illustrated portrait of American author William Faulkner

William Faulkner

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William Faulkner Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on July 1, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10386

When William Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize in December, 1950, he made a speech that has become a justly famous statement of his perception of the modern world and of his particular place in it. In the address, Faulkner speaks of the modern tragedy of the spirit, the threat of instant physical annihilation, which seems to overshadow “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” He argues that all fiction should be universal and spiritually significant, “a pillar” to help humankind “endure and prevail.” Literature can be such a pillar if it deals with “the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

All of Faulkner’s greatest works were written before the first explosion of the atomic bomb, yet in all of them there is an awareness of the threat of annihilation of which the bomb may be only a symptom: a kind of spiritual annihilation. Lewis P. Simpson argues that Faulkner, like the greatest of his contemporaries, dramatizes in most of his novels some version of the central problem of modern man in the West, how to respond to the recognition that man has no certain knowledge of a stable transcendent power that assures the meaning of human history. Panthea Broughton makes this view of Faulkner more concrete: In Faulkner’s world, characters struggle to find or make meaning, exposing themselves in various ways to the danger of spiritual self-destruction, of losing their own souls in the effort to find a way of living in a universe that does not provide meaning.

The immense quantity of critical commentary on Faulkner provides several satisfying ways of viewing and ordering the central concerns of his novels. While the way into Faulkner suggested by Simpson and Broughton is only one of many, it seems particularly helpful to the reader who wishes to begin thinking about Faulkner’s whole literary career. Broughton demonstrates that the Faulknerian universe is characterized essentially by motion. Human beings need meaning; they need to impose patterns on the motion of life. Out of this need spring human capacities for mature moral freedom as well as for tragic destructiveness. Closely related to this pattern that Broughton sees in Faulkner’s stories are his tireless experimentation with form and his characteristic style.

In his essay in William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism (1960), Conrad Aiken notes the similarities between Faulkner’s characteristic style and that of Henry James. The comparison is apt in some ways, for both in their greatest novels seem especially concerned with capturing in the sentence the complexity of experience and of reflection on experience. As Walter Slatoff, in the same volume, and others have shown, Faulkner seems especially drawn to paradox and oxymorons, kinds of verbal juxtaposition particularly suited to conveying the tension between the motion of life and the human need for pattern. Once one notices these aspects of Faulkner’s style in a complex novel such as Absalom, Absalom!, in which Faulkner’s characteristic style finds its ideal subject, much that initially seems obscure becomes clearer.

Faulkner seems to have found most instructive the “loose” forms characteristic of the Victorian panoramic novel as it was developed, for example, by his favorite author, Charles Dickens. Faulkner’s novels generally contain juxtapositions of attitudes, narrative lines, voices, modes of representation, and emotional tones. His more radical and probably less successful experiments in this vein include the alternation of chapters from two quite separate stories in The Wild Palms and the alternation of fictionalized historicalnarrative with dramatic acts in Requiem for...

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a Nun, a kind of sequel to Sanctuary. Light in August is his most successful work in this direction. Somewhat less radical and more successful experiments involved the incorporation of previously published stories into “collections” and sustained narratives in such a way as to produce the unity of a novel. Parts of The Unvanquished, the Snopes Trilogy, and A Fable have led dual lives as stories and as parts of novels. Go Down, Moses is probably the most successful experiment in this direction. Faulkner was particularly interested in the juxtaposition of voices. His career as a novelist blossomed when he juxtaposed the voices and, therefore, the points of view of several characters in The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. In Absalom, Absalom!, the juxtaposition of voices also becomes the placing together of narrative lines, comparable episodes, points of view, modes of narration, attitudes, and emotional tones. This one novel brings together everything of which Faulkner was capable, demonstrating a technical virtuosity that in some ways is the fruit of the entire tradition of the novel. Absalom, Absalom! also realizes to some extent a special potential of Faulkner’s interest in juxtaposition, the conception of his Yoknapatawpha novels as a saga that displays a unity of its own.

The technique of juxtaposition, like Faulkner’s characteristic style, reflects his concern with the problems of living meaningfully within the apparently meaningless flow of time. Because life will not stand still or even move consistently according to patterns of meaning, it becomes necessary to use multiple points of view to avoid the complete falsification of his subject. Juxtaposition, the multileveled and open-ended sentence, and the oxymoronic style heighten the reader’s awareness of the fluidity of the “reality” that the text attempts to portray. Faulkner’s most tragic characters are those who feel driven to impose so rigid a pattern on their lives and on the lives of others as to invite destruction from the overwhelming forces of motion and change. These characters experience the heart in conflict with itself as the simultaneous need for living motion and meaningful pattern.

The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury is divided into four parts to which an appendix was later added. Faulkner repeated in interviews that the novel began as a short story that grew into the first section. He then found that the point of view he had chosen did not tell the whole story even though it closely approximated the flow of events before a nonjudgmental consciousness. Gradually, Faulkner found himself retelling the story four and, finally, five times. The effect of reading these juxtapositions may be described as similar to that of putting together a puzzle, the whole of which cannot be seen until the last piece is in place. Like several of Faulkner’s novels, notably Absalom, Absalom!, The Sound and the Fury is not fully comprehendible upon a single reading. The first reading provides a general idea of the whole, and subsequent readings allow one to fill in the details and to see ever more deeply into this moving narrative.

The novel concerns the tragic dissolution of the Compson family. The decline dates decisively from the marriage of Candace (Caddy), the only daughter of Jason Compson III and Caroline Bascomb. Caddy’s marriage is not the sole cause of the family’s decline; rather, it becomes symbolic of a complex of internal and external forces that come to bear on this Mississippi family early in the twentieth century. Caddy becomes pregnant by Dalton Ames, a romantic, heroic, and apparently devoted outsider. Her mother then seeks out Sydney Herbert Head as a respectable husband for her. After the marriage, Herbert finds he has been gulled and divorces Caddy. These events deprive all the Compson men of their center of meaning. Quentin, the oldest son who loves Caddy not as a sister but as a woman, commits suicide. Jason III drinks himself to death, having lost the children on whom his meaning depended. Jason IV seeks petty and impotent revenge on Caddy’s daughter, also named Quentin, because he believes the failure of Caddy’s marriage has deprived him of a chance to get ahead. Benjy, the severely retarded youngest brother, suffers the absence of the only real mother he ever had. Control of the family passes to Jason IV, and the family ceases finally to be a place where love is sustained, becoming instead, despite the efforts of the heroic and loving black servant, Dilsey, a battleground of petty scheming, hatred, and revenge.

This general picture emerges from the internal monologues of Benjy, Quentin (male), and Jason IV, from a third-person narrative centering on Dilsey and Jason IV, and from the final appendix. Each of the four main sections is set on a particular day: Benjy’s section on his thirty-third birthday, Easter Saturday, 1928; Jason’s on Good Friday; and Dilsey’s (the fourth section) on Easter Sunday of the same year. Quentin’s section is on the day of his suicide, June 2, 1910. As the portrait of the family’s decline emerges from these juxtaposed sections, their tragic significance becomes apparent.

Benjamin Compson’s internal monologue consists of images, most of which are memories. At the center of his memory and of his stunted life is Caddy, whose “hair was like fire” and who “smelled like trees.” Every experience Benjy has that evokes these images or resembles any experience he has had with Caddy automatically triggers his memory. As a result, Benjy lives in a blending together of past and present in which memory and present experience are virtually indistinguishable. The spring of his suffering is that for him the experience of losing Caddy is continuous; the memory of her presence is perfect and the experience of her absence is constant.

This section proceeds by a series of juxtapositions that place Benjy’s present, deprived condition starkly beside the richness of his memory. Though the pattern is difficult to see at first, repeated readings show that Faulkner works in this section primarily by pairing certain events: the funeral of Damuddy (Caroline’s mother and Benjy’s grandmother) and Caddy’s wedding with all the attendant suggestions of meaning; Caddy with her boyfriends on the porch swing and Quentin (female) with her boyfriends; Benjy at the gate waiting for Caddy to come home from school one Christmas and Benjy waiting at the gate on the day Jason IV leaves it open. This last event, part of Jason’s spitefulness against Caddy, leads to Benjy’s castration after he grabs a school girl to ask about Caddy, though he cannot speak. Among the many pairings, the most pathetic appears at the end of the section. Benjy remembers his family long ago: Her hair was like fire, and little points of fire were in her eyes, and I went and Father lifted me into the chair too, and Caddy held me. She smelled like trees. She smelled like trees. In the corner it was dark, but I could see the window. I squatted there, holding the slipper. I couldn’t see it, but my hands saw it.

The contrast between the firelight of the library, with its mirror and the loving people and the now barren and dark library with only one of Caddy’s wedding slippers reveals much of the mood, the meaning, and the effectiveness of technique in Benjy’s section.

Quentin’s section also proceeds largely by the juxtaposition of memory and present experience. Quentin’s memories are triggered by present events and he is sometimes unable to distinguish between memory and external reality. He commits suicide at the end of his first year at Harvard. As he carries out his plans to drown himself, he is caught up in various events that repeat aspects of his loss of Caddy, the last being a picnic with some college classmates during which he remembers his abortive attempt to be the brother who avenges a wronged sister. This memory is simultaneous with and is repeated in a fight with Gerald Bland, the kind of womanizer Quentin wishes Dalton Ames was.

Perhaps the major irony of Quentin’s suicide is that the state of being that he desires is in many ways like the state in which his youngest brother suffers. Quentin wishes to be free of time, to end all motion. He gives as a motive his fear that grief over the loss of Caddy will attenuate, for when grief is gone, his sister will have become meaningless and his life utterly empty—yet his grief, of which every event reminds him, is unbearable. He wishes to keep Caddy as she was and to deny the repetitions that force him to remember her loss. Though he sees such a transcendent state in many images in his world, he can only imagine himself in that state, for it is impossible in life. Suicide seems his only alternative. In death, he can at least shirk everything, he can at least escape the again, which to him is a sadder word than was.

Quentin’s relationship with Caddy is highly problematic. One fairly simple way of understanding how his sister becomes so important to him that he must commit suicide when she marries is to observe Quentin’s and Caddy’s relationship with their parents: Jason III does not love Caroline. She believes that he has come to resent the fact that her family is socially inferior. In reality, she is a selfish and stupid woman who is completely inadequate as a mother and wife. Her husband is unable to deal with her. His growing unhappiness and cynicism magnify her weakness. The result is that these children have no real parents, and the responsibility falls on the gifted Caddy. Despite her extraordinary capacity, Caddy is a girl. When she grows into a woman, she must inevitably betray the brothers who depend on her love. Even when she is with them, she cannot love them as an adult would; she cannot teach them to give. Her gifts lead her to another who is also capable of passion, Dalton Ames. This affair exaggerates the meaning of the betrayal by heightening the inadequacy of the family, including Quentin, to meet Caddy’s needs. Caddy’s sense of her parents’ failure is captured in her memory of a picture in a book that made her think of her parents as keeping her from the light. Quentin needs Caddy not only as a mother, a source of pure affection, but also as a center of meaning. She embodies all the forms and traditions to which Quentin clings to escape the despair his father teaches him. Losing her, he loses his life.

Jason’s section of the novel is much easier to read, for his interior life is more or less in the present. He neither desires nor even conceives of any transcendent reality; he desires power above all things, even money, though he is well aware that money is, in his world, the superior means to power. He delights in the power to be cruel, to make others fear him, yet he is remarkably impotent. His impotence stems from his inability to imagine in others any motives different from his own. In these respects, his character, as well as the mode in which it is presented, recalls the jealous monk in Robert Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.” Jason’s interior monologue is the only one of the three that has all the marks of being spoken. It is as if Jason were two people, one constantly explaining and justifying himself to the other.

Jason tells primarily about his troubles bringing up Caddy’s daughter, Quentin. The girl has been left in the care of the family while the divorced Caddy makes her way in the world. Quentin becomes the central instrument of Jason’s revenge against Caddy for the failure of her marriage and the disappointment of his hope. Jason is so fixed on his need to exercise cruel power that he is unable to restrain himself sufficiently to keep the situation stable. He drives Quentin out of the family, losing the monthly checks from Caddy that he has been appropriating, the hoard he has collected in part from this theft, and the one person on whom he can effectively take his revenge.

“I’ve seed de first en de last,” says Dilsey. She refers to the beginning and the end of the doom of the Compson family, to Caddy’s wedding and Quentin’s elopement. Each of these events suggests more meanings than can be detailed here, but the importance of Dilsey’s section is that she sees a pattern of human meaning in the events that threaten an end to meaning for so many. Her part in these events has been a heroic struggle to bind the family together with her love and care, a doomed but not a meaningless struggle, for she can still see pattern, order, meaning in all of it. The events of Easter morning, in which Dilsey figures, suggest that at least one source of that power to mean and to love is her community at the African American church service, a community that, in the contemplation of the Christian symbols of transcendence, attains an experience of communion that partakes of the eternal even though it is temporary. Dilsey’s church is a model of the family, and her experience there is not unlike Benjy’s experience in Caddy’s arms on Father’s lap before the library fire. The Compson family has somehow lost this experience. As the appendix suggests, all of the Compsons, except perhaps for Benjy, are damned, for they have all, in various ways, come to see themselves as “dolls stuffed with sawdust.”

The Sound and the Fury is in part an exploration of the loss of the Christian worldview. Temple and Popeye in Sanctuary respond in ways similar to Jason’s. Addie in As I Lay Dying and Horace Benbow in Sanctuary play parts similar to Quentin’s. Benbow attempts to prove the truth of the traditional view he has inherited from his family and class, the view that “God is a gentleman” and that Providence takes an active hand in human affairs. He is disastrously and blindly wrong and apparently suffers the loss of his faith. Addie Bundren’s attempt to impose order on her world seems even more disastrous because Faulkner centers attention on the suffering she causes her family.

As I Lay Dying

In As I Lay Dying, Addie Bundren wants and fails to find a kind of transcendent communion with some other being. When she realizes the inevitable impermanence of such communion, she plans revenge against the people who have failed her, especially her husband, Anse. She makes him promise that he will bury her with her relations in Jefferson. This simple promise is a subtle revenge because it binds Anse with words for which he has too much respect and it becomes a terrible vengeance when Anse comes to fulfill that promise. Addie believes that a word is “a shape to fill a lack.” By this she means that the communion she feels when she is pregnant with her firstborn is an essential experience for which words are unnecessary and inadequate. Not only are words inadequate to this experience, but they are also symbols of separation from this experience. At one point Addie reflects, “I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth.” By making Anse “promise his word,” Addie forces her husband to attempt a union of saying and doing, an attempt which sends Addie’s entire family on a grotesque and tortured journey along the earth.

Addie imposes a verbal pattern on her family in revenge because pregnancy and passion are temporary. Each pregnancy ends in separation. Her one love affair is with the Reverend Whitfield, whom she describes as “the dark land talking the voiceless speech.” When this affair ends in the birth of Jewel, her third son, her despair is complete. The promise she extracts from Anse elicits a catastrophic juggernaut, for she dies at the beginning of a storm that floods the area, making the wagon journey to Jefferson next to impossible.

The novel is presented in a series of monologues similar in depth and intensity to Quentin’s in The Sound and the Fury. As the narrative emerges from these monologues so do the internal relationships of the family. The reader becomes intensely aware of the feelings and the needs of each family member. Anse is driven not only by his promise but also by the desire to regain the dignity he believes he loses by having no teeth. A sedentary man, he has needed this prod to set him in motion. He eventually returns, not only with teeth and dignity, but with several other new possessions as well, including a new wife. Cash, the oldest son, is the family’s repository of technical skill. Almost without questioning, he solves the material problems of the journey. In crossing the flooded river, he breaks his leg, yet he finishes the journey in incredible pain. Darl, the son Addie has rejected, is the most sensitive of her children. He is seemingly capable of a kind of communion that might have fulfilled her, for he seems able to read minds and to know of events he does not see. He opposes the journey at every significant point, understanding that it is Addie’s revenge and that it threatens to tear apart the family. Anse finally commits Darl to a mental hospital in order to escape financial responsibility for a barn that Darl ignites in an attempt to burn Addie and end the journey.

Jewel, product of the Whitfield affair, though he is barely articulate, comes to seem the living embodiment of Addie’s wordless will to revenge. He saves the coffin from the flood when the wagon overturns in the river and from the fire in the barn. He sacrifices his much prized pony in trade to replace the mules lost in the river crossing. Dewey Dell, the only daughter, is desperate to reach Jefferson where she believes she can get an abortion. She shares Darl’s sensitivity and hates it because it makes her feel naked and vulnerable. She violently assists in the capture of Darl for she is glad to be rid of the kind of communion Addie so deeply desired. Vardaman, the youngest son, suffers loss. Drawn along on the journey by promises of bananas and a view of a toy train, he registers all the family’s pain: the loss of a mother, the dislocations of the journey, the humiliation as Addie begins to smell, the shiftless poverty of Anse, the sufferings of the brothers, the vulnerability of Dewey Dell and, finally, the loss of Darl. Because the unity of the family is his identity, he suffers a kind of dismemberment.

This brief glimpse hardly conveys the richness and power of this novel. Still it should make clear that part of the novel’s meaning derives from Addie’s attempt to impose a rigid pattern on a significant part of her family’s life and the extreme suffering her success brings about.


Popeye and Temple in Sanctuary are lost children, victims of their moment in history, in that they are without souls. Their culture has failed to give them reasons for doing one thing rather than another. They do not have the natural acquisitiveness of Jason IV and the Snopeses, nor do they have a motive such as revenge to give direction to their lives. Popeye wears the mask of a gangster, though the mask slips occasionally. It is the role itself that gives Popeye substance and makes him appear somewhat like a normal human being. He also has a vague desire that he expresses in his abduction of Temple Drake. He desires to join the human community, to live a meaningful life. Just as he imitates gangsters in order to take possession of some identity, he also imitates the acts of men who reveal themselves to be under the power of a strong motive. He tries to desire and to possess Temple Drake because other men desire her. He fails even to desire her and apparently, as a result of this failure, he gives up his life. He has money, says the narrator, but there is nothing to buy with it.

Temple is perhaps the most fully developed example in early Faulkner of a character who simply flows, who seeks no meanings at all, but merely acts out her impulses. When she is abducted by Popeye, she is freed of the social restraints that have never been made important to her. Nothing in her experience has taught her to internalize social restraints as communal values. She is virtually without values, virtually unable to make moral choices; freed of external restraint, she seeks pointless and ultimately unsatisfying gratification of whatever impulses come to the fore. She becomes capable of killing in order to achieve sexual satisfaction. In her final act in the novel, she pointlessly condemns an innocent man to death as she begins to adopt Popeye’s failed strategy, assuming a role to pass the time.

In Temple one sees that the utter surrender to motion is no solution to the search for meaning in Faulkner’s world. Neither surrender nor rigid resistance to the flow of events will suffice. Faulkner’s heroes, like Dilsey, are generally those who are able to find a balance between what Broughton calls the abstract and the actual, a balance that seems to answer the cry of the heart and to make loving possible. Faulkner’s novels suggest that the modern tragedy of a lack of soul, of spiritual annihilation, results from some decisive break in the process by which one generation teaches the next how to love.

Light in August

The central juxtaposition in Light in August is between Lena Grove and Joe Christmas. Lena Grove, scandalously pregnant and deserted by Lucas Burch, alias Joe Brown, walks the dirt roads of Alabama, Mississippi, and finally Tennessee in tranquil search of a husband. She is a center of peace and faith and fertility, though all around her may be waste and catastrophe. She is like the peaceful center of Herman Melville’s Grand Armada on the outer circles of which the stricken whales murder one another. Byron Bunch, who loves her at first sight even though she is nine months pregnant, tells his friend, the Reverend Gail Hightower, that Lena seems to have two persons inside her, one who knows that Lucas Burch is a scoundrel who will never marry her, and another who believes that God will see to it that her family will be together when the child is born. God somehow keeps these two persons within Lena from meeting and comparing notes.

When the child is born, there is a family indeed, for Lena seems to attract all the help she needs. Byron is camped outside her door. Gail is there to deliver the child. Joe Christmas’s grandparents are present, reliving a past moment which promises them some small redemption. Even Lucas Burch makes a brief appearance before leaving the field open to Byron. Lena’s tranquil faith, her trust in the world and its people, and her submission to her natural being make her into a kind of Faulknerian heroine. She is capable of finding meaning for herself in the flow of life, and this meaning attracts and vitalizes others. The images used to describe her are filled with the paradoxes of stillness in motion. This attitude gives her power, not a power that she often consciously uses, but still a real power to draw recluses such as Byron and Gail out of spiritual death and into the flow of living.

While Lena moves peacefully through the book, seeking a husband and bearing a child, Joe Christmas careens through the last days of his life, the culmination of more than thirty years of bigoted education. Joe’s life story is the center of a novel that is composed largely of condensed biographies. Of the major characters, only Byron and Lena have relatively obscure pasts. Gail, Joanna Burden, and Joe are presented as the end products of three generations in their respective families. Even Percy Grimm, a relatively minor character, receives a fairly full biography. Each of these lives contrasts starkly with the life of Lena and, eventually, with Lena and Byron’s relationship. Gail, Joanna, Joe, and Percy are, in the words of Gail, “lost children among the cold and terrible stars.” They are the children of a generation that saw its world crumble and that adopted fanatic versions of Calvinism mixed with an inherited racism in order to resist the flow of history with its threat of meaninglessness. They are products of the failure of love. While Lena, miraculously immunized against lovelessness, is capable of accepting the world and its lawful motion as her home, most of the other major characters resist and reject the world, living in alienation.

Joe’s life reveals the sources and meanings of resistance and alienation. The story of his life comes in several blocks. After learning that Joe has murdered Joanna, the reader is plunged deeply into the suffering consciousness of the murderer during the twenty-four hours preceding the crime. Joe is seen as a driven man: He seems to be under the control of the voices that speak inside him, and he is unaware of the loving, caressing voices in his natural environment. This glimpse into his consciousness reveals ambivalent attitudes toward his racial background, a hatred of the feminine, a sense that Joanna has somehow betrayed him by praying over him, and a sense of being an abandoned child who wants to be able to say with conviction, “God loves me, too.” The middle section of the novel separates into strands the inner voices that drive Joe to murder, which, in his culture, is tantamount to suicide.

In an orphanage at age five, Joe accidentally provokes the dietician into speeding his placement with a family. His adoptive father, the Calvinist fanatic Simon McEachern, teaches Joe the skills of resistance to nature. He learns to cultivate a rocklike will and an indomitable body. He learns to relate to people impersonally. He grows up not only without love but also in resistance to love: To be a man is not to love. McEachern derives his hatred of the world from his Calvinist theology, while Joe learns to resist the world in defense of his selfhood. Joe is not a Calvinist; he resists the content of McEachern’s teachings by mastering its forms. Inside Joe, the voice perhaps first awakened by a girl who mothered him in the orphanage continues to speak. Joe continues to desire to love, to belong, and ultimately to be free of the voices that drive him.

Of the forms Joe’s rebellion against his culture takes, those involving sex and race seem most significant. Joe’s desire to love and be loved is revealed and betrayed in his adolescent affair with Bobbie Allen, a local prostitute, a relationship that paradoxically combines intimacy with impersonality. In his adult life, his rebellion often takes the form of asserting his presumed black blood. In doing so, he provokes a ritual reaction that becomes the dominant pattern in his life, the pattern that is worked out in full when he kills Joanna and suffers the consequences.

His affair with Joanna, his life and death in Jefferson, Mississippi, replay the patterns of his life in their full significance, bringing him again to the moment of rebellious protest in which he faces an authority figure in the fullness of his identity and strikes out in murderous self-defense. Joe and Joanna are virtually doubles. They proceed through tortured and perverse phases of sexual relations until they reach a kind of purged state of near normality, a point at which both seem seriously able to contemplate marriage, children, a normal human life. When Joanna enters menopause, however, she is simply unable to accept the natural flow of time. Her “sins” with Joe lose their meaning if they do not lead to marriage, motherhood, and “normal” feminine fulfillment. She reverts to her inherited Calvinism and racism, changing from Joe’s double to McEachern’s double. Betrayed herself, she betrays Joe, trying to form into a piece of her sick world. Joe responds to this change as he responded to McEachern’s attempt to cast him into Hell.

During Joe’s flight from the pursuing Jefferson authorities, he comes closer than ever before to the peace, freedom, and love he has desired. In his disorientation and physical suffering, for the first time in his life, he feels unity with the natural world. He partakes of “the peace and unhaste and quiet” that are characteristic of Lena’s experience because for the first time he is really free of the compulsive voices of his culture, free to feel at home in his world.

Contrasted to this experience is the story of Joe’s first five years as told to Gail by Joe’s fanatical grandfather, Doc Hines, and by his grandmother. Doc Hines sees himself as the agent of a Calvinist deity avenging the lust after worldly pleasure symbolized by femininity and the inferior race (“God’s abomination upon the earth”). Against these disembodied “voices of the land,” Joe emerges as somewhat ambiguously victorious in his death. Joe’s death is inevitable. Even though he seems to have found freedom from the internal compulsions that have driven him to self-destruction, he cannot escape the consequences of his actions in the world. He can only accept. The way in which Joe accepts the consequences of his acts suggests for him a kind of heroic status.

Joe’s death is inevitable because he has set in motion a deeply embedded social ritual, a fateful machine that cannot stop until it has completed its movement. The community’s heritage of Calvinism and racism has produced that ritual machine. In a desperate need to assert control over the flow of history, the culture has embraced the Calvinist denial of all things in this world that might turn one’s attention from God.

Among other elements that contribute to the view of Joe as a hero is his effect on Gail. Gail has been on the edges of all the events of these days in Jefferson. He has had several opportunities to mitigate suffering, but he has, on the whole, failed to act. He is afraid to leave his sanctuary in order to help those he could really help. Joe appears at Gail’s door, moments before dying, like an avenging god to strike Gail down in a kind of judgment, even as Gail confesses part of his sin. Finally, Joe dies in Gail’s house, another sacrifice to the very kinds of rituals and legalisms that Gail has used to buy what he calls peace, the right to sit unmolested in his house dreaming of his grandfather’s absurdly heroic death. Gail learns from this experience. He goes on to make, to himself at least, a full confession of his sins. He faces the fact that what he has wanted, a sterile stasis in a dead past moment, was selfish, that this desire has led him to bring about his wife’s death, to welcome being ostracized by the town, ultimately to serve his small need at the cost of abandoning those he promised to serve when he became a minister.

The juxtaposition of lives tragically ruined by a heritage of racism and fanatical Calvinism with Lena’s life creates an unforgettable and moving work. One of the easily overlooked effects of the whole is the impression it gives of a community whose heart is basically good, which responds, albeit sometimes grudgingly, with sympathy to those in need and with kindness to those in trouble. Lena brings out this side of the community. On the lunatic fringe of the community are those who express the deep compulsions that thrive in the insecurity of modern life. Joe is brought up to evoke this underside of the community that it would like to forget. They are not to forget. The images of horror pass from one generation to the next. The uncertainties of life, especially in a world that seems to have lost the easy comfort of religious consensus, continue to produce personalities such as those of Doc Hines and Percy Grimm, who cannot deal with or bear an indifferent universe. Their rigid imposition of abstraction on the flow of life forces them ever backward to the legalism of their secret rituals. Society is tragically in the grip of the past despite its great desire to be finally free of these compulsions.

Absalom, Absalom!

Absalom, Absalom! juxtaposes differing accounts of the same events. In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner thought of himself as trying to tell the whole story and finding that he had to multiply points of view in order to do so. In Absalom, Absalom!, as Gary Stonum argues, “the labor of representation ismade a part of the text.” The story is only partly known; it is a collection of facts, not all of which are certain, which seem to those who know them profoundly and stubbornly meaningful. The various characters who try their formulae for bringing those facts together into a meaningful whole are the historians of the novel. Faulkner has written a novel about writing novels, about giving meaning to the flow of events. Absalom, Absalom! dramatizes so effectively the processes and obstacles to creating a satisfying structure for events and offers such an ideal wedding of structure, content, technique, and style, that many critics regard it as Faulkner’s greatest achievement. With The Sound and the Fury this novel shares characters from the Compson family and a degree of difficulty that may require multiple readings.

The central concern of the narrative is the life of Thomas Sutpen and his family. Sutpen has appeared out of nowhere to build a vast plantation near Jefferson, Mississippi, in the early nineteenth century. Apparently without much wealth, he nevertheless puts together the greatest establishment in the area, marries Ellen Coldfield, a highly respectable though not a wealthy woman, and fathers two children by her. When Sutpen’s son, Henry, goes to college, he meets and befriends Charles Bon. Charles and Sutpen’s daughter, Judith, fall in love and plan to marry. For no apparent reason, Sutpen forbids the marriage and Henry leaves his home with Charles. During the Civil War, Ellen dies. Near the end of the war, Henry and Charles appear one day at the plantation, Sutpen’s Hundred, and Henry kills Charles. After the war, Sutpen becomes engaged to Rosa Coldfield, Ellen’s much younger sister, but that engagement is suddenly broken off. A few years later, Sutpen fathers a daughter with Milly Jones, the teenage daughter of his handyman, Wash Jones. When Sutpen refuses to marry Milly, Jones kills him. Then Sutpen’s daughter, Judith, and his slave daughter, Clytie, live together and, somewhat mysteriously, care for the descendants of Charles Bon by his “marriage” to an octoroon.

Though not all the known facts, these constitute the outline of the story as it is generally known in Jefferson. The major mysteries stand out in this outline. Why did Sutpen forbid the marriage? Why did Henry side with Charles and then kill him? Why did Rosa agree to marry Sutpen and then refuse? Why did Sutpen get a squatter’s daughter pregnant and abandon her, bringing about his own death? Why did Judith take responsibility for Bon’s family? These are the questions to which Rosa Coldfield, Jason Compson III and his father General Compson, and Quentin Compson and his Harvard roommate Shreve McCannon address themselves. A rough chapter outline will give an idea of the novel’s structure while suggesting how the various accounts interrelate.

The setting in chapters 1 through 5 is day one of time present, early September, 1909, before Quentin Compson leaves for Harvard. (1) Afternoon, Rosa tells Quentin about Sutpen in summary, painting him as a destructive demon of heroic proportions. (2) Evening, Jason III repeats his father’s description of how Sutpen built his empire of one hundred square miles and married Ellen. (3) Evening, Jason III gives the public version, with some inside information, of Rosa’s relationship with Sutpen, centering on her involvement with the Judith-Charles relationship and her eventual refusal to marry Sutpen. (4) Evening, Jason attempts to explain why Sutpen forbade the marriage and why Henry killed Charles. He argues that Bon intended to keep his octoroon mistress/wife when he married Judith. Jason offers this explanation as plausible but does not really feel it is adequate. (5) Later that same evening, Rosa tries to explain why she refused to marry Sutpen, giving her own version of how she came to be on the scene and describing the death of Bon and its effect on the family. She ends this part by revealing her belief that the Sutpen mansion contains some secret that she intends to discover that evening.

Chapters 6 through 9 are set in day two of time present, January of 1910; Quentin and Shreve spend an evening in their Harvard dormitory working out their version of the Sutpen story. (6) Quentin has a letter saying that Rosa is dead. The story is recapitulated with more details coming to light and completing the story of the Sutpen line in outline. (7) Quentin and Shreve concentrate on Sutpen’s youth, retelling his story up to his death in the light of information Quentin received directly from his grandfather. (8) The boys work out the story of Charles Bon’s and Henry Sutpen’s relationship, constructing a new answer to the question of why Henry killed Charles. Not only was Charles Henry’s half brother, but he also had black blood. (9) Quentin recalls his trip with Rosa to Sutpen’s house on the September night and his brief meeting with the returned Henry. They finish Jason III’s letter and contemplate the whole story.

The novel’sclimax comes in chapter 8 when Shreve and Quentin construct their explanation. They “discover” through intense imaginative identification with Henry and Charles a meaning latent in the facts they have gathered. Their discovery implies that Sutpen prevented the marriage and alienated Henry by revealing that Charles and Henry were half brothers. The substance of their discovery is that the first wife whom Sutpen put aside, the mother of Charles, was a mulatto. Sutpen reserves this information as his trump card in case Henry comes to accept an incestuous marriage. Only this revelation could have brought Henry to kill Charles rather than allow him to marry Judith. The means by which the boys arrive at this conclusion reveal much about the meanings of the novel. Not least among these meanings is the revelation of a sickness at the “prime foundation” of the South, the sickness of a planter society that prevents one from loving one’s own children.

There is no way for the boys to prove this solution. Their discovery is above all an imaginative act, yet it has the ring of truth. No one who is alive, except Henry, knows what passed between Sutpen and Henry in the conversations that broke off the marriage and led to the murder, and Henry tells no one before his own death. The truth is utterly hidden in the past. The materials that make up this truth are fragmentary, scattered in distance, time, and memory. Only through the most laborious process do Quentin and Shreve gather the facts together from the narratives of their elders and a few documents. Informants such as Rosa and Jason III are Sherwood Anderson grotesques; they have chosen simple truths to which they make all their experiences conform. Rosa’s portrait of Sutpen grows almost entirely out of Sutpen’s proposal that they produce a child before they marry. Jason III’s portrait of Charles Bon is an idealized self-portrait. Even eyewitnesses such as General Compson and Rosa have faulty memories and biased points of view. In the world of this novel, the truth is difficult to know because the facts on which it is based are hard to assemble.

When the facts are assembled, they are even harder to explain. Jason realizes that he has “just the words, the symbols, the shapes themselves.” Quentin and Shreve are able to explain, not because they find the facts, but because they use their imaginations so effectively as to find themselves in the tent with Sutpen and Henry in 1865 and in the camp when Charles tells Henry that even though they are brothers, Charles is the “nigger” who is going to marry his sister. Quentin and Shreve have felt Thomas Sutpen’s motives, his reasons for opposing the marriage. They have felt Charles’s reasons for insisting on the marriage and Henry’s victimization as an instrument of his father. They have entered into the heart’s blood, the central symbolic image of the novel, the symbol of the old verities that touch the heart and to which the heart holds as truth. Sutpen’s honor is embodied in the design that will crumble if he accepts Charles as his son or allows the marriage. The love of sons for fathers and of brothers for sisters becomes a tragic trap within that design. If love, honor, courage, compassion, and pride are found at the center of these inexplicable events, then the boys have discovered “what must be true.” As Cass Edmonds says to young Ike McCaslin in Go Down, Moses, “what the heart holds to becomes truth, as far as we know truth.”

In order for Quentin and Shreve to complete this act of imagination, they must come to understand Sutpen more fully than anyone does. The key to understanding Sutpen comes in chapter 6, when Quentin repeats what he has learned from General Compson, to whom Sutpen has confided much of his life story. Sutpen is the child of an independent mountain family who have fallen on hard times and have become tenant farmers. His ambition springs into being on the day he discovers that in the eyes of the plantation owner’s black doorman he is insignificant “white trash.” On that day, he determines to right this injustice by becoming a planter himself. He dreams that when he is a planter, he will not turn away the boy messenger from his door. He becomes a planter in Haiti, then abandons everything to go to Mississippi. Having built a second plantation there and begun his dynasty again, he sacrifices his son to cancel the son by the first marriage. As General Compson sees it, Sutpen’s great weakness is his innocence. Sutpen is never able to understand how history betrays him. By becoming a planter, Sutpen inevitably adopts the material forms that determine the morality of the planter, and he lacks the imagination to circumvent those forms. In fact, Sutpen is so literal, rigid, and puritanical in his adoption of the design that he becomes a grotesque of a planter. The messenger boy who comes to his door is his own mulatto son, yet Sutpen can only turn away without even so much as an “I know you are my son though I cannot say so publicly.”

Sutpen’s innocence and the rigidity of his design account for many of the mysteries of his life. As General Compson says, Sutpen seems to think of morality, even of life as a whole, as like a cake; if one includes the ingredients and follows the recipe, only cake can result. Supten’s design is so abstract that he is utterly blind to the feelings of others. He fails to anticipate Rosa’s probable reaction to the second proposal. He never thinks of how Wash will react to his treatment of Milly. He never expects that Charles Bon will be the boy at his door. When Sutpen tells his story to General Compson, he is seeking the missing ingredient that has twice prevented him from completing his design and his revenge. Sutpen’s boyhood experience has cut him off from the truth of the heart. He has, instead, rigidly grasped a single truth and has made it into a falsehood in his Olympian effort to make the world conform to the shape of that truth.

Because of Sutpen’s failure, many children stand before doors that they cannot pass. Only an act of sympathetic imagination can get one past the symbolic doors of this novel, but most of the children are so victimized that they are incapable of imaginative sympathy. Even Quentin would not be able to pass his door, the subjects of incest and a sister’s honor, without help from Shreve. Without Quentin’s passion and knowledge, Shreve would never have seen the door. Their brotherhood is a key “ingredient” in their imaginative power.

Many significant elements of this complex novel must remain untouched in any brief analysis. One other aspect of the novel, however, is of particular interest: In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner suggests the possibility of seeing the Yoknapatawpha novels as a saga, a unified group of works from which another level of significance emerges. He chooses to end Absalom, Absalom! with a map of Yoknapatawpha County. This map locates the events of all the preceding Yoknapatawpha novels and some that were not yet written, though the relevant Snopes stories had appeared in magazines. Reintroducing the Compson family also suggests that Faulkner was thinking of a unity among his novels in addition to the unity of the individual works. It seems especially significant that Shreve McCannon, an outsider, neither a Compson nor a southerner nor an American, makes the final imaginative leap that inspirits Sutpen’s story with the heart’s truth. In this way, that truth flows out of its narrow regional circumstances to a world that shares in the same heart’s blood. With Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner may have seen more clearly than before how his novels could be pillars to help men “endure and prevail” by reminding them of those “old verities,” the central motives that bind humankind and the Yoknapatawpha novels together.

Go Down, Moses

In Go Down, Moses, Faulkner juxtaposes two sides of the McCaslin family. This contrast comes to center on Lucas Beauchamp, a black descendant, and Isaac McCaslin, a white descendant of L. Q. C. McCaslin, the founder of the McCaslin plantation. Although the novel divides roughly in two and has the appearance of a collection of stories, it is unified as an explanation of the opening phrases that summarize Isaac’s life. Ike is distinguished by his refusals to inherit the family plantation or to own any other land because he believes the earth belongs to no man, by his love for the woods, and by the fact that though he has married and is uncle to half a county, he has no children.

“Was,” “The Fire and the Hearth,” and “Pantaloon in Black” deal primarily with the black McCaslins. Taken together, these stories dramatize the suffering of basically good people, black and white, as they struggle to make and preserve their marriages and to honor their blood ties despite the barrier of racism.

“Was” tells how Tomey’s Turl and Tennie arrange their marriage. Turl and Tennie are slaves on neighboring plantations in the days when such farms were half a day’s travel apart. In this comic interlude, remembered from before Isaac’s birth, Hubert Beauchamp, owner of the neighboring farm, tries without success to marry his sister, Sophonsiba, to Isaac’s father, Buck McCaslin. It becomes clear that the plot to land Buck is a cooperative effort among the slave couple and the Beauchamps. The plot ends with a poker game in which Buck’s twin, Uncle Buddy, nearly outmaneuvers Hubert. That Turl is the dealer convinces Hubert to settle for the advantages he has gained rather than chance losing everything to Buddy. Buck escapes for the time being, though he eventually marries Sophonsiba, and Tennie and Turl achieve their marriage. These two marriages generate the two main characters of the novel, Lucas and Isaac. From this point of view the tale is funny and almost heartwarming, but it has a tragic undertone, for Turl, it turns out, is half brother to the twins. Even though Buck and Buddy are reluctant and enlightened slaveholders, they try to prevent their brother’s marriage and must be tricked into permitting it.

This barrier of race that separates brothers and threatens marriages is the center of “The Fire and the Hearth.” This long story dramatizes two pairs of conflicts. In the present, Lucas Beauchamp discovers a gold piece buried on Roth Edmonds’s plantation. The Edmondses have become inheritors of the McCaslin land because of Isaac’s repudiation. In his mad search for “the rest of the gold,” Lucas becomes a barrier to the marriage of his daughter with George Wilkins, a rival moonshiner. To get rid of Wilkins, Lucas uses the very racist rituals that have caused him suffering; he appeals to Roth’s paternalistic dominance of his black tenants. This conflict reminds Lucas of his previous conflict with Roth’s father, Zack. In this conflict, Zack and Lucas, who were reared as brothers, nearly kill each other because as a black, Lucas simply cannot believe Zack’s statement that though he had the opportunity, he has not cuckolded Lucas.

The second present conflict arises when Lucas’s wife, Mollie, decides she will divorce her husband because he has become obsessed with finding gold. When she announces this plan to Roth, Roth remembers his own relationship with Lucas and Mollie, especially that Mollie is the only mother he ever had. His childhood memories prominently include the shame he felt when racism came between him and his “family.” Now, when he most needs to, he cannot talk with them heart to heart.

In “Was” and “The Fire and the Hearth,” the wall of racism divides lovers, brothers, parents, and children. All suffer because what their hearts yearn for is forbidden by their racial experience. Familial love is blocked by racism. “Pantaloon in Black” completes this picture of tragic suffering with a powerful image of what whites, especially, lose by inherited racist attitudes. Rider and Mannie, tenants on Edmonds land, love passionately. When Mannie dies, Rider cannot contain his grief. He moves magnificently toward a complex love-death. Juxtaposed to this image is the marriage of a local deputy that contains no passion or compassion. They live separate lives, the wife’s emotional needs satisfied by card parties and motion pictures. Their brief discussion of Rider’s grief and death reveals that because they are unable to see their black brothers as human, they are cut off from imagining their feelings, cut off from sympathy and, finally, cut off from their own humanity.

“The Old People,” “The Bear,” and “Delta Autumn” tell the story of Isaac: of his education for life in the woods, his consecration to that life, the resulting decision to repudiate his inheritance and the consequence of that decision, including his wife’s refusal to bear his children.

Isaac’s education begins with Sam Fathers. Sam contains the blood of all three races that share in the founding of America. In him the wilderness ideal of brotherhood is made visible. On the other hand, Sam contains the sins of the American Indians who sold land not theirs to sell and then went on to buy and sell men, including Sam, who was sold as a slave by his own father. Sam is the last of the old people and, therefore, figures in both the origins and the victimizations of the races. When Isaac perceives these meanings in Sam’s life, his spontaneous response is, “Let him go!” But this Mosaic wish is futile, Ike is told. There is no simple cage that can be unlocked to free Sam. From that moment, Ike tries to discover some effective way to set some of God’s lowly people free.

By means of the stories of the old people, Sam teaches Ike that, in the wilderness, all people are guests on the earth. In the wilderness, the hunt becomes a ritual by which man, in taking the gifts of the land for his sustenance, participates in the immortal life processes of the cosmos. Here even the barriers between life and death lack significance. Opposed to this view is the civilization represented by the divided fields outside the wall of the big woods. In this outer world, land ownership divides the haves and the have-nots. Conceiving of the land as dead matter to be bought and sold leads to conceiving of people as beasts to be bought and sold. Ike comes to see this decline in humanity in his own family history as contained in the ledgers of the plantation commissary.

In part 4 of “The Bear,” having seen the death of Old Ben, the bear that stands for the life of the old wilderness, Ike explains to his older cousin, Cass Edmonds, why he will not accept his inheritance, the McCaslin plantation. Though quite complex, his argument is mainly that if owning land leads directly to the exploitation of God’s lowly people, then refusing to own the land may help end such exploitation. He takes on the responsibility of attempting to realize in civilization the values of the wilderness to which he has consecrated himself. Among the reasons for his choice is the pattern he sees in his family history.

His grandfather, L. Q. C. McCaslin, seems almost incomprehensible to Ike because he bought a beautiful slave, fathered a daughter with her, and then fathered a son, Tomey’s Turl, with that daughter. To Ike, these acts represent the worst of the violations that arise from arrogant proprietorship. In his grandfather’s will, in the subsequent actions of Buck and Buddy in freeing slaves, in the Civil War and in his own education, Ike sees a pattern that leads him to think his family may have a responsibility to help bring an end to these wrongs. By repudiating his inheritance, he hopes humbly to participate in making love possible between the races.

Critics disagree about whether readers are to see Ike as heroic in the tradition of saintliness or as a fool who hides his light under a bushel by refusing to risk the exercise of power in behalf of his beliefs. While Ike does not fall into Sutpen’s trap, largely because he conceives of his mission as acting for others rather than for himself, he may choose too passive a means to his end. It may be that Faulkner intended a suspension between these alternatives that would heighten the tragic dimensions of moral choice in the complex welter of human events. It is difficult to fault Ike’s motives or his perception of the situation, but when assessing the effectiveness of his actions, one finds roughly equal evidence for and against his choice.

In “Delta Autumn,” Ike is a respected teacher. He speaks with a wisdom and authority that command attention, if not full understanding, from his companions and that speak directly to Roth Edmonds’s shame at his inability to marry the mulatto woman he loves and to claim his son by her. While Ike has nothing of which to be ashamed, his refusal of the land has helped to corrupt the weaker Roth. Ike has known that he would probably never see the amelioration for which he has worked and, more than any of his companions, Ike understands that something sacred, which he can call God, comes into being when people love one another. Nevertheless, he must suffer seeing the sins of his grandfather mirrored by Roth, for Roth’s mistress is a descendant of Tomey’s Turl. Ike must tell that woman to accept the repudiation of her love, and he must accept her accusation that he knows nothing about love. Whether Ike is a saint or a fool seems endlessly arguable. That he is to some extent aware of this dilemma may be part of the tragic significance of his life. He cannot learn whether his example will contribute to ending the shame of denied love that results from racism and that perpetuates it. He can only believe.

“Go Down, Moses,” the last story, reemphasizes the desire for spiritual unity between the races and the apparently insuperable barriers that remain. Mollie Beauchamp’s grandson, Samuel Worsham Beauchamp, is executed for murdering a Chicago policeman. Sam is the opposite of Sam Fathers. He is the youngest son, sold into the slavery of making money too fast, which devalues human life. Mollie’s grieving chant that Roth Edmonds sold her Benjamin into Egypt echoes the imagined grief of the biblical Jacob whom his sons claim will die if they return from Egypt without their youngest brother. Roth has taken responsibility for this young relation and then has repudiated him. Mollie’s accusation is fundamentally correct. The sympathetic but paternalistic white community of Jefferson cannot see this connection and so, despite its good heart, it cannot cross the barrier between races and truly enter into Mollie’s grief. Gavin Stevens, the community’s representative, feels driven from the scene of grief before the fire on the hearth by the intense passion of Mollie’s grieving. Ike’s sacrifice has changed nothing yet, but whether it was a bad choice remains hard to decide.

Faulkner wrote many fine novels in addition to those discussed here. The Snopes Trilogy and The Reivers, for example, are often included among his masterpieces, in part because they reveal especially well Faulkner’s great but sometimes overlooked comic gifts. Faulkner’s reputation has grown steadily since his Nobel Prize. Some critics are ready to argue that he is the greatest American novelist. They base their claim on the power of his novels to fascinate readers, to provoke serious and profound discussion about the modern human condition while engaging significant emotions, and to give the pleasures of all great storytelling, the pleasures of seeing, knowing, believing in, and caring for characters like oneself at crucial moments in their lives. The quantity and quality of his work, as well as the worthy unity of purpose that emerges from analysis of his career, tend to confirm the highest estimate of Faulkner’s accomplishment.


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