William Faulkner would invariably respond to questions about the use of biblical allusions in his fiction by referring to what he called “the lumber room” or “the carpenter’s shop” where he kept his “tools,” particularly the experience of a southern Christian background: “I grew up with that. I assimilated that, took that in without even knowing it. It’s just there. It has nothing to do with how much of it I might believe or disbelieve—it’s just there” (Faulkner, 1959). Such comments seem like disclaimers, warning readers against attaching too much importance to what Faulkner said were merely “instinctive” (p. 68) authorial moves, but in fact they are instructions in how to read him: how to engage his specific rendering of a deep, virtually genetic cultural force as it functions within a fictional, thickly localized, small-town southern world.

Although Faulkner claimed that the Old Testament was of greater interest to him (see Alter, 2010, pp. 78–113), his use of the New Testament Gospel narratives provides us with perhaps the most vivid examples of how the Bible asserts itself unmistakably in his fiction even as it melds into a local scene that, thoroughly absorbed in its habitual ways, exploits the biblical presence, revises it, and may even seem to pervert it, toward a reader’s fresh understanding of the local as well as the biblical tool that becomes fully implicated in the novel’s dramatic whole.

The Sound and the Fury.

The major biblical reference in The Sound and the Fury comes in the last section, when it becomes evident that the present time of the novel is Easter weekend 1928, highlighted by an African American Easter Sunday service. Conduct of the service reveals retroactively the utter indifference of the white Compson family toward Easter, and implicitly toward the Easter themes of crucifixion, resurrection, and salvation. The narrator of this section, unlike the stream-of-consciousness monologues of Benjy, Quentin, and Jason, is, as Faulkner once said of his own stance in writing the section, “completely out of the book” (“An Introduction to The Sound and the Fury,” 1994, p. 231). What Faulkner was getting at is that at this point, the writing assumes the detachment of an outside observer, capable of accurate description while maintaining a certain objectivity even when, Faulkner fashion, pulling out the rhetorical stops. The narrator’s account of the Reverend Shegog’s sermon and the congregation’s response to it is a set piece of soaring prose: “And the congregation seemed to watch with its own eyes while the voice consumed him, until he was nothing and they were nothing and there was not even a voice but instead their hearts were speaking to one another in chanting measures beyond the need for words” (The Sound and the Fury, 1990, p. 294). The description, however, quickly gives way to the language of the sermon itself: a rich dialect of impassioned call and response, rapt voices shouting toward an annunciation of vision that makes strangely irrelevant the previous portentous prose.

Reverend Shegog roams freely through the New Testament, altering, telescoping, and creating events: “I got de ricklickshun en de blood of de Lamb!” (Rev 7:14; p. 295), rendering as equal the call to remember and the blood of Jesus itself; he invokes Jesus challenged not just to come down from the cross (Matt 27:40–43) but “Ef you be Jesus lif up yo tree en walk!” (p. 296), thus conflating Jesus with the paralyzed man whom earlier he urges, “Stand up, take your bed and go to your home” (Matt 9:6; Matthews, 1982, p. 109). The Reverend identifies Jesus with the congregation: “dem little chillen settin dar. Jesus wus like dat once. He mammy suffered de glory en de pangs,” but Mary quickly elides into “de weepin en de lamentation of de po mammy widout de salvation en de word of God,” leading to a climax of despair: “I hears de weepin en de cryin en de turnt-away face of God: dey done kilt Jesus; dey done kilt my Son,” with the Father becoming “de widowed God” (pp. 295–296). Punctuating this disordered biblical run is the congregation’s repeating response: “Yes, Jesus! Jesus!,” culminating with Reverend and congregation in the single role of witness: “I sees it breddren! I sees hit! Sees de blastin, blindin sight! I sees Calvary,” echoed by “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm! Jesus! I sees, O Jesus!” (pp. 295–296).

The gap between the service, with its visual access to a “ ‘blindin sight,’ ” and the narrator’s attempts at a commensurate prose is a gap wide enough to suggest a religious experience outside traditional Christianity itself, unavailable to the Compsons, the narrator, the reader, or the writer who “grew up with that” and “assimilated that, took that in without even knowing it.” The service is an example, as Noel Polk (1993, p. 173) writes, of “a direct, unfiltered experience of that which is being signified. … Jesus, in this frame, is in effect a signified which cannot have a sufficient signifier.” The powerful evocation of a Christian faith marked by its apparent inaccessibility is a tragically ironic version of a distance, a broken communication, between black and white worlds that exists throughout Faulkner’s fiction, frequently enacted on biblically resonant ground.

Light in August.

Joe Christmas is an unmistakable Christ figure in Light in August, yet the influences that shape his development from birth are so perverse, and their effect so harshly manifest in his behavior, that readers are often hesitant to make any significant identification. (For exceptions see Hlavsa, 1980, and Donald M. Kartiganer, 1979.) One characteristic of Joe Christmas that leads beyond his name toward deeper associations is the ambiguity of his origin, the absence of solid information as to his racial identity. The result is that Joe remains ignorant all his life about the most important knowledge he must possess in the early 1930s South, when the novel was written and when his life ends in a violent execution: the knowledge of whether he is white or black—with “one drop” of black blood as the difference-maker (see Williamson, 1984, pp. 459–482).

The condition of unknowing is a given for Joe, but his response to it is uniquely daring, even tragically hubristic, given the impossibility of its realization or acceptance in the society he inhabits. He chooses neither of the identities available to him: he can continue to “pass,” as he has done all his life, except for those moments when he deliberately divulges his possible blackness; or he can also become part of the black community as a “high brown” (Light in August, 1990, p. 72).

Instead he chooses not to choose, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he finally realizes, retrospectively, that he has always chosen. During a moment of doubt regarding his deepening involvement with Joanna Burden, Joe looks back on “the savage and lonely street which he had chosen of his own free will, waiting for him, thinking This is not my life, I don’t belong here” (Light in August, p. 258). Later, still doubting, yet now contemplating possible marriage to Joanna—“Why not? It would mean ease, security, for the rest of your life. You would never have to move again” (p. 265)—he again rejects the notion: “No. If I give in now, I will deny all the thirty years that I have lived to make me what I chose to be” (p. 265). What Joe has chosen is identity literally without meaning in his world, an assault on the very concept of identity, an unnameable no man’s land that members of either race must find unfathomable and intolerable.

The great irony of the novel is that Joe Christmas eventually becomes “black” not because he openly claims it, but because it is thrust upon him with no more evidence than when he was a child. When Joanna Burden is found murdered, an accusation that Joe is black condemns him, despite the accuser’s well-known unreliability as a witness. Joe’s racial ambiguity is resolved according to (white) community convention, the standard arbiter of judgment: if there is violence in the community, particularly of a singularly brutal kind, then the way to contain it, like starting one fire to combat another, is to find a black man as its source.

Definitively identified as a black murderer, Joe begins a Passion Week of being “what I chose to be,” by acting alternately “blackly” and “whitely,” as he and his society understand those terms. He does not flee the territory—“show he is a nigger, even if nothing else” (Light in August, p. 309)—yet he easily evades his pursuers. Finally, after pausing to get a shave and a haircut in town, he simply walks the main street until recognized and taken into custody. His attempt to escape—thus guaranteeing his death—after accepting a life sentence is his last act of contradiction, his paradoxical determination to remain beyond standard racial categorizations.

In trying to embody an impossible identity, Christmas is seeking a wholeness of being composed of different species that must remain absolutely distinct. As one unnamed townsman succinctly puts it, “He never acted like either a nigger or a white man. That was it. That was what made the folks so mad” (Light in August, p. 350). It is here, most dramatically in Faulkner’s work, that the local scene of his South, deeply rooted in specific racial, religious, and sexual mores, develops organically a profound intertextual relationship with biblical material that Faulkner has chosen as “the most effective way to tell what he is trying to tell” (Faulkner, 1959, p. 117). The racial divide that Joe Christmas threatens to cross is comparable to the divide of the human and the divine that Jesus brings into the world, with comparable consequences. The theologian Søren Kierkegaard focuses radically on that divide, with an emphasis on the impossibility of its acceptance that matches Faulkner’s, yet he insists that the task of the Christian is to take hold of it. The only way is through faith, but always with an abiding uncertainty: “If I want to keep myself in faith, I must continually see to it that I hold fast the objective uncertainty, see to it that in the objective uncertainty I am ‘out on 70,000 fathoms of water’ and still have faith” (Kierkegaard, 1992, p. 204).

Light in August holds fast to the unacceptability of a paradoxical unity without suggesting the possibility of Kierkegaard’s faith, however uncertain. Yet the novel allows a figurative resurrection of Joe Christmas and an enduring memory of it: “the pent black blood seemed to rush like a released breath. It seemed to rush out of his pale body like the rush of sparks from a rising rocket; upon that black blast the man seemed to rise soaring into their memories forever and ever. They are not to lose it …” (p. 465). Black blood and pale body, black blast and rush of sparks: the “objective uncertainty” is source and substance of immortal memory.

A Fable.

In A Fable, the doors of Faulkner’s “lumber room” are wide open, or perhaps more accurately, Faulkner has moved the novel inside, for now the Gospel story is front and center. They are all here, in bold or faint detail: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, Martha, her sister Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and Judas, with God, Jesus, and Satan variously combined in the Old General, father of the corporal Jesus—and for good measure, St. Paul. They are embodied in a set of characters involved, directly or indirectly, in an episode of World War I, the mutiny of a French regiment refusing to climb out of the trenches to attack the German lines. The hope of the 13 instigators of the mutiny is to bring the war to a permanent halt.

While the history of the characters describing their circuitous routes to the war zone is told with imagination and verve, they remain, first and foremost, their biblical models. Critical analysis of the novel since the 1990s has focused primarily on those histories rather than their biblical parallels (see also Godden, 2007; Ladd, 2007; Polk, 1996; Urgo, 1989). Doing so, however, misses the connection that reveals perhaps the novel’s major thrust: the capacity of the characters to know who they are. The knowledge I refer to is not only that characters are acting out the roles of biblical predecessors but that they already know all that lies ahead, how their lives will play out. The life of Jesus himself is, of course, already a twice-told tale: he knows the Old Testament prophecies he must fulfill. While at times he hesitates, most famously at Gethsemane—“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt 26:39)—either because he is unsure that he is the Messiah or that he is prepared to meet its demands, he knows what destiny requires of the man he is claiming to be.

A Fable, then, is a thrice-told tale: the Christ of the Gospels has returned to repeat a repetition, and now the other chief characters have a comparable foreknowledge, effectively creating a greater sense of predetermination than their biblical models possess. Most tellingly, the biblical narrative controls the Old General and corporal, father and son. In a climactic scene the Old General assumes the role of Satan in order to tempt (unsucessfully) the corporal to forgo his execution for leading the mutiny. Ostensibly there is a debate going on, as in Matthew 4:1–11 and Luke 4:1–13, but as R. P. Adams (1968, p. 163) has written, “The two seem usually to be engaged not so much in conflict as in an indirect kind of cooperation, and they both seem to know it.” For all the corporal’s resistance to certain claims of the Old General, they both are convinced of human immortality—but one seriously qualified: “ ‘man and his folly’—‘Will endure,’ the corporal said. ‘They will do more,’ the old general said proudly. ‘They will prevail’ ” (A Fable, 1994, p. 994).

The brutal ramifications of that immortality are most apparent in the character of the runner, modeled on St. Paul, who assumes the task of spreading the word. He vigorously proselytizes soldiers to participate in a second mutiny, in which both Allied and German troops will leave their trenches unarmed, proclaiming the end of combat. The outcome, however, as the runner already knows it must be, is that artillery commanders from both armies will “put a barrage down on all of us. They’ll have to.” (A Fable, p. 956). At the end of the novel, he speaks for the same immortality as the Old General and corporal: endless conflict between freedom and authority, signaled solely by the human voice, still talking. “I’m not going to die. Never” (p. 1072).

Absent here, in contradistinction to the biblical model, is the Christian notion of ultimate salvation. Karl Lowith (1949, p. 188) writes: “Invisibly, history has fundamentally changed; visibly, it is still the same, for the Kingdom of God is already at hand, and yet, as an eschaton, still to come. This ambiguity is essential to all history after Christ: the time is already fulfilled and yet not consummated.” A Fable follows faithfully its biblical model, but not its most significant meaning. In the heart of the “lumber room” the “tools,” however prominent, serve the writer’s vision rather than the reverse.



Works of Faulkner

  • A Fable [1954]. In Novels 1942–1954, pp. 665–1072. New York: Library of America, 1994.
  • Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia, 1957–58. Edited by Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1959. The most complete record of Faulkner’s commentary on his work.
  • “An Introduction to The Sound and the Fury.” In The Sound and the Fury: A Norton Critical Edition, 2d ed., edited by David Minter, pp. 228–232. New York: Norton, 1994. Faulkner’s account of the writing of the novel.
  • Light in August [1932]: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
  • The Sound and the Fury [1929]: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Secondary Works

  • Adams, Richard P. Faulkner: Myth and Motion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. One of the fullest studies of myth in Faulkner and how its formations relate to his fascination with violent movement, which often counters the mythic structures.
  • Alter, Robert. “Absalom, Absalom! ” In Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, pp. 78–113. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010. Contains an excellent intertextual reading of Absalom, Absalom! and the story of King David from Samuel 1 and 2.
  • Hlavsa, Virginia V. “St. John and Frazer in Light in August: Biblical Form and Mythic Function.” Bulletin of Research in the Humanities 83 (Spring 1980): 9–26. Discussion of connections between Light in August and the Gospel According to John.
  • Kartiganer, Donald M. “Light in August.” In The Fragile Thread: The Meaning of Form in Faulkner’s Novels, pp. 37–49. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979. Reading of Joe Christmas in terms of the Christ story, with particular attention to the parallels between strict racial division in the South and Christ’s divine/human identity.
  • Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments [1846]. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Löwith, Karl. Meaning in History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.
  • Matthews, John T. The Play of Faulkner’s Language. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982. An excellent deconstructive reading of several of Faulkner’s major novels.
  • Polk, Noel. “Trying Not to Say: A Primer on the Language of The Sound and the Fury.” In New Essays on The Sound and the Fury, edited by Noel Polk, pp. 139–175. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Comprehensive discussion of the mechanics of language employed in each section of the novel.
  • Williamson, Joel. The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. A major study of the subject, with important background on race relations for all of Faulkner’s fiction.

Further Reading

  • Chancellor, Scott. “William Faulkner’s Hebrew Bible: Empire and the Myths of Origins.” PhD diss., University of Mississippi, 2011. A study of Faulkner’s “Jewish sensibility” in his use of the Hebrew Bible’s compiling, redactive method and a content of nation-building to explore Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August, and Go Down, Moses.
  • Godden, Richard. “Find the Jew: Modernity, Seriality, and Armaments in A Fable”; and “ ‘The Bugger Is a Jew’: A Fable as Melancholic Allegory.” In William Faulkner: An Economy of Complex Words, pp. 156–178; 179–202. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. An attempt to combine economic and historical forces in Faulkner, with special attention to the unnamed Jew in A Fable as an alien presence to be expelled by the military state.
  • Ladd, Barbara. “ ‘The Anonymity of a Murmur’: History, Memory, and Resistance in Faulkner’s A Fable.” In Resisting History: Gender, Modernity, and Authorship in William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, and Eudora Welty, pp. 79–107. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. A reading of A Fable in terms of gender conflict in wartime, with particular attention to the “masses,” the feminized “others” of history.
  • Polk, Noel. “Woman and the Feminine in A Fable.” In Children of the Dark House: Text and Context in Faulkner, pp. 196–218. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. Focuses particularly on the women in the novel, sisters and wife of the corporal, and their resistance to the male war ethic, which in many ways is an escape from the feminine.
  • Urgo, Joseph. “The Spirit of Apocrypha: A Fable.” In Faulkner’s Apocrypha: A Fable, Snopes, and the Spirit of Human Rebellion, pp. 94–125. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. One of the first studies of A Fable as a novel of resistance against military/economic power: Faulkner’s “apocryphal” rereading of Faulkner’s novel.

Donald M. Kartiganer