Plot and Summary

Sam Christie, an American, and Philip Latak, a native from the province of Ifugao, work in the same office at an "agency" in Manila. Philip is Sam's assistant and they are good friends. One day, Philip receives a message that his aging grandfather back home has fallen sick and that Philip needs to go home to see him. It happens that it's also Sam's last month in the Philippines before he heads home to the United States for a much-needed vacation leave. So he decides to tag along with Philip for the trip to Ifugao. He also plans on buying an Ifugao god as a souvenir to take back home.

After a long bus ride, the two travelers reach Philip's village and after a brief visit with his older brother Sadek's home, the two head over to the house of the old man - Philip's 80-year-old grandfather. Philip asks his grandfather where he can get an Ifugao god for his American friend. The old man gets angry. The two leave the old man's house and head back to their lodging.

On their second night at the town, a huge feast is held at the village for Philip. A ritual is held at the grandfather's house. Philip and Sam watch as the old man pours fresh animal blood on an Ifugao god. The ritual is the old man's way of thanking the god for letting his grandson come home.

After the ritual at the old man's house, Sam and Philip join in on the festivities. Sam soon gets bored and decides to leave the party early and go to sleep. Past midnight, he wakes up to Philip coming home drunk and carrying an Ifugao god. Sam confronts Philip and tells him he shouldn't have stolen the god. He adds that Philip should return it and if he doesn't, Sam will return the god himself. But Philip warns him that if he tries to return the idol, the old man will kill him.

Sam wakes up the next morning to see Philip hastily leaving to get back to the village. His grandfather had collapsed due to a heart attack and is dying. The next day, Sam is visited by Philip's older brother Sadek and is informed by him that their grandfather has passed away and that the cause of his death was the loss of his Ifugao god. Sadek also informs Sam that Philip isn't going back to Manila.

Sam decides to visit Philip at the old man's house. But Philip meets him with anger and loathing. An argument ensues. The story ends with Sam leaving the old house and with Philip making another god to replace the one he has stolen.

Analysis / Study Guide for Students / Questions and Answers for Discussion

1. What is the central theme of the story? - The story has three main themes. The first one is the clash of cultures between Sam (an American) and Philip (a native Ifugao/Filipino). The second theme is the westernization of a native Ifugao. Philip was educated in a mission school, he was baptized and Christianized, and he turned his back on the traditional beliefs of his people. The third theme is colonialism and its effects, both good and bad, to colonized peoples. It's often pointed out that Sam's name is a direct reference to Uncle Sam, a name for the United States of America. Philip's name is also a reference to the Philippines. So the interactions between Sam and Philip in the story are metaphors for the relations between the United States and the Philippines. Or metaphors for interactions between the colonizer and the colonized.

2. Is there a moral lesson in the story? - There's a good number of moral lessons that can be gleaned from the tale. On the part of Philip, maybe it's not that good of an idea to completely turn your back on the beliefs of your people and rub it in by stealing one of their gods. Getting rid of the trappings of tribal beliefs is not necessarily bad. Actually it's good most of the time because it often leads the apostate to a path towards reason and science. Leaving your beliefs is one thing. Stealing a god is another matter. On the part of Sam, maybe he should get rid of the practice of having to always take something from another culture as a souvenir. You don't always have to take something back home when you leave a country.

3. Is there symbolism in the story? - Yes, there definitely is. As I've mentioned earlier, Sam symbolizes the colonizer and Philip symbolizes the colonized. It's clear enough that the names of the characters were directly sourced from the names of their origin countries. A student once suggested that the Ifugao god can also be a symbol for something. It can be a symbol for "something" that colonizers and their subjects fight over. For example, oil, gold, and other natural resources. This is definitely a theory that is worthy of further exploration. I challenge the reader/student to read the story again and keep this theory in mind.

4. Who is Sadek and what is his role in the story? - It's clear in the story that Sadek is very similar to Philip. He has also abandoned the old beliefs of his people. Philip mentioned that clearly enough. But the difference between Sadek and Philip is that Philip is loud about his apostasy while Sadek keep it to himself. After all, he lives among a "hundred ignorant natives". I guess Sadek serves as a point of comparison against Philip in the story. Sadek is what Philip could have been had he decided to not leave his village for Manila.

5. What's the main conflict in the story and the corresponding resolution? - This is a difficult one. I had to wrestle with this a bit. If you read the story, it's riddled with conflicts most of which received their resolutions. But which of these several conflicts represent the glue that keeps the story together? I don't know. I have an idea but I'm not sure. So I'll leave it at that.