To Dare to Dream: The Characters of Danticat’s ‘A Wall of Fire is Rising’

“You can’t always get what you want.” Famous words from legendary rock and roll star Mick Jagger. What Mick Jagger forgot to say was “You can’t always get what you want, but you always want what you can’t get.” That is not to say that humankind can never be happy, but it is inherent in his nature to be unhappy. It is human to want something more in life. Many maintain that that is what separates humans from animals. No matter the stance on the debate, it is very well understood by all people that to dream is something entirely human. This is a point that is driven home throughout Edwidge Danticat’s “A Wall of Fire is Rising” Through character’s actions and reactions, namely Guy, Lili, and Little Guy, Danticat illustrates mankind’s ability to dream and the dramatic role it plays in their realities.
Guy is in many ways a tragic and flawed character. He struggles to do the honorable thing and whatever it takes to support his family, but in the end he finds himself wanting more. His wife tells him he is a good man because they are never hungry at the end of the day but this doesn’t satisfy him. He wants to do more than struggle through life. He’s a smart man, he should be excelling, or so he tells himself. Yet turning dreams into reality takes action and circumstances beyond his control. He can dream, but it is hopeless if he can’t turn his dreams of happiness into actualities. In killing himself Guy takes control of his life arguably for the first time ever. Ironically, it is also the last time. What makes Guy such a tragic character is the recognizability of men like Guy. Plenty of people know dreamers who long for something better in their lives. As previously stated, dreaming is a very natural and healthy thing to do. However, these dreams of a better life are recognized as dreams or goals, something to work towards. They provide a reason for people to get up and start a new day. Guy lets his wants rule him. It is not enough to be self-sufficient when he could be wealthy, the problem being that he could never be wealthy, the circumstances of his life prevent it. When Guy’s dreams are recognized as just that, merely dreams, he no longer feels the need to work towards anything, knowing that it will be fruitless. This leads to a very real interpretation of the philosophy that once a man’s dreams die, the man dies. It is Guy’s dreams that force him to kill himself in the end of the story. “I know because I remember my father, who was a very poor struggling man all his life. I remember him as a man that I would never want to be.” (261). His inability to reconcile himself with his own sense of failure drives him to climb out of the basket of the hot air balloon and fall to his death. Not only do his dreams drive him to his death, but they severely impact those that he leaves behind as well.
Lilli is one of the most important examples of this, as a woman who has been through Guy through it all. Obviously she wasn’t there to live the life of poverty that Guy’s father led, but she is aware of the circumstances that forced Guy to find solace in his dreams. However, she does what she can to prevent him from completely submerging himself in his dreams of happiness. She is obviously the most level headed thinker of the family, wanting what’s best for Guy throughout the story but also trying to impress upon Guy the happiness that can be found in family. After Guy has confessed his secret desire to her to fly away in the hot air balloon, Lilli remains the voice of reason. “If you were take that balloon and fly away, would you take me and the boy?” (261) Guy seems puzzled by the question, accusing Lilli of being contradictory. “I just want to know that when you dream, me and the boy, we’re always in your dreams. (261). It is lines of dialogue like these that give Lilli an interesting role in the marriage. She obviously encourages Guy to reach for the skies, but she finds it difficult to let go of her own insecurities to let him aim so high. It is entirely possible that she is projecting her own fears and doubts onto her husband, but it’s difficult to see this perspective after reading the conclusion and realizing that Guy did need that dose of reality that his wife always offered him. However, Lilli is not as clear cut as the wife who keeps her husband grounded, she is much more layered than that and she deserves to be understood as such. Although there is no real background to her character as Danticat establishes with Guy, there is definitely something in her past that has dramatically shaped who she is in the story. The author is the only real one who can explain what trauma forced Lilli to give up her dreams, but she has compromised her own pursuit of happiness as a coping mechanism. When Guy asks her if she ever wants something new, her reply is very abrupt and concise. “‘I don’t like it,’ she said.” (260). Even the author’s handling of her response is very curt, as if to suggest discomfort when the topic of dreams comes up. This is shown again at the end of the story after Guy has killed himself. The foreman tells her that her husband’s eyes are still open and would she like him to shut them or should she do it. “‘No, leave them open,’ Lilli said. ‘My husband, he likes to look at the sky’” (262). She speaks in fragments, giving her a voice that illustrates that her fears of dreaming have been confirmed in this moment, with the death of her husband.
Little Guy, on the other hand, represents a blend of his parent’s dominant personality traits. On one hand, his role in the play is like a dream come true. He’s obviously very excited about this as he makes it a point to tell his father immediately when Guy gets home. However, we see Lilli’s hesitance shine through in the boy as well when he wakes Guy and Lilli up in the middle of the night to tell them “I cannot remember my lines.” (258). Even though he has been rattling them off all day, he cannot remember them now. Little Guy represents the fact that dreams can be achieved, however the joy of achievement is a difficult one to hold onto. Little Guy is interesting because he adds a level of tension to the story. Here is Guy who is fed up and frustrated with the cards that life has dealt him, but for his son, Little Guy, everything seems to be coming up roses. Guy sees in his own child possibilities that Guy never saw for himself. Although Little Guy is not the reason that his father kills himself, he is an undeniable factor in Guy’s decision to end his own life whether it be Guy not wanting to be like his own father or Guy’s jealousy of his own son. However, it is impossible to tell what Little Guy will become as a result of these events since the story ends directly after. Little Guy has both his father’s dreams and his mother’s worries. For him, the possibilities are endless. One can only hope that Little Guy will not be afraid to dream like his mother, but have the ability to recognize the purpose of dreams, constantly motivating himself towards self-improvement rather than being downtrodden by the burden of his dreams and driven to self-destruction as his father was.
Edwidge Danticat’s “A Wall of Fire is Rising” tells the story of the power that dreams have to both harm and help in the lives of 3 of its characters, Guy, Lilli, and Little Guy. The author gives a great deal of complexity to the topic of dreaming. It discusses it as a crutch, a barrier, and even a powerful motivating force. Most importantly, he captures the humanity in dreaming. His characters don’t become real because of what they wear or how they move. Guy, Lilli, and Little Guy became real because of their desires and their ability to long for something better, something to strive for, and even something to die for.


2 thoughts on “To Dare to Dream: The Characters of Danticat’s ‘A Wall of Fire is Rising’

  1. What a wonderful depiction of humans and dreams and fears and insecurity. I know or have known too many people like guy, yet it is the dream we seek eternally. Thank you for this insightful post.

    • Thank you for your kind words.
      I’m glad you enjoyed reading this so much! I can’t recommend Danticat’s writing highly enough, if you ever get a chance to read some.

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