Masculinity and the Fear of Feminization in James Dickey's Deliverance
James Dickey’s novel, Deliverance, starts out tame enough, with four male friends deciding to go on a canoe trip on the fictional Cahulawassee River before it is calmed by the construction of a dam. That is where the tameness in the story ends. What is supposed to be a return-to-nature male bonding trip goes terribly wrong, starting before the men even enter the river. Dickey portrays murder and other bodily violence, including a graphic rape scene that is pivotal to the novel’s plot. This novel illustrates the disturbing obsession these characters have with masculinity, and the lengths that they will go to to avoid being feminized.
The narrator, Ed Gentry, is a middle aged graphic design executive and suburban family man. His life seems content enough, with little drama, but Ed feels suffocated by his life. Prior to going on the canoe trip, he finds his life dull and boring. One day, on a walk back to his office, Ed becomes very aware of the fact that he is the singular man on a street surrounded by women. This ordinarily would be an event of little consequence, but for Ed it is a peace shattering experience. The sight of the women “filled [him] with desolation” (Dickey 15), and he desperately looks for another male to identify with, to confirm his masculinity in a sea of women. This experience on his walk is the catalyst for Ed having a seemingly existential crisis.
“The feeling of inconsequence of whatever I would do, of anything I would pick up or think about or turn to see was at that moment being set in the very bone marrow. How does one get through this? I asked myself. By doing something that is at hand to be done was the best answer I could give; that and not saying anything about the feeling to anyone. It was the old mortal, helpless, time-terrified human feeling, just the same” (Dickey 18).
In order to reclaim his masculinity that is hanging in the balance, Ed decides to go on the canoe trip arranged by the hypermasculine Lewis. The novel focuses heavily on the danger of the river, how it is untouched by man, and how the group must experience the river before its uncontrolled power is subdued by the dam. Lewis is the one who wants to go on the trip the most, and he emphasizes how exhilarating it would be to go on an adventure in such a uncultivated area. Regarding the river, he says “right now it’s wild, and I mean wild,” and his words have a mesmerizing effect on Ed as he tries “to visualize the land as Lewis said it was at that moment, unvisited and free” (Dickey 4). Lewis’s powerful description of the river is what persuades the rest of the group to go on the trip, because of the promises it holds for them.
In his article, “The Savage Mind: James Dickey’s Deliverance,” Keen Butterworth remarks on the power of the river as “life-giving but dangerous, vitalizing...It is the river of origins, chaotic, and primitive...The river is raw and wild” (71). This is the appeal of going on the trip for Ed, to get in touch with his primitive masculine nature, and test his ability to survive using only his physicality. Once they reach the river, Ed is in awe of it all, and it empowers him.
“It felt profound, its motion built into it by the composition of the earth for hundreds of miles upstream and down, and by thousands of years. The standing there was so good, so fresh and various and continuous, so vital and uncaring around my genitals, that I hated to leave it” (Dickey 75).
The raw nature of the river gives Ed exactly what he had been seeking: a feeling of
masculinity that he was lacking before. His focus on the vitality surrounding his genitals is significant compared to his earlier plight of feeling as “impotent as a ghost” (Dickey 18). Already, the river has given Ed a new sense of masculinity. There is something about being in nature that is connected with male sexuality.
As Lewis discussed before, the men can only rely on their own and each other’s outdoorsmen skills in order to survive in the wilderness. Ed realizes this and ponders its meaning, saying “...I was in a place where none- or almost none- of my daily ways of living my life would work; there was no habit I could call on. Is this freedom?” (Dickey 93). Being in a new environment where everything is unfamiliar, will be a challenge for Ed. But, an aspect of masculinity is being able to overcome challenges, especially when it involves physical exertion, which is exactly what Ed is going to have to do.
The entirety of this novel is a case study in masculinity, including the acceptable and unacceptable qualities and behaviors of men. The savage danger of the river, and finding the strategies to survive it create the perfect scenario for distinguishing the ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ examples of men.
In her article “The Worst Fate: Male Rape as Masculinity Epideixis in James Dickey’s Deliverance and The American Prison Narrative,” Angela Farmer discusses how as a society, men are rewarded and punished in terms of their ability to conform to the traditional view of masculinity.
“...there are penalties for failing to meet these standards [of useful masculinity]; in other words, men become categorized as ‘manly’ in order to avoid the punishment of becoming ‘unmanly’...We identify manly-men when we observe them and recognize their endorsement by culture (often the only way we recognize endorsement is by a lack of punishment); likewise, we identify unmanly-men when we observe them and recognize their condemnation” (104-105).
These categories that Farmer describes are extremely pronounced in Deliverance, mainly with the contrasting characters of Lewis and Bobby. Lewis is seen as the ideal male: physically fit, attractive, commanding, and seemingly without fear. Due to these qualities, Ed practically worships him, and confirms this with the audience by saying “I would have followed him anywhere…” (Dickey 128).
When the men disrobe and decide to wade in the river, Ed is fascinated by Lewis’s body. “I looked at him, for I have never seen him with his clothes off...I had never seen such a male body in my life, even in the pictures…” (Dickey 102). This is an interesting moment in the novel, as Ed cannot seem to take his eyes off of Lewis. It serves as a contrast to an earlier moment, when Ed is remembering the scene with the Kitts model. Ed gives lots of details regarding the Kitts model, including how exactly she is posed and looks, but for Ed, it is almost a voyeuristic pleasure to look at her semi-clothed body. He describes it as “raping her secrecy” (Dickey 21), and that modesty would be almost more pleasurable to him than seeing her body in full view. While Ed seems discomposed with the model, he does not experience any of this uncomfortableness when his eyes linger on Lewis’s naked body. It is not a homoerotic pleasure that he receives in viewing Lewis’s body, but rather admiration of his optimal masculine physique.
To Ed, Lewis is “the only man I knew who could do with his life exactly what he wanted to do...He was the only man I knew determined to get something out of life who had both the means and the will to do it…” (Dickey 5-6). Lewis is the kind of man that Ed wishes he could be, to the point that Ed transforms into someone similar to Lewis as the novel goes on.
After Drew dies and Lewis is injured, Ed becomes the authority on all matters. It is Ed who takes charge of the group and becomes the commanding force, telling Bobby what to do. When he devises the plan for Bobby to escape in the canoe with Lewis, Ed speaks expertly as if nothing could go wrong with his plan. He is so sure of himself that he says to Bobby “...we’re going to play this my way. And I swear to God that if you don’t do exactly what I say I’ll kill you myself. It’s that goddamn simple” (Dickey 158). Ed is so wrapped up in his new masculine role, that he resorts to the most stereotypical aspect of masculinity when trying to control Bobby, which is violence.
Ed acts the same way when they are freed from the river, in regards to the story he crafts to tell the police. Even when he thinks there will be doubts, he sticks to his story and tells Bobby that there is no way the sheriff could see through it. With the prime masculine example incapacitated, Ed fulfills the role he has desperately desired as the commanding masculine figure.
In contrast with the hypermasculine Lewis, Bobby is shown as an effeminate male, mainly through his rape and its aftereffects. Dickey’s choice to have Bobby get raped, instead any of the other characters, is intentional. Before the trip even starts, Dickey portrays Bobby as a passive man, and this passivity aligns himself with femininity, making him the only viable choice to suffer the rape.
When they are discussing the plans for the canoe trip, Bobby views it almost like a midlife crisis and says “‘They tell me that this is the kind of thing that gets hold of middle class householders every once in a while. But most of them just lie down till the feeling passes’” (Dickey 5). Bobby’s remark to his restless friends to just lie down and ignore their feelings foreshadows the violence that will be imposed on him, where he will have to take his own advice and lie down until it is over. Bobby is the quickest to complain once the canoe trip starts, and he has the most trouble paddling and maneuvering in the river. While these do not necessarily make Bobby feminine, they are certainly not masculine, and put him and odds with the rest of the men.
Bobby’s rape is the scene where Dickey makes it very clear that Bobby has been feminized, and that is what makes him different from the rest of the characters. Dickey describes Bobby’s body as “pink” and “hairless” and refers to his undergarments as “panties” instead of the traditional male boxers or briefs (113). All three of these identifiers are primarily associated with women, and thus the rape feminizes Bobby, symbolically removing him from the rest of the group. Dickey’s choice to have the character use the diminutive of Robert is a deliberate stylistic choice because it implies a boyishness, another way to make Bobby seems less of a man (Farmer 113).
Farmer discusses the significance of the male on male rape, and what it means for Bobby’s character, and says
“...in a dualistic system, we still only have two options for sexual identification, active or passive, even when the body violated is a male body we read sexual aggression along the same paradigm where one subject assumes the masculine while the other assumes the feminine. For a man to be raped is for him to be feminized and, in a misogynistic culture, this is a fate worse than death” (107).
Bobby’s rape is received a threat to the masculinity for the group as a whole, and as a
result, none of the men are very sympathetic towards Bobby. The fact that Ed was so close to being sexually violated but was not, is a close enough call for him. This threat was an attack on his masculinity, especially because he was helpless and had to be rescued by the more masculine Lewis. The men try to distance themselves from Bobby and what happened to him.
Ed’s thoughts about Bobby and his rape seem to contradict one another. At first, he said that “none of this was [Bobby’s] fault,” but then he “remembered how [Bobby] had looked over the log, how willing to let anything be done to him…” (Dickey 128). Ed automatically moves away from Bobby when he moves closer to him, saying that Bobby “felt tainted” to him (Dickey 128). Ed’s sense of compassion weakens as he becomes more masculine, and does not feel much sympathy for Bobby at all. Ed is blaming Bobby for being the victim, perhaps thinking that a better man would have fought back or been able to avoid the rape. Since Ed feels emasculated by his almost sexual assault, he further distances himself from Bobby by creating a new scenario of what happened, one where he will not be sympathetic to Bobby.
“What would keep his mouth shut about the truth was himself kneeling over the log with
a shotgun at this head, howling and bawling and kicking his feet like a little boy. He wouldn’t want anybody to know that, no matter what…” (Dickey 268).
In order to separate himself from Bobby, Ed becomes active and embraces violence in his
search for the other mountain man. His action serves as a contrast from passive Bobby, as Ed seeks to be an aggressor rather than a victim. In her article “Banjo Boy: Masculinity, Disability, and Difference in Deliverance” Anna Creadick states “...Dickey aims to prove that it is not the capacity for love but the capacity for violence that makes men survive, that makes men men” (71). Ed is attempting to define his masculinity in terms of committing acts of violence, as well as a masochistic pleasure in the violence that is done to him and his ability to survive it.
When thinking of how they all fell out of their canoes in the rapids, Ed says he was “strangely...glad” and that it was “terrifyingly enjoyable, except that [he] hurt in so many places” (Dickey 145). Ed takes pleasure in his pain yet again when he has to cut his own arrow out of his arm. He says “[t]here had never been a freedom like it. The pain itself was freedom, and the blood” (Dickey 195). As Creadick stated, it is Ed’s capacity for violence, that is what makes him a man. By Ed taking pleasure in the violence that he faces, it makes him all the more masculine. Similar to how Ed assumed the commanding male role when he was ordering Bobby around, he is assuming another aspect of the male role: physicality. Ed thinks that an essential part of being a man is being in tune with his physical body. This becomes increasingly prominent leading up to his killing of the mountain man.
Ed reverts to an almost animal-like state, tracking the mountain man down after he shot him. He gets down on his hands and knees to track the man, like a predator hunting down his prey. Ed even begins “smelling for blood like an animal” in order to better track the mountain man (Dickey 199). Ed is in such a primitive mindset, obsessed with the violence he committed, that he briefly entertains the notion of cannibalism when discussing what he should do with the dead man’s body. In his search for masculinity, Ed becomes the word in its most primitive sense. He is lustful for violence, as he deems it necessary for survival. Masculinity in its most basic sense of the word, is about the able to survive and endure anything that comes in your path, and that is what Ed does. His killing of the mountain man is the ultimate act of separation from Bobby, because while Bobby was rendered hopeless by his aggressor, Ed was able to get revenge on the man who threatened his masculinity and dignity.
James Dickey’s Deliverance paints a harrowing picture of what can go wrong in the Southern wilderness. Even more horrifying is the toxic masculinity that he embraces in his characters and their actions. The egos of these men are all so fragile that they are solely dependent on their masculinity as a way to define themselves. Ed becomes so wrapped up in his quest for masculinity that he loses all sense of compassion and human empathy. Instead of comforting his friend, Ed is disgusted by Bobby and spends the rest of the novel trying to distance himself and become the ultimate masculine male. He makes it seem like he is doing it for the safety of the group, but he is really trying to exact revenge on the man who came close to feminizing him. The entirety of the novel’s plot is due to the men’s obsession with masculinity and fear that they do not measure up to the ideal form of it. Without the obsession and constant striving to be the ‘manlier’ man, there would be no canoe trip, and James Dickey would have no novel.
Barnett, Pamela. “James Dickey’s Deliverance: Southern, White, Suburban Male Nightmare or
Dream Come True?” Forum for Modern Language Studies, vol. 40, no. 2, 2004, pp.
Butterworth, Keen. “The Savage Mind: James Dickey’s Deliverance.” The Southern Literary
Journal, vol. 28, no. 2, 1996, pp. 69-78.
Creadick, Anna. “Banjo Boy: Masculinity, Disability, and Difference in Deliverance.” Southern
Cultures, vol. 23, no. 1, 2017, pp. 63-78.
Dickey, James. Deliverance. Delta Fiction, 1970.
Farmer, Angela. “The Worst Fate: Male Rape as Masculinity Epideixis in James Dickey’s
Deliverance and the American Prison Narrative.” Atenea, vol. 28, no. 1, 2008, pp.