Imagery in the Georgia Wilderness
Some say the devil is in the details, but when it comes to imagery, I say the ‘difference’ is in the details. Imagine a picnic scene. Vivid, sensory descriptions are all that stand between a Monet-esque afternoon, and the third circle of Dante’s hell. On one hand we have gently swaying ash trees, rolling grasses, polished silver with scalloped edges, and starched, white doilies; on the other we have a threadbare blanket, an overcast sky, enormous deep-fried turkey legs, an ant army descending upon a glob of jelly, and greasy fingers digging into the basket for more. Could very well be the same picnic, but the images give us vastly different impressions. These descriptions not only color our perceptions of scenes, they give us a deeper understanding of the novel as a whole, particularly its theme.
In the novel, Deliverance, James Dickey reinforces the Darwinian theme – survival of the fittest, or, you have to adapt or you die – through his use of sensory and emotional imagery. Janet Burroway tells us in her book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, “... if you are to realize your characters through detail, then you must be careful to select the details that convey the characteristics essential to our understanding. You can’t convey a whole person, or a whole action, or everything there is to be conveyed about a single moment of a single day. You must select the significant” (Burroway 78). This goes back to the imaginary picnic. If the theme is ‘rich people are slobs and pigs on the inside’ wouldn’t it be better to use the latter description over the former? Of course that depends on the context of the rest of the novel. Looking at Deliverance, which is a story about survival at great physical and emotional costs, it would be strange if the narrator, Ed, who happens to be a novice hunter, only noticed fluffy tails, wiggling noses, and cute features when encountering animals. Those details have a time and place, but not in this novel. The imagery in the following passage is what separates Dickey from Disney.
“In the middle of this sound the tent shook; the owl had hold of it in the same place. I knew this before I but the light on – it was still in my hand, exactly as warm as I was – and saw the feet with the heel talons now also coming in. I pulled one hand out of the sleeping bag and saw it wander frailly up through the thin light until a finger touched the cold reptilian nail of one talon below the leg-scales. I had no idea of whether the owl felt me; I thought perhaps it would fly, but it didn’t. Instead, it shifted its weight again, and the claws on the foot I was touching loosened for a second. I slipped my forefinger between the claw and the tent, and half around the stony toe. The claw tightened; the strength had something nervous and tentative about it. It tightened more, very strongly but not painfully. I pulled back until the hand came away, and this time the owl took off.
All night the owl kept coming back to hunt from the top of the tent. I not only saw his feet when he came to us; I imagined what he was doing while he was gone, floating through the trees, seeing everything. I hunted with him as well as I could, there in my weightlessness. The woods burned in my head. Toward morning I could reach up and touch the claw without turning on the light” (Dickey 89).
Nothing is fluffy or friendly about this owl. Dickey uses words like ‘reptilian,’ ‘stony,’ ‘claw,’ and ‘scales’ to describe an animal that, in a different setting, might be considered cute. The image Dickey creates is that of a fit and efficient hunter, everything that Ed wants to be, and, in the end, is forced to become. In On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner, the author says that “... the writer who works closely with detail – studying his characters’ most trivial gestures in the imagined scene to discover exactly where the scene must go next – is the writer most likely to persuade and awe us” (Gardner 37). So much happens in this small scene where Ed touches the owl. Through his “most trivial gestures” we understand, or have an idea, of what has to happen next. Already we see Ed adapting himself for survival: “I hunted with him as well as I could,” and, “I could reach up and touch the claw without turning on the light.”
Sandra Scofield reminds us in her book, The Scene Book; A Primer for the Fiction Writer, to, “... keep in mind that you want details to be part of action, not tacked on for effect. And do remember to engage all of the reader’s senses, not just sight” (Scofield 112). The owl passage focuses more on touch than it does sight, but an even better example of “... integrat(ing) description – mak(ing) it a part of the flow of the action of the scene ...” (Scofield 111) occurs during a confrontation between the protagonists and two men who, “... stepped out of the woods, one of them trailing a shotgun by the barrel” (Dickey 107). The climax moment of this confrontation occurs in sounds:
“I knelt down. As my knees hit, I heard a sound, a snap-slap off in the woods, a sound like a rubber band popping or a sickle-blade cutting quick. The older man was standing with the gun barrel in his hand and no change in the stupid, advantage-taking expression of his face, and a foot and a half of bright red arrow was shoved forward from the middle of his chest. It was there so suddenly it seemed to have some from within him” (Dickey 116).
While Burroway tells us, “A detail is ‘definite’ and ‘concrete’ when it appeals to the senses. It should be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched” (Burroway 75), Dickey often creates images using a combination of abstract and sensual details. In the following passage there are a number of details that help us see the river on its surface level, “... as if [we] were a movie camera” (Gardner 71), but we also see it as Ed sees it, as something mindless, indifferent, and uncomprehending.
“What a view, I said again. The river was blank and mindless with beauty. It was the most glorious thing I have ever seen. But it was not seeing, really. For one it was not just seeing. It was beholding. I beheld the river in its icy pit of brightness, in its far-below sound and indifference, in it large coil and tiny points and flashes of the moon, in its long sinuous form, in its uncomprehending consequence. What was there?
Only that terrific brightness. Only a couple of rocks as big as islands, around one of which a thread of scarlet seemed to go, as though outlining a face, a kind of god, a layout for an ad, a sketch, an element of design” (Dickey 171).
One of the lengthier scenes in Deliverance depicts Ed climbing a mountain cliff. It is a simple enough action: man climbs mountain. But the massive amounts of sensory detail that go into the scene’s composition turn it into an intense conflict of man versus nature.
“I got on one knee and went cautiously outward, rising slowly with both hands palm-up on the underside of the fissure top. I was up, slanting backward, and I felt along and around the bulge over my head. To the right there was nothing I could do, but I was glad to be back. To the left the crevice went on beyond where I could reach, and the only thing to do was to edge along it, sidestepping inch by inch until only my toes, very tired again, were in the crack” (Dickey 175).
“Time after time I lay there sweating, having no handhold or foothold, the rubber of my toes bending back against the soft rock, my hands open. Then I would begin to try and inch upward again, moving with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman. Fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality lifted me, millimeter by millimeter” (Dickey 176).
What starts out as ‘man climbs mountain’ turns into ‘man f***s mountain.’ It makes sense in a way. There is an enormous amount of risk and physical exertion involved in climbing and in love making and Dickey uses this relationship between activities to not only create a visceral image for the reader but to also how Ed’s development in becoming a survivor. Scofield says, “... ‘description’ isn’t a discreet element in narrative” (Scofield 111), and there is certainly nothing discreet in Ed’s triumph over the mountain: “It was painful, but I was going. I was crawling, but it was no longer necessary to make love to the cliff, to f*** it for an extra inch or two in the moonlight, for I had some space between me and it” (Dickey 177).
The example of the picnic from the beginning gives us a taste of the spectrum of choices an author has to make when writing imagery into a scene, but Dickey’s text shows without a doubt the importance of making the right choices. In The Scene Book, Scofield says, “Forget those high school classes where you talked plot, setting, character, theme. Those things aren’t separate! You want your descriptions to exist as part of action and emotion, part of the meaning of your scenes” (Scofield 111). Imagery is just one piece of the puzzle. It’s a piece, if done well, that is entirely unique to each author, and even each character, and it’s the one that makes all the difference.
Burroway, Janet, and Susan Weinberg. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. New York: Longman, 2003. Print.
Dickey, James. Deliverance. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970. Print.
Gardner, John. On Becoming a Novelist. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.
Scofield, Sandra Jean. The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.
Amanda LaFantasie © October 2013