The Symbolism of Birds in Z.Z. Packer’s The Ant of the Self

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The Symbolism of Birds in Z.Z. Packer’s “The Ant of the Self” In Western literature, birds are often used to symbolize humans. Birds’ anatomy, behavior, and perceived emotions combine to make the bird a useful symbol of humans, their thoughts, and their emotions. Z.Z. Packer adds to this list of more commonly used similarities between birds and humans by endowing the birds in her short story, “The Ant of the Self”, with the gift of speech. By doing so, Z.Z. Packer highlights her use of a squawking assortment of colorful African birds as a symbol for Spurgeon. The birds serve as a catalyst for the story, giving rise to Spurgeon’s and his father’s trip to the Million Man March. As the duo makes their way from Jasper, Indiana to Washington, D.C., Packer introduces a succession of likenesses between Spurgeon and the birds. These likenesses show the extent to which the birds function as a symbol for Spurgeon. Most importantly, however, the birds allow the reader to more intimately examine the father-son relationship between Ray Bivens Jr. and Spurgeon. Upon Ray Bivens Jr.’s forceful capture and caging of a colorful menagerie of African birds from his ex-girlfriend’s house, similarities between Spurgeon and the birds become apparent. These similarities are not accidental, nor are they surprising. Birds are often used as a symbol for humans not only because they possess great physical and behavioral human resemblance, but also because we believe that we are able interpret their thoughts. Birds lend themselves to becoming symbols because “they seem so like us in many ways” (Mynott 282). Mynott clarifies his statement that birds are “like us” by explaining that birds “have roundish heads with two eyes in front” and engage in behavior to which we believe we can relate (282). Mynott also acknowledges that birds can be bipedal. Because of these anthropoid physical traits and relatable behaviors, we are led to believe that birds experience feelings and emotions which are similar to our own. Perceived to be similar in so many ways, we further believe that we may interpret birds’ thoughts or feelings. The birds in The Ant of the Self are indeed used to symbolize a human. However, their similarities to a particular character, Spurgeon, go beyond these more general human similarities. Physically similar and behaviorally relatable, the birds in The Ant of the Self are also talking birds, and therefore symbolize Spurgeon. Like Spurgeon, the species which ZZ Packer mentions are talented speakers. While the talking birds are only able to screech nonsensical and out-of-place remarks such as “Advil works […] better than Tylenol,” this ability nevertheless sets them apart from other bird species (Packer 97). Spurgeon’s speaking ability also sets him apart from those of his own species. Spurgeon is a member of his school’s debate team, and is capable of speaking on “debate topic[s] like U.S.-China diplomatic relations,” a talent which sets him apart from his peers (Packer 86). In addition, the birds which accompany Spurgeon and his father on their trip to D.C. are of African descent. As an African American, Spurgeon is also of African descent. However, the birds’ symbolism for Spurgeon is not supported solely by the fact that they share ties to “the Motherland [Africa]” (92). Their symbolism is further supported by the fact that the birds’ and Spurgeon’s lives are similarly impacted by those ties to the Motherland. Because the birds are “real [African] birds” Ray Bivens Jr. believes that they will sell well at the “Afrocentric” (92) populated Million Man March, and therefore he cages and forcefully transports them to the March. Similarly, Spurgeon attends the March only because his “father made [him] come” (102). Had Spurgeon not been Ray Bivens Jr.’s son, and therefore not of African descent, he would not have been forced to attend the March. Z.Z. Packer furthers her use of the birds as a symbol for Spurgeon by exploiting the belief that...
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