Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 373

Faulkner is a great writer in part because he mastered virtually all of the techniques of representation that had been developed in the two centuries of intense fiction writing before he took up his pen. Nearly all these techniques appear in his short stories. Two characteristics stand out because they help account for his success in publishing his stories in mass market magazines while also suggesting why his novels were less successful in the mass market. Although his stories are predominantly serious in theme, they are filled with wit and humor. However, in virtually every story he wrote, he attempted to stretch readers beyond what they might expect to find in a popular story.

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Few of his stories are as broadly humorous as "A Bear Hunt" (The Saturday Evening Post, 1934). There Ratliff plays a joke on a hunter to cure him of the hiccups that have plagued him for more than a day, only to have that joke rebound upon him. In more serious stories, however, there are often humorous events. "A Rose for Emily" includes the incident of the town officials sneaking around Emily's house at night, spreading lime to get rid of the smell that is revealed many years later to have been her lover's decaying body. In "Red Leaves," while the slave who is supposed to be killed and buried with his dead Indian chief owner, flees through the swamp, the obese new chief pursues him carried on a litter. Fat Moketubbe sometimes loses consciousness from the pain of trying to wear the tiny slippers that are one badge of his new office.

Faulkner nearly always asks his readers to see moral and spiritual complexity in his stories. "An Error in Chemistry" is a formulaic detective story, yet it ends with a longer than usual examination of the murderer's motives that asks the reader to understand a great escape and disguise artist whose gift led him to such contempt for mankind that, when fallen upon hard times, he would try to use it to make a fortune by murdering two people. Gavin Stevens and the sheriff agree that the criminal failed to know himself, having missed the truth Stevens says that all the good books reveal, although in different ways.

Social Concerns

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Most of Faulkner's stories deal with one of a few subjects: stories of Southern country people, Mississippi Indian stories, stories of Southern small town life, and war stories from the Civil War and World War I. Although there are stories with different subjects, few are among his best. Prominent social concerns in these stories include conflicts between traditional and modern cultures, war, and racism.

Perhaps the main social concern of Faulkner's stories is the plight of the individual in a mass, technological society. Individuals, families, and small communities of friends and neighbors are shown to have great dignity and integrity, but larger groups such as nations and races are shown to corrupt individuals and to feed on compulsions that threaten the humanity of their members. Faulkner's stories often include a transition from a traditional family-based culture to a modern, more commercial culture. Although each has its weaknesses and strengths, the traditional culture is usually shown to be superior. For example, in "The Tall Men," which first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1941, a modern civil servant's impressions of Southern country farmers are proven incorrect. He has built up his ideas of them while working as a welfare administrator. When he shifts to administering the World War II draft, he expects to find shiftless malingerers, but meets instead fiercely independent men who, while they disdain the draft, are quick to enlist when told their country needs them.

Faulkner's attitude toward war is complicated. His war stories, such as "Turnabout" (The Saturday Evening Post, 1932), often show the incredible and generous heroism of men in the service of their countries contrasted with the petty goals for which they are made to fight. "Turnabout" ends with an American World War I pilot bombing the headquarters of some Axis officers, saying as he releases the bombs: "God! God! If they were all there — all the generals, the admirals, the presidents and the kings — theirs, ours — all of them." He is revolted by the waste of young heroes he has seen in the service of these leaders.

Faulkner was concerned with racism as a social phenomenon. Several of his stories deal with a kind of social madness that erupts when a Negro man is thought to have made any sort of sexual advance toward a white woman. "Dry September" (Scribner's Magazine, 1931), shows men from Jefferson, Mississippi, the town Faulkner based on Oxford, surrendering their decency as they succumb to the insane ritual of retribution. Normally decent and kind men find themselves driven to rearrange the known facts of the supposed offense in order to rationalize the murder they must commit. Behind this active violence is a usually passive racism which forms a barrier between Negroes and whites, depriving them of the richness of each others' life experience. In "That Evening Sun" (The American Mercury, 1931), a terrified Negro woman is unable to communicate her terror to the white children or adults from whom she seeks protection against the estranged lover she fears will kill her.

In some of his Indian stories, Faulkner explores the origins of American racism in Negro slavery. "Red Leaves" (The Saturday Evening Post, 1930), deals in part with the contacts between three races: whites, Negroes, and Indians. Here and in other stories, he suggests that the dynamics of the slave/master relationship in a capitalist economy and a Protestant culture lead toward the growth of barriers to communication between the races and toward the kinds of mass hysteria reflected in "Dry September."

Literary Precedents

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Faulkner had read widely and learned technical possibilities from everyone he read. He often drew on popular genres such as humor, Gothic, and detective stories. When asked which writers he admired most and continued to read, he named the Old Testament, Charles Dickens, Conrad, Miguel de Cervantes, Gustave Flaubert, Honore de Balzac, Feodor Dostoevski, Leo Tolstoy, William Shakespeare, Melville, John Keats, and A. E. Housman, among some others. He thought James Joyce and Thomas Mann to be among the greatest writers of his generation. He expressed admiration for Thomas Wolfe and Sherwood Anderson, among other contemporary Americans.

Faulkner's stories show influences from all of these sources. His most distinctive and characteristic stories are those set in his mythical Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. In these stories the landscape, characters, and compulsions of his native country become the source of a rich and living fiction. From this point of view, his main literary ancestors are those writers who also mastered their techniques, then built teeming fictional worlds out of their home ground, including Dickens of London, Balzac of Paris, Nathaniel Hawthorne of New England, Joyce of Dublin, and Henry James of the capitals of the West.


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While Faulkner was working in Hollywood, he attempted to make screenplays of several stories. Only a few were finally produced. Today We Live (1933) was based on "Turnabout." The Damned Don't Cry (1950) was based in part on "The Brooch" (Scribner's, 1936). Neither of these was especially successful. "The Brooch," "Shall Not Perish" (Story, 1943), and "Old Man" (part of The Wild Palms, 1939), were broadcast on Lux Video Theatre in 1953. "Barn Burning" was eventually adapted for the Public Broadcasting Service's American Short Story series (1980). Bruce Kawin argues that Tomorrow (1971) is one of the best film adaptations of a Faulkner story. "Tomorrow" (The Saturday Evening Post, 1940) is a Gavin Stevens detective story eventually collected in Knight's Gambit.

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