I read this book in a Modern Novels course that I took my sophomore year of college. We read a book a week, meeting once a week for 3 hours. This class comprised of lots of discussion, both on the MyCampus internet site and in-class. Looking back, I didn’t particularly “like” most of the books we read, but I enjoyed this class immensely. You don’t have to like a book to have an appreciation for it.
I have read this novel probably 5 or 6 times since 2010. I find something new in it everything I read it. To say I love it, that is an understatement. Anyway, without further adieu, here is my in-depth analysis/thoughts on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, specifically looking at the concepts of fate and free will. Be warned, I will ruin the book for you if you haven’t read it yet.
The Christian tradition tells us that human beings have the divine entitlement to free will. While not all agree that there is a divinity at all, having the freedom to make one’s own choices is a right that is jealously guarded by our modern American culture. American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s novel about the war between the old and the new gods and Shadow Moon, the man who is caught in between, calls into question the theme of fate versus free will. Was Shadow a victim of fate with his choices already made for him, or was he given the free will to make a choice? The answer to both questions is “Yes.”
Shadow is being set up from the beginning of the novel. His cellmate, Low-Key Lyesmith, is none other than Loki, Wednesday’s partner. Loki and Wednesday masterfully play out their two-man con of starting a war between the old and new gods, roping Shadow into it so perfectly that it was almost seamless. At first, it seemed one big game of chance that Shadow even became involved with Wednesday. But he never had a chance, or a choice, at all. He was conceived by Wednesday for the very purpose of being a pliable pawn in Loki and Wednesday’s scheme. Wednesday tells him, “We couldn’t have done it with you… I needed you, my boy” (533).
“It was a dream, and in dreams you have no choices: either there are no decisions made, or they were made for you long before ever the dream began” (American Gods 303). This statement, made by the narrator during Shadow’s dream about the tower of skulls and the thunderbirds, embodies the fact that Shadow was controlled by Wednesday thus far. His entire situation was as a dream: all decisions had been made, the shots had already been called, and he was controlled by Wednesday’s every whim. There seems to be no escape for Shadow.
Laura, Shadow’s dead wife, brings some interesting insight to Shadow’s person. She, quite coldly, tells him that she liked Robbie because he wanted things and he filled the space. With Shadow, however, “it’s like there isn’t anyone there. You’re like this big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world” (371). Because he is just a pawn, and not making his own choices, Shadow is consequently reduced to being a mere “hole in the world.” Without his free will, which he really doesn’t even know he lacks, he is lacking his humanity as well. Laura tells him, “It must be hard not being alive. You’re not dead. But I’m not sure that you’re alive either” (371).
There comes a change in Shadow when Wednesday dies. When his body is picked up at the Center, and his pervasive influence begins to wear off, Shadow then begins to see his circumstances differently. He is no longer Wednesday’s lackey. True, Shadow did indeed keep vigil for Wednesday as was requested of him, but he made the conscious decision to do so. He was told multiple times by Czernobog and Mr. Nancy that he didn’t have to do it, but he did it anyway. Shadow makes the conversion from being a hole in the world to being alive.
As he hangs upon the tree, “A strange joy arose with within him then and. . .he exulted. He was alive. He had never felt like this. Ever” (460). In making his own choice to be tied to a tree in vigil over a god who had orchestrated the events from the beginning, he reaches the point of being truly alive. Hovering near death, Shadow finally senses what it means and feels like to be a living human being. Not just breathing and functioning, but truly living. In death, he finds the answers.
While Shadow’s choices were indeed limited, even made for him, by Wednesday and Loki, fate may have little to do with it. For as seen in any mythology, fate is above the gods themselves: the goddess Juno, in Virgil’s tale The Aeneid, has no choice but to submit to fate’s decree that Carthage will fall to Rome, even though she does everything within her power to stop it from happening. Even a goddess cannot trump the power of destiny. Even the gods could not control the outcome of the war like they had thought. Fate controlled everything, not the gods.
This entrance of fate is seen in Laura’s character. Was it an anomaly that Mad Sweeny gave Shadow the one coin that could have brought her back to an animated state, and that Shadow unknowingly reanimated her by dropping the coin in her grave? It was an accident. Yet the events of Shadow’s life hinge on that coin. Without Laura, Wednesday and Loki would have triumphed.
Laura was the one hiccup in their well-laid plan. Wednesday admits Shadow having a wife to return to was “unfortunate, but not insurmountable” (534). They orchestrated Laura’s death because they could not have foreseen him falling in love and marrying. Laura was fate’s instrument. She killed Wood, Stone, Town, and Loki, allowing Shadow to escape the railcar and end the battle unimpeded.
While the gods are subject to fate, they do have knowledge and influence that is superior to mere humans. Hinzelmann orchestrates events to bring Sam and Audrey to Lakeside to reveal Shadow’s presence because he knows who he is, and why he is there. Shadow tells him it was more than coincidence. He “doesn’t believe in coincidence anymore” (565). Kobold or god, these beings that were brought over by immigrants have an uncommon sort of power over normal human beings. Shadow says that “they get to break all the rules they want. We don’t. Even if I tried to walk out of here, my feet would just bring me back” (579). He knows that he has to keep his deal with Czernobog because when you make a deal with a god, you have to keep it.
“There was no magic forcing him to wait, he knew that. This was him. It was the one last thing that needed to happen, and if it was the last thing that happened, well, he was going there of his own volition” (581). At the end of the novel, Shadow has completed the transition from having his choices made for him to making them himself. He fulfills his obligation to Czernobog, and then goes to Iceland. He decides to keep moving, to continue on to places he has never been. The story leaves him on the fourth of July. Shadow has finally gained his independence.
All quotations/page numbers correspond to the 2003 Paperback edition of American Gods. You can find the book on Kindle for $9.99 and in paperback for $14.24 on Amazon.