What is the meaning of the title of The Surrounded by D'Arcy McNickle. Who is surrounded? Who surrounds them? 

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Surrounded by D'Arcy McNickle is aptly named for many reasons, and the meaning is many layers deep.

First of all, the entire plot of the novel is rather circular, and of course that is a literal kind of surrounding. Mixed-race Archilde Leon is the protagonist of the novel, and he is constantly torn between his European and Native American cultures. He left the reservation and has been making a living as a musician in Portland, but when he returns home he finds himself rather ensnared by the strings of his former life and culture. 

Every time he tries to leave again, he is unable to do so. He came for this last visit to say farewell to his father; however, he consistently finds himself drawn back into the culture he had left and tried hard to forget. As he continues to search for his cultural identity, he is surrounded by reminders in all kinds of ways. 

Archilde re-connects with nature, one of the strongest protectors the Native Americans have, when he sees the bird and does not see the cross which everyone else sees. In fact, the tribe is literally surrounded by two mountain ranges, something McNickle describes as a

magnificent barricade against the eastern sky.

He also responds to the tribal ceremonies, particularly the dance and the ritual funeral for his mother. At both he is literally and figuratively surrounded by his culture--the culture which seems to have captured him completely this time. 

Neither culture is inherently either good or evil, so Archilde's decision is much more difficult. In the end, his failure to act--his inaction--has determined his choice to remain with his Native American people and claim that heritage.

Another element of the title is the presence of the white, European culture which literally surrounds the tribe. All Native American tribes can be seen this way, as they are the anomaly in a predominantly white, European culture. While there is plenty to despise (or at least disdain) in that white culture, it does provide different and better opportunities than those provided in the tribal cultures.

Throughout the novel, these two cultures are juxtaposed, and neither is perfect. While we experience the lovely traditions and beauty of a tribal dance, for example, we are also faced with a loud, raucous group of white people mocking it. 

In general, Archilde's people are surrounded by those who do not appreciate it or respect it. More specifically, he is surrounded by both good and bad examples of people in both the Indian and the white culture, such as Catharine LaLoup Leon and Max Leon. Most of all, once he returns to Montana, he finds himself surrounded by the inexplicable ties he has to the culture with which he obviously connected to most when he was growing up. 

Note that McNickle even uses the word "surrounded" as Archilde connects with the natural elements which are everywhere around him.

He listened until the diminishing sounds of the running horse were lost in the faint thunder of the creek, and during that time her warmth surrounded him.

At the beginning of the novel, we understand that for Archilde, the Indian culture he had escaped felt more like it was suffocating him rather than surrounding him; but the end of the novel, that culture feels more like a comfortable enveloping that he has accepted as his fate. 

It was as if he were making the decision, as if it depended upon his will, whether he went or not; this saying so meant that he was delivering himself into the hands of powers greater than he. 

Read the study guide:
The Surrounded

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