Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458

Two key themes of William Faulkner’s novel are the importance of accepting personal responsibility and the difficulty of escaping the burden of one’s past. These themes are closely interconnected because Faulkner examines the choices that two characters make because of what previously happened to them and the inescapable effects of those choices. In this case, both Temple Stevens and Nancy Mattigoe made decisions that had life-and-death effects. Their choices have differed in part because of race: Temple is white and Nancy is black. He suggests that taking more time to think through the consequences might have affected those choices, and thus saved not one but two lives. In contrast, however, Faulkner also considers the theme of destiny. “The past” is not merely the accumulated effects of individual choices; it is also the cumulative burden of social norms. I the latter regard, the racist and class divisions in U.S. society, especially in the South, are another theme that threads through the entire novel.

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Temple’s problems, which predate the action in Requiem for a Nun, include her kidnapping and coercion into a life of crime, drug abuse, and sexual degradation; these events were the subject of Faulkner’s previous novel Sanctuary. When we meet her in this novel, she has lost her baby to murder. Temple had escape from the life of prostitution, married Gowan Stevens, and had two children. Nancy Mattigoe, who had become her friend when both were prostitutes, had since become her nanny to the baby daughter. Blackmail about that phase of her past, however, has threatened to disrupt the serenity of this new life. Temple cracks under pressure and decides to give in to the demands made by Pete, her former lover. On the one hand, Faulkner suggests that Temple had lost faith in her new life, perhaps considering herself undeserving. On the other hand, Nancy believed that Temple could thrive and put her past behind her. Tragically, the resolution that Nancy anticipated involved a dual sacrifice: both of Nancy’s baby and of her own life.

Temple understands at some level that she is as responsible as Nancy for her baby’s death, even though Nancy actually committed the act. She has continued to safeguard her own reputation, however, as she thinks no further good will come of exposing the sordid details of the past. As Faulkner delves deep into the complex history of Mississippi, beyond the biographies of Temple, her husband, or Nancy, the reader comes to see how the place itself can be a character. Nancy will almost certainly be found guilty and hanged, where a white woman might have been exonerated. Similarly, Temple’s pleas with the governor for clemency might have been granted had Nancy been white.

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