illustrated portrait of American author William Faulkner

William Faulkner

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What is the main idea of Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech?

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The main idea in Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech is that writers must overcome the fear prevalent during the Cold War; they must rise above this fear and focus on the only thing worth writing about, which is "the human heart in conflict with itself."

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William Faulkner received his Nobel Prize and delivered his acceptance speech in the early stages of the Cold War. When he delivered his speech in 1950, the Soviet Union had just tested its first atomic bomb the year before. This initiated an arms race marked by an intense buildup of nuclear weapons and a division of the world into communist and anti-communist camps. Faulkner alludes to this in his speech when he talks of the tragedy of "a general and universal physical fear" of wondering "When will we be blown up?"

Faulkner argues that this fear that young writers feel about nuclear devastation is preventing them from exploring the only topic worthwhile to writers, which is "the human heart in conflict with itself." According to Faulkner, any story that does not deal with the basic human emotions of love, honor, pity, pride, compassion, and sacrifice is "ephemeral and doomed."

The message in Faulkner's speech is mainly directed to young writers. He cautions them that they should not be afraid, because fear is "the basest of all things." They should forget fear and instead seek out "the verities and truths of the heart." Writers who work out of fear will write of lust, not love, of insignificant defeats, of hopeless victories, and "without pity or compassion."

Faulkner resists the idea that humankind will come to an end. He insists that humankind will not only endure but prevail, and courageous writers play a major role in lifting the human heart and in strengthening people's courage and other positive emotions that will help humankind "endure and prevail."

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Faulkner's speech was short. He introduces his main point at the beginning of the second paragraph.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.

He was speaking in 1950. The Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R. had begun. Both sides were building more and more atomic weapons. The U.S.S.R. was building enormous long-range missiles to deliver the atomic warheads anywhere in America. The U.S. had short-range missiles pointed at the U.S.S.R. from bases in Europe and elsewhere, as well as bombing planes based within easy striking distance of the Soviet cities and military targets. Everyone in the world could see that the two superpowers would soon have enough bombs to blow up the entire world and wipe out the human race. Faulkner said:

There is only one question: When will I be blown up?

Everyone present understood exactly what he was talking about. Since Faulkner felt that he was using this occasion a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing...

he addressed his answer to the problem by telling these aspiring young writers that the writer

...must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid, and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.

The implication was that it is the duty of serious writers to encourage men and women to be courageous and optimistic regardless of the growing danger of nuclear annihilation. Now, looking back at the general mood of hopelessness and numbed terror of the Cold War period, we can see that William Faulkner was absolutely right when he said

I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail....It is his [the writer's] privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of the past.

Faulkner's speech was inspired by the Cold War. It was the most serious threat that the human race had ever faced. An atomic war could have been triggered at practically any moment by either side. Paranoia reigned. Faulkner undoubtedly did inspire many young writers to produce valuable poetry, stories, and novels which encouraged their readers to show the same optimism, determination, and fortitude that Faulkner prescribed. He was not only a great writer, but he had a great spirit.

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When William Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, America was yet reeling from the horrors of two World Wars, one which killed thousands of men with gas, one which killed thousands with the atomic bomb. As a consequence, there was a disillusion and a great fear of man's ultimate destruction. Faulkner alludes to these feelings of Americans in the opening of his speech. At the same time, however, he abjures the "next writer" to remember the true mission of this artist. He must reteach himself, he must remind himself that the true mission of the writer is to tell universal truths; he cannot be afraid to write of "love and honor, pity and pride, and compassion and sacrifice."

Expressing his faith in the endurance of man, Faulkner exhorts the writer to not simply record the end of man, but to remind his fellow men "of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past." The voice of the writer, Faulkner contends, must be the "prop," the "pillar" that helps men "endure and prevail," the same goal which he himself has striven to achieve. 

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