Just as writers everywhere have been reworking and responding to Shakespeare’s work since his death, so too has the Bible played a fundamental role in the Western literary canon. Texts that seemingly could not be further from the Jewish or Christian religious traditions are often filled with Biblical references. Films such as East of Eden (1955) and Pulp Fiction (1994) don’t exactly have a holy message, but nonetheless prominently feature Biblical symbols and quotations.
Here Foster introduces an important reading technique: divorcing references to a text from the text itself. Just because a work of literature features Biblical imagery, doesn’t mean the text has a religious message. Rather, much like Shakespeare, the Bible is so deeply embedded in our cultural memory that alluding to it is nearly possible to avoid.
Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) tells the story of Sethe, an escaped slave who is discovered by four white men on horses and kills her daughter rather than let her be taken into slavery. Although not explicitly stated in the text, the arrival of the white men represents the Apocalypse, which, according to the Gospel of St. John, will be announced by the arrival of four horsemen. Reading Morrison’s novel in this way helps elucidate how Sethe could be compelled to act as she does.
Foster’s reading of “Beloved” reveals how writers use Biblical narratives in metaphorical ways. When the horsemen arrive, this does not signal the apocalypse in the conventional sense of the whole world ending. Rather, it is Sethe’s world that comes to a metaphorical end. Similarly, the Day of Judgment is scaled down to the personal decision Sethe makes to kill Beloved.
Meanwhile, James Joyce’s short story “Araby” (1914) depicts a young Irish boy who tries (and fails) to buy a gift for the girl he has a crush on from a bazaar. This failure constitutes a humiliating loss of innocence akin to Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden. In Joyce’s story, childhood is the metaphorical garden from which the young boy is expelled and to which he can never return.
Again, it may at first seem tenuous to compare the minor romantic failure of a young Irish boy to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. However, Foster’s connection of the two suggests that everyone has experiences that resonate with Biblical or mythical stories, even if they appear far less dramatic.
Writers don’t just borrow figures, symbols, and plots from the Bible, but also passages and phrases that might show up as titles, such as in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Tim Parks’ Tongues of Flame (1985), Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Go Down Moses (1942). Often, these titles illuminate subtle Biblical themes found within the text, such as the cycle of life, death, and renewal.
Like Shakespeare, the Bible appears in all kinds of literary and cultural contexts, many of which are far from obvious. By giving their work a Biblical title, authors convey a similar literary “authority” as quoting from Shakespeare. This is not the same as religious authority, but rather results from widespread familiarity with the Bible.
Early English literature is particularly infused with references to the Bible, as writers during this era lived within a culture dominated by religion. However, even later texts—which are likely to be less overtly Christian than works such as Beowulf (~700) and The Canterbury Tales (1384)—are often steeped in religion. Writers ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Adrienne Rich feature religious allusions and themes within their work. Note that in recent eras, religious references are often ironic or critical. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) is one of the most controversial literary reworkings of a religious text—so controversial that Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwā (Islamic legal opinion) calling for Rushdie’s death after the novel’s publication.
As Foster shows, the way that literature represents and interacts with religion has varied greatly over different historical periods. For this reason, it is useful to have a basic understanding of the historical and cultural context in which a work of literature was written. However, as the example of “The Satanic Verses” shows, the role of religion at a given time is complex and multifaceted. Even with a particular society at a particular time, attitudes about the relationship between religion and literature can vary in an extreme fashion.
Many characters in works of literature are also named after Biblical figures. This can provide information about a character’s personality; on a more complex level, it can also highlight how naming works within the world of the novel. In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977) the central family names its children by randomly picking words from the Bible, a practice that points to the extreme trust people place on Scripture.
Here Foster encourages the reader to think of names as symbols. Whereas in real life it is impossible to anticipate a newborn’s personality and give them an appropriate name in advance, authors often name their characters strategically in order to convey information about them. In “Song of Solomon,” meanwhile, the act of naming itself is a symbol.
Foster admits it can be difficult to identify Biblical allusions if one is not a scholar of the Bible. On the other hand, it is possible to track references through connections to older texts, many of which ultimately lead back to the Bible. Although recognizing Biblical references does not always drastically alter the interpretation of a given text, it does serve as a useful reminder that the plots and themes of recent literature are usually as old as the Bible (if not older!). When we pay attention to Biblical allusions, stories that can at first appear specific to their historical moment are often revealed to be timeless and universal.
Although having extensive knowledge of the Bible would help any student of literature, perhaps more useful from a literary perspective would be to have knowledge of the ways that the Bible has been used in literature. Once again, Foster emphasizes that the way to become better at analyzing literature is to read widely.