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  • Literary Barbed WireReifying the Metaphor
  • Scott Abbott (bio) and Lyn Bennett (bio)

It was a nun they say invented barbed wire.

—James Joyce, Ulysses

Barbed wire has been an important motif in American literature since Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published only fifteen years after the invention of the paradoxical fence that protects and controls animals by threatening injury. The motif of barbed wire is common in works about control of the American West (and of the half-wild cowboy), notably in Owen Wister’s The Virginian, in which barbed wire, like civilizing women, is both lamented and welcomed as inevitable, and in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, in which “cuttin’ fence” is a monkey wrencher’s imperative. Barbed wire appears in the Wyoming stories of Annie Proulx’s Close Range as a necessary (if vicious) ranching tool that lends itself to metaphor, as in “I’m goin a fight John I might as well have some a that liquid bobwire first” (174) or as the claustrophobic and homophobic antithesis to the open mountain where Ennis had hoped to scatter Jack’s ashes: “the country cemetery fenced with sagging sheep wire, a tiny fenced square on the welling prairie” (282).

In what follows, we discuss the motif of barbed wire in a set of texts that includes John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Brian Evenson’s “Contagion,” and Jeff Mann’s “The History of Barbed Wire.” Cruel control is the specialty of barbed wire, and the barbed fence emerges in these texts as an instrument of Christian flagellation (a variant of Christ’s crown of thorns1), as a means of protection and coercion, as an object of religious veneration, and as an enforcer and/or enabler of identity. [End Page 12]

Following a motif through various works of literature not only highlights the nature and history of the motif itself but can also focus attention on aspects of a work that might otherwise go unnoticed.2 Addressing problems in the analysis of painting and sculpture, Erwin Panofsky lays out a process related to our investigation of the motif of barbed wire in literature: “Iconographical analysis, dealing with images, stories and allegories … presupposes a familiarity with specific themes or concepts as transmitted through literary sources” (11, italics in original). The question of what the image of barbed wire means in any specific context can only be answered in the larger context, and, of course, the larger context arises only out of the individual works.

Barbed wire, invented in 1874, has a relatively brief but rich cultural history,3 beginning with the imaginative advertising through which early manufacturers attempted to construct an image of the wire that would attract buyers who might well be put off by the fact that the new fence works because it is dangerous. This advertising often played on the prejudices of prospective buyers, as does the cartoon entitled “Peek-A-Boo” published in the 1885 edition of The Glidden Barb-Fence Journal shown here, and as do various ads that promoted barbed wire as a tool to subdue the “savages” of the American West.4 That potential ability of barbed wire to control humans led almost immediately to its use in warfare.5 A Google Ngram survey of print usage of the term “barbed wire” shows a huge upturn during each of the world wars. As a result, any reference to barbed wire since the First World War necessarily carries echoes of vicious trench warfare, and since the Second World War, of Nazi concentration camps. And finally, there is no escaping the connection between the “thorny fence” and the Christian “crown of thorns.”

three-foot shag of bobwire

—The Grapes of Wrath

Casy sighed. “It’s the bes’ way. I gotta agree. But they’s different kinda fences. They’s folks like me that climbs fences that ain’t even strang up yet—an’ can’t he’p it.”

—The Grapes of Wrath

It was an exchange between Jim Casy and Tom Joad about the conflicted workings of the “Holy Sperit” that first drew our attention to the...


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pp. 12-30
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