Faulkner, William (Vol. 9)
Faulkner, William 1897–1962
See also William Faulkner Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 18, 28.
An American novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, and poet, Faulkner is regarded as a central figure in the literature of this century. Encouraged by Sherwood Anderson to write about his Mississippi home, Faulkner created the imaginary Yoknapatawpha, a county that became the stage for his view of human existence. As stated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner considered his major theme to be "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself." Many of his characters are passionate and violent, but human dignity is contrasted with the decay of the American South, its moral degeneracy and racial tension. Faulkner's complex style unites language with theme and character development through the use of stream-of-consciousness writing, interior monologue, and disordered chronology. Past and present become one, and characters gather significance as they are seen from many viewpoints. In addition to the 1950 Nobel Prize, Faulkner was twice awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Faulkner's metaphysics is a metaphysics of time.
Man's misfortune lies in his being time-bound…. Such is the real subject of [The Sound and the Fury]. And if the technique Faulkner has adopted seems at first a negation of temporality, the reason is that we confuse temporality with chronology. It was man who invented dates and clocks. (pp. 87-8)
Faulkner's present is essentially catastrophic. It is the event which creeps up on us like a thief, huge, unthinkable—which creeps up on us and then disappears. Beyond this present time there is nothing, since the future does not exist. The present rises up from sources unknown to us and drives away another present; it is forever beginning anew. "And … and … and then."…
In Faulkner's work, there is never any progression, never anything which comes from the future. The present has not first been a future possibility, as when my friend, after having been he for whom I am waiting, finally appears. No, to be present means to appear without any reason and to sink in. This sinking in is not an abstract view. It is within things themselves that Faulkner perceives it and tries to make it felt. (p. 88)
Quentin can say, "I broke my watch," but when he says it, his gesture is past. The past is named and related; it can, to a certain extent, be fixed by concepts or recognized by the heart…. Faulkner's vision of the world can be compared to that of a man sitting in an open car and looking backward. At every moment, formless shadows, flickerings, faint tremblings and patches of light rise up on either side of him, and only afterward, when he has a little perspective, do they become trees and men and cars.
The past takes on a sort of super-reality; its contours are hard and clear, unchangeable. The present, nameless and fleeting, is helpless before it. It is full of gaps, and, through these gaps, things of the past, fixed, motionless, and silent as judges or glances, come to invade it. Faulkner's monologues remind one of airplane trips full of air-pockets. At each pocket, the hero's consciousness "sinks back into the past" and rises only to sink back again. The present is not; it becomes. Everything was. In Sartoris, the past was called "the stories" because it was a matter of family memories that had been constructed, because Faulkner had not yet found his technique.
In The Sound and the Fury he is more individual and more undecided. But it is so strong an obsession that he is sometimes apt to disguise the present, and the present moves along in the shadow, like an underground river, and reappears only when it itself is past. (p. 89)
This unspeakable present, leaking at every seam, these sudden invasions of the past, this emotional order, the opposite of the voluntary and intellectual order that is chronological but lacking in reality, these memories, these monstrous and discontinuous obsessions, these intermittences of the heart—are not these reminiscent of the lost and recaptured time of Marcel Proust? I am not unaware of the differences between the two; I know, for instance, that for Proust salvation lies in time itself, in the full reappearance of the past. For Faulkner, on the contrary, the past is never lost, unfortunately; it is always there, it is an obsession. One escapes from the temporal world only through mystic ecstasies. A mystic is always a man who wishes to forget something, his self or, more often, language or objective representations. For Faulkner, time must be forgotten. (p. 90)
But for Faulkner, as for Proust, time is, above all, that which separates. One recalls the astonishment of the Proustian heroes who can no longer enter into their past loves, of those lovers depicted in Les Plaisirs et Les Jours, clutching their passions, afraid they will pass, and knowing they will. We find the same anguish in Faulkner….
To tell the truth, Proust's fictional technique should have been Faulkner's. It was the logical conclusion of his metaphysics. But Faulkner is a lost man, and it is because he feels lost that he takes risks and pursues his thought to its uttermost consequences. Proust is a Frenchman and a classicist. The French lose themselves only a little at a time and always manage to find themselves again. Eloquence, intellectuality, and a liking for clear ideas were responsible for Proust's retaining at least the semblance of chronology.
The basic reason for this relationship is to be found in a very general literary phenomenon. Most of the great contemporary authors, Proust, Joyce, Dos Passos, Faulkner, Gide, and Virginia Woolf have tried, each in his own way, to distort time. Some of them have deprived it of its past and future in order to reduce it to the pure intuition of the instant; others, like Dos Passos, have made of it a dead and closed memory. Proust and Faulkner have simply decapitated it. They have deprived it of its future—that is, its dimension of deeds and freedom…. Faulkner's heroes … never look ahead. They face backward as the car carries them along. The coming suicide which casts its shadow over Quentin's last day is not a human possibility; not for a second does Quentin envisage the possibility of not killing himself. This suicide is an immobile wall, a thing which he approaches backward, and which he neither wants to nor can conceive. (p. 91)
Faulkner's entire art aims at suggesting to us that Quentin's monologues and his last walk are already his suicide. This, I think, explains the following curious paradox: Quentin thinks of his last day in the past, like someone who is remembering. But in that case, since the hero's last thoughts coincide approximately with the bursting of his memory and its annihilation, who is remembering? The inevitable reply is that the novelist's skill consists in the choice of the present moment from which he narrates the past…. [His] artistry and, to speak frankly, all … illusion are meant, then, merely as substitutions for the intuition of the future lacking in the author himself. This explains everything, particularly the irrationality of time; since the present is the unexpected, the formless can be determined only by an excess of memories. We now also understand why duration is "man's characteristic misfortune." If the future has reality, time withdraws us from the past and brings us nearer to the future; but if you do away with the future, time is no longer that which separates, that which cuts the present off from itself. "You cannot bear to think that someday it will no longer hurt you like this." Man spends his life struggling against time, and time, like an acid, eats away at man, eats him away from himself and prevents him from fulfilling his human character. Everything is absurd. "Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
But is man's time without a future? I can understand that the nail's time, or the clod's, or the atom's is a perpetual present. But is man a thinking nail? If you begin by plunging him into universal time, the time of planets and nebulae, of tertiary flexures and animal species, as into a bath of sulphuric acid, then the question is settled. However, a consciousness buffeted so from one instant to another ought, first of all, to be a consciousness and then, afterward, to be temporal; does anyone believe that time can come to it from the outside? Consciousness can "exist within time" only on condition that it become time as a result of the very movement by which it becomes consciousness. It must become "temporalized," as Heidegger says. We can no longer arrest man at each present and define him as "the sum of what he has." The nature of consciousness implies, on the contrary, that it project itself into the future. We can understand what it is only through what it will be. It is determined in its present being by its own possibilities. This is what Heidegger calls "the silent force of the possible." You will not recognize within yourself Faulkner's man, a creature bereft of possibilities and explicable only in terms of what he has been. Try to pin down your consciousness and probe it. You will see that it is hollow. In it you will find only the future. (pp. 91-2)
I am afraid that the absurdity that Faulkner finds in a human life is one that he himself has put there. Not that life is not absurd, but there is another kind of absurdity.
Why have Faulkner and so many other writers chosen this particular absurdity which is so un-novelistic and so untrue? I think we should have to look for the reason in the social conditions of our present life. Faulkner's despair seems to me to precede his metaphysics. For him, as for all of us, the future is closed. Everything we see and experience impels us to say, "This can't last." And yet change is not even conceivable, except in the form of a cataclysm. We are living in a time of impossible revolutions, and Faulkner uses his extraordinary art to describe our suffocation and a world dying of old age. I like his art, but I do not believe in his metaphysics. A closed future is still a future. [In the words of Heidegger:] "Even if human reality has nothing more 'before' it, even if 'its account is closed,' its being is still determined by this 'self-anticipation.' The loss of all hope, for example, does not deprive human reality of its possibilities; it is simply a way of being toward these same possibilities." (p. 93)
Jean-Paul Sartre, "On 'The Sound and the Fury': Time in the Work of Faulkner," in his Literary and Philosophical Essays, translated by Annette Michelson, Rider & Co., 1955 (and reprinted in Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Penn Warren, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966, pp. 87-93).
[Not] until William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury in 1929 did a novelist succeed in incorporating Joyce's techniques into his own artistic sensibility. It is true that Joyce was neither a major formative influence on Faulkner, nor a lasting one: echoes in Faulkner's three novels before The Sound and the Fury are minor and localized, and after this novel and As I Lay Dying, the influence is barely evident. But in The Sound and the Fury, especially in Quentin's section, Joyce is a major influence, and Faulkner's use of Joycean techniques contributes significantly to the novel's success.
Since its publication Faulkner's novel has been repeatedly linked to Ulysses. Probably to counter the comparisons, Faulkner expended a great deal of energy denying the possible influence of Ulysses on his work…. [However, in] this novel and As I Lay Dying he attempts to narrate his stories with the help of major technical devices that came directly from Ulysses.
Joyce's most significant legacy to Faulkner was the interior monologue. With this technique Faulkner discovered a solution to crucial problems in characterization that had plagued him in his first three novels. Soldier's Pay, Mosquitoes, and Sartoris all suffer from his inability to create sufficiently complex characters. Sartoris represents an important advance over the first two works in its use of the personal and historical past as a context for the present action. But Bayard Sartoris, upon whom the burden of the past-present conflict rests, is too inarticulate to convey the complex pressures acting on him from both his own and his family's past.
Faulkner's unsuccessful characterization in the early novels is related to his use of an omniscient narrator. It is clear from almost all his novels that he prefers third-person, omniscient narration, but in the first three works the use of omniscience impedes characterization, for it results in exterior views of characters who have little to say. Lacking are inside views, except for occasional inchoate attempts to render the characters' thought processes. Then, in three sections of The Sound and the Fury and all of As I Lay Dying, Faulkner turned to extreme uses of first-person narration; it is as if he saw the need to purge his work of his undeveloped omniscient instincts by eliminating his own voice entirely. Once he gained the necessary discipline, he returned to omniscient narration with much greater control over the inherent limitations and possibilities.
In The Sound and the Fury Faulkner combines the use of first-person narration with the decisive additional improvement provided by stream-of-consciousness techniques. The first-person method forces the character to reveal himself to the reader, thereby eliminating the possibility of inarticulateness, but the interior monologue allows Faulkner at the same time to reveal the character's mind far beyond the character's ability to present his own conscious thought processes. (pp. 265-66)
Faulkner's predilection toward omniscient narration might have led him to the technique as employed by Lawrence and Woolf, but he revealed no significant interest in it….
Like most of his contemporaries, Faulkner seems to have read Molly Bloom's soliloquy as a representation of chaos; when he echoes it, his scene is usually a chaotic one…. Like Joyce in Molly's monologue, he retains the rhythm of sentences, even as he eliminates punctuation.
This technique appears occasionally in the novels before The Sound and the Fury, especially in Soldier's Pay and Mosquitoes. In the latter it serves primarily to convey emotional agitation, whereas in the former Faulkner uses it for his comic representation of Julian Lowe's ignorant mind. (p. 267)
In both of these novels the technique remains unassimilated within works that are not stream-of-consciousness novels; it either fully reveals the limitations of a minor character's mind or it serves as a temporary excursion into the mind of a major character within a primarily external presentation.
Only in The Sound and the Fury does this monologue technique become one method assimilated with others in a narrative in which the events are indistinguishable from the minds perceiving them. Quentin's section of the novel can be seen as a conflict between two aspects of his mind: his voluntary and involuntary thoughts….
Besides the representation of mental agitation, Faulkner uses the technique as a means of characterization, particularly of Mrs. Compson. (p. 268)
In Quentin's section of The Sound and the Fury the technique dominates, even though Faulkner employs first-person narration. Quentin's past-tense reporting of the external facts functions like Joyce's omniscient, third-person narration. To report his character's thoughts, Faulkner, like Joyce, shifts to a direct reporting technique based on the present tense. The similarities can be seen in the opening pages of Ulysses and Quentin's section of The Sound and the Fury, both of which serve to establish a tone and a set of expectations. Neither "Telemachus" nor Quentin's section begins directly with an interior monologue…. Throughout the first six episodes of Ulysses, the narration consists primarily of this combination of external description (omniscient, but usually limited to Stephen's or Bloom's perception) and interior monologue.
A parallel development occurs at the beginning of Quentin's section of The Sound and the Fury. Quentin himself replaces the omniscient narrator; all of the observations are thus limited to his perceptions. As narrator, he attempts to describe objectively the environment and the events around him, even though this objectivity is nullified from the start by his mind's distortions. The apparent objectivity with which he begins each of the opening paragraphs disintegrates almost immediately into a memory of a conversation with his father. The first five paragraphs work this way, but the fifth becomes more complicated as, inadvertently it seems, Quentin begins to reveal the "stream" of his mind…. [The] patterns of association become involuntary, as several thoughts rush into his mind at once. (pp. 269-70)
Structurally, Quentin's section seems in large measure to be modeled on Bloom's day. First, Quentin's "hour upon the stage," like Bloom's, is obviously and explicitly a day: both the opening date and Quentin's obsession with clocks keep us informed of the date and time throughout. The section has both the range of Bloom's day and many of the same mundane concerns…. For Quentin, though it is likely that this day is not very different from previous ones (except in its conclusion), the mundane acts take on a ritualistic significance, their simple mechanical nature contrasting with the chaos in his mind. Both Bloom and Quentin spend the day wandering around their cities, and both return "home" at the end. Although Quentin leaves his room again some time shortly after his section concludes, Faulkner carefully ends it at its place of origin and on a relatively calm note. Likewise, the crises for both Bloom and Quentin involve suitors…. Quentin's inability to cope with reality is largely summarized first by his desire to literally slay his sister's suitor/lovers, specifically Dalton Ames, and then by his failure to understand why he could not do it.
Although Quentin's section exists as a continuous narrative, there are several divisions implicit within it. Like the episodes in Ulysses, these subsections reflect the passage of time during the day and the mind's reaction to the various times of day…. As Quentin's day progresses, so does his inability to live in and to focus his mind on present reality, and the passage of time is accompanied by changing narrative techniques designed to reveal the growing domination of the past over the present in Quentin's mind. (pp. 271-72)
As Quentin's section progresses and he becomes more and more immersed in his own thoughts, Faulkner builds upon the basic method and combines it with other Joycean techniques. Both novelists reveal the characters' minds interacting with the outside world by using external incidents to either inspire or cut off an extended memory…. Faulkner [also] adopts techniques from Joyce's episode of hallucinations, in which no real action occurs at all, for the presentation of a character whose tormented thoughts are in reality driving him to suicide. (pp. 272-73)
There is an important difference between Joyce's and Faulkner's uses of the exterior-interior monologue technique. Like Quentin, Stephen and Bloom spend large amounts of time recalling or reliving past events, but those events alone do not define the existence of either of Joyce's characters. Most of the thoughts of each are direct responses to external stimuli, "the now, the here" of June 16, 1904…. To Quentin, though, the present is nonexistent. The configuration of past events is fixed in his mind, and the present has become only an adjunct to the past. Thus, all of the events of the "stream" of his mind are descriptions of past events or fully remembered conversations. Faulkner employs several of the technical features of Joyce's interior monologue, but he does so to portray not a character balanced between an external and an internal life but one whose present life is completely and fatally engulfed by the past.
Joycean influence in The Sound and the Fury is not limited to Quentin's section. A great deal also exists in Benjy's. There Faulkner's use of Joyce's techniques is both simpler and more original, more daring. Faulkner strips one aspect of the interior monologue to its radical essentials by using the association method in a mind that can only associate mechanically, that can make no conclusions or deductions. In Ulysses the associations link the past and present in the characters' minds, but in Benjy's monologue Faulkner eliminates all temporal distinctions. Whereas Quentin is all past, Benjy is all present. The artistic principle in Benjy's section is similar to Joyce's in Ulysses: fragments and episodes appear early in the section, without explanation, context, comment, or other aids. Elucidation comes later if the reader remembers well. In both cases, the principle of order lies in the author's design rather than in the character's mind (except to the extent that the chaos of Benjy's mind is itself the controlling order). In the use of Benjy, almost by definition, the result is "spatial," since the character lacks all temporal perspective. The result at the end of the section is a picture of Benjy's mind, a still representation of the nature and contents of his consciousness.
It is this extension of some properties implicit in the stream-of-consciousness methods that constitutes Faulkner's original technical achievement here. Yet Benjy and Quentin are balanced by Jason (who shares properties with the first-person narrator of Joyce's "Cyclops" episode) and the omniscient fourth chapter, and The Sound and the Fury must, of course, be seen in terms of all four sections. As critics have suggested, devices such as associationism, recurrent motifs, idiosyncratic phrases and rhythms, unexplained mental images or ideas, and the basic stream-of-consciousness goal of rendering the contents of a mind all force the novelist away from the direction of storytelling and into the depths of character. This suits Joyce perfectly; Stephen and Bloom are isolated individuals within a society that is presented for the most part in a static picture. Faulkner, however, assimilates these techniques, with their restrictions, into his basic storytelling impulse. Benjy's and Quentin's sections reveal states of being, rather than actions, and they are close to the Ulysses model. In Benjy the tension between depth of character and the need to progress in the temporal world does not exist because his mind has no relation to the flux of the outside world. Quentin's section exists essentially to reveal why an event is occurring (or, in the context of the entire novel, why an event occurred eighteen years in the past). The remainder of the novel shifts the balance. Jason's section is a monologue, but there are no interior views, no stream-of-consciousness techniques. In the fourth section, events dominate, reported by an omniscient narrator.
It seems fair to say, with Robert Humphrey, that The Sound and the Fury represents the point at which the stream-of-consciousness novel entered the "main stream of fiction."… Furthermore, the novel represents Faulkner's own reentry into the "main stream" via the route of modernism. Although Faulkner remained an experimenter throughout his career, after this novel and As I Lay Dying he abandoned any attempt to render processes of consciousness directly; his technical experiments became more concerned with sentence formation, point of view, and fictional structure. Outstanding as The Sound and the Fury is in itself, as "criticism in new composition" of the interior monologue techniques of Ulysses it makes possible Faulkner's subsequent great achievements in omniscient narration in his novels of the 1930s and 1940s. (pp. 275-77)
Michael Groden, in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1974, Hofstra University Press), October, 1975.
The glitter and flash of the life of [Aubrey Beardsley] would hardly seem an influence upon the literature of a retiring Southern gentleman of homey ways and private means, yet Faulkner's work was to prove that London, Dieppe, and the decadent Nineties were not far removed from Oxford and Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. The influence of the aesthetes and decadents upon Faulkner's early work has been noted by several critics, particularly those working on the connections between Faulkner's poetry and the French Symbolists. Beardsley has received less attention from Faulkner students and scholars, but the allusions to Beardsley in three of the novels (Soldiers' Pay, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!) have created a twinkle in a few academic eyes. (p. 339)
[Addison Bross suggests] that Faulkner's interest in Beardsley "may have been, for all his evident admiration, only the passing fancy of those apprentice years." Bross here remains safely within the trenches dug by prior critics such as [William Van] O'Connor and [Michael] Millgate, yet a decadent strain running through Faulkner's later novels seems to justify a venture above ground across this noman's land of critical opinion. Although surely Faulkner did not remain long within the confines of decadent art, it is likewise true that this influence, particularly that of Beardsley, remained strong through much of his work and helped to form several of his most memorable passages. (p. 341)
[A link is] suggested by the decadent tone, themes, and images of much of Faulkner's work in [his] period of apprenticeship, 1919–29. He decorated the borders of his poem "Nocturne" … in a typically Beardsleyan fashion—black and white design, spare line, and familiar images, such as the full moon and flaming candles which were favorite ornaments to Beardsley's drawings (apparently he worked only by candlelight). Millgate notes a similar quality in The Marble Faun, Faulkner's book of verse published in 1924, and in his verse from The Double Dealer (1925). It is in his early novels, however, as [critics have shown], that we detect Beardsley's presence…. It is with his mature works, beginning with The Sound and the Fury, that Faulkner becomes the consummate artist, capable of manipulating this decadent strain, no longer dominated by it. Here it is that his own pictorial genius captures the mood and the lines of Beardsley's art and carries that art to its fictional heights.
In The Sound and the Fury, a novel of decay, if not decadence, Faulkner makes one apparently explicit allusion to Beardsley. Mr. Compson (who in Absalom, Absalom! will suggest to Millgate the "effete disenchantment" of literary decadence) quotes the same Latin epigraph, "Et ego in Arcadia … which Beardsley had employed in one of his drawings…. Beardsley's illustration depicts that same middle-aged decadent gentility which forms the refuge of the fin de famille Compson. Faulkner similarly details the cluttered toilet of the younger Quentin's bureau—another familiar Beardsleyan motif.
It is in the elder Quentin's section, however, that the strongest scenes of a jaundiced universe are detailed. His section of the novel, to borrow a chapter title from Weintraub, might easily be headed "The Prevalence of Yellow"—yellow butterflies, yellow moons, yellow mud, yellow leaves, yellow lights. Yellow dominates the landscape and Quentin's narrative as nowhere else in the work (a rough tally yields only four mentions of the color in the other three sections to some eleven references in Quentin's). The connections with Beardsley and The Yellow Book are, if not obvious, at least intriguing…. It is tempting in fact to draw a rough parallel between Quentin and Beardsley—each lived short lives, dominated by a sense of doom and possible, or imaginative, incestuous relationship with his sister. (pp. 348-50)
Faulkner's next novel, Sanctuary (1931), demonstrates perhaps the most parallels with Beardsley's art. Michael Millgate has suggested an "attractive possibility" that the title may be drawn from a line of Herod's in Wilde's Salome: "They say the veil of the Sanctuary has disappeared, do they not?" Although this hypothesis must remain in the realm of "attractive possibilities," there exist several other more striking connections with Beardsley, particularly in Faulkner's descriptions of his female characters. Temple, Reba Rivers, and Little Belle all represent types of "the Beardsley woman" who had gained such notoriety in the Nineties. (pp. 351-52)
While Sanctuary evoked the decadent glitter of Memphis whorehouses, in Light in August Faulkner makes more sparing (though indeed more specific) use of Beardsley's art. He frequently employs the puppet metaphor of Marionettes and the commedia dell'arte artifice of nineteenth-century aesthetes, and occasionally uses yellow as a metaphor of decay…. (p. 352)
Faulkner's greatest work, Absalom, Absalom! (1936), bears several resemblances to Beardsley's work, most notably, of course, in Faulkner's description of Bon's mistress and child…. (p. 353)
Other resemblances are present as well. Charles Bon in "the slightly Frenchified cloak … reclining in a flowered, almost feminized gown" … is only a step removed from the youth of An Evil Motherhood. The vision of New Orleans' sophisticated (and decadent) opulence recalls several of Beardsley's Rape of the Lock illustrations…. This same similarity between nineteenth-century Southern decadence and eighteenth-century rococo decoration may be noticed in the descriptions of Henry's bedroom where he lounges "in a gown and slippers such as women wore," which calls to mind Beardsley's The Dream. In all, Absalom, Absalom!, Soldiers' Pay, and Sanctuary seem to be the most prominent instances of Faulkner's use of Beardsleyan design and dress.
It would be a mistake however to limit Beardsley's influence to either these three novels or, as most critics have done, to the early stages of Faulkner's career. The Southern novelist could assimilate most features of the Englishman's art—eighteenth-century, Japanese, Petronian, personal—through most of his career. William Van O'Connor divides the Faulkner canon into three periods—the first of which constitutes his "Beardsley period." From the nineteenth century, O'Connor states, he borrowed "a sense of everything in decay." Although Faulkner did move beyond this decadent aestheticism of the Oxford dandy, he did not abandon it.
The parallel between Beardsley and Faulkner might well be overdrawn—Faulkner could well have arrived at these portraits and themes either from other sources or entirely on his own. Yet Beardsley was available, and for a young artist of Faulkner's ability to ignore the drawings of figures so similar to his own seems unlikely. Then too we have the allusions to Beardsley in the three novels. Perhaps more important, however, is the similar vision of a private and public world in decay—a world of bizarre shapes and shades which draws the audience in to acceptance while at once repulsing, enraging, fascinating. What John Rothenstein says of Beardsley applies equally to Faulkner: "no artist was ever less concerned with the everyday world viewed as a 'slice of life.'" Both artists—the one perhaps a brief intense talent, the other an enduring genius—force this private world upon their tolerant enthusiasts, and both succeed. (pp. 354-56)
Timothy K. Conley, in Journal of Modern Literature (© Temple University 1976), September, 1976.
[The Sound and the Fury is] certainly the greatest American novel of the century, our prose Wasteland.
It is a tragic work, comparable in its dimensions and intensity to the family tragedies of the Greeks, the houses of Atreus and Laios. Faulkner undoubtedly wanted no less a comparison, as we can see from the ways he drew upon Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, not to speak of the death and resurrection of Christ. From Greek tragedy he draws on the themes of incest and the family curse; the techniques of choral commentator and stichomythy; a structure shaped by a prologue of childhood innocence, the agons and death of the tragic hero, and a theophany in the form of the Word. From Shakespeare there are frequent allusions to Macbeth and Othello, with Quentin an avatar of Hamlet. The work also echoes both Greek and Shakespearean tragedy in the social and cosmic resonance of the deaths in the social and natural hierarchy: grandmother, father-master, servants, animals—even the land, the pasture converted into a golf course. All this points to the validity of a study of the book as a tragedy.
As we would expect, the work is tragic in its form as well as its content. I have just indicated one kind of form: prologue, agon, death, and theophany. I want, though, to offer another tragic form as a way of seeing it. Briefly, I suggest that traditional tragedy—Greek or Shakespearean—is shaped by the following phases: (1) The Breakdown of the Orthodox Order; (2) The Conflict between the Tragic Attitude and the Orthodox, Profane, and Material Attitudes; (3) The Discovery of the Tragic Self; and (4) The Transformation of the Hero, leading to his Transcendence of his Fate. The substance of these phases will be developed in what follows. At this point let me define the four attitudes: the tragic, orthodox, profane, and material. By the material I mean an attitude shaped by expedience and practicality, by creature comforts and social status; it is embodied in figures like Polonius, Osric, and the messenger in Oedipus Rex. By the profane I mean an attitude which may be materialist incidentally, but which is primarily the negative, destructive force of evil, as with Iago or Edmund. By the orthodox attitude I mean a prevailing view which unifies life and gives it order, an order codified in religious and moral doctrine, or manifested in stabilizing values such as love, friendship, loyalty, or a code of honor. Examples would include the Chorus in Greek tragedy, Kent, Horatio, Cordelia, and Edgar. By the tragic attitude I mean a new sense of things that begins with the recognition of the breakdown of the orthodox structure, and develops into a tragic sense, a revelation of the mystery of things, that life is irrational, inexplicable. With this sense the tragic hero discovers his ultimate self, that he is a poor, naked, forked animal, born to suffer and to die.
The four parts of The Sound and the Fury can be understood in terms of the tragic form I have outlined. The first part, dealing with Benjy, represents the breakdown of the orthodox order; and the three parts that follow are responses to that breakdown; tragic, profane-material, and orthodox, by Quentin, Jason, and Dilsey respectively. The sequence of the parts is the form of the book, and its form is its meaning: the transcendence of the tragedy of the Compson family through enduring orthodox values, this after the failures of the tragic and profane-material responses. (pp. 798-99)
The stream of consciousness may be a technique for reflecting a disintegrated culture, but it is also, as we see, a way of reordering that culture through sense and feeling. It is metaphysically opposed to the time of the new culture, which is public, logical, abstract. This time-by-the-clock seems to unify events, but it is merely an empty scheme by which we peg events; it is mechanical, arbitrary, irrelevant to our existential selves. In time seen as a stream of consciousness, the past is always present; past and present are unified, given value and order…. Benjy is the holy idiot, the suffering innocent endowed with redemptive power. He is the touchstone for the humanity of the others. He is the counterpart of Dilsey, who also suffers though innocent, and who is equally linked to the theme of redemption. Both in the beginning and the end—though in strange ways—there is the possibility of redemption. (p. 801)
Faulkner called Jason evil. Perhaps he meant this only in the popular sense of cruelty, perhaps in the theological sense of the absence of good. I am not convinced that Faulkner is right. There is no real commitment to evil even though, in the fourth part, Jason is seen as a Miltonic devil "dragging Omnipotence down from his throne" in the midst of "the embattled legions of both hell and heaven…." But surely this is a comic image. Faulkner may have believed in evil, but there is no evidence that he was able to imagine its depths, neither with Jason nor Popeye. Jason is a comic devil, without the gravity evil calls for. Among Faulkner's many talents, his comic genius stands out; and it is his treatment of Jason as a comic figure, both for his materialism and his profaneness, that makes him perhaps his greatest creation. Comically, he is in the tradition of the obsessed "humor" types of Jonson, Molière, and Dickens, each of whom created his own miser….
[Jason] is the modern, profane man, without roots, absolute in his alienation. But he is alienated comically, not tragically. (p. 807)
Jason symbolizes the emergence and domination of capitalism in the South. His ascendance signifies the end of the feudal hierarchy. The southern past in particular and, therefore, the past in general is meaningless to him. Here, too, he is representative of modern man living in an anxious present which dissolves into a meaningless future made up of an abstract sum of money. Benjy pursues love in an endless moment made up of the past and present; Quentin is pursued by death in an intense present shaped by a tragic obsession with the past. Both feel time; Jason only calculates by it. (p. 809)
[The tragic form outlined at the beginning of the novel] is fully realized in the Quentin section; it also shapes the sequence of the entire work, with one modification. In Greek tragedy—the Oresteia, for example—the hero's transcendence is often realized through the mediation of a god. Christ figures in this way in the Dilsey section. This mediation changes tragedy into what we may call a divine comedy, a resolution appropriate to Faulkner's faith in the validity of human life. The form is the same, nonetheless, in both tragedy and divine comedy; in both the hero is transformed by his suffering, and through it transcends his fate. The tragic form is an instance of what is probably Faulkner's most recurrent archetype, that of death and rebirth, and, as such, reinforces the theme which hovers over everything, the death and resurrection of Christ. The death and resurrection is treated in a savagely modern idiom, with irony, parody, grotesquerie: the time sequence is garbled to Saturday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday; Jason is the one crucified on Good Friday; and an idiot is the symbol of Christ. Yet not for one moment does the work lose its gravity. This tonality—at once grave and grotesque—is of the order of Lear, The Possessed, and The Trial.
The archetype of death and rebirth reflects Faulkner's preoccupation with tradition, and the grotesque variations on it point to the breakup of that tradition. Cleanth Brooks makes the unreconstructed assertion that The Sound and the Fury is not about the breakup of the Old South, only about that of the modern world. It is certainly about the modern world, but it is just as certainly about the Old and New South. We would be mistaken, though, to see it simply as another, if great, novel about the passing of the old order. Its relevance and its power lie in the fact that it presents both the dissolution of a local feudal society and the decline of that capitalistic society which brought on the feudal dissolution. It is out of this double sense of things that Faulkner is at once our most traditional and our most modern writer. This double sense accounts for much of the tension in his work. His traditionalist characters brood over the lost, meaningful past with its texture of ceremony and ritual; they cannot tolerate the empty, profane, and materialistic present, and are left with an energy they cannot use. Out of this cultural dead-end springs their obsessive fury. (pp. 812-13)
Isadore Traschen, "The Tragic Form of 'The Sound and The Fury'," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1976, by Isadore Traschen), Vol. 12, No. 4, Autumn 1976, pp. 798-813.
It could be argued that the four most astonishing things about William Faulkner's life were his writing, his drinking, his long years of penury, and his genuine desire for privacy. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about [Selected Letters of William Faulkner] is that the reader learns from it very little about either of the first two. Apart from The Fable, over which the novelist labored doggedly for some 10 years, the other novels and many of the short stories are treated by Faulkner like some strange children which he admits fathering but prefers not to discuss openly. Forged in another furnace, white hot and remote from the utilitarian and banal need to correspond, they are often described merely as "going well" or, in the later years, "going slowly." (pp. 304-05)
As [Joseph] Blotner's gargantuan Faulkner: A Biography told us in 1974, the novelist's life was, in a word, hard. If we needed any further corroboration, these letters provide it but without adding very much to our knowledge of the man holding the pen. (p. 305)
[The data of Faulkner's everyday life does] little to expose whatever it is about the interior space of a great artist that the rest of us seek endlessly to know. The cottage industry that Faulkner "scholarship" has become aims to achieve some of the epiphanies through the usual tools of exegesis and theories about the work, but the best avenues of ingress to the man remain biography, autobiography, and correspondence. (pp. 305-06)
At times in [Faulkner: A Biography], and more often in this volume of letters, we suspect something akin to a mild conspiracy working gently beneath the surface of the page. It is not an evil thing, this conspiracy, more like a unilateral decision on [the part of Blotner, the editor,] not to compromise too callously, not to trespass too far into that private self Faulkner guarded so closely—and successfully. This little Mississppian, probably the most private and opaque man of letters in American history, has thus far held all the dogs at bay.
As Faulkner's fame spread, he fought to maintain this privacy and to aver an almost violent separation between himself and his books: … [In a letter of] 1949, to [Malcolm] Cowley,
It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books … it is my aim and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: He made the books and he died….
[The] Nobel acceptance speech begins familiarly, "I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work…. So this award is only mine in trust."
It is precisely this unflagging determination to deny access to himself, to reinforce the chasm between man and work, that renders his biography and his letters so enticing. It is his partial success that makes neither book wholly satisfactory. (pp. 306-07)
History will not record this great novelist as a great letter writer—because he wasn't. The overwhelming bulk of the present correspondence endlessly rehashes his precarious financial condition, his contractual difficulties, and his detestation of Hollywood. It is, frankly, often boring and repetitive, particularly if one has read the life with any care. At the same time, in the midst of an existence filled with a good deal of high-grade misery, Faulkner's artistry and personality peep out (that's the problem, we do not carry away any concrete sense of his personality; what, we ask lamely, was he like?)… (p. 308)
George H. Wolfe, "Letters of a Private Man," in Book Forum (copyright © 1977 by The Hudson River Press), Vol. III, No. 2, 1977, pp. 304-09.