ALAN v22n3 - Signs in Speare's The Sign of the Beaver

Volume 22, Number 3
Spring 1995

Signs in Speare's The Sign of the Beaver

Ann Mosley

The Sign of the Beaver is a masterful title for Elizabeth George Speare's historical frontier novel about the developing relationship between young Matt Hallowell and an Indian youth named Attean. In the novel, the words sign or signs come to symbolize the different communication systems of the two boys, and these communication systems, in turn, reveal the boys' contrasting cultural values.

Many years ago Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure recognized the importance of signs to communication. He believed that

since language was a system of signs linguistics ought to be part of a larger science of signs, "a science which would study the life of signs within society.... We call it semiology from the Green semeion (`sign'). It would teach us what signs consist of, what laws govern them." ( Culler, p.22 )

Semiology, or semiotics as it is now called, has since been developed by Jonathan Culler , Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco and others to a level way beyond my ken or desire to learn, but these scholars still return to Saussure's basic principles of langue and parole . Saussure viewed langue as"the total language-system each speaker carries with him totally present at every moment" and parole as "the individual speech act, temporally successive, largely constrained by the langue but ultimately modifying it" ( Holtz, p. 276 ). Thus, langue is the system of signs itself while parole is the individual expression of the system.

The importance of signs as expressed in Matt's langue , especially in his written language system, is shown early in the book. Soon after twelve-year-old Matt has been left to guard his family's new cabin in the Maine woods while his father returns home to bring the rest of the family, he encounters various difficulties. These problems include a dishonest visitor named Ben, who steals his rifle; a marauding bear, who scatters his flour and eats his molasses; and a swarm of bees, whose poison might have killed him if he had not been befriended by Attean and his grandfather Saknis. In return for the Indians' kindness, Matt offers them the only thing he has to offer -- his worn copy of Robinson Crusoe . Almost immediately, Matt regrets his gift, for he realizes that the Indians cannot read. However, Saknis realizes that the book holds a kind of power, for it contains the signs -- the written words --that have stolen his people's land. Eagerly, he proposes that Matt teach his grandson the "signs" in the book:

"Attean learn," he said. "White man come more and more to Indian land. Whiteman not make treaty with pipe. White man make signs on paper, signs Indian not know. Indian put mark on paper to show him friend of white man. Then white man take land. Tell Indian cannot hunt on land. Attean learn to read white man's signs. Attean not give away hunting grounds." (p. 31)

Saknis realizes that his people have been cheated because they have not understood the language system, the langue , of the white men who have made treaties with them.

Saussure's definition of a sign within a language system is also helpful here, for he recognized that each sign was "made up of a `signifier' (a sound-image, or its graphic equivalent), and a `signified' (the concept or meaning)"( Eagleton, p. 96 ). Certainly, Saknis understands and expresses, if imperfectly, the oral language system of white society; but he does not understand the"graphic equivalents" and does not bring to the signs the same set of cultural values. Therefore, his interpretation of the "signified," or the meaning, has been different to that of the white men with whom he has signed treaties.

As Matt begins to teach Attean his written language, the importance of langue , or a system, becomes more apparent. He recalls that he had learned his own alphabet in the religious context of "A" standing for "In Adam's fall/We sinned all" (p. 32). Shrewdly, he decides to use less ethnocentric references for the letters, such as arm for "A" and bone for "B"; but significantly enough, these isolated fragments of the language system mean nothing to Attean. It is only after Matt begins to read him Robinson Crusoe , which shows the language system in action, that Attean becomes interested enough to begin to learn.

William Holtz's connection of langue to culture and of parole to"concrete experience" (p. 277) clearly applies to Matt's reading of Robinson Crusoe to Attean. At first, Matt accepts without question the cultural bias against "savages" expressed in the language system of the book. For example, he reads the following passage about Crusoe's first meeting with his man Friday to Attean without a thought to its being offensive:

The poor savage who fled, but had stopped, ... was so frightened with the noise and fire of my piece, that he stood stock-still, and neither came forward nor went backward.... I beckoned to him again to come to me... and he came nearer and nearer, kneeling down every ten or twelve steps, in token of acknowledgement for saving his life.... At length he came close to me, and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and, taking my foot, set it upon his head. This, it seemed, was a token of swearing to be my slave forever.... (pp.42-43)

Attean responds to this passage angrily: " `Never kneel down to white man!' ... `Not kneel down,' Attean repeated fiercely. `Not be slave. Better die'" (p. 43). As a result of Attean's reaction, Matt is left with new thoughts and new questions, for, "Like Robinson Crusoe, he has thought it natural and right that the wild man should be the white man's slave" (p. 44).

Thus, this "concrete experience" with his language and its cultural bias causes Matt to look at Attean differently, and the next time he reads Robinson Crusoe to his Indian friend, he begins to take freedoms with the book-- skipping over the parts where Friday calls Crusoe "master," for example. Thus, as Saussaur has observed, although the "system [is] determined ... the individual is free...." This view of language

... grasps social pressures and determinants not so much as forces active in our actual speaking, but as a monolithic structure which somehow stands over against us. It presumes that parole , individual utterance, really is individual, rather than an inevitably social and "dialogic" affair which catches us up with other speakers and listeners in a whole field of social values and purposes. (p. 114)

When he decides to alter the written signs in Robinson Crusoe , Matt has allowed his parole to alter the langue he is using. That is, he has learned to place his own personal experience and friendship above preconceived cultural biases. He now sees Attean as an individual and views his culture through the lens of humanity rather than through that of a specific cultural system.

But Matt's language is not the only communication system described in The Sign of the Beaver . Whereas Speare emphasizes Matt's written language, she emphasizes Attean's oral language. Matt reads the story of Robinson Crusoe to Attean; Attean, in turn, tells this and other stories to the people of his village. In fact, this quality of oral storytelling is essential to the Indians' culture. The contrasting methods of expression --written for Matt and oral for Attean -- also reveal basic cultural contrasts. The Indian culture is based on the group, or the tribe, and, therefore, requires audience reaction and participation. Reading and writing, on the other hand, are basically solitary pursuits, practices that, according to Marshall McLuhan , separate and fragment individuals from one another -- as indeed an unrevised reading of Robinson Crusoe would have separated Matt and Attean. As McLuhan has further observed, "The patterns of the senses that are extended in the various languages of men are as varied as styles of dress and art. Each mother tongue teaches its users a way of seeing and feeling the world, and of acting in the world, that is quite unique" (p. 83).

Indeed, as representatives of their cultures, Matt and Attean do see and feel the world quite differently. For example, Matt and his father have "bought" the land where they have built their cabin. However, Attean does not understand the concept of ownership of land because his culture views the land itself as a separate entity like the sky or the sea:

"How one man own ground?" Attean questioned.

"Well, my father owns it now. He bought it."

"I not understand." Attean scowled. "How can man own land? Land same as air. Land for all people to live on. For beaver and deer. Does deer own land?" (p.117)

Another reason that Attean doesn't understand the white concept of landownership is that his entire village functions as a true community so that individual ownership of property is unnecessary and undesirable.

The Indians respect not only the land itself but also all of nature. Significantly, then, their signs are natural ones. For example, when Saknis first introduces himself to Matt, he identifies himself as one of the"family of beaver" (p. 26). And later when the boys visit a beaver dam, Attean explains to Matt about his family's signs:

He pointed to a tree nearby. "Sign of beaver," he said. "Belong to family."

Carved on the bark Matt could make out the crude figure of an animal that could, with some imagination, be a beaver.

"Sign show beaver house belong to people of beaver," Attean explained. "By and by, when young beaver all grown, people of beaver hunt here. No one hunt but people of beaver."

"You mean, just from that mark on the tree, another hunter would not shoot here?"

"That our way," Attean said gravely. "All Indian understand." (pp. 55-56)

But, Matt wonders, "Would a white man understand?" (p. 56).

Then, almost immediately, Matt realizes that renegades such as Ben, the white man who had stolen his rifle, would never understand and respect the Indian signs. One reason for this lack of understanding, perhaps, is that the Indians and white men use totally different types of signs. That is, the Indians use a crude picture of a beaver, an "iconic" sign, which C. S. Peirce, the American founder of semiotics, defines as one that "somehow resembled what it stood for(a photograph of a person, for example)"; in contrast, the white man's written language uses a "symbolic" sign, which is "only arbitrarily or conventionally linked with its referent" ( Eagleton, p. 101 ).

Returning home from the beaver dam, Attean shows Matt more Indian signs --"secret signs" of a dislodged stone or a broken stick that he has made to show the way through the forest. Matt recalls his father's way of making "blazes on the trees with his knife," but Attean explains, "`That white man's way. Indian maybe not want to show where he go. Not want hunters to find beaver house" (p.57). Semiotically speaking, these different sign methods of marking one's way though the forest make us

think of our social and cultural world as a series of sign systems, comparable with language. What we live among and relate to are not physical objects and events; they are objects and events with meaning: ... not just physical gestures but acts of courtesy or hostility. (p. 25)

As Matt and Attean get to know one another and become friends, they learn more about each other's sign systems. Matt knows that "he ought to feel grateful for Attean's teaching," for each day

Attean taught him some new thing -- a plant like an onion that he could drop into his cooking pot to make his stew more tasty -- a weed with a small orange flower and a milky juice in its stem that took away the sting of insect bites or poison ivy -- a plant with brownish flowers and roots bearing a string of nutlike bulbs that thickened his stew and made it more nourishing. (p. 66)

And Matt observes that

in spite of himself Attean had learned something from the white boy. He was speaking the English tongue with greater ease.... In return, Matt liked to tryout Indian words.... He didn't think he could ever quite get them right, but he could see that though it amused Attean when he tried, it also pleased him. (p.67)

Thus, Matt and Attean have each learned more about the other's langue -- about the language or sign system with which each society communicates. And in so doing, each boy has also learned to understand and respect the culture of the other. At the beginning of the book, Matt had viewed Attean as well as the"man Friday" in Robinson Crusoe as "savages." Later, after he observes Attean's self-sufficiency, knowledge, and skill in the forest, Matt sees himself as a "puny sort of Robinson Crusoe" (p. 57). Finally, however, Matt grows beyond the confines of his own written language as symbolized by Robinson Crusoe . At the end of Defoe's book, Crusoe leaves Friday behind with hardly a thought for his welfare. In contrast, when Attean and his tribe leave in The Sign of the Beaver , Attean and Matt make symbolic gifts of friendship. Attean gives his dog to Matt; in response, Matt rejects his original gift to Attean, the culturally biased Robinson Crusoe , in favor of a family heirloom -- his father's watch. Each of these gifts represents the culture of its original owner, but even more importantly, each gift is a sign of friendship. Matt has truly come to understand and respect "the sign of the beaver."

Works Cited

Culler, Jonathan. The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction . Cornell, 1981.

Defoe, Daniel. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe , illustrated by Roger Duvoisin. World, 1946.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction . University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Holtz, William. "Spatial Form in Modern Literature: A Reconsideration." Critical Inquiry 4 (1977): pp. 271-283.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man . NAL,1964.

Speare, Elizabeth George. The Sign of the Beaver . Dell Yearling,1983.

Ann Mosley is a professor of literature and languages at East Texas State University and a former reviewer for The ALAN Review. She delivered this paper at the Children's Literature Section of the South Central MLA meeting.