Critical Evaluation

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The Wild Palms has a curious history, for it has often been reprinted as two short novels, The Wild Palms and Old Man (which is part of The Wild Palms), sometimes in the same volume and more often as two separate books. That it was so casually treated is unfortunate, because structurally it is perhaps the subtlest and most demanding of William Faulkner’s novels, and it is also his best approach to the comically absurd world of male-female relationships.

Most of the misunderstanding of the novel grows from its unique structure. The two short novels, either of which appears to be able to stand alone, are presented in alternating chapters. Their plots never cross or relate directly to each other; but they are so deeply involved in theme and symbolic and imagistic texture that apart each seems almost a thematic contradiction of the other. Together, however, they form an organic unit in which contrasts form parallels and contradiction becomes paradox. The novel demands of its readers an imaginative commitment beyond that of a more conventionally constructed novel, for its paradox, of both meaning and structure, must be solved by readers willing to read the book with the attention to rhythm and to form that they would normally give to a piece of music and the attention to images and words that they would normally give to a poem.

The pattern of events of the two parts of the novel are relatively simple. “The Wild Palms” takes place in 1937, in the heart of the Depression, and is the love story of Harry Wilbourne and Charlotte Rittenmeyer. Charlotte leaves her husband for Harry, who, not having finished his internship, is incapable of gaining any steady work. They wander from New Orleans to Chicago to Wisconsin and even to a remote mining camp in Utah until Charlotte accidentally becomes pregnant; their journeys, too, carry them deeper into squalor and their love from romance into the physically sordid. Urged by Charlotte, Harry performs an unsuccessful abortion that results in her death. In prison for her death, he refuses suicide, choosing grief over nothing.

The events in “Old Man” take place ten years earlier, during the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. They are the chronicle of a comic hero in a physical world gone quite as mad as the social world of the Depression has in “The Wild Palms.” A young convict is sent out onto the flooded Mississippi in a skiff with another convict to rescue a woman stranded in a tree and a man on a cotton house. He loses the other convict, rescues the woman, who proves to be very pregnant, and is carried downstream by the flood. Battered by gigantic waves, he is offered three temptations for escape. After a time killing alligators with a group of Cajuns, he returns the boat and the woman with her safely born child and is given an additional ten-year sentence for attempted escape.

Neither of these brief descriptions approaches the complexities of the two stories, separately or as a unit, for theirs is an artistic value of reflection and texture in which event is a matter of form, and form a vehicle for imaginative idea. “The Wild Palms” is a tragicomedy, a parody of Ernest Hemingway’s romantically anti-Romantic ideas (particularly those in A Farewell to Arms , 1929), a parable of a fallen world. “Old Man” is also a bitter comedy, but one in which the comic hero, God’s fool, bears the burdens of the world and finds his victory in seeming defeat, his reward in the last ironic slap of...

(This entire section contains 1222 words.)

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“risible nature.” “The Wild Palms” resolves itself in onanistic frustration, and “Old Man” discovers the spiritual rewards of struggle. The novel’s comic sense makes it more than an existential lament for a meaningless world. The novel transforms the world’s madness and ugliness into a Christian comedy of human folly that shows people at their worst, only to remind readers of the necessity of striving toward their best. The novel is not simply a moral allegory, although “Old Man” often verges on Christian parable. It is a compendium on the vanity of human wishes and on the follies of this earth.

The primary themes of both parts of the novel are those of human folly: the tragic consequences of romantic but earthly ideals and the failure of sex as the essential element of human fulfillment. Harry and the convict are victims of romantic ideals: The convict is sent to prison for an attempted train robbery inspired by reading dime novels and intended to impress a young woman; Harry is led into his affair with Charlotte by an impulse away from his ascetic student’s life and his belief (fostered by Charlotte) in physical love and the value of the physical in a spiritless world.

The heroes of both stories are innocents in a confusing world, and women offer them little aid or solace. The women in the novel represent the two emasculating extremes of the female character. Charlotte is the defeminized female artist of masculine mind and manner, the aggressor in the sexual act and in life. The woman in “Old Man” is simple nearly to mindlessness; she is the mother, the primitive force of life to be borne by man as the weight of his duty. Charlotte is destroyed by the sex that she attempts to use as a man would. She cannot do so, however, because she is what she wishes to deny—a woman, a vessel, and bearer of man’s seed and progeny. The woman in “Old Man” realizes and fulfills her role as mother but in this comic world fails as a romantic sexual figure. She lives on but without her man, the convict who complains that she, of all the women in the world, is the one with whom he is thrown by chance.

The men are innocents; the women are failures with them. “Old Man” ends with the convict’s brief, violent summation of his feelings about the world of sex and women. “The Wild Palms” ends with Harry’s refusal to kill himself only because in his grief he can find the onanistic solace of the memory of Charlotte’s flesh. Both stories end in hollowness and ugliness. Each, taken by itself, presents a vision of frustration and despair, yet the novel itself has no such effect.

The two stories present opposing accounts of the nature of failure and success. The novel’s dualistic, contradictory vision causes readers to apply their own norms to the events and to see the exact nature of the folly of both extremes, of sex and sexlessness, of romantic and antiromantic ideals. The world of The Wild Palms is a mad world, but its madness resembles this world, mad in its own right but held in the balance of equal and opposing forces.

Faulkner does not explicitly offer his reader the moral of his novel, but it is there to be drawn. That readers find it by an imaginative and creative act of synthesis is the true power of the novel. When one can laugh for joy even as one weeps in sorrow, one can survive and prevail. Such is the message of this novel, which, for all of its difficulty, is an extraordinary example of Faulkner’s artistic genius.