The Biblical allusions in William Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun” and Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Saw the Flood” symbolize the oppression and suffering their Black characters face in a racist Southern society. While these allusions serve as an ironic counterpoint in their stories, Faulkner and Wright come from different points of departure as to how significant religious or spiritual matters are to the black community, and, in Faulkner’s case, his white characters. In Faulkner’s work, Black characters are the moral and spiritual centers and, in “That Evening Sun,” serve as Christ-like figures whose sufferings are meant to redeem the white characters. Wright’s work, on the other hand, due to his own ambiguous feelings toward religion and its impact in the Black community, reveals the complicity religion has had in the racial and economic degradation of Black people. A reading of his short story “The Man Who Saw the Flood,” bears this out.
The symbolic nature in Faulkner’s story “That Evening Sun” bears itself out in several important instances. There are a number of Biblical allusions to Jesus Christ and the crucifixion, as found in the character Nancy’s predicament. Nancy, the black washerwoman and prostitute who works for the Compson family, is a Christ-like figure, whose suffering and anguish forms the central narrative thrust of the story. Two significant elements in the story are Nancy’s pregnancy and her assault by a white deacon whom she accuses of cheating her out of pay for her sexual services. Both allude to Biblical references to Christ’s birth and later his death. As with Christ’s paternity, the child Nancy is carrying is not begat by her husband, who is ironically named Jesus. Rather, Nancy alludes to the fact that the child’s father might be one of her white customers. Jesus’s response—“‘White man can come in my house, but I cant stop him'”—forms the ironic counterpoint in Nancy and Jesus’s situation. Unlike Christ, whose birth was meant to redeem man from his sins, Nancy’s pregnancy is a sin in itself, derived from both Nancy’s illicit and extramarital assignations, but also her forced sexual relations with white men. Though Nancy is somewhat complicit in these sinful acts, she is nonetheless like her husband: “unable to stop [the white man].” This is made further clear when Nancy is later assaulted by Mr. Stovall, the banker and deacon of the Baptist church, whom she accuses of cheating her. White men take of Nancy, but she receives little remuneration. Indeed, though a prostitute, Nancy takes extra work as a washerwoman for the Compson family, suggesting that neither work provides financial sustenance. Jesus likewise does not provide Nancy with economic stability, for, as Quention Compson, the narrator, takes note: “Sometimes the husbands of the washing women would fetch and deliver the clothes, but Jesus never did that for Nancy…” (56). Nancy is thoroughly a degraded character, degraded by her circumstances of being a Black woman in the white racist South, but also by her poverty.
The incident of Nancy’s assault is significant moment for its Biblical implications. In this scene, Nancy is arrested after confronting Mr. Stovall for denying her payments for her sexual services. Nancy shouts: “‘When you going to pay me, white man? When you going to pay me, white man? It’s been three times now since you paid me a cent-‘” (57). Nancy’s direct confrontation and her later suicide attempt in the jail cell, leads the Compson children to adopt the white adults’ explanation for her behavior, blaming it on cocaine because “no nigger would try to commit suicide [ed: or for that matter publicly confront a supposedly upstanding white citizen in Jefferson] unless he was full of cocaine…” Quentin later agrees that a “nigger full of cocaine wasn’t a nigger any longer” (ibid). Nancy’s abuse in this incident alludes to the New Testament story of the Apostle Peter’s denial of Christ three times. Nancy’s confrontation with deacon Stovall, like Apostle Peter’s three denials, is responded by white society’s denial of her personhood. She questions the deacon three times: “When you going to pay me, white man?” In fact, the deacon has denied Nancy payment for her services thrice, as well. While the deacon’s voice is silent (though his actions toward Nancy are very much explicit), Nancy’s repititious questioning suggests not only silence on the deacon’s part, but his denial in having had conjugal relations with her. His denial is violent. He knocks Nancy down, then kicks her in the mouth to silence her accusations. Nancy is later arrested, where she is beaten by the jailer, and where she attempts suicide by hanging. Her torture and her suicide takes on the imagery of a cruxificion, with Nancy’s “hands holding to the window bars,” and “hanging from the window bar” (ibid). The repetition of “window bars” is suggestive of the cross, and indeed, in the South, prison is a cross that many Blacks had had to bear. Nancy’s teeth, which she lost when Stovall kicked her, are a stigmata, a mark bearing her suffering. Nancy’s body, as a vessel for menial labor (Nancy is first described carrying the bundle of wash she brings back to the Compson home), sexual services and violence, thus bears the sins of the white people of Jefferson.
Nancy’s treatment by white society, and particularly white men, makes her more than simply a victim of white pathology, but a Christ-like figure whose suffering is meant to redeem the white characters in the story. Nancy’s predicament is witnessed mainly by the white characters. Quentin narrates Nancy’s story. When Nancy is in prison, white passersby stop to “[listen] to her [singing and yelling] and to the jailer trying to make her stop” (57). Yet, Nancy’s suffering, as re-interpreted through white eyes, signifies the impossibility of redemption for these characters. They are incapable of truly “bearing testimony” because their interpretation of Nancy’s suffering is gleaned through the lens of white supremacy. The jailer, like many other white characters, blame Nancy’s pathology on cocaine, and not the suffering of a Black woman at the hands of racial and sexual exploitation. When the elder Jason Compson offers to take a frightened Nancy back home to her cabin, his wife is more concerned about her welfare than that of her servant’s, thus bearing the point that Nancy, as a Black woman, is undeserving of such chivalric gestures. The story ends with Quentin sealing his own doom (Quentin will later commit suicide in The Sound and the Fury due to his incestuous longings for his sister Caddy, while the rest of the Compson family decline both morally and spiritually), when he asks: “‘Who will do our washing now, Father?'” In every way, the white characters deny Nancy’s suffering, thus making them unrepentant in their complicity to her suffering. The fact that this story is told through Quentin’s narration, who reflects back as an adult, is equally important. Though the Compson children are innocents, they nonetheless bear the burden of their parents’ sins, and carry those sins well into adulthood. James Ferguson in his book Faulkner’s Short Fiction suggests that the children’s innocence is ironic against the backdrop of Nancy’s drama: “If we are to believe what Faulkner had to say about the genesis of The Sound and the Fury, that great novel began with the impulse to write just such a story, one that would focus on the failure of the Compson children to understand that their grandmother has died. A comparable irony underline “That Evening Sun,” in which the innocence of two of the Compson children, Caddy and Jason, is counterpointed against the anguish and terror of the black prostitute, Nancy” (57). However, Jason and Caddy’s innocence against Quentin’s awareness (he is the only one of the three children who understands that Nancy will die at the hands of her husband) is relative since all three children are nonetheless complicit. Their inability to recognize the source of her suffering will ensure that the racist dynamics of the South remain institutionalized. The sins of the father are now the sins of the children.
While the white characters in “That Evening Sun,” represent the moral and spiritual depravity of white Southern racism, Faulkner’s Black characters embody the spiritual “endurance” which has become a pattern in much of his work. Jesus is a depraved character, but nonetheless paradoxical, one in which both good and evil qualities manifest. He may have a “razor scar down his face,” and can threaten Nancy’s life, he is still capable of giving Nancy one of every two dollars he has. Nancy, though a prostitute, is a thoroughly spiritual woman. Her sense of intuition, her closeness to the spirit, is heightened above the other characters, making her capable of seeing and feeling things they cannot. Dilsey, who reappears in the Sound and the Fury, is the moral center in that novel, providing the spiritual and religious order in the psychological chaos of the Compson home. Therefore Nancy, as well as the other black characters in Faulkner’s work, embody the role of christian suffering, revealing the oppression and racial dynamics Blacks have endured in the white South.
Likewise, Richard Wright has used Biblical allusions and references in his work, particularly by presenting a portrait of religious life among Blacks. But, unlike Faulkner, whose work reveals a steadfast understanding of religious and spiritual values as forming a moral center within a modernist context, Wright, who was once a Marxist, had ambivalent views on religion and its role in the Black community. Born in Mississippi in 1908, Wright was brought up in the Seventh Day Adventist church by his grandmother, whose strict adherence to her religion led to his rebelling against what he perceived was organized religion’s complicity in justifying Black inferiority. But, as Robert L. Douglas notes in Richard Wright: Myths and Realities, “Wright’s waxing and waning between religious orthodoxy and skepticism signifies his continuing attempt to come to grips with Christian doctrine. His treatment of one aspect of black religious life in one narrative may have its opposite portrayal in another, i.e., Ministers Hammand and Taylor [in Native Son and “Fire and Cloud” from Uncle Tom’s Children respectively]” (81). Therefore, unlike Faulkner, who uses symbolic imagery and allusions to Biblical references as the moral center for his Black characters as they endure white racism, Wright takes a more naturalistic and ultimately bitterly ironic stance in his short story “The Man Who Saw the Flood.”
Though not explicitly Biblical, the story does allude to the Old Testament story of Noah. In the story, God, displeased by man’s sins, decides to cleanse the world of man by flooding the earth. He spares Noah, whom he advises to build an ark and take with him his family and two of each animal in the world as nourishment. God then floods the earth with forty days and forty nights of rain, drowning everything in sight. As the story continues, Noah’s ark floats aimlessly upon the flood waters until the rains cease, the floodwaters recede, and Noah and his family seek land. Noah sends out a raven, then later a dove when the raven does not return. When the dove returns with an olive leaf in its mouth, Noah realizes that the floods have finally receded and seeks a place to land his ark. After Noah sets an altar in God’s honor, God realizes his mistake and enters a covenant with man never to flood the earth again. While Wright’s “The Man Who Saw the Flood,” is not meant to be an explicit commentary on Noah’s ark, it does offer an ironic allusion to the Biblical story and Wright’s own interpretations of the ideas implicit in them.
For instance, the floodwaters, as implied in the Biblical reference, symbolize a cleansing, one in which the sins of the world are washed away. Wright’s use of a flood to reveal the oppressive and exploitative nature of the southern sharecropping system is thus ironic because it doesn’t cleanse the sin of the South (its racial and economic exploitation of Blacks), but rather deepens it. Wright begins “The Man Who Saw the Flood,” with an epigraph: “When the flood waters recede, the poor folk along the river, start from scratch.” This epigraph has an implied affect that brings to mind God’s command to Noah “to be fruitful and multiply,” after God himself destroyed much of human- and animal-kind in a fit of anger. But as it is later revealed in the story, much of what the sharecropping family loses in the flood is the very livelihood which makes it possible for them to eke out an existence in the bleak economy of their work. Except for the cow, which they have brought with them (a parallel to the animals Noah populates on the ark), the family loses all of its livestock. The fields in which Tom has tilled is now silted with mud. They also have no food. The child Sally is hungry. The flood has left the family destitute.
The imagery Wright uses in the story further reveals their destitution. The landscape-“[e]very tree, blade of grass, and stray stick had its flood mark; caky, yellow mud” (89)-and their home-“The cabin had two colors; near the bottom it was a solid yellow; at the top it was the familiar gray. It looked weird, as though its ghost were standing beside it”-are described in bleak, stark terms. Even the furniture in the cabin are given anthropomorphic and funereal qualities that suggest the flood’s complete devastation: “Like a mute warning, a wavering flood mark went high around the walls of the room. A dresser sat cater-cornered, its drawers and sides bulging like a bloated corpse. The bed, with the mattress still on it, was like a giant casket forged of mud” (91). Wright also repeats the image of the “yellow, caky mud” and the silted land as a means to mark the family’s destitution.
The family is completely at the mercy of nature (and God), but try to find a means to “start from scratch.” Material things, such as the matches, which provide May the opportunity to start a fire and sterilize the pump water, as well as the plow, which Tom learns has not been lost in the flood, offer some semblence of hope for the family. May even sets about clean(s)ing the cabin, thus suggesting that her work within the home is one symbolically realized in her “holiness” or “godliness.” Indeed, May expresses her amazement at both the flood’s total devastation and its arbitrary mercy (such as when Tom finds the Bull Durham tobacco and matches) with a monosyllabic “Lawd!” After Tom is able to get clean water from the pump, she responds with a: “‘Thank Gawd!'” Her responses to the family’s circumstances are repetitive enough to suggest that religion plays an important role in her life. In many Black families, the Black woman is the central figure in maintaining religion and spiritual matters within the home. Therefore one can assume that May is a deeply religious woman, and her adjustment to the family reversal of circumstances parallels Noah’s undisturbed loyalty to God. This reading plays into the later contradictions between May and her husband in response to the white landowner to whom the family is now deeply indebted.
Neither Tom nor May are bitter about their circumstances. They speak “without bitterness” (89) when they take note of their losses. They also set about bringing order to their disordered lives without self-pity or anger. Yet, when both May and Tom recognize that their destitution means their further indebtedness to Burgess, the white landowner, both reveal an understanding of the unjustness of their lot in life. They are also aware of the hopelessness of the situation. They cannot run away, or else Burgess will have them arrested. Yet despite their awareness of the inequality and oppression Blacks face in the sharecropping system, there is an implied divergence between Tom’s repressed anger and May’s resignation. Tom’s awareness is made clear in his speech to May:
“Lawd, but Ah sho hate t start all over wid tha white man. Ah’d leave here ef Ah could. Ah owes im nigh eight hundred dollahs. N we needs a hoss, grub, seed, n a lot mo other things. Ef we keeps on like this tha white man’ll own us body n soul” (92).
Two aspects that are of great importance in understanding the Biblical allusions in Wright’s story is Tom’s reference to the earlier epigraph about “start[ing] all over” and his awareness that his indebtedness to Burgess means he’ll be “own[ed] body n soul.” Clearly the family’s situation is a contradictory parallel to Noah’s family who, like the sharecroppers, must “start over” for the human race. But unlike Noah and his family, whose command to “be fruitful and multiply” is nonetheless directed under the covenant between God and man and is depended upon God’s mercy, the sharecropping family cannot start over without being further dependent on Burgess, whose God-like control over the family is endemic. Indeed, later on in the story, Burgess offers to set Tom and his family up with food, which, on the surface, might seem as generous as God’s offering of a rainbow as proof of his mercy to Noah. But Burgess’s offer is not generous. Rather, the family takes the food on credit, which thus puts them further into debt. As with Noah’s loyalty to God’s mercy, Tom’s “loyalty” to the white landowner is his indebtedness, to be paid by Tom’s “body n soul.” There is no hope of redemption or “starting over” for the family. Spiritual or religious fidelity appears hopeless in the face of the racial and economic exploitation Black farmers face, especially given the reality that the white landowner is rich enough to survive the flood.
Wright’s criticism of religion is perhaps further illuminated in his characterization of May. Though May and Tom are certainly aware of their depressed circumstances, only Tom appears to make the next step in acknowledging the inherent injustices of the economic system, whereas May is more resigned to their destitution. As she tells Tom: “‘…there ain’t nothin else to do,'” in essence, imploring Tom to except his lot in life. Again, the subtlety in the story would make such a reading appear unwarranted, but when compared to Wright’s other work, it is apparent that he is commenting on the complicity religion has played in forcing Blacks to accept their degradation rather than organize and protest against it. His portrayals of religious figures such as Rev. Hammond, who is subservient even to the young white socialist who visits Bigger Thomas in prison in the novel Native Son, reveals, according to Douglas, a complicity in sustaining the racist social order (80-81). May’s resignation, when also seen through the Biblical allusion to Noah and her implied religious fidelity, suggests that she, like many of Faulkner’s Black characters, is one who endures white racism through religion rather than protest against it. Though he is aware of the consequences of running away, Tom still sees it as an option, while May does not entertain the possibility. She even placates Tom by stating “‘It coulda been worse,'” (92), though both Tom and the reader knows this is not true.
May is also wittingly or unwittingly complicit in her family’s destitution, particularly when she is the catalyst that drives Tom and the family further under Burgess’s economic control. Tom’s hesitancy and his repeated insistance over having to “start from scratch,” is a plea perhaps of leniency and mercy from Burgess. While superficially sympathetic, it is clear that Burgess sees the flood as a chance to continue his financial and physical control over his sharecroppers, in a sense, to own them “body n soul.” Yet May prods Tom to continue this “covenant,” their dependence on Burgess, when she tells him “‘We ain’t got nothin here'” (93). This is made even more clear by the story’s ending when Sally asks her father to get her some ‘lasses, a candy. Given the situation the family is now in, the candy is a luxury they cannot afford, and yet May tells her husband to bring back the candy for their daughter.
It is apparent through the exchanges between these characters, and what is expressed and not expressed, that the readers are supposed to relate to Tom’s interpretation of the family’s plight (the story is called “The Man Who Saw the Flood,” after all). His awareness of the inherent injustices in the sharecropping system allows Wright to focus his attention, albeit subtly, on Marxist ideology as a solution to the racial and economic exploitation Blacks experience, rather than the reliance on religion as a crutch to simply endure. In The World of Richard Wright, Michael Fabre suggests that Wright’s use of Biblical allusions in his work was a conscious choice to express his political views: “Wright constantly harks back to Christian formulas which seem the most appropriate for his political designs” (40). Tom’s speech about being owned “body n soul” by the white man alludes to the alignment between racism and economic exploitation. Clearly, in the story, the flood devastates everything in sight, including Burgess’s own land, but only the Black family suffers, and their further suffering is an economic gain for the white landowner. Wright’s harkening back to those “Christian formulas” provided implicit iconographic images that are immediately recognizable to a Christian (Black or White) readership, but subverts them for Marxist ideology. Faulkner’s work, avoiding the ideological trappings of Wright’s work, nonetheless employs religious iconography, both subtly and implicit, to explore the racial dynamics within the post-antebellum south. Given the potency of such symbolic iconography, both Faulkner’s and Wright’s “That Evening Sun” and “The Man Who Saw the Flood” make powerful and enduring political and literary statements.