And Joseph dwelt in Egypt, he, and his father's house: and Joseph lived an hundred and ten years. And Joseph saw Ephraim's children of the third generation: the children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were brought up upon Joseph's knees. And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die: and God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence. So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt. (Genesis 50.22-26)
This passage struck a deep cord in black congregations as it relates to the Israelites' emancipation from slavery and exodus from Egypt. For many African Americans, the adoption of Christianity signified an acceptance of America as ‘home’, but large numbers still retained a yearning for freedom in their ancestral land. This, it was believed, would be accorded to them in the afterlife if not in the temporal one.
Reverend Shegog's words also echo the African American spritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Listen to a 1921 recording by The Southern Four:
The repeated biblical references to the heavenly rewards of the poor and the damnation awaiting the wealthy also provided great comfort to African Americans. The Gospel of Luke tells of the rich man who denies the beggar Lazarus the crumbs from his table during life. When, after both die and Lazarus finds salvation, the rich man begs for a drop of water from Lazarus’ fingers to give him some small comfort against the scorching heat of hell’s flames. Abraham reprimands him for this, saying “Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented” (Luke 16.25). Also pertinent is the well-known injunction of Matthew 19.24: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
This is not a biblical reference but comes from the Odes of Solomon, a collection of Christian poems that date back to somewhere in the first three centuries AD. In a transgendering not untypical of the Odes, no. 35 pictures God’s mercy dispensed as milk through nurturing, maternal breasts.
Probably a reference to Matthew 11.28, in which God addresses the weary and burdened: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
The gospels relate how Herod, then King of the Jews, orders the assassination of every boy child under the age of two after learning of the birth of Christ. Christ himself escapes intact after an angel of the Lord appears to his father Joseph in a vision and instructs him to smuggle Mary and the infant messiah out of Egypt (Matthew 2). However, he is persecuted throughout his life, culminating in his crucifixion.
The image of a wild mob baying for murder ties into very real fears surrounding the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan first formed in 1865, directly after the Civil War, and had waged a campaign of terror over both African Americans and white Republicans, carrying out attacks and lynchings and destroying property. In 1915, a second wave formed in a context of escalating racial tensions induced by growing industrialization and urbanization. It was this new incarnation that adopted the familiar iconography of white hooded uniforms and cross-burning, motifs it stole directly from Birth of a Nation (1915), a film which glorified the exploits of the original KKK. With an agenda not merely confined to African Americans but inclusive of other threats to the dream of white purity, such as Catholics, Jews and bootleggers, the new Klan attracted an unprecedented amount of support. By the mid-1920s, membership totalled between four and five million, with some states having as many as 30 per cent of their white male citizens involved. A third wave accompanied the Civil Rights movement in the 50s and 60s. The Klan exists today in small independent chapters which devote themselves to opposing any number of minority groups and progressive initiatives.
Since records began in 1882 up to 1965, at least 3,445 African Americans were lynched by KKK members.
Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit (1939) provides a harrowing testimony to black fears surrounding lynching.
A copy of the Mississippi Kloran, the KKK’s guidebook.
An excerpt from Birth of a Nation (1915) which, with its portrayal of the KKK as noble retainers of peace in the face of a savage onslaught by freedmen, laid the foundations of the second Klan.
Calvary is the spot, just outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem, where Christ is crucified after having been scourged, mocked and crowned with thorns. The sacred tree to which Reverend Shegog refers is the cross which Jesus is forced to carry to the site of his own execution (The Dream of the Rood, an Old English poem from around the 8th century, describes the cross as “syllicre trēow on lyft lædan lēohte bewunden, bēama beorhtost” –“ a most wondrous tree born aloft, wound round by light, brightest of beams”). The tree itself is thought to be dogwood (see note for page 64). Alongside Jesus, two thieves are crucified. Another prisoner, Barabbas — a seditionist “who had committed murder in the insurrection” (Mark 15.7) — is released when the crowd demands for Jesus to be killed in his stead.
This refers not to a literal flood but to the chaos that figures the very earth’s revolt against Christ’s death. Darkness blots out the sky during his final hours, and all the forces of nature erupt:
The veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God. (Matthew 27. 51-4)
On the third day after his crucifixion, Christ rises from the dead and ascends to heaven. His death atones for the sins of humanity and allows for the salvation of the righteous.
Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. (John 11.25-6)
This refers to the incidents described in the Book of Revelation. The Lamb of God opens the scroll with the seven seals which summons up seven angels. Each is given a trumpet which, when sounded, rains calamity upon the sinners of earth. This apocalypse heralds the Day of Judgement on which the righteous will be saved.
A reference to the final lines usually appended to the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Dilsey’s cryptic statement reflects a deep identification with end of days foretold in Reverend Shegog’s sermon and is evocative of God’s statement in the Book of Revelation: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last” (22.13). This suggests that she too has looked God in the face and seen the “power en de glory”. It also resonates with the demise of the Compson family, whose successive generations Dilsey has quietly tended. With the male line terminated — Quentin dead, Benjy castrated and Jason too contorted with hatred and rage to be capable of forming a relationship — the end of days has indeed come.
Each town had its own black enclaves which lay on the outskirts, separated from the central white sphere. These were crowded with crude, weather-beaten shacks and were typically known by such epithets as 'Nigger Hollow', 'Niggertown Marsh', or similar variants. Oxford, Mississippi had two such places: The Hollow and Freedman Town. The former was located along the present day University Avenue.
Every newly-appointed sheriff must take an oath of office as proscribed in the constitution: "I solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of Mississippi, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of sheriff to the best of my ability. So help me God."
The duties of sheriff are contained in 19.25 of the Mississippi Code. The principle which Jason believes is being flouted is 19.25.67, which compels the office-holder to “pursue, apprehend, and commit to jail all persons charged with treason, felony, or other crimes”.
In the map of Yoknapatawapha which Faulkner drew and published in Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Mottson, referred to as Mottstown in other novels, lies directly south of Jefferson. It is usually equated with Water Valley, a city in Yalobusha County roughly 17 miles below Oxford.
View one of the several maps Faulkner drew of Yoknapatawapha here.
The Soviet Union was formally constituted in 1922 in the wake of the collapse of the Russian Empire during the Revolution of 1917. Initially headed by Lenin and then by Stalin from 1924, it was the world’s first Communist state. The Union was run along Marxist-Leninist principles which advocated a centralized policy of enforced wealth redistribution to be carried out by party elites. The brutal crushing of political adversaries attracted the censure of the U.S., whilst communism’s opposition to liberalism, capitalism and bourgeois democracy engendered deep suspicion in a country founded upon those values.
Like many of the symbols Faulkner uses, the narcissus is deeply ambiguous in its implications. In Christian iconography, it is a symbol of renewal associated with the resurrection of Christ. Earlier Greek mythology, however, also allies it with death. Narcissi grow in abundance on the banks of the River Styx, across which the souls of the dead were transported to Hades. They are also sacred to Demeter, the harvest goddess who presides over the cycle of life and death, as well as to her daughter Persephone, the personification of spring-time renewal and goddess of the Underworld. Benjy’s flower, therefore, evokes the impermanence of hope and rejuvenation: like the sound and the fury to which the novel’s title refers, these too will ultimately be subsumed by their own destruction and come to signify nothing.
Carrying a narcissus to Quentin’s grave is highly apt, given the manner in which the mythological youth dies. Watch an amazing video recreation of Salvador Dali's 'Metamorphosis of Narcissus' showing his transformation into a flower.
This is the statute to which Benjy alludes on page 8, although its posture is modelled on Oxford’s other Confederate monument which stands in the grounds of the University of Mississippi. It is striking that his own “empty and untroubled” gaze resembles that of the Confederate soldier, the archetype of the values on which the South was built and has since lost. As his name suggests, this mute, castrated idiot, given to fits of inarticulate bellowing that sum up “all time and injustice and sorrow” (p. 244), is the living embodiment of that once-proud culture’s demise.
As Daniel Singal points out, the significance of this somewhat puzzling conclusion is revealed by the locational clues which Faulkner gives us. The safety ritual on which Benjy’s precarious sense of order depends involves travelling right round the square and watching as shapes flow from left to right. He therefore keeps his gaze unwaveringly fixed on the square’s perimeter, away from the statue at its centre. His idiocy, it seems, does not prevent a primal understanding of what that Confederate soldier represents, nor an appalled feeling of kinship with him. Being forced to confront this directly is the transgression of a deeply-engrained taboo, the shock of which causes his world — temporarily, at least — to shatter.