Eden and Egyptland: The Biblical South in Toomer’s Cane and Ellison’s Invisible Man
Both Jean Toomer and Ralph Ellison allude heavily to Old Testament imagery as they illustrate the Southern American landscape in their respective novels, Cane and Invisible Man. Toomer compares, through spirituals and spiritual-derived language, slavery’s legacy in the South to the plight of the Hebrew slaves of Egypt. In this sense, he describes Christianity in the Southern U.S. as a mostly redemptive force that can, at best, lead black people out of hardship and, at worst, support the status quo of segregation. Ellison, on the other hand, depicts the Southern college at which the first part of the novel takes place as a false Eden that the narrator falls from. As the narrator’s vision of blissful ignorance unravels, Ellison continues to employ religious metaphors in critiquing the lie of progress he had been taught. So, while Toomer more evenly highlights the good and bad aspects of Southern Christianity, both authors appropriate sermonic language to argue that the palliation of injustice by religious fervor holds back the Southern Black community nearly as much as white prejudice does.
Toomer sets his scene of the Biblical South with both poetic and vernacular references to pre-Exodus Egypt and the enslaved Israelites. One of Cane’s most repeated images is the “Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile” (Georgia Dusk 17) that reflects the immaterial, ominous, and unfulfilled cry for salvation that lingers through the aftermath of slavery. Smoke is a symbol of prophecy that brings to mind sacrifice and messages to heaven, while the pyramids more directly allude to slavery in ancient Egypt. Toomer confirms this with a context-less exclamation from an unknown narrator that “God has left the Moses-people for the nigger” (Carma 14). Toomer makes a clearer connection between the enslaved followers of Moses and the poor African-Americans of the rural South, but also implies that the arrival of Moses’ God may not bring the salvation Southern Blacks hope for, as external prejudice persists with or without internal faith. Although Toomer highlights the hope-bringing capacity of gospel song in many of the spiritual poems, he casts them in more of an ironic light when he uses religion to reflect the stagnation of the Southern landscape. In one story,” the setting of a Southern church is described statically and despondently: “There was no wind. The autumn sun, the bell from Ebenezer Chruch, listless and heavy. Even the pines were stale, sticky, like the smell of food that makes you sick” (Becky 10).
Throughout Cane, wind predicts change, so its absence implies a Southern landscape devoid of real moral improvement. Furthermore, the supposed agent of change – Christianity – like spoiled food, once sustenance, is now poison. In this frame of reference, Cane’s earlier religious symbols reveal their doomed nature. In the first story, the sawmill’s “pyramidal sawdust pile smouldered” but “It is a year before one completely burns. Meanwhile the smoke curls up and hands in odd wraiths about the trees” and the sawdust’s smoke “is so heavy you tasted it in water” (Karintha 6). Toomer’s motif of religious uproar, while still born out of righteous revolt against Pharaonic bondage, is now shown to be a lingering, unhealthy influence. Transformed into a spiritual, the prophetic outcry becomes “Smoke is on the hills, O rise / And take my soul to Jesus” (Karintha 6). Yet, the song remains a solemn plea for change rather than a threat against oppressors, as Moses’ sermons were. As such, the smoke remains and the wind stops blowing, stifling the land, symbolically preventing progress away from the sorrows of discrimination. Toomer argues that, by mythologizing Southern Blacks as a helpless people in need of divine intervention, traditional narratives have become ineffectual.
Ellison expands upon much of Toomer’s critique of Southern religion by transposing the hardships of the Old Testament into one man’s life rather than into the lives of all the African-Americans of Georgia. The narrator’s journey begins in an idyllic, but isolated campus “lined with hedges and wild roses that dazzled the eyes in the summer sun” where the “moon kissed the steeple and flooded the perfumed nights” (Invisible Man 36). For all intents and purposes, the college is Eden, a paradise on Earth bounded by a “forbidden road” that “turned off to the insane asylum,” which is suggestive of the immoral, chaotic pre-Fall world (34, 35). According to the Biblical narrative of the Fall of Man, the narrator encounters sin through his exchange with Trueblood, at whose house he finds “a hard red apple stamped out of tin,” symbolizing the forbidden knowledge of evil (53). Finally, on his way out from the college, from whence he has been exiled for sharing Trueblood’s sin, the narrator recognizes ‘the tempting serpent’ as “a mocassin wiggl[ing] swiftly along the gray concrete” that produces “a feeling that [he] was heading into the unknown,” symbolizing the finality of the Fall (156).The twist from the traditional Bible story comes with the revelation that there is as much sin within Eden as without, which is what causes the narrator’s fall. When he is expelled, the narrator learns that Dr. Bledsoe, the supposed paragon of upwards mobility, would “have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where [he is]” (143). The exposed selfishness of his benefactor and the punishment he receives for doing what he is told drives the narrator out of his ‘mental Eden’ into a crueler world of hidden intentions and the sin of lying. The narrator realized this to some extent earlier when he acknowledges that “those who had set [him] here in Eden” are the hypocritical white founders “who trailed their words to [Blacks] through blood and violence and ridicule and condescension with drawling smiles, and who exhorted and threatened, intimidated with innocent words” (112). This sentiment, in response to Homer Barbee’s formulaic and insincere sermon on “humility,” comes to the narrator as a suspicion that there is deceit pervading the college’s sanctuary.
It takes Bledsoe’s reversal, however, to truly convince the narrator that his Eden was illusory. Even removed from the Fall narrative, Ellison is critical of religion’s role in “masking” African-American independence as evident in Barbee’s overwrought speech. As he inflates the Founder’s life to prophetic heroism, Barbee claims that the students’ “parents followed this remarkable man across the black sea of prejudice, safely out of the land of ignorance, through the storms of fear and anger, shouting LET MY PEOPLE GO! when it was necessary, whispering it during those times when whispering was wisest” (120). Drawing upon the same Moses parallel that Toomer also used to ironic effect, Ellison sets Barbee’s vision of the Founder as an example of a prophet whose creed, while bringing the hope to flee bondage, depreciates the social value of his followers. Within the statement that the Founder led his people out of “the land of ignorance” is the ambiguity of whether that land is the American South or Africa, which was referred to as such by proponents of slavery and by slaves such as Phillis Wheatley who were educated through Christianization. Likewise, the “black sea of prejudice” is ambiguously either an expression condemning interracial tensions or the intolerance that came from mutual misunderstandings between oppressed, uneducated blacks. Finally, Ellison implies that the god-like Founder was uncharacteristically submissive when he would whisper a message of defiance in order to avoid strife.
As symbolistic writers, Ellison and Toomer imbue every image, motif, and allusion with a different meaning, depending on context. Their use of religious language and iconography, especially, works to subvert traditional notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘progress’. Through their portrayal of a Southern landscape stifled by unanswered prayer and hollow preaching, Ralph Ellison and Jean Toomer advocate for racial equality through an upheaval of tradition.
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