Critical Evaluation

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Requiem for a Nun is William Faulkner’s sequel to Sanctuary (1931), which first introduced Temple Drake. In Sanctuary, Faulkner provided the groundwork for Temple’s subsequent feeling of inevitable doom, which is a result of her being abducted and raped with a corncob by a sexually impotent man, Popeye Vitelli. After the traumatic rape, Temple entered into a state of psychological dissociation and became Popeye’s prostitute. Her sense of moral disconnect was further highlighted when she deliberately caused an innocent man to be executed. Not only did Temple impede justice, but she also sentenced herself to a hopeless future.

When she reappears in Requiem for a Nun, Temple is the reformed Mrs. Gowan Stevens, the mother of two children. One of her children is murdered because Temple fails to choose the present over the past. In Requiem for a Nun, Faulkner illustrates the psychological bondage that occurs when the human heart is in conflict with itself, which, according to Faulkner, “is only worth writing about.”

Requiem for a Nun stands out in Faulkner’s oeuvre for its unorthodox structure. The novel is divided into three acts, each of which begins with a prose section and continues with dramatic scenes. The prose sections fill in much of the information missing from Faulkner’s other prose works about the history of Yoknapatawpha County. These sections also illustrate Faulkner’s ideas about the function of memory in shaping a communal consciousness and in establishing a sense of place and belonging. The various scenes in each act convey the novel’s present plot involving Temple and Nancy.

While the plot centers around the murder of the Stevens’ infant child, Faulkner develops it through his characterization of Mrs. Gowan Stevens/Temple Drake. The dual-named character illustrates Faulkner’s belief in the inevitable conflict of the human heart: Mrs. Gowan Stevens is a conventional wife and mother, while Temple Drake is the dark, sexual side of her personality. The integration of the two psyches represents the quest for moral and emotional redemption. Although her marriage to Gowan may have provided some refuge, especially from a southern society that typically is not forgiving, Temple’s new identity cannot suppress the hidden desires permeating her soul. However, her struggle and desire to find redemption and to become a whole, integrated individual is purchased at a great personal cost—complicity in the death of her own child.

Faulkner connects Temple’s past to the murder after she confesses that she hired Nancy, not out of compassion for her fallen state as a “dope-fiend whore,” but rather so that she could relive the dark side of her own nature with someone who had experienced a similar fate. By juxtaposing the morally bankrupt women, Faulkner explores the extent to which the lines of race and class are often blurred in southern society. He depicts Temple’s realization of the sacrifice she has made when she states that not only is the past “never dead, it is not even past.”

Recounting the past allows Temple to bring it into the present and resurrect the degradation that she needs to cope with her marital obligation. Ironically, Gowan married Temple out of a sense of obligation motivated by his own fear of failure and guilt. Temple’s psychological journey over the course of the novel would arguably achieve a state of catharsis in most people. For Temple, though, it seems only to underscore her doomed fate, as she states that women will use any means necessary to protect themselves, even if it involves a child being used as a weapon. That she recalls the tragic night of her daughter’s murder and is unable...

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to shed any tears also illustrates Temple’s emotional disconnection from her own motherhood.

Like many of Faulkner’s works, Requiem for a Nun explores the nature of evil. The letters Temple wrote to Alabama Red detailed their sexual liaison. The letters remind Temple not only of her degradation but also of the pleasure she experienced in it, a pleasure she has for eight years sublimated in her marriage and in bearing her two children. Faulkner’s description of this perverse yet liberating sexuality plays off against the conventionally tamed and sanctioned carnality that Temple experiences within the institution of her marriage to Gowan. Even that sexuality has its perverse side, since it is a reminder of Gowan’s having abandoned Temple to Popeye. Temple and Gowan are, as she states at the conclusion of the novel, “doomed” to a life of recriminations and guilt, everlasting and ever-circling. As Temple explains on repeated occasions, one must be prepared to resist evil even before one knows how to identify it. Only through Nancy’s acceptance of death and grace will Temple finally be able to discover a kind of peace in her own soul.