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NOTES THE WILDERNESS REVISITED: IRONY IN JAMES DICKEY'S DELIVERANCE Charles E. Davis University of North Carolina, Greensboro Most critics and readers of James Dickey's best-selling novel Deliverance agree that it is an exciting adventure story, suspenseful and sometimes nerve-shattering in its impact. It is, however, much more than simply a superb instance of that genre: it also offers an important criticism of a theme that is both basic and pervasive in the American experience—the mystique of the wilderness. The American wilderness has from the beginning excited the imagination and stirred the romantic impulse of such writers as William Bartram in the eighteenth century, Fenimore Cooper in the nineteenth century, andWilliamFaulkner in the present century. Their fascination with the frontier, either literal or figurative, with the American Adam in a new Garden of Eden, with the noble savage, and with the pastoral quality of the forests has provided American literature with some of its most persistent and significant themes. It is toward this wilderness as well as toward the romantic notions it engenders that Dickey turns an ironic and critical eye in Deliverance. Although relatively consistent in praise of the book as adventure, critical reactions have been at best mixed in placing the novel as a significant work of art. At one extreme Benjamin DeMott dismisses the book as "entertaining, shoot'em-up mindlessness."1 Anthony Thwaite's assertion that "The old frontier spirit is resurrected and perverted"2 is echoed by Fredric Jameson, who believes the book reflects the notion "of the necessity of violence, both on the individual and the social level."3 Convinced that the hero, Ed Gentry, has killed the wrong man, Peter Beidler laments that "the novel shows what a monster a man becomes when he takes upon himself the roles of prosecuting attorney, jury, judge, and executioner."4 Stressing the ambiguity of the actions in the novel, C. T. Samuels believes that it is not clear "whether the voyagers triumph over the evil . . . or whether they become 'countermonsters ' when forced by monstrosity. . . ."5 This ambiguity is so 224Notes pronounced to Paul Gray as to leave him unsure of the book's themes: "The reader wants to know whether he is meant to share with the author an ironic apprehension of Gentry's behavior or whether he and the author have parted company, and the text simply does not offer sufficient evidence on the point."8 In perhaps the most perceptive essay that has yet appeared on the novel, Glen Love states a reversal that might shed light on the ambiguities discussed by Samuels and Gray: "The 'crude, masculine aggressiveness,' invariably associated by Leo Marx with the machine, or civilization, is in Deliverance more appropriately applied to nature, while the normally 'tender, feminine and submissive attitudes' of nature are, except for a throwback like Lewis Medlock, most descriptive of the city men and their civilized life."7 Although somewhat oversimplified, Love's assertion does suggest the ironic reversals that are characteristic of the entire book. The imminent destruction of the wilderness (the river) by the forces of civilization (the dam) which undergirds the novel does not seem at first to be inconsistent with romantic treatments of the theme in the past. But this wilderness is mindless, flatly indifferent, impersonal; the lesson it teaches is apparently amoral. What Henry Nash Smith calls "the negative doctrine that civüization is wicked and the positive doctrine that untouched nature is a source of strength, truth, and virtue . . ."* is not applicable to the world of Deliverance. There is no Garden of Eden, no American Adam, no noble savage; the two mountain men who would presumably be closest to the natural state are in actuality the most depraved and corrupt, the least moral characters in the novel. There is, in fact, no great immemorial forest to which civilized man might return. The entire adventure from its inception is never considered as a journey to the wilderness but instead as a journey through the little that remains, a movement from one town, Oree, to another, Aintry. The answer to what the characters, most notably the narrator, Ed Gentry, leam from this experience is dependent upon the recognition...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 223-230
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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