Faulkner and Morrison have borrowed heavily from the Bible in their works, As I Lay Dying and Song of Solomon respectively. Of particular interest is their regular use of animal imagery drawn from the Holy Book in order to achieve magical realism in their texts.
A number of animals featured in King James Version Bible, Job chapters 39 to 41 have been used prominently by these two literary artists. The most prominent animals highlighted in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying include the horse, snake, vulture, fish and mules (biblically referred to as asses). In Song of Solomon by Morrison, bull (referred to as ox in the book of Job in the Bible), peacock and dogs have been used.
Magical realism is the underlying feature of African-American literature. This is partly due to the protracted history of forced labor, servitude, abject poverty and cruel racial discrimination endured by the blacks in America. Escape from such suffering was nearly impossible; hence, the resort to fantastic forms of liberation. This aspect is reflected heavily in African-American literature. It is evidenced in the two books by Faulkner and Morrison.
Reference is made to an extraordinary horse in King James Version Bible, Job 39:19-23. This is a fearless horse that does not shy away from battle. The same attribute is alluded to by the horse that Jewel rides on their way to bury their mother at Jefferson. Through the eyes of Darl, it is described: “… watches Jewel as he passes, the horse moving with a light, high kneed driving gait, three hundred yards back…”(Faulkner, p. 101).
This is equally an extraordinary horse like the one Job describes to God. It is able to travel long distances as the other members of the hearse board a wagon. The resort to magical realism in this instance is to provide a way of escape for Jewel, who does not want to accompany a corpse to Jefferson. However, this kind of escape is short-lived as the horse has to be sold later on to meet an emergent need.
Another use of magical realism of animals is illustrated by the use of the mules to transport the casket after the wagon is destroyed in the floods. In King James Version Bible, Job 39: 5, Job asks his creator about the freeing of the mule so that it can serve mankind. Reference to mules is made by Darl who says: “I promised my word me and the boys would get her there quick as mules could walk it…” (Faulkner, p. 18).
Due to flooding, all the bridges are washed away, bringing the Bundren funeral procession to an untimely halt. There is no way of getting across the flooded rivers, especially when the wagon is wrecked by a log floating along the swollen river. The use of the mules appears rather magical.
Biblical magical realism is also evident in the use of the image of the vultures in the novel by Faulkner. As Addie is about to die, her absentee husband, Anse, is described as a vulture hovering in the background waiting for her to die; just as they usually do. More than four vultures are reported on the barn (Faulkner, p. 512). The feathery species are also alluded to by Job as he converses with his maker (King James Version Bible, Job 39: 26).
Job wonders where they get the wisdom to do what they do. In this story, the Bundrens wonder what brings the vultures to their barns. What is lost to them is that they are a sign that Addie is surely going to die. Another implication subtly made here is that somebody is going to benefit from her death, i.e, the mischievous husband, Anse, who, after her death, acquires a new set of false teeth and another wife immediately upon her burial.
The image of a fish is also consequential in this novel. After Addie’s death, the Bundren children adopt various animals to signify their mother. Vardaman declares that his mother is a fish that he caught on the day of her death.
As the fish is cut up, he realizes that his mother is no longer alive – and so is the fish. Although he is too young to make rational conclusions, it may not be lost on him that his deceased mother may be a form of sacrifice to atone for her marital infidelity. The use of the fish may be an appropriate symbolism that succinctly sums Addie’s life, and death.
It may imply that she has been caught by circumstances, the way fish are trapped. Her death could also be random just like fish are caught randomly. It has a bearing on the fact that African-Americans were losing their lives randomly in the hands of racial discrimination. The fish is, therefore, a relevant aspect of magical realism applied in the text. In King James Version Bible in the book of Job, this appears in chapter 41 verses 7.
In Song of Solomon, Morrison borrows several animal imageries from King James Version Bible, Job chapters 39 to 41. A white bull is a source of death and violence. It causes a lot of disturbance to those suffering from racial discrimination in this novel. It causes Freddie’s mother to go into unexpected labor and dies in the process.
The white bull symbolically represents the brutish white oppressors that occasion the deaths of many African-Americans as well as untold heartaches. In King James Version Bible, Job 40: 15-24, God demonstrates His amazing power by describing how He has humbled the behemoth (great bull). The great bull is harmlessly eating grass in spite of his immense strength.
The white bull in Song of Solomon bears the great strength of the behemoth described in the Bible. However, unlike the humbled beast presented to the Biblical Job, the white bull is untamed and, therefore, uses his strength destructively. In interferes in the life of Freddie’s mother with deadly consequences. Its power can only be controlled by God Himself.
Another important element of magical realism in the novel involves the peacock. The peacock is Biblically associated with extreme haughtiness and this is highlighted in the book of Job. Due to its pride and self-centeredness, the peacock lay eggs and handles them carelessly (King James Version Bible, Job 39:15). As soon as they have hatched, the peacock abandons her young ones. This negative element also alludes to human existence and is brought to the fore in the novel Song of Solomon.
This factor is powerfully expressed through the character of Guitar and Milkman, who abandon family love in search of the elusive wealth. The peacock first appears in the car lot where Guitar and Milkman usually spend their time discussing the materials things they would acquire when and if they grow rich.
It is completely white; it can easily be mistaken for purity. However, its tail is spotted such that it oozes the illusion of jewelry and by extension, riches. It possibly explains why Guitar and his accomplice are planning to steal gold. If they eventually succeed, “life, safety and luxury fanned out before him like the tailspread of a peacock” (Morrison, p. 58).
The peacock, therefore, connotes the corrupting influence of material wealth. This is exemplified by the enmity that eventually springs up between Guitar and Milkman (Morrison, p. 279). It is spawned by the suspicion on Guitar’s part that Milkman could be hiding the much-sought after gold.
When they gather at Blue Ridge Mountains to bury their father’s bones, things go terribly awry as Guitar shoots Pilate (Morrison, p. 355). Sensing his own life is in danger, Milkman literally takes a flight to freedom by jumping into oblivion (Morrison, p. 337). This is in spite of the fact that he had learned at a tender age that humans could not fly.
The flying motif, which alludes to birds, in this novel is another remarkable aspect of magical realism borrowed from the Bible. The idea of flying to ultimate freedom is introduced right at the beginning of the story. When the story opens, Robert Smith, an insurance agent, is about to take a flight to freedom from the top of a hospital roof (Morrison, p. 6).
There is a rather surreal twist to the episode when people gather and apparently urge him on, although this is a clear case of suicide. Indeed, the action sets him free from his earthly tribulations for good. This is simply magical!
Birds naturally achieve their freedom through flight. In Job’s response to God, he makes a powerful allusion to birds (King James Version Bible, Job 41: 5). In order to restrict a bird’s freedom, one has to tie it. This prevents it from flying away. The characters in this novel, especially the African-Americans, are literally tied like a restricted bird.
They are perpetually trapped in abject poverty and servitude to their white masters. Consequently, they spend most of their time trying to fight against the unjust dominion, albeit unsuccessfully. This makes them indulge in wild fantasies, like flying to freedom. So preoccupied are they with this fantasy that when Robert appears atop the hospital building, nobody is shocked by the impending suicide.
The flight fantasy is probably fuelled by the ancient myth prescribed by the African-Americans in which it is said that their forefathers had flown to Africa: “Solomon cut across the sky, Solomon gone home” (Morrison, p58). At the end of the novel, Milkman, as if in a dream, flies away from his deadly aggressor, Guitar.
Magical realism is a genre of writing that blends magical elements with the real world. Both the two novels discussed in this essay use folkIoric and Biblical form to portray magical occurrences, which are interwoven with the real events. It involves an ever-shifting pattern representing ordinary events in descriptive detail.
These are events are interspersed with fantastic and dream-like elements, which may borrow materials from myths and fairy tales. The two stories have employed magical realism to a great extent in order to leave a powerful impact on the mind of the reader and to increase the aesthetic quality of the texts.
The Biblical allusions evident in these stories are perhaps an indication of the Christian religion espoused by many African-Americans. Having exhausted all other means of escape, the African-Americans could have resorted to divine approaches from the Christian church. They could have then developed the belief that one day God was going to set them free. Hence, African-American literature has received a lot of influence from religious quarters.
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage International, 1930. Print.
King James Version Bible. Ed. Arthur Farstad. New York: American Bible Society, 1999. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print.