Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604
“Falling” dramatizes the existential predicament every person faces: Since life inevitably leads to death, how does one infuse existence with meaning so that one’s plight on earth seems significant? The flight attendant’s fall from the airplane is symbolic of an individual’s journey through life, which inevitably culminates in death. In the poem, the flight attendant tries to comprehend her situation by engaging in a variety of acts that she feels will allow her to exercise a degree of control; her actions, however, ultimately are illusions, though perhaps necessary ones.
The dramatic situation in which Dickey initially places the flight attendant stresses an individual’s lack of control over his or her own destiny. Instantaneously, the flight attendant goes from a situation of security and certainty, as she performs her socially sanctioned role in the safety of a modern-day airliner, to a state in which she is on her own and facing certain obliteration. This situation is portrayed as simultaneously horrifying and exhilarating, as the flight attendant discovers she is in the “void falling living beginning to be something/ that no one has ever been.”
During her fall, she attempts to deal with her plight by interpreting it through images from American and Western culture, which constitute her reality and represent her only means of understanding existence. Dickey draws on images ranging from popular culture to Western mythology to show how immersion in a tradition endows one with a means to comprehend an otherwise meaningless existence in which the only certainty is death. These images allow the flight attendant to experience a degree of control. Her recollections of a television show in which one sky diver passes a parachute to another and a soft-drink commercial in which a woman dives into a swimming pool and emerges smiling make her feel that she can manipulate her fall, discover water, and save herself by plunging into it. She thinks that, by opening up her “jacket/ By Don Loper,” she can form wings and glide toward water. Finally, she indulges in the belief that the experience is transforming her into a fertility goddess who will awaken the slumbering libidos of persons below. Though she feels she is shedding societal constraints when she peels off her clothing and imagines herself a goddess, this role is yet another conception emanating from the very culture she feels she is eschewing. Indeed, to emphasize this fact, the moment is described with a phrase out of Barnum & Bailey: “the greatest thing that ever came to Kansas.” As the narrator informs the reader, the flight attendant is still passing through “all levels of American breath.”
Though her effort to wrench meaning from an ultimately meaningless and incomprehensible dilemma is pictured as heroic, it is ultimately a futile illusion. As she is about to hit the ground, the narrator asserts that “the whole earthtold her how to lie.” In other words, the means for interpreting reality with which society equips people are lies or illusions: No sky diver will come to her rescue; her death will not result in any supernatural transformation. Yet such illusions are vital because without them the will to exist and to continue to exert control over life is extinguished. The flight attendant is able to live out her life more fully and intensely because she is able to create significance. Up to the moment when she hits the ground, the flight attendant “tries tries” to cling to her illusions. Her final two words, “AH, GOD,” are deliberately ambiguous. They are a plea for rescue, but the poem abruptly ends, suggesting the uncertainty of existence after death.