William Faulkner Faulkner, William (Vol. 1)

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Faulkner, William (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Faulkner, William 1897–1962

Faulkner, a Southern American novelist, set his fiction in the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County. His best-known works are The Sound and the Fury, Sanctuary, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom! He won the Nobel Prize in 1949. See also William Faulkner Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 6, 8, 9, 11, 14, 18, 28.

It may be summarily stated that Faulkner's use of formal arrangement of scenes in As I Lay Dying is a device for making it possible to introduce the thoughts of a great many characters without unduly confusing the reader. There are thirteen characters whose consciousnesses are represented in this short novel. This distinguishes it from all other stream-of-consciousness fiction….

Faulkner's chief unifying device in this novel is something else. It is a unity of action which he employs. In other words, he uses a substantial plot, the thing that is lacking in all other stream-of-consciousness literature…. It is the thing that carries As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury away from the pure stream-of-consciousness type of novel to a point where the traditional novel and stream of consciousness are combined. Because there is a coherent plot and because the characters act in an external drama which has a beginning, complications, climax, and ending, the absolute need for further unifying devices does not exist….

As I Lay Dying is a fairly simple and unsubtle work compared to Faulkner's other stream-of-consciousness novel, The Sound and the Fury. These novels are, however, similar in several technical matters: both contain substantial unity of action, but that of the latter is more complex; both have a formal scenic arrangement, but that of the latter is at once more complex and less clear-cut. The technical similarity does not go much past this; for The Sound and the Fury deals with complex personalities, and consciousness is presented in it at an extremely deep level. Consequently, other structural devices are needed to clarify for the reader what is going on in this particular world of consciousness. The chief of these other devices are symbolic structure and motif. So what we have as patterns for unity in The Sound and the Fury are closely intertwined plot, unity of time, scenic arrangement, symbolic framework, and motifs. None of these is predominant in effectiveness and none is clear-cut.

Robert Humphrey, in his Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel, originally published by the University of California Press, 1954 (reprinted by permission of The Regents of the University of California), pp. 105-07.

Faulkner's prose style, perhaps, has fooled us into attributing complexity to his mind. It now seems obvious, however, that he really is what he always claims to be: a simple man…. The narrowness I am speaking of is a narrowness of range. I am not suggesting that Faulkner's work exhibits just one mode of feeling or a single quality (it is often forgotten how funny this most solemn of writers can be), but rather that he deals best with only one kind of person acting in one kind of situation…. Think also what is missing from his books. Perhaps it can be summed up by saying that as far as Yoknapatawpha is concerned, the Enlightenment might just as well have never been. The qualities of reasonableness, moderation, compromise, tolerance, sober choice—in short, the anti-apocalyptic style of life brought into the modern world by the middle class—no more exists for Faulkner than plain ordinary folks do (everyone is at least a demigod to him)…. Faulkner's narrowness, then, has always stemmed partly from an unwillingness or an inability either to love or to hate the world of the 20th century enough to understand it. But it isn't contemporary reality alone that Faulkner has shied away from. The very effort to explain, to understand any living thing, seems to him sheer blasphemy. Moreover, he is utterly indifferent to subtlety and qualification…. Faulkner frequently takes a kind of mischievous delight in tantalizing us...

(The entire section is 4,705 words.)