Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Sacrificial Rituals and Anguish in the Victim's Heart in "Red Leaves."

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Sacrificial Rituals and Anguish in the Victim's Heart in "Red Leaves."

Article excerpt

Traditions, customs, rituals, and myths are patterns derived from ancient times beyond memory and history. Their focal point often is a person pleased or trapped by the activities and the ceremonies. William Faulkner was a master of choosing a figure almost beneath human notice--say, Darl Bundren or Joe Christmas--and revealing in the character extraordinary dimensions, human and even superhuman. In many of Faulkner's works scholars do not know what Faulkner knew from conscious and intellectual knowledge and what he used simply because he was following some ancient pattern. Often Faulkner told questioners that mythic elements were in his fiction even though he had not knowingly used them--such as the numerous certain and uncertain parallels to the world and life of Jesus Christ in Light in August.

In one of his best short stories, "Red Leaves," Faulkner follows the doomed black slave of an Indian chief to his inevitable end in acceptance of an inescapable death. The servant (alone in his anguish), his fellows recently brought from the cultures of Africa, and native Americans quickly falling into the ways of white civilization are blended in a story involving deep patterns of human experience and their effects on the sensitive psyche of the victim of human sacrifice.

Chief Issetibbeha has died. Rituals and traditions demand that the chief be buried with his dog, his horse, and his bodyservant. The actions and the emotions of the story focus on the flight, the pursuit, the capture, and the burial of the living man. Parts of the narrative deal with the actions of the pursuers and the other slaves, who are forced to be mere onlookers in the sacrificial ceremony. The story constantly focuses on the actions of the tribe and the ways they affect the mind of the doomed one. Early in the chase this single black man lies in a loft dressed in dungarees with a mother-of-pearl amulet, watching those who pursue him. From the first the purpose of the narrative is not suspense with strenuous effort of pursuers and some hope of escape for the fugitive as is customary in simple stories. The end is a foregone conclusion: ceremonial and sacrificial death. The slave flees, briefly returns to his own people as they ceremonially beat their drums, overhears the complaining Indians who are by custom required to chase him, sees the arrangements for the funeral and burial, quietly encounters a pursuing Indian, and plunges unhindered back into the swamp.

A disastrous episode during the flight is typical of simple adventures and, at the same time, of mythic patterns. An event of terror is sluggish in action and meditative in reaction. "A cottonmouth moccasin slashed him suddenly across the forearm with a thick, sluggish blow. It struck clumsily. . . ." The slave's response seems calmly ritualistic. "'Old, grandfather,' the Negro said. He touched its head and watched it slash him again. . . ." The emphasis on ancient patterns and meanings is strangely apparent. He says twice over "in a quiet tone, of slow and low amaze . . ." (334-35) that he does not wish to die.

The encounter is similar to Isaac McCaslin's sighting a rattlesnake when he returns to the wilderness for the last time during the destruction at the end of "The Bear." There the man addresses the snake in the "old tongue" of Sam Fathers with the English words for the head of a tribe and a patriarch: "Chief . . . Grandfather" (Go Down Moses 330). Here Faulkner interprets the snake in religious and mythical terms: it is "the old one, the ancient and accursed about the earth, fatal and solitary . . . evocative of all knowledge and an old weariness of a pariah-hood and of death" (329). Elsewhere he also calls it the "fallen angel, the unregenerate immortal" (Gwynn and Blotner 2). The black man from an African culture addresses the snake with a term from his old world: Ole. This word (still a Spanish bull-fighting term) ultimately derives from the Arabic world. …

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