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True Grit | Symbols

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Black Mark

The black mark on the face of the murderer Tom Chaney symbolizes the evil in his heart. He did not always have this mark: "a man shot a pistol in his face and the [gun]powder got under the skin." Mattie compares Chaney's gunpowder stain to the mark borne by "banished Cain." The book of Genesis tells the story of the brothers Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. Abel was a "keeper of sheep" and Cain "a tiller of the soil," a farmer. Cain and Abel brought offerings to God—lambs and produce. God approved of Abel's offering but not Cain's. In revenge for shaming him, the envious Cain murders Abel. When God asks where Abel is, Cain tries to deflect the question, saying, "Am I my brother's keeper?" God discovers the murder and curses Cain, saying, "a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth." He also "set a mark upon Cain."

However, Cain's mark was not only a sign of his crime. In Genesis it is said God wanted the cycle of vengeance to stop with Cain before it could even get started. Cain had murdered Abel, but no one was to murder Cain in revenge. Genesis 4:15 says, "And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him." The mark on Cain meant "this is Cain; do not take revenge on him." The mark set Cain apart and made him a fugitive, but it also meant anyone who tried to take revenge on Cain was going against God.

Like Cain, Chaney killed a good, innocent man, and, like Cain, he is a fugitive. Mattie explicitly compares Chaney and her father to Cain and Abel. Asked why her father had meddled with the drunken Chaney, Mattie answers, "Papa felt responsibility [for Chaney]. He was his brother's keeper." Although the plot of True Grit gives Mattie many reasons to seek revenge on him, Tom Chaney's black mark means killing him puts the killer's soul in peril. Therefore, when Mattie fires a "lead ball of justice" into Chaney's head, she is knocked into the pit, a symbolic underworld.

Pit

The abandoned mine pit symbolizes the underworld, a place of death and peril. Like a gruesome hell, the pit is populated by snakes and bats and dead people. In the pit Mattie encounters the skeleton of an unknown miner and the fresh corpse of the newly dead Tom Chaney. Even Mattie herself seems to die as she enters the pit; as she falls she has "the fanciful notion that my spirit was floating out of my body." Mattie is in mortal peril in the pit; already half-dead as she enters, she is in danger of falling farther into the hole, and the rattlesnake bite puts her in danger of dying. Her soul is also in grave danger because she has just taken revenge on a man who is marked "like banished Cain."

A hero's descent into and return from the underworld is a common theme in Western literature. In the Roman poet Virgil's epic The Aeneid, Aeneas enters the underworld, Dis, to speak to his dead father, Anchises. Many heroes in Greek and Roman mythology descended to the underworld before him: Orpheus, Pollux, Theseus, and Hercules. The Aeneid was written sometime between 30 and 19 BCE, or two or three decades before the birth of Christ.

Written in the first part of 14th century, Italian poet Dante's epic The Divine Comedy tells the story of Virgil leading the poet Dante through the underworld in a journey that culminates in heaven. These journeys down into the underworld resonate with the Bible's New Testament, which tells of Jesus's descent into hell after the Crucifixion and before the Resurrection. The Apostles' Creed, the earliest statement of the Christian faith, says, "[Jesus] descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven."

Do these resonances mean Mattie is a Christ figure? What is the value of interpreting Mattie as Christ? A line can be drawn between any two points, and any fictional character can be compared to Christ. Rather than line the pit up exactly with the Christian hell, and Mattie with Christ, it might be better to say the pit symbolizes a severe test of Mattie's soul. She comes through it, though not unscathed. She loses her left arm, and Little Blackie dies on the ride to Fort Smith. Unlike Christ Mattie is not a savior; she is instead saved from the spiritual and physical dangers of the pit by her true friends Rooster, LaBoeuf, and the pony Little Blackie.

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