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Mankind has been graced by the story of Jesus Christ; his exploits, his crucifixion, and his resurrection have allowed people of different backgrounds to find their commonality in faith. Though some may not be of this faith, the ideas that are passed along by Christ's story contain valuable lessons about values and morals, as well as deeper insights into the human condition.
The purpose of this investigation is to explore the question: how do William Faulkner's Light in August and Cormac McCarthy's The Road use figurative crucifixion or resurrection? Both concepts presented are integral facets of the Christian belief, and they aid in linking two seemingly unrelated works. Indeed, Light in August and The Road have very little in common; the former is a Southern Gothic that explores the failed personal relationships of a man who has lost his sense of humanity, and the latter details the exploits of a father and a son who trek across the barren landscape of post-apocalyptic America in hope of salvation. Though these works possess contrary thematic elements, their connecting factor lies within the relativity of human experience; that is, the trials and tribulations that the protagonists undergo are essential to their development. In this sense, Christ's passion can be paralleled and figuratively applied to the main characters of these novels in order to convey the idea of suffering and redemption.
This essay will first assess the criteria for what makes these characters comparable to messianic figures of old, using the Bible and other sources as reference. It will then move into the analysis of how the proverbial role of "Christ figure" is fulfilled in each novel, taking into consideration that comparative stretches must be made (something new can be interpreted in every instance as far as literature is concerned). Finally, it will discuss any possible similarities between the two works while simultaneously contrasting their usage and contribution to the overarching theme and author's message.
Christ Figures: Literary Usage
In order to use figurative crucifixion and resurrection, parallels must be drawn to the Biblical aspects of death and redemption. The book of John chronicles the "events" leading up to and including the passion of Christ through the eyes of the said apostle; John tells of how Jesus "went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull" (Revised Standard John 19:17), how the soldiers "took his garments and made four parts" (Revised Standard John 19:23), and how "he bowed his head and gave up his spirit" (Revised Standard John 19:30). Although the issue of truth behind the crucifixion and resurrection is debatable, a story that depicts the idea of a savior who would die for mankind is a popular one, and this story that would endure through the ages and be emulated many times as a paragon of human literature.
The Bible provides a useful starting point for comparisons to be drawn between literary personalities and Christ; authors often apply the idea of a cross to bear or a bowed head to convey a suffering and humiliating experience that their protagonist undergoes. These symbolic gestures and actions assist the reader in drawing connections between seemingly unrelated, fictional characters. Thomas Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor discusses that Christian elements are found proliferated throughout modern literature because "we live in a Christian culture." The use of a figurative messiah is predominant in text, and there are many signs that distinguish a Christ figure (typically attributed to the biblical figure as well): crucified/bearing wounds, in agony, self-sacrificing, good with children, good with loaves/fishes/water/wine, thirty-three years of age when last seen, employed as a carpenter, known to use humble modes of transportation, believed to have walked on water, etc. Additionally, Mark Stucky, in his article, "Middle Earth's Messianic Mythology Remixed: Gandalf's Death and Resurrection in Novel and Film," for the online periodical, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, discusses some of the origins and criteria of the motif of Christ's portrayal. He expresses the suppressed Christianity's need for a secret system of symbolism in an anti-Christian (Roman) context. Many symbols (the fish, the cross) and icons arose from the need to conceal the Christian messages that were fundamental to Christ's passion, crucifixion, and resurrection. Although the article mainly focuses on the use of Christian imagery in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy (using Gandalf as the messianic figure), there was some valuable insight into the modern usages, nuances, and portrayals of Christ used in culture today.
Light in August
The main subject of discussion in Light in August is William Faulkner's use of a protagonist, Joe Christmas, as an unlikely Christ figure. Joe Christmas comes from a history of failed personal relationships, starting from his abusive foster parents and culminating in the murder of his "lover." Faulkner's portrayal of Christmas draws many biblical references: his name, and his early death at age thirty-three. Ironically, Joe's stance on life as a misanthrope juxtaposes Jesus' gentle nature. William Faulkner's original purpose for constructing his novel was to explore the racial tensions of the nineteen thirties through the microcosm of interpersonal relationships of the characters in the fictional setting of Yoknapatawpha County. Joe Christmas is on the opposite footing: he is a man without a history, beyond the personal reserve of memories that form a painful pattern of violence, abuse, and neglect, both self-inflicted and visited on him by those charged with his care. The past, of which he is personally unaware, proves to be too powerful a force to escape or resist. Joe's misanthropic, homicidal nature is partially explained when his origins become clear. The grandfather he knew only as the janitor at the orphanage proves to have much in common with his grandson. Both are violent men prone to antisocial behavior and murder.
Although the novel explores issues of gender and race specifically, these particular thematic currents intersect to become part of Faulkner's larger, more all-encompassing inquiry concerning the nature of identity and how it is influenced by history, nature, society, and individual lives. The residents of Jefferson have resolved a tacit acceptance of Reverend Hightower, Joanna Burden, and Joe Christmas, but each of these characters deliberately resists or abandons the distorting influence of a rigid social and moral order. Society, as embodied in Faulkner's collective voice of the community, attempts to superimpose simplistic, restrictive notions of identity based on broad categories, such as race and gender. Whereas some individuals need these external cues to provide themselves with a sense of clarity, order, and definition, others struggle under the weight of what are often intrusive attempts to restrict and classify. For Joe Christmas, the lack of a stable and identifiable sense of self assumes tragic dimensions. His wanderings become a symbolic journey to find out who he is, a search for wholeness and self-completion, but they are tragically and ultimately an illusive and elusive quest.
Light in August is filled with loners, isolated figures who choose or are forced to inhabit the fringes of society. Byron shields himself from the outside world with his unconscious strategy of detachment. Lena is an abandoned mother-to-be who, in seeking the support of Joe Brown, finds she is able to support herself and is better off for it. She is the catalyst that facilitates Byron's final and delayed entrance into the world of human interaction and contact. Though their vague and nontraditional family is still forming in the novel's final chapter, they are the only characters who are able to solve the riddle of their own estrangement and loneliness. Reverend Hightower and Joe Christmas both are described as living outside of time, inhabiting their own temporal order and a world of their own making. After the betrayal that Christmas experiences at the hands of Bobbie Allen, replicating the abandonment and neglect that marked his childhood, he lives an unfettered and rudderless existence, deliberately sabotaging any opportunity to establish an emotional tie or connection with another. His one potentially auspicious attempt at human contact-his developing relationship with Miss Burden-ends not in greater intimacy and connectedness but in murder and displaced rage.
The central fact in this story of the suffering servant Joe Christmas is his belief that he bears an imperceptibly faint strain of Negro blood, an ineradicable touch of evil in the eyes of the society of which he is a part and in his own eyes as well. This Negro blood exists for him as a condition of innate and predetermined darkness, a touch of inexorable original sin, a burden he bears neither through his own volition nor because of his own acts. In the lost central years of his life his sense of this innate damnation leads him to shock his many women with confessions of his Negro blood (Faulkner 211). At last he finds a woman who is not shocked: "She said, 'what about it? Say, what do you think this dump is, anyhow? The Ritz hotel?' Then she quit talking. She was watching his face and she began to move backward slowly before him, staring at him, her face draining, her mouth open to scream. Then she did scream. It took two policemen to subdue him. At first they thought that the woman was dead. He was sick after that. He did not know until then that there were white women who would take a man with a black skin. He stayed sick for two years" (Faulkner 212).
One can equate the Negro blood in to Joe "poor mankind" (Faulkner 93); and Joe, running from the Negro quarter of the town, sees it as the "black pit," and thinks, "It just lay there, black, impenetrable. It might have been the original quarry, abyss itself" (Faulkner 108). It is this black blood that stands between Joe and a natural life. It is his own knowledge of it that stands between him and his becoming "one with loneliness and quiet that has never known fury or despair" (Faulkner 313). And it is this black blood which, in Joanna Burden's impassioned view of the "doom and curse" of the Negro, casts a "black shadow in the shape of a cross" (Faulkner 239).
This is Joe Christmas' crucifixion and his ascension, and this outrushing and ascending stream of black blood becomes his only successful act of communion with his fellowmen. Through it, a symbol of his Negro qualities shed for sexual reasons in the house of a man of religion, Joe Christmas becomes one of the charts against which man measures himself and learns to know what he is a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice.
When Joe is running away after killing Joanna, he re-enacts Christ's cleansing of the temple by interrupting a Negro church service and driving out the worshippers with a table leg. His grandmother, anxious to give him a respite from the punishment he is to suffer, turns to the disgraced Presbyterian minister Hightower and asks him to give Christmas an alibi for the time of Joanna's murder. She tells Joe to go to the minister. When he escapes in the town square, he turns first to a Negro cabin and then to High- tower, but he strikes the minister down, as he has struck down the others who have symbolized church to him.
In the novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy, there are various devices and textual features to show us the positive side of human existence. These instances of the positive side of human existence are in the end directly related to the father and the boy. During various times in the novel we are shown different instances of positive human existence that the father and the boy portray to the reader. The novel name itself, The Road, is a metaphor of positive human existence, as the father and the boy are on a journey to find their security and safety. Their hope and their ability to keep fighting in the tough times shows the reader that they are remaining positive and want to make it to the end of the road alive and together.
The novel has presented the world around the father and the boy to be a dark and forbidding place to be, a world that is nowhere near safe enough for a young boy to be. Having to trek around in treacherous conditions and living each day not knowing whether they are safe or not from any danger. We see an example of positive human existence when the father and the boy don't feel as if they can go on anymore and all is becoming too hard, the father is able to comfort the boy by saying that things will be okay because "[they] are carrying the fire". In a world that seems to have illimitable darkness this perception of "Carrying the fire" provides the father and the boy with hope to carry on. This perception of the fire and the hope that it brings is made ever brighter by the fact that they are surrounded by such darkness.
The will of the father and the boy to stay alive is amazing. They are faced with many hardships and events where they could have easily given up. At one stage the father remembers back to when the mother was alive and when they had one of their last conversations, the mother committed suicide. Although during this last conversation between the father and the mother the mother talks about how "there is nothing left to stand on".
The son has never known any world other than the bleak wasteland through which they traverse, and accepts things as they are. His father, endlessly remembering what things were like before, and being painfully aware of what mankind is capable of in bringing about this dire situation, sees instead the grim reality of their situation. Yet he repeatedly tells his son that they must reach the ocean (despite having no idea what awaits them there) and that somewhere there are "good people" to be found and to make a new life with. He is loving, patient and extremely protective of his son, qualities that, in keeping his boy from harm, he is unable to extend to other people they encounter. He turns others away, denying food and fire, taking away one man's clothes and shoes, and wounding another with a shot from a flare gun. He will do anything to keep his son safe; helping others means putting themselves at risk.
But not all of the father's acts are of wary self-preservation. He educates the boy with daily lessons and tries to enliven their journey with stories about the old days. But the lessons fall away as they move down the road, the abstractions of learning perhaps becoming irrelevant when one is struggling to simply survive, and the boy discounts the old stories, saying they aren't true, couldn't possibly be true since the ravaged landscape offers no evidence that these things ever existed. Yet he trusts his father and follows along, believing that his father will somehow make everything right.
Recognizing their grim reality, the father surely has to believe that a highly unpleasant fate awaits them at the end of the road. But he soldiers on, keeping a brave face for his son, perhaps believing that even if death awaits him there is the slightest chance of delivering his son to safety. It's an overwhelmingly improbable chance, but it's one he has to take. Keeping his son alive and away from harm has become the sole purpose in his life, a mission he gladly undertakes out of love and devotion for his only child.
The Road says a lot about what it means to be a parent, about how a man will instinctively do absolutely anything to protect his children, even at the expense of his own well being, but also that one has to make your children aware of the realities and dangers of the world so they can one day fend for themselves. Protecting children won't do them any good at all if they never learn to live on their own. Since a father figure won't always be there to watch over them, children have to learn to take care of themselves, and one has to have the strength to let go, as painful as that might be. The father in The Road did everything he could for his son, selflessly and valiantly in the face of horrible circumstances, and by the end of the story has prepared his son, as well as he could, for whatever future awaits him. And that is what every father, even those of us in a dramatically more hospitable world than that of the book, should forever strive for.
It can be argued that Cormac McCarthy's The Road possesses a certain degree of Christian symbolism. The father (unnamed, simply addressed as "the man" in the novel) is a savior for the boy, protecting him in every way possible and taking care of him in times of illness. The man and the boy's literal trek to the sea could have connections drawn to Christ's passion: the man is carrying his cross (the boy) to bring the sins of humanity (destruction and quasi-apocalypse) on a path to redemption (the opportunity to survive and possibility to revive the dying human race). The boy is a burden that the man is willing to take, just as Christ was willing to carry the cross as a messianic act. The death of the man near the resolution of the plot, although tragic, is inevitable, just as Christ's was. The coughing of blood foreshadowed this fixed fate, and this foreshadowing can be interpreted as a reference to Christ's fixed fate as a martyr.