Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
The city. Unnamed city in northern Georgia in which the novel’s four friends live and work. Although this place frames the main story, it is never named or treated as anything other than a normal, middle-class (sub)urban place. This technique effectively maintains Dickey’s realistic intention. Unlike antirealist novels, which distort reality in order to draw attention to the place as a symbol of something else, Dickey’s undogmatic use of “the city” allows readers merely to sense that this place is, in some real but undefinable way, a mythical place that represents all of modern, existential life. It is a metaphor for the alienation of the contemporary middle-class, which is treated as both materially successful and spiritually empty.
With its anonymous and interchangeable business complexes, shopping malls, fast-food joints, and suburbs, the city could be any modern American city. This technique underscores Dickey’s intention to present the extreme violence of the friends’ wilderness canoe trip as a universal human experience: Violence, the novel suggests, is the “normal” experience of modern American men. After the river, the city is the most important of the novel’s four places, since its job is to create an image of the modern American place, the most desirable, if flawed, image of order and civilization available to modern humanity.
Oree (OH-ree). Staging area for the...
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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 then-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. 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 gams 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...
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Dickey's fictional stretch of the Cahulawassee River between Oree and Aintry of Helms County, Georgia, is a thinly veiled version of the Coo-sawatee 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...
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Deliverance is very much Ed's story, not simply in the fact that he is a leading actor in the dramatic events that occur during the outing on the Cahulawassee River. As he relates these events, Ed tries to demonstrate the kind of control over his life that Lewis preaches. It is Ed who has the last word and who provides the final shape to the ordeal that three of the four men survive.
The novel is a retrospective narrative, fashioned by Ed ten years after the events he is trying to recollect and to understand. Dependent as it is on memory and restricted to the perspective of only one of the principals involved, Deliverance raises questions of reliability. Ed is not entirely certain about some of the facts he reports — for example, whether Drew was shot or simply fell out of the canoe and whether he himself killed their earlier attacker or an innocent man. Ed colludes with Lewis and Bobby to present the police with an inaccurate version of what happened to them on the river; and this not only raises ethical questions about the justification for useful lies, but it also suggests the possibility that, deliberately or not, Ed as narrator might be misrepresenting their experiences.
The manner in which Deliverance is presented, as the chronicle of a traumatic weekend recollected in the tranquility of ten years' distance, emphasizes the extent to which it has been a conversion experience for Ed, delivering him from ennui and...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Some readers do not find Deliverance at all interesting, and some find it repulsive, yet others have their imaginations fired up by the narrative and cannot seem to talk about it enough. In most groups, someone is excited enough by the novel to fire up interest in others, generating a vigorous discussion of a novel that focuses on important, fundamental aspects of the human condition. Are human beings fundamentally violent and cruel? Does Lewis represent the way men ought to be? When stripped of his civilized veneer, is the modern man essentially a brute?
If group members are not much interested in tackling heavy philosophical questions, at least at first, the novel offers other avenues for exploring its artistry and themes. One good approach is to examine the contrast between the civilized world and the wild world in the novel. Which is the healthier environment. If someone (as is likely to happen) says that Dickey must mean that the wild world is best, point out the horrifying events associated with wilderness life; Dickey offers few easy answers.
1. How environmentally conscious is Deliverance? What does it say about the relationship between the city and the natural world?
2. Who dies in Deliverance? Is there any symbolic significance for death?
3. Does the novel celebrate individualism? What is the individual man like in his natural state?
4. Dickey portrays life in the wilderness as grim....
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Compare and 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 Jophn 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...
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Topics for Further Study
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.
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Deliverance is a rare outing by a poet into the field of prose fiction. But it does share with much of Dickey's poetry a preoccupation with defining individual man by challenging him against the violence of the natural world. The novel reflects Dickey's characteristic cult of experience, as well as that of much of American literature, concentrating as it does on an individual male's ambivalence toward civilization and toward the company of women. The testing of the self through violent encounter with the wilderness echoes Faulkner's The Bear (1942) Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) and Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales.
Although at the outset of the story Ed has been married for fifteen years, he refers to the experience as having transformed him from a boy into a man. Deliverance is reminiscent of such other coming-of-age narratives as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), The Red Badge of Courage (1895), and The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954) likewise combines the initiation of a child into the adult world with an exploration of the theme of the noble savage, of the fundamental qualities of a human being outside the influence of civilization.
Dostoevski's Notes from Underground (1864) and Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) are also likely precedents. Like Deliverance, both are first-person attempts to penetrate beneath the social veneer to the...
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In his other novels, Alnilam (1987) and To the White Sea (1993) Dickey continues to explore themes which marked his early work: violence, death, and humankind's relationship to nature. Like Hemingway, Dickey creates male characters who are isolated and able to connect with others only in limited ways. Like Dostoevsky, Dickey probes the nature of violence and the psychology which allows it.
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Deliverance was made into a 109-minute motion picture in 1972 (produced and directed by John Boorman). James Dickey himself wrote the screenplay and also appeared in the film in a minor role, as Sheriff Bullard. The film stars Jon Voight as Ed and Burt Reynolds as Lewis. Ned Beatty plays Bobby, and Ronny Cox is Drew.
Deliverance received an Academy Award nomination for best picture and, in general, was a commercial and critical success.
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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.
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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...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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...
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Bibliography (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
Doughtie, Edward. “Art and Nature in Deliverance.” Southwest Review 64 (Spring, 1979): 167-180. An exploration of how the arts serve a mediating function in the novel. Argues that art helps negotiate the important boundaries between nature, human nature, and civilization.
Endel, Peggy Goodman. “Dickey, Dante, and the Demonic: Reassessing Deliverance.” American Literature 60 (December, 1988): 611-624. Endel offers a sophisticated and cogent reading of the novel in the light of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno and demonstrates how Dickey has created a presentation of unsublimated evil after the fashion of Dante and against the romantic sublime.
Foust, R. E. “Tactus Eruditus: Phenomenology as Method and Meaning of James Dickey’s Deliverance.” Studies in American Fiction 9 (Autumn, 1981): 199-216. One of the most original interpretations of Deliverance. It focuses on the creative tensions in the novel and presents a “postmodern” reading, which in this case means a phenomenological and structural interpretation that centers on the characters’ sense of touch. Foust also points out the problems of romantic readings of Deliverance.
Jolly, John. “Drew Ballinger as ‘Sacrificial God’ in James Dickey’s Deliverance.” South Carolina Review 17 (Spring, 1985): 102-108. A mythical reading that centers not on Ed or...
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