Esoteric Symbolism and Allegory in Faulkner’s Old Man

The version I read.

Revised. 12/8/10 By: Jay Dyer (c) Copyrighted, all right reserved. Old Man is part of a Faulkner work titled The Wild Palms, a collection of two stories; Old Man and If I Forget Thee Jerusalem, both of which deal with similar themes, yet are able to stand alone. Old Man is a fascinating tale, rife with allusions to biblical characters, questions of destiny and freedom, gender and sexual issues, natural and spiritual forces, social flaws and rival cultures, operating under a modernist analysis. It also uses humor to make the piece somewhat of a dark satire. Faulkner’s rich usage of symbols, and the stories’ allegorical meanings are worthy of analysis within their own context (as opposed to comparison with The Wild Palms). Old Man takes place in Mississippi in 1927 during a flood of the Mississippi River, where two convicts are chosen to paddle down river and rescue stranded refugees. Of the two, one is described as “plump,” while the protagonist is “tall and thin.”  Neither criminals are exceptionally bright, and have been engaged in manual labor on a levee at a place called “The Farm” for seven years, yet had oddly not seen the water itself in. They are thus isolated, nameless individuals who subsist at an animalistic level, as the “Farm” terminology suggests. In fact, we later learn that the anonymous tall convict had derived the idea to rob a train from reading pulp fiction novels. His youthful reasoning was apparently that if he took the best ideas from all the novels he had read, his robbery would prove successful. This is an amusing use of irony where a completely fictional reality comes to dominate the psychological motivations for a young southern male’s decision to rob trains, ultimately for his teenage girlfriend, which lands him in jail.  The male/female dynamic will be one of the main themes of the novella, and Faulkner takes a particularly negative and antagonistic view of the social norms of his day, especially that of married life and the status quo. Several examples arise in which Faulkner makes this point as the convict is swept along by the river’s fatalistic currents. When the flood breaks loose, the tall convict is unaware of what is happening: He has never seen the river itself and asks a “Negro man” what has happened, who responds that it is “De old man.” The river, then, is a key player in this story, and is the Mississippi itself. The name suggests the ancient preternatural powers of nature that are brute, untamed, uncivilized and determining. Another theme in the story is that of the reality of man’s free will in the face of raw nature, which seems to sweep us along, with no concern for social strata or human virtue or vice.

The tall convict meets a woman stranded in a tree and is forced to rescue her against his initial wishes. Already we have associations with Eden, as well as references to snakes in the water. The reference here is to the archetypal symbolism of Eden where man is said to have fallen at the suggestion of the woman, who had been deceived by the serpent in Genesis 3. The convict himself experiences a kind of “exodus,” being thrown out of his prison existence into a strange and foreign land. Indeed, the convict senses initially that he is in for trouble with the woman, when he amusingly says to himself:

“…and to think what Helen, what living Garbo, he had not dreamed of rescuing from what craggy pinnacle or dragoned keep…he watched her, he made no further effort to help her beyond holding the skiff savagely steady while she lowered herself from the limb–the entire body, this deformed swell of a belly bulging the calico, suspended by its arms, thinking, And this is what I get. This, out of all the female meat that walks, is what I have to be caught in a runaway boat with” (106).

The convict is thus sickened and afraid of the female presence. He is at a loss with what to do with a woman, as well as how to treat females. Not only does he feel at a loss, he is disgusted by her. He has no desire to rescue her, but feels compelled to. He even refers to her as “meat,” in a dehumanizing and objectifying way. This attitude will persist as the story continues.

Not only is he sickened by her, as they progress down the river, the convict feels the desire to return to the “monastic” existence he had in the prison. He thought to himself that he wishes he had turned his back on her forever, “as well as all female life” (110). He desires to be back in jail, away from all pregnant and female life, away from all “swelling mass” and womb, and just as the prisoner has no name, so the woman is simply titled “woman” (110). They are both nameless, southern, lower-class whites, who see each other in purely functional ways, and not as humans. The prisoner sees her as a repulsive sexual thing, a mere womb, while she sees him as salvation from the flood, never even thanking him for the rescue. The convict thinks: “his passenger had ceased to be a human being and instead…had become one single inert monstrous sentient womb…” (118). The association should also be made between a pregnant woman’s water breaking and the levee water breaking, inasmuch as there is a symbolic connection between the river’s giving birth to tragedy and destruction, and human birth of a female as something fearful and tragic to the convict. Literary critic Northrop Frye comments on the symbolic usage of water as often presented in literature dealing with alchemical and esoteric themes, which makes sense in reference to the river as an “old man”:

Water, on the other hand, traditionally belongs to a realm of existence below human life, the state of chaos or dissolution which follows ordinary death, or the reduction to the inorganic. Hence the soul frequently crosses water or sinks into it at death….Apocalyptically [in Revelation and Ezekiel], therefore, water circulates in the universal body like the blood in the individual body.[1]

And Faulkner critic Kenneth Richardson comments on the river:

“…this woman is ‘opposed to romantic love because she is faithful to one of the natural laws of the universe—childbirth—and she is able to communicate her belief emotionally to the Mississippi jailbird, at least for the length of the river journey, that responsibility is more important than escape.’ Besides the symbolic significance of childbirth, there is the symbol of the river…Life, represented by the river and the woman, is nature in its “savage,” “implacable,” and and particularly oblivious state…The convict’s reaction to the river and the woman (life) is the same; he feels victimized.”[2]

It is in this moment of clarity, he stoically realizes his helplessness before the brute power of nature. He thinks to himself, “…he too had received that lift from the mere presence of a known stream, a river known by its ineradicable name to generations of men who had been drawn to dwell beside water, even before he had a name for water and fire, drawn to the living water, the course of his destiny and his actual physical appearance rigidly coerced and postulated by it” (111).  The convict is simultaneously mystified by the river as well as by the woman. Both for him represent the uncontrolled power of nature that can cause destruction: entities at once beautiful and terrifying. The danger of female sexuality is thus connected with the danger of nature, which brings forth both life and death.

A striking image of the convict’s revulsion of domesticity is presented after the child is born. The convict is astonished that he was savagely torn from his hermetic prison existence for a strange creature and relishes in the idea of surrendering to the police to return to his natural state. By this time, Faulkner has made three biblical patriarch/prophet references: Noah, Abraham and Isaiah. All three were prophetical, alienated figures who participated in lesser “exoduses” from their normal environments, just as the convict has. The Noah references are particularly relevant, since both sail through a flood.

There is also a curious reference to a hermaphrodite, which the convicts ignorantly mistake for hemophiliac. While the reference may be innocuous, it might also be a further clue given by Faulkner to the deeper, esoteric symbolism found in the novella. Just as the river has an association with the feminine principle, which manifests as both inert life and overt destruction, likewise the river is the “old man.”[3] Thus the duality of nature is united in the imagery of the hermaphrodite.

This is followed by the second reference to men as “ants.” The ant is one of the smallest creatures found in nature (from a human vantage point), and the meaning seems to be that before the relentless flow of the forces of nature, man is seen as a mere ant. The convict sees himself as a helpless ant, exiled from his happier existence at the prison work camp, where, aptly, they would labor like ants. The convict sees himself as subject to the flow of nature, which he constantly views as a personal entity which keeps “toying” with him, giving no rest.

Another interesting biblical reference is that of not being able to understand others’ due to their foreign languages. The convict has no understanding of the refugees on the steamboat, little understanding of the blacks, and no grasp of the Cajun, though they are able to come to mutually advantageous symbolic interactions. In Genesis, we have the story of the tower of Babel, where the nations unite to defy God, and God “comes down” to disperse them among the nations, confusing their “tongues” (Gen. 10).

Between the convict and the pregnant woman there is also very little communication. Faulkner focuses on the alienation of individuals in the rise of modernity, especially among the lower classes. The transition from the old agrarian South to an industrialized society will produce a largely alienated populace cut off from their natural roots, coupled with a new pessimistic view, and this is the chief theme of modernism. As the Bedford Glossary notes:

As a literary movement, modernism gained prominence during and, especially, just after World War I; it subsequently flourished in Europe and America through the 1920s and 1930s. Modernist authors sought to break away from traditions and conventions through experimentation with new literary forms, devices and styles….Their works reflected the basic sense of loss, disillusionment, and even despair in the wake of the Great War, hence their emphasis on historical discontinuity and the alienation of humanity….To this end, even whole depicting disorder in their works, modernists also interjected order by creating patterns of allusion, symbol, and myth.[4]

Again, we are transported to an ancient religious dimension corresponding to this modernist desire to interject patterns of symbol and myth, where the convict appears to be reenacting archetypal stories, and struggles to grasp their real meaning, never getting beyond the never ending sense of doom and desperation that his fate is not a good one, though he feels he has acted dutifully.

This would also be relevant to the social order of the day, where blacks and minorities subsisted in a second class status in the South. The irony will be more evident in this regard when we consider the ruling class–the police and politicians—who are themselves corrupt and without virtue. The bleak outlook presented by Faulkner does not give the impression Faulkner had much hope in humanity. Faulkner wants to highlight the dark side of reality, and tear the masks off the facades of pretentious social pretenders. In fact, the convict, who operates out of more or less selfish motives, and actually does some good is more moral than anyone else in the story, though his goodness is purely opportunistic.  For example, he did save the woman and help her when she was giving birth.

The convict at one point even sees the series of events as his own personal Golgotha (another biblical reference), evoking both imagery of death and noble virtue. He senses that all his trials have been for some reason, but he is unsure of its outcome. He sees the river, in this case as an image of God or divine providence as a great “cosmic joker.” The river now is personified to the point of an image of God the Father, who is a cruel joker, in the convict’s mind, bringing him to this seemingly futile Golgotha (160).

By the time the convict surrenders himself, he has determined that “civilization” is, in fact, uncivilized. He tried his hand at certain jobs and attempted to associate with different women, but finds them perpetually perplexing and frightening. In short, women are trouble. For the convict, civilization is a womanly thing. It’s an alienating and threatening force like the power of the river. The convict has accepted his fate stoically and operated with a Kantian style duty-ethic accordingly, turning himself in to retreat to the safety of prison life. It turns out the governor’s men were dispatched and were part of Phi Beta Kappa, representing the secret society connection to civilized order and it’s corrupt control, as opposed to the raw chaos of nature and the rigid structure of prison. It is the sheriff and the upper class of civilization, who desires to execute the prisoner on false charges, but who decides instead to sentence him to more prison time.

The reader then learns that the cause for the convict’s imprisonment was that he robbed a train because of a girlfriend who stopped writing him when he was sentenced, and married another man. His only experience with a young woman was to turn sour and result in his imprisonment for several years, and from this point on, women are dark, troublesome forces. He refers to the woman he rescued as a “millstone,” and laments his associations in the external worls. Critic Kenneth Richardson notes:

“He is in jail because he attempted robbery to get some Woolworth jewelry for a sweetheart. Disillusioned with life and love, he feels secure in prison.  It is a safe womb to him, and the chains that bind him to other prisoners are like “umbilical cords.”[5]

Faulkner hammers this home when he ends the story with the convict gladly back in prison, where he can have meals, a routine, and watch Sunday movies. The last line is, “Women, —t.” Possibly this means “shit,” or possibly it is an instance of the convict stuttering as he reminisces the trouble they have brought him. Either way, the great irony is apparent: prison life is freer for the convict than civilization, where he must cohabit with women and live under a corrupt upper class of governors and bureaucrats.

Faulkner weaves together masterfully these multitude and complex themes–from biblical imagery and archetypes to mythical symbolism—and its intricate style requires a keen and well-read reader to decode his humor and darkness. Old Man is at once ironic and satirical, just as life is simultaneously dark, cold, and humorous, all at once. Faulkner critic Panthea Boughton explains of the story’s overall theme as an allegory:

…the flooding river serves as an appropriate emblem for an existence which is fluctuating, uncontainable, and unjust. The entire narrative of “Old Man” then becomes allegory.”Old Man” has a fablelike quality established by its title; by its beginning, “Once….there were two convicts”; by their associations with animals; by the biblical and historical references; and of course by the elemental nature of the conflict itself. Given power, volition, and even malignancy, the river serves as symbol for the “living and fluid world of time” into which man is doomed “unwitting and without choice.” And the narrative framework of the tale itself is an apt allegory for man’s confrontation with and capitulation before that motion.”[6]

Faulkner would have one look at the reality of the world–not the clever constructs we build up to mask the ominous. Death, serpents, ugly pregnancies, crooked cops, natural destruction are all realities that occur simultaneously with the absurdity and hilarity of human interaction. Perhaps facing up to destiny and laughing at the tragedies that befall us is the necessary step to retain sanity in the face of an uncivilized civilization

Works Cited


Broughton, Panthea. William Faulkner: The Abstract and the Actual. LSU Press: Baton Rouge, LA (1974).

Faulkner, William. Three Famous Short Novels by William Faulkner. Vintage Books: New York (1961).

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey (1957).

Murfin, Ross and Supryia Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Bedford/St. Martin’s: Boston, MA (2003).

Richardson, Kenneth. Force and Faith in the Novels of William Faulkner. Mouton & Co. Publishers. Hague, Netherlands (1967).

[1] Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey (1957), 146.

[2] Richardson, Kenneth. Force and Faith in the Novels of William Faulkner. Mouton & Co. Publishers. Hague, Netherlands: 1967, 96-97.

[3] Faulkner, William. Three Famous Short Novels by William Faulkner. Vintage Books: New York (1961). See pages 170-171 where there is a discussion of emasculation and the river as the old man. The horror he feels for the river is the same as for the woman.

[4] Murfin, Ross and Supryia Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Bedford/St. Martin’s: Boston, MA (2003), 268.

[5] Richardson, Force and Faith, 98.

[6] Broughton, Panthea. William Faulkner: The Abstract and the Actual. LSU Press: Baton Rouge, LA (1974), 42-43.

5 Comments on Esoteric Symbolism and Allegory in Faulkner’s Old Man

  1. I wish I had more time to read Faulkner’s work. I like the critique other than all the damn spoilers… Faulkner is like Harry Potter in some circles. I wonder if Faulkner knew that was what he was trying to say. Hemingway said something to the tune of “I don’t intentionality write in symbolism, but if what I write is good, it will be there.” I’ve been thinking about that lately.

  2. I’ve been reading other literary criticisms about this novella and independent of them my conclusions were basically the same as theirs, so I think it’s a good sign I’m on the right track.

  3. thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on Faulkners book. I just finished reading this one and couldnt find much in the way of interpretation, so your article is one of few that I have come across.


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