The Ambiguous ‘It’ of Men We Reaped’s DeLisle

When people ask me about my hometown, I tell them it was called after a wolf before it was partially tamed and settled. I want to impart something of its wild roots, its early savagery. Calling it Wolf Town hints at the wildness at the heart of it.

I want to tell them, but don’t: I’ve seen foxes, small and red and thin-boned, darting along ditches before slipping into woods again. This thing that I saw once was different. It was night, and my friends and I were riding through a part of DeLisle that had been previously untouched, a wild tangle of wood that someone had cut a dead-end road into in hopes of building a subdivision. The creature loped out of the woods before us, and we startled and shouted, and it looked at us and loped back into the darkness, and it was darkness, colored black, and had a long, fine snout, and it was soundless, this wild thing that looked at us like the intruders that we were before we drove away from it to more well-traveled roads, away from that place that was everything but dead end, that place that seemed all beginning, a birthplace: Wolf Town.

But I am not that eloquent, so I shut my mouth and smile. (Ward 9,10)

DeLisle, Mississippi, is not a town that simply exists. DeLisle is a force that decides the death, pain, and sadness that those within its reach suffer from. Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward, is about the social predator Ward grew up cowering from—the same predator that hunted and killed five of the people closest to her: Southern society. Ward makes the deliberate viciousness of her society tangible in her creation of a wolf-like creature that haunts the entirety of her memoir. The verbicide of “it” and the alternating use of falsely associated animalistic and non-animalistic diction in this passage culminate in the representation of DeLisle as a place alive with dangerous intentions.

Through ambiguous references to “it,” Ward dances between the descriptions of her town and this wolf-like creature. The dictionary definition of “it” is brief: “that one just mentioned” (“It”). In this passage, however, Ward abuses the definition of the word. Her alternating use of “it” to define Wolf Town, DeLisle’s founding name, and the wolf-like creature she once encountered confuses the reader. Ward uses “it” eleven times throughout the passage: seven refer to DeLisle and only four refer to the creature. Ward’s primary emphasis on defining “it” as the town allows this identification to linger and transpose itself onto the less established “it” of the creature. Thus, Ward creates the unconscious melding of the creature and the town in the reader’s perception. To protect the subtlety of this linkage, Ward clarifies upon second thought which subject she is actually referring to when she uses the pronoun “it.” Yet, when she does use “it” rather than “Wolf Town,” “DeLisle,” or “the creature,” she uses adjectives that are applicable to both potential subjects of “it.” Ward creates this interchangeability of “it” within her writing to allow the reader to grasp onto the interchangeability of the town and wolf-creature within the analogy. This presence of ambiguity and Ward’s manipulation of the antecedent-pronoun relationship builds the framework that allows Ward to disclose the dark, sinister nature of her home. While un-linking “it” from a clear association with either the town or the creature is already shaping the reader’s impressions of the town, the way in which Ward describes “it” in this passage reinforces the reader’s sense of entanglement of the two entities.

Ward begins her two-part definition of “it” by clearly defining the “it” as her hometown of DeLisle. In the first paragraph, Ward’s ways of describing the “it” of her town all reference animalistic qualities: “it was partially tamed and settled,” “its wild roots, its early savagery,” “the wildness at the heart of it” (Ward, 9). While establishing why she has a preference of calling DeLisle “Wolf Town,” Ward covertly indicates that this preference is because of the animal nature of DeLisle. By saying that DeLisle came to be called DeLisle only after partial taming and settlement, Ward furthers the concept that this wildness is inconspicuous: it lingers and dwells in the corners of the town. The evil of this wildness seems almost imperceptible to those who are not constantly feeling the pressures and consequences of it. Ward feels these consequences materialize in the five deaths that result from this uncageable force. To Ward, this wildness can be nothing but uncontrollable evil. Especially in the way she links “tamed” and “settled” Ward imparts the dualism between the wolf and the town; “tamed” is an animalistic word, found more often associated with domestication of animals, whereas “settled” is a civilization-based word. Yet, Ward uses both to explain the origins of DeLisle. The premature inhabitance of DeLisle speaks to the uncontrollable force that is suppressed, but then lashes out in the form of these deaths and tragedies that Ward is trying to expose. Ward then describes “it,” the town, as having “wild roots” and “early savagery” (9). “Roots” again calls the idea of a violence so ingrained in DeLisle’s society. “Savagery” is crucial because, while wildness can simply exist, “savagery” implies the insidiousness, the deliberateness of evil. To truly establish this binding of the town and the animal, Ward’s last sentence of the first paragraph, “Calling it Wolf Town hints at the wildness at the heart of it,” gives the town a heart, and more specifically, a wild one (9). Here, Ward strengthens the concept that the town is a living creature. The heart is known as an indicator of the soul. Ward has already defined wildness as synonymous with evil. Now, while she repeats an unclarified “it” twice in this sentence, she closes the sentence speaking to that evil heart at the center of her town. The body-based nature of the word “heart,” however, easily lends itself into Ward’s establishment of the town and the wolf-like creature as one. Ward prefaces her introduction of the “it” of a creature by the creation of this bind—the bind of the town and the creature with the most intimate representation of animate essence: the heart.

Ward’s anecdote on her interaction with this strange creature is where she uses “it” to refer to the core character of DeLisle: “It was night,” “it was darkness,” “it was soundless” (10). The parallel structure of these sentences is misleading, considering the “it” Ward is superficially referring to varies between these. The first sentence refers just to the setting, while the following two speak directly of the creature. Ward’s ambiguous use of “it” is prevalent without the non-identifying adjectives, so now to further that vagueness by describing the creature the same as she does the town and the world around her, anchors this dualism. Ward has designed this passage so that it does not matter which “it” she is superficially speaking to--the creature and her town are one and the same. The entanglement of savagery, civilization, darkness, night, soundlessness all speak to the society Jesmyn Ward grew up in. This society that is so palpable, yet Ward labors over the task of articulating it.

Ward takes great care to not tell the reader what exactly DeLisle is because it is undefinable. The delicate interpretation she guides the reader to through her obscure use of “it” and equally obscure diction, is the same manner in which she must engage in her own analysis of the town. The happenings of DeLisle are not describable in casualty, they are venous and whispered, which creates the deafening silence that Ward attempts to break with her memoir. “But, I am not that eloquent, so I shut my mouth and smile,” Ward writes (10). But it is not the eloquence of the passage that Ward is truly unsure of. It is the eloquence of this complex intertwinement of evil and life that riddles DeLisle. It is the delicate relationship Ward struggles to convey. It is the inherent maliciousness in her society that leads Ward to later deem those that live in Wolf Town as “creatures,” just as she had described the town. And so, she states on her last few pages, “we who survive; we are savages,” just as the origins of her town, the traces of the wolf, are all savage (250).

Works Cited

  1. "It." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.
  2. Ward, Jesmyn. Men We Reaped. New York: Bloomsburg USA, 2014. Print.