Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

Rising above the story’s surface of detailed realism is an allegory of irrational male aggression that reaches back through history beyond the era of dueling to prehistory, when men slew one another out of mere instinctual territorial combativeness. Mann is Everyman, from the first man to man at this moment...

(The entire section contains 543 words.)

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  • Summary
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Rising above the story’s surface of detailed realism is an allegory of irrational male aggression that reaches back through history beyond the era of dueling to prehistory, when men slew one another out of mere instinctual territorial combativeness. Mann is Everyman, from the first man to man at this moment to man in the future. For the first half of the combat, strange in a modern, civilized setting but commonplace in the jungle, Mann’s antagonist is more an alien mechanical force than a person: “He visualized the truck as some great entity pursuing him, insentient, brutish, chasing him with instinct only.” After Mann sees the driver’s face and learns his name from the printing on the side of the truck—Keller (read “Killer”)—the duel is between two men but reduced to the level of their primeval ancestors, bereft of human empathy and intellect, a function of animal reflex and instinct.

In the first half of the story, in the Chuck’s Cafe restroom, a hostile oasis, Mann can reflect on the way in which modern society suppresses the knowledge that man’s aggressive instincts have survived more than two thousand years of the civilizing process; each person is so dependent on the illusion that he and other people are civilized that when the primitive, irrational violence erupts, he is totally unprepared to understand logically or react effectively to it: “Suddenly, the jungle is in front of you again. Man, part animal, part angel.” Ironically, Mann thinks that only the driver of the truck is an animal, and that he is its “prey.”

Early in the second half of the story, the allegory that equates modern man with his primeval ancestor converges with an allegorical element that is secondary to it but inseparable from it: The animal-angel elements in man are trapped and forever warring in the body of a nonhuman beast. Before Mann saw the driver’s face, the truck had been “the embodiment of unknown terror,” which appeared to him earlier as a “leviathan,” which now is a “purple-silver relic” (of primeval eons), and which later is a “looming gargantuan shape,” a “ponderous beast.” Ecological conditions and smaller creatures destroyed mammoth creatures in primeval times; Mann-car destroys, by strategy and accident, Keller-trailer-truck. In the final paragraph, Mann and Keller as combative primitive men are submerged in nonhuman beast imagery: “The cry of some ancestral beast above the body of its vanquished foe.” Thus Richard Matheson’s allegory, based on a detailed realism with which his readers can identify (and which they can fully experience on that level), simultaneously subjects his reader to a reversion to the murderous behavior of his primeval human ancestors and of the beasts out of which humankind evolved.

However, the significance of that dual-level allegory is made much more forceful when one considers that it has a present-day and futuristic correlation: In the history of life-forms, the human invention of mechanical locomotion occurred only a second ago, and machines are currently engaged in an armed duel, heading, on the two-lane highway of life, west, the direction symbolic of death. Matheson’s simple allegory has impressive scope in time and space, illuminating humankind’s predicament as it illuminates the nature of each of his readers.

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