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What makes this novel so confusing is that any traditional approach to a linear, chronological plot structure is abandoned, and many of the characters are only viewed through flashbacks that seek to explain why they are the way they are in the present. This technique also serves to highlight the way that the present and the past mingle together and the past is still so much a part of the present, and cannot be escaped. Faulkner chose to present the novel in this way to foreground determinism, which is an approach to life that argues humans have no free will but everything we do, say and choose is actually a decision made for us.
The way that the past intrudes on the present is most clearly seen in the character of Joe Christmas, who is shown in vain to try and struggle against the impact of his time in the orphanage or what happened to him whilst he was with the McEacherns. His fate, the novel suggests, is determined through what happened to him during these two periods. Byron Bunch offers a fascinating mediation on man's incapacity to try and change his situation:
It is because a fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change.
Trying to change one's life and situation is shown to be something that is full of risk and danger, and Bryon's meditation can be summarised as "better the devil you know." The plot structure of this novel therefore is deliberately designed to highlight the determinism which is at the novel's very core, suggesting that our fate is largely decided by events that we have no control over.
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