Summary

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In Mosquitoes, William Faulkner draws a satiric portrait of the New Orleans artistic community of 1925 while working out his own theories about art and the artist. As a “novel of ideas” in Aldous Huxley’s sense of the phrase, Mosquitoes contains much talk and little action. The novel’s plan is simple: Mrs. Maurier, a wealthy New Orleans socialite and “patron of the arts,” gathers aboard her motorized yacht Nausikaa an awkward assortment of artists, intellectuals, and adolescents for a talk-filled cruise on Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain. When her nephew Theodore, needing an instrument to bore a hole through his handmade pipe, “borrows” a steel rod from the ship’s intricate steering mechanism, the disabled Nausikaa is soon stranded on a sandbar, thus providing a convenient situation for the novel’s seemingly endless talk.

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The shipboard company can be divided into three general groups: the adults and the young, the men and the women, the verbose and the reticent. The central group consists of the older, talkative men. Dawson Fairchild (novelist), Julius Kauffman (critic), and their hangers-on, Mark Frost (poet) and Major Ayers (Englishman), intersperse their sophisticated discussions about sex, art, and society with periodic trips below deck, where they go to evade the insufferable Mrs. Maurier and to get drunk on Fairchild’s whiskey. Mrs. Maurier’s plans for a decorous party are continually thwarted by the rudeness and frank vulgarity of these men (“but after all, one must pay a price for Art,” she laments), and she falls back on the support of Eva Wiseman (poet) and Dorothy Jameson (painter), lonely women who keep each other company, playing cards and smoking cigarettes.

With their unconscious physicality and commitment to experience as opposed to talk, the young people are a group very much apart, and they are at the center of the novel’s exploration of sexuality. As they sport among themselves, the novel illuminates a contrast between the variety and unreflectiveness of their sexual exploration on the one hand, and the self-conscious sexual frustration of the adults on the other hand. The leading figure of this young group is the frank and boyish Pat Robyn, who has characteristically brought two people aboard whom she met only hours before departure: Jenny Steinbauer, a young, voluptuous, and nonverbal blonde who repels the advances of many of the men, and Pete Ginotta, her silent and jealous boyfriend, who wears a stiff straw hat at a rakish angle, refusing to put it down lest it should come to harm. Theodore, Pat’s twin, is a version of the silent and absorbed artist as he whittles away at his pipe and tries to avoid the attentions of his sister; and David West, the steward, one of Faulkner’s inarticulates, is a good man who possesses depths of feeling and flashes of inner poetry.

Isolated from all these groups, though drawn obsessively to Pat, is the silent, muscular sculptor, Gordon. He is at the center of the novel’s values, according to which the most talkative are the least creative; he is an almost purely silent figure and the one true artist aboard. His polar opposite is the “unmuscled,” affected, and effeminate Talliaferro, a wholesale buyer of women’s undergarments. Chatty and nervous, Talliaferro is an ineffectual intermediary between the men and the women and is the novel’s most ludicrous figure.

The novel’s most interesting and extended action takes place when Pat and David desert ship in a romantically deluded attempt to reach Mandeville, the first leg of a planned journey to Europe. Their attempt to escape the “ship of fools” into a world of adventure and romance is, however, a complete disaster. Reaching shore and marching off in the wrong direction through miasmic swampland, they encounter sheer reality itself in the shape of voracious mosquitoes. Parched, sunburned, and exhausted, they are finally aided by a malevolent, foulmouthed, and lascivious swamp dweller who, for the price of five dollars paid in advance, agrees to ferry Pat and David back to the still-stranded yacht, where nothing has changed.

Nothing has changed when the Nausikaa is freed and returns to New Orleans. The group disintegrates, and the novel follows the individual characters as they fall back into the habitual urban patterns which they left behind four days earlier. Life seems as dreary and as futile as ever. The central themes of the novel are unified in one climactic scene, however, the journey of Fairchild, Kauffman, and Gordon through the old city’s “nighttown” or red-light district. Here their drunkenness, and the murky hallucinatory quality of the dark streets, are rendered in an experimental and poetic language reminiscent of the “Circe” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). As they walk together, each man has a private visionary experience or “epiphany,” in which significant, vivid form is given to the novel’s conception of art and the artist.

Bibliography

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Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1974. Once criticized for being too detailed (the two-volume edition is some two thousand pages), this biography begins before Faulkner’s birth with ancestors such as William Clark Falkner, author of The White Rose of Memphis, and traces the writer’s career from a precocious poet to America’s preeminent novelist.

Brodhead, Richard H., ed. Faulkner: New Perspectives. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983. One volume in the Twentieth Century Views series under the general editorship of Maynard Mack, offering nearly a dozen essays by a variety of Faulkner scholars. Among them are Irving Howe’s “Faulkner and the Negroes,” first published in the early 1950’s, and Cleanth Brooks’s “Vision of Good and Evil” from Samuel E. Balentine’s The Hidden God (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983). Contains a select bibliography.

Cox, Leland H., ed. William Faulkner: Biographical and Reference Guide. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1982.

Cox, Leland H., ed. William Faulkner: Critical Collection. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1982. These companion volumes constitute a handy reference to most of Faulkner’s work. The first is a reader’s guide which provides a long biographical essay, cross-referenced by many standard sources. Next come fifteen “critical introductions” to the novels and short stories, each with plot summaries and critical commentary particularly useful to the student reader. A three-page chronology of the events of Faulkner’s life is attached. The second volume contains a short potpourri, with Faulkner’s “Statements,” a Paris Review interview, and an essay on Mississippi for Holiday magazine among them. The bulk of the book is an essay and excerpt collection with contributions by a number of critics including Olga Vickery, Michael Millgate, and Warren Beck. Includes a list of works by Faulkner including Hollywood screenplays.

Gray, Richard. The Life of William Faulkner: A Critical Biography. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1994. A noted Faulkner scholar, Gray closely integrates the life and work. Part 1 suggests a method of approaching Faulkner’s life; part 2 concentrates on his apprentice years; part 3 explains his discovery of Yoknapatawpha and the transformation of his region into his fiction; part 4 deals with his treatment of past and present; part 5 addresses his exploration of place; part 6 analyzes his final novels, reflecting on his creation of Yoknapatawpha. Includes family trees, chronology, notes, and a bibliography.

Vickery, Olga W. The Novels of William Faulkner. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959. This volume, with its comprehensive treatment of the novels, has established itself as a classic, a terminus a quo for later citicism. The chapter on The Sound and the Fury, providing an analysis of the relation between theme and structure in the book, remains relevant today despite intensive study of the topic.

Volpe, Edmond L. A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner. New York: Noonday Press, 1964. While many books and articles have contributed to clearing up the murkiest spots in Faulkner, the beginning student or general reader will applaud this volume. In addition to analysis of structure, themes, and characters, Volpe offers critical discussion of the novels in an appendix providing “chronologies of scenes, paraphrase of scene fragments put in chronological order, and guides to scene shifts.”

Williamson, Joel. William Faulkner and Southern History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. A distinguished historian divides his book into sections on Faulkner’s ancestry, his biography, and his writing. Includes notes and genealogy.

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