William Faulkner Essay - Critical Essays

William Faulkner Short Fiction Analysis

William Faulkner has been credited with having the imagination to see, before other serious writers saw, the tremendous potential for drama, pathos, and sophisticated humor in the history and people of the South. In using this material and, in the process, suggesting to others how it might be used, he has also been credited with sparking the Southern Renaissance of literary achievement that has produced much of the United States’ best literature in the twentieth century.

In chronicling the tragedy of southern history, he delineated a vision tempered by his historical perspective that has freed the region from the popular conception of its character as possessing a universal gentility and a pervasive aristocracy, and he portrayed realistically a population often idealized and caricatured in songs, movies, and pulp fiction. In undercutting the false idealizations, Faulkner often distorted the stereotypes and rendered them somewhat grotesque in the interest of bringing them to three-dimensional life; and he attempted to show in the political and social presumptions of the South the portent of its inevitable destruction—first through war and then through an insidious new social order based on commercial pragmatism and shortsighted lust for progress. In this sense, the New South is shown to have much in common with mainstream America.

Faulkner’s themes are often conveyed in an elaborate baroque style noted for its long, difficult sentences that challenge the reader to discern the speaker, the time, and even the subject of the narrative. Faulkner makes considerable use of stream-of-consciousness interior monologues, and his frequent meshings of time reinforce his conviction that the past and present are intricately interwoven in the human psyche.

“A Rose for Emily”

“A Rose for Emily,” frequently anthologized and analyzed, is probably Faulkner’s best-known story. Because of its elements of mystery, suspense, and the macabre, it has enjoyed a popular appeal. That Emily Grierson, an aging southern belle, murders the lover who spurned her and sleeps beside his decaying body for a number of years is only the most sensational aspect of the story. What is more interesting to the serious reader of Faulkner is the interplay between Emily Grierson and the two generations of townspeople who attempt to cope with her—one the old guard and the other a new generation with “modern ideas.”

The opening paragraphs of the story inform the reader that when Miss Emily died, the whole town turned out for her funeral. She was a “fallen monument a tradition, a duty and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town.” The townspeople, who are by the time of Emily’s death mostly of a generation younger than her own, have never been able to incorporate her into their community. For them, as well as for their fathers, she has stood as an embodiment of an older ideal of southern womanhood—even though in her later years she has grown obese, bloated, and pale as dough. The older generation, under the mayoralty of Colonel Sartoris (“who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron”), has relieved Miss Emily of her taxes and has sent its children to take her china-painting classes “in the same spirit that they were sent to church on Sunday with a twenty-five-cent piece for the collection plate.” The new generation, however, is not pleased with the accommodations its fathers made with Miss Emily; it tries to impose taxes upon her and it no longer sends its children to take her lessons. Miss Emily has been encouraged in her ways by the old guard, however; she refuses to pay the town’s taxes, telling the representatives of the new generation to “see Colonel Sartoris,” who has been dead for ten years. The town is unable to handle Emily; it labels her “insane” and likewise comes to see her as the ghost of a feminine ideal out of the past. She becomes a recluse, living alone in her house with her black servant; and in her claim to privilege and impunity, she stands as a reminder to the town of the values—and sins—of its fathers, which are visited upon the third generation.

It is tempting to think of Miss Emily as merely a decadent and perverse relic of the South’s antebellum past; indeed, this is how the story has often been read. Such a neat interpretation, however, would seem to be defeated by the time element in the story. Emily lives in a house spiraled and cupolaed in the architectural style of the 1870’s, on a once-elegant street that has been altered by industry and commercial development. Although the rickety town fathers of the Civil War era come to her funeral dressed in their dusty uniforms and even believe that she was of their own generation and that they had danced with her when she was a young woman, clearly Emily is not of that generation; she is of the postwar South. She has not lingered as a relic from a warped racist culture; she has instead been created by defeated members of that culture who have continued to yearn after a world they have lost, a world that might well have existed largely in their imaginations, but a concept so persistent that the newer generation, for all its modern ideas, is powerless to control it. The reader is told that the town had long thought of Emily and her dead father “as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the backflung front door.” It is clear that the newer generation of the twentieth century has adopted certain popular ideas about the old South. This “tableau” could serve as the dust jacket for any number of romantic novels set in the plantation days.

Thus, the two generations are complicit in ignoring the real Emily and creating and maintaining the myth of Emily as an exemplum of southern womanhood from a lost age, just as the town aldermen—“three graybeards and one younger man, a member of the rising generation”—have conspired to cover up Emily’s horrible crime. When the smell of the corpse of Emily’s decaying lover, Homer Barron, had become so strong that it could no longer be ignored by the town, the aldermen had scattered lime around Emily’s house secretly at night, although they knew she had recently purchased arsenic from the druggist and that Barron had disappeared; and when the smell went away, so did the town’s concern about the matter. The old guard cannot bear, and does not wish, to accept the grim essence of the dream it has spun; the new generation, under the influence of the old, grudgingly accepts its burden of the past, but then wrenches it into a romantic shape that obscures the “fat woman in black” (overindulgent, moribund) that is Emily Grierson.

The story, then, is a comment on the postbellum South, which inherited the monstrous code of values, glossed over by fine words about honor and glory, that characterized the slave era; that postbellum South learns to ignore the unsavory elements of its past by ignoring Emily the recluse and murderess and by valorizing the romantic “tableau.” This is, however, a complex matter. The new generation—a generation excluded from the nominal code of honor, valor, and decorum that the old Confederates believed to have sustained them and excluded from the benefits that were to be gained from the slave system of the “glorious” old South—sees the Griersons as “high and mighty,” as holding themselves “a little too high for what they really were.” The new generation, pragmatic and small-minded, for the most part, has inherited a landscape sullied by cotton gins and garages. Miss Emily Grierson, as a privileged person and as a reminder of what the older generation forfeited in its defeat, is a goad in the minds of the uncharitable newer generation, which, when she does not marry, is “vindicated.” When it hears the rumor that she has inherited nothing but the decaying house from her father, it is glad: “At last they could pity Miss Emily.” Miss Emily out of sight, destitute, “insane,” and deprived too of the lost legacy of the old South can be recreated as a fictional heroine in white, part of the backdrop against which the popularized hero, her father, stands with his horsewhip—a faceless silhouette, cruel and powerful, an “ancestor” who can be claimed by the dispossessed generation as its own.

The incestuous image of the father and daughter suggests the corrupt nature of the new South, which, along with the corrupt nature of the old South, is a favorite Faulknerian concern. Granted, the “tableau” on the face of it appears to be the cover of a romantic novel, and in that sense it seems to be merely a popular rendering of history; but it is the townspeople who arrange father and daughter in the lurid scene. It is the men of the new generation who black out the distinguishing features of Emily’s dead father in their creation of the tableau, leaving a dark masculine space (more, one would guess, in the shape of foreman Homer Barron than of Mr. Grierson) into which they can dream themselves, as masters of a glorious age, as potent heroes for whom the wispy heroine wanes in the background. The newer generation has the “modern ideas” bred of the necessity of surviving in the defeated, industrialized South; but in its attitudes toward Emily Grierson, it reveals the extent to which the old decadent values of the fathers have been passed along.

The narrator of the story, one of the townspeople himself, has proved unreliable. While it is true that Emily seems to be “a tradition, a duty, a care, an hereditary obligation,” a relic of the past miraculously sprung into being in spite of the disparity between her time and the historical time with which she is associated, the narrator only inadvertently reveals the truth of the matter: that both generations of the town are guilty of the desires and misplaced values that not only allow Miss Emily the murderess to come into being but also lead them to cover her crime and enshrine her in a tableau into which they, in their basest longings, can insert themselves. There is an incestuousness to all of this, an unhealthy interbreeding of values that allows each generation to perform despicable acts in the process of maintaining its ideas of what it would like to be. It is true that Emily is a “fallen monument”; but what the narrator fails to spell out explicitly is that the monument has been erected not only by the historical grandeur of her family, but also by the dispossessed generations that interpret her to their own ends. The monument is toppled by death, not by an ethical evolution in the town. The narrator is redeemed to some extent by “his” pity for Emily and by the recognition that the town, by driving her into mad isolation, has treated her badly.

As for Emily herself, she would seem to represent the worst elements of her neighbors, carried to their extreme conclusions. As the antebellum masters of the slaves presumed an all-powerfulness that allowed them to believe that they could own people, so does Miss Emily presume. Alive, Homer Barron—the outsider, the Yankee, a curious vitality in the pallid town—is outside Miss Emily’s control. Dead, however, she can own him, can dress his corpse like a groom, can sleep beside him perhaps every night at least until her hair turns gray. As the new generation can blind itself to unpleasant truths about its history and itself, so can Emily become lost in delusion: Her father, dead for three days, is proclaimed not dead and she refuses to bury him; Homer’s corpse is a “groom” (and, perhaps in some further depraved vision, connected with the dead father). Emily represents not only the decadence of Colonel Sartoris’s racist era but also the decadence of the “modern” generation’s use of that era. Thus “A Rose for Emily,” often dismissed as Faulkner’s ghost story, proves to be a clear expression of a recurring motif in Faulkner’s works: the complexity of the connections between the present and the past.

“The Bear”

These connections are explored in a less sensational manner in “The Bear.” This story, which Faulkner also made the centerpiece of his novel Go Down, Moses, is another of the most anthologized, most studied pieces of Faulkner’s short fiction. Composed of five sections (although often only four are printed in anthology versions, the long and complex fourth section being omitted), “The Bear” covers the history of Isaac (Ike) McCaslin, heir to the land and to the shame of his slave-owner grandfather, L. P. C. McCaslin, who committed incest with his illegitimate daughter, thereby driving her mother to suicide. After discovering this horrifying ghost in old plantation ledgers, Ike feels bound to repudiate the inheritance that has descended to him from his grandfather—even though the repudiation costs him his wife and any hope of progeny—in an attempt to expiate his inherited guilt and to gain a measure of freedom from the vicious materialism that brought the slavery system into being. Thus he allows his patrimony to pass to his cousin McCaslin Edmonds, who plays devil’s advocate in Ike’s attempt to understand the South and his own place in it, the tragedy of the blacks and of his own class, and the significance of what he possesses without inheriting: an instinctual knowledge of nature and an infallible sense of what is just.

“The Bear” may be seen as a hunting story, part of the Big Woods collection that includes “The Bear Hunt” and “Race at Morning.” As a hunting story it is concerned with Ike’s maturing, with his pilgrimage year after year to the hunting grounds where he and a group of adult hunters stalk the ancient bear, Old Ben, an enduring symbol of nature. Ike’s guide and teacher is Sam Fathers, an aging Native American who still holds a sure instinct for the truths to be found in nature, and under whose tutelage Ike comes to form a system of values that later will lead him to renounce his inheritance. From Sam, Ike acquires a sense of nature’s terms and of humanity’s need to meet her on her own terms—of the necessity of according dignity to the force of nature and to all creatures through whom it courses. To meet the embodiment of that force in Old Ben, Ike must leave behind the instruments of civilization: the gun, the compass, the watch. Eventually Ike is able to track down Old Ben with regularity, but even when he encounters the bear and is armed, he refuses to shoot it.

It would seem that the proof of nature’s endurance, represented in the bear, is of paramount concern to Ike. When Old Ben is finally killed and Sam Fathers dies, the ritual of the hunt is over for Ike. Yet two years later, he returns to the woods and sees in its organic and deathless elements, which have incorporated the remains of Old Ben and Sam Fathers, a proof of nature’s dualistic power to absorb death and bring forth new life from it. This force is at the same time awesome and terrifying, and it must be revered and confronted if humanity is to live meaningfully. Even as Ike makes this last pilgrimage, however, a lumber company hacks away at the forest and a train cuts through the wilderness, underscoring the idea of the damage a materialistic civilization can do to even the most powerful aspects of nature. Faulkner shows an era of United States history passing—an era of abundance and of human appreciation of what nature requires from humanity in their mutual interest.

When “The Bear” is examined from the point of view of the intricate fourth section, it goes beyond being merely a hunting story to comment profoundly on the passing age and that which is replacing it. The scene shifts from the vast wilderness of nature to the intense confines of Ike McCaslin’s consciousness, which struggles to find a way to atone for the sins of his ancestors and of his class. The entanglement of past and present here is more complex than it is in “A Rose for Emily,” for Ike must face the knowledge that bloods mingled in the past—black and white, slave and owner—have flowed in grossly inequitable courses to the present, as reflected in the sufferings of his mixed-blood relatives. Therefore, he renounces his patrimony, he sets out to redress old wrongs with his black relatives, and he seeks to give full recognition to the brotherhood he shares with these relatives by recognizing the strengths they contribute to his family and to southern society—the virtues of “pity and tolerance and forbearance and fidelity and love of children.”

In contrast to the self-serving generation of postbellum townspeople in “A Rose for Emily,” Ike—also of that era—is a man of conscience. This is not to suggest, however, that Ike is particularly “modern” in his ideas; rather he has modeled himself on older examples of integrity, not only Sam Fathers but also his father and his uncle, who had turned over their own inherited house to their slaves and built a humbler cabin for themselves. In Ike’s own case, the personal sacrifices to integrity and conscience have been enormous—his wife’s love; his hope of a son to carry on his mission; living alone and ultimately uncertain that his sacrifice will bear fruit beyond his limited scope to influence events. Nevertheless, Faulkner illustrates through his invention of Ike McCaslin the extent to which idealism can flourish, even when constantly challenged by the grimmest vestiges of past evils.

“Barn Burning”

“Barn Burning” is an inversion of “The Bear” in that its protagonist, ten-year-old Sarty Snopes, is seeking the world that Ike McCaslin wishes to repudiate. Not of the landed class, but the son of a tenant farmer who is always on the move because arson is his means of creating justice, Sarty associates the landed gentry with a “peace and dignity” and a civilized justice that is the direct opposite of the “fear and terror, grief and despair” that characterizes his life with his father, Ab Snopes. Ab uses fire as a weapon against the ruling class that he sees as the shaper of his economic fate, and he exhorts Sarty to be true to the blood ties which Ab sees as the only protection for his kind against the forces of an exploitative aristocracy. Sarty, however, rejects the “old blood” that he has not chosen for what seems to him a higher concept of fairness, and he longs to be free of his family and the turmoil it generates in his life.

For Sarty, Major DeSpain is the antithesis of Ab. DeSpain owns the farm on which Ab has most recently contracted to work. To Sarty, DeSpain and his columned house, as big as a courthouse, represent not what Ab sees, the sweat of black and white people to produce someone else’s wealth, but the peace and dignity for which Sarty yearns and a system of justice that operates on principles of law rather than on personal revenge. Sarty’s view is based on a naïve trust in civilization that blinds his inexperienced eyes to the inescapable connections between wealth and the mechanism of civilization.

Ab provokes a confrontation with DeSpain by deliberately tracking horse manure on an expensive rug. A series of moves and countermoves by Ab and DeSpain brings the pair to the point where, although DeSpain cannot begin to recover his loss from Ab, the local court nevertheless rules that Ab must take responsibility, within his means, for his act. This is enough to satisfy Ab yet again that the social system only works in behalf of the rich, and he sets out that night to redress this wrong by burning DeSpain’s barn. Sarty cannot bear to allow this injustice, and so he is torn between real loyalty to his family and commitment to an ideal of justice. Specifically, he must decide whether to support his father’s crime through silence or to betray the familial bond and warn DeSpain. Sarty chooses the ideal, warns DeSpain even as the barn begins to burn, and then flees the scene, unsure whether the shots he hears wound any of his family. Having made his choice, Sarty must set out alone to forge his own life.

“Barn Burning” offers a helpful picture of how Faulkner sees the economics of the postbellum South, where the poor whites remain the underclass rivals of black sharecroppers. Faulkner shows in other works how a new social order eventually evolved in which the descendants of Ab Snopes slip into the defeated, genteel society like silent bacteria and take over its commerce, coming finally to own the mansions that had previously belonged to the DeSpains and Compsons and Sartorises. Again and again Faulkner reiterates that it was the corrupt systems of slavery and of the plantation that ultimately ensured the fall of the Old South. Yet his view of Snopeses—violent, relentless, insidious men and inert, cowlike women, who by their numbers and crafty pragmatism will wrench the land and the wealth from the depleted gentility—is hardly positive.

In fact, “Barn Burning” is singular in that it is perhaps the only example of Faulkner’s fiction in which the Snopeses are depicted sympathetically without first being made to appear ridiculous. As is often the case, Faulkner is extremely sensitive to the young boy caught in a painful rite of passage—as true for Sarty Snopes as it is for Ike McCaslin, Lucius Priest, Chick Mallison, and others not of the threatening Snopes clan. Moreover, “Barn Burning” makes an interesting case for Ab Snopes as the pitiable creation of the landed aristocracy, who seeks dignity and integrity for himself, although his only chance of achieving either would seem to lie in the democratic element of fire as the one defense available to all, regardless of social class. In this story, Ab is placed in the company of Wash Jones, Joe Christmas, and other members of the underclass that Faulkner views with sympathy and whose portrayals are in themselves indictments of the civilization that has forced them to desperate means.

While none of these examples quite suggests the very humorous ends to which Faulkner often turns his southern materials, it should be remembered that he was highly aware of the potential for comedy in all the situations described here and that even such delicate matters as the tensions between the races and the revolution in the social order are, in Faulkner’s hands, as frequently the catalysts of tall tales and satire as they are of his most somber and lyrical prose. It is true that “A Rose for Emily” hints at a typically Faulknerian humor in that a whole town is turned on its end by the bizarre behavior of one of its citizens; but the grotesque nature of Miss Emily’s secret smothers the promise of comedy in the story. Those seeking to experience Faulkner’s comic voice are better served by reading such stories as “Shingles for the Lord,” “Mule in the Yard,” and “Spotted Horses.”

In any case, whatever the mode Faulkner adopted in creating his Yoknapatawpha County and thereby recreating the South, he produced a stunning body of work, and in both matter and style, his works have had an equally stunning impact on modern letters.