53 pages 1 hour read

William Faulkner

A Fable

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1955

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Summary and Study Guide


A Fable is a 1954 novel by William Faulkner. Set during World War I, the plot follows the sudden outbreak of peace along the western front. The characters are largely analogous to the biblical story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The novel won numerous prizes on release, including the 1955 Pulitzer Prize.

This guide is written using the fourth printing of the 1954 Random House edition.

Content Warning: This guide discusses depictions of graphic violence and suicide.

Plot Summary

A Fable is set in France in May 1918. On the western front of the war, the French, American, and British forces face off across “no-man’s land” (42) against the Germans. The war has raged for four years and millions of people are dead. The French countryside has been destroyed. On a Monday morning, General Gragnon plans an attack. When he orders his men to climb out of the trenches and advance toward the German trench, however, the men simply refuse. As such, 3,000 men collectively institute an unplanned armistice. The French, British, and American forces expect the German army to take advantage of this sudden cessation in hostilities. However, the German soldiers also refuse to attack. By noon, the entire stretch of the front line has stopped fighting. Gragnon is infuriated and demands that his superiors authorize him to execute each of the 3,000 mutinous troops. Not only this, but he also believes that he should be arrested and stripped of command for allowing such a break down to happen.

By Wednesday, the officers have learned that a small regiment of 13 men are responsible for orchestrating the improvised peace. The 13 men include four men who do not speak French. They are led by a corporal who, it is implied, is a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. The 13 men are loaded into a truck and driven into the nearby town of Chaulnesmont. Crowds gather in the streets to watch the arrival of the men. Most people in the crowd are related to someone who has fought (and likely died) in the war. Many of the townspeople are related to the 3,000 who stopped fighting. When the mutinous troops are driven to a hastily erected prison camp outside the town, the crowd follows them. The crowd realizes that they cannot direct their anger at the imprisoned men, so they make their way back to the town.

In the town, the generals gather in the town hall. They are displeased because the war cannot be allowed to end on the whim of the enlisted men. The marshal, the head of the French army and sometimes referred to as the generalissimo, invites generals from Britain and America to join him. To ensure that the war is ended on their own terms, they also invite a German general. He flies across the front lines and lands at a British airbase, whereupon he shoots his pilot for the crime of landing a plane in enemy territory. While the German general is led away, he is watched by a young pilot named David Levine. The young Levine craves glory and the thought of the war ending without him having flown a glorious mission is untenable. He realizes that the German general was permitted to land and, suddenly understanding that he has missed his chance to prove his worth, he decides to take his own life.

Elsewhere on the front, a runner observes the truce. The runner was once an officer, but he asked to be demoted. Speaking to an African American preacher named Sutterfield, he learns about a mysterious American private who might also be the corporal. The runner is seduced by the idea of the sudden armistice. He encourages the other soldiers to step out into no-man’s land and show the German soldiers that they are unarmed. At first, the display works. The Germans follow suit. Then, a sudden artillery barrage kills many of the soldiers and leaves the runner severely injured.

The marshal is given the responsibility of deciding the corporal’s fate. Three women arrive, complaining to be the corporal’s wife and two half-sisters. They explain to the marshal that the corporal is his son, fathered many years before and forgotten about. The marshal was a rising star in the French military who was always feted for success. His fellow student describes his illustrious past and his strange decisions; the marshal eventually appointed this trusted friend as his Quartermaster General. After the death of the corporal’s mother in childbirth, the marshal is told, his half-sister Marthe brought the family to France where she married a man with a farm in St. Mihiel. The marshal visits the corporal and offers to spare his life. The corporal refuses his father’s offer and accepts his fate.

The 13 men eat a last supper. Their actions correspond to the last hours of Christ’s life in the company of his disciples. A priest reiterates the marshal’s offer to the corporal and, when the corporal refuses, he kills himself. Gragnon is executed in secret. The following day, the corporal is executed between two criminals. His body is buried by his family but disappears during a shelling attack. It is recovered unknowingly and buried in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The marshal dies and the runner protests at his funeral in the name of the corporal.