The Christ Complex in Literature
Our culture and society has changed and evolved so much over the many years humans have been alive. Not only has our culture changed over time, it’s also so different wherever you go. This is most easily seen in classic literature. Literature and books come in all different shapes, sizes, time periods, and perspectives. With all this variety it’s difficult to find a common ground in all these pieces of literature, something to connect them all to a single point. Well, it might be easier to connect certain pieces of literature than you may think. With the constant change and evolution in society and literature, there has almost always been one constant, Jesus Christ. Christianity has been around for over 2,000 years. It has barely ever changed, being one of the most followed religions in the world. And in many pieces of literature, no matter how different, there are characters and concepts that represent Jesus Christ.
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These characters and concepts are considered Christ Figures. To prove this “Christ Complex” theory three classic pieces of literature will be analyzed to look for Christ Figures. Perhaps books young adults have to read in an introductory class on literature in a community college. Books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, and The Grapes of Wrath come to mind. If this theory holds, each of these books have either a Christ Figure or a Christ Concept (more on that later) within them.
Identifying a Christ Figure can be a bit difficult since there is no set guideline on how to find one. The easiest way to find a Christ Figure in a piece of literature is to look for parallels between the character and the life of Jesus Christ. Look for similarities of their birth or name. Is the character’s mother named Mary or similar to Mary? Was his father royal? You can also look at the character’s qualities that are similar to Christ. Is the character misunderstood by many others? Is the character often sympathetic to others and is always helping out? Is the character associated with light? Do ‘miracles’ often happen around this character? Are they often punished for their beliefs? There are many other similarities you can look at when looking for a Christ Figure. This character doesn’t have to be an exact replica of Christ, but spotting three or four strong parallels would be a good indication that person is a Christ Figure. That is the criteria that will be used to identify a Christ Figure in the three books being analyzed.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the first book being put under the microscope. Uncle Tom’s Cabin takes place pre-Civil War and is about the life of a slave, Uncle Tom. Finding the Christ Figure in this book is pretty easy. The protagonist in this book, Uncle Tom, resembles Jesus’s life and character in many different ways, right up to his death. No one knows much about Tom’s early childhood, just like Jesus. His character is very similar to that of Jesus’s. He’s kind and caring almost to a fault. He goes out of his way to help and heal others, even at the risk of his own harm. He is sympathetic of everyone he meets and tends to see the ‘truth’ behind them. For example Tom knew the faults of St. Clare and tried to help him by showing him religion and faith. The most we see Tom as a Christ Figure is when he is sent to Legree’s plantation in the last part of the book. During this time Tom is beaten time and time again, both physically, emotionally, and spiritually. He is often punished for his ideals and moral code, just like Christ was. He suffered just as much, if not more, as everyone else around him, but he stilled tried to help those who were suffering alongside of him. There were times when he just wanted to give up, but he pulled through:
In the end though, Tom pulls through and withstands his doubts and even attempts to encourage others to be as strong as he is in his faith even though he is beaten ends up dying. I can see Jesus in every aspect of Tom, unlike Eva. Even when Tom has flickering doubts in his faith it reminds me of the part in the Bible when Jesus cries out, ‘My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?’ Jesus seems to have similar thoughts that Tom has about his life when Jesus is being crucified (Gallo 1).
Even Tom’s death was similar to that of Christ’s. He died so that two others could live. Two slave girls were escaping and the only other person who knew of their plan was Tom, but he wouldn’t tell Legree, even when threatened with death. Tom know that he could save those girls, and he knew he would die anyway. He even forgives Legree for all of his wrong doings: “Tom opened his eyes, and looked upon his master. ‘Ye poor miserable critter!’ He said, ‘there ain’t no more ye can do! I forgive ye, with all my soul!’ And he fainted entirely away.” (Stowe 584) Just like Jesus, Tom forgave the person who did this to him. When Jesus was crucified there was two prisoners with him who were also being crucified. One of the prisoners knew he was Jesus and trusted in his power and speaks kindly of him, while the other mocks him. The first prisoner ask Jesus to remember him in the Holy Kingdom. In response, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Even on his deathbed Jesus saved one more soul. So did Tom. Two of Legree’s slaves, Sambo and Qimbo, came to Tom and asked for forgiveness for the way they had treated him, along with asking who Jesus was. These two people finally realized what they have done, any knowing there was no hope for them. In response to this Tom says something that sounded similar to what Jesus said to the criminal, “‘Poor critters!’ said Tom, ‘I’d be willing to bar’ all I have, if it’ll only bring ye to Christ! O, Lord! give me these two more souls, I pray!’” (Stowe 585) These are only a few similarities between the character Tom and Jesus. Just like Jesus, Tom represents hope and faith when there is none to be had. They both give the people around them strength to do what is right and just. Tom from Uncle Tom’s Cabin is most definitely a Christ Figure.
The next book on the hit list is The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. This book was about immigrants, specifically Lithuanians, who come to Chicago in the meat processing factories. Everyone who came to work expected to make tons of money. Long story short none of them make a good living, they all go through horrific events, and they almost all (spoiler alert) eventually die. Literally the plot of the entire book is everything sucks all the time. Because this book wasn’t well written, it was difficult to find an actual Christ Figure in it. Some characters came and went so fast that they were introduced in one chapter and then died in that same chapter. After analyzing the entire book looking for a Christ Figure, there was unfortunately none to be found. When all hope seemed to be lost for this theory, a realization occurred. The Jungle doesn’t have a single Christ Figure, it has an entire Christ Concept! The whole reason why Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle was to show how capitalism was destroying these immigrants who came to work in America. It showed how these poor people were cheated and beaten by the system, how they had no real hope to survive in this urban jungle of capitalism. Upton Sinclair is portraying capitalism as a terrible evil. Thus the opposite of capitalism would be the Christ Figure, or more appropriately, the Christ Concept. That system would be none other than socialism. Socialism is shown as the savior in this book, the only thing that could save these people from the evils of capitalism. The biggest example of socialism in The Jungle were the Unions. They were all about equal rights for the workers in the meatpacking factories. The unions brought the lower class immigrants together to fight for their rights to survive and make a living, just like how Christ and his followers fought for the rights and sins of others. They fight for those who cannot fight themselves. Whether or not it’s through peace, they are both fighting for what they believe is right. Unfortunately, this economic and political system is misunderstood by many and looked down upon, just like how Christianity and Jesus was first looked down upon in their early years. Socialism is battling the “evils” of capitalism (at least in Sinclair’s perspective), just like how Jesus is battling the evils in the word. Socialism makes a nice parallel to the Christ figure if we consider capitalism as evil, just like how Sinclair did. The point of socialism is to change or break up capitalism, create an economic and political system that is controlled by the government, and everything is shared equally with everyone. According to Funk & Wagnalls, this can be achieved by the:
Reconstruction of the existing capitalist or other political system of a country through peaceful, democratic, and parliamentary means. The doctrine specifically advocates nationalization of natural resources, basic industries, banking and credit facilities, and public utilities. It places special emphasis on the nationalization of monopolized branches of industry and trade, viewing monopolies as inimical to the public welfare. (1)
The theory of socialism is to advocate change through peace and democratic means. Although in practice it doesn’t always work out like that, in it’s original and purest state that’s how socialists try to change the wrongs in the world. This is similar to how Christ tries to change the wrongs he sees by helping people peacefully. Thus, from this perspective, The Jungle’s Christ Concept would be socialism, a virtual savior for the underclass people.
Finally, the last classic piece of literature that will be put under the Christ microscope would be The Grapes of Wrath. This book by John Steinbeck revolves around the Great Depression, along with the Dust Bowl in states like Oklahoma. We follow the Joads family and their close friends as they travel to the “great” state of California to find better work on the famous Route 66. One character that stuck out was Jim Casy. Jim Casy was formerly a preacher in Oklahoma, but quite due to some pending circumstances that aren’t important to this paper. From the beginning the connection between Jim Casy and Jesus Christ were evident. It was actually so obvious that in the book Jim Casy even points out similarities between himself and Christ, but in a philosophical way:
‘I ain’t sayin’ I’m like Jesus,’ the preacher went on. ‘But I got tired like Him, an’ I got mixed up like Him, an’ I went into the wilderness like Him, without no campin’ stuff. Nighttime I’d lay on my back an’ look up at the stars; morning I’d set an’ watch the sun come up; midday I’d look out from the hill at the rollin’ dry country; evenin’ I’d foller the sun down. Sometimes I’d pray like I always done. On’y I couldn’ figure out what I was prayin’ to or for. There was the hills, an’ there was me, an’ we wasn’t separate no more. We was one thing. An’ that one thing was holy.’ (Steinbeck 81)
That by itself says a lot. Casy is stating that he’s had similar experiences to Christ while trying to figure out how the world works. He came to the realization that everything is all connected in one big spirit. Jim Casy also decided to travel with the Joads to be a ‘spiritual leader’ and to ‘care for those who needed him’. Those were two of Jesus’s main goals, to be a spiritual leader and to help those in need. Jim Casy is giving of himself for those who needed him. Along with Casy’s ideals and experiences, one of the strongest points connecting him and Christ is his death:
As acknowledged by many scholars, Casy’s death towered the end of the novel closely resembles the story of Christ’s passion. Casy is killed while resisting the police during a union strike, which he had helped organize, against the injustice of lawowners. He knows the extreme risk he is taking, but he remains unwavering in his conviction nevertheless. (McCoppin 40)
Jesus knows there was a risk he was taking when he was helping others and showing the Christian way, but he did it anyway because he knew it was the right thing to do. Unfortunately he died on the cross because of it. Jim Casy died doing what he thought was right, fighting for his rights and the rights of others. That was a noble cause. Right before he died, Jim Casy said something to his killers that sets this theory in stone: “You fellas don’ know what you’re doin’. You’re helpin’ to starve kids.” (Steinbeck 386) His killers yell at him to shut up, and he says it again. Why is that statement so important? Other than the fact it shows Casy’s character and forgiveness, it also resembles Christ’s last plead to God before he dies on the cross: “forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). It’s almost uncanny the similarities to these statements. Jim Casy and Jesus Christ are so similar to each other that some scholars have said they are almost carbon copies. Even their initials, J.C., are identical. There is little doubt that Jim Casy represents Jesus Christ in The Grapes of Wrath. The evidence is there, right down to the last breath.
The three books that were analyzed all showed prominent Christ Figures and Christ Concepts. For Uncle Tom’s Cabin it was Tom, the slave that always carried a bible around and would do no harm to anyone even at risk of death. In The Jungle socialism represented Christ, due to its battle against the ‘evils’ of capitalism and its representation as the ‘savior’ for the immigrants who were struggling to survive. In The Grapes of Wrath the uncanny resemblance to Jesus Christ was Jim Casy, the former preacher who has had similar experiences to Christ from their name right up to the last words that uttered. Each of these characters and concepts have shown they can be strong even in the darkest of times. Even when they stray from their path of good, they always find their way back to the right and will stick with it till the end. But a question still remains. What’s the purpose of all these characters who represent Christ? The answer to that question might be the same reason why people go to church every Sunday and pray when they need help in their darkest times, and that reason is hope. The point of the Christ Figure might just be that they give the other characters in the novel hope when there is no hope to be had, just like how Jesus and religion gives people this crazy and scary world hope. In all of these books the characters are in impossible situations where there seems to be no hope in sight. That’s where the Christ Figure comes in, they give hope. All of these authors might be trying to say that as long as there is hope, you can get through anything and stay on the right path. Hope is message these people are giving us. They are showing us that even when everything is grim, there is alway hope, and tomorrow will come.
Gallo, Marina. “Jesus vs. Tom and Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” N.p., 06 Apr. 2006. Web. 01 May 2017.
“History Of Christianity.” AllAboutReligion. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2017.
McCoppin, Rachel. “The Many Faces of Jesus in Steinbeck’s The Grapes ofWrath.” Studies in the Literary Imagination, vol. 46, no. 2, Fall2013, p.35.
“Socialism.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2016, p. 1p. 1.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York, New York: Penguin Classics ,1992. Print.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York, New York: PenguinClassics, 1986. Print.