© CB Bassity 1996 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Before anyone researched contemporary
urban legends, we had little reason not to believe these alluring gems.
Especially when our neighbor Jack's brother-in-law knew the guy who bought
the late-model Mercedes Benz for $25. You know, the guy who answered the
classified ad he thought must have been a typo, but it turned out to be
the vengeful wife of a man who ran off with his secretary and called home
from Florida, saying, "Sorry, kiddo--listen, you keep the house and everything,
just sell the car and send me the money, and we'll call it square."
Who could resist such stuff? The convincing propinquity of "so-and-so's friend" who knew the person involved, combined with humor or rough justice, served to drive home the appeal. One of the locally-famous Mathis Brothers, of furniture store fame, was known to have shown up at a hospital ER with a live gerbil lodged in his rectum from sexplay gone awry. Although the rectally-compromised party was a Seattle newscaster if you lived there. These days we have an ear for these stories and often recognize them for what they are. But few people realize that, as our research clearly demonstrates, James Dickey's 1970 novel, Deliverance, emanates from the "dead-mother-in-law-in-the-canoe-on-the-car-roof" legend of the late 1960s.
In 1968 and 1969 the story circulated about a man who was vacationing at a lake or river with his wife and her mother, when the elder woman died. Of heart attack or some such--the exact nature of her demise is irrelevant.
Due to the expense and legal complications of transporting a dead body, the couple bundled the corpse into their canoe and headed home directly, with the idea of revising history to establish a death at home for the woman. The two stopped at a restaurant for dinner along the route home, only to find afterward that their car--canoe, mother-in-law, and all--had been stolen.
This story had such irresistible appeal that it ranged throughout the United States and into Canada. Just as people say, "I remember November, 1963, sitting in seventh-grade English when Bill Rooney came in and said President Kennedy's been shot," in the same way they remember: "Herb, in frozen foods, was standing by the dairy case saying his cousin knew the guy--and even had seen the canoe once." James Dickey never acknowledged a mother-in-law-in-the-canoe connection to his novel, but the evidence overwhelms any effort at refutal.
Although Deliverance makes no mention of a mother-in-law, we know from the seminal  work, Jungian Concepts in Marital Dynamics, that the specter of his wife's mother and her disapproval hangs over every married man, regardless of his conscious awareness or lack of same (Strater and Brown 216-18, 315). Freud also addresses the matter, although from a slightly dissimilar perspective. The typical husband's id, prevented only by the cautionary effects of the superego, seeks always to both wrap the mother-in-law in a heavy blanket or carpet remnant and send her on a long journey--canoe, train, ocean-liner; it matters not by what means (Greenburg, vol. 3, 415-29). Although, to the credit of the race, a study in the journal Matters of Matriarchy found that only 11.8% of married men would send the blanket-wrapped or carpeted woman to the river Styx (Vol. 87, 48-52).
Thus we resolve that Dickey, in sending his protagonist Ed Gentry and four friends down the Georgia river in canoes, which they carry to the river outing on top of their cars, subjugates his mother-in-law enmity into his work and sends it (her) down the river. The novel's symbolism focuses on deliverance not, as we shall demonstrate, from suburban ennui but from the disagreeable predicament of knowing that at any time one's mother-in-law might drop by for an extended visit.
Early in the novel, Ed Gentry ponders his dreary suburban life. Although he loves his wife, he fantasizes about a lithe and nubile model he met the day before. The implication is simple and clear: Gentry wants the young girl, whose unfettered sexuality, symbolized by the river flowing between (but never hindered or stopped by) its banks, would come (in Gentry's idealized fancy) free of any mother-in-law appendage; and thus the four men, symbolizing the four directions of the compass and therefore all the world or freedom, must ride the river--the girl, or more accurately, her sexuality--in order to free the world, their world anyway, of the collectively unconscious manifestation of the universal mother-in-law as she is expressed in the macrocosm of commercial enterprise, from which Gentry wishes desperately to escape--at least for the weekend.
This matter of macrocosmically representational plot schemes symbolizing the internal conflict of both author and protagonist has been discussed very effectively by Moorehead in Contemporary Studies of the Novel (15:37-8), although Pugh takes a slightly different tack, leaning more toward the microcosm than the macro- in Studies of the Contemporary Novel (7: 25-6).
The authorial Dickey finds, however, that merely canoeing the river accomplishes little. Further narrative difficulty is necessary if Gentry is to resolve his dilemma. Relative to the terms of the urban legend, then, no one has stolen the car.
This difficulty explains the two menacing strangers encountered along the river. The toothless one clearly is a stand-in for a mother-in-law. He is the one who holds the shotgun to Bobby's head, forcing him to submit to the other man's anal assault. The toothless man's position, standing over the action, symbolizes the mother-in-law's position in marriage: only technically non-participatory.
The man's toothlessness reveals Dickey's unconscious desire that a mother-in-law, his or any, have no teeth. And Bobby's position, on his knees and bent submissively forward with pants down, reveals Dickey's internalized construct of marital in-law relationships.
Perhaps the central image of the novel is Ed Gentry's climb up the sheer rock face of the river's west bank. This monumental undertaking, rendered in lengthy, poetic detail, corresponds to the legendary vacationer's task of loading the mother-in-law's corpse into the canoe on the roof of the car. The centrality of expended effort toward freedom--deliverance--in both novel and legend, involves challenging vertical activity. Anyone skeptical about Dickey's inspiration for the novel, should wrap a corpse in carpet and try to push it up the side of a car and into a canoe.
We suggest that an untapped wealth of critical scope exists in urban-folklorish genesis of contemporary literature. This burgeoning field awaits only bold scholars who are willing to ignore the taunts of envious and less imaginative minds.
Strater, William C., and Edgar Brown. Jungian Concepts of Marital Dynamics. Watertown: Baxter UP, 1979.
Zybrginski, Joe. "Sons-in-Law Who Say They Would." Matters of Matriarchy. Vol 87 Spring 1985.
And some other stuff.
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