Themes and Meanings
To the White Sea follows one man’s lone quest for survival through hostile territory. Every moment threatens Muldrow with capture, torture, and death. To survive, he must use extraordinary skills and must have instincts that the ordinary person lacks. His instincts are those of the fiercest, most skilled predatory animals. He comes to respect animals more than humans. Toward the end, however, his thoughts are taken with the flight of the hunting hawk, which symbolizes for him the supreme predatory power and deliverance from a world he no longer wishes to inhabit. The hawk also has the power of natural flight. Muldrow seeks this mystical power for himself, for it offers lightness, expansiveness, and endless freedom. At the beginning, Muldrow seeks only to escape Japan, heading north to Alaska. Along the way, he loses all affection for humanity, wanting ultimately to be alone in the wilderness, on the white sea of snow, which symbolizes for him freedom from the sweltering confusion and destruction of war. For him, killing is necessary to survival. War—an outcrop of civilization—has corrupted killing, however, making it random, malicious, and unnecessarily brutal. It is humane to kill swiftly, skillfully, and necessarily. By torturing and mutilating, humans have corrupted killing.
On Japanese soil, all of his resources are challenged. The land contains the elements that give him most pleasure: trees, animals, and water. These are the points at which the spirit and the flesh merge. For Dickey, only the wilderness seems worth inhabiting. There, human instincts find their greatest challenge and expression. There, the physical being can merge with the spiritual. Civilization depraves humans and interferes with and ultimately destroys their ability to connect spiritually with the outward forms of the spirit—wind, tree, field, and lake.