Study Guide

William Faulkner

William Faulkner Essay - Faulkner, William (Vol. 1)

Faulkner, William (Vol. 1)

Faulkner, William 1897–1962

Faulkner, a Southern American novelist, set his fiction in the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County. His best-known works are The Sound and the Fury, Sanctuary, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom! He won the Nobel Prize in 1949. See also William Faulkner Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 6, 8, 9, 11, 14, 18, 28.

It may be summarily stated that Faulkner's use of formal arrangement of scenes in As I Lay Dying is a device for making it possible to introduce the thoughts of a great many characters without unduly confusing the reader. There are thirteen characters whose consciousnesses are represented in this short novel. This distinguishes it from all other stream-of-consciousness fiction….

Faulkner's chief unifying device in this novel is something else. It is a unity of action which he employs. In other words, he uses a substantial plot, the thing that is lacking in all other stream-of-consciousness literature…. It is the thing that carries As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury away from the pure stream-of-consciousness type of novel to a point where the traditional novel and stream of consciousness are combined. Because there is a coherent plot and because the characters act in an external drama which has a beginning, complications, climax, and ending, the absolute need for further unifying devices does not exist….

As I Lay Dying is a fairly simple and unsubtle work compared to Faulkner's other stream-of-consciousness novel, The Sound and the Fury. These novels are, however, similar in several technical matters: both contain substantial unity of action, but that of the latter is more complex; both have a formal scenic arrangement, but that of the latter is at once more complex and less clear-cut. The technical similarity does not go much past this; for The Sound and the Fury deals with complex personalities, and consciousness is presented in it at an extremely deep level. Consequently, other structural devices are needed to clarify for the reader what is going on in this particular world of consciousness. The chief of these other devices are symbolic structure and motif. So what we have as patterns for unity in The Sound and the Fury are closely intertwined plot, unity of time, scenic arrangement, symbolic framework, and motifs. None of these is predominant in effectiveness and none is clear-cut.

Robert Humphrey, in his Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel, originally published by the University of California Press, 1954 (reprinted by permission of The Regents of the University of California), pp. 105-07.

Faulkner's prose style, perhaps, has fooled us into attributing complexity to his mind. It now seems obvious, however, that he really is what he always claims to be: a simple man…. The narrowness I am speaking of is a narrowness of range. I am not suggesting that Faulkner's work exhibits just one mode of feeling or a single quality (it is often forgotten how funny this most solemn of writers can be), but rather that he deals best with only one kind of person acting in one kind of situation…. Think also what is missing from his books. Perhaps it can be summed up by saying that as far as Yoknapatawpha is concerned, the Enlightenment might just as well have never been. The qualities of reasonableness, moderation, compromise, tolerance, sober choice—in short, the anti-apocalyptic style of life brought into the modern world by the middle class—no more exists for Faulkner than plain ordinary folks do (everyone is at least a demigod to him)…. Faulkner's narrowness, then, has always stemmed partly from an unwillingness or an inability either to love or to hate the world of the 20th century enough to understand it. But it isn't contemporary reality alone that Faulkner has shied away from. The very effort to explain, to understand any living thing, seems to him sheer blasphemy. Moreover, he is utterly indifferent to subtlety and qualification…. Faulkner frequently takes a kind of mischievous delight in tantalizing us with long passages which pretend to be explanations, but whose point is that no explanations are possible. These passages invariably consist of crude metaphysical assertions written with an ineptitude even translations of Hegel rarely match. He hurls his convoluted rhetoric and clumsy thought into the air like an educated version of his own prisoner cursing those of us who ask for a reason or two now and then. In any case, the notion that nothing can be explained is a half-truth which, in my opinion, has limited Faulkner's creative range. For let us be bold and admit it: a lack of ideas is no virtue in a novelist. I do not believe that Faulkner ever had ideas. Convictions, yes, and a terrifying energy behind them, but not ideas, not the wish to understand the world, only the wish to feel deeply and to transcribe what he felt and saw…. Heaven knows that what Faulkner did have was enough to make him one of the two or three first-rate writers in modern American literature. But it was not enough to make him a truly great writer.

Norman Podhoretz, "The Problem of War" (1954), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 13-24.

William Faulkner makes as many demands on his reader as do our more difficult modern poets. His experiments—in perspective, in handling time, and in revealing (which is not the same thing as developing) character—make it extremely hard to tell what is happening in his stories. One also has difficulty in telling whether what seems to happen is a real event or merely the hallucination of one of the characters. Additional difficulties are created by Faulkner's devices of withholding bits of information the reader needs to piece the stories together and of showing his characters in such a light that while their motives are perfectly clear to the other characters the reader is left completely in the dark. Ninety-nine characters out of a hundred seem driven by obscure obsessive neuroses and tortured by anxieties which the reader does not share and which lead to actions taking place outside the normal order of events and at abnormal speed. And at moments there is an absurd disproportion between the stature of the characters and the overwhelming horror of the things that happens to them….

Quite probably the most important of [Faulkner's] characteristics is [his] habit of seeing the action through the personality of one, or several, of the characters in the particular story, to whom another novelist would be unlikely to entrust the "point of view."… Faulkner's people are at once contemplated and contemplators—we see them through other characters and we see the other characters through them. Their presence is what makes the great complexity of some of the novels.

And it is also the central factor in Faulkner's technique. For the characters who stand as Faulkner's agents are essentially vast recording machines of impression. Faulkner works, through them, very close to the brute stuff of consciousness. Sensations are reported with extreme immediacy. But sometimes we have to wait, through whole pages and chapters, to know their importance. Since the flow of sensations rarely decelerates, there is seldom time for interpretation….

I would suggest that the style, and the unusual treatment of the "point of view" which the style permits, are organically related to the characteristic treatment of time which marks so much of Faulkner's writing. For in the flow of impressions which come to us through the mind of the character the ordinary distinction between past and present is frequently missing. The character lives in and focuses his attention on the present, but mixed in the surging sensations of his mind are reminiscences of the past, brought to the surface by the stimulus of present sensations, which impinge upon the present and become part of it…. Conceiving time in such a way permits the existence of two planes of action—one present and dramatic, the other past and explicative but always influencing the present—which form the pattern of the Faulkner novels which are most original and most characteristically his. The present plane catches the action at the beginning of a crisis and follows through a catastrophe; the past one recapitulates everything which makes the catastrophe inevitable. The action of the present plane is likely to have the concentration and rapidity of good drama….

[The] minds of the characters can almost be said to move not in two merging time-planes but in three, their constant apprehension over what is imminent constituting what amounts to a third temporal dimension. It is undoubtedly the omnipresence of this always-imminent, nameless evil that gives the best of such books their fascination and power, their ability to terrify and attract at once….

If we read [Faulkner] as though he were a tragic poet, many difficulties disappear. It becomes natural now that he should withhold much that the reader wants immediately to know, in order to prepare the recognition scene; that he should abandon the traditional time manipulation of the novel for one which turns the fullest, whitest light possible upon the moment of crisis; that characters should be driven to do things by forces which the reader understands only vaguely; that personal relations among the characters should be determined by their sense of the inevitability of the evil yet to come upon them; and that Faulkner's effort should go into showing how the world looks to his characters rather than how it should look to us.

In this light the novelist whom we honor as the finest writing in English today [1957] appears as a master of the "novel of destiny."

W. M. Frohock, "William Faulkner—The Private Vision," in his The Novel of Violence in America, Southern Methodist University Press, revised edition, 1957, pp. 144-65 (in the Beacon Press, paperbound edition, 1964).

Faulkner's career has been compounded of neglect and sensationalism. He has been harmed by the worship of literary cults and cliques almost as much as by popular ignorance of his work, while his own literary methods have not helped this situation. The best books of his early period, Light in August or The Sound and the Fury, were experimental in form, elaborate or often deliberately obscure in expression. His general reputation was founded on Sanctuary, a harsh, violent, and essentially superficial flowering of a rich talent. Even today those who admire him most seem largely indifferent to his true quality—or how often he has sacrified that quality through impatience or rhetoric.

Maxwell Geismar, "William Faulkner: Before and After the Nobel Prize" (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1958 by Maxwell Geismar), in his American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity, Hill & Wang, 1958, pp. 91-106.

The opening pages of The Sound and the Fury take us into a bewildering world, as if we were traversing without pause the ages of man—and in the wrong order. The seasons merge and blur; disembodied voices speak to us; we participate in a dance of the senses…. The editors of the Modern Library rightly feared that frustrated readers might hurl the book away in anger; but when they asked Faulkner to write an explicatory preface, he wrote an Appendix instead. So much for publishers who want artists to explain their art! If we read this Appendix, where one usually reads the preface, we enter the book so to speak by a back door. And Faulkner's genealogy of the Compson family only increases our confusion. But to explain technique and discussion the form of the novel was foreign to Faulkner and his intuitive art. Moreover, it would have involved telling the reader what he must, in the end, discover for himself. And what he must discover, above all, in such a book as The Sound and the Fury, is a new way of reading fiction.

The first problem to be solved in reading this novel is how to cope with the scrambled materials. They are scrambled, beyond a doubt; and any hope of recovering whole eggs from the omelette must be set aside at once. Our new way of reading invites us to accept the material in its unsorted unchronological heterogeneous state: it stipulates that we must not try … to impose conventional order upon it. Our obligation is rather to perceive it in its disorder, as Faulkner placed it before us…. Indeed, when an author elects to tell us a story in this fashion, it would seem logical to follow him in his premises and not to construct new ones….

We are maneuvered by the novelist into taking over all of Benjy's senses: his eyes become our eyes, his sense of smell is ours, his unique experience of the world around him is our experience for the duration of the book. We are, so to speak, on the inside of an idiot—looking out—even though we retain, at the same time, our own reason and our own awareness…. What Faulkner has achieved in [the Benjy] section has been a significant change in novel-dimension. I refer not only to the technique, nor to the poetry: it is his assimilation, in a remarkably intuitive fashion, of the lesson of Joyce and of the French Symbolists: for he shows us how a novelist, or a poet, can use language to evoke more perceptions and feelings than unilinear prose has been hitherto accustomed to doing….

Step by step, as we determine what happens in accepting this unsorted, disarranged world and the given angle of vision, we are forced to recognize that other things occur. The language may be set down word-by-word and paragraph-by-paragraph, but Faulkner is busily creating also an illusion of simultaneity: we are hearing, smelling, seeing at the same time, as in life….

Such a novel is well described as a Symbolist novel, because the entire work is made to symbolize for us consciousness and the South: in giving us the imaged memories and the tortured inner life of a family Faulkner has given us the tortured inner life of a society which this family represents; and in using language evocatively, Faulkner has been able to make that language convey intensities of feeling and states of consciousness which words can never begin to describe. The world of William Faulkner, in this novel, is not a world of reason or intelligence or rational order. Faulkner proclaims neither order nor disorder. Certainly the "order" of Benjy is hardly rational. The novelist's concern is with feeling. The very title implies it. The sound is anguish and the fury is a manifestation of a kind of primordial animal rage: and this book is about the anguish of the innocent and the fury of the frustrated and the damned. These are the larger meanings we can read in this fiction when we have mastered its difficulties…. We must recognize that as a novel of subjectivity, and as a novel of "point of view," The Sound and the Fury is perhaps the most remarkable of contemporary American novels. By its technical resources and symbolic strength Faulkner was enabled to perform in a work of art a great act of empathy—and of humanity.

Leon Edel, "How to Read The Sound and the Fury" (© 1962 by New York University Press; reprinted by permission of William Morris Agency, Inc., on behalf of the author), in Varieties of Literary Experience, edited by Stanley Burnshaw, New York University Press, 1962, pp. 241-57.

What distinguishes [William] Faulkner from most of his fellow Southerners is his preoccupation with form. Though there is every possible difference between his work and that of Henry James, no novelist since James has developed so skillfully a genuinely effective management of point of view. Each of his novels since 1929 may be said to have made its own peculiar contribution to the history of literary form. Faulkner does not, therefore, merely "tell a story"; nor is he concerned, as many critics have insisted, merely with exploiting the horror, vulgarity and obscenity associated with the South's decadence. He is, above all, preoccupied with the problem of defining psychologically the moral sensibilities of his world.

Frederick J. Hoffman, in his The Modern Novel in America, Regnery, revised edition, 1963, pp. 176-77.

It is a time continuum that Faulkner is after. The typical form of the Yoknapatawpha novels, which seems at first so puzzling to the reader and then falls momentously and often catastrophically into place as the novel progresses, is that of a single consciousness. Frequently it is not linked to any one character, yet it is the product of a fixed, centered viewpoint, a perceiving eye and mind, which takes in the actions and conjectures the thoughts of men and women in time. This "center of consciousness" is always at work speculating, recapitulating, and finally pronouncing the meaning of what has happened, seen at last as a whole, completed action….

The necessity for love is the one constant in all the novels and stories. Those truly capable of love can face their experience with courage and purpose, and if they fail, they go down honorably. Without love there can only be lust, animalism, futility. With love, human beings can attain their full stature as men.

Isn't it odd that this Mississippi novelist, whose works have carried a highly sophisticated literary technique forward to its farthest reaches, whose fiction shows so profound an insight into the deepest psychological recesses of human behavior, should have ended up reiterating what is after all one of the oldest and most elementary moral truths? That this man who has written so shockingly about so many appallingly shocking things, should turn out to be so uncompromising, so unswerving a moralist?

Louis D. Rubin, Jr., "Chronicles of Yoknapatawpha: The Dynasties of William Faulkner," in his Writers of the Modern South: The Faraway Country, University of Washington Press, 1963, pp. 43-71.

In fiction for the past thirty years the South has meant primarily William Faulkner, because it is in his novels and stories that the sense of the past in the present has been most comprehensively embodied, and this despite faults that would have sunk a lesser writer without trace. No novelist ever had less mercy on his readers. He can be obscure to the point of opacity. Sentences four pages long, containing parentheses within parentheses, are not rare. Words pile up like a river in flood and bear with them, like a river in flood, a mass of debris. Yet his genius is such as to surmount these faults.

What is Faulkner's achievement? Not simply, great though it is, the creation of his world, his imaginary Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, though it is true that the novels and stories set outside it are generally failures. But to concentrate on Yoknapatawpha County, to take the novels and stories as the sourcebooks of its history, sociology and folklore, is to see Faulkner wrong….

Faulkner's treatment of the South is infinitely … complex. His fiction, one feels, is rooted almost in the folk-memory, not the product of a literary abstraction. It makes him the heir not only of the heroic image of the South but also of something one looks for in vain in the novels that concentrate solely on the heroic: the humour of the South, at its simplest the tall story…. He is a master of the vernacular and a superb comic writer, undilutedly so in The Hamlet. It is a side of Faulkner's genius too often neglected. It is intermittent, sometimes inhibited altogether, but never far away. It is the obverse of his preoccupation with the doomed, the bizarre and what Malcolm Cowley has called the tradition of psychological horror in American writing. It is, in the end, the index of Faulkner's humanity.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 115-15.

[For] William Faulkner psychological time is central to the human condition. Faulkner sees psychological time as a series of waves and curves. It may shock, but it is real, and it embarrasses chronological time. Since time, furthermore, is a mode of perception, a framework through which man perceives, one's personal psychology is a part of what he sees when he looks at the universe. The act of perception is colored by the perceiver; thus man is presented with shapes that are beyond the simple concepts of Me, Here, Now. Or again, psychological time may prompt the appearance of images and associations that seem arbitrary. It is the sudden leap of consciousness, however—for Faulkner as for the psychologist—that reveals in mystic shorthand the inner reality….

Perception and consciousness participate in actual events, shape man's being in a changing present that comes from the past and contains the future. And yet time, for Faulkner, as shown especially in The Bear, is not merely relative. The other side of individual consciousness is not chaos but timelessness, a frozen eternity that is beyond man, forming a backdrop for the earthly stage on which he moves.

Max Westbrook, in The Modern American Novel: Essays in Criticism, edited by Max Westbrook (© 1966 by Random House, Inc., reprinted by permission of the publisher), Random House, 1966, pp. 131-32.

In the work of William Faulkner, the fear of the castrating woman and the dis-ease with sexuality present in the novels of his contemporaries, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, attain their fullest and shrillest expression. Not content with merely projecting images of the anti-virgin, he insists upon editorializing against the woman he travesties in character and situation…. [He] reminds us (again and again!) that men are helpless in the hands of their mothers, wives, and sisters; that females do not think but proceed from evidence to conclusions by paths too devious for males to follow; that they possess neither morality nor honor; that they are capable, therefore, of betrayal without qualm or quiver of guilt but also of inexplicable loyalty; that they enjoy an occasional beating at the hands of their men; that they are unforgiving and without charity to other members of their own sex; that they lose keys and other small useful articles with maddening regularity but are quite capable of finding things invisible to men; that they use their sexuality with cold calculation to achieve their inscrutable ends, etc., etc.…

Toward the end of his life, Faulkner seems to have repented of his many blasphemies against woman and to have committed himself to redeeming one by one all his anti-virgins; but his attempts at redemption somehow do not touch the level of acceptance reached by his original travesties…. Faulkner's art fails him when he turns from nausea and despair to sentimentality and maudlin pity; and even the popular mind rejects his attempts at converting his archetypes into the stereotypes of market-place culture.

Leslie A. Fiedler, in his Love and Death in the American Novel, Stein & Day, revised edition, 1966, pp. 320-25.

Some of Faulkner's strongest works move … from apparent lucidity towards opacity—As I Lay Dying, Light in August, The Hamlet, Go Down, Moses. But as many or more of them reverse the movement in that they clarify, simplify (sometimes over-simplify) on second reading. They are initially thickets, forbidding puzzles, which mount a great show of threat or at least indifference to solution—in fact, to mere reading—but which, if one makes a commitment of will (an act of courage, a pledge of love: 'I will force you merely because I love you'), surrender their secrets with grateful and alarmingly loose-limbed ease (secrets which occasionally prove to have been no secrets at all, sphinxes without secrets).

Reynolds Price, "Pylon: The Posture of Worship," in Shenandoah, Spring, 1968, pp. 49-61.

Like every high talent, Faulkner has revised our sensibilities…. It is clear that something momentous happened in American letters when the ex-pilot-bookclerk-postmaster-loafer took up his pen in Oxford, Mississippi, and created that hallucinated version of the Deep South which has escaped its local origins to become a region of the modern consciousness.

His style, a kind of Southern oratory gone shrewdly mad, has ties of blood to the rich, desperate materials upon which Faulkner labored. Through the instrumentality of words, he would escape the word; not high definition but fullness of suggestion was what he sought…. Faulkner fashioned a rhetoric of inundation, a language that assaulted the sensibility, arousing, punishing, implicating. It is a voice of floods and whirlpools—at its worst, drowning away all sense, dizzying and alienating its reader; at its best, immersing him in experience, spiraling in upon meaning, vitalizing it.

In this thundering, oratorical style there is a special kind of precision, arrived at by words that seem in quest of themselves, sentences that roll to repeated climaxes—a syntax moving toward discovery…. It is a method of infinite qualification, a style that sets the fact within a context of possibilities, that asserts not only the discovery itself but the sea of consciousness through which it is reached.

Arthur Edelstein, in Moderns and Contemporaries: Nine Masters of the Short Story, edited by Jonathan Baumbach and Arthur Edelstein (© 1968 by Random House, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Random House, 1968, pp. 247-49.

We could easily do without the entire oeuvre of William Faulkner. The unrewarding and arbitrary difficulty of his later manner, the pot-boiling shoddiness of his earlier, the pretentious tarting-up of the simple into the significant, the clumsy listlessness of long stretches of his prose at every stage of his career, the slipshod thinking, the conventional melodrama of his bleary view of the world, his stultifying self-consciousness, all combine to brand him as essentially second-rate. If one novel must be singled out for dismissal, let it be The Sound and the Fury, a useful compendium of Faulkner's vices.

Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey, Charles Osborne, "William Faulkner," in their Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without, Stein & Day, 1968, pp. 145-46.

William Faulkner, Nobel prize winner whose dark, symbol-filled novels provoked a tumult of both admiration and criticism, was himself as much of an enigma as his literary works. Despite his unceasing dedication to his art, he always claimed—and his way of living confirmed his words—that he was not a literary man, but a farmer.

Bernard Dekle, "William Faulkner: 'Man Will Endure Because He Has a Soul'," in his Profiles of Modern American Authors, Charles E. Tuttle, 1969, pp. 108-12.

The subject to which William Faulkner was most powerfully drawn is that of the young man coming into his majority. It is, as a private and a public activity, recurrent in both the novels and the short fiction. Indeed, in a work where it is not the principal action we can nonetheless expect to find some kind of maturation operating in the foreground, defining that action and its human context. The thematic corollary of this matter is the question of pride: of pride's proper rôle in the formation of good character and of its necessary limitation in contingency. In a writer with Faulkner's well-developed sense of man as a social creature none of this should surprise. As a Southerner of his generation and class he was born to a knowledge of these things—and to an interest in them. The gentleman, the exemplar of ordinate pride and enactor of a providentially assigned place, sums up in his own person the possibility of a civil and religiously grounded social order. In him either presumption or passivity is communal and spiritual disaster.

M. E. Bradford, "Brother, Son, and Heir: The Structural Focus of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!'" (© 1970 by The University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Winter, 1970, pp. 76-98.

Faulkner does not presume to give answers in his fiction. Rather, he charts the life of one central character, and then briefly parallels—or contrasts—lives of other figures. The reader works inductively. Knowing Joe Christmas's heritage in detail makes possible a greater sympathy with Gail Hightower and Joanna Burden, whose histories are similar. And the reader can better understand the complexities of these characters (Faulkner described the elder Hightower as being "two separate and complete people") because they are poised against the uncomplicated Lena Grove, Percy Grimm, and Miss Atkins, for whom life "seemed straight and simple as a corridor."

Linda Welshimer Wagner, "Jason Compson: The Demands of Honor" (© 1971 by The University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Autumn, 1971, pp. 554-75.