How are situational irony, allegory, and schemes used in Louise Erdrich's poem titled "Jacklight"?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Louise Erdrich's poem titled "Jacklight" describes how forest animals (perhaps deer) are lured toward a bright light held by hunters -- a kind of light that is typically illegal to use in hunting because its purpose is to stun animals into motionlessness.  In Erdrich's poem, however, the animals eventually move back into the darkness of the forest, followed by the hunters, whose light is now ineffective. offers a brief and helpful definition of "situational irony," a literary technique that seems to be used in this poem:

irony involving a situation in which actions have an effect that is opposite from what was intended, so that the outcome is contrary to what was expected.

This definition seems to fit the ending of Erdrich's poem, since the hunters fail (this time) to kill the game they pursue. They lure the game toward them, but by the end of the poem the spell of the light seems ineffective and the hunters themselves seemed lured toward the game, or at least deeper into the forest the animals consider home. There is even, perhaps, a touch of the ominous in the poem's final lines, as if the hunters are entering potentially dangerous territory:

And now they take the first steps, not knowing

how deep the woods are and lightless.

How deep the woods are.

The poem ends mysteriously, and readers are left to wonder what will happen to the hunters and what they will find as they go deeper and deeper into the woods.  In any case, the poem does seem to display situational irony, since the hunters fail (at least initially) to achieve their original objective.

Erdrich's poem has generated several allegorical interpretations -- that is, interpretations in which the animals and the hunters seem to symbolize something other than mere or literal animals and hunters.  The epigraph that opens the poem seems, in fact, to invite readers to interpret the poem allegorically. Some critics have accepted the invitation and have suggested that the poem allegorizes the relations between women (the animals) and men (the hunters).  Others have suggested that the poem may allegorize the relations between Native Americans (the animals) and whites (the hunters). Cases can be made for both readings, and indeed these two readings are not mutually exclusive. Insofar as women are often the pursued rather than the pursuers in relationships, and insofar as women sometimes demonstrate their own kinds of power in such relationships, the poem may indeed allegorize relations between men and women.  The same kind of connection can be made between whites and Native Americans.

The poem definitely also employs rhetorical "schemes" (or figures of speech), a topic I have dealt with at length elsewhere (see link below). For example, the last three lines of the poem (quoted above) use alliteration ("they . . . the"), assonance ("they take"), anaphora (the repetition of "how" at the beginnings of the final two lines), parallelism (the repetition of "how deep the woods are"), and striking imagery (as in the adjective "lightless").

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