Little Big Man is widely considered to be Thomas Berger’s greatest and most enduring novel. It was the recipient of the Western Heritage and the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal awards in 1965, and it was adapted into a major motion picture in 1970, starring Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway. Despite the film’s sensitive interpretation and critical success, a comparison of the two media reveals an important feature of Berger’s achievement. Where the film valorizes the Cheyenne as noble savages and fundamentally superior human beings, the novel is careful to balance its view of the two ethnic groups it portrays. Crabb, although sympathizing more with the tribe, is unsparing in his comic criticism of each group’s foibles and failings. One of the translations of the name for the Cheyenne is “human beings,” and indeed Crabb learns important lessons from Old Lodge Skins about the nature of all people and their humanity, in spite of all their differences.
While the novel has been hailed as an example of everything from black humor to postmodern narrative, its roots are in a far older tradition, the picaresque. The dizzyingly episodic plot; the constantly wandering hero; and the appearance, disappearance, and reappearance of key characters such as Caroline, General Custer, Lavender, Alardyce T. Meriweather, and Younger Bear are all examples of key picaresque conventions. However, Crabb, as picaro, is perhaps the most interesting and complex of the novel’s instantiations of these conventions. Picaros are more often than not orphans, figures who lose not only their families but also their places in the world and are forced to set out on their own at early ages. Because they are victims of the vicissitudes of life, their primary motivation is survival, and indeed survival is paramount for Crabb: He watches one friend or...
(The entire section is 754 words.)