Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
What constitutes “the best” in novels? This is a question that came up again and again for me as I read through the Modern Library’s list. I accepted at the outset, having scanned the list before beginning to read, that the old familiar bias permeated it—what has been popularly referred to as the “dead white men” bias. Even with this level of acceptance, #42 on the list, Deliverance, by James Dickey, was shocking to me. And not in a good way.
Deliverance is probably best known through its film adaptation with Ned Beatty and Burt Reynolds representing the opposite ends of the manliness spectrum. It is the story of a group of men seeking to reconnect with or rekindle their masculinity. The narrator/protagonist is the “sensitive” one, not especially weak but not especially virile either, eager to test himself but not the one with the quasi-suicidal compulsions. It is a man’s tale of a typical kind, in which the civilized man regains his self-identity by confronting the challenge of violence presented by nature and by uncivilized men.
This novel also belongs to what I’ve come to recognize as a subgenre of misogyny: an artistic backlash against the growing feminism of the time, and most particularly against female sexuality (see Straw Dogs for a another stunning example).
An iconic scene is that in which the least manly of the men is raped like a pig by the subhuman men. As is revealed in the last scene of the book, however—a scene mercifully or perhaps wisely left out of the movie—his position wasn’t so much pig-like as woman-like. In this last scene our sensitive protagonist returns home to his wife after this harrowing, chest-hair-growing adventure and proceeds to screw her (vulgarity intended), as is his right and duty, in a way that mimics his fellow traveler’s ordeal. The author is not content just to depict this parallel; the character himself remarks on it and defines it. In this scene the author commits not only an attitudinal sin but also a stylistic one. He might have left this parallel to us readers to discern for ourselves. The impression would have been just as distasteful, but literarily it would not have been the club to the head that it is.
This novel is obscene—not merely pornographic, like Tropic of Cancer, but objectionable in its sex-based themes. Depicting the notion that men struggle with their manliness is not enough, it seems. This novel has to do so at the express expense of women. Moreover, the sensitive man becomes fully male again only by embracing extreme violence.
Deliverance was published in 1970. As it happens, so was a novel powerfully influential in my reading life, The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. How this consciousness-shifting work was passed over while so many of the white men, dead and alive, made the list is baffling.
The story told in The Bluest Eye is harrowing also, but this author’s understanding of humanity is deep and compassionate (while also furious). Morrison’s novel is not shock-worthy but rather, in its wisdom and eloquence, quite necessary.
I intentionally gave away the key scenes of Deliverance. I don’t want anyone else to bother reading this book. With your free time, go read The Bluest Eye.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.