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Recreating the Social Contract: JamesDickey's Deliverance Charles M. Redenius Aswith most good novels, Deliverance can be read at several different levels -as a harrowing adventure story, as a gripping account of the violent encounter betweencitified individuals and primitive, rural folk, as a searing look at group dynamicsin a stressful situation, and several more that come readily to mind. Sucha work can be enjoyed by audiences with widely differing interests. The multiple layers of Dickey's novel have, consequently, been the subject of numerous articles by scholars and critics. C. Hines Edwards, among others, notes that Deliverance is an initiation storyin which the principal characters must ''face the dark facts of human existencewhich because of the veneer of... civilization" often go unrecognized. Their experience in the woods brings them to "a realization of the natural savageryof man in nature," and to the bitter knowledge that "'viciousness is basicto human nature." 1 Paul Italia sees the novel as a tale of love and lust in which "sex is the energy that shapes all life."2 Percy Adams and Richard Finholtcharacterize Deliverance as an American epic; for them the essence of the story is whether the "reluctant hero" will be able to "conquer the hysteria that stalks us all."3 Nor do these studies even begin to exhaust the critical literature that has grown up around this novel. My purpose, however, is to scrutinize the ethical and political implications ofthe novel. At this level, Deliverance isa fascinating and compelling account ofa return to a state of nature, of the events that lead to a-shattering of the Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 17, Number 3, Fall 1986, 285-299 286 Charles M. Redenius social contract, of the ethical and political determinants that underpin the recreation of the social contract, and of the subsequent return to "civilization." These four stages form the framework for the paper. Each stage is depicted in the language of the author and then examined in the light of social-contract theory. The heart of the paper is a close analysis of the principal charactersDrew Ballinger, Ed Gentry, Lewis Medlock and Bobby Trippe-and of the ethical and philosophical positions they represent. Each person/position has both conflicting and divergent implications for society and the political order.4 A major thrust of the paper is an attempt to relate these characters, and the philosophical positions they stand for, to the Western political tradition. I will seek also to show how James Dickey has adapted that tradition to his vision of human nature and how that nature has been shaped by the American environment. The powerful appeal of Dickey's novel, the brilliant casting in the film version, and the financial success of the movie all strongly suggest that Dickey has struck some responsive chords embedded in the American psyche. Despite the obvious importance of these features and despite the attention they have received, they do not obscure the political implications of Dickey's work. As Evelyn J. Hinz notes, these features ring so true precisely because they tap deep-seated impulses rooted in the American mind. 5 These impulses reflect the early history of the United States, which was, from one perspective, a succession of struggles in the wilderness between native Indians and emigrant Europeans. Put in the language of political theory, especially social-contract theory, these struggles can be seen as a conflict between those groups still existing in the state of nature and those who have formed a civil society. In this sense, Deliverance recalls the effort to "civilize" America. Thus, for my purposes, the novel succeeds so notably because it offers penetrating insights into the political values forged by the American experience. * * * Dickey opens the novel with a somewhat languid rendering of the circum· stances that lead to an outing in the woods. This portrayal contains no hint of the horrors and the life-threatening dangers that will ensue. What begins asa weekend canoe trip that pits four middle-aged urban dwellers against a wild river appears on its surface to be merely an opportunity to escape what Lewis viewsasdebilitating domesticity. Given his rather mundane job, Lewishungers for some real challenges and danger in his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 285-299
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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