After the publication of Deliverance in 1970 and the release of the film in 1972, public response and critical response took opposite turns. If best-seller status and box-office records are any indication of how a public appreciates a work of literary or cinematic art, then Deliverance was a huge success. The initial critical response, however, was less than kind. Most critics compared James Dickey’s novel with his earlier poetry and found the novel severely lacking. The film suffered a similar fate at the hands of reviewers who, predictably enough, often compared it to the novel and found the film superficial and lacking in psychological depth. Time has shown, however, that the critics might have been premature in shelving this novel under “popular fiction” or some other rubric that denotes literature offered to the masses and not worth taking seriously. In fact, this novel is one of the most profound examples of bridging popular fiction with a literary tradition, which in this case is Romanticism and mythology.
Most of the readings of Deliverance see traditional mythological elements at work, whether it be Romantic appropriations of nature or Jungian archetypes and images of rebirth. Dickey has stated that the literary and mythological precedent for the novel comes from a review of books on mythology that he read in college. He remarks that he was especially interested in the concepts of rites of passage, in which initiates undergo a separation from their everyday world. Initiates enter a special source of power in another world, and then a life-enhancing return to that everyday world. One book that Dickey knew of was Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), and Campbell understands the three stages of normal world, the special world, and return as elements of all hero myths.
Ed is the main character and the hero who undergoes trials and tests, ultimately facing his own death, in order to bring meaning back to his world. Ed’s everyday world is meaningless, full of the bad art that he produces for money as a graphic artist and empty of anything worthy of painting. Ed is bored, and this boredom pervades every part of his life, from his work to his archery to his home life. The world that Ed inhabits is filled with artificiality, like the paper deer he shoots at the archery range. Lewis’s call to run the river...
(The entire section is 980 words.)