Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

As an amateur anthropologist and folklorist, Frank Waters has long been concerned with the Indian subcultures of the Southwest, as shown by his later studies, Masked Gods: Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism (1950) and Book of the Hopi (1963). In The Man Who Killed the Deer, Waters uses a complex narrative structure that interrupts the story of Martiniano and the tribe with transcriptions of myths and ceremonial prayers, descriptions of sacred dances and costumes, and discussions of Pueblo rites. Waters goes into these details because the primary theme of the book is the uniqueness of Pueblo culture, an irreplaceable gift to the human family. Thus, the reader is exposed several times to a Pueblo prayer which begins, “There is no such thing as a simple thing.” Mrs. Wolf Red-Belly Woman recounts the entire myth of Shell Boy and Blue Corn (which parallels the story of Martiniano and his wife), and Waters describes the Deer Mother dance and many other dances down to the smallest step. The reader also follows the manhood initiation ceremony as experienced by Palemon’s son, Napaita. These anthropological details are not excess baggage; they are integral to the meaning of the novel. Waters does not merely want to tell Martiniano’s story; he wants to tell it from a true Pueblo Indian perspective.

The deer is not only a catalyst for narrative development but also the basic symbol of the work. Like all symbols, it contains layer upon layer of meaning: “The deer he had killed, the two deer sisters of Flowers Playing up in the mountains, the deer dancing in subjection to Deer Mothers. . . . Who could say which was alive, was flesh, was spirit. . . ?” The deer, then, is life and the spirit of life; by killing it, Martiniano has offended life itself, and his redemption is possible only when he accepts the life force, as he finally does, in all its various forms.