‘‘The Medicine Bag’’ includes examples of both rounded and flat characters, sometimes also referred to as dynamic and static characters. A rounded or dynamic character in a story is one who changes and grows from the beginning to the end, whereas a flat or static character remains essentially the same throughout. Martin and Grandpa in ‘‘The Medicine Bag’’ are rounded characters. At the beginning of the story, Martin has a superficial appreciation of his Native American heritage, and he is embarrassed by his great-grandfather’s appearance and what he believes are odd ways. By the end of the story, as revealed by his actions, words, and thoughts, he has grown to value not only his great-grandfather but also the heritage Grandpa represents. In so doing, he has grown from a boy to a young man. Grandpa, on the other hand, although a rounded and well-developed character, changes more in the eyes of Martin than in reality. He is a wise, elderly man who wants to pass on his heritage to his grandson. He appears weak in the story, frail from his long journey and his advanced age. Yet by the end of the story the old man’s strength is apparent to not only Martin but also to readers as well.
There are also static characters in ‘‘The Medicine Bag.’’ This is not a failing of the writer; rather, in a story of this length, not all characters can undergo significant change. Rather, flat characters serve a particular function in the story and serve to highlight the changes taking place in the rounded characters. In this story, Martin’s friends are flat characters. Their function in the story is to listen to Grandpa’s stories and be impressed by the elderly man. Their respect for Grandpa teaches Martin that he, too, can value Grandpa and not be ashamed of his own heritage. Mom and Dad are also flat characters. Dad’s role is to demonstrate a respectful, loving father who, as a white man, values his wife’s heritage. Mom is important to the story, because it is through her family that Martin can claim his Native American heritage.
Thus, both rounded and flat characters contribute to the overall construction and thematic concerns of any story. By examining how rounded characters change and how flat characters function, a reader can broaden and deepen the experience of the story.
A symbol is an element or item in literature that stands not only for itself but also for something larger and more significant. The most important symbol in ‘‘The Medicine Bag’’ is, not surprisingly, the medicine bag Grandpa brings to Iowa to give to Martin. The medicine bag was constructed by Iron Shell, Grandpa’s father, in preparation for a vision quest. The bag, made of elk skin, contains several symbolic items, including a small rock from the butte on the Rosebud Reservation, sage leaves, and a small fragment of an iron cooking pot.
That Grandpa will only tell Martin about the medicine bag and its contents when they are alone, and that he does so ceremonially, adds to the significance of the symbols. It becomes clear that the small stone is representative of the connection to the land felt by Native Americans. In addition, sage is important in many Lakota rituals and is considered a purifying and protective element. While the first two items are somewhat generic, the third, the shell of an iron pot, is highly specific and significant for Martin.
Grandpa’s father had a dream about iron and later found a piece of a settler’s iron cooking pot while on his vision quest. He viewed both the dream and the iron shell to be symbolic, although he did not at first understand its meaning, particularly since the iron came from a white person’s cooking fire. Later, after he has been removed to an Indian boarding school run by white people, he discovers the skill of blacksmithing, a trade that provided him a living. Thus, for Iron Shell, the small piece of iron symbolized both the forceful influence of white people on his life and the direction his life would take. He learned to function in the white world, while still preserving his cultural heritage.
Likewise, the contents of the medicine bag have symbolic meaning for Martin. He is a boy who struggles with his Native American cultural identity. He also attempts to understand how this identity can coexist with his white identity. Through his great-great-grandfather’s iron piece, he integrates the two identities that constitute who he is.
Finally, the medicine bag itself is symbolic. It is simultaneously a physical object and something much more significant: Martin’s Native American heritage. By accepting the medicine bag from his great-grandfather and replacing the sacred sage two weeks later on the reservation, Martin demonstrates his acceptance of his Native American culture, heritage, and identity.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.