illustrated portrait of American author William Faulkner

William Faulkner

Start Free Trial

Faulkner, William (Vol. 6)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Faulkner, William 1897–1962

See also William Faulkner Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 8, 9, 11, 14, 18, 28.

Faulkner, a Southern American, was one of this century's most influential and highly regarded novelists. Derived from the Southern oral tradition and existing somewhere between storyteller and listener, Faulkner's novels together form one larger work, the saga of a single imaginary world in which the characters are both sustained and contained by the region—more philosophical than geographical—that is Faulkner's deep South. Time, remembered but unrecorded, merges with what William Barrett calls "that peculiar fullness of time that is found in myth …, the time of the land itself—of the rhythm of the seasons, death and renewal, sowing and reaping," at the center of Faulkner's saga.

"Was" [the first tale of Go Down, Moses] is a tale without grief or sorrow, for the humor banishes these. An idyllic prologue to the sexual and social traumas of Faulkner's modern world, its virtuosity and richness place it with his finest shorter fiction. Overshadowed by "The Bear," the story has been taken as background or comic relief, and has never received justice in the criticism.

Through the folklore he cherishes Faulkner reaches back to the Southern frontier, subverting the official legend of the old South. Like Mark Twain he debunks genteel affections out of Sir Walter Scott, and his image of carefree boyhood and bachelor days is worthy of Twain, a slapstick Eden in the best traditions of American male nostalgia. Cass, the narrator, has the innocent eye of a younger Huck; while Tomey's Turl, both a McCaslin and a slave, controls the action like the successfully manipulative servant of eighteenth-century plays. Theophilus and Amodeus McCaslin, familiarly Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy, are "humors" characters like those of Smollett, as Cleanth Brooks has remarked, and so are their antagonists Mr. Hubert and Miss Sophonsiba. All are joined in the circular routine set by the burlesque fox hunts of the overture and coda. The dogs chase the fox, the men chase the slave, the woman chases her man, men pursue gain and rescue other men. The story is a ritual affirmation of life, and an assertion of the capacity of art to transcend time. (pp. 736-37)

[Conspicuous is] Faulkner's debt to Keats, whose "Grecian Urn" gave him an enduring image of arrested motion. The lines made much of in "The Bear" apply to the comic pursuits in "Was"—"She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss./Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair." Where the Lena/Lucas/Byron triangle of Light in August is a slow motion version of Keats, and Lena walks through the opening pages of the novel "like something moving forever and without progress across an urn," "Was" is wilder than a Keystone cop chase. But the story, too, attains the effect of a frieze, via tall tale, vaudeville, and the funnies as well as the techniques of film.

The subjects of slavery and sex are significantly intertwined, with sex a greater issue than race…. Blacks may object that Faulkner treats the pursuit of a slave in comic terms (even though it is the masters who are made fools of) and … Women's Lib would not enjoy Miss Sophonsiba, while making much of the fact that she is traded off like the Negroes at the poker table. "Was" may, indeed, be seen as a document of white male chauvinism if one will admit it also shows the weaknesses of Buck and Buddy's position, their distance from the feudal world which Faulkner parodies. His humor, lacking any desperation...

(This entire section contains 7568 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

here, exorcises and heals. He gives us heroes the reverse of chauvinists, who do not want the responsibility of either the woman or the slaves, and have their own vision of freedom and community. (pp. 737-38)

The ambience of male solidarity shapes Faulkner's work, conspicuously his female characterizations. In The Hamlet and "Old Man" one can hear the chorus on the porch of the store or in their bunks in prison, talking up the remarkable nature of the other sex. Sophonsiba is a tall tale version of the desperate spinster, the decaying Southern belle. With her roan tooth and simpering gentility she would be grotesque if she were not so delightfully absurd…. [Her] pitiful aristocratic pretensions help Faulkner expose the gulf between the legend of the old South and realities in his part of the country…. [But] pretension is not limited to woman, even in "Was." (pp. 743-44)

Faulkner's closeness to the characters gives his comedy of manners an affection Twain's lacks, and keeps it from becoming satire. Realist that he is about his people and their world, he cherishes their foibles, and his plot is all innocence, harmless and exuberant activity…. In the lost world of "Was," one of Southern literature's convincing affirmations of the past, the bonds between men outweigh the forces of conflict. (pp. 745, 747)

The suspension of time for which Faulkner aims depends on the profound knowledge of place; and if the people and society in "Was" are doomed not to "endure and prevail," the image of their life remains. (p. 748)

Lewis H. Dabney, "'Was': Faulkner's Classic Comedy of the Frontier," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1972, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. VIII, No. 4, Autumn, 1972, pp. 736-48.

There is something fundamentally contradictory … about [many critics'] assumption that Faulkner would use the daringly unconventional structure of Requiem to make conventional statement. I would suggest that, on the contrary, structure and meaning are here, as elsewhere in Faulkner, organically interrelated, that in fact the novel's structure itself is a metaphorical expression of the novel's central awareness. (p. 749)

[Each section] includes a long historical narrative followed by an act of drama. The dramatic sections themselves have been lifted from the work and staged without notable success, partially because Faulkner did not manage the dramatic as well as he did the narrative form; though, also, the drama alone seems bare and skeletal without the rich contrapuntal effect of the historical preambles. Both are essential; for just as the diffuse poetic prose of the narrative sections and the terse stripped dialogue of the drama present two approaches to art, the novel as a whole deals with two approaches to life: the mystic and the rational.

Requiem's opening pages clearly establish the two approaches. In "Act One: The Courthouse" the settlers, on the one hand, grant to the courthouse a mystic symbolic identity, while an outlander views it, on the other hand, as a mere building, at best a convenient means for procuring funds from the federal government. As a symbol of the Idea of Community the courthouse has power to transform an amorphous frontier settlement into a confederation of men….

[But] Ratcliffe is the rational, pragmatic man. He sees the establishment of a town only as an opportunity, the building of a courthouse only as a lever, to extract payment from the federal government. (p. 750)

[The] values of independence and responsibility do not reside, in this case, with the individual, but rather with the community; for Faulkner presents the emerging town of Jefferson as a society of men organizing themselves specifically in order that individual liberty will not be threatened…. Individualism is valued here as elsewhere in the Faulkner canon; but in Requiem for a Nun it is the group which preserves individual liberty, the loner who would destroy it. It is Ratcliffe who can understand no aim except money; it is his type whose vision of government may be rendered in a mathematical formula: "profit plus regimen equals security." And it is unmistakably William Faulkner who is outraged over such readiness to relinquish individual responsibility in order to buy a little security.

The first narrative section of Requiem for a Nun then presents "government" as an abstract concept with potential for either ennobling or enfeebling mankind. If he uses the abstract idea merely for leverage, merely as a rational expedient for absolving the self of responsibility (as Ratcliffe would recommend) then man allows the abstraction to devitalize his existence. If, on the other hand, his private and material and expedient concerns are set aside and the abstraction is approached mythically, then man opens himself to the transforming power of the abstract concept. When, for example, the townsmen abandon their personal identities to work as one, they find their effort transubstantiated so that the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. Such a mythic experience, coming as it does early in the book, sets the pattern for the novel's recurring emphasis on that which defies rational explanation.

Such supra-rationalism pervades each of the historical preambles…. [Their] overall effect … is to establish a mystical understanding of causation and of time, an understanding beyond the confines of the factual or empiric account. These historical sections of the novel establish that events transpire in defiance of logic. (pp. 751-53)

Requiem's second mythic section is entitled "The Golden Dome." Like the county courthouse, the dome of the state capitol in Jackson, Mississippi, symbolizes a lawful and orderly confederation of men. Faulkner presents the days of anarchic freedom as necessarily past; the pioneer himself—"innocent and gullible, without bowels for avarice or compassion or forethought either, changing the face of the earth: felling a tree which took two hundred years to grow, in order to extract from it a bear or a capful of wild honey"—is obsolete now…. The pioneer's brand of freedom was egocentric, anarchic, without forethought. Faulkner depicts his demise without regret, implying that order and control are necessary to limit just such an irresponsible notion of freedom. (pp. 753-54)

Anti-empirical notions of time pervade Requiem, but the concept of duration is focused upon almost explicitly in the third section. There the old jail is presented as symbol of "man's incredible and enduring Was." It represents "that thin durable continuity … that steadfast and durable and unhurryable continuity against or across which the vain and glittering ephemerae of progress and alteration washed in substanceless repetitive evanescent scarless waves." (p. 755)

The three historical chronicles in Requiem establish that the course of history eludes logical analysis. It is shaped by the persistence of the past and by the symbols which, embodying man's future aspirations, represent the realm of possibilities. Man may deny value to past or future, he may approach such symbols as the State as merely utilitarian tools for his own ends, but he does so at the expense of the vitality and richness of his own civilization. Faulkner, like Bergson, seems to think there are two ways by which we may get outside ourselves: we may move down to homogeneity, repetition, and materiality, or up to a "living moving eternity." Apparently the vast pattern of American life represents a downward step. Requiem for a Nun reflects, however, Faulkner's increasing faith that it is possible to transcend the homogeneous, the material, and the rational and achieve a "living moving eternity." (p. 757)

Dismissing the "ephemerae of facts," Faulkner in Requiem for a Nun achieves a vision of transcendence inaccessible to the merely rational mind, apprehensible only to the mythic consciousness. Pretending in this book to "no part in rationality," Faulkner challenges the reader to also transcend the particular, the material, and the rational and to experience an expanded sense of being which is itself beyond reason. (p. 762)

Panthea Reid Broughton, "'Requiem for a Nun': No Part in Rationality," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1972, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. VIII, No. 4, Autumn, 1972, pp. 749-62.

Just as Joyce and Virginia Woolf rely on visual symbols as unifying devices for their stream-of-consciousness narration, so Faulkner uses fire, water, light, trees, flowers and clocks as recurrent images in an effort to impose order on his seemingly chaotic subject matter. All critics agree that time is central to the organization of Faulkner's novel, and perhaps the clock symbolism is the most important motif in The Sound and the Fury. "A fictional technique always relates back to the novelist's metaphysics," Jean-Paul Sartre reminds us. "The critic's task is to define the latter before evaluating the former. Now, it is immediately obvious that Faulkner's metaphysics is a metaphysics of time." The past for Faulkner remains a living part of the present; indeed Quentin informs us that there is only "is": "was the saddest word of all there is nothing else in the world its not despair until time its not even time until it was." (pp. 156-57)

Although Light in August does not belong to the stream-of-consciousness genre, it remains a dense psychological novel constructed (like The Sound and the Fury) in a montage form—a form, by the way, which is basic to Faulkner's thinking…. Faulkner's fondness for a rhetorical antithesis which brings together two contradictory terms—and which in turn determines the form of the work as a whole—recalls Eisenstein's definition of montage as "collision," as "the conflict of two pieces in opposition to each other." In Light in August Faulkner juxtaposes the stories of Joe Christmas, Gail Hightower, Joanna Burden, and Lena Grove in another attempt to show how past events shape the present. Instead of using interior monologues to expose the simultaneous existence of past and present events, the novelist depends largely on flashbacks to underscore causality…. The flashbacks are not there merely to supply expository material for actions in the present that need further explanation. Since the past is Faulkner's subject—or a large part of it—the flashbacks are not simply "functional"; they are thematically necessary, and consequently they justify the montage structure of the work. (pp. 158-59)

Edward Murray, in his The Cinematic Imagination: Writers and the Motion Pictures (copyright © 1972 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1972.

For Faulkner, myth, allegory, and symbol were favorite means of communication. He abundantly used and he recklessly modified (often garbled) Hellenic, Hebraic, and Christian myth and symbol; and he generated many original symbols, sometimes only vaguely aware of their implications, much of the time purposefully ambiguous, I believe, chiefly because his own moral and religious outlook was vague, notwithstanding his obsession after 1950 with trying to make explicit his moral vision. (pp. 497-98)

Faulkner denied man's innocence, even the myth of pristine innocence, and specialized in revealing the violence and chaos in life, while at the same time, and throughout his total career, he also insisted on man's freedom of choice, individual responsibility for what he made of life, and capacity not only to endure but prevail, as he became over-fond of reiterating after he was awarded the Nobel Prize. In other words, he supported the Hebraic belief in pervasive and inescapable evil, moral growth through suffering, the availability of human choice, and individual responsibility for what he made of life. Sutpen, for example, through his racial pride, his treatment of people as things, his rigid rationalism, and his absence of compassion is responsible for his own failure.

Nothing in Faulkner is more in keeping with his Southern heritage than Faulkner's keen awareness of the pervasiveness and power of evil and yet the nobility of stoic endurance. (pp. 498-99)

I do not deny the existence of fatalists among Faulkner's characters. Rosa Coldfield (in Absalom, Absalom!) is a religious fatalist, for instance, and Quentin Compson's father of the same novel and in The Sound and the Fury is a classical fatalist. But this does not make Faulkner deterministic. My own reading of Faulkner justifies no sharp shift from despair to affirmation (though there is a major and regrettable shift from mythic and symbolic and implicit communication to allegorical and explicit communication). In one of his latest books, The Town, Faulkner expresses what I can detect even in his earliest books: man's "ambition and fear and lust and courage and abnegation and pity and honor and sin and pride—all bound … by the web … and woof of his rapacity but withal yet dedicated to his dreams." In the same novel, he reveals his lifelong belief in the persistence and force of evil, and yet man's capacity to endure it, when he speaks metaphorically of the rusty nail embedded in the trunk of a tree: "It [the nail in the tree] don't go away, it just stops being so glaring in sight, barked over; there is a lump, a bump of course, but after a while the other trees forgive that and everything else accepts that tree and that bump too until one day the saw or the axe goes into it and hits that old nail" (The Town, p. 303).

All Faulkner admirers remember the echo of Edenic metaphor in "The Bear," a mid-career story, when Faulkner says that all God asks is "pity and humility and sufferance and endurance and the sweat of his face for bread." My thesis is that such a view is implicit in early and late writing—not, as some critics insist, confined to his more explicit statements after he became a world-famous personality. (p. 500)

Herman E. Spivey, "Faulkner and the Adamic Myth: Faulkner's Moral Vision," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, Lafayette, Indiana), Winter, 1973–74, pp. 497-505.

As an element in the literature of the American South the cavalier myth is generally regarded as a bequest from supporters of the Stuart monarchy in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scotland and England. Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha chronicle participates in that aspect of the cavalier heritage in two distinct ways. Most obvious, of course, is the Scottish ancestry permeating his fiction, which, while not aristocratic itself, nevertheless brings with it a clear devotion to cavalier ideals and patterns of behavior. A second source, not entirely unnoticed by the critics and acknowledged by Faulkner himself, is the influence of Walter Scott. In addition to these distinctively Scottish contributions, however, the inhabitants of Faulkner's South are inheritors of the cavalier tradition from another less obvious but nevertheless significant source. As we receive it piecemeal from various sources in the fictional canon, the early history of Yoknapatawpha County records as well an influx of cavalier ideals which is distinctively French in origin.

Although the French contribution lacks the direct family ties and the dimension of literary influence, it is perhaps even more fundamental to the cavalier heritage of Faulkner's South than that of Scotland. France was, of course, the direct historical source of Western Chivalry, and as such actually spawned the tradition out of which came the Jacobite rebellion and within which Scott himself worked. Beyond strict historical precedence, the French brand of cavalier idealism is presumably more "pure" since it is less adulterated by the counter influence of Calvinism. To Faulkner's characters the French contribution represents a threat not only distinctively foreign but also darkly romantic, decadently aristocratic, and dangerously attractive. As such it provides us with the clearest picture of a life-style which functions throughout Faulkner's work as a counterthrust to the equally pervasive Calvinistic fundamentalism which is its natural and historical enemy. Basically the French influence in Faulkner's work is transmitted through contact by his characters with people of French descent, and with centers of French culture, such as New Orleans, the West Indies, and France itself. (pp. 580-81)

On a material level the French contribution is graceful and exotic, providing the gothic beauty which serves so often as a background for human conflict. As it manifests itself in the moral values and the behavior of Faulkner's Southern inheritors, it becomes an integral part of the fiction. Unmistakably decadent, the French contribution is synonymous with personal indulgence, including tendencies toward excess, display, and moral license. As such it represents an element particularly heinous within the prevailing climate of American Calvinism. There conflict rages within and about the individual character who is at once compelled by imperatives to sacrifice and responsibility and drawn toward a cavalier tendency to romantic fulfillment or escape. In cases where the urgencies of Calvinism are pushed to excess—many such appear in the Faulkner canon—the fate of the person caught between the traditions is often pathetic, occasionally tragic. Thus the French bequest, a part of the cavalier tradition in general, becomes a major element of a dramatic conflict in Faulkner's work. (p. 589)

Richard A. Milum, "Faulkner and the Cavalier Tradition: The French Bequest," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), January, 1974, pp. 580-89.

Unlike other American novelists of his generation—Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Wolfe, who frantically gobbled experience that could go white-hot into the next page—Faulkner was a brooding observer, a visionary obsessed with the demons of Southern destiny. In presenting his invented "postage stamp of native soil," Yoknapatawpha County, his books went beyond recountings of the most recent binge, or love affair, or the months of servitude in Hollywood for Jack Warner (to whom authors were "schmucks with Underwoods"). Once he stopped writing awful Swinburnian poetry, Faulkner was driven to capture "not only the present but the whole past on which it depends and which keeps overtaking the present." And to this end he created a dense and gargoyled prose that was unique in American literature. (p. 15)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1974 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), April 29, 1974.

In Absalom, Absalom! (1936) Faulkner displays a democratic tragedy of magnitude that we must go back eighty years, to Moby-Dick, to find again. Both are able at once to establish the largeness of their tragic heroes and thereby, their stories. Their portentous and mysterious Gothicism smothers us so completely that the posturing of their heroes takes on at once the intended aura of significance….

Thomas Sutpen looms so large that his story can be told only from the angles of experience and conjecture of several narrators covering at least three generations. It is a spider web of construction….

In the center of the web stalks the centripetal figure of Thomas Sutpen, designing, weaving, silent, relentless, irrefrangible, another exemplar of the fact that in American tragedy the breadth of plot depends upon the magnitude we are made to perceive in the protagonist…. From the moment Sutpen rode into Jefferson, alone and friendless, in 1833 he had whelming size: "The stranger's name went back and forth among the places of business and idleness and among the residences in steady strophe and antistrophe: Sutpen, Sutpen, Sutpen, Sutpen,"… as if already there were something Greek and mythic about him.

And biblical, as signaled by the title of the book. Faulkner's use of the Bible, as is typical in American literature, focuses upon only one aspect of a biblical story. (pp. 68-9)

Thomas Sutpen,… like ancient heroes and some American ones, arises out of the common folk—his perhaps the most common, poor white trash in the hills of western Virginia. He … seems blessed of the Lord and is encouraged to envision, like Oedipus and David and Ephraim Cabot, a grand dynasty, founded on hard work, persistence, ingenuity, and the apparent blessing of the Almighty. Sutpen embodies Faulkner's conception of a tyrannos [a term originally denoting an absolute ruler without pejorative meaning; often a hero in Greek tragedy, notably Oedipus], perhaps the most complete tyrannos in American literature….

Sutpen is a tragic tyrannos in a region intoxicated with the memory of tragic tyranny. Sutpen is fated by a fearful determinism that flows out of the past and quagmires time. As in New England, where there is no escape from the Puritan inheritance, so the South cannot grope beyond the control of a congenital guilt arising from its religion and history. (p. 70)

[However,] Faulkner's concept of tragedy is as universal as every other tragedian's, and he makes his hero transcend his contemporaneous moment and geographic spot to reach archetypal stature. For it is the age-old confrontation of innocence and guilt without sin, of man and fate, that he intends to portray, and to that end, the South is but a pasteboard mask to be cut through to get at the truth.

For this confrontation, Faulkner fashions a tyrannos with so gigantic a dose of proper Greek hubris that he at once represents the grandiose American myth of rags to riches and soars beyond it. Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., once described the national myth as the "conviction that nothing in the world is beyond [the American's] power to accomplish." In Faulkner's tragic world the gods who pay attention to American democratic tyrannoi choose their protagonist because he has the hubris they love to play with. Then they hoist the hero on his own petard of heroism. Therefore, Faulkner fashions his hero with the characteristics of the genealogy of grandeur continuous from Prometheus … and evolves his tragedy with the bitter theme of innocence outraged by irony. (pp. 72-3)

This characteristic of innocence that Faulkner clothes his hero with has several important aspects that aid the coming catharsis, and every one of them is intertwined with the onslaught of irony. The hubris in Sutpen makes him a grotesque, a demon …, a victim of his own obsession of dynastic design, and a symbol of guilt; the innocence in him saves him from a judgment of villainy and evil. He suffers from the tragic metastasis of virtue, a condition that always afflicted tragic heroes with what Melville called the "madness of vital truth." This Faulkner makes Rosa perceive, even she who is so antipathetic to Thomas Sutpen: "If he was mad, it was only his compelling dream which was insane and not his methods…. I … did believe there was that spark, that crumb in madness which is divine, though madness knew of no word itself for the terror or pity". (pp. 73-4)

When this tyrannos begins to lose control, our hearts refuse to lay at his hand the sins with which his children are visited. We see the once powerful tyrannos stripped to a desperate animalism, like Lear naked on the heath, scrambling to put the shattered pieces back into some kind of compromised order. In Absalom, Absalom!, too, is bared a "sight most pitiful." (p. 74)

So, for Faulkner, moral purpose infuses and transcends time, history, the war, the grand design, the confrontation, the myth. That moral purpose involves God's power and inscrutability. The tyrannos is killed; his vision blotted out. He deserves his catastrophe, and he creates a family curse that ends with the idiocy of a grandson and the suicide of a bedeviled young man at Harvard. The sins of the father indeed are visited upon the progeny to the third generation. It is an Old Testament God that evoked this Greek tragedy. Moral equilibrium prevails.

Absalom, Absalom! is a grand moment in the history of American tragedy. It portrays the mind and psyche of a true American tyrannos in his ironic glory and catastrophe. In the American way, it colors the inscrutability of Greek fate with the inscrutability of a trustworthy Christian God. (p. 77)

Dan Vogel, "The Mask of Oedipus Tyrannos," in his The Three Masks of American Tragedy (copyright © 1974 by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University Press, 1974, pp. 13-102.

[With] William Faulkner's tragic hero, Joe Christmas, in Light in August (1932), we reach a climax in the history of American tragic writing. His demonism is even more horrific than Captain Ahab's. Yet Faulkner endows him with every phase of tragic heroism from divine morality to satanic criminality. The tragic masks Joe Christmas wears reveal his ancestry, too, as not only Satan and Macbeth, but Oedipus and Jesus.

The setting of Light in August is the South, and in the three interrelated stories that compose the book, various phases of this particular mystique are operative. In the story of Lena Grove, the mythic earth-naturalism of the southern countryside is depicted. In the story of Gail Hightower, the potent memory of the single dominating fact of the southern past, the Civil War, is invoked. In the story of Joe Christmas, the single most dominating fact of the southern past and present, the specter of race, propels the action of the tragedy. (pp. 159-60)

The first time we hear of Joe Christmas, he is already thirty years old and is on the run from the law. He is accused of murdering his middle-aged white do-gooder mistress, Joanna Burden, and of setting the torch to her mansion…. Then, flashback forces us to reorder our conception of the hero. We never forget the satanic posture of the protagonist, but remembrances of his past—his childhood, youth, courage, persistence—compel us to moderate our emotional response to him. In the case of Joe Christmas, this reordering of our reactions begins with Christological allusions, as his story is told by his grandfather who loves/hates him.

To be born illegitimately on Christmas morn in the equivalent of a manger is a big joke that augurs either a parallelism of Christological saintliness or plumb line to satanic depravity. It is Faulkner's sardonic tragic sense to name him after the Savior and make him a fiend. (p. 160)

The very irony of the gap between allusion and performance nurtures our response of pity and terror. The ancient Christ, who bears the perfection of heaven and assumes the curse of mankind, is balanced by the modern, aberrated Christmas, who symbolizes the depravity of self as the original condition of mankind. It is the scheme of things that both lurch toward a crucifixion to be reborn. Eminent virtue and eminent depravity alike, in modern, democratic tragedy, can be synthesized into a tragic enactment. (p. 161)

The same progression of plot and development of character that served Shakespeare in [Macbeth] serves Faulkner in Light in August. Our first glimpse of Macbeth is of a great soldier, resolute, courageous, admirable, and yet human. As an audience we are ready to identify with him. In his reconstruction of Joe Christmas' life, Faulkner uses the innocent childhood of his hero to create in us a positive response to him. It is a cynical adult world that destroys Joe's innocence and fashions his future choices of actions. (p. 163)

Faulkner balances the pity created for the young Joe Christmas with the terror he makes us perceive through a doubt about Joe's responsibility for his evil deeds….

[Like] Macbeth, he reveals a steely center of dignity. He retains our regard, so that against all logic, when his world crumbles, as Macbeth's at Dunsinane, we still pity him, and a small voice of terror in us asks, How far different are the righteous and the depraved heroes in the destiny that overtakes them? (p. 164)

Dan Vogel, "The Mask of Satan," in his The Three Masks of American Tragedy (copyright © 1974 by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University Press, 1974, pp. 141-67.

Faulkner's master-theme is man's inescapable need to search for communal ties, a search on which the individual's achievement of authentic selfhood depends. If he is to complete himself, the Faulkner hero must move from his initial solitude toward some form of social engagement. He must accept the risks of involvement in the lives of his fellows, for only in so doing can he feel himself to be an integral part of "a human family, of the human family." Faulkner's metaphor points to the larger social ideal that lies behind all his fiction: a state of communal wholeness within which, as within a coherent and loving family, the individual's identity would be defined, recognized, and sustained.

It is precisely this sense of participation in a cohesive community that is lacking, however, in the lives of nearly all Faulkner's characters. In his fiction the ideal state of communal wholeness is usually implied by its absence, in the dramatization of its opposite. From the urban chaos depicted in his early New Orleans sketches (1925) through the anarchic violence rendered in the Snopes Trilogy (1940–1959), the fragmented world confronted by Faulkner's typical protagonist offers him no acceptable role, no sense of participation or purpose, and no religious or moral tradition that can guide and support him. Estranged from everything outside himself, a Darl Bundren, a Quentin Compson, or a Joe Christmas can look to no external authority for recognition and validation of his selfhood. Faulkner's recurrent dramatization of the decay of families—e.g., the deterioration of the Compson, Sutpen, and Sartoris lines—is an expression in the domestic sphere of a more general, public disintegration: the collapse of the ideal of "human family" in the modern world and the resulting deracination of the individual.

Only in section I of his Collected Stories (1950), subtitled "The Country," does Faulkner reverse his usual strategy. In these stories he offers an extended rendering of an organic community in which his social ideal is given positive definition and complete institutional embodiment. (pp. 112-13)

Occasional critical praise for the accuracy of Faulkner's depiction of the "plain folk" has suggested that the primary value of these tales is their contribution to a descriptive chronicle of the Southern experience.

To take that approach to the stories of the Country, however, would be to mistake their nature and function, impoverish their meaning, and praise them for demonstrably wrong reasons. Measured against the realities of the Southern farmer's lot, "Shingles for the Lord," "A Bear Hunt," and the others hardly meet the test of strict historical or sociological accuracy. Indeed, Faulkner's frequent divergence from that standard helps point up the ideality of his fictional Country.

In economic terms, for example, the life of Faulkner's Country does not reflect conditions prevailing during the period in which these stories are set—the 'thirties and early 'forties, when President Roosevelt declared the rural South "the nation's number one economic problem." There is no agricultural depression in Frenchman's Bend, no grinding poverty, malnutrition, or unemployment, no drought, soil exhaustion, or crop failure, no absentee ownership or mortgaging of land, and almost no labor migrancy or tenant farming—Abner Snopes, the wandering sharecropper of "Barn Burning," being the lone exception.

Technological change and political responses to it have not affected the traditional economy of Faulkner's Country. The yeomen have no tractors, mechanical seeders, or chemical fertilizers, and they want no part of the farm relief programs sponsored by the New Deal…. The men of Frenchman's Bend continue to cultivate their ancestors' land with the same kinds of hand tools used there for generations, and they foresee no change in their manner of work. Since the Country seems immune to economic pressures, the members of the younger generation, unlike their actual prototypes, need plan no flight to the city. Personal roots run deep and hold firm in Frenchman's Bend. (pp. 114-15)

[Violence], physical or moral, has no place in the Country. In this respect, the socially harmonious world of these stories diverges not only from historical truth, but also from the Frenchman's Bend depicted in As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), and The Hamlet (1940), where mutual distrust and savage conflict are usually the first laws of life. As the "sole owner and proprietor" of Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner reserved the right to change a character's personality from book to book, as the exigencies of a particular fictional situation might demand. In section I of the Collected Stories, he takes the same liberty with all of Frenchman's Bend, transforming it from a world of violence to a realm of communal order.

Outwardly peaceful, the Country is also free of underlying class antagonism and racial tension. (p. 117)

Clearly, then, Faulkner's Country will hardly serve as a sociologically or historically accurate "mirror" of the rural South in this century. But while it is untenable to praise the strict verisimilitude of these stories, it would be equally wrongheaded to condemn them as "unrealistic"—as naive as to complain that there are no bandits in the Forest of Arden and no milking machines in Frost's New Hampshire. Like Frost's technique, Faulkner's obviously selective mode of presentation in these works is mythic, akin to pastoral idyll, and the stories function in the traditional manner of pastoral. The first part of the Collected Stories defines an ideal of communal health, wholeness, and peace against which the reader can measure the social and personal disintegration rendered in subsequent sections and throughout the Faulkner canon. (pp. 118-19)

The social and personal disintegration rendered in subsequent parts of the Collected Stories is the more vivid and appalling when contrasted with the organic union of self and community defined in the volume's opening section…. The normative function of Faulkner's Country extends far beyond his Collected Stories, however. To juxtapose the ordered society of Frenchman's Bend with the anarchic worlds of Sanctuary, Light in August, and The Sound and the Fury is to heighten our awareness of the terrifying consequences that attend destruction of the communal spirit throughout Faulkner's works. Thus Faulkner's Country functions in the traditional manner of pastoral—to define an ideal vantage point from which to measure the corrupt realities of a fallen world, and to evoke a condition of social and personal fulfillment toward which men of moral imagination may strive. (p. 136)

Philip Momberger, "Faulkner's 'Country' as Ideal Community," in Individual and Community: Variations on a Theme in American Fiction, edited by Kenneth H. Baldwin and David K. Kirby (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1975 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Duke University Press, 1975, pp. 112-36.

Faulkner has been unkinder to Sanctuary than to any of his other productions; his flip Introduction and weak sequel have deflected critical attention from the simple excellence of the novel that he revised into being…. There have, of course, been [some] generally favorable treatments of Sanctuary recently, but in all of them there has sounded a tone of condescension, as though there was a critical consensus that the novel, whatever its merits and qualities, did not finally measure up and—to be sure—exhibited some obvious defects. In an attempt to counteract these views, this essay will focus on the novel as given us, not on the earlier version and not on its relation to earlier and later Faulkner works. Indeed, the time has come to disconnect Sanctuary from Sartoris and Requiem for a Nun, and to place it in its genuine context in Faulkner's work: it belongs with The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! as one of the five important works of Faulkner's finest period of creativity. If Faulkner's work of this period tends to present a discernible thematic pattern, a "figure in the carpet," then Sanctuary provides an important part of the figure and design. (p. 139)

In drawing on the resources of high culture and low, of modern poetry and comic strips, and in creating a world of highly stylized characters and elements, Faulkner made Sanctuary probably his most contemporary book. Like the "realism" of recent American fiction, Sanctuary's stylized realism is a strange mixture of the actual and the semi-allegorical, the everyday and the extraordinary—all artfully contrived to convey a more acute sense of the way things really are than traditional realism can…. What Faulkner did in Sanctuary connects in many fascinating ways with what Flannery O'Connor does in Wise Blood, Joseph Heller in Catch-22, Thomas Pynchon in V., Ken Kesey in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in Cat's Cradle, or Jerzy Kosinski in The Painted Bird. All of these novelists at various points violate our sense of reality, but at these very points they all, too, give us a transcendent sense of the world that is so real that it is painful, when it is not hilarious. Often it is both, simultaneously. Comedy and humor play no small part in these recent works, and they play a similar important part in Sanctuary.

The comedy of Sanctuary not only evokes the reader's laughter, but also startles him—because of its context of violence, brutality, degradation. Perhaps because he is startled, the reader is discomfited by the humor, shamed in the vague realization that he is laughing where he should be serious, is giggling where he should be sympathetic, is amused where he should be repelled. If this novel is, as some critics have claimed, Faulkner's darkest, why should the reader get a kick out of reading it? Didn't, indeed, Faulkner make a mistake by inserting comedy in an essentially serious work, thereby diminishing its impact? (pp. 146-47)

As a matter of fact, Sanctuary is not divided neatly into serious and comic scenes, but almost all the episodes are some curious mixture of the two elements…. Thus the so-called comic scenes do not represent the introduction of elements generally foreign to the novel. Considered in their context, they appear to be in their natural setting, and represent the surfacing and coming into central focus of an element that runs through all the novel. Indeed, the comedy and horror are so closely intertwined in Sanctuary that no single scene is so "pure" as not to posit, at some depth or level, the opposite of its main emotional coloring and impact: the comic has substrata of horror, and the horror has its substrata of the comic. Perhaps somewhere in this mixed structure lies the novel's ultimate meaning. (pp. 147-48)

Sexuality and death … offer Faulkner both his comic and serious themes in Sanctuary. Looked at one way, they are comic; looked at another way, they are grotesque and horrible. By bringing the two perspectives so close together, Faulkner was implying something about the nature of human experience itself: that it absurdly contains, at one and the same time, the comic alongside the tragic—humor in the horror. (p. 151)

Sanctuary's intense bitterness lies in its insight into the hypocrisy and hollowness of both the religion and the community presented in the novel.

The very title of this novel, Sanctuary, has traditional religious connotations. But as one reads into the novel, he discovers that those connotations are ironic. No one finds genuine sanctuary in the novel, but what little shelter is discovered is found in spite of community and religion…. It is one of the novel's major ironies that the two places that offer more comfort and shelter, more genuine human communion, than any other are the whore house in Memphis and the jail in Jefferson. (pp. 151-52)

Much of [the critics'] difficulty with the conclusion springs from the difficulty with coming to terms with the character of Popeye throughout the novel. He is one of the most vivid and memorable of all Faulkner's characters, a creature of horror who seems to be something of a cross between T. S. Eliot's hollow man (headpiece filled with straw) and Sweeney (but because he is impotent, not "Sweeney Erect")—with something thrown in too of The Waste Land's fisherking, sexually crippled in a dry and burnt out land. But more than these or any combination of them, Popeye is himself and unique. (pp. 154-55)

As readers and critics, we have yearned to heap blame on Popeye for all the terrible events of Sanctuary, and we have been upset in finding out that his frail figure will not bear the weight of our wrath. Indeed, Faulkner planned it that way as a trick on his audience, a trick designed to bring self awareness and insight. (p. 155)

Popeye's background, had it been given early in the novel, would change entirely the way we read Sanctuary. There can be no doubt that Faulkner was fully aware of this simple fact. As the novel is now structured, Popeye is the first character to appear in the novel, and he is a sinister presence throughout…. Just as we have inflated his image to bear the weight of all his guilt, perhaps even smug in our satisfaction in having a scapegoat to blame for all the novel's evil, we discover in the novel's last chapter that he is indeed a hollow man made of stamped tin and rubber eyes, that he is indeed simply "another lost human being," that he is indeed a "monster."… We discover, perhaps to our horror, that we have been heaping our hatred on a child-man, devoid of the normal attributes of a human being, a monster more to be pitied than blamed, a creature simply unworthy of the grandiose role of evil-doer that we want to assign him. (p. 157)

In placing Popeye's background in the last chapter of Sanctuary for its most resonant effect, Faulkner was following a method he was to follow in all his great fiction. Faulkner's novels tend to flow backward in time at the same time that they move closer to the present. For example, in Light in August we do not learn of the ambiguity of Joe Christmas's birth until deep into the last half of the novel. In Absalom, Absalom! we do not learn of Thomas Sutpen's crucial boyhood experience until long after he has appalled us by his behavior. (pp. 157-58)

[The] last, quickly sketched scenes are some of the bleakest in Sanctuary, not unlike some of the scenes of sophisticated decadence in The Waste Land. Just at the time that we come to some kind of dim understanding of Popeye, he is extinguished in circumstances irrelevant to his deeds and to any definition of justice. Temple, originator of much of the novel's violence and brutality and inhumanity, walks the earth bored with the uneventfulness of her life, prepared for the next, new sensation. The very sky itself, "lying prone and vanquished," appears to proclaim the withdrawal of any God of justice or deity of concern. The season of Sanctuary is, indeed, the season of "rain and death." (pp. 158-59)

James E. Miller, Jr., "Yoknapatawpha's Waste Land," in Individual and Community: Variations on a Theme in American Fiction, edited by Kenneth H. Baldwin and David K. Kirby (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1975 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Duke University Press, 1975, pp. 137-59.


Faulkner, William (Vol. 3)


Faulkner, William (Vol. 9)