In a way, everything in life boils down to the manner in which something, be it an event, person, or organization, is “viewed” from the human eye. Not necessarily “viewed” as in how the eyes are taking in visual information, transmitting it into the brain, and then processing that sensory input, but rather, viewed referring to “…the way in which something is regarded, understood, or interpreted” (Oxford Dictionary). This concept is known as our perception. Our perception shapes our very reality. The lenses from which we view politics, our jobs, our relationships, our higher power (or lack thereof), our self, and all that lies in between determines how we act and respond to the world we inhabit. The influence our perception has can be seen daily but we may also turn to fiction to see it in action. Neil Gaiman’s 2001 award-winning fantasy novel, American Gods, follows an ex-convict named Shadow Moon on a extensive journey around the United States of America in an effort to help Mr. Wednesday, an incarnation of the Norse god Odin, recruit the Old Gods in a war against the new gods of technology, media, government, economics. Throughout the book, Shadow, the gods, and the reader themselves believe in Wednesday’s mission. They believe in the war because it is painted awfully black and white initially. The New Gods are evil, corrupt, materialistic and, although not perfect by any means, the Old Gods remain authentic, spiritual, and grounded in their traditional roots which provide a solid foundation for their existence. However, this all changes. At the conclusion of American Gods, Gaiman pulls back the curtain and flips the “war between the gods” on its head by revealing Mr. Wednesday’s true, malevolent intentions. Therefore, suggesting that our fluid perception is more important than a concrete reality, people can be motivated to commit certain actions solely by their beliefs alone, and such actions have significant consequences.
The concept of belief plays an important role throughout American Gods. In fact, the very existence of the gods in the book is dependent on people’s belief in them. At their meeting at the House on the Rock, Wednesday recalls how the Old Gods have been brought over to America and then “…left, lost, and scared and dispossessed, to get by on what little smidgens of worship or belief [they] could find.” (Gaiman 123) once their former worshippers forgot about them. Other deities in the novel, such as Easter, are still worshipped but are no longer perceived in the same way. In Easter’s case, she no longer receives any energy from Easter celebrations because the idea of Easter has changed. It is now a Christian holiday associated with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and its pagan origins have largely been forgotten among Americans. While it is true that the Old Gods have been abandoned and grown weaker as fewer people have continued to give tribute, it is also important to keep in mind that Mr. Wednesday is manipulating them. He is encouraging them to fight in this hopeless war against the New Gods with false promises of salvation when, in reality, Wednesday and Loki are the only ones who will reap any benefits that come out of the conflict. All of these details point to a subtle quote from Mr. Nancy: “‘This isn’t about what is,’ said Mr. Nancy. ‘It’s about what people think is.'” (Gaiman 381). Neil Gaiman creates a parallel between the gods in the novel and aspects of the real world. For example, the gods and their need for prayers is similar to a politician and their need for voters and in both the god and politician are the victims of how they are perceived by the world. Once the gods know the truth about Mr. Wednesday their perspective of Wednesday has shifted. Similarly, politicians, such as former Vice-president Spiro Agnew or former Congressman Anthony Weiner, can have their public image altered after new information about their private lives reaches their constituents. For both of these gentlemen their careers and reputations were left in shambles. Agnew “…was forced to resign his office in 1973 because of allegations of bribery.” (Williams par.20) and Weiner “…resigned from Congress in 2011 after it was revealed he had been sending lewd messages and photos to women online” (Hauser par.2). Keep in mind that perception is still a tricky thing. After all, not all scandals have the same catastrophic effects. Gaiman reminds us of this when Shadow is chatting with Mr. Wednesday and confesses “‘I miss Wednesday,’ said Shadow. ‘Despite everything he did. I keep expecting to see him…'” (Gaiman 489). Human beings have a tendency to gravitate to what is familiar to them and perhaps that is my Shadow misses his former boss despite everything. He may even sympathize with Wednesday due to the bonding experiences they shared of the course of the journey. Meanwhile, in the world of politics a candidate like Howard Dean can have his campaign derailed by shouting “Yeah!” at the top of his lungs while others who have made disrespectful remarks about women can find themselves in the White House.
Gaiman teaches the reader the importance of opinions but also reminds the reader that they change. One is not likely to go their whole life without changing their mind at least once. Still, the fluidity of perception does make it immune from acting as a driving force of human action. At one point Shadow concludes that “People believe… It’s what people do. They believe. And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales…” (Gaiman 477). This statement rings true in so many areas of life. Some people are quick to blame leaders or coworkers for mistakes with the intention of protecting their ego. People tell myths and ghost stories to explain the unexplainable. On the other side of the spectrum, the thirst for knowledge and the belief that the secrets of the universe are out there waiting to be uncovered motivates many scientists. Civilizations around the globe have prayed to deities in the hopes of being offered assistance and guidance. Today, religion continues to play an important role in the lives of many.
Due to the various ways an individual can respond to religion, “…[faith] has inspired architectural feats and horrific destruction, soaring music and hateful speech, personal sacrifice and cold-blooded murder” (Kruger and Konner par. 1) Sacrifice was once a common form of tribute to the gods and although it is no longer as widely practiced or well-received, there is a festival in Japan known as Saijo Matsuri that could be considered a form of sacrifice. In this celebration dedicated to the gods, participants will carry floats in a huge parade to the point of exhaustion and physical pain. Although no one has been directly killed as an offering to the gods, severe injuries and deaths have occured during Saijo Matsuri. These accidents are met with great sadness but “…the festival continues as planned and its completion, despite any accidents that might have occurred, is considered a success” (Tamas par.9) Furthermore, the people turn their toils and physical injuries “…into the most precious type of offering to the gods” (Tamas 9). They believe their efforts will bring fortune and blessings for the gods. For a believer, it is certainly a powerful motivator Psychologist, Richard Lazarus, proposed a theory that human beings respond to events and formulate an emotional response after first cognitively processing the event (Wood, Wood, Boyd 316). Since the participants in Saijo Matsuri thought of the event as a wonderful, loving tribute to their gods, they were not bothered by the intense physical exertion that was required and joyously celebrate the festival every year. Our belief systems determine our response to the world and as American Gods shows us, these thoughts can change and be altered to fit the context of our lives. Even Shadow starts off, questioning the gods around him and is content with following every order Wednesday give him until he begins to look deeper.
Early on in the novel the protagonist, Shadow, finds himself unsure of everything he is witnessing. When the Old Gods assemble at the House on the Rock he thinks to himself “I don’t believe any of this. Maybe I’m still fifteen. Mom’s still alive and I haven’t even met Laura yet. Everything that’s happened so far has been some kind of especially vivid dream” (Gaiman 125). Yet, as Shadow sees more and more of the mystical beings around him, he eventually becomes desensitized to it all. Even talking dogs and crows or going to the afterlife and back does not faze him. Shadow does a lot more than just get used to seeing weird stuff too, he begins asking questions and thinking for himself instead of just waiting around for his boss. Once he is able to separate himself from everyone else, Shadow can see the situation in a new light. He sees the conflict for the fraud it is and puts a stop to it before too much blood is spilt. Still, Shadow recognizes the consequences of how the gods perceived the war and concludes that belief “…makes things happen” (Gaiman 477).
During the Vietnam War, a budding relationship between the conflict and media altered the way the American people viewed warfare as the misconceived image of heroic, young soldiers bringing justice to foreign land was shattered. In her article, The Iconography of violence: Television, Vietnam, and the Soldier Hero, Kathleen McClancy insists that the relationship between the coverage of the war and the public’s opinion of the war is not as simple as one would think. Violence was not regularly displayed on the news broadcast and even when the news coming out of Vietnam after Tet was less optimistic the media “… did not start depicting American servicemen as bestial, savage psychopaths” (McClancy 2). However, the footage from the Vietnam War challenged the masculine, warrior-like representation of the American soldier that had risen out of World War II. Soldiering was no longer portrayed as an exciting adventure and was revealed to be “…both mundane and arduous…” (McClancy 4). Gone were the men with chiseled faces, now the American people saw only “…tenuously socialized individuals” (McClancy 5). Over time, Americans became disillusioned to the idea that Vietnam was worth fighting for to stop the spread of communism. As their belief in the war faded, so too did the war effort.
American Gods cover several complex themes. It is a story about America, gods, myths, folklore, love, treachery, and immigration but everything discussed in the book comes down to belief. Neil Gaiman explores how we use our perception to make sense of the world, how it shifts over time, and the repercussions that come along with our perspectives.
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