A Fable is probably the most ambitious, although not the most successful, work of one of the twentieth century’s most ambitious novelists. By juxtaposing elements of the Passion of Christ against a story of trench mutiny in World War I, William Faulkner attempts to combine two very different types of narrative: an allegorical “fable” and a realistic narrative of war, politics, and personal relationships.
Most of the similarities to Christ’s life and death are clear. The Corporal, who was born in a stable and is thirty-three years old, leads a mutinous group of twelve followers, and the events surrounding his capture and execution suggest the Passion: One disciple betrays him for money, another denies him three times; the followers have a “Last Supper”; the Corporal is executed between two thieves in a manner that suggests Christ’s crucifixion; he acquires a crown of thorns; he is mourned by women who resemble Mary Magdalene and Mary; and his body vanishes three days after burial. It is necessary, however, to remember that A Fable is not the Passion retold in modern dress. Faulkner does not simply update or interpret Christian myth: He alters it. Therefore, any attempt to come to terms with A Fable must consider the unique, personal vision that Faulkner presents in his book.
Some critics have faulted the novel on the grounds that the Corporal’s personality is insufficiently developed. It is true that he is not strongly individualized, but to present the character in greater detail would risk either the creation of a purely symbolic figure or one too humanized to maintain the Christ parallel. Instead, the Corporal remains a silent, mysterious embodiment of humankind’s spiritual side; the concrete presentation of his significance is entrusted to other characters. The most important thing is that, for all the biblical allusions, the Corporal is not the chosen Son of God but is definitely a son of man—specifically of the Marshal—and the thematic center of the novel is dramatized in the conflict between the Corporal and his father-Marshal antagonist. In the novel’s most powerful and important scene, the final confrontation is between the two men, who represent two inimical conditions.
Thus, A Fable is not really about one’s relationship to God, or to society, but to oneself. Each character stands for one aspect of the human personality, and the conflict between them can be seen in several ways: child versus father, youth versus age, idealist versus realist, common person versus authority, heart versus mind. In short, the major conflict of the book is, in the words of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech, “the human heart in conflict with itself”—the basic human dualism, which is the major theme of Faulkner’s late fiction.
The Corporal is the shadowy incarnation of humanity’s spiritual side, but the Marshal, both in his symbolic and his realistic functions, is a much more vivid and complicated character. On the literal level, he is the supreme commander of the Allied armies in France. He masterminds the Allies’ successful military counterstrategy. Symbolically, he is the primary representative of secular power; the Marshal represents everything in human society that denies personal autonomy and spiritual freedom. Any attempt to pin down the Marshal’s symbolic...
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