Sarah Jane Chrysler
May 1, 2019
Real Religion in Twentieth Century Modernist Texts
Religion is one of those hotly debated topics that is on the taboo list of things to not bring up at a dinner party; politics, economics, and religion. In the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, with the movement of many novels going from a more naturalistic style of those in the early part of the century, to something more modernist. With the directions of the world changing at rapid speeds that seemed to be increasing on the daily, this movement to modernism was the literary response to it all. Modernism brought in larger questions than many novelists before their time were willing to ask, let alone look for the answers to. These were questions of the meaning of life, how values came to be, and what people truly believed in. Two pieces that handled this movement in vastly different ways are; Willa Cather’s, My Antonia, and William Faulkner's, Light In August. While completely different settings and characters, these two novels tackle the difficult conversation of religion and spirituality in vastly different ways. While one is more outright in having the necessary conversations about religious and spiritual differences in the world, the other takes more of an understated approach with symbolic notions. It is simple to ignore or even leave the larger religious and spiritual contexts of both books unnoticed. While in My Antonia the religious differences between the two main characters are evident and clear to the reader, they are less so in Light In August. Rather than outright they are more symbolic. These two novels achieve religious and spiritual contexts while keeping it out of the forefront of the reader’s thought.
In the first mentoned novel, by Willa Cather, My Antonia, religion is something that is sort of skirted around as the Shimerdas and the Burdens are aware that they have religious differences and try to do the correct things for what their own beliefs. The interesting part about the fact that their religious differences are so apparent during all of this is it is just one part of the very apparent differences that these two families are facing, but in all of that their religion is a huge part of their identities and how they have built their own personal self images. While Antonia is Catholic as much of the european population in the United States was at the time, this was quite different than much of the native american population that was Protestant, as the Burdens were. Although the exact years are not know it is estimated that the story is taking place roughly, between 1890-1910. Along with this period of time comes the ideals that came with the manifest destiny movement of the time came the importance by many immigrants to maintain some sort of identity to their past lives in the countries that they came from. The Catholic and Protestant differences are just one of the religious/spiritual parts of this piece. Although dealing with almost all possible differences the two characters, Jim and Antonia, are able to have a similar sense of spirituality.
They find this together in the way that they connect to nature and landscape. This takes the spiritual part of religion, removes the political/institutional divides, and provides common ground upon which they are able to find solace. One of the most clear examples of this comes in the form of ‘the plough’ on page 185 of the text. “Just as the lower edge of the red disc rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disc; the handles, the tongue, the share-black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.” This moment seems to be one of the most religious in the entire novel. It is a moment of pure connection to the earth in which they can connect with each other and the world they are living in, which seems to keep them focused on their differences.
This is in contrast to the way that William Faulkner's, Light In August, deals with these same issues. While both novels deal abundantly with ideas of belonging, identity, and escaping the past. In this piece specifically though, the symbolism is quite clear through the entire piece. While it is still subtle as it is symbolism rather than being outright stated, it is almost more clear than in My Antonia. It is through the use of unconventional means that Faulkner was able to turn this entire piece into a religious text. With a multitude of main characters that seem, in the beginning of the text to be unconnected or connected by miniscule means, by the end many of them become connected, almost as the disciples from The Holy Bible become connected through Jesus Christ. One of the main characters, Joe Christmas, is clearly the christ figure in this novel. For one thing his initials are JC, the same as Jesus Christ’s. Moreover, he is given the name ‘Christmas’ due to his birthdate. While these are smaller and more trivial parts of this connection, they are still evident. Additionally, Joe died at around 33 years of age, similar to the age that Jesus was at the time he was killed. Still, Faulkner continued to point to Christmas as a Christ figure in the fact that he was not, in any sense of the word, a ‘good guy’. This is pure irony. In The Bible, Jesus is drawn to the outcasts, the ‘sinners’, and the type of people that Joe Christmas is regarded as.
While there is no point in which Joe is able to become a better person, the timeline of the book is fluid and not told in a linear way so the reader is able to grasp what happened in his past and the things that have come to make up who he is. As was the case with My Antonia, there is something less political than a religious aspect, but more spiritual, in the ways that these characters deal with life. At the time period much of life came down to pure circumstance. Joe, having been orphaned allegedly had ‘black blood’ in him, which confused his sense of identity from such a young age he was never able to truly form his own identity outside of the criminal lifestyle he was living. One of the most evident moments of this comes at the beginning of chapter 6 on page 119 as Christmas thinks to himself “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” This is taking place in the past at the orphanage he lived in. Throughout the novel some event that Christmas experiences will send him suddenly into his mind to a memory such as this one. It seems as though this is pointing to the idea that the past is something that is inescapable, while it is possible to change one’s future, it is not to change the psat. With that being said Joe Christmas knows that his legacy will be one of insignificance, the opposite of that of Jesus Christ. That being said, the implications of a single moment, the moment from the quote above can have an effect lasting ages beyond that single event, decision, or lapse in judgement.
Looking beyond the religious symbolism of Joe Christmas, there are countless other examples of this throughout the novel. One of the most prevalent and obvious is that of the dead sheep. For Christmas, during his adolescence at least, it was difficult to conceptualize anything sexual. After experiencing two people having sex at a young age when he was not only not supposed to have seen that, but also became sick due to other circumstances he was yelled at and never was able to disassociate those uncomfortable feelings about the things he’d witnessed and experienced at that time. So when one of his school friends decides to explain how a woman’s menstrual cycle works Joe is repulsed, bordering on afraid. His feelings become so overwhelming that he feels the need to go and shoot a deer. Something about this new knowledge of the female period was so unsettling to the young boy that he could only think to shoot something. After taking aim and pulling the trigger, on pages 185 and 186, “he knelt, his hands in the yet warm blood of the dying beast, trembling, dry-mouthed, backglaring. Then he got over it, recovered it. He did not forget what the boy had told him. He just accepted it. He found that he could live with it, side by side with it. It was as if he said illogical and desperately calm All right. It is so, then. But not to me. Not in my life and my love.” This, the first of the killings that Christmas would commit, was a borderline ritualistic moment for him. It became a source of solace for him. Of course there is the biblical symbolism in this being the Lamb of God. Through this, Joe Christmas is not only killing the sheep, but bringing about a moment of foreshadowing. He so easily lured the sheep to him to make it a simple shot. This is to say that it would be a simple path to destruction for himself. It was a very clear path that was easy for Joe to run down. He walked, as this sheep did, straight to his own demise.
In the same way that Joe depicts a Christ like figure, he also can be seen along with Lena as a disciple. Just as Jesus Christ brought so many unlikely characters together, so did Christmas. But that being said one of the distinct differences here is that Joe was lost and seeking identity, while Jesus was not. Joe stands along with the young and pregnant Lena, the ever elusive Byron Bunch, the outcast Joanna Burden, and even the isolated Reverend Gail Hightower. All of these characters were running and hiding. Most are running from something in their past but one is running towards something. Almost as a disciple would (metaphorically) run toward Jesus Christ, Lena was running into the face of adventure. She was running toward the idea of not being nailed down to her past, and even as her child is born she continues to seek adventure. This was something rather different for the time period. For a young girl, who was unmarried to have a child and live a life on the road, it was not something that would be simply accepted. Lena was willing to shatter social norms in pursuit of the life she wished for.
These attempts to flee the burden of one’s past are highly connected with the religious and spiritual aspects of both pieces. For Antonia Shimerda, she is getting stuck in the crossfire of two different identities trying to collect her. As she was starting to identify more and more with being a Nebraskan it was difficult with the people around her doing everything in their power to remind her that she is an outsider and an outcast. Dealing with this sort of persecution, similar to that of Jesus in The Bible, is relatable to the experience of Joe Christmas with the possibility of him having black blood. Both of these characters understand the difficulty of associating with any one group due to a displacement beyond their own control. The main, and most significant difference between the two characters (beyond the physical and other such differences) is that in spite of all of this Antonia decided to seek out acceptance and belonging whereas Joe Christmas did not. He continued to run away from any sort of anchoring or roots. Antonia Shimerda found association. She decided that even though she would never be a true “American” she could find common ground with others on the grounds of being a Nebraskan. This is one of the associations that brought Antonia and other main character Jim, closer together. Joe Christmas on the other hand, lived by the idea that, and used the fact that he did not know who he was as an excuse and a cop out to keep from having to hold himself accountable. If he had no roots, then he could easily run to anywhere at any time.
The significance of religious and spiritual symbolism in these two works is abundantly clear. They both examine the meaning of how one views oneself, identification and association with others, and the overall importance of knowing the above. The facts that Joe Christmas lived his entire life with the mindset that he would never fit into one single category, or that he would never want to belong to/associate with a group as that would require commitment and he felt the need to have an escape route planned at all times, is what ultimately lead to his demise. Although he is a Christ figure, he can easily be confused with someone more associated with the Devil because of his actions. He was killed because he murdered a woman and burned her house down. Yet he is still more like Jesus Christ in the way that his misfortune ultimately brought much of this small corner of the world together. Antonia decided to take her misfortune in another direction. Rather than pitying herself she sought out community and belonging. She did everything in her power to keep herself from being isolated. She found common grounding through spirituality in the land and through it was able to connect through that while still holding onto vastly different religious beliefs. This is something that Joe Christmas would never learn, by not holding any beliefs and harboring anger his death was almost a release from all of the unhappiness and fear that came with living a life on the run. Faulkner’s novel does not make it clear whether this is a critique of religion or something celebrating it. The sure fact of the matter though is that the piece is riddled with religious symbolism throughout. Surly though, Cather’s novel is a celebration of religious differences and the importance of spirituality that comes along with associating with a group and having one’s own personal identification. All of this though, was an important part of the modernist movement.