Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1378
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 import more precisely is very difficult. At times he suggests Satan, at times Pilate or Caesar, or simply military authority, but in the central confrontation scene, his role seems to most closely resemble that of the “Grand Inquisitor,” who appears in the greatest of earlier “Second Coming” fictions, Ivan Karamazov’s parable in Fyodor Dostoevski’s Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912).
Like the Grand Inquisitor, the Marshal faces a Christ surrogate who poses a threat to the established order. Likewise, the Marshal makes an offer to his antagonist of life and freedom in return for betrayal, which he knows in advance will be refused. The Marshal’s background also resembles the Inquisitor’s in that he, too, began life with a spiritual quest by renouncing the world in favor of the desert and the mountains. Like the Inquisitor—and Christ—the Marshal was tempted and, like the Inquisitor—but unlike Christ—he accepted the temptations and the view of life they represented in return for temporal power.
Thus, although he knows and understands human duality, the Marshal rejects the spiritual and creative side of humanity and accepts the individual only as a mundane, earthbound creature who needs security and control rather than individual freedom and spiritual fulfillment. Further, on the practical level, the Marshal commits himself to the human institution that fixes and formalizes this view of humanity. As does the Inquisitor, the Marshal justifies his actions on the grounds that they are what humanity needs and wants. He taunts his opponent with the notion that he, not the Corporal, is the true believer: “after the last ding dong of doom has rung and died there will still be one sound more; his voice, planning still to build something higher and faster and louder . . . . I don’t fear man, I do better: I respect and admire him . . . . Because man and his folly—they will prevail.”
These words echo the Nobel Prize speech but differ in one important respect from the novelist’s own; in the address, Faulkner went on to add, “He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” This statement defines the essence of the conflict between the Marshal and the Corporal and their visions.
If the Marshal’s view of humankind is correct, then the military hierarchy, the rituals and institutions it supports, and the war itself are things the human race creates for itself and needs for survival. The Corporal’s mutiny is, therefore, not only foolish, but even destructive to humanity’s well-being. On the other hand, if the Corporal’s vision is true, such things are artificial, malevolent restraints on human potential. The mutiny in this context becomes a necessary act in the struggle to cast off the life-denying lies and organizations imposed on him and to fulfill his own human and spiritual capacities by taking control of his own destiny. The immediate secular power belongs to the Marshal, so the earthbound view seems to win, but the question Faulkner raises is whether the impact of the Corporal’s actions and martyrdom does not postulate the ultimate triumph of the spiritual vision.
To answer that question, Faulkner attempts to work out the implications of the Corporal’s ethic in the actions of several other characters and especially in the attempt of the English Runner to foment a second and wider mutiny. Here lies the primary critical problem of the book: Do these secondary actions establish and elaborate the novel’s main thrust, or do they obscure and finally bury it?
Although Faulkner borrows Christian symbolism, he is clearly not presenting a conventionally religious message. He affirms the human spirit, but his attitude toward its ultimate fate is ambiguous. If the Corporal dies a heroic martyr, the other witnesses to the human spirit—the English Runner, the Sentry, the Reverend Sutterfield, the Quartermaster General—suffer dubious or ignominious fates and even the Corporal’s death has no clear effect beyond stimulating the Runner’s quixotic gestures. Faulkner postulates hope and faith as vital elements in human fulfillment, but they are presented as ends in themselves; it is unclear as to what humanity should hope for or have faith in.
It seems likely that Faulkner began to write A Fable with a number of abstract concepts in mind rather than a special set of human experiences. In his best works, however, the meanings grow out of the concrete situations; in A Fable, he tries to impose his meanings on his characters’ actions. Consequently, the novel is not completely satisfying on either the realistic or the symbolic level. Nevertheless, even with these problems, A Fable is a powerful reading experience. If it fails to fulfill completely Faulkner’s most ambitious intentions, it does present separate characters and scenes that are powerful and memorable. If all of Faulkner’s concepts are not completely clear, his dramatization of human duality is stimulating and provocative.