Characters, Symbolism, and Sin in The Book of Eli


Spoiler alert – Eli is ready to kill and ready to die to protect the book he believes he’s been charged by God to carry west. In this apocalyptic world Eli’s Bible might the last one known to exist. Apparently the Bible played some part in a war that resulted in nuclear holocaust thirty years earlier, which led to an attempt to destroy all known copies.

Eli doesn’t know what he expects to find when he gets there, he just knows that his part is to carry to book. He brings it out and reads it every night, but otherwise keeps it hidden from sight. The care and reverence with which he treats the Bible as he carries it reminds me of the Biblical accounts of the Israelites transporting the Ark of the Covenant.

The Book of Eli made me think about the power of the Bible and how it is used. It also left me with some questions about Eli, his mission, and the characters he encountered along the way. Perhaps I’m completely off, but the names of the characters seemed to carry some significance for me.

A glimpse into Eli’s pack reveals a K-mart employee name-tag with the name “Eli.” Like Noah, David, or one of the Apostles, Eli is an ordinary guy who God seems to have called to do something extraordinary. On one hand Eli believes he is divinely appointed, divinely led, and divinely protected. On the other he’s a sort of Samurai / western hero with mad self-defense skills. I sort of wondered whether Eli’s skills are divinely inspired or whether he’s developed his unique abilities to sense danger due to years on the road. Whatever the case it seemed to me that Eli is heavy on violence and may have failed to explore other communication options.

Sharing the name of a the nineteenth century builder of industry and libraries, the antagonist is Carnegie who rules a town using illiterate, violent henchmen and seeks to gain whatever meager wealth is available in this bleak world. He believes that the words of the Bible will somehow provide him with another, less messy means of control. Since only older survivors of the holocaust know how to read Carnegie sees the Bible as a tool he can use to ”run the minds of the weak and desperate.” He is not so different from the Pharisees and some of the medieval Popes in church history.

Carnegie’s companion is Claudia who is blind. In Christian tradition Claudia is the name of Pontius Pilate’s wife, who has a dream that Jesus is innocent and pleads with her husband to free him. This Claudia enjoys the benefit of relative safety and occasional luxury because of her relationship with Carnegie, but she is the voice that pleads with him to be more humane. As the plot unfolds we discover that if anyone will be able to understand Eli’s Book, it will be Claudia.

Claudia’s daughter is named Solara, a name which implies both light and energy. Sent to seduce Eli, Solara comes away profoundly affected because Eli prays with her. It is she who eventually accompanies Eli on his journey west. She is one of the only characters with whom Eli shares the contents of the Bible, and explains why he believes it is important in restoring civilization. Solara becomes Eli’s helper and companion.

The old couple in the farmhouse, George and Martha, is more than comic relief. I had to wonder whether their names were accidental or whether this was a commentary on the rugged individualism so prevalent in America’s founding principles. The couple is certainly resourceful, independent, and seems to cling to some odd trappings of traditionalism. Ultimately they are concerned only with their own survival.

Lombardi wants to preserve the wisdom of the past and hopefully disseminate it so that it might impact the future. Like a medieval scribe he copies Eli’s book, and then, like Gutenberg he prints it. Lombardi places The Bible on a shelf with all the other books. Lombardi seems to be putting his faith in learning and hoping to launch a new age of Enlightenment. For him the Bible is special only because it is rare, it contains knowledge, and adds to his storehouse of wisdom. Lombardi appreciates the Bible but does not seem to reverence it as a singular force the way Eli and Carnegie do.

I found it sad that Eli approaches his mission as one of preserving Bible rather than sharing it. Perhaps this is the particular mission to which he has been called. Even if Eli’s mission requires him to be secretive about possessing the actual book, might he have been freer in sharing its content? I was left wondering how the power of this Book might have personally impacted some of the characters. Could the comfort that the 23rd Psalm brought to Solara have impacted Redridge for good? Though he is a bad guy, Carnegie’s man, his love for Solara seems to open him up to the possibility of redemption. And the woman with the shopping cart reveals a sense of moral conflict concerning her role in entrapping travelers for the hijackers. Like the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, might an encounter with God’s truth have nudged this woman toward good?

What do you think – is the Bible more than just a book?

11 Responses to “Characters, Symbolism, and Sin in The Book of Eli

  • maureen Says:

    Thanks for clearing that up. I’m so glad the dog had a human who loved and appreciated him!

  • Sara Says:

    I can answer the question regarding the symbolism of the three legged dog, because he was my dog. They wanted a dog that could add to the post apocalyptic theme of the scene, there was nothing beyond that. He was in an unfortunate accident before I got him, best dog I ever had.

  • Maureen Says:

    Interesting question Dalton. I did a little research to see if the screenwriter made any comments on this topic but didn’t find anything. Perhaps it’s because Alcatraz is an island, thus more easily defended. It made me think of Lindisfarne, the Irish island monastery where many illuminated manuscripts were created. After the fall of the Roman Empire, not only the Bible, but many books of civilization ended up in monasteries where they were protected and often copied by scribes (like Lombardi) many of whom were as interested in preserving literature as in spreading the gospel. This whole idea of preserving learning as a civilization falls into illiteracy and “Dark Ages” reminded me a lot of a book by historian Thomas Cahill called “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” – Maureen

  • Dalton Says:

    This is a great review. Although, one thing I felt was significant but couldn’t figure the reasoning for is that Lombardi was starting his new world in Alcatraz, a prison. If anyone could explain that it would be much appreciated.

  • Maureen Says:

    Ron, I think you’re right about the cat. Maybe the three legged dog is another reference to the damage that’s been done to all creation.

    It could also be that even though the three-legged dog is larger and by rights should be the alpha dog it follows the small dog. Maybe it relies on the small dog for food or defense because it hasn’t learned to suvive with just three legs. Like the three-legged dog, the whole wounded town follows Carnegie because they’ve failed to adapt to the challenges they now face and it’s easier to just let Carnegie rule even though he’s a small-minded little dog. Eli adapts to his situation rather than letting another determine who he will become.

  • Ron Mitchell Says:

    There was lots of symbolism in the movie but there were two symbols that interested me the most. First, what was the meaning of the hairless cat.Could have been reference to the nake, frail and destitute condition that the human race had found itself in? Humanity scavaging for a meager existence? The most interesting symbol I found was the three legged dog. As Eli was walking past a window there was a shot of two dogs. A smaller brown dog that was being trailed by a larger three legged dog. The three legged dog most have meant something because you do not just put a three leg dog in a shot rather than a normal four legged dog unless it means something. What does the three legged dog symbolize?

  • RD Says:

    Ultimately it’s a pairing of action movies, with the symbolism of Christianity. However, though it is an action movie, ELI never engages in violence, and always seeks the peaceful route first.

    Your pick up on the names was spot on and I thought how clever of Gary Whitta to come up with these names to pair in a post-apocalyptic movie revolving around The Bible.

    Another Parallelism would obviously be the way the word is presented to the mass media today… some people use the word faith, and faith in God to control them… while others use it to bring peace and understanding, and fulfillment…. and others will only seek to preserve it for knowledge…

    Anyway, a great movie, 2 thumbs up!

  • Ted Says:

    Overall it was a great movie but when you go back and look at it, everything is over the top. I mean the way he kills people and shoots them from like hundreds of feet away is pretty far fetched. But the more i think of it the more i just came to appreciate the religious aspect of the movie and how some things just cant be explained. Overall i was surprised at how good this movie actually was

  • Maureen Says:

    Ted, thanks for the comment. That is a really important point. I struggled with whether or not to include that. I’m sure lots of reviewer gave it away, but even though I included spoilers I sort felt the same way about the end of ‘Book of Eli’ that I did about ‘The Sixth Sense.’ I wanted everyone to experience the impact of finding that out at the end of the movie. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, though, I’d love to know what you think.

  • Ted Says:

    you forgot to mention the biggest part of this movie, the fact that he is blind …

  • Loretta Says:

    Your review was revealed to me much of the symbolism I was not able to articulate after viewing the movie partly because I was caught up in the violence. Thanks for a great review.