Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512
William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun is a novel that includes play-format text. It has become is well known for one particular quotation: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This line is spoken by Gavin Stevens, a defense attorney, in a conversation with Temple Drake Stevens, whose nanny, Nancy Mannigoe, has been convicted of murdering Temple’s baby. They are discussing the relationship between Temple’s earlier identity while single as Temple Drake and her current status as Mrs. Gowan Stevens. The baby’s death has resulted in part because of Temple’s past actions; these had brought her into contact not only with Nancy but with a criminal called Peter, with whom she had planned to leave her husband and children. Temple has said that she is no longer her former self (“Temple Drake is dead”), but Gavin strongly disagrees.
Much of the novel is concerned with those past actions and the effect they had. Nancy has been sentenced to hang for the killing. As Temple decides to try to get Nancy’s sentence changed, she must not only confront the burden of that past but also discuss her earlier life with the state governor, who is the only one with the power to stop the hanging. Attorney Stevens does much of the talking when they visit the governor. He tries to explain what was going through Temple’s mind when she struck a deal with Pete, who was blackmailing her over some letters she had written. These thought processes also had to do with the weight of the past, which is always fraught with the weight of personal decisions that later influence people in unanticipated ways. Stevens says of Temple,
It was as though she realized for the first time that you—everyone—must, or anyway may have to, pay for your past; that past is something like a promissory note with a trick clause in it which, as long as nothing goes wrong, can be manumitted in an orderly manner, but which fate or luck or chance can foreclose on you without warning.
Leading up to the description of the day that Nancy actually dies, Faulkner includes a historical description of the county jail as “Act III: The Jail.” The text continues for more than fifteen pages in a single sentence as the paragraphs are separate by semicolons. This “act” ends his description of a woman’s name and date etched into a window’s glass, which he compares to a hypothetical visitor’s memory of a voice on the radio.
. . . you know again now that there is no time: no space: no distance: a fragile and workless scratching almost depth-less in a sheet of old barely transparent glass, and (all you had to do was look at it a while; all you have to do now is remember it) there is the dear undistanced voice as though out of the delicate antenna-skeins of radio . . . across the vast instantaneous intervention, from the long long time ago: “Listen, stranger; this was myself: this was I.”