Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In his novel Sanctuary, William Faulkner introduced the character Temple Drake. He placed her into a number of harrowing situations, including abduction, being raped, and prostitution. The psychological scars of those traumatic years stayed with Temple long after she tried to move on from that life. But the impact of trauma proved tenacious, as Requiem for a Nun details. The damage that Temple has suffered is contagious and, in the action that anticipates the novel’s beginning, has left to her baby’s death; it will soon cause the death of her former friend, Nancy Mattigoe.

Along with telling the tales of Temple, Nancy, and Temple’s husband Gowan Stevens, the novel is also the history of the place they live, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Faulkner famously created this mythical county out of fragments of his own experience as well as strong infusions from his imagination. The novel’s unusual structure is out of its main contributions to Faulkner’s reputation as an American modernist. In some ways the novel resembles a nonfiction history book, with huge amounts of information about the county’s past and its influence on contemporary society. In other ways, the obviously fictional parts of book are apparently a play, as they consist largely of dialogue. Juxtaposing two different genres to combine into one fictional work is one of the author’s significant contributions.

Looking more closely at the “history,” however, the reader hears the voice of strongly opinionated, but unnamed narrator. This narrator imagines other people coming to the county and observing its buildings and daily events, and anticipates a lack of comprehension about the significance of some elements. Many pages of the third act, considering the jail, are dedicated to the building’s architecture and physical details. The narrator presents these factors as if they might be living witnesses to the history within the jail’s walls, including the occasions when various townspeople were incarcerated or others came to bail out those arrested. The author suggests we consider who properly belongs in that physical jail, and contrasts that kind of imprisonment to the mental prison of trauma as it affects not only Temple but her neighbors as well.

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