To the White Sea Critical Context - Essay

James Dickey

Critical Context

Although Dickey’s reputation as a poet overshadows his novelistic achievements, he enjoyed considerable popular success as a novelist with the publication of his first novel Deliverance (1970), in which wilderness survival and deliverance from modern conditions are major themes. In his poetry and his fiction alike, Dickey is concerned with humankind’s relation to the natural environment. The way Muldrow speaks of the spirit of trees, rocks, and other natural objects reflects Dickey’s belief that a common spirit informs all things and that one is, like Muldrow, enriched and empowered by becoming one with these natural objects. Muldrow wears the skins of animals not only for warmth but also for the almost magical power he derives from them. Smearing himself with the old falconer’s blood has ritualistic overtones and suggests that Muldrow gains power from it as well as from the swan feathers.

The novel also explores ways of fusing the inner and outer states of consciousness. Although outer events are usually clearly distinct from Muldrow’s thoughts and emotions, he often tries to bring the reader into his perceptions, as when he speaks of the sunlight in the lake, the blueness of the iceberg, and the nature of cold. In the end, the fusion of inner and outer states is complete, at least in Muldrow’s experience.

The novel reflects Dickey’s belief that civilization undercuts skills necessary to survive extreme situations. Muldrow is an ideal portrait of man’s return to nature. He is the quintessential survivor, relying on primitive instincts and skills to survive. The role of violence in that survival is a major part of the novel and has attracted negative critical attention. Dickey himself may have encouraged this unfavorable reaction by referring to Muldrow as a sociopath. Pathological tendencies may be detected in Muldrow’s graphic descriptions of his killings, in the way he mutilates some victims, and in his pleasure in the way his knife sinks into his victims. Even his final transformation, though it suggests spiritual triumph, comes amid much blood and physical mutilation. By ending with an emphatic image of man escaping the physical world through fire into pure air and spirit, Dickey seems to be saying that only violence can wrest the spirit from a world gone mad.