William Faulkner Long Fiction Analysis
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 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...
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