Atrocities in Stafford's Traveling Through the Dark
Is a drive just a drive, or is it a metaphor that imparts appreciation for life's fragility while simultaneously lamenting man's inability to appropriately confront, or understand, death? William Stafford's "Traveling Through the Dark" illustrates the mechanisms by which seemingly mundane events become probes into the mystery and ambiguity of the human condition.
The poem's situation is simple, a lone traveler driving along a desolate canyon road spots a felled deer; the traveler, desiring neither to hit the deer, nor by swerving to avoid it, hurtle his car over the canyon precipice, stops his vehicle and proceeds to push the fallen animal over the canyon face, into the river below. As the driver struggles to displace the cold, stiff deer corpse he senses warmth emanating from its abdomen, it's an unborn fawn. Realizing that life remains in the body he had assumed dead, the traveler hesitates. Finally, he pushes the deer, one dead and the other not yet alive, off the road and into the chasm.
While the poem's situation is simple, its theme is not. Stafford appears to be intimating that life is precious and fragile; however, nothing so clearly discloses these attributes of life as confrontation with death. Furthermore, the very confrontations that engender appreciation of life's delicacies force action-all to frequently callous action.
Hence, the poem's tone contains elements of remorse as well as impassivity. The traveler's detached description of the mother, "...a doe, a recent killing; / she had stiffened already, almost cold" (6-7), and the wistful detail with which he depicts her unborn offspring, "...her fawn lay there waiting...
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...iver. Because the deer's killer was a man behind the wheel of an automobile the traveler shares some relation with him. The traveler's anguish, his "bleeding", is the realization that he is implicated in the murder of the deer through his association to the actual killer.
If expanded further, this metaphor can be applied to the entire human experience. All humanity is like a traveler driving through the dark. At varying junctions in our experiences we are, inevitably, both the discoverers and perpetrators of atrocities; the confusion surrounding our responses to theses junctions is the darkness we travel through.
Stafford ends the poem after the traveler pushes the deer into the canyon's depths. We don't need to be told he returns to his car and drives on, we know it intrinsically, it's what each of us would have done, what each of us must do.
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