Tiger Take-Off




Lost by Allusion

Robert VanEst

Every text implies information that it takes for granted and does not explain; whether allusions are Shakespeare’s references to British history, Dickens’ references to the law, Flannery O’Connor’s connections to Christian salvation, or Dickinson’s questioning references to God, the pattern persists. Our human “mental reference libraries” store knowledge of entities, principles, and situations from life and education, and through a process of continual reference to such stored information, we create and receive new understandings. Communication, therefore, becomes dependent upon what could be called communication “shorthand,” because the body of information stored is expected to convey much of the underlying message. But the assumption of knowledge often creates misunderstanding, simply because the receiver of the message has insufficient knowledge, or no knowledge, for reference, and the message is not received. Reference to a pair of adversaries as “David and Goliath” means nothing to an audience unfamiliar with that Biblical story. Additionally, new information received needs to be related to the receiver’s existing knowledge in order for it to be organized and retained.

Evidence from many sources indicates that the lack of cultural literacy is a growing problem, making students less able to understand allusions. Expansion of the literary canon to include newer works has crowded out critical, historic information. Although no single course of study will by itself solve the problem, the single source that seems to have had the most influence historically has been the Bible, which suggests a beginning point. Testimonies valuing the Bible’s influence and study are so extensive that a practical solution to begin addressing the cultural literacy problem is simply to change course and begin once again to include Bible study in the school curriculum. It should be taught in conjunction with English literature, since allusion to the Bible is so frequent within that body of literature; the King James Version has comparable vocabulary and expression. Such a connection would make possible a better means of relating the Bible to other literature for long-term retention. E.D. Hirsch rightly observes the wisdom of columnist William Raspberry who says: “The more you know, the more you can learn.”1 But we are human. And to acknowledge that is to recognize that we are incapable of knowing everything and, therefore, have to make choices about what we pursue in our studies, and our lives, with recognition given to abilities, interests, and possibilities.

Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr., recognize human capability in What Do Our 17-Year-Olds-Know?

“It is possible to spend a lifetime studying history or literature without reading every important book or learning about every significant event. The most we can hope for in the years of formal schooling is that students learn to tell the important from the unimportant; that they know enough about literature to distinguish for themselves what is fine and what is dross; that they know enough about history to inform themselves about the vital connections between the present and the past; that they cultivate a desire to learn more; and that they acquire a foundation of knowledge on which to build for the rest of their lives. “2

Since students have little voice in what studies are required, curricular choices determine their exposure to literature and history, which, in turn, affect what we can hope for in students’ understanding. Society determines what is important for individuals to know, but society is somewhat unstable in its evaluative swings when viewed for short time periods. Modern math faded away and perhaps creative spelling will follow; choices made by a generation or two may later be exposed by history to have been poor choices.

But Americans place high value on personal opinion, extending to views on the effectiveness of high school education. Diane Ravitch in her National Standards in American Education refers to a Louis Harris poll in 1991 which found important differences of opinion: “Large majorities of students and their parents believe that students are well prepared for work and higher education. Employers and college educators do not agree.”3 Cash is a factor. Commercial interests appear to be a likely culprit in promoting the “new and improved” direction the curriculum seems to take periodically, since sales are generated by potentially improved programs, methods, and the literature that accompany it; profitable careers also can be built on new programs. But there is a history of programs and ideas that were not in the best interest of education. It is impossible to assess the results of past educational experiments in mathematics, phonics, spelling, history, and literature. The results were not all good. In reading programs, an imbalance between diversity and foundational studies creates a lack of shared cultural literacy, resulting in a problem that is not temporary, but one that affects the foundation of knowledge of each person who has experienced the imbalanced program. The freedom to teach and learn historical curricula, specifically related to the Bible, has been curtailed by curricular choices that are now in need of correction. A buffet-style education without a satisfactory core can be a poor mental diet. Students cannot organize random information into adequate mental reference libraries.

Being culturally literate is not a matter of being educationally elite or exclusive in any way. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., in Cultural Literacy: What Every American Should Know, observes:

“It is the least elitist or exclusive culture that exists in any modern nation. Literate culture is far less exclusive, for instance, than any ethnic culture, no matter how poverty bound, or pop culture or youth culture. It has no in-group, no generational or geographical preference. It can be mastered in the country or in the city, in a shanty or a mansion, so long as the opportunity is given. But it must be given effectively by schooling that produces literacy, not by ceremonies of schooling that do not.”4

Indeed, those who suffer from cultural deprivation in their own homes could be served no better than to compensate for that deprivation by the influence of schooling that provides cultural literacy. Family background does not establish a uniquely decisive factor of literacy. Even from literate family backgrounds, many who have graduated from American schools in the last half of the twentieth century were deprived of the cultural vocabulary of past generations, a fundamental educational mistake. Hirsch states: “The inevitable effect of the fundamental educational mistake has been a gradual decline in our ability to communicate. The mistake has therefore been a chief cause of illiteracy, which is a subcategory of the inability to communicate.”5

This study will consider works from three prominent authors; allusion is evident in all three examples, but each relies on allusion differently. Milton’s work is based on a Biblical story, and readers need to know both the story and the background for their basic understanding. However, his work contains so much allusion that only the first ten lines of his work will serve to illustrate the need for the reader to have Biblical knowledge. Twain uses allusion primarily for humor, but often makes serious points simultaneously. Steinbeck uses allusion almost exclusively to add depth to his protagonist. His novel, In Dubious Battle, is not his most well-known, but serves well to demonstrate another use of Biblical allusion.

John Milton

The problem of cultural literacy today is not without historical precedent: John Milton sensed a culturally disrupting social construct moving society away from its Biblical underpinnings in the seventeenth century. Milton lived in times which differed from our own, as Earl Miner observes:

“Religion was the focal point of enormous pressures exerted on thoughtful men in the century. It involved not only the salvation of one’s eternal soul, as if that were not enough. It also entwined with politics, economics, social class and approval, and often with survival itself.”6

Miner’s statement stresses the importance of religion in the seventeenth century, the period during which Milton lived and created his literary legacy. Copernicus had recently swept away the traditional view of the cosmos. Church and state were not yet separated; domination by the church-state was maintained through creeds, pamphlets, and pure political control. Potential for proliferation and corruption of requirements and laws can easily be seen in Biblical accounts of Jewish history. Much of Milton’s writing addresses what he viewed to be errors in the theology of his time. It is an interesting parallel to present multicultural influence to note that he attributed a breaking down of tradition to the influences of legends, mythology, and self-serving man, all influences from outside his culture’s dominant source of cultural literacy, the Bible. Despite his expressed concern for adhering to the Gospel, Milton created considerable controversy with his own views on certain major theological principles. His positions on creation, the Trinity, and the soul are all outside the typical. His views become more evident as his work is studied, but require knowledge of the typical to understand how they differ.

Milton’s Paradise Lost retells a story found in the Bible, with the essence of the plot drawn primarily from Genesis, chapters two and three. But he constantly draws from information spread throughout the Bible and other sources, particularly Greek and Latin literature, using allusion to bring additional meaning to his work. As he does so, he contradicts his own admonitions about straying away from scripture. His interweaving of scripture and pagan literature results in a pagan translation of the creation story, but it is a work that is useful for illustrating how reader literacy affects understanding.

Milton begins Paradise Lost:

“Of Man’s First disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heavn’ly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth Rose out of Chaos.”7

These first lines of the poem present information about creation, mortals in Paradise, and the consequences of their disobedience to God; they reach all the way into God’s plan for restoration of humanity through Christ, essentially encapsulating from beginning to the end the Bible’s message. With the first few lines encapsulating the Bible message the way they do, they create a good basis for illustrating Milton’s dependence on allusion. After these lines, Milton begins the sequence of going back to tell how and why the events of the story took place.

The first ten lines of the work are so compact with allusion that nearly every noun has stories of its own. “Man’s First disobedience” causes paradise to be lost as a place of residence for mankind. Biblical knowledge is necessary to understanding this reference. God has created two mortals. The male He created from the dust of the ground and breathed life into, and the female He formed using one of the male’s ribs. The story of Adam and Eve is relatively well known in American culture, with jokes about their nudity and sexuality being a substantial contributor to the spread of the information and misinformation about the story. The “Fruit” of all the trees in the garden is available to Adam and Eve, with the exception of one. God has forbidden the partaking of the fruit of “that Forbidden Tree,” which the Bible indicates will transmit the knowledge of good and evil. Being newly created, up to this point mankind had no concept of evil; however, the mortal “taste” of the fruit would bring that knowledge. Eve, at the urging of the serpent, which a knowing reader recognizes as Satan, tastes the forbidden fruit, and Adam quickly follows. Their disobedience, frequently alluded to as original sin, results in mankind being introduced to penalties, among these death and pain, which accompany expulsion from the garden paradise.

Line four alludes to “one greater Man” who will restore mankind’s relationship with God. This, of course, is Christ, the most important character in Biblical literature. Nearly all the events that take place in the Old Testament serve to explain God’s plan for mankind, and they detail the preparation for the coming of this “one greater Man” in the person of Jesus, second person of the Trinity composed of God, Son, and the Holy Spirit. The New Testament then contains the story of Jesus, the Christ, and the beginnings of Christianity.

Line eight refers to “the Shepherd.” The Shepherd reference can bring little or no additional information to the story to someone unfamiliar with the Bible. But familiarity with this Shepherd brings multiple stories about the life of one of the greatest Old Testament leaders of the Hebrew people, Moses. He was a shepherd in Midian for part of his life, after having fled Egypt because he killed an Egyptian (Exodus 3:12-15). But in Biblical literature he is a central figure in a substantial number of stories to which authors often allude. He was born in Egypt at a time when all male Hebrew babies were to be killed, but he survived because his mother hid him in a floating basket in the bulrushes. Pharaoh’s daughter found him and took him in, with his own mother then becoming his nurse. This story is a favorite among children who are schooled in Biblical literature (Exodus 1-10).

Moses’ adult life reveals murder, flight, and trickery, but also an eventual calling by God through a burning bush. He is the agent charged to take the message to Pharaoh “To let My people go,” another once well-known story from Biblical literature. Moses becomes the leader to free the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, a decision forced upon Pharaoh by plagues sent by God upon the Egyptian people, the last of which involved death of the firstborn and the origin of the Passover (Exodus 7-12). The exodus of the Hebrew people under the leadership of Moses gives the accounts of being led by God with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21). The Israelites escape the Egyptian army when God parts the Red Sea permitting the Israelites to cross on dry land, and later closes in the sea to destroy the pursuing Egyptian army. Later events associated with Moses contain God’s daily provision of manna and quail for food, and Moses’ striking the rock for water. Moses continues to lead the people to find the promised land, receiving the Ten Commandments from God along the way, but the people’s disobedience leads to the penalty of their wandering the wilderness for forty years. But Shepherd, to an uninformed reader, is only a Shepherd, not Moses, and the allusion fails to bring a flood of additional information about the man credited with “teaching the chosen Seed.”

The allusion to chosen Seed is itself an allusion of considerable magnitude. Mortal disobedience caused the loss of paradise, but the coming of the Christ was anticipated to reconcile mankind to God. Milton’s own view contends that Christ is a creation, not equal with God and as such a member of a Trinity, God in three Persons. Milton’s position creates a point that separates him from most theologians, but is convenient for motivating Satan within his epic. The Bible informs us that Christ came in the form of a person both God and man (John 5:17-23). The human body was to have a lineage through the Hebrew people, the chosen Seed through whom the Christ would come. The reading of history available to us through this chosen seed is a remarkable account of events that have influenced the world tremendously. Abraham’s sons, Ishmael and Isaac, are shown to be a point of separation in lineage, an interesting historical point that continues to influence world affairs today. The Bible indicates that God’s covenant follows through Abraham’s son Isaac, not with his son Ishmael, a bitter split in lineage that has resulted in a separation of Israel and its neighbors: the origin of current middle-east warfare.

In line six, Milton invokes the Heav’nly Muse, which is typical of seeking poetic inspiration, following the pattern of Homer and Vergil in their epic poetry. The location of Oreb, more often Mount Horeb, is the location given by Biblical accounts where Moses encounters God through the burning bush. And Mount Sinai is the Biblical location given for Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. Moses’ teaching involves the writing of the first five books of the Old Testament, which contain the account of creation. Origin of the substance of creation, which relates to Chaos, is viewed two different ways: creation from existing matter, or creation ex nihilo, a point of contention between Milton and many other knowledgeable Bible readers, but his position is not revealed until further into the poem.

Paradise Lost has additional intertextuality and Biblical allusion because its story is based on the Bible itself, but the first ten lines illustrate how allusion can create a flood of meaning and thought for those familiar with the allusions, and, simultaneously, deny that much meaning to those who are not. This principle multiplies itself through the text of the epic, to the extent it is unlikely any readers unfamiliar with Biblical literature would grasp much of Milton’s content or fully appreciate his art.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is set in middle America during pre-civil war years, with slavery anissue central to the story Twain creates. Religion joined to government no longer dominated society as it dominated Milton’s society, but Biblical allusion continues to be relied upon by Twain to create additional meanings as Huck has his adventures and misadventures. Twain is a humorist who depends on readers having background knowledge of literature, especially Biblical literature and Shakespeare to understand the humor.

Twain begins his story by contrasting the Widow Douglas with Huck. The Widow Douglas has taken Huck in to live with her, calling him her “poor lost lamb.”8 The comparison of mankind’s relation to God as Shepherd to sheep is common (Luke 15) throughout the Bible, especially the relationship between Jesus and His followers. Mental ability is likely part of this allusion as well. Observing that the Widow means well, Huck still laments the delay at the supper table, where everything looks satisfactory to him, as the widow takes time “to grumble a little over the victuals.”9 Perhaps most readers still recognize prayer at mealtime, thanking God for His provision and asking His blessing on the food, but it is increasingly likely that many do not. After supper, Widow Douglas is said to get out her book, which readers need to realize is the Bible, to teach Huck about “Moses and the Bulrushers.10 Twain’s twisting this allusion is amusing to a reader familiar with the story, because there are no Bulrushers. An informed reader knows the story is about Moses, who, when a baby, was hidden in the bulrushes by his mother in an effort to save his life. This is the same character Milton initially refers to as Shepherd as he begins Paradise Lost. Twain adds additional humor by having Huck express concern for Moses until Huck discovers Moses is dead. The knowing reader can well be aware that Moses has been dead thousands of years.

Twain continues the exchange between the Widow and Huck with the Widow trying to teach Huck about the “good place,” where there are harps and singing, and also about the “bad place.”11 Concern about spending eternity in either Heaven or Hell get reduced to Huck’s determination that he prefers to go wherever Tom Sawyer is likely to go, with the Widow indicating Heaven was unlikely. The seriousness of this discussion with the Widow serves to create in the mind of the informed reader, the disparity between these two characters and heightens the effect of the Huck’s irreverence. An uninformed reader would, unfortunately, miss this amusing and important reference.

Miss Watson is another character contrasted to Huck’s morality. After one of Huck’s misadventures, Miss Watson, the Widow’s strict, old, obnoxious sister, makes an effort to reform Huck by taking him into a closet to pray, which likely seems odd to readers not familiar with the Biblical prayer closet reference “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly” (Matthew 6:6). Twain heightens Huck’s irreverent “take” on prayer by having Huck pray for fishing hooks, which never came. Associated with this incident is the allusion to “spiritual gifts” found in I Corinthians 12, which were to be gained through prayer. Huck, from his perspective, “couldn’t see no advantage about it.”12 Again, Huck reasons the lesson away using his level of understanding and logic. He dismisses discussions of Providence in the same way. He cannot separate fate and God’s workings, but Twain plays with the understanding reader here because only the understanding reader can discern the difference.

Huck fakes his own murder and is assumed dead, causing the searchers to cast bread upon the waters in an effort to find his body. Ecclesiastes 11 tells us about casting bread upon the waters, creating a mysterious reference about finding it after many days. Supposed dead and now in hiding, Huck encounters Jim, Miss Watson’s runaway slave, now also in hiding, whose actions become central to the plot and create a close relationship which results in additional lessons on moral issues. The setting for the story, with slavery still being practiced, makes Huck’s deciding whether to aid a runaway slave a moral decision. The question of obeying God or man is invoked for Huck, the same issue posed to Jesus with a question in an attempt to trap him, whether it was proper to pay tribute to Caesar (Luke 20:22-25). Additionally, Jim becomes Huck’s surrogate father. Huck’s own father had been unfit and was later killed.

Jim and Huck have discussions. Huck tells Jim his father consistently got drunk and raised Cain. Twain is alluding to Cain, the first murderer in the Bible, deliberately misspelling the word cane to do so. The reference to the Genesis 4 story of Cain and Abel is lost on readers who are, like Huck, unfamiliar with Biblical literature. Also in reference to his father, Huck indicates, “A body would a thought he was Adam, he was just all mud.”13 Being all mud cannot mean much to someone not familiar with the Biblical creation story, which tells of God creating Adam, the first man, forming him from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2). Jim and Huck are lost in the fog and miss their original destination, Cairo, which inspires Huck to trick Jim into thinking the incident was a dream. Jim proceeds to interpret dreams as done in the Bible. Readers need to know that Joseph, first known in children’s Bible stories as the recipient of the coat of many colors, was an interpreter of dreams (Genesis 37). At home, Joseph’s interpretations caused dissent, and his eventual sale into slavery. But eventually dream interpretations brought about his rise to power in Egypt and his becoming the agent to move his family into that country when their own land was devastated by famine (Genesis 45).

Huck and Jim also have a conversation about Solomon (Chapter 14), which similarly requires Biblical literacy. The exchange is both meaningful and entertaining, but only if the Biblical story is familiar to the reader. Biblically, Solomon is credited with great wisdom, being granted such by God in response to Solomon’s unselfish attitude in I Kings 3:16-28. The specific incident involves two women both claiming a baby. Solomon proposes cutting the child in half, which prompts the love of the real mother to be revealed as she offers the child to the other woman as a means to save its life. Huck views Solomon as wise because the widow told him so. Jim has a view that associates Solomon’s social upbringing with values, a connection to society’s values as they relate to Jim, a man in slavery. Threatening to cut a child in half relates to the value of life for Jim, evidenced by his substituting a dollar bill for the child in his own illustration.

Commentary on church services results when Huck stays with the Grangerfords after a steamboat runs over his raft, which results in his attending a Sunday preaching service. Huck observes it had “a powerful lot to say about faith, and good works, and free grace, and preforeordestination.”14 All these concepts are principles familiar to Bible readers, but are unlikely to mean much to others. The unfamiliar reader will miss the humor in preforeordestination, since it is another distortion of a term for humorous effect. The term is really predestination, which relates to some being destined to go to heaven, and others not, a point of debate within churches today. Romans 8 to 11, and Ephesians 1:5 both relate to this matter. When at a camp-meeting, Huck observes a preacher who holds up his Bible shouting, “It’s the brazen serpent in the wilderness! Look at it and live!”15 This must seem a strange thing to say if a reader is not familiar with the story in Numbers 21 where Moses lifts up the brazen serpent for those who had been bitten by serpents to look upon for healing.

A character named Boggs is shot, and the crowd carries him into a drug store where they lay his head upon a Bible, and place another, opened, upon his breast. The Bible frequently refers to healing power, but this incident is a parody of the Christian Scientist doctrine of Mary Baker Eddy, a substantial pursuit of Twain’s as he authored articles titled “Christian Science and the Book of Mrs. Eddy,” Christian Science,” “Christian Science II,” and Christian Science III,” substantial articles which appeared in contemporary magazines.

Huck spends time with two confidence men, episodes that provide additional incidents for Biblically-based humor. One of the men makes claims to be a king. Huck is impressed by the king’s appearance and has an interesting description: “he looked that grand and good and pious that you’d say he had walked right out of the ark, and maybe was old Leviticus himself.”16 Of course the humor comes from Huck’s confusion, again, of Biblical names. Noah is associated with the ark. Leviticus is the third book of the Old Testament. Huck describes the scene of the King telling the Duke the story of the tanner’s last moments: “both of them took on about that dead tanner like they’d lost the twelve disciples.”17 The term should be apostles, twelve men who traveled with Christ during His ministry and became leaders in the founding of the early church for the spread of Christianity.

As the crowd attempts to determine who is the real relative of the dead tanner, Huck wants desperately to slip away, but he cannot, because he is being held by a large man. He comments, “it was a beautiful time to give the crowd the slip; but that big husky had me by the wrist–Hines–and a body might as well try to give Goliar the slip.”18 Huck means Goliath, not Goliar, another twist of names for humor. But the allusion won’t work if the reader does not know about David and Goliath. Goliath is a giant whom young King David kills in 1 Samuel 17.

Tom Sawyer becomes an additional character to inspire allusions. He kisses his Aunt Sally before she knows who he is. She is upset at being kissed by a stranger. Tom says he won’t do it again unless she asks him to. She tells him, “I lay you’ll be the Methusalem-numskull of creation before I ask you.”19 The Biblical allusion is to Methusala, in Genesis 5:27, who died at age nine hundred and sixty-nine. She means it will be a long time, but the unknowing reader will not receive that message. And Aunt Sally does not like snakes, but when Huck and Tom accidentally turn several loose in the house, she occasionally encounters one. Huck describes her reactions as “you could hear her whoop to Jericho,” a reference to the Biblical battle of Jericho.20 Joshua leads the Israelites to capture Jericho in Joshua 6. God’s directions were to march around the city and then shout. After the shout, the defensive wall of the city fell flat, usually expressed as came tumbling down.

Twain uses allusion less frequently than Milton since his work is prose and less compact than poetry. But when he uses it, its primary function is to create humor, or make a serious point using humor, and he depends on reader literacy for it to be effective. When readers fail to understand the humor when reading America’s best-known humorist, they cannot be expected to enjoy or gain from their reading.

John Steinbeck

In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck has allusions that occur even less frequently than in Twain’s work, but Steinbeck uses Biblical allusion in yet another way than Twain or Milton. Steinbeck’s characters exist in naturalist literature, where an author lets characters become participants in an experiment, experiencing only forces that are natural, and that preclude Divine influence. Additionally, Steinbeck’s writing is set in a more contemporary society; In Dubious Battle was published in 1936, but Biblical allusion still is used and substantially affects readers’ understanding. Choosing In Dubious Battle rather than one of Steinbeck’s better-known novels was deliberate, to illustrate how Biblical allusion serves authors and works differently. Biblical allusion adds a layer of depth to this story, especially to the character Jim Nolan, a young man seeking a cause, who becomes the protagonist. He is presented as a man free of vices, which initially sets him apart from the other characters in the novel. Steinbeck plays upon Jim’s purity to create in him a Christ figure, although a duality of character is maintained; he is not all pure. Jim’s family background, the injustice of a recent arrest for vagrancy, and his personal purity serve to make the reader feel empathy for Jim. He is not a bored, rich kid looking for social work. He joins the group of labor organizers, not from total dedication to their cause, but to his own. As he gives up his existing way of life, such a decision is close to losing one’s life to find it, a decision which matches that of Biblical admonitions for giving up old lives to begin living new Christian lives: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it” (Luke 9:24). Jim’s giving up his life both figuratively and literally also reminds a knowing reader of the Scriptural principle of Christ giving up His life.

Knowledge becomes the issue when Jim speaks to the initial contact man of the organizers, he surprises the interviewer with his knowledge. Christ did the same thing when He was twelve and talking to the temple leaders in Luke 2. Jim has given up having a place to live, and the threat of arrest for constant vagrancy is consistent with Christ’s statement in Luke 9:58: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay His head.”

The other main character in the story is Mac McLeod; Mac is described initially as having the look of a scholarly prizefighter. He is a man of brash action, somewhat like the apostle Peter in relation to the thoughtfulness of Christ (Luke 22:33-34). Mac swears. He does it in way that becomes ambivalent. Frequently, before he speaks to Jim, he uses the words Christ or Jesus or Lord. The words fit speech as taking the Lord’s name in vain, but they also serve to associate Jim to Christ. Mac also draws religion into thought as he refers to “Darwin versus Old Testament.”21 Most readers should recognize evolution versus creationism in Mac’s comment. Mac and Jim are trying to rest when Jim hears a rooster crowing. The reference is an oblique biblical allusion to the cock crowing in relation to Peter’s denial of Jesus in Luke 22.

A third character, less prominent in the story than Jim and Mac, is Doc Burton. Doc is a reflective man, trying to view events from an overall perspective, and, as he does so, he becomes an agent for cosmic observations. One of his observations alludes to original sin, the cause of expulsion from Eden. “Man has met and defeated every obstacle, every enemy except one. He cannot win over himself.”22 Doc indicates that man, when grouped, makes statements relating to God’s will and the Holy Land, which again ties religion to the story. Doc observes Jim’s religious zeal after Jim has been shot, receiving a wound that pierces his body, but breaks no bones. This appears allusive because the wound matches that of Christ, whose body was pierced, but in keeping with prophecy in John 19:36, no bones were broken. Doc observes Mac working the crowd of workers like a preacher bringing people to the mourner’s bench. As Doc dresses Jim’s wound he observes, “This looks like the holy family.”23 also observes the crowd: “Pure religious ecstasy. I can understand that. Partakers of the blood of the Lamb.”24 Readers unfamiliar with the Biblical concept of “being washed in the blood” (I John 1:7), or partaking of the Lord’s Supper (John 6), must find such a comment puzzling.

Jim continues to develop, becoming a stronger character to the point where he begins to take control. Mac comments” “God Almighty, Jim, it’s not human. I’m scared of you.”25 Jim expresses his own growing strength, even directing what needs to be done next in the strike, essentially taking charge over everyone. He couches his directions to Mac: “Mac, you want to obey. You better do it.”26 Obey for a man implies relationship to higher authority. Since Jim is not a representative of the law, or even Mac’s boss, he is assuming authority on some other basis, a part of his supposed transformation to something beyond human, becoming Godlike. But Jim’s later comment changes tone somewhat: “It isn’t authority I want, it’s action.”27 His comment coincides with the idea of not wanting anything for himself. The allusion is advanced as Steinbeck describes Jim: “His face was transfigured. A furious light of energy seemed to shine from it.”28 The same image appears in Matthew 17 as Christ is described, but readers unfamiliar with Biblical transfiguration cannot identify with Steinbeck’s description. Jim and Mac run into the orchard to look for Doc. Mac becomes aware of danger, and shouts, “Jim! Drop for Christ’s sake.” Almost immediately, Mac again addresses Jim, “Oh, Christ.”29

Continual allusion to Christ is meaningful to readers familiar with the life of Jesus as it is related in the New Testament. People who are schooled in Bible stories relate to the birth of the baby Jesus in a manger because there was no room in the inn, following a star, the gifts of the Magi, shepherds keeping watch by night–all associated with the Christ and the origin of Christmas. They also recognize bearing a cross, a crown of thorns, and resurrection–all associated with Christ and Easter. Biblically literate readers also connect this Christ to the crucifixion. And they are aware of the Luke 24:43 account of His saying to the thief next to him, “Today thou shalt be with Me in paradise.” Readers need to know about Christ and Biblical stories to be able to connect and understand what they read, even in a broad sense.

Steinbeck’s work is far from being religious, but the duality created in the character of Jim Nolan, through his becoming a Christ figure, is an additional layer of depth that permits consistency in dualities within the novel. Jim is both bad and good. Mac is both rough and gentle. The workers would seem to deserve sympathy because they are victimized, but they are simultaneously so dirty, crude, and violent that they are repulsive. The orchard owners seem to be taking advantage of the workers, but representatives for the owners act honorably. The story appeals to readers through the dualities and ambivalence Steinbeck creates. Biblical allusion is a substantial part.


Milton’s work was created in another country when its society was immersed in religion, and much time has passed since he wrote. Understandably, twenty-first century readers may experience some difficulty understanding his work. Twain’s work is from an earlier time in our own national history; our society has undergone considerable change, but not so much that communication with Twain should be unclear. Steinbeck’s work was created during a time and within a society much like our own. Despite their differences, the three writers illustrate how intertexuality, especially Biblical allusion, is used differently by authors. The same use of Biblical allusion has been in operation for thousands of years; the extensive history of usage has created a massive volume of work unlikely to yield its thoughts to readers who cannot recognize and understand the messages the authors intend unless they have training in Biblical literature. The failing of educational authorities to support such training is inexcusable.

As individuals, we approach each problem with a unique history of experience. That experience determines how we perceive the problem, or define it. In turn, how we define the problem will determine how we will seek to solve it. If our experiences are so different that we cannot even agree on the problem, then commonly agreed upon solutions are impossible. Our society has such problems.

Richard Weaver, author of Ideas Have Consequences, indicates, “For four centuries, every man has been not only his own priest but his own professor of ethics, and the consequence is an anarchy which threatens even that minimum consensus of value necessary to the political state.”30 Stressing a core program to promote cultural literacy may be viewed by multiculturalists as an attack on multicultural studies, which evokes the question: Is there anything wrong with multicultural studies? Certainly not. Knowing more helps us to learn more. The more widely developed our mental reference, the more we can learn. The point is that we cannot let a centrifugal spin to enlarge our knowledge pull us away from the core of information that permits us to communicate, a substantial portion of which core information relates to knowing the Bible as one of the great contributors to our society and education that it is.

The factor of having enough time to teach the new and still include the old, whether it is a pressure to address more diversity, pressure from publishers, pressure from curriculum designers, pressure from the general public—brings pressure unto itself. Many decisions have already been made. The authority to make decisions is already established. We need those in authority to direct a return to a more basic core, or to provide more time for the inclusion of the newer, more diverse material. Until that happens, more and more students will find themselves lost by allusion.

Suggested Readings

A conscious effort has been made to keep this work free from the influence of other reviewers and therefore as original in thought as possible. Readers are encouraged to investigate other viewpoints. Commentaries and reviews seldom concentrate on the intertextuality of Biblical allusion in contemporary work, although reviews of older works frequently do. Paradise Lost is often accompanied by notes more extensive than the text of the epic, but much is lost in the reading when constantly shifting between text and notes. Additionally, notes often reflect opinions not unanimously agreed upon. Readers of In Dubious Battle and Huckleberry Finn will not find such copious notes. However, commentary and review are available. Readers who are interested in additional readings are invited to investigate the following:

Childress, William. “The Prophetic Storms in Huckleberry Finn.” Mark Twain Journal 25:28-32, n2, 1987.

Cross, Randy K. “Huckleberry Finn: The Sacred and the Profane.” Mark Twain Journal 21:27-28, n3, 1983.

Di Benedetto, Vincent P. “Scripture’s Constraint and Adam’s Self-Authorizing Freedom: A Reading of the Fall in Paradise Lost.” Milton Quarterly 25:1-14, n1, 1992.

Gunn, Giles, ed. Bible and American Arts and Letters. Chico, CA: Fortress Press, 1983.

Kranidas, Thomas. “A View of Milton and the Traditional.” Milton Studies I:15-29, 1969.

Nelson, Lawrence E. Our Roving Bible. New York City: Abingdon, 1975.

Patrick, J. Max. Samla Studies in Milton: Essays on John Milton and His Works. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1953.

Quirk, Tom. “Nobility Out of Tatters: The Writing of Huckleberry Finn.” Writing the American Classics. James Barbour and Tom Quirk, eds. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 79-105. Sarchett, Barry W. “In Dubious Battle: A Revaluation.” Steinbeck Quarterly 13:87-97, n3, 1980.

Theirfielder, William. “Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.”  Explicator 48:194-95, 1990.

Wilson, Jerry W. “In Dubious Battle: Engagement in Collectivity.” Steinbeck Quarterly 13:31-42, n1, 1980.


1 E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Should Know (Boston: Houghton, 1987), p. 111.

2 Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr., What Do Our 17- Year-Olds Know? (New York City: Harper, 1988), p. 253.

3 Diane Ravitch, National Standards in American Education (Washington: Brookings, 1995), p. 179.

4 Hirsch, op. cit., p. 106.

5 Ibid., p. 113.

6 Earl Miner, The Restoration Mode from Milton to Dryden (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 208.

7 John Milton, Paradise Lost, Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg, eds. (New York City: Oxford University Press, 1991), lines 1-10.

8 Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York City: The Limited Editions Club, 1942), p. 18.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., p. 3.

12 Ibid., pp. 14-15.

13 Ibid., p. 35.

14 Ibid., p. 141.

15 Ibid., p. 167.

16 Ibid., p. 199.

17 Ibid., p. 205.

18 Ibid., p. 256.

19 Ibid., p. 289.

20 Ibid., p. 336.

21 John Steinbeck, In Dubious Battle (New York City: Collier, 1936), p. 95.

22 Ibid., p. 253.

23 Ibid., p. 240.

24 Ibid., p. 254.

25 Ibid., p. 274.

26 Ibid., p. 275.

27 Ibid., p. 277.

28 Ibid., p. 341.

29 Ibid., p. 342.

30 Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 2.