Themes and Meanings
The title suggests the story’s preoccupation with hunting. Jacklighting is night hunting done with a light used as a lure. Although no actual hunting occurs in “Jacklighting,” the final sentence of the story suggests that hunting has occurred on Spence’s land and will occur again. More important, the reference to jacklighting connects Nicholas’s death with hunting. The drunk driver, who hit Nicholas, thought that he had hit a deer. The image of a deer, stopped in the middle of the road because it is blinded by oncoming headlights, is the same image of a deer being lured with lights and then killed by hunters. Nicholas, too, being hit head-on, was presumably blinded by the van’s headlights or, symbolically, hunted by the drunk driver. The suggestion that the van driver is a hunter—a killer—gives the story social reverberations, albeit subtle ones. There is no mention that the van driver was penalized for his crime, and apparently the only recourse Spence can take for his brother’s death is to chase hunters off his land or stalk upstairs with a rolled newspaper to kill the wasp that is bothering Pammy.
The preoccupation with hunting expands to an abundance of animal references in the story. Other animals besides deer are hunted, if not by hunters with jacklights and guns then by death itself, which is continuously pursuing anything living. Whereas Nicholas has already been hunted down, the other characters are in the process of being hunted simply because they are getting older and having birthdays. Ann Beattie concludes the story with the narrator sitting on the porch, in the dark. The stars are shining down with the intensity of flashlights—an image that is chillingly similar to the hunters’ jacklights shining from the dark—an image that, symbolically, suggests the narrator being hunted.
Hunting, on another, less malignant level, is simply a sport or game that people play on Spence’s land. Other games—croquet, baseball, catch, the descriptive game Nicholas invented—function, like hunting, as a distraction from the enigma of life and death.