The juxtaposition of modern themes and the mythology of a southern family’s past resulted in William Faulkner’s first important novel. He wrote two prior books, Soldiers’ Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927), whose modernism was fairly typical of their time, but they lacked the rich texture of Sartoris. In this novel, Faulkner imparts to his alienated modern heroes a long tradition of Sartoris glory and vainglory. His dramatization is deepened by positioning it in the context of southern history and by creating a strong sense of place.
Some critics see family history as a burden that young Bayard must bear, an impossibly high standard to which he must aspire. Others argue that, in the modern, mechanized world, Bayard is prevented from shouldering that burden and following in the heroic footsteps of his ancestors. In either case, his life epitomizes the despair so often associated with modern protagonists. Lacking meaning in their lives, the protagonists of many modern novels find themselves alienated from their society and from life itself.
Sartoris is about the South’s entering the modern world, taking one last backward glance into the past as it does so. The novel displays a double consciousness about the Southern past. From the beginning, when Will Falls visits old Bayard, the influence of the Civil War and the heroic Sartoris legend pervades the book. Various devices, such as narrative commentary, the reminiscences of Falls and Aunt Jenny, and the opening of the chest in the attic containing Sartoris relics, combine to underscore the past’s influence on the present. The novel’s attitude toward the past is a mixture of romantic nostalgia and modern skepticism. Miss Jenny, for example, speaks tartly of the antics of the male line of her family even as she keeps their legends alive. She is simultaneously contemptuous and tender.
The novel is not only concerned with romanticized views of the Southern past but with romantic notions generally. Faulkner depicts the romantic attitudes of a variety of characters, and he employs satire to undercut those notions. For instance, the idealized brother-and-sister relationship of Horace and Narcissa is undermined by both her willingness to keep Snopes’s obscene letters and his sordid affair with a married woman. In Sartoris ,...
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