Themes and Meanings
Dead Man Leading is ostensibly an adventure story that throws two men of contrasting temperaments into the close and revealing relationship of a survival test. Both men in some measure fail the test. With his obsession for “going it alone,” Johnson seems quite willing to leave Phillips again. Johnson’s urgings to Phillips to go back whenever he lags or complains seem brutal; after all, Johnson encouraged his companion to go on this foolhardy trek (why he does is not clear, as the protagonist always wants to go alone). Phillips’ weakness is evident throughout but reaches a climax when he fires at his companion who is going to find water for them. Phillips is undeniably justified in his conviction that Johnson wants to leave him, though he is not in full possession of his senses at the time.
The psychology of the protagonist is central to the book; indeed, it could be argued that Pritchett’s primary interest here is psychology rather than adventure. Much of the literature of the 1920’s and 1930’s was powerfully influenced by Freudian ideas, among which were the primacy of the father in the equation of the psyche and the crippling burden of guilt; Johnson would seem a good example of these influences. The lost father takes on the character of a lost divinity and becomes a powerful symbol in the novel. Pritchett’s fascination with puritanism fits in well with Freudian ideas; the puritan psyche, for the Viennese psychiatrist, is a study in neurosis, as valuable psychic energy is wasted in guiltily weighing one’s actions. By way of psychological contrast, there is Silva, torn neither by ideals nor guilt, concerned simply with day-to-day existence and creature comforts.
Romance is strictly secondary to the relationships between men in the novel, occupying a fraction of the book’s bulk. The affair between Johnson and Lucy is believably developed (to the extent that Johnson is a believable character), but it is supplemental rather than essential; the basic plot could have proceeded without it.