For Further Study
When James Dickey's Deliverance was published in 1970, it was an immediate critical and popular hit. Critics and the general public also applauded the movie that was adapted from the novel by Dickey and released two years later. These two accomplishments were considered outstanding achievements for a writer who before Deliverance was known for his poetry. Like a poet, Dickey identified themes and images in his novel that resonate throughout the American psyche. His novel consists of adventure, suspicion, and murder in a natural setting.
In the book, four ordinary suburban men take a canoe trip through the wild hills of north Georgia, hoping to get away from their regulated, sterile lives for a weekend. Along the way they are accosted by uncivilized backwoods dwellers, and the travelers soon find themselves dealing with murder, a cover-up, and more murder and deceit. With sweeping descriptions and precise details, Dickey portrays the development of the novel's narrator, Ed Gentry, as he learns the ways of the forest and the river in his fight for his own survival. As he becomes more primitive, Ed finds himself grateful for this opportunity to live life to its fullest.
James Dickey's life was remarkable for the number of his vocations, any one of which could have kept another person busy for a lifetime. He was a soldier, a teacher, a hunter, a novelist, and an advertising executive. Most of all, though, he was a poet, having produced a number of outstanding, award-winning volumes of poetry. Poetry was the main vocation that he claimed, and it was as a poet that he defined himself.
Dickey was born in 1923, in Buckhead, a suburb of Atlanta. His family was wealthy. In high school and college, he participated on the football team, but after his first year at Clemson, he enrolled in the Air Corps. During World War II, Dickey flew nearly a hundred missions in the Pacific. He claimed that it was while he was in the army that he started writing poetry, although he did not publish any until later. On returning from the war Dickey enrolled in Vanderbilt University, where he earned his bachelor's degree in English in 1949 and his master's in 1950. In 1956, teaching at the University of Florida, Dickey was in the middle of a controversy over a reading of his poem "The Father's Body," which some faculty members considered obscene. Angered by what he perceived as censorship, he went to work for a New York advertising agency, working his way up to an executive position before transferring to an Atlanta firm. While he was successful in advertising, he kept writing poetry. His first collection of poems, Into the Stone, and Other Poems, was published, and the following year, after winning a Guggenheim Fellowship, he quit advertising.
During the 1960s, Dickey was poet-in-residence at several colleges, and he published several more books, winning a National Book Award in 1966 for Buckdancer's Choice. In 1968 he became a professor of English at University of South Carolina, a position that he held until his death in 1997. Deliverance, his first novel, was published in 1970, and it became an immediate success. After the book's success and the success of the 1972 movie adaptation for which he wrote the script (and in which he appears briefly), Dickey became a popular speaker on college campuses, and he spent much of his time in the following years giving poetry readings. He wrote a poem for the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter in 1977, and published several volumes of poems for children. He published one more novel, Alnilam, in 1987, but it met with only modest critical success and lukewarm public attention.
James Dickey's novel Deliverance is about a canoeing trip that four men from suburban Atlanta take through the hills in the northern part of Georgia, where they encounter clannish, primitive people and hazardous natural conditions. Those who survive return to civilization feeling transformed by their experience. The novel starts out the day before the trip, with the four principal characters meeting in a bar to finalize their plans. Lewis Medford is the most dynamic of the group, the outdoorsman who has been to this river before, an avid hunter and fisherman. Bobby Trippe is a salesman of mutual funds, an amiable bachelor with a sarcastic sense of humor who enjoys comfort more than conquest. Drew Ballinger is a family man and a devoted employee of a huge soda pop company modeled on Coca-Cola. The narrator of the book is Ed Gentry: he is somewhat of an outdoorsman, in that he fires arrows for target practice with Lewis, but he is also a family man and a businessman, co-owner of an advertising firm. At the initial meeting all of the men agree to join Lewis, but each wants to bring one possession. Ed wants to bring his bow and arrows. Drew wants to bring his old Martin guitar. Bobby wants to bring liquor.
Ed goes back to his office, where he has to shoot photographs for a new ad layout. The ad, for a line of women's underwear, is to feature a young model wearing nothing but the underwear and holding a cat. While positioning her for the picture, Ed notices a peculiarity in her eye, a golden glow. As soon as it strikes him, "she changed completely: she looked like someone who had come to womanhood in less than a minute."
The first day of the trip starts with Ed waking in bed next to his wife, Martha. She questions whether it is her fault that he is going, if she is the reason he feels discontent with his ordinary life, and so they make love. Lewis comes soon after to pick him up, and they take off for the river. "Here we go," Lewis says as they take off, setting the tone for what's to come, "out of the sleep of mild people, into the wild rippling water." On the drive, they have a long discussion about their differing philosophies of life. For Lewis, life is a series of physical challenges, preparing himself for the day that society will break down and he and his family will have to survive on the canned goods and few other items that they have packed away in their fallout shelter. Ed explains his way of life as "sliding": living with the least friction, the most comfort.
In Oree, where they plan to take off, Bobby and Drew join them. They stop at a small country store to buy supplies and to hire someone to drive the cars down river so that they'll be there when the trip is done. At the store they meet a strange-looking albino boy, whose eyes look off in different directions. The boy plays a duet with Drew on his banjo, and gives the impression that he lacks intelligence, but he plays beautifully, providing a sign that something more artistic than intelligence is valued by the mountain people. At Griner Brothers' Garage, they are met with some hostility while trying to negotiate a price for having their cars delivered. Lewis is rough in offering less than what Griner is asking, but he also is confident in the honesty of these rural people and he fully expects the cars to be in the right place the next day. Both the old man at the grocery store and Griner express some skepticism as to why anyone would want to take a trip down the Cahulawasse River.
As the canoeists begin their journey, they glide through some peaceful scenery. They soon ride into a stretch of water filled with feathers and one decapitated chicken head as they pass a town with a chicken-processing plant. The water soon becomes calm and clean, and after a while they stop for the night. Their camp the first night is restful after hours of paddling. Drew plays the guitar, and they drink bourbon and eat steaks. During the night, an owl rests on top of Ed's tent, scratching through the nylon with its talons, like a mystical sign of nature seeking him out.
Before the others are awake in the morning, Ed goes out into the fog-enshrouded forest, where he sees a deer. He fires two of his four arrows at the deer, but psychologically he is unable to kill it—his head jerks just before the arrow flies. Ed takes Bobby as his canoe partner because Bobby is complaining about the discomfort of his tent and the blandness of the camping food, and Ed is afraid Lewis will not put up with his complaining. The day trip is slow and leisurely.
At one point in the afternoon, when Ed and Bobby stop on the riverbank to rest, two men with a shotgun come out of the woods. The unknown men ask Bobby and Ed what they are doing there; Bobby insults them, and Ed inadvertently insults them even more by implying that they may be moonshiners. The men make Bobby and Ed march back into the woods. There, they tie Ed to a tree and make Bobby take off his pants and stretch across a log, and one of the men rapes him. The other man is just about to rape Ed when an arrow shot by Lewis, who has found his friends being attacked, goes through him from behind. The other attacker runs off into the woods.
There is a debate about what to do with the dead man's corpse. Drew supports taking it to the next town and telling the local authorities what happened. They all agree, however, that that would lead to a jury trial, and that the jurors in this part of the state would look on the four men as malevolent strangers. As Lewis puts it, "I'm goddamned if I want to come back up here for shooting this guy in the back, with a jury made up of his cousins and brothers, maybe his mother and father too, for all I know." They eventually decide to take the body into the woods, up a stream that branches off of the river, and to bury it in a lonely place. With that done, they leave that spot as quickly as they can.
They travel well for about an hour. As they approach turbulent water, Drew jerks upright and drops his paddle, turning the boat over and sending himself and Ed into the rough water. After struggling to survive the rapids, being dragged under water, and crashed against rocks, Ed surfaces downstream and finds Bobby and Lewis also thrown from their canoe. Lewis is suffering from a broken leg and, at this point, there is no sign of Drew. With one wounded and only one canoe, they are faced with the prospect that the partner of the man they killed is on a hill above the river waiting to shoot them all. Ed decides that someone has to climb up the rock cliff, up to where the man with the gun is, and kill him with a knife or an arrow. Since Bobby is too out of shape to climb a cliff, and he does not know how to shoot an arrow, it is up to Ed to do it. He starts his climb, torturously feeling out handholds, and at one point he stops with absolutely nothing onto which he can hold and keep from falling. Just as his strength is about to give out, he finds the slightest crack in the rock under one of his fingers, and, with renewed hope, pushes himself up into an open crevice.
The last day of the trip begins with Ed in the crevice. After resting for a short while, he continues his ascent to the top and thinks about how he will kill the man. In thinking about him—who he is, what he wants, what assumptions he will make, and the way he will read the terrain—Ed realizes that he understands this man, that his mind knows exactly what he will do. At the top of the gorge, Ed looks for the place that the other man will think is the right place for shooting down at the river, and he climbs up a nearby tree and waits. A man with a shotgun comes along. Ed is not entirely certain that this is the man who was going to rape him, but when the man discovers him in the tree, he decides to move fast, and kills him with an arrow. The recoil of the shot makes him fall out of the tree, landing on the point of the other arrow, and he blacks out. When he awakens, he has to cut the arrow out of his side, and he tracks the trail of blood to find where the man has gone to die. After finding the body, he lowers it down from the top of the gorge with a rope and climbs down after it. He and Bobby tie rocks to the body and drop it out in the middle of the river.
After a while of proceeding down the river, they find Drew's body lolling against the shore. Neither Ed nor Bobby can tell if the wound on his head is a gunshot wound, or possibly a gash that he got rolling through the rapids. Lewis, near fainting from the pain of his broken leg, assures them that Drew's skull was grazed by a bullet. If it is a gunshot wound, the authorities will want to know who killed him and why, opening up an investigation into the other deaths. Thus, they tie rocks to Drew and drop his body in the river too. Further downriver, they decide on a place by a big yellow tree that they all will swear is where Drew fell out, so that the authorities will not go looking for his body anywhere near where he really is.
At a point where a road passes over the river, they stop the canoe, and Ed walks up the road until he finds a gas station. The attendant calls for an ambulance, which comes for him and then has him take them to Lewis. The county sheriff's deputy asks a few questions, and Lewis is taken to the hospital. At the hospital, a doctor also sews up the arrow wound in Ed's side, and then drives him to the cars, which the Griner brothers brought down to Aintry, as planned. Ed and Bobby spend the night at a boardinghouse in town.
In the morning the sheriff's department raises some questions about their story: Bobby had told them that Drew had fallen out of the second canoe, but that canoe was found further upstream from where they said Drew had been lost. One of the sheriff's deputies is very hostile to them. It turns out that this deputy's sister had told him that her husband went hunting in the woods, in the area where the men were canoeing, and that he had never come home. The deputy is certain that they had something to do with his brother-in-law's disappearance, but the sheriff does not take him seriously. Ed argues back with the deputy, challenging him to find some evidence or to leave them alone. The sheriff permits them to leave.
Arriving home, Ed is reluctant to tell his wife what happened. She is very understanding, helping him redress his wound, and she goes with him to break the news about Drew's death to his wife. In the years that follow, Ed dreams about the river, now dammed up to form Lake Cahula. Bobby leaves town, but Ed and Lewis remain friends.
Drew is a devoted family man who dies on the river. Before his death, he works for a large soft drink company and is loyal to them—he only shows anger when the company's good reputation is questioned. He is an excellent guitarist and brings his guitar along on the canoe trip, playing a duet with the banjo-playing albino boy at the grocery store where they stop for provisions. After the first death, it is Drew who argues for going to the authorities and explaining what has happened, but he is voted down by Lewis and the others. Further down the river, Drew falls out of the canoe just as they approach some rapids. Ed, who was sitting behind him, is not sure that he was shot, but Lewis says that he was. When his body is found later it is not clear whether the gash on his head was caused by a bullet or by a rock that he hit. While burying his corpse in the river, Ed says, "You were the best of us, Drew … The only decent one; the only sane one." Drew is survived by a wife and a son, Pope, who has a deformity, a "hornlike blood blister" on his forehead, which the narrator describes as a reminder of "the true horrors of biology."
Sheriff Bullard is the sheriff of Helms County, where the canoe trip takes place. When Ed and Bobby return with their story that they lost Drew "on the river," Sheriff Bullard is skeptical of their story, but he is even more willing to believe that the missing brother-in-law of his deputy has disappeared for some reason that is unrelated to them. "And buddy, let me tell you one thing," he says to Ed as they are parting. "Don't ever do anything like this again. Don't come back up here." In part, his advice is meant for the canoeists' safety, an acknowledgment of the close call that they had on the river, but it is also a thinly veiled acknowledgment that he knows there is probably something illegitimate about them that he just does not have the evidence to pursue.
Thad Emerson is Ed Gentry's business partner in Emerson-Gentry.
Dean Gentry is Ed's son.
The book's narrator, Ed Gentry is the vice president and art director for Emerson-Gentry, a small advertising agency. He is satisfied with his life before the trip, with his wife, Martha, and their son, Dean. He feels both that he is the master of his world and that he is enslaved by it. On the street after his lunch break, Ed looks around and finds himself surrounded by women, with no other men in sight. He develops an attraction for the Kitt'n Britches model who poses mostly nude for his camera, thinking of her periodically throughout the story. During the canoe trip, Ed is with Bobby when he is raped, and only escapes rape himself when Lewis intervenes. When Lewis is injured and Drew dies, it is up to Ed to take control of the situation, and from within himself he summons the mental and physical forces that allow him to scale a sheer cliff, kill a man, dispose of the body of a close friend, take control of the boat through raging rapids, and to boldly lie to the authorities about all that has happened.
Ed undergoes several changes while hunting the man that he thinks of as his enemy. At one point, he feels that his mind and the other man's have fused: "It was not that I felt myself turning evil, but that an enormous physical indifference, as vast as the whole abyss of light at my feet, came to me: an indifference not only to the other man's body scrambling and kicking on the ground with an arrow through it, but to mine." In shooting the other man he falls on his other arrow, which "opens him up," solidifying their spiritual union. After the trip, Ed fears when he hears a car outside that someone is coming for him, but he also feels a new source of strength for coping with the world. As he puts it, "The river underlies everything I do," including the art collages that he returns to making, years after having given up art, and the target archery that he still faithfully pursues.
Martha Gentry, an ex-nurse, is Ed's wife.
Griner is one of the proprietors of Griner Brothers' Garage. The men hire the two Griner brothers, plus a third man, to drive their cars down to the Aintry so that they will be there when the canoe trip is finished. Lewis bargains for a price with Griner, talking him down. He is confident that the backwoods people will be true to their words once the bargain is agreed upon. When the ambulance takes them back to Aintry after being treated in the hospital, both cars are there. Ed is certain to make sure that Griner gets the message that the rest of the money promised to him will be delivered.
George Holley is a former employee of Ed's advertising agency who took his artistry seriously, which made Ed uneasy. He hung prints of paintings by French painter Maurice Utrillo in his cubicle and "was always talking about applying Braque's collage techniques to the layouts we were getting ready for fertilizer layouts and wood-pulp processing plants." Sometime after the river journey, Holley is rehired by the agency, where he becomes a fan of Ed's art collages and becomes Ed's best friend, next to Lewis.
Kitt'n Britches model
Early in the novel Ed has a photo shoot at his advertising agency for an ad for a line of women's underwear, Kitt'n Britches. He photographs a young woman wearing only her underpants, holding a cat. She has an irregularity in her eye, a "gold-glowing mote" that Ed thinks about several times during the canoe trip, comparing it to the moon's reflection on the water as a source of inspiration. After the trip, he mentions having taken her out for dinner a few times and having worked with her again on some occasions before losing interest.
Lonnie is the strange albino boy who plays a duet with Lewis on his banjo. Despite the fact that he is apparently retarded, his banjo-playing is impressive.
- Deliverance was made into a major motion picture in 1972, with Burt Reynolds as Lewis, Jon Voigt as Ed, Ned Beatty as Bobby, and James Dickey himself in the minor role of Sheriff Bu-ford. The script was written by Dickey and the film was directed by John Boorman.
- James Dickey is included on Caedmon's six-audio-cassette package, Contemporary Authors Reading from Their Own Works, along with Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Updike, and Tennessee Williams. Released in 1955, the cassettes were re-released in 1973.
- An interview of Dickey talking about Deliverance is available on a 1987 audio-cassette from New Letters.
Lewis tells a story about a time when he was canoeing with Shad Mackey: Shad went off into the woods by himself and didn't return by nightfall. In the meantime, Lewis had made the acquaintance with one of the backwoods mountain men. The mountain man sent his son out into the darkness to find Shad, and eventually he brought him back with a broken leg. After he tells the story, Ed says that he never liked Shad very much, and Lewis agrees: "Not a good man. Drinks too much in an uncreative way. Talks too much. Doesn't deliver enough, either on the river or in business or, I'm fairly sure, in bed with his wife or anybody else, either."
Tom McCaskill is a legendary wild man in the forest. Every few weeks, legend has it, McCaskill takes a jug of liquor out into the woods, lights a fire, gets drunk, and lets out loud, piercing screams.
Lewis Medlock is the person who thinks up the canoe trip, the only one of the group to have any experience on the Cahulawassee River. He is a real estate man and a landlord. He is also an outdoorsman, bowhunter, and weightlifter, who is driven to mastering new challenges and excelling at physical tests. In regard to Lewis's devotion to physical activity, Ed says, "He had everything life could give, and he couldn't make it work. And he couldn't bear to give it up or see age take it away from him, either, because in the meantime he might be able to find what it was he wanted, the thing that must be there, and subject it to his will."
It is clear that Ed idolizes Lewis because he keeps seeking his approval, which he accepts like a blessing. To a limited extent, his idolization is justified. Lewis is cool under pressure, as when he appears out of nowhere, godlike, at the moment of Ed and Bobby's worst nightmare, to kill an armed man with his bow and arrow. When they go down the rapids, though, Lewis is incapacitated by a broken thighbone: while in an earlier chapter he had talked about walking three miles through the woods with a broken leg to safety, he spends the last half of this book in a pain-induced, feverish delirium. He speaks with complete confidence and lucidity when he declares the wound on Drew's skull to be from a gunshot grazing him, although Ed, possibly having lost some of his hero-worship, continues to have doubts about his assessment. At the end of the book, some time after the canoeing trip, Ed and Lewis own cabins on Lake Cahula, "on the other side of the state," and they shoot archery together. As a result of the trip, Lewis ends up with a mellower, more spiritual, personality: "he knows dying is better than immortality."
Deputy Sheriff Arthel Queen
Arthel Queen is the deputy sheriff of Helms County. Deputy Queen suspects right away that there is something false about the story that the men tell when they arrive back in civilization. He links them to the disappearance of his brother-in-law, saying that he has "a feeling" about their involvement, "And I ain't ever wrong about that." Ed is as forceful in his opposition to Deputy Queen as the deputy is about his insistence of their guilt. He calls Queen a "little bastard" and tells him, if he doubts that the river killed Drew, that he should "get [his] stupid ass on it and see for [him]self." The sheriff treats Deputy Queen as a fanatic who is blaming the men because they are "city fellows," implying Queen's deep country roots.
It is uncertain, but likely, that the man that Ed Gentry kills on top of the bluff is Benson Stovall. Deputy Queen's brother-in-law Benson is declared missing from the woods at the time that Ed kills the man; the man Ed kills has a card in his pocket saying that his name is Stovall and that he is a deputy sheriff of Helms County (although, as Lewis once pointed out, nearly everyone living in that region is a deputy sheriff); also, the man Ed shoots has dentures, which does not agree with his memory of the gruesome teeth on the man who assaulted them earlier. It is Sheriff Bullard's opinion that Benson, the deputy's brother-in-law, is not actually hurt. "Aw, he'll come in drunk," he tells Ed. "He's a mean bastard anyway. Old Queen's sister'd be better off without him. So would everybody else." Whether or not Benson and Stovall are the same person (a question Ed could easily clear up by asking the brother-in-law's last name), there is still a wide-open question about whether or not he was the one who participated in the molestation in the woods.
Bobby Trippe is the weakest member of the group. He is overweight and out of shape, a bachelor with a perpetual good mood; a "born salesman." Bobby's one condition for this canoe trip is that he has to bring liquor along. After the first night on the river, he is the one who becomes exasperated—on the first morning he wants to give up and go home because of all of the discomforts. Ed takes Bobby in as his canoe partner because he is afraid that Lewis will become too impatient with Bobby's weakness. When they are accosted by two backwoodsmen, Bobby angers them with a facetious re-mark, and they end up sodomizing him. When Ed has to climb the cliffside to kill the man they think is stalking them, he orders Bobby to move out in the canoe in the first light. When he sees the canoe on the river later in the morning, he aims the gun he is holding at Bobby's chest. Back in civilization, Bobby proves quite adept at sticking to the lies that Ed has ordered him to follow. In the end, months after the incidents on the river, Ed says that "he had returned to the affable, faintly nasty manner he had always had, and I was as glad as not to leave him alone; he would always look like dead weight and like screaming, and that was no good to me." Ed hears from acquaintances that Bobby eventually moved to Hawaii.
Wilma is the secretary of Ed's business partner, Thad. She is mentioned only twice, with references to her mouth. In the early scene at the advertising agency she is referred to as "meanmouthed," and, when Ed is preparing to tie a rope to the body of the man he killed and lower it down the cliff, the dead face irritates him: "irritates me more than anything had in a long time; irritated me more than the set of Thad's secretary's—Wilma's—mouth and her tiresome, hectoring personality posing as duty."
Strength and Weakness
Lewis is, without a doubt, held up in this novel as an ideal of masculine strength. The narrator describes him as "one of the strongest men I had ever shaken hands with," and repeatedly points out the trials of physical endurance with which he challenges himself. Even more importantly, though, is that he is presented as having the psychological strength to overcome difficulty. His physical strength, as Lewis himself explains it, is just a tool to prepare him for a time he foresees in the near future when society will collapse, when people who rely on their social skills and positions will find themselves unable to survive. "Life is so fucked-up now, and so complicated, that I wouldn't mind if it came down, right quick, to the bare survival of who was ready to survive." One apocryphal story of Lewis's strength is when he broke his leg in the woods while fishing by himself and hopped three miles to his car. He then used a stick to push the gas pedal to drive it. On the canoe trip, though, the break in his leg is much more severe, up near the thigh: he does talk when spoken to, but for the most part the pain overcomes his strength, causing him to vomit and pass out.
Topics for Further Study
- Research the Depression-era Tennessee Valley Research the Depression-era Tennessee Valley Authority dam project, referred to in the novel as TVA. Report on how river damming affects rural life.
- In the end, Ed Gentry returns to his artistic interests, producing collages from newspaper pictures. Paste together a collage that you feel represents this novel, with pictures and headlines that capture the essence of particular moments.
- When he is taking aim at the mountain man, Ed explains that one must aim higher than seems necessary when one is shooting from above their target. Explain this fact.
- "I think machines are going to fail, the political systems are going to fail, and a few men are going to take to the hills and start over," Lewis tells Ed early in the story. Today, this view is even more prevalent in our society than it was when this novel was written. Research a separatist militia that Lewis might have joined, looking for points where their philosophy might disagree with his.
- Organize a class debate about whether hunting with a bow and arrow is morally superior to hunting with firearms.
- Hold a trial for Ed, Bobby, and Lewis for the murder of Deputy Queen's brother-in-law and/or for murdering Drew. Imagine what evidence, besides the actual bodies, an investigation might bring up. Try to convince jurors of possible motives for these crimes.
Bobby, on the other hand, is the novel's example of weakness. He is fat and talkative: he "would not have been displeased if someone called him a born salesman." By the second morning of the trip, Bobby is complaining that he wants to go home, that the food is bad, and the tent is uncomfortable. As the story continues, Bobby and Ed are confronted by two rugged men who victimize them—one even rapes Bobby. Lewis, the strong character, comes to Bobby and Ed's rescue by sneaking up during the attack and killing Bobby's rapist.
Rites of Passage
The canoe trip represents a ritual that transforms Ed, the narrator, several times along the way. On the morning that he leaves home, while in Lewis's car, he contemplates the difference he sees in himself: "We were not—or at least I was not—what we were before." Later, when Ed relates the story of missing the deer with his arrow, he tells Lewis that he wishes Lewis had been there to take the shot, showing a confidence in Lewis's hunting skills. This confidence proves well-founded when Lewis is later able to kill a mountain man with one perfect shot through his back.
The rite of passage continues for Ed as he climbs up the rock cliff in an effort to stop the attacker. During this strenuous exertion, Ed recognizes that he is an element of nature, which helps him make a more difficult shot than Lewis did. The wound he incurs after killing the supposed attacker transforms Ed: "There had never been a freedom like it. The pain itself was freedom, and the blood." The arrow that he falls on, as he mentions several times, "opened" him up. For the rest of the trip Ed has increased awareness of the forces of nature, especially of the river. He has little patience for social amenities: he bullies and threatens Bobby and the Deputy Sheriff Queen. In the end, Ed reflects on how the river, which has been destroyed by the dam, still exists within his mind, and the friend and the enemy who were buried in the river are buried within his mind, too.
In this story, Ed goes through a process in which he finds himself identifying with different elements in the forest. The first night an owl lands on his tent, Ed reaches up and touches its talon. After that he imagines he can see what the owl sees when it flies up over the woods, hunting prey. When the men are carrying the body of the rapist upstream, Ed feels his identity meld with those of his three friends: "I bound myself with my brain and heart to the others; with them was the only way I would ever get out." When the canoe is turned over, he is thrown into the tumbling rapids and he feels himself "fading out into the unbelievable violence and cruelty of the river, joining it." From that point on he is as violent and uncaring as nature, a killer. While hunting the man that he expects to find up on the bluff, Ed feels his mind "fuse" with the other man, so that he can anticipate his actions and predict where he will be and when. This fusion is so complete that after the man is dead Ed takes his gun and aims at Bobby, as the man would have. It is so complete that when he returns to the canoe, Ed talks like a backwoods man: "I killed him, and I'd kill him again, only better," he tells Bobby.
Trying to decide what to do once the first backwoodsman is dead, Lewis asks if anybody knows anything about the law. The best that the four men can come up with is that Drew was on a jury once. When Drew later points out that the murder of their first attacker is a matter for the law, Lewis responds, "You see any law around here? We're the law." The multiple killings in this book take place out in the wilderness, where the laws of courts and the judicial system do not apply, and these four men are left with the problem of determining justice themselves. The first killing is clearly justified—he had committed a heinous act, and was about to commit another. It becomes a little more complex regarding the man who may have shot Drew from the ridge—was it justified? A life for a life? By the time that Ed ascends the cliff and kills a man on top, the law of nature that commands self-preservation forces him to ignore the complication that this might not be the right man. When they return to civilization, they feel that the rights granted by the fight for survival still protect them, and they lie brazenly to the authorities who they feel have no right to question their actions.
Dickey's fictional stretch of the Cahulawassee River between Oree and Aintry of Helms County, Georgia, is a thinly veiled version of the Coosawatee River between Ellijay and Carter's Quarters in Georgia's Rabun County. This setting is ideal for the story. The river has multiple levels of significance. It is a metaphor for the flow of life, for the lifeblood that flows through veins the way that water threads through a gorge. It represents the passage of time and becomes a character in the novel, with its own particular moments of anger and acts of kindness. It is a mirror of the narrator's subconscious, with bodies buried beneath its surface, and it can be interpreted as a culture on the verge of being sunk by the technology that dams its path. Dickey uses a setting that allows for the presence of scary, uncivilized characters; transportation that leaves the main characters vulnerable; and a body of water that moves the characters briskly from one situation to the next. Most importantly, the state of Georgia provides a stark contrast in setting in just a few hours of travel, from suburban Atlanta to the most primitive part of the Appalachians.
Ed is the narrator, and is able to understand and explain the thoughts and actions of each character. Ed points out that Drew, the father of a deformed son, is the one who has the most invested in corporate life—he is offended if a competitor makes an false comment about his employers, and he shows his commitment to his company by keeping the company's official history on his coffee table at home. Although Ed prides himself on his company's nonassertiveness, he still is a vice president and co-owner, and by definition a corporate man. He is also a father, like Drew. Ed is less open about what he has in common with Bobby in his narration, possibly because there is so little admirable about him—he is a joker and a slick socializer, entirely inappropriate for the events of the weekend. Ed does note that Bobby "gave me the impression that he shared some kind of understanding with me that neither of us was to take Lewis too seriously." Though Ed's view of Lewis is critical at times, the bond between Ed and Lewis is strong, bordering on sexual. In his narrative, Ed is able to provide insight on Lewis and his intense love for the wilderness. It is thought that another narrator, such as Bobby, who also survives the trip, may not have represented the ideas of all of the men with as much understanding.
A doppelganger is a character that represents the mirror image, or the dark, evil side, of another character's personality. Often in literature they are ghosts or other supernatural spirits used by authors to make protagonists come to grips with the aspects of themselves that they would like to ignore. In Deliverance, the mirror image to which Ed is bound is the man on the ridge. In order to hunt him, Ed finds that he has to become him, to some extent: he has to think just like him and read the signs just like the other man would. "I had thought so long and hard about him that to this day I still believe I felt, in the moonlight, our minds fuse," Ed tells the reader. After he has shot the man (and, incidentally, given himself an arrow wound at the same time, further indicating their bond), Ed tracks him down by crawling along the ground, feeling his blood, and even smelling it at times. Sometimes he finds what might be his own blood, and he has to assertively remind himself, "You haven't been here yet," uncertain of whether he is himself or the other man. Standing over the dead body of the other man, Ed considers eating him, as a primitive act of incorporating the man's spirit into his own.
It is difficult to separate many of the more poignant aspects of this adventure from their meaning. The banjo/guitar duet, for example, may be considered symbolic of the union of a civilized human with one who is inbred, but it could also be considered an actual, not a symbolic, relationship. One symbol that is mentioned consciously, and has no other purpose in the narrator's life except symbolism, is the half-moon mote that he sees in the eye of the Kitt'n Britches model. From the very first, this image is talked about as something that goes beyond its obvious significance: "it hit me with, I knew right away, strong powers," the narrator says. "It was not only recallable, but would come back of itself." This might be a symbol of beauty, longing, or the mysteries of the world. Or it may be a combination of all three. As he proceeds down the river, Ed sees this symbol in the moon on the water and, strangely, in the "yellow-tinged eyeballs" of the man who nearly rapes Ed. In the end, Ed says that the girl's "gold-halved eye had lost its fascination. Its place was in the night river, in the land of impossibility."
Aftermath of Civil Rights
In recent years, "militias" of white men in camouflage fatigues, gathering at camps in the woods to learn to protect themselves with weapons and survive on the land, resistant to government intrusion, have become common. Separatists who have attracted national attention include the Weaver family that had an armed confrontation with federal agents at Ruby Ridge in 1992; the Branch Davidian followers of charismatic religious leader David Koresh, whose standoff against Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents ended in the incineration of their bunker in 1993; and Timothy McVeigh, convicted of the bombing of a federal office building in 1995. Sociologists explain the behaviors of these and other groups like them as stemming from the sense of betrayal felt by white males after the civil rights advances made by women and minorities in the 1960s, which they feel diminished their social advantage.
Compare & Contrast
- 1970: Americans are beginning to realize that the natural environment is in danger. The first Earth Day celebration is held on April 21. The Environmental Protection Agency is established and the Clean Air Act is passed.
Today: Recycling is a way of life for most Americans, who realize that the water, earth and sky are closed systems that cannot continually accept refuse.
- 1970: The idea that drugs and music offered freedom from society's confining rules lost much of its credibility when Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, both twenty-seven years old, die of drug overdoses.
Today: High-profile celebrities still die of drug overdoses, but popular musicians are seen less as emblems of freedom and more as corporate products.
- 1970: Several college campuses are closed in the spring because of riots protesting the Vietnam War. At Kent State, in Ohio, National Guardsmen open fire on protesters, killing four.
Today: During the Gulf War and the military action against Bosnia in 1999, public opposition never rises to significant levels. Reasons for this include: both actions are over quickly; they are air wars, with Americans dropping bombs instead of dying in combat; and the government is more careful about limiting media access.
- 1970: A special jury rules that a 1969 raid of the apartment of the Black Panthers, a revolutionary group, is justified, even though there is little evidence that anyone in the apartment fired back at the barrage of gunfire from the police.
Today: The "underground" movement is more like what Lewis Medford imagines in Deliverance: people live in uncultivated areas of the country and train themselves in survival skills, waiting for the government to collapse.
- 1970: The characters in the novel worry about the modern world becoming too complicated, encroaching on the individual's identity. Computers are run by integrated circuit boards, making them huge and slow, suited only for businesses. The first microchip, the Intel 4004, is introduced the following year.
Today: Computers have made it possible to hold the information from shelves of books on a small disk. There is controversy about whether a wallet-sized card loaded with an individual's medical history would be helpful, in case of accidents, or subject to invasion of privacy abuse.
At the start of the 1960s, positions of power in America were controlled, with few exceptions, by people who were white and male. The Civil Rights movement had made some gains for blacks in the 1950s, but these were mostly gains in the rights to participate in public discourse. The 1956 boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, changed the segregation rules, but that only allowed African Americans to ride buses. The landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. the Board of Education led to outlawing segregation in schools, but it did not guarantee blacks an equal place in society. The slow progress toward racial equality and the opposition of southern Congressional leaders to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination on the basis of color throughout the country led to frustration by blacks and the growing need to make their frustration noticed. In urban areas, race riots broke out throughout the latter 1960s, including the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965; Chicago and Cleveland in 1966; and 127 U.S. cities in 1967. Black militants called for burning cities to the ground and killing police.
At the same time that blacks were becoming more vocal, the Women's Movement was on the rise. Much has been made of the fact that the widespread availability of the birth control pill in the 1960s gave women the freedom to explore sexuality without fear of unwanted pregnancy. It was a time of heightened consciousness about the rights of people who had previously been thought happy in subservient roles. The Women's Movement flourished in the 1960s. In 1966, the influential National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed, with activist Betty Friedan as its first president. The practice of burning bras to show freedom from shackles of confinement reached its peak in 1968. From 1964 to 1974, the divorce rate doubled, as married women from traditional homes realized that they could survive in the world without their husbands.
To white males, the advances toward liberation made by blacks and women seemed to be made at their expense. Civil rights protesters, as well as the young protesters on college campuses who opposed the war, targeted the people in power as the ones who had to be overthrown. White men were the faces of the enemy for an increasingly violent minority as they were the ones holding the political and economic power. For Lewis and Ed, who had grown up expecting to rule society with their white male friends, the civilized world had become hostile to them, causing them to become nostalgic for what they perceived to be an order closer to nature. In the natural world, they believed they could bond with others of their kind without being perceived as infringing on anyone's rights.
The Rural Poor
In the early 1960s, just after establishing the Peace Corps, President John Kennedy's administration had the idea to establish a National Service Corps to deal with similar problems on home soil. The idea was approved by the Senate, but the Congress objected and refused to provide funding. After Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson came into office. One of Johnson's greatest concerns was his War on Poverty program. The premise of the program was that poverty in America could be eliminated. Johnson was more effective than Kennedy at getting domestic programs passed by Congress, and in 1964 the Economic Opportunity Act was passed.
The Economic Opportunity Act created several well-known programs, including Head Start and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). For a commitment of only one year and poverty-level wages, volunteers would be sent to poor areas of the country to teach, to help organize systems of self-help societies, and to work on community improvement. Among the projects that were aided by VISTA were credit unions, adult education programs, block watch clubs, and agricultural cooperatives.
Although the scope of the VISTA program included helping poor people in all fifty states, Americans came to associate the program with the rural poor. One reason was that VISTA advertisements often showed striking images from Georgia's Appalachian mountains or Kentucky's coal region, in order to impress viewers with the depth of poverty in this country (urban poverty, on the other hand, was explored nightly on the news). Also, there was a scandal with VISTA in Kentucky, where the governor charged members of the organization with sedition (the crime of inciting rebellion against the government). The VISTA program hit its high point in the early 1970s, but then dwindled. The Reagan Administration in the 1980s dismantled the budget for training and recruiting, but the program stayed alive, just barely. One of President Clinton's priorities when he took office was to revise the volunteerism that Kennedy had stressed, so he implemented the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1992, which incorporated VISTA and similar volunteer programs under the name Ameri-Corps.
Critics were very impressed with Deliverance when it was published in 1970. Geoffrey Wolff, reviewing the book for Newsweek, expressed appreciation for Dickey's craftsmanship, referring to his characterization of the four men in the story as "limned flawlessly by a few broad strokes," and the book as a whole as "rich with country lore and superb lyrical evocations of the wilderness, as we should expect from Dickey." Time's reviewer praised Dickey for achieving "a small classic novel in which action and reflection are matched and a man's return to primitive produces some lasting fragment of interior knowledge." This review did find some fault with the way the novel slowed almost to a standstill, steeped in symbolism, during Ed's climb up the bluff to kill the stranger. "No single action is impossible to believe, but the accumulation—it eventually involves his singing a sort of victory song over the body and then lowering it from the cliff—is just a bit too much." This criticism is limited, however, because "the lapse is short."
Writing for The New Yorker, L. E. Sissman was completely swept up by what Dickey had achieved. He ended his review with glowing praise: "Having constructed his first novel, which brilliantly achieves what it sets out to do, and having given us a breathtaking adventure that is also an acute comment on America, Mr. Dickey has discharged his responsibilities as a first novelist with power, skill and grace."
Benjamin DeMott, in The Saturday Review, went beyond simply reviewing the book; he looked at it within several contexts: as it fit into Dickey's writings in general, as well as how it fit into the "More Life" school of literature. His essay, several pages long, only began evaluating the text near the end, where he identified the book's premise as a growing confrontation between Lewis's romantic self-importance and Ed's complacency with modern life. DeMott wrote: "Bringing off such a confrontation in a novel requires patience, humor, a speculative cast of mind and (most obviously) an interest in both normative and extreme experiences. Mr. Dickey doesn't bring the confrontation off." Instead of a conflict of values, DeMott noted an avoidance of conflict by having Lewis injured and having Ed instantly, almost magically, absorbing his worldview. "The result," DeMott wrote, "is that in place of a novel, where qualities of character and understanding are set in full view, compared and assessed, the reader is offered an emptily rhetorical horse-opera played in canoes."
Modern critics continue to struggle with the problem of balancing the book's mysterious implications with the desire to avoid over-intellectualizing. Keen Butterworth, writing in The Southern Literary Journal in 1996, established the characters as representatives of Freud's understanding of the psyche's id, ego, and superego, although he noted that "[i]n my own conversations with Dickey, however, he has denied that he was conscious of this division of the Freudian paradigm among the four characters of the novel. If this is so, an interesting possibility is raised: Freudian metaphor has become so imbedded in modern thought that it often functions today at a subliminal level."
William G. Tapply, writing for a less intellectual audience in The Armchair Detective talked about having read the novel when it was first out and then rereading it recently, concluding that it is "a perfect book." Remembering the times that he was forbidden to teach Deliverance to his high school English classes because of its subject matter, Tapply took consolation from the fact that Huckleberry Finn has frequently been banned from schools and libraries too. He found no question that its quintessentially American themes make it an important part of the country's literature. If Dickey had been able to produce another novel of similar quality, his reputation as a novelist might have been secured, but as it stands Deliverance is usually discussed in literary circles as an outstanding achievement for a poet.
Kelly is an instructor of creative writing at Oakton Community College and College of Lake County. In this essay, he suggests that, despite its grim subject matter, Deliverance actually follows a common comic structure.
Reading the last part of Deliverance, you get a funny feeling. Not "funny" as in odd, but the actual feeling that there is some sort of offensive dark comedy being played out with a perfectly straight face. James Dickey certainly isn't trying to amuse the audience—humor isn't this novel's reason for existing—but that does not mean that it can't stumble into some common comic strategy. There are all kinds of comic devices, such as wordplay and pratfalls and mistaken identities and an infinite variety more. One motif that comes up frequently in comedy is the humor that stems from watching a character ignore the perfectly obvious. In Deliverence Ed Gentry ignores the unignorable with a moral density that invites readers to laugh at him.
Usually in film and on stage this kind of humor from ignorance involves a character standing in the foreground, calm and collected, feeling he or she has life in control, while in the background the most incredible events take place. Often the background events involve danger to the oblivious party: a wrecking ball that swings over a man's head when he stoops to pick up a penny, or a tiger in the chandelier whose growl is never recognized for what it is. The last chapters of Deliverance operate on this same comic principle. Astute readers spend the end of the book with their jaws dropped, amazed at Gentry, wondering just when the seriousness of what he's done will register. The threat that Ed Gentry isn't perceiving is that he quite probably killed an innocent man, someone who showed up where he wanted a killer to be at the time he was expecting the killer to appear. Guilt may not sound like a threat to him—it's certainly not as pressing as being picked off by a rifle shot to the head, which he fears when he kills the man—but for all of his moral posturing and claims of heightened awareness, he should be able to see that there is a difference between killing the right man and killing the wrong one. Failing to consider his probable guilt makes him a comic straight man, a stooge of his own obsessions.
What Do I Read Next?
- Many of the situations in Deliverance are reminiscent of the struggle between man and water presented in The Old Man and the Sea, often considered Ernest Hemingway's best book. The 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the story of an old fisherman and his struggle to stay alive while battling against nature in his small, primitive boat.
- Contemporary poet Robert Bly has explored the theme of masculinity in his best-selling 1990 book Iron John: A Book about Men, where he mixes psychology, myth anthropology, and literature to explain his theory of male sexual aggressiveness.
- Dickey's son, Newsweek Paris Bureau Chief Christopher Dickey, has published his memoir of life with his father. He especially focuses on the summer of 1971, when Deliverance was being made into a movie. He paints a portrait of a flawed, hard-working man in Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son, published in 1998 by Simon and Schuster.
- Many critics have compared the trip down the river that reveals the horrors of base instinct over intellect in this novel to the trip made by Joseph Conrad's Marlow in the short story "Heart of Darkness," from 1902.
- Dickey wrote the script for a television adaptation of Jack London's 1903 novel Call of the Wild, about a civilized man trying to survive in the Alaskan wilderness.
- Some of the themes in this novel were explored earlier by Dickey in his poem "On the Coo-sawattee," including a character named Lucas Gentry. The poem was included in his collection Helmets and can be found in The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945–1992.
- Harry Crews is a Florida writer whose prose style and subject matter are reminiscent of Dickey, with the same tough fascination with maleness, but with a little more fanciful imagination. Several of his essays and a few full novels can be found collected in Classic Crews: A Harry Crews Reader, published in 1993 by Poseidon Press.
- In the late 1960s, cultural anthropologist Eliot Wigginton and his students went to the mountains in Georgia to study the folk ways of the natives. Their records of the folk customs were compiled in 1972 in The Foxfire Book: Hog Dressing, Log Cabin Building, Mountain Crafts and Foods, Planting by the Signs, Snake Lore, Hunting Tales, Faith Healing, and Moon-shining.
Even without considering its ending, Deliverance already has a relationship to comedy. It holds a special place in American humor, strumming a chord of terror so deep that the only response is nervous laughter. It's that kind of laughter that bub-bles up to protect us from fears we can't deal with rationally, a kind of whistle-past-the-graveyard defense that assures us that, though the crazed backwoods mountain men might have shotguns and anger, that their foolishness will always keep them down. To experience America's comic obsession with Deliverance, try mentioning the rural south or a long canoe trip in a crowded room: somebody is sure to whistle or sing out the opening notes for "Dueling Banjoes," the theme from the movie. For thirty years, those notes have been our national punchline for an unspoken joke about how the uncivilized resent the rest of us.
Critic Robert W. Hill put forth an argument in 1973 that Dickey was a comic poet, defining "comic" as "that which promises to go on: marriages are made, and fruitful continuance is implied." That works for this novel as well, as, at the end, Ed is presented as being back snugly in the comfort of his family, enjoying weekend water sports on the reservoir with Lewis, perhaps a better man of nature for having absorbed the Cahulawassee River into his memory. Hill cites some of the great critics of our time, Northrop Frye and Constance Rourke, on the subject of comedy: Frye talks of comedy stemming from a new society congealing around the comic hero's exploits, while Rourke, author of the comprehensive 1931 analysis American Humor, pegs comedy as the integration of several cultures into a single culture. These definitions certainly apply to the way Deliverance comes out, with the primitive and refined cultures combined in Gentry, his "new society" being a personal harmony of the both.
To find Gentry comically ignorant for being blind to a huge, obvious thing, there has to be something huge there, and it is obvious. Killing an innocent man is huge—in the realm of morality, it is just about the hugest thing there is. The novel seems not too impressed by killing; in fact, it seems to be an exercise in finding the circumstances under which it is right for a civilized man to kill. The killing instinct is high in Gentry. He watches another man sodomized right before his eyes. In the normal world this is horrifying enough, a breach of some our strongest taboos against rape and homosexuality. On this canoe trip, dominated by Lewis Medford's machismo, this crime of domination is even worse.
Nobody cares that the first rapist dies. Nobody is particularly interested in treating it like a crime that happened within the ordinary flow of ethics. The first rapist has canceled out any rights he may have been born with, according to the men: Ed resists "drawing my family into the whole sickening, unresolvable mess, getting them all more and more deeply entangled in the life, death and identity of the repulsive, useless man at my feet." The man's death and identity are easy to forget because he was repulsive and useless, and for the threat he has posed to the families of the men. If ever there are going to be circumstances for killing and forgetting it, then rape, a threat to family, and the victim's repulsiveness come pretty close.
The second mountain man's crime is less certain, but Gentry sees a pretty clear case for why he must be killed. Granted, he isn't caught dripping with another man's blood, as the first man was, but from Gentry's point of view being hidden up on a cliff and shooting down anonymously makes him an even worse threat. On the other hand, the "selfdefense" explanation that makes sense when someone is holding a gun to your neck stretches thin when you have to scale a rock cliff from sundown to sunup and then hide in a tree to get at him. It isn't so entirely clear that the second mountain man has to die, but Gentry's point in the novel is that the man presents so much potential danger that there can be no margin of error, that what he might do deserves a first strike. Legal scholars have disputed this, most famously in the case of Bernhard Goetz, who shot four men on a New York subway in 1986 because he thought they looked menacing as they approached: a grand jury indicted Goetz, and he was acquitted at trial. None of us knows what to do in extreme circumstances, and Gentry rests comfortably at the end of the book, feeling that he did the best with what he knew.
The obvious thing that he ignores is that the man on the bluff probably wasn't there to kill him. The evidence is just too slight, and the counterevidence too compelling. First, there is the question of whether anyone at all shot down on them. Lewis Medford had sworn that Drew was shot just before the canoes tumbled into the rapids, but the evidence of Gentry's own eyes never does support this claim. "He may have been shot," Gentry explains. "But I can't really say. I was looking right at him, but I can't say." Finding Drew's body later yields no definite evidence, just a gash that could be a bullet graze or could have come from scraping a rock.
The only person who would be shooting at them would be the man who tried to rape Gentry, whose friend was killed, but Gentry can't confirm whether the man he shoots is wearing the same clothes—they're similar, but most forest clothes are. The dead man has a dental plate: this proves that he is missing teeth, as the would-be rapist was, but more significantly it presents him as being much more civilized than the "repulsive, useless man" that Gentry has in mind. A deputy sheriff's brother-in-law has disappeared in those same woods, and the deputy has a gut instinct that he has been killed by these men—what a strange coincidence that would be, if his instinct were right about them killing somebody but wrong about who. The brother-in-law, Benson, is probably the man shot on the ridge. The sheriff says he was "a mean bastard," but that isn't very much evidence that he might be a murderer and rapist, that he would be the man who, as Gentry points out as he is tied to a tree, had probably done this before. There just isn't enough evidence that the man Gentry killed was guilty of anything more than walking by.
It is the author, James Dickey, who raises these questions about whether Drew was shot, whether the man's clothes were the same, whether he is the man named Benson. Dickey must have known that he was raising the prospect that his protagonist had killed an innocent man. Could he actually have been ignorant about how serious this is?
Unfortunately, it's actually quite easy to believe that he could have created this moral sinkhole and ignored its implications. After all, we are expected to ignore the synergy of anal imagery that keeps coming up throughout the novel—Dickey created that, too, but doesn't seem prepared to deal with it. Walking down the street, Gentry's mind is on the fact that "I kept looking for a decent ass"; the Kitt'n Britches ad centers on the model's behind, and in his tent at night Gentry has a fantasy about the cat clawing the girl's buttocks bloody; when he makes love to his wife, he takes her from behind; shimmying in the rock crevice is an erotic experience for him ("Then I would try to inch upward again, moving with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman.").
Perhaps in another novel these images wouldn't add up to anything, and trying to make something of them would just be a case of snickering over a story about men among men. But the central action in Deliverance is, after all, sodomy: the failure to see the connection here falls either on the author or the narrator's psyche. As Charles Thomas Samuels asserts in a review for The New Republic that delves much further into Lewis and Ed's relationship, "perhaps the narrator doesn't discover latent homosexuality and symbolic transference be-cause these are accidents of plotting and phrasing and are not essentials of the novel's purpose." In either case, though, the homoeroticism and the cold-blooded murder of an innocent man are there, and the characters look foolish if they don't see them.
Probably, Dickey raised questions about the identity about the man on the top of the ridge because he wanted to make a point about Ed Gentry's moral right to kill him, regardless of who he was. He makes a wrought-iron case for why the time is right for Gentry to kill somebody, a case that includes the mystical (he somehow knows that the next person he sees will be the man who molested him) and the childish (Lewis got to kill someone with an arrow) as well as the practical. The novel is less about the circumstances dragging a character into action than it is about them allowing him to act. Is there ever such a case, where a man's right to kill supersedes another's right to not be killed? No. In failing to take responsibility for whether or not he shot the right man, Ed Gentry looks as ridiculous as if he had failed to notice a tiger in the chandelier over his head. The more seriously he takes himself, the more readers have to laugh.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
Keen Butterworth, "The Savage Mind: James Dickey's Deliverance," in The Southern Literary Journal, Spring, 1996, pp. 69-78.
Benjamin DeMott, "The 'More Life' School and James Dickey," in The New Republic, March 28, 1970, pp. 25+.
Robert W. Hill, "James Dickey: Comic Poet," in James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination, edited by Richard J. Calhoun, Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1973, pp. 143-56.
"Journey into Self," in Time, April 20, 1970, pp. 92-3.
Charles Thomas Samuels, "What Hath Dickey Delivered?," in The New Republic, April 18, 1970.
L. E. Sissman, "Poet into Novelist," in The New Yorker, May 2, 1970, pp. 123-26.
William G. Tapply, "Because It's There: James Dickey and Deliverance," in The Armchair Detective, May, 1994, pp. 342-35.
Geoffrey Wolff, "Hunting in Hell," in Newsweek, March 30, 1970, p. 75.
J. A. Bryant, Jr., Twentieth-Century Southern Literature, The University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
One of the country's leading literary critics examines the background of Dickey's works. His poetry far outshines his fiction in this review.
Richard J. Calhoun, editor, James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination, Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1973.
The essays collected by Calhoun in this book examine the poet and novelist as his style was still emerging and give insights into Dickey's reputation among his peers at the time of Deliverance.
Richard J. Calhoun and Robert W. Hill, James Dickey, Twayne Publishers, 1983.
Calhoun and Hill, both professors of English at Clem-son, take a personal as well as scholarly approach to Dickey's career up to that point in time.
James Dickey, Sorties: Journals and New Essays, Double-day and Company, 1971.
This collection of miscellaneous pieces, published around the same time as the novel, contains ample information about Dickey's ideas, interests, and influences.
Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The Betrayal of American Men, William Morrow and Co., 1999.
A leading feminist critic explores the frustrations that the changes in sexual roles in the last quarter century have caused for men, who lack clear-cut heroes with whom to identify.
Larry May, Masculinity and Morality, Cornell University Press, 1998.
This scholarly collection of essays by a philosophy professor delves deeply and seriously into the ideas that are hinted at in Dickey's novel.
Director: John Boorman
Production: Warner Brothers, Elmer Enterprises; Technicolor; Panavision; running time: 109 minutes. Released July 1972.
Producer: John Boorman; production manager: Wallace Worsley; screenplay: James Dickey, from his own novel; assistant directors: Al Jennings, Miles Middough; photography: Vilmos Zsigmond; 2nd unit photography: Bill Butler; editor: Tom Priestley; sound editor: Jim Atkinson; sound recordist: Walter Goss; sound rerecordist: Doug Turner; art director: Fred Harpman; music: "Duelling Banjos" arranged and played by Eric Weissberg, with Steve Mandel; creative associate: Rospo Pallenberg; special effects: Marcel Vercoutere; technical advisers: Charles Wiggin, E. Lewis King.
Cast: Jon Voight (Ed); Burt Reynolds (Lewis); Ned Beatty (Bobby); Ronny Cox (Drew); Billy McKinney (Mountain Man); Herbert "Cowboy" Coward (Toothless Man) James Dickey (Sheriff Bullard); Ed Ramey (Old Man); Billy Redden (Lonny); Seamon Glass (1st "Griner"); Randall Deal (2nd "Griner"); Lewis Crone (1st Deputy); Ken Keener (2nd Deputy); Johnny Popwell (Ambulance Driver); John Fowler (Doctor); Kathy Rickman (Nurse); Louise Coldren (Mrs. Biddiford); Pete Ware (Taxi Driver); Hoyt T. Pollard (Boy at Gas Station); Belinda Beatty (Martha Gentry); Charlie Boorman (Ed's Boy).
Dickey, James, Deliverance, Carbondale, Illinois, 1982.
Piccardi, Adriano, John Boorman, Florence, 1982.
Streetbeck, Nancy, The Films of Burt Reynolds, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1982.
Ciment, Michel, John Boorman, Paris 1985; London 1986.
Gow, Gordon, in Films and Filming (London), February 1972.
Variety (New York), 19 July 1972.
Strick, Philip, in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1972.
Milne, Tom, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), September 1972.
Ciment, Michel, in Positif (Paris), October 1972.
Allombert, G., in Image et son (Paris), November 1972.
Grisolia, M., "L'Amerique s'est dissociée de la nature, par un sort de névrose commune," interview with John Boorman in Cinéma (Paris), November 1972.
Dempsey, M., "Deliverance/Boorman: Dickey in the Woods," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), Spring 1973.
Armour, Robert, "Deliverance: Four Variations of the American Adam," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), Summer 1973.
Willson, Robert F. Jr., "Deliverance from Novel to Film: Where Is Our Hero?" in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), Winter 1974.
"Boorman Issue" of Positif (Paris), March 1974.
Dunne, Aidan, "Labyrinth of Allusion," in Film Directions (Belfast), vol. 1 no. 4, 1978.
Combs, Richard, "Male Myths," in The Listener (London), 4 July 1985.
Griffith, J. J., "Damned If You Do, and Damned If You Don't: James Dickey's Deliverance," in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), Spring-Summer 1986.
Williams, Linda Ruth, "Blood Brothers," in Sight & Sound (London), September 1994.
Suarez, E., "Deliverance: Dickey's Original Screen Play," in Southern Quarterly, no. 2/3, 1995.
Atkinson, M., "Jon Voight in Deliverance," in Movieline (Escondido), May 1996.
Worsley, W., "Worsley's Year of Deliverance," in DGA Magazine (Los Angeles), no. 2, 1997.
* * *
In the early 1970s, accelerated no doubt by Watergate, the optimistic liberal tradition was in some crisis. Conspiracy and paranoia had become common currency in popular culture, a trend evident in such otherwise diverse films as Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, Pakula's The Parallax View, Coppola's The Conversation, and Boorman's Deliverance. Where ten years earlier movie protagonists routinely triumphed over adversity, the heroes of these and other 1970s films were increasingly to find themselves trapped and destroyed by the relentless logic of events.
This is the claustrophobic plight of Deliverance's four central characters: a group of urban men caught in an escalating series of violent confrontations with the Appalachian wilderness and its (to them) alien inhabitants. Carried along by the very linearity of the narrative's voyage structure (the four are canoeing down a wild river before it is dammed to form a lake) we directly experience the constraining force of events in the movie's unremitting emphasis on physical detail. Fat Bobby, struggling in the dirt, groped and fondled at some length before he is forcibly buggered; the close-up sight and sound of an arrow pulled from the body of his attacker; the frenzied scrabbling of the group as they dig a grave with their bare hands; the viscera hanging from the wound in Lewis's leg; Drew's body trapped against a boulder, his arm impossibly twisted behind his head. Such scenes are constant reminders of the brute materiality of this wilderness and of the quartet's inability to do anything but react to a succession of real and imagined provocations. Even after their deliverance, Ed wakes screaming, haunted by the fear and guilt embodied in his nightmare image of a hand emerging from the lake. As the credits roll, he lies in bed, unable to sleep.
At this level Deliverance is a pessimistic and absorbing piece of story-telling. But it is also more than that. In charting the collapse of "civilised" values, the film invokes larger, almost metaphysical themes. While they are never simply emblematic, Deliverance's four central characters do represent different aspects of the failings of civilised society, failings crystallised in their confrontation with the wilderness. "There is something in the woods and the water that we have lost in the city" opines Bobby, the brash salesman. "We didn't lose it," Lewis replies, "we sold it." Happily, any tendency to promote a mystic commitment to Nature over Civilisation (all too apparent in Boorman's later ecological parable, The Emerald Forest) is undercut by the fact that Lewis, the self-proclaimed survivor and man of the wilderness, is never elevated into the kind of sub-Nietzschean superman found in, say, The Deer Hunter. Instead, he serves as a foil to the other three, and especially to Ed, whose self-image as a decent, pipe-smoking family man is progressively eroded as the world proves more intractable than he could ever imagine. In the end, though, he does survive, forced to kill and lie to do so. Significantly, it is Drew who dies, his simple belief in the goodness of human nature (exquisitely expressed in his guitar and banjo duet with the moon-faced child and in his evident disappointment when the boy subsequently ignores him) an inadequate defence against a malevolent world.
The film's downbeat mood is sustained in its cinematography as well as its dramaturgy. Seeking to lend what he called an "ominous quality" to the "pleasant and restful" greens and blues of sky, river and trees, Boorman (in conjunction with Technicolor) developed a new color desaturation technique for Deliverance. The result is a film shot in threatening grey-greens, not so much washed-out as evacuated of conventionally pretty nature imagery. Although the big Panavision images of river, cliffs, and forest are impressive enough (there are some breath-taking moving compositions of the two canoes, exploiting both the format and the long lens's flattened perspective) the desaturated color always ensures that they do not become merely picturesque. As befits a story of liberal complacency confronted by brutal antagonism, it is the struggle to survive that predominates, the big screen used more to document that in close-up than to celebrate the pictorial splendours of the setting.
When the survivors emerge from the last rapids onto the lake, it is not—as it might have been—a comforting expanse of calm water that greets them and us. It is the rusting bulk of a wrecked automobile, water lapping around its fender. Bobby splashes through the shallows towards it. "We've made it, Ed," he cries, grateful for this equivocal symbol of civilised society. It is an appropriately two-edged image in a film which, to the last, refuses to accept that there are simple solutions to the moral dilemmas that it poses.
169. Deliverance (See also Freedom.)
- Aphesius epithet of Zeus, meaning ‘releaser.’ [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 292–293]
- Bolivar, Simón (1783–1830) the great liberator of South America. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 325]
- Bon’, Brian freed Ireland from the Danes. [Irish Myth.: Walsh Classical, 61–62]
- Brown, John (1800–1859) abolitionist; attempted to liberate slaves. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 64]
- Ehud freed Israelites from Moabites by murdering king. [O.T.: Judges 3:15]
- Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln’s declaration freeing the slaves (1863). [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 161]
- Gideon with 300 men, saved Israel from Midianites. [O.T.: Judges 6:14, 7:19–21]
- Jephthah routed the Ammonites to save Israelites. [O.T.: Judges 11:32]
- Lincoln, Abraham (1809–1865) 16th U.S. president; the Great Emancipator. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 286–287]
- Messiah expected leader sent by God to exalt Israel. [Judaism: Brewer Dictionary ]
- Moses led his people out of bondage. [O.T.: Exodus]
- Othniel freed Israelites from bondage of Cushan-rishathaim. [O.T.: Judges 3:9]
- Parsifal deliverer of Amfortas and the Grail knights. [Ger. Opera: Wagner, Parsifal, Westerman, 250]
- Passover festival commemorating Exodus. [Judaism: Wigoder, 472; O.T.: Exodus 12]
- Purim Jewish festival commemorating salvation from Haman’s destruction. [O.T.: Esther 9:20–28]
Deliverance ★★★★ 1972 (R)
Terrifying exploration of the primal nature of man and his alienation from nature, based on the novel by James Dickey, which he adapted for the film (he also makes an appearance as a sheriff). Four urban professionals, hoping to get away from it all for the weekend, canoe down a southern river, encounter crazed backwoodsmen, and end up battling for survival. Excellent performances all around, especially by Voight. Debuts for Beatty and Cox. Watch for O'Neill as a sheriff, and director Boor-man's son Charley as Voight's son. “Dueling Banjos” scene and tune are memorable as is scene where the backwoods boys promise to make the fellows squeal like pigs. 109m/C VHS, DVD, Blu-ray Disc, HD DVD . Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty, James Dickey, Bill McKinney, Ed O'Neill, Charley Boorman; D: John Boorman; W: James Dickey; C: Vilmos Zsigmond; M: Eric Weissburg.