Allegory in Louise Erdrich's poem "Jacklight"Some readers interpret "Jacklight" as an allegory of relations between men and women and/or as an allegory of relations between whites and Native...

Allegory in Louise Erdrich's poem "Jacklight"

Some readers interpret "Jacklight" as an allegory of relations between men and women and/or as an allegory of relations between whites and Native Americans.  How plausible do these interpretations seem to you? What evidence is there to support them?

Asked on by vangoghfan

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accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I would agree with the comments of other editors who suggest that this poem could be viewed as an allegory between indigenous peoples and early pioneer settlers. #2 is correct in stressing the importance of the title in providing us with an overall image describing the relations between these two groups. Tragically, the indigenous peoples played the role of the "prey" and the settlers the "hunters," with the consequences that we see today when we look at the remnants of these once-great civilisations.

litteacher8's profile pic

litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Maybe it is an allegory of the realtionship between Native Americans and early settlers.  Native Americans are like prey, trying to outwit a group that is better technologically equipped and has methods and tools they have never seen before and can't hope to be prepared against.

booboosmoosh's profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

In my reading of "Jacklight," the only feel I have is that of the relationship between the whites and Native Americans. The author's choice of words and phrases, and the idea of the "hunt" turn my thoughts this way.

Things that stand out to support this perception for me are as follows.

The people hiding in the woods would have been native to the area, and know how to blend in. In that a "jacknight" as kplhardison notes, is a light used to lure a creature into a hunt, it makes more sense when applying this with white men trying to find hiding tribes people, rather than a man luring a woman: certainly not with a light that "clenches like a fist" and then "divides" them. The light is like a "blow." The power they feel as a group is lost as each one "moved forward alone."

The lights that are used seem to be "battery-operated" ("the battery of polarized acids..."), and flashlights were invented around the turn of the twentieth century, providing a possible timeframe. The Dawes Act of approximately this time was passed to allot land to Native Americans and to supposedly allow them to be assimilated into the white culture. The truth is that the Native Amercians lost the majority of their lands. This poem may express the removal of members of various tribes from their lands. As the quote at the poem's beginning notes 1959, it is also possible, however, that the poem is set at a later time—but there can be no doubt that life for Native Americans has not improved over time.

Other references refer to the many smells, that Native Americans would notice (like hunted animals) because they come from a more natural environment. Those smells include guns; "mink oil on leather;" mouths smelling of "sour barley" (used to make beer and whiskey); and among other things, they can smell...

...their minds like silver hammers [on a gun] / cocked back, held in readiness / for the first of us to step into the open.

The poem returns to the lines used at the beginning—exposure, lack of safety, fear, and intruders..."out of our hiding."

The end of the poem indicates that the white men will follow the Native Americans into the woods, where they cannot used their "equipment" in the "tall brush," which somehow puts them at a disadvantage. They switch places now, with the Native Americans, entering into a world that they are unfamiliar with—"not knowing" into "lightless" deep woods, where they will feel a lack of safety, perhaps feeling like intruders.

I am left to wonder: why do the "smelly men" follow the Native Americans, and why do the tribesmen allow it?

There seems no fliration here, but a hint or even a promise of violence: like killing a bear with one's bare hands, or decimating a race of people with powerful weapons and white men's laws on "empty" papers.

kplhardison's profile pic

Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

Interesting robert-c-! To start with, a "jacklight" is a light used to flush out or lure into the open prey in night hunting. So whatever the meaning of the poem is, it must accord with its title in some direct or indirect way. Knowing the poet, the first impression I got was that of white hunters pitted against Native Americans who were quietly resting, minding their own business. I can see a plausible reference to male/female relations in the bit with the line, "Then it clenched to a fist of light that pointed, / Searched out, divided us," but that's about the only place I see that interpretation sustained. The more I read it, the more I see it as a protest against night hunting--no other explanation consistently fits with the imagery. It ends with an ominous Stephen Kingish threat from the creatures of the forest who warn of "How deep the woods are and lightless. / How deep the woods are." It seems a metaphor comparing this seemingly particularly underhanded type of hunting, night hunting, to a sexually oriented predator/victim scenario--in which the victim turns on the predator in the end--intended to emotionally denounce this practice.

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