illustrated portrait of American author William Faulkner

William Faulkner

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Virginia V. Hlavsa (essay date March 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8400

SOURCE: Hlavsa, Virginia A. “The Mirror, the Lamp, and the Bed: Faulkner and the Modernists.” American Literature 57, no. 1 (March 1985): 23-43.

[In the following essay, Hlavsa outlines the facets of modernist writing and distinguishes Faulkner as a modernist writer.]

Although Faulkner is frequently called a Romantic, it is time that he be placed where he belongs, among the Modernists. In The Mirror and the Lamp, M. H. Abrams distinguishes between the Neo-classical, eighteenth-century artist as a “perceiving” mind, reflecting the external world like a mirror, and the Romantic, nineteenth-century artist as a “projecting” mind, casting a self-image out onto the world like a lamp. T. S. Eliot suggested that the Modernist movement was a return to the hard, spare world of classicism, the exact observation of the external object. But this overlooks the new temporal and spatial reordering and even disordering of the external world, primarily in response to psychology. Gertrude Stein, especially, saw the implications of William James's “flow” or “stream” of consciousness for revealing repressed instinct, and suggested that artists return to repetitions and primitive rhythms. Thus, we could say that the Modernist movement (and Faulkner) represents not the perceiving nor the projecting mind, but the promiscuous mind. And the appropriate image is neither the enlightened mirror nor the enlightening lamp, but the darkened bed.

The choice would rest on more than a greater frankness regarding sexuality. The word promiscuous means “having diverse parts,” an apt description of the Freudian awareness of the mind's divisions, the many levels of unawareness below the conscious. Modernists such as Eugene O'Neill even sounded Jungian depths to the racial unconscious. While the Romantic had seen the primitive as a purifying spring, the Modernist saw it as a muddy riverbottom, full of blind creatures that bump in the mire. Romantic nature, wild, was still an English garden, not a wasteland. Promiscuous also means “indiscriminate,” “lacking standards of selection.” Indeed, Modernists did set out to remove personal judgment or censure from the material chosen. Joyce wanted to represent “the thousand complexities” of the mind and as many activities of the body, with the instincts central to both. As Hemingway's Frederic Henry says in A Farewell to Arms, “I was not made to think. I was made to eat. My God, yes. Eat and drink and sleep with Catherine.” Promiscuous is also apt in its “casual” sense. The Modernist writer, knowing that the unconscious leads our “free associations” by the nose, felt free to mix casually with the night crawlers, our dreams, where words refuse to lie still, undoing the pious by calling a funeral a funforall or toppling the innocent with “the cock struck mine.” Thus, the promiscuously-minded Modern artist played with his material, having his own hidden designs.

In this profusion of free associations and primordial rhythms, the Modern artist turned to the bed for primary relationships and ancient rites of passage. Sister Carrie could say goodbye to her family in chapter one and never glance back, but the Modernist carried that first bed on his back like Kafka's bug. Moreover, the Modernist recognized the essential sameness for all in the big bed moments of birth, death, sickness, or sex. In the nineteenth century, the butler simply helped you with your coat. In the twentieth century, he might snicker at your bald spot. And that mattered. The agony of Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts is knowing that the most odious human beings suffer an agony as great as his own. Above all, the bed is an apt metaphor because, unlike previous artists, who believed they controlled the illumination of their...

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work (whether reflecting or projecting), the Modern artist knew he was one of the featured partners in the performance, the other being the work of art itself. In other words, besides the driving forces of character, plot, or genre, the artist knew that one engine was his own, usually unconscious, obsessions. Therefore, the greater his nakedness, the more prodigious his cover.

Three types of covers may be observed in the Modernist movement. Most obviously, writers organized their work by external patterns. Of course, great writers of the past have often turned to ordering structures. Chaucer used Boccaccio and Boethius; Shakespeare used Plutarch and Holinshed; Milton used the Bible and the Talmud. With the rise of Romanticism, which glorified the individual imagination, the practice of building on older works came into disfavor. Although Coleridge evidently used ship logs for his descriptions in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the source was obscure and he kept it quiet. Modernists such as Eliot, Pound and Joyce returned to the practice, sometimes with a vengeance. The eighteen episodic chapter units in Ulysses relate to parts of the body, disciplines of the mind, times of the day, techniques of discourse, colors, symbols, and other wonders too numerous to mention. Beckett reported Joyce's saying, “I may have oversystematized Ulysses.” But ironically, he and the Modernists set up these elaborate frameworks as they also set out to represent reality, the highest goal of a literature in competition with the age of photography.

A second cover of Modernist writers involved fragmentation and distortion. For example, Joyce's Cyclops chapter begins with the word “I,” repeats expressions such as “says I,” uses phrases such as “cod's eye” (to rhyme with God's eye), discusses the Irish and the Emerald Isle, and Joe and John and Jesus (whose names, in Greek, begin with an I), and refers to a local watchtower or a one-eyed merchant, all glancing off references to “blinding.” In fact, Modernists such as Pound or Crane were so obscure they seemed cabalistic. Yet recent psychological experiments suggest that communication may be occurring without our awareness. Evidently every time a word is encountered, all the meanings we know, no matter how disparate, are available to us on some level. Thus, if I say, “This room has bugs in it,” you might promptly produce several meanings for “bugs.” But tests, demonstrating the human being's ability to quick-shift, show that on the unconscious level, you probably have all five meanings in readiness: cockroaches, germs, problems, enthusiasts, or hidden microphones.

It was Freud's studies of dreams, jokes, and slips of the tongue that brought this phenomenon into the Modern awareness. In these mundane circumstances were found four types of word play: displacement (shifting emphases), condensation (compressing meanings), representation (making symbols), and misrepresentation (garbling and gainsaying with puns and adversatives). Of course, the reason for these routine distortions is that they protect us from those thoughts that lie too deep for tears (or titterings). Given, this, the artist's task is to pluck the words and set them vibrating in the mind to register a wider range of meaning. Sherwood Anderson, a profound influence on Faulkner, had himself been influenced by Gertrude Stein's “strange sentences,” which gave words “an oddly new intimate flavor” while they made “familiar words seem almost like strangers.” Anderson encouraged young writers to join the “great revolution in the art of words.” Imagine the delight of these Modern word bugs when they discovered they could jam words together to make “dimmansions” or spread them out to make “her wavyavyeavyheavyeavyevyevy hair”; that they could slip letters out, making “word” out of “world”; or garble them, making “calvary” out of “cavalry”; or reverse them, making “dog” out of “god.” Again, the justification for this word play was the creation of realism, to catch what Joyce called that “great part of every human existence … which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.”

The third cover of the Modernist writer—that he chose the ironic mode—follows logically from the first two. For if the writer was both hiding and distorting, he was a dissembler, the meaning of the Greek root eiron. And this, again, despite our shared sense that his fictive world was somehow more real. Of course, as J. H. Robinson, the Modern historian, suggested, the complexities of human thought and experience could only be treated in a mood of tolerant irony. But for the racked artist, the tolerance was feigned and the detachment was probably like the fantasy of Modern parents, imagining they could avoid conflict with their children if they “used” psychology. In fact, sometimes the ironic mode leaves us, like the children, aware of intense feeling but puzzled about the specifics. Scholars are still quarreling over the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels: were the Houyhnhnms Swift's ideal or an overnice contrast to the Yahoos? Although we can usually center the authors of previous ages within the beliefs of their own time, for the Modernists the center would not hold. And as for asking them what they meant, if they were willing to speak, we might learn their conscious desires. But what parent wants to know his or her own unconscious desires?

Faulkner was a notoriously untrustworthy commentator on his own writing, and he worked beneath all the covers. It is not surprising that both he and Joyce thought of themselves first as poets, for they both loved to write under the constraints of form and with the freedom of word play. Moreover, a direct influence may be claimed. Faulkner's reading in the Modernists is suggested by the book list, ordered for him by Phil Stone, who encouraged the young Faulkner in his writing. His awareness of Joyce is documented through biography1 and text, with allusions to and devices from Ulysses appearing as early as Soldiers' Pay and Mosquitoes.

As Joseph Blotner says, Faulkner was in the habit of “setting new technical challenges for himself in successive novels,” and by now scholarship has uncovered some of those challenges. But since he was more secretive than Joyce, who could not wait for his café set to uncover his schemes, Faulkner never disclosed his game-plans. Indeed, asked if he had ever felt the need to discuss his writing with anyone, Faulkner said “No. No one but me knew what I was writing about or writing from.”

My own findings on Faulkner indicate we must ask of every work: what happens in what chapter or division? The nine chapters of Absalom, Absalom! represent nine types of evidence, admissible and not, in giving legal testimony.2 Highly ironic, in the first four chapters, the testimony by actual witnesses to Sutpen's “crime” violates the four exclusionary rules: irrelevance, hearsay, immateriality, and best evidence withheld. The middle chapter registers the deaths, giving proof of the crime, before the hearings move north. In the last four chapters, pure conjectures by Quentin and Shreve are given increasing weight, because they represent legal procedures: viewing the scene, admissions or confessions, probable reasoning, and finally Faulkner's substantial proof, the old “mindless meat.” And there is good reason to believe that this is but one level of Faulkner's gameplan; Maxine Rose's study demonstrates the book's movement from Genesis to Revelation.3

Certainly Light in August shows Faulkner's Dantesque ability to work on multiple levels. To review his gameplan there,4 the first rule was to parallel the twenty-one chapters of Light in August with the twenty-one chapters of the St. John gospel. For example, echoing John's famous, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” is Lena's insistent faith in the “word” of Lucas, who is, after all, the father: “I said for him to … just send me word. … Like as not, he already sent me the word and it got lost. … I told him … ‘You just send me your mouthword.’ … But me and Lucas dont need no word promises between us … he [must have] sent the word and it got lost.”5 Or the healing of the halt man by immersion occurs in chapter 5 where, in Faulkner, Joe is repeatedly immersed in liquids, real and imagined: “In the less than halflight he appeared to be watching his body … turning slow and lascivious in a whispering of gutter filth like a drowned corpse in a thick still black pool of more than water. … The dark air breathed upon him … he could feel the dark air like water. … He watched his body grow white out of the darkness like a kodak print emerging from the liquid” (pp. 99-100). The teaching in the temple—learning the Father's will—occurs in chapter 7, the chapter in which McEachern is trying to teach Joe his catechism, all the while Joe is actually learning his father's will: “the two blacks in their rigid abnegation of all compromise more alike than actual blood could have made them” (p. 139). Most important, the crucifixion occurs in chapter 19, in which Joe, slain and castrated, soars into memory like a “rising rocket” on the “black blast” of his breath.

The second rule of Faulkner's gameplan was that he know and respond to biblical commentary on John.6 Consider just the outlines of the two books. Following John's prologue, the chapters up through 12 are called the Book of Signs; chapters 13 through 20 (the final days) are the Book of Glory; and chapter 21 was written by someone other than John. In Light in August, the chapters up through 12 depict events leading up to the explanation of the murder; chapters 13 through 20 depict Joe's final days; while chapter 21, beyond Jefferson, is told by a new narrator.

The third rule was that John be viewed in the light of James Frazer's complete work, The Golden Bough, not in any casual way but using particular sections to develop particular themes in John. For example, in John 14, Jesus discusses his coming death in terms of the “many mansions” (or dwelling places) of his Father's house; that he is “the way,” for his Father “dwelleth” in him and he in the Father; and that our final “abode” will be with him. Place is central, yet time and place collapse in on each other as the “way” becomes an in-dwelling, both now and “at that day.” With this in mind, it is not surprising that Regina Fadiman's study of the manuscript Light [Light in August] shows that the “episodes were originally written chronologically and then purposely reshuffled.”7 For all the characters (not just Joe), time and place are scrambled, and the “many mansions” include Lena's cabin, the Negro church, the sheriff's house, his office, the cottonhouse, the farmhouse, and Joe's recall: “somewhere a house, a cabin. House or cabin … ‘It was a cabin that time.’” But Joe's behavior is further understood by reading Frazer's discussions of the purification rites for mourners, warriors, and manslayers. Because of their contact with the dead, such persons must be isolated from the community, living in the brush or in huts, with special strictures not to touch food and to purify themselves before they return by taking emetics, washing, and shaving in a stream. Thus, Joe lives in the brush or in barns; he has food set before him, “appearing suddenly between long, limber black hands fleeing too in the act of setting down the dishes”; he makes himself eat rotten fruit and hard corn “with the resultant crises of bleeding flux”; and his last act before surrendering is to wash and shave in the stream. Although all of this might be explained by his role of fugitive killer, his buffeting the Negro churchleaders is almost inexplicable until we read, in Frazer's same discussions of tabooed persons, that territorial strangers are also believed to carry the spirits of the dead. Before acceptance, they must first commit some act of hostility, knocking over an idol or exchanging blows with the local shamen.8 Thus, Joe may be understood to be entering, for the first time, the world of blacks. Receiving their food, he says, almost in wonder, “And they were afraid. Of their brother afraid” (pp. 316-17).

The fourth rule, which has had the widest attention, was that the characters have religious and mythic counterparts. Even in this, Faulkner selected his mythic figures from Frazer in accordance with their compatibility with the biblical figures: Isis (Lena), out looking for Osiris (Lucas), was early confused with the Virgin Mary. Dionysus (Joe Christmas), god of tree and vine, was buried and resurrected like Christ. Moreover, as in myth, characters can take up several appropriate roles. Besides the obvious ties to Jesus Christ, Joe Christmas can also represent the challenger in Frazer's famous description of the golden bough in Diana's oak grove. If a runaway slave could break off the bough, he could fight the priest of the grove and become “King of the Wood” (I, 1-24). Thus, Joe contends with Joanna (called a “priest”) “as if he struggled physically with another man for an object of no actual value to either, and for which they struggled on principle alone” (p. 222). Joe can also represent the golden bough, god-empowered by lightning, which hangs on the sacred tree, like Christ. Seeing Joanna, Joe senses “instantaneous as a landscape in a lightning-flash, a horizon of physical security and adultery if not pleasure” (p. 221). At his death, he is even the originating god: “his raised and armed and manacled hands full of glare and glitter like lightning bolts, so that he resembled a vengeful and furious god pronouncing a doom” (p. 438).

When critics complained to Joyce that the puns he used to establish themes were trivial, he retorted, “Yes, some of my means are trivial, and some are quadrivial.” As a similarly deliberate craftsman, Faulkner makes every word count, every metaphor or phrase. He once said that Flaubert was “a man who wasted nothing … whose approach toward his language was almost the lapidary's.” Faulkner's use of names has been most obvious. Anse is for the ants of this world; Snopes for—what?—the low, snotty stoops? Narcissa is the mirror; Popeye the voyeur. What has not been realized is that the chapter in which we learn a character's name can be significant. In Absalom, Absalom! we only learn the names of Clytemnestra and Charles Bon in chapter 3, amid a barrage of historical or fictional personae such as Bluebeard or Cassandra, which strengthens the legal principle of “immateriality.”

Less observed than the naming game is the significant diction and metaphor. Some uses of dialect will illustrate. In Light in August, the word “sho” for “sure” occurs prominently in chapters 1, 18, and 21. In these chapters of John, the central theme is Christ's identification: at his first appearance to the disciples, at the public trial, and at his final appearance, which begins, “After these things Jesus shewed himself to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and in this wise shewed he himself.” Thus, “sho” can be both “sure” and the homonym “show.” Or in Absalom, Absalom! Wash Jones says to Sutpen, “I know that whatever your hands tech, whether hit's a regiment of men or a ignorant gal or just a hound dog, that you will make hit right,” and he also says, “how could I have lived nigh to him for twenty years without being touched and changed by him?” Thus, when Wash comes at him with the scythe and Sutpen says, “Stand back, Wash. Don't you touch me,” and Wash says, “I'm going to tech you, Kernel” (italics mine), we realize Sutpen will be both taught and touched, as he should have been by his son, Charles Bon.

How do we know these structural and dictional patterns were Faulkner's designs? For example, in my study of Light in August, I proposed chapter 2 could be entitled “external changes” because that theme relates to John 2 and appropriate passages in Frazer. While “change” is a high-frequency word in Faulkner's chapter, the word never occurs in John 2 (the marriage at Cana and the scourge of the temple) although “changers” does. It may seem like circular reasoning to propose using a term which is analyzed and then “discovered” in the text to support the use of the proposed term. Can the use of this key term be justified?

Only because it works. Following Faulkner's lead, reading John through Faulkner's themes, can reveal patterns unnoticed in John. But first we must determine the direction of Faulkner's lead, and since Faulkner himself is a playful or perplexing guide, each chapter demands some close scrutiny. In other words, to solve John, you must first solve Faulkner's chapters as you would a riddle. Take the anonymous medieval verse:

All night by the rose, rose,
All night by the rose I lay,
Dared I not the rose steal,
Yet I bore that flower away.

Five types of observation help us to discover the meaning of this riddle: the repetition, the positioning, the accent, the associations, and the anomalies. Thus, “all night,” repeated once and placed at line's beginning, and “rose,” repeated three times and placed at line's end, should be noted. Regarding “rose,” we think of the flower and its tradition of youth, passion, and purity. We also think of the past tense of “rise,” sexually suggestive, especially in conjunction with “all night,” the rhymed word “lay,” and that striking word “bore.” Beyond all, we notice that the manifest content, the riddle, makes no sense: how can one both lie by a rose and bear it away? One can, but only when the action is in the past tense.

Were I to title this riddle “The Maid's Deflowering,” you might complain that I don't know that this is the meaning. Nowhere does the word “maid” appear; “deflower” is not “flower”; and even if the poem is about sex, it could be about adultery rather than the loss of virginity. All this is true. However, this title does fit the parts—it works. Furthermore, for me, the young man's delight (and notice that I assume it is a young man), his “roguishness,” is increased by imagining his lay involves a young girl. It is not wrong to use our imagination. If we, as informed readers, can establish a pattern on the strength of the most verifiable evidence, then we may take the next step and extrapolate, bringing to light less obvious (though perhaps equally important) evidence.

In fact, if we use the five types of observations in Faulkner's chapter 2 and discover the theme of “change,” we find, returning to John 2, that it does apply to all three episodes, a unity previously unnoticed. The first story in John has been called “the changing of water to wine”; the second involves the changes Jesus would effect by driving from the temple those “changers of money”; and the third has Christ foretelling his own resurrection, a change in the “temple of his body.” Notice that John himself uses “temple” metaphorically. In fact, word play is a distinguishing feature of John.

Many examples of this pleasurable puzzle-solving could be given. Although John is the most “written” of the four gospels, the unity of his chapters is by no means always apparent. But Faulkner evidently saw or sensed the compatibilities, perhaps because, as a Modernist writer, he was willing to pull the word out of context, make it concrete or invert it. Or perhaps these compatibilities came to Faulkner from seeking the primitive or archetypal designs behind John's stories. In other words, The Golden Bough may have suggested some of these matches between concrete behavior and abstract thought. For example, if we turn to Frazer for the folk or mythic traditions surrounding the changing of water to wine, we find that certain people marked Easter by holding their tongues in buckets of water mixed with fodder, waiting to gulp it at the “miraculous change” (X, 124). Thus, along with the second chapter's examples of external change—of clothing, of name, of the underworld bootlegging of that Underworld wine god, Joe Christmas as Dionysus (whose rites involved changing water to wine)—Faulkner suggests internal changes of attitude or expectations, but even these are signalled by the concrete—the loosened tongue and the buckets of “muck.”

To be sure, if we had to rely on any one chapter for the basic pattern, our analysis would seem altogether too convenient. On the other hand, if every cream sauce has a fishy taste, it is time to look for the trout in the milk. If we, by reading Faulkner, are able to discover unifying themes in John and compatible discussions in Frazer, twenty-one times over, certainly Faulkner could have made the same discoveries.

The question is how much of this unifying work was conscious on Faulkner's part? Theories on creativity tend to go in two directions: artists may have more conscious awareness than the rest of us, or less. Either they bring the unconscious up to the light, or they descend into the darkness, intuitively guided. Going to either extreme starts throats to clearing. If Faulkner attended to every detail, he might be thought of as obsessive. If the unconscious took over, he might be thought of as lacking art.

There are good reasons to lean toward obsessiveness. To begin with, this inclination goes with the trade. The writer is obsessed (the word means “to sit on”), playing by the hour with pieces of his own creation (while the critic plays with another's creation!). One can still see the complex notes for A Fable, in large and minuscule lettering, all over the walls of Faulkner's working study at Rowan Oak. Moreover, Faulkner was obsessed, with the South, with racism, with religion, with women. His bathroom obsessions are painfully obvious in Mosquitoes. Obsessions are useful; they keep us at the task. But just as Faulkner's obsessions led him to do the work, so they also led to some overreaching for parallels.9 In A Fable, a coil of barbed wire evidently signifies Christ's crown of thorns. Alas, Light in August has many such examples: in chapter 4, the “living water” of Christ, testified to by Jacob's well, becomes Hightower's sweat, rolling down his face as he hears Byron's testimony. In chapter 6, Christ's discourse on bread and the eating of his flesh becomes Joe Christmas, descended of Ham, eating “bread, with ham between” on the way out of the orphanage, and “bread, with ham between” on the way back.10 In chapter 11, the raising of Mary's and Martha's brother Lazarus from the dead becomes the sexual revival of Joanna, with her “body of a dead woman not yet stiffened,” while in 20, the raising of Christ from the dead becomes the rising—the erection—of Hightower, masturbating.11

But side by side with this adolescent snickering is a passionate cry of rage. Each of those outlandish parallels is just one instance of a significant chapter theme. In chapter 4, Brown's testimony brings many people to life, but especially Joe Christmas as “nigger.” Chapter 6 describes the process of making Joe into the dough-man, to be broken and shared by each new communicant. Chapter 11 represents a revived not brother, but brotherhood in the union of Joanna and Joe, north and south, white and black, while chapter 20 reveals that Hightower does hold the image of life—in all its tragic absurdity—within his Golgothian bandaged skull.

Faulkner's world is, above all, one of paradox, of extremes. In such a world, it is the women who are harder on Lena than the men. It is the kind mother who is more of a danger to Joe than the cruel father. It is the rational milquetoast who nightly relives the foolhardy violence of the cavalry charge. And it is the low, brutal scapegoat who finally soars into sanctity.

Operating by extremes permitted Faulkner to suggest the whole range of human experience—the realism Modernists sought—while he worked with some fairly stock characters: the earth mother, the hot spinster, the prostitute with the heart of gold, the weak-kneed intellectual, the mean half-breed. The fact that he animated these lumps of rage and jest under secret wraps suggests that they may have been shaped by a fierce sentimentality,12 an expression of unfulfilled longings. Apparently one of Faulkner's engines was a treacherous tenderness toward his characters, glaringly evident in The Reivers. To protect himself from his own pathos, he permitted his characters brutal or ludicrous behavior—behavior which he alone (like the Creator) could explain. In Light in August, by following what Eliot called the “mythical method,” Faulkner made all of his characters operate by forces they cannot begin to understand, let alone resist. Place Joe on the analyst's couch, he might dredge up the dietitian, but he would never imagine he was playing the role of Dionysus. Joanna knows only that she is a carpetbagger's granddaughter, not that she is Diana of the Woods. In chapter 6, Faulkner protected himself from the heartbreaking knowledge of Joe, the victimized child, by filling his chapter (in John, the feeding of the multitude) with food jokes: the matron has “jellied” eyes; the dietitian makes Joe think of “something sweet and sticky to eat”; while she thinks of him among blacks as “a pea in a pan full of coffee beans.” Similarly, in chapter 12, Faulkner protected himself from the heartbreaking knowledge of Joanna, the aching old maid, by filling this chapter (in which Jesus announces, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone”) with parallels to the harvesting of the Corn-Maiden and other slightly ludicrous rain-making behavior, described in Frazer.

The secrecy has also had the effect of keeping Faulkner's characters more firmly under his own control, less vulnerable to critical scrutiny, with Faulkner even having later to set the record straight. In chapter 20, Hightower, he had to tell us, does not die. That might have been obvious had we known that Hightower is playing the Doubting Thomas, who must be shown everything before he believes. Such a figure deserves nothing more dramatic than one dim moment of insight before he returns to his nightly “charge.”

As for our reaction, when the covers are off the Modernist writer, the truth can be like a psychoanalytic truth about one's self, both better and worse than we supposed. For example, fortunately there is reason for Faulkner's having introduced a new narrator in his chapter 21 to parallel the new narrator in John 21, for he demonstrates the power of faith (despite some fishy appearances) to sustain the good and simple people of this earth. Unfortunately, his version of the drawing-in of nets is that Byron is the poor fish that didn't get away.

But the good and bad of the Modernist techniques must be faced. Many people don't like puns, and especially they don't like bad puns, which simply interrupt their train of thought. In fact, someone has said that encountering puns in Modernist novels can be like coming on metallic prizes in a cake—more disturbing than pleasant. Then too, many people actively resent Faulkner's obscurities and the vague hints of goings-on. Often, his writing makes one feel like a child in a roomful of adults who are speaking of something fascinating (like sex) in riddles and grimaces. Moreover, the explanations for the anomalies do not make them disappear. Indeed, far from satisfying our novelistic need for realism, they seem to send us off to other, unrelated, worlds. Worst of all, without explanations, we can lose our way completely. There is an elitist, rejecting side to the ironic mode, which even the cognoscenti may dislike.

Naturally, these arguments can be countered. Just as the Modern artist used bright colors, thick outlines, and abstract shapes, so Faulkner used his materials, the words themselves, the odd structures and the ironic, dissembling mode to disturb and distract us. Indeed, they suggest that the train of thought may have more than one destination. Reality does encompass strange and distant lands, all within our personal or collective past. Freud's main thesis might be that our sense of what is real must be expanded to include some rather peculiar impulses and behavior. Eliot maintained that The Golden Bough opened Modern writers to “that vanished mind of which our own civilization is a continuation.” While E. M. Forster was saying “only connect,” Faulkner was demonstrating that the connections are there, willy-nilly, evidently reasoning that human behavior, however odd, must follow universal impulses. Without knowing Joe Christmas is a tree god, we do understand that his dark, contemptuously still face could make a community of decent, hard-working men want to “run him through the planer.”

The fragmentation works in a similar way. As Harold Kaplan noted, “Faulkner's characters are fragments of men needing each other to compose the full image.”13 In A Fable, Christ is crucified as Corporal Brzewsky, the English Boggan, the American Brzewski, and the Rev. Tobe Sutterfield, alias Tooleyman (Tout le Monde). In Light in August, Christmas is the crucified Christ while Lena's baby is the infant Jesus. As John Edward Hardy says, “Mystically, the God dies and is born simultaneously. Moreover, it is sound cultural history as well as sound theology. For the pattern of the Christian myth does … survive only in fragments.”14

Where each character enacts a chapter theme, there are no heroes or villains, only better or worse people at better or worse moments. “Hero” becomes a momentary “heroism,” and “betrayals” must be considered individually and in context. Lucas, rebelling from his master, Christmas, is a traitor, yet Byron, rebelling from Hightower, is becoming his own man. McEachern's stubborn indoctrination has a disastrous effect on Joe, yet the same behavior by Calvin Burden, who would “beat the loving God” into his children, produces a returning son who engages his father in “deadly play and smiling seriousness.” When the sheriff harks to Brown's assertion that Christmas is black with the crescendoing, “Nigger? … Nigger?” we see a good man disappearing into the haze of his racist background. When Grimm castrates Joe and shouts, “Now you'll let white women alone, even in hell,” we see a bad man using racism as a blind for his own paranoia.

This thematic engagement of all the elements, working like poetry, is what makes the minor episodes so strong in Faulkner. At any point in his novels, the main action up on center stage is reflected and re-echoed back and forth from every corner of the theatre. Thus Faulkner strengthens the realism of his fiction; life does consist of more than center stage. But also the ironic use of external structures undercuts that realism, reminding us that we are still in the theatre, reliving scenes from a very old script.

The point is, if we do not read Faulkner in the light of these Modern techniques, we misread Faulkner. Not recognizing the connections between the alternating stories of The Wild Palms, editors disengaged “The Old Man,” and as McHaney notes, the convict's “No to life” must be balanced by Harry's “No to death.”15 Not recognizing the significance of the manner and order by which the information is revealed in Absalom, Absalom! commentators set about “unscrambling” the book with genealogical charts and chronological checks. Not recognizing the humorous parallel to the fourth gospel's 21st chapter, penned by a lesser writer, critics deemed the ending of Light in August a failure.

Just as Faulkner's technique followed the artistic current of his day, so did his beliefs. As with other Modernists, Faulkner was writing against a background of Victorian religiosity. The Christ Story—itself filled with ironies—was owned and operated by the Sincere who were keeping the Store going by capitalizing more and more of Its Goods. When the Modernists seized it for their ironic mode, they seemed impious. Consider the shocked response to The Man Who Died, D. H. Lawrence's Passion according to Frazer's Osiris. But often they believed themselves to be more, not less religious. Having experienced the first world war, they believed they struggled with a scale of evil unknown to their elders. If religion had personal validity, one had to work on it. Many set out to solve the problem of God and evil, going from scholarship to séance. Yeats made his religion out of Irish history and the occult; Pound, out of American history and Confucius. Others, keeping within Christianity, made their separate peace with God. Perhaps Joyce meant it ironically, but the lapsed Catholic said, “I have found no man yet with a faith like mine.”

When Faulkner was questioned about supplanting a faith in God with a faith in Man, he said, “Probably you are wrong in doing away with God in that fashion. God is. It is He who created man. If you don't reckon with God, you won't wind up anywhere. You question God, and then you begin to doubt, and you begin to ask ‘Why? Why? Why?’ and God fades away by the very act of your doubting Him.” He also said Hemingway did his best work when “he discovered … God. Up to that time his people functioned in a vacuum, they had no past, but suddenly in The Old Man and the Sea, he found God.” Granted, Faulkner loved to diddle his interviewers. But these statements about God have a ring of truth, probably because they are not directly about himself. He is not saying, in other words, “I believe in God”; his secretiveness would have made that difficult. He says, “God is.” Indeed, he even said, “Within my own rights I feel that I'm a good Christian.”

However, Light in August's Christian parallels may give some insights into this question. Begin hierarchically with Old Doc Hines, whom the blacks perhaps “took … to be God Himself.” That he is God the Father is evident in his relationship to Joe Christmas, especially as described in chapter 15, which begins in John, “I am the true vine and my Father is the husbandman.” Since for Jesus, “I and my Father are one,” Hines shows that he is both the true source of the murderer and his destroyer. Well. God? Creator of evil and destroyer? Is this the (Manichean) God that Faulkner believed in? Hines is simply insane, a fanatic, obsessed with—the chosen race. As soon as we say the words, the parallel emerges of Hines with the parochial God of the Old Testament (not a stranger to John), the vengeful Yahweh of the Israelites, the chosen people.

This suggests that Faulkner was using the specifics of the Hebraic-Christian tradition as a leverage to uncover the deeper principles. It also appears that he had some fun at the task. Again, consider Lena. As the Virgin Mary, she suffers some lowering of status, for the parallel reminds us that she is, in fact, a fallen woman. Well. So might the Virgin have been. On the other hand, Lena is a good and kind person, especially worthy in her innocent belief in the word, and in her ability to carry her burden lightly. So might the Virgin have been—even without the virginity. Perhaps Faulkner wanted his Christianity without the fancy footwork.

Lucas/Judas also places Faulkner within a context sympathetic to the essentials of Christianity. If all were Black Mass, all reversed, we might expect Faulkner to have given Judas some redeeming features. Lucas has none.

Similarly, the do-nothing Hightower, as Pilate or Doubting Thomas, comes in for some of Faulkner's greatest scorn. Although he does finally realize that he is as guilty of castrating the church as the “professionals” who have “removed the bells from its steeples,” even this does him no good, returning as he does to his nightly “charge.” Unlike Lena and Byron and the people of the town, who receive him with “hunger and eagerness,” wanting to believe, Hightower never had any faith to begin with. That's his problem; religion is irrelevant. Real religion, the kind that depends on faith and charity, is not possible for the impotent rationalist, and as Hardy says, one of Faulkner's favorite themes is the inevitable defeat of “purely rational purpose.”16

Actually Faulkner's attitude toward Hightower is best understood by reading Frazer on “The Burden of Royalty.” Among primitives, the sacred ruler is responsible for the whole course of nature, so “the least irregularity on his part may set up a tremor which shall shake the earth to its foundations.” From the moment he ascends the throne, “he is lost in the ocean of rites and taboos.” Unapproachable by his subjects, he “must be celibate; if he is married he must leave his wife.” One ruler was allowed down from the hills only once a year “to make purchases in the market.” Another “may not touch a woman nor leave his house; indeed he may not even quit his chair, in which he is obligated to sleep sitting.” Because of these heavy strictures, “few kings are natives of the countries they govern”; “either men refused to accept the office … or accepting it, they sank under its weight into spiritless creatures, cloistered recluses, from whose nerveless fingers the reins of government slipped.” Most of this suggests Hightower, but that Jefferson has another cloistered ruler in Joanna Burden has precedence in the practice of a priesthood shared by a war chief and a taboo chief, the latter office being, like Joanna's, hereditary (III, 1-25).

Undoubtedly, the most difficult analogy is Joe Christmas as Jesus Christ. It is this characterization especially which has led many to believe that Faulkner was engaged in Black Mass. This position assumes Joe's guilt, regarding what he does (or may have done, or may have been forced to do) without acknowledging the ambiguities. Does Joe kill McEachern? If all we know is the swing of the chair, we are still within our own dreams. Does Joe kill Joanna? If we believe he did so in self-defense, we are still within our rights. As we are essentially innocent when we have sufficient reasons for our guilt, so Joe is essentially innocent.17

But any explanation of Joe must take into account the parallel with John and the use of Frazer, two perspectives which would seem to be irreconcilable. After all, John would scorn the notion that Christ was a “typical scapegoat.”18 Indeed, for the synoptics, good acts made one like God; for John, God made one like God. Christ is the Word made flesh. But John and Frazer may be reconciled in the Modern perspective of thinkers such as Santayana and Unamuno which takes the burden of belief out of the hands of science and returns it to the individual will. Such believers would not refuse to look through the Galilean telescope; rather they would recognize that the telescope can be extended by what religions have imagined beyond and within. Belief in God creates God within. Belief in the “Christian myth” renews its efficacy in human affairs. Faulkner called God “the most complete expression of mankind.” Such a perspective requires that individuals find their unique relationships to God through the timeless and universal imperatives of the human community.

During Joe's agony in the garden, he thinks “God loves me too.” Thus, even as he moves with perplexed but growing awareness of his coming role in the human drama, so he senses that role's potential for making him, finally, more than the mask he has been all his life. The paradox may be understood by examining his two-fold creation, as flesh and spirit. His flesh is the creation of Hines and the dietitian, who thrust him into an intermediary non-place, between white and black. His spirit is the creation of the McEacherns, who thrust him into an intermediary non-place, between the rock-like damnation of the father and the drowning forbearance of the mother.

Understanding the pattern of Joe's beginnings helps us to understand his ending, for it is there that he loses both intermediary positions, like Jesus, binding himself to the human community, allowing events in time to grind inexorably over him. In killing Joanna, Joe finally becomes flesh in the form of nigger-murderer, the only possible explanation the community could have for his relationship with Joanna. Now he will enter the world of blacks, violently impress his being upon them by challenging their leaders, seizing their pulpit and putting himself—literally—in their shoes. In killing himself, provoking the community's involvement in and then revulsion over Grimm's excesses, he finally becomes spirit in the form of suffering man, rising into their memories, forever “serene” and even “triumphant.”19

Still this explanation remains incomplete unless we return to the Modernist techniques of fragmentation, external structuring, and irony. Joe Christmas makes us squirm because, although he does represent a Christ who is, like John's, highly mysterious and eschatological, he does not reflect Luke's “gentle Jesus,” Matthew's “great Rabbi,” or Mark's less articulate “man of action,” perspectives which are reflected by the other three main characters, Lena, Hightower and Byron.20 The four narrators of Absalom, Absalom! may represent a similar fragmentation, and notice that the non-synoptic fourth, Shreve, like John, is the most removed from the original vision, yet he seems to intuit the most.

Thus, in Modernist writing, the fragmented parts must be reassembled and viewed ironically through the external structure. In Absalom, Absalom! this means that Quentin's final forswearing of the South, (“I dont hate it!”), matching Miss Rosa's opening indictment of the demon she loves, is not Faulkner's central message, any more than Genesis or Revelation is the central message of Christianity; rather it is an individual act of chosen suffering and, so that others might be saved, the reporting of that act. Similarly, in Light of August, Joe Christmas is not the new Christ, although his death does serve, like Christ's, to break into the circle of time, spilling blood to rid us of our guilt.21 But after our wrong has been entombed in Hightower's “place of skulls,” a revived spirit arises in the form of Byron and Lena's new life and child, part of the older, more encompassing circle—beyond guilt—which embraces all time and blood. Using Modernist techniques, Faulkner demonstrates that the traditional beliefs can be broken apart, distorted, and reassembled in the unlikeliest of forms and folk—a maid, a stable, a man—of the Mississippi clay.


  1. In Faulkner: A Biography, 2 vols. (New York: Random House, 1974) Joseph Blotner indicates that Faulkner received and dated a copy of Ulysses in 1924 (I, 352); that Joyce was common currency in Sherwood Anderson's New Orleans circle (I, 329); that Faulkner discussed Joyce with Hamilton Basso in 1925 (I, 418); that Faulkner gave his wife Ulysses in 1931 to help her understand Sanctuary (I, 746); the same year, he admitted to Paul Green and Milton Abernathy that he had lied about not knowing Joyce (I, 716); in fact, he recited Joyce to them and then read aloud from his Light in August manuscript (I, 721).

  2. See Hlavsa, “The Vision of the Advocate in Absalom, Absalom!Novel, 8 (1974), 51-70.

  3. “From Genesis to Revelation: The Grand Design of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!” Diss., Alabama 1973.

  4. Hlavsa, “St. John and Frazer in Light in August: Biblical Form and Mythic Function,” Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, 83 (1980), 9-26.

  5. Light in August (New York: Random House, 1932), pp. 16-17. All subsequent page citations to this edition are given in the text.

  6. Blotner (I, 777), giving evidence that Faulkner read such commentary, quotes Laurence Stallings from Hollywood: “Unlike practically everyone else, he has remained cold sober. He bought one book to read over his lonely nights. It was a second-hand twelve-volume … Cambridge edition of the Holy Bible.”

  7. Faulkner's “Light in August”: A Description and Interpretation of the Revisions (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1975), p. 49.

  8. Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 3rd ed., 12 vols. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1911-15), III, 101-90. All subsequent page citations to this edition are given in the text by volume and page.

  9. Frazer himself often reached for humorous effect by apparently ludicrous comparisons. For example, quoting an African king—“God made me after his own image; I am all the same as God”—Frazer footnotes, “A slight mental confusion may perhaps be detected in this utterance of the dark-skinned deity. But such confusion, or rather obscurity, is almost inseparable from any attempt to define with philosophic precision the profound mystery of incarnation” (I, 396).

  10. Recall in the Laestrygonian chapter of Ulysses: “Sandwich? Ham and his descendants mustered and bred there.”

  11. In “The Design of Faulkner's Light in August: A Comprehensive Study,” Diss., Michigan 1970, Don N. Smith believes that Hightower's “daily vision represents a form of autoeroticism or masturbation” (p. 173). Our last view of Harry Wilbourne, in The Wild Palms, may be similar. Thomas L. McHaney relates the book's title and the passage's palms and hands to jokes about masturbation: William Faulkner's “The Wild Palms”: A Study (Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1975), pp. 172-73. One of the more hilarious misreadings of Hightower is the notion that he had a homosexual relationship with Christmas, which suggests we should re-examine those weekly visits of Byron.

  12. Leslie Fiedler early recognized this sentimentality in “William Faulkner: An American Dickens,” Commentary, 10 (1950), 384-87.

  13. The Passive Voice: An Approach to Modern Fiction (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1966), p. 111.

  14. Man in the Modern Novel (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1964), p. 156.

  15. McHaney, p. 194.

  16. Hardy, p. 140.

  17. In American Thought and Religious Typology (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1970), p. 219, Ursula Brumm says, “At bottom even the cruel Joe Christmas is a basically innocent person who is prevented from being innocent all his life.” In Faulkner's Search for a South (Champaign: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1983), p. 79, Walter Taylor maintains that “Faulkner was trying to show that this ‘criminal’ was no more guilty or innocent than society itself. [Joe was] caught up in processes that produced first the ‘criminal,’ then his crime, then his inevitable martyrdom.”

  18. Frazer asserted, “To dissolve the founder of Christianity into a myth” is “absurd” (IX, 412n). Rather, he suggested that Jesus' role in the annual Passover ceremony was an accident that his enemies forced upon him because of his “outspoken strictures” (IX, 422).

  19. In The Classic Vision: The Retreat from Extremity in Modern Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1971), p. 324, Murray Krieger notes that in his death, “Joe seems closest to Christ.” In The Novels of William Faulkner, A Critical Interpretation, rev. ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1964), pp. 72-74, Olga Vickery suggests that Joe takes on the mythic role of Negro, but that in his death, he is called “the man.” Indeed, “the man” echoes Pilate's ironic words (only in John), “Behold the Man.”

  20. C. Hugh Holman suggests that each of the main characters “is a representation of certain limited aspects of Christ.” See “The Unity of Faulkner's Light in August,PMLA, 73 (1958), 166.

  21. As R. G. Collins says, Joe's sacrifice “sanctifies life. Because of the common identity of mankind, that man who dies as the victim of society throws into symbolic relief the life and death relationship of mankind. It is, indeed, death which gives life its meaning and value.” See “Light in August: Faulkner's Stained Glass Triptych,” Mosaic, (1973), 148.


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William Faulkner 1897-1962

(Full name William Cuthbert Faulkner) American novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter.

The following entry provides criticism on Faulkner's works from 1985 through 1999. See also A Rose for Emily Criticism, The Bear Criticism, William Faulkner Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 6, 8, 9, 18.

A preeminent figure in twentieth-century American literature, Faulkner created a profound and complex body of work in which he often explored exploitation and corruption in the American South. Many of Faulkner's novels and short stories are set in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional area reflecting the geographical and cultural background of his native Mississippi. Faulkner's works frequently reflect the tumultuous history of the South while developing perceptive explorations of the human character. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949, Faulkner stated that the fundamental theme of his fiction is “the human heart in conflict with itself,” and he used a variety of narrative techniques to enrich his exploration of this struggle.

Biographical Information

Faulkner was born to Murry Falkner and Maud Butler in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897. A colorful Southern family, the Falkners (Faulkner added the “u” to the name when he joined the Canadian Royal Air Force in 1918) often figure prominently in his fiction. Murry Falkner worked for the family railroad until it was sold in 1902, at which time he moved his family to Oxford, Mississippi. An indifferent student, Faulkner dropped out of high school in 1915 to work as a clerk in his grandfather's bank. He began writing poetry and submitted drawings to the University of Mississippi's yearbook. During World War I, Faulkner tried to enlist in the U.S. army, but was rejected because of his small stature. Instead, he manipulated his acceptance into the Royal Canadian Air Force by affecting a British accent and forging letters of recommendation. The war ended before Faulkner experienced combat duty, however, and he returned to his hometown where he intermittently attended the University of Mississippi as a special student. In 1919 his first poem, “L'Apres-midi d'un faune,” was published in the New Republic, and later in the same year the Mississippian published one of his short stories, “Landing in Luck.” After a brief period of employment as a bookstore clerk in New York, Faulkner returned to Oxford, where he was hired as a university postmaster. He was released from his duties, however, because he often failed to deliver mail. After the end of his postal career, Faulkner traveled to New Orleans to visit his friend Elizabeth Prall, who was married to the acclaimed fiction writer Sherwood Anderson. Though Faulkner's primary ambition was to be a poet and his verse was published in his first full-length book, The Marble Faun (1924), he realized that his prose was more accomplished and was encouraged by Anderson to write fiction. When his next work, Sartoris (1929), the first novel set in Yoknapatawpha County, was rejected by numerous publishers, Faulkner became disgusted with the publishing industry and decided to write only for himself. The resulting novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929), established the respect of numerous literary critics towards Faulkner's work and went on to become one of his best-known works. With critical recognition established, Faulkner sought greater financial rewards from his writing. With an eye on the commercial market, he began composing what he called “the most horrific tale I could imagine.” The result was Sanctuary (1931), a novel that had to be revised before final publication due to its graphic violence and the extravagant depravity of its characters. An objective study of human evil, Sanctuary caused a minor uproar even in its revised form. While it became Faulkner's best-selling novel, a number of critics disparaged the work for its sensationalistic violence. Faulkner lived and worked sporadically in Hollywood throughout the 1930s and 1940s, gaining success as a scriptwriter. Two of his most notable screenplays are the film adaptations of Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not (1945) and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1946). But despite making a solid income from this work, Faulkner disliked Hollywood and returned to Oxford. Themes in Faulkner's fiction in the late 1930s have been said to mirror the personal conflicts in which he was engaged at the time. He and his wife Estelle argued violently and drank heavily, and Faulkner considered divorce. But he feared this would keep him from his daughter, and his sense of honor did not allow him to leave the marriage. In the mid-1940s personal and financial troubles seemed to consume Faulkner, and six years elapsed between the publications of his works Go Down, Moses (1942) and Intruder in the Dust (1948). His literary reputation was in a rut until the 1946 publication of The Portable Faulkner, edited by Malcolm Cowley, which is credited with making Faulkner's rather difficult fiction accessible to a wider audience and reigniting critical interest in him. His election in 1948 to the American Academy of Arts and Letters was followed by the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature, making Faulkner one the most respected living American writers. In the 1950s Faulkner was a much-sought-after lecturer throughout the world. In 1957 he became writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia and began dividing his time between Charlottesville and Oxford. In 1959 he suffered serious injuries in horse-riding accidents. Faulkner died of a heart attack on July 6, 1962.

Major Works

Neither of Faulkner's first two novels, Soldiers' Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927), received much critical notice. Soldiers' Pay is categorized as a “Lost Generation” novel because it centers on a physically and emotionally scarred young soldier who returns home and finds only further trauma and disillusionment. Mosquitoes is a mildly satirical study of the New Orleans literary scene. The Sound and the Fury, the first novel Faulkner wrote with no concern for financial reward, chronicles the disintegration of the Compson family, reflecting Faulkner's thematic interest in the deterioration of community. The novel's complex structure incorporates multiple narrative viewpoints, the incantatory repetition of certain words, long, convoluted sentences, and the intermingling of past and present. Reflecting many of Faulkner's works, the characters in The Sound and the Fury are obsessed with and even controlled by forces and events from their own pasts. For example, Quentin Compson commits suicide, partly as a result of his inability to relinquish an incestuous childhood relationship with his sister. Faulkner's work grew increasingly complex during the 1930s, making even greater demands upon readers and eliciting mixed critical response. As I Lay Dying (1930) is a novella composed of fifty-nine interior monologues providing various perspectives through constantly shifting, contrasting points of view. Light in August (1932) examines the origins of personal identity and the roots of racial conflicts. The novel begins by introducing a few characters and then turns to the plight of Joe Christmas, who is trying to uncover his true identity by piecing together bits of hearsay information. Because this story is told in an extended flashback, many critics felt that it suffered from faulty structure. But defenders of the novel claim that this structure is intentional and serves to enhance the thematic scope of the narrative. Faulkner's next major novel, Absalom, Absalom! (1936), focuses on Thomas Sutpen, a tragic character with a monomaniacal passion for creating and controlling a self-contained world. Many of the “facts” regarding Sutpen, as well as other characters and events in the novel, are based on unreliable information, and the novel thus questions the human capacity to know the truth about anyone or anything. With the publication of Absalom, Absalom!, many critics hailed Faulkner as a great artist, while others felt that his abstruse method of storytelling was confusing and ultimately ineffective. After publishing two subsequent works that received lukewarm critical response, The Unvanquished (1938) and The Wild Palms (1939), Faulkner published The Hamlet (1940). According to some critics, this novel concludes Faulkner's “major period.” The Hamlet, along with two later novels, The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959), are collectively known as the “Snopes Trilogy.” These novels center on Flem Snopes, whose single ambition in life is to acquire more and more property, and are a blend of tragedy and comedy. The Snopes trilogy also highlights another prominent theme in Faulkner's work—exploitation of land and people as a source of human misery. In the opinion of some critics, Faulkner is most effective as a short story writer. He often used short stories to fill gaps in the historical development of Yoknapatawpha County as depicted in his novels. Many characters who appear in the novels also appear in the short stories, while new characters are also introduced. Even in isolation from his novels, Faulkner's short fiction provides the complete chronological development of Yoknapatawpha from the coming of white men, who introduced the concept of private property, up to the twentieth century, when the automobile became a common fixture in American society. Go Down, Moses is a short story collection that can also be considered a novel, with a thematic unity binding the separate sections of the work. Though Faulkner himself referred to this collection as a novel, many critics view “episodes” such as “The Bear” as fully realized short stories that are more concise and complete than many of Faulkner's novels. Faulkner's novel A Fable (1954) won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and the National Book Award, but received mixed reviews because of its rigidly structured prose. After completing the Snopes trilogy, Faulkner wrote his final novel, The Reivers (1962), which was published shortly before his death. The Reivers provides a final glance at Yoknapatawpha County. Although written as a tall tale in the manner of the nineteenth-century Southwestern humorists, this work, like most of Faulkner's fiction, can also be read symbolically as a moral tale.

Critical Reception

Early criticism of Faulkner's fiction ranged from considering it hopelessly incoherent to the work of unparalleled genius. Since his death, with the modernist period of art and literature more fully understood, critics have leaned heavily toward the latter opinion. Through the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first, Faulkner's work has been extensively analyzed and is now more fully appreciated. Recent interpretation has focused on his depiction of social, racial, and women's issues, particularly as they have evolved in the American South. Faulkner is now acknowledged to have created a body of work that is distinctly American yet reflects, on a grander scale, the universal values of human life.

Philip Cohen (essay date summer 1985)

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SOURCE: Cohen, Philip. “Faulkner's Early Narrative Technique and Flags in the Dust.Southern Studies 24, no. 2 (summer 1985): 202-20.

[In the following essay, Cohen argues that Faulkner first successfully merged elements of the nineteenth-century novel with those of his later modernism in Flags in the Dust.]

Twenty-two years after his death, William Faulkner's contribution to the novel remains difficult to categorize. Just as his thought is characterized both by a refusal to reject completely all that the past contains and by a recognition that to reject all change whatsoever is to deny the vital principle of life itself, so Faulkner's art seems paradoxically both realistic and antirealistic, both representational and presentational. Despite such technical tour-de-forces of modernism as The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, Faulkner's life's overall work seems, to me, often centered on creating novels which fuse radical formal experimentation with certain features of the nineteenth-century novel such as its use of realistic detail, its multi-plotted layers, its grand scope, and its concern with social, philosophical, and religious issues as well as with the psychology of character. Indeed, a great theme of the nineteenth-century novel, the transition from a rural, agricultural, traditional society into an urban, industrialized aggregate of alienated individuals, is, with some important modifications, one of the major themes of Faulkner's oeuvre.1 This essay discusses Faulkner's narrative strategies in some of his early fictions in order to demonstrate that his use of association, juxtaposition, and repetition in Flags in the Dust both builds upon previous experimentation and anticipates Faulkner's career in general, representing his first attempt to synthesize modernist narrative strategies with more conventional elements.2 Indeed, Flags in the Dust may be viewed as Faulkner's attempt to incorporate modernist narrative strategies into the complex nineteenth-century novel with its solid and recognizable world constructed out of the slow accumulation of detail, a novel of the sort which Balzac and Flaubert created.

As even the most cursory reading of Faulkner in the University and Lion in the Garden reveals, Faulkner's favorite writers of prose fiction, with the exception of Cervantes, appear to have been nineteenth-century novelists such as Balzac, Dickens, and Conrad. Doubtless, Faulkner found their literary productions congenial because of their often uneasy combination of realism and romanticism. On the one hand, these novelists present an accumulation of exact detail and realistic portrayal of how political, economic, and social institutions function, while on the other, they contain melodramatic plots, obsessed characters, and highly stylized, often poetic language. Faulkner's own novels frequently contain just such a heady mixture of sociology and psychology. Faulkner admired enormously Flaubert's Madame Bovary, one of the first great realistic novels, both in its painstaking attention to detail and in its ironic presentation of character.3

In writing Father Abraham and Flags in the Dust, the young Faulkner was especially conscious of the great realistic novels of Balzac and Flaubert. Elsewhere I have argued that the illicit relationship between Horace Benbow and Harry Mitchell's wife, Belle, in Flags in the Dust seems to be indebted to Léon's adulterous relationship with Charles Bovary's wife, Emma, for essential elements of character and plot.4 I have also examined at length the numerous specific parallels in character and incident between the novels and stories of Balzac's La Comédie humaine and Father Abraham,Flags in the Dust, and the Snopes Trilogy. More importantly, I have shown how the Comédie humaine played a significant role in Faulkner's initial discovery of his fictional northern Mississippi county in the mid-1920s as he worked at Father Abraham and Flags in the Dust.5

Nevertheless, it hardly suffices to characterize Faulkner solely as a traditional writer. Along with writers such as Lawrence, Joyce, Hemingway, and Nabokov, Faulkner is also one of the small number of twentieth-century novelists who have worked major formal transformations upon that capacious and loosely-defined genre. Adapting both the major philosophical, psychological, and anthropological advances and the most important work in poetry and painting of the early twentieth century to their own literary needs, these writers fashioned fictions which, in many cases, their nineteenth-century forerunners would have had difficulty recognizing as novels. For some of these artists, nothing less would serve than a complete break with their literary past. Ulysses and Finnegans Wake present us with examples of generic innovation at its most extreme. Less radical than Joyce, however, Faulkner appears to have pursued throughout his career as a whole a dual strategy of preservation and modification, a strategy which synthesized some traditional elements of the nineteenth-century novel with radical formal experimentation.6

The technical means by which Faulkner carried out his program of appropriation are both striking and innovative. One of his chief concerns was to find an alternative to the nineteenth-century novelist's penchant for linear narrative and tightly unified plot.7 Given Faulkner's recurrent emphasis on character over plot, his early concern with the difficulty of ascertaining objective truth, and his belief in “Bergson's theory of the fluidity of time,” he sought to fragment and rearrange linear narration in a number of ways.8 His early experiments with stream-of-consciousness narration, which he later incorporated into novels such as Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!, enable him to present a story in fragmented, nonlinear form through the filtering consciousnesses of various characters. In his greatest novels, Faulkner often combined the probing of memory from a suspended moment in the present and the associative, rather than chronological, structure of those recollections with multiple perspectives.

Juxtaposition of different characters operating within different plots was a characteristic of the nineteenth-century novel which Faulkner often took as a starting point for his own use of juxtaposition as a structural principle in his own fiction. The structure of a Dickens novel, for example, is a complex interlocking of several plot-lines which proceed through a series of coincidences and eventually converge upon a final scene or group of scenes in which the connections between all the characters are revealed. Not only are virtue rewarded and vice punished, but the various plots are seen to be one neat, if somewhat intricate, structure in which each incident has grown out of the other. Faulkner, too, employs a broad canvas to present a social panorama which includes most if not all of the classes in his Yoknapatawpha County, but the different plots which he juxtaposes are rarely as neatly tied together as they are in a nineteenth-century novel. Often his several main characters do not interact greatly with each other. In Light in August, Joe Christmas never meets Lena Grove and only encounters Gail Hightower near the novel's conclusion. The most extreme version of this is, of course, The Wild Palms with its two entirely different stories which, nevertheless, comment upon each other. More so than Dickens or Conrad, Faulkner's imagination at times finds its expression in an episodic series of incidents which are unified by means other than linear plot. As Albert Guerard has observed, “the most striking experiments [in Faulkner's novels] involve the counterpointing or interlocking of separate stories that have seemingly discrete ‘subjects,’ and occupy different points of space and time.”9 Perhaps the Snopes trilogy, especially The Hamlet, and both The Unvanquished and Go Down, Moses, with their attempts to forge novelistic unity out of a series of related stories, are the best examples here.

Furthermore, no attentive reader of Faulkner's novels can fail to be struck by Faulkner's use of repetition to disrupt linear narrative. Whether it is an attempt to import the techniques of poetry or those of music into the realm of fiction is difficult to know. The former seems the more likely source, given Faulkner's literary origins as a poet steeped in the tradition of late nineteenth-century romanticism and his admiration of the French Symbolists who abandoned narrative verse in order to write poems predicated upon unity of image, tone, and atmosphere.10

Critics have long held that Flags in the Dust and Sartoris seem more traditional than Soldiers' Pay and Mosquitoes because the former reveal a deeper devotion to evoking the atmosphere and to rendering the precise details of a particular time and place and because they also display a greater commitment to exploring the social panorama of that locale, to delineating the relationships between almost all the classes of Yocona County, as it is called in Flags in the Dust. This attention to social structuring differentiates Flags in the Dust from Soldiers' Pay. Both novels deal with the emotional, psychological, and moral maiming suffered by those who fought in World War I, and both do so through the fashionable 1920s genre of the returned veteran, who is wounded physically or psychically—often both—and who returns in an alienated state unable to adjust to the realities of postwar America, so different from the horrors of trench warfare or aerial combat. In Flags in the Dust, however, Faulkner has struck out from Soldiers' Pay in several new directions. As Robert Penn Warren observes of Sartoris,

psychopathology [is] related symbolically to a social situation and as a new dimension, for Faulkner, we have set over against these doomed ones, the groups who have some sort of grasp on the world and represent some sort of continuity with life—the older people of the upper class, like old Bayard … and Miss Jenny … the yeomanry like the MacCallums and V. K. Sunratt … and the Negroes.11

One might quarrel with Warren's tendency to overemphasize the vitality of this second group of people; nevertheless, we can see in this novel “the beginning of Faulkner's typically ‘thick’ conception of fiction in which history, sociology, sexual psychology, moral analysis, and the religious sense kaleidoscopically interfuse in the representation of an image of reality.”12 Faulkner further deepened the texture of Flags in the Dust by introducing into it the living presence of the past: the novel juxtaposes the war's effect on the young Sartoris twins with the heroic Civil War exploits of Colonel John Sartoris and his brother, the Carolina Bayard.

In Flags in the Dust, however, Faulkner also modified linear plot by making occasional use of associative structure. In some of his earlier, more self-consciously literary fiction, Faulkner had experimented with associative structures, with organizing a fiction around a suspended moment of time in the present while a single consciousness reaches back into memory. In The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, associative structure was deployed in its most fully developed form, whereas later novels such as the Snopes trilogy returned to a more traditional narrative point of view while still allowing free play to the consciousnesses of their characters. In this respect, Flags in the Dust seems almost prophetic of the later work.

A great deal of Faulkner's unfinished and posthumously-published novel Elmer, most of which was written in 1925 while Faulkner was traveling in Europe, is predicated on just such an associative structure. Faulkner's heavily ironic portrait of Elmer Hodge's growth to heterosexual maturity and the development of his decision to become a painter is related in Book I, in which Elmer is on board a ship approaching Italy, primarily, as Thomas L. McHaney notes, by means of a series of “flashbacks keyed to his present associations,” the associative links occasionally provided by Elmer's chromatic sensitivity.13 McHaney argues that Bergson's theories of time and memory, his notion that consciousness understands itself only by brooding over the jumble of its memories and intuiting a whole from them, helped Faulkner develop this narrative structure. McHaney also believes that the post-Impressionist painters, with their aim of creating artistic wholes that approximate their subjects by juxtaposition and repetition of constituent and equal parts, were an important source for the formal means by which Faulkner articulated this structure. Indeed, Elmer contains references to more than a few post-Impressionist painters.14

Faulkner's early experimentation with associative structure in Elmer barely resembles the sophisticated stream-of-consciousness technique which he employs in The Sound and the Fury. Not only is there a recurrent failure to keep Elmer's thoughts distinct from the narrator's point of view, but Elmer's memories are a series of recollected flashbacks, each a lengthy, discrete episode. The interpenetration between Elmer's consciousness and his memories frequently seems one of clumsily mechanical juxtaposition. Furthermore, associative links between Elmer's achronological recollections are only present intermittently. Occasionally, there are no links between the sections at all, and hence no rationale for the transitions. Finally, memories and present action are not effectively integrated: Elmer's memories, sometimes told from his point of view and sometimes from that of the narrator's, completely fill Book I while he waits for his boat to reach Italy. In Book III, Elmer's drunken spree in Venice, which is related from the twin vantage points of a limited third-person narration and from Elmer's own intoxicated consciousness, contains almost no past recollections. It is almost as if now that Faulkner has created a new way of recounting a character's past experiences, he can get on with the business of telling his story. Despite these flaws, Elmer is still a bold attempt to fragment linear narrative and reintegrate these fragments into a new pattern in an attempt to create a more accurate representation of the whole.

In Flags in the Dust, Faulkner made a more successful, if somewhat occasional, use of associative structure in Horace Benbow's narrative. Perhaps Faulkner experimented with this structure again after failing to use it successfully in Elmer because he was again dealing with an overreflective, excessively sensitive character. Horace is not only more garrulous than Bayard Sartoris, but his meditations on his actions and fate are also presented in much richer detail and amplitude than Bayard's thoughts are. Bayard's story deviates from externally-related linear narrative much less frequently than Horace's. Horace's actions in the narrative present are interwoven with the play of his consciousness upon those events, that consciousness occasionally expressing itself in a fragmented stream of associated images and thought as Elmer's memories in Book I rarely did. The narration of Elmer's drunken night in Book III approaches stream of consciousness, but his intoxicated mind almost never descends into the welter of past memories presented in Book I. Flags in the Dust resembles Elmer in that flashbacks to Horace's childhood with Narcissa and his stay at England's Oxford University are presented almost immediately after his return to Jefferson after the war. As in Elmer, these are discrete blocks of narrative not too subtly integrated with Horace's return.

Yet the portions of Flags in the Dust dealing with Horace are a distinct improvement over Books I and III of Elmer as far as Faulkner's use of associative structure is concerned. Horace's contemplation of Belle Mitchell's corruption as he approaches her home for an afternoon of tennis and love-making (TS 280-85; FD [Flags in the Dust] 166-68; briefly summarized in S [Sartoris] 182); his nympholeptic adoration of the teen-aged Frankie as they play tennis at Belle's place (TS 293-96; FD 172-74; truncated in S 186-87); his thoughts on Narcissa, Belle, and his new situation while he writes his sister a letter at his law office in the harsh new town Belle has brought him to; and his reflections on Narcissa, Belle, and his affair with Belle's sister, Joan, as he carries a carton of shrimp to Belle's house (TS 538-49; FD 339-47; heavily cut in S 351-53) all reveal a growing skill at the use of associative structure.15 Here Faulkner is able to shift almost effortlessly between consciousness and action. Here, too, he is able to juxtapose ongoing actions in the narrative present with Horace's consciousness so that the static quality of Elmer's recollections have now become a tension between action and thought. Horace's narrative is impeded but never halted. While none of the stream-of-consciousness passages here measure up to Benjy's or Quentin's section in The Sound and the Fury, they represent an advance over Elmer's memories which are actually a combination of third person limited narration and authorial narration rather than a representation of Elmer's actual consciousness. In contrast, the allusive and literary language and fragmented syntax of Horace's meditations often reflect not Faulkner's narrative voice but rather Horace's own thought patterns as conditioned by his enervated aestheticism and futility. Chapter 1, Book Five, in which Horace composes his letter to Narcissa and then fetches Belle's shrimp from the railroad station is particularly notable for its “skillful blending of interior monologue and omniscient third person narration” and its repetition of images, “fragments of conversation and literary allusions.”16 In all these ways, Faulkner's use of associative structure in Flags in the Dust not only surpasses his use of it in Elmer, but also anticipates his triumph in The Sound and the Fury and in As I Lay Dying.

Along with employing associative structure in Horace's narrative, Faulkner was making his first significant attempt at incorporating into the narrative framework of a novel juxtapositions more extensive than anything found in those of his nineteenth-century predecessors. Faulkner's work has always been notable for the large gallery of diverse characters which it contains, and in most of his novels various stories, often discrete narratives, are intertwined. The novel as a collection of many and not just one story has long been a characteristic of the novel, a characteristic which found its best expression in those nineteenth-century novels which present a panoramic view of society by developing simultaneously the stories of different characters who occupy different class strata in society. Similarly, many of Faulkner's novels, especially Flags in the Dust, present a comprehensive social picture by means of the simultaneous development of several plots, often playing out the fate of alienated, deracinated modern characters against the backdrop of a traditional, provincial community. Faulkner strives in his fiction to retain the broad scope of the nineteenth-century novel but replaces conventional plot-forms with alternative structures for unifying the parts of the whole. Often the novelist appears to be peering through various magnifying glasses at different segments of Yoknapatawpha and relying on radiating parallels of character, action, and theme and on repetition of image, symbol, and action to provide unity rather than on interaction of all the characters by means of plot.

In Faulkner's early novels, we see him from the start attempting to replace conventional narrative with more free-wheeling juxtapositions, efforts which meet with varying degrees of success. Many critics of Soldiers' Pay have commented disparagingly that the novel has a series of characters rather than one central figure, but McHaney offers us another way of looking at the novel: here we find “equal parts juxtaposed, and they make up a whole which constitutes a post-Impressionistic novel.”17 In what survives of Elmer, Faulkner's emphasis was on an ironic presentation of his would-be artist, but here secondary characters receive a great deal of narrative exposure as Faulkner juxtaposes various plots. After presenting Elmer's past through flashbacks in Book I, Faulkner originally continued with Elmer's story in Book II by recounting his drunken spree in Venice from Elmer's point of view. In Book III, he employed a more conventional narrative technique to depict Mrs. Monson and Myrtle's transatlantic cruise to Rome and their activities after their arrival and then shifted to a satirical presentation of Lord Wysbroke, a piratical, impoverished English aristocrat, who schemes to marry his repulsive older son Wohledeen to Mrs. Monson and his younger son George Bleyth to Myrtle. At a later point, Faulkner heightened the juxtaposition of these various narratives by transposing the reordering the original Books II and III, so that Elmer's drunken evening in Venice now follows the sections dealing with the Monson's and the English aristocrats. This reordering of narrative chunks is an early example of how Faulkner often produced his books: he would write separate blocks of material and arrange and rearrange them in different patterns, searching for the most effective one.

Many years after he wrote Elmer, Faulkner said he failed to complete the novel because the story was “‘funny, but not funny enough.’”18 Indeed, the satirical portraits in the novel, especially those of the English aristocrats contain an abundance of easy hits, relentless irony, and heavy-handed authorial commentary. Only Elmer's childhood is treated with what amounts to sympathy compared to the rest of the novel's almost hostile tone. Michael Millgate suggests that Faulkner was unable to distance himself from the clearly autobiographical materials with which he was working, and Kenneth Hepburn comments on

the isolation and diffuseness of the characters. … It is almost impossible to imagine what could have been done in terms of Elmer and either Wysbroke or Wohledeen interacting, so that, as a consequence, part of the development would never jibe with another part of it. Even the different methods of developing different characters do not lend themselves to having these characters interact.19

Elmer does not, however, fail because one cannot imagine how Faulkner could have brought his disparate characters into any kind of interaction. Rather Elmer is unsuccessful because Faulkner was unable to replace unity of plot with unity of character, theme, and image as he does in his later works. Though Elmer need never have met the English aristocrats, it is difficult to understand what common obsessions, dilemmas, or failures Faulkner could have endowed them with.

Mosquitoes, Faulkner's attempt at a satirical novel of ideas, forges a new variation on juxtaposition by drawing diverse characters together by means of placing them aboard a yacht for a pleasure cruise that proves less than pleasurable. Here plot is less a series of actions connected by cause and effect than it is series of shifts which turn our attention to various characters talking rather than acting at different locations on the boat, hence the novel's static quality. The novel of conversation has a long tradition of its own, but it was not one of Faulkner's particular strengths. The many conversations on sex and art are neither amusing nor complex enough to compensate for the novel's comparative lack of action.

In Flags in the Dust, Faulkner returned to the sort of modified conventional framework he attempted in Elmer: juxtaposed plots, one of which uses associative structure. Thus he avoided the static quality of Mosquitoes while still impeding linear narrative. Here, too, the main plot, young Bayard Sartoris's attempts to ease his anguish over John's death, is made to share almost equal time with Horace Benbow's abandonment of his chastely incestuous relationship with his sister Narcissa in order to take up his adulterous affair with Belle. Furthermore, past exploits are counterpointed against present desolation, and the three central narratives are juxtaposed with brief glimpses into the lives of other families such as the Mitchells, the Strothers, and the MacCallums. Although the three primary plots all have Narcissa for their nexus, Bayard, Horace, and Byron never interact with one another. Yet Flags in the Dust does not repeat Elmer's failure to find an alternative to unity of plot. In his third novel, Faulkner replaced unity of plot with a series of complementary and parallel connections of character and action, which combine to show the three men as similarly alienated and doomed despite all their apparent dissimilarity. The numerous structural parallels between Bayard, Horace, and Byron in Flags in the Dust work towards an underlying unity which Elmer and the English aristocrats did not possess. In Elmer, startling incongruity remains just that, whereas in Flags in the Dust, startling incongruity yields to a more fundamental congruity. In addition, the cumulative effect of this intertwining of narratives was more successful in Flags in the Dust than in Faulkner's previous fiction because he managed to calculate his transitions so that each shift into another narrative rather than offering a release from the character's frustration in the preceding story only serves to intensify it because of the underlying similarities. One advantage of this narrative technique is that the reader, as always in Faulkner, is forced to participate in the process of making meaning, is challenged to seek out the underlying unity. Not only has a comprehensive portrait of a society in disarray been presented but the reader has been forced to connect the various parts in order to construct that portrait. Unlike Elmer, the parts are capable of being connected.

This structure of juxtaposition may not seem entirely successful in Flags in the Dust because the various parallels do not exert enough centripetal force against the centrifugal impulse of the unconnected plots. Perhaps the novel needs more parallels to strengthen the underlying unity, and perhaps it needs fewer unintegrated digressions. Nevertheless, Faulkner employs juxtaposition more effectively in Flags in the Dust than in Elmer and Mosquitoes. In this sense, Flags in the Dust rests squarely on the dividing line between earlier apprentice work and the great novels which follow Flags in the Dust. In these later novels, Faulkner skillfully startles readers through juxtaposition into perceiving heretofore unnoticed similarities between characters, between Benjy, Quentin, and Jason in The Sound and the Fury for example. In the 1931 Sanctuary, as Noel Polk observes in his Afterword to his edition of the novel's original text, Faulkner forces us

to weigh Popeye and Horace in the same scales. Even though they are in most outward respects diametrically opposite … they are in many more important ways very much alike: both are equally unequipped for life, though in different ways; both have unhealthy sexual appetites; both are voyeurs; both are soundly defeated by the law, victims of injustice; they are equally defeated by their encounters with Temple Drake.20

McHaney notes that Light in August juxtaposes “the lives of a number of independent characters, all of them of major proportions, all of them outsiders in the community where their lives intertwine, to create a whole impression” and that “juxtaposed plots of The Wild Palms create a whole by similar means.”21

Repetition is the final narrative technique by which Faulkner modified linear plot in Flags in the Dust. In his first three completed novels, Soldiers' Pay,Mosquitoes, and Flags in the Dust, Faulkner occasionally deployed repetition of the same scene from the perspective of different characters to achieve the effect of simultaneity—a technique derived perhaps from the poetry he read in his early years or from the “Wandering Rocks” episode of Ulysses. In Soldiers' Pay, the dance in chapter 5 is presented in segments, each of which focuses on a particular character or group of characters present: the awkward war veterans who are patronized by the town belles and gentlemen, George Farr and his friend peering in from the outer darkness with despair, Mrs. Powers and Gilligan sitting with Mahon outside in the car, and Jones pursuing Cecily. At the end of “The Fourth Day” in Mosquitoes, the long-stranded Nausikaa finally regains its mobility; and the narration jumps from Julius, Fairchild, and Major Ayers on deck to Mrs. Maurier and the captain removing all of the alcohol in Fairchild's room to Mr. Talliaferro indulging in self-pity in the bows, and back to the three men on deck. Three sections in chapter 6, Book Two of Flags in the Dust (chapter 6, Part Two in Sartoris), in which three blacks hired by Bayard serenade Narcissa beneath her window one night, are narrated first from Narcissa's perspective as she reacts with fear and anger, then from Byron's as he jealously spies on Narcissa from his hiding place on her garage roof, and finally from that of the serenaders and Bayard, Hub, and Mitch.

More frequently, Faulkner repeats epithet, image, and symbol to create motifs and present character throughout each novel: in Soldiers' Pay, Cecily is associated with flowers and trees, Jones with his baggy pants and the yellow eyes of a satyr, while in Flags in the Dust, Bayard is associated with explosive violence and despair, Narcissa with flowers, the color white, and serenity, Horace with nervous futility, and Belle with smoldering discontent. In “Starting Out in the Twenties: Reflections on Soldiers' Pay,” Millgate observes that this sort of repetition may be either an attempt to import the techniques of poetry or music into fiction or a result of Faulkner's reading of the “Sirens” episode in Ulysses.22 In Soldiers' Pay, this repetition produces as Millgate points out, “an excessively static quality which yields certain formal satisfactions but only at the cost of persistent retardation of the narrative thrust.”23

In Flags in the Dust, Faulkner solved this problem: he engaged in repetition of epithet, image, and symbol as in Soldiers' Pay, but now he also constructed a novel out of juxtaposed narratives in which each plot is, to a great extent, a series of repeated actions by a character or group of characters. Rather than use this type of repetition to achieve simultaneity, Faulkner employed it to advance his plots and to portray character and its development. Along with the static quality produced by repetition of epithet and image, Faulkner now strengthened the forward thrust of the narrative by depicting repeated scenes and actions which are similar but also different. As the novel progresses, the differences between each repeated act or scene makes clear the development of character or situation which has occurred in the interim. Faulkner's use of repetition in Flags in the Dust does not seem as skillful as his employment of the same principle in novels like The Sound and the Fury; nevertheless, it is in Flags in the Dust that he first used repetition as a structural principle with some success.

Certain repetitions have been noted by critics of Flags in the Dust: for example, Elnora's endless crooning of spirituals, Aunt Jenny's persistent berating of Simon, Harry Mitchell's drinking, young Bayard's having to listen painfully as others recount stories of his dead brother's childhood, and Narcissa's being present to observe both of the Sartoris twins during or after one of their wild stunts.24 But many more exist. Aunt Jenny's recurrent conversations with Narcissa about marriage and men in general and about Horace, Bayard, and Narcissa's anonymous suitor in particular are used to reveal Narcissa's changing attitudes towards men. Early in the novel, Narcissa tells Aunt Jenny at Belle's house that Horace is coming home soon, and the old woman tells her to stop mothering Horace and get married (TS 39-42; FD 27-29; S 31-33).25 Similar conversations with Aunt Jenny reveal Narcissa's changing attitudes toward the men in her life: that her devotion to Horace has been permanently wrecked by his affair with Belle because Belle's intense sexuality affronts Narcissa is made clear at Sartoris one day after little Belle's recital (TS 328-32; FD 191-93; S 200-2) just as Narcissa's developing love for Bayard is emphasized by her refusal to answer Aunt Jenny's questions about their relationship (TS 418-19; FD 244-45; S 259). At one point after her marriage to Bayard, Narcissa informs Aunt Jenny that he does not love her, the baby she is bearing, or anyone else for that matter (TS 476-78; FD 282-83; S 297-99). After Bayard deserts Narcissa and their unborn child because of his role in his grandfather's death, Aunt Jenny's discovery of a miniature of John Sartoris as a child (TS 550-54; FD 348-51; S 354-58) initiates another conversation between the two women. Upon hearing Aunt Jenny reminisce about the Sartoris twins' childhood antics, Narcissa determines not to let Aunt Jenny turn her son into another violent, short-lived Sartoris. Here Narcissa reveals the excessive maternal protectiveness which has already emasculated Horace and may possibly do the same to her as yet unborn son. This particular conversation signals Narcissa's return, after her brief marriage to Bayard, to an asexual relationship with men: once more she represses her sexual urges, which had surfaced in her attraction to Bayard and her refusal to burn Byron's letters, and resumes her role as an “unravished bride,” her only relationship to men being that of a mother to a child.26

Repeated scenes also develop Byron Snopes's lustful obsession with Narcissa, and its ultimate frustration is conveyed by two sets of repeated actions. His repeated letter-writing to Narcissa and the increasingly fragmented syntax and incorrect grammar of these letters when Faulkner chooses to reveal their contents testify to Byron's growing desperation as his mind gradually succumbs to madness as a result of his inability to realize his desires (TS 150-51, 156-57, 376, 416-17, 432; FD 95, 98-101, 219, 243-44, 253; not in S,S 108-11, not in S,S 257-58, not in S).27 Similarly, the repetition of his spying on Narcissa indicates the magnitude of his obsession. In the first scene, he is content merely to watch her from his hiding place (TS 230-32; FD 139-40; S 155-56). In the second, he invades her house after her marriage to Bayard to leave his last letter for her before he robs the Sartoris bank; not only does he steal his previous letters which Narcissa has saved, but he also buries his face in one of her underthings (TS 434-38; FD 254-56; S 265-68).

Faulkner also develops Horace's character by resorting occasionally to repetition of scene. At the beginning of Book Three, Narcissa greets Horace at the train station as he returns to Jefferson from his overseas war-time duty in the YMCA and tries to make sure his glass-blowing kit has survived the journey intact (TS 240-43; FD 145-48; S 161-65). The start of Book Five, however, finds Horace in a new town fetching a carton of shrimp at the train station for Belle (TS 542-45; FD 342-44; not in S). This repetition illustrates the drastic change which Horace's life has undergone as his awakened sexual urges have driven him to abandon his incestuous relationship with Narcissa for his affair of lust with Belle. The implicit contrasts between the two similar scenes are striking: Horace's beloved Jefferson has become a crass town of modern commerce, and his glass-blowing kit, with which he fashions symbolically chaste vases for his sister, is now a carton of foul-smelling shrimp, an effective shorthand notation for Belle's sexual corruption and genteel pretensions.

This change in Horace's life is also made manifest by another repeated scene: in Book Three, Horace approaches Belle's house in Jefferson to play tennis with Harry and make love to Belle (TS 280-84; FD 166-67; highly condensed in S 182), and in Book Five, he approaches his new home in which Belle waits sullenly for him (TS 545-49; FD 344-47; not in S). In the first scene, Horace anticipates a harmless afternoon of intrigue and looks forward to seeing Belle; in response to little Belle's call from behind a fence, he waves cheerfully to her. Much has changed in Book Five: now Horace's unhappiness, the product of his successful pursuit of Belle, is paramount. Instead of reflecting on tennis and Belle's attractiveness, Horace now thinks of Belle's ire when she learned that he has no money and that he has betrayed her with her own sister. His betrayal of Harry Mitchell by taking both Belle and little Belle from him is also on his mind.28

Bayard Sartoris's increasing anguish as he searches futilely for relief from the torment the loss of his brother causes him is also conveyed by the use of parallel scenes: for example, Bayard's recurrent nightmares and ritualistic retellings of the circumstances surrounding John's death which culminate in his forcing Narcissa to hear his violent tale (TS 406-9; FD 237-39; S 250-3), and, of course, his increasingly dangerous attempts by car and horse to find release through the numbing sensation of speed and through terrifying other passengers, attempts which finally lead to his death in an experimental plane. Other repeated scenes which serve as indices to Bayard's increasing despair include the two sleepless nights he spends, one in Jefferson and one at the MacCallums. During the first at the end of Book Two, he lies awake in the town marshal's bed, self-consciously contemplating the body he must drag around with him, in a world devoid of meaning now that John is dead (TS 238-39; FD 143-44; S 160). During his other sleepless night at the MacCallum's in Book Four, Bayard's consciousness again contemplates both his inert body and his despair (TS 502x-6x; FD 314-17; S 321-24); however, now he has embarked on the first leg of his exile from Jefferson. With his role in the death of old Bayard, Bayard's situation has deteriorated considerably.

In Bayard's two bouts of heavy drinking, Faulkner also portrays his protagonist's decline. In several scenes which occur early in the novel, Bayard is in Jefferson surrounded by friends who care about him, whereas prior to his death in Dayton he is seen drinking in a Chicago speakeasy, almost completely surrounded by strangers. During the first of these scenes, Rafe MacCallum listens to Bayard talk about his horrifying war experiences while the two drink moonshine liquor in the back of Deacon's store (TS 173-82; FD 110-116; S 122-29). After Bayard tries to ride the black stallion, Suratt, Hub and he spend the rest of the afternoon drinking at Hub's farm (TS 193-201; FD 122-27; S 137-42); and that night the town marshal orders Bayard to sleep in his bed after an evening of drinking with Mitch and Hub (TS 214-22, 232-39; FD 129-34, 140-44; S 145-51, 156-60). Throughout these three scenes, Bayard is surrounded by friends: Rafe extricates him from a possible fight, Suratt praises him, Mitch offers medical advice which Bayard disregards, and the marshal looks after him. This community of friends is conspicuously absent the next time we see Bayard drinking heavily. In a dirty speakeasy with its wailing saxophones and dancing couples, Bayard sits drunkenly as a crackpot inventor tries to persuade him to fly an untested plane (TS 555-62; FD 351-56; S 359-64). The flapper he is with is terrified rather than concerned about him, and in her promiscuity, she contrasts unfavorably with Narcissa. Monaghan tells him not to fly the plane, but he also has designs on Bayard's girl. Harry Mitchell is there, too, but he has been broken by the loss of Belle and little Belle and is the drunken prey of his “escort” and a waiter. Once again, a repeated action stresses Bayard's decline. Although Faulkner's repetition of image, epithet, and scene in Flags in the Dust is not as skillful as in his mature fiction, it clearly marks an advance over his earlier employment of this narrative technique.

Commentary on Faulkner's work in general and of Flags in the Dust in particular has made much of the striking sense of place which his novels contain, of the care Faulkner takes in presenting the sights, sounds, and smells of his imaginary Yoknapatawpha County in order to create the illusion of an actual, “lived-in” world. Faulkner's use of repetition in Flags in the Dust contributes greatly to the novel's sense of felt life because the various repetitions of scene and act help create the illusion of a society of people going through its habitual actions. In Soldiers' Pay, this sort of formal patterning resulted in patterns rather than in this sense of life, but in Flags in the Dust the texture is much thicker and the patterning seems unobtrusive even as it contributes to our sense of Yoknapatawpha as a realm of the imagination as concrete and credible as those created by the great nineteenth-century novelists. In this respect, Flags in the Dust anticipates Faulkner's great work to come where nightmares co-exist with the daily routine of life.

Recently Panthea Reid Broughton has argued that Faulkner's mature novels are characteristic of a modern genre which she labels the cubist novel: these are constructed “not by tracing the linear development of a single plot line, but rather by building and arranging blocks of narrative with an eye for the sorts of patterns they were creating,” and in them, “meaning derives less from subject matter than from the formal arrangement of the work and the viewer's relation to it.”29 Thus subject matter is shattered and reintegrated in a new and startling manner so as to yield new insights into the original subject. Before we label Faulkner a literary cubist, we should remember Ilse Dusoir Lind's observation that although Faulkner admired some of the post-Impressionists, his remarks made in the 1920s about the cubists, the futurists, and the Vorticists were mostly negative: these painters were more interested in the “formal relationships within a painting than in the substantive content,” and “Faulkner gives no evidence at this time of liking this kind of abstraction.”30 It is true that Faulkner's work was never purely cubistic or presentational just as it was never purely realistic, that he experimented with modernist narrative technique as a means of making his stories of “the human heart in conflict with itself” more moving. Although Faulkner was never a pure formalist, Broughton is right to remind us that Faulkner's

realistic period was short-lived, not terribly successful, and not purely realistic. His realism was always struggling to be modernism; for he did not structure the novels and stories written before 1928 by the traditional novel's formula of conflict, complication, and resolution. Instead Faulkner attempted to structure by pattern.31

“Struggling” is perhaps the wrong verb to describe what Faulkner was doing in Flags in the Dust; rather Faulkner was deliberately applying the experimental techniques with which he had been working in his earlier fiction to a more traditional type of novel in Flags in the Dust. Too often, critics have labelled Sartoris a traditional realistic novel and then marvelled at the enormous leap Faulkner made from Sartoris to The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner's use of associative structure, juxtaposition, and repetition in Flags in the Dust indicates not only that this leap to The Sound and the Fury was less great than has been previously thought but also that the novel is Faulkner's earliest attempt to create the sort of novel which he produced throughout most of his career, a novel which is at once both traditional and innovative.


  1. That Faulkner's dominant concern was to fashion with Southern materials a critique of modernity from a traditional, provincial point of view is, of course, the thesis of Cleanth Brooks's two studies: William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963; rpt. New Haven, 1966), and William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (New Haven, 1978).

  2. Other critics have noticed that some of the various experimental narrative techniques employed in Flags in the Dust occur elsewhere in Faulkner's early work. For example, Martin Kreiswirth's excellent essay “Learning as He Wrote: Re-Used Materials in The Sound and the Fury” (MissQ, 34 [Summer 1981], 281-98) discusses Faulkner's use and re-use of certain narrative strategies in Faulkner's early work up to The Sound and the Fury and points out two such recurrent strategies which appear in Flags in the Dust. Faulkner's use in Benjy's section of an arresting opening which establishes “the ‘groundwork’ of a story by immediately assaulting the reader with a formally exaggerated overture to the fictional world he is about to enter,” Kreiswirth notes, occurs in less striking form in Soldiers' Pay and in Flags in the Dust. Faulkner's first novel begins with a “mixture of barracks slang, fractured literary references, and verbal absurdities,” and Flags in the Dust opens “with a immediate immersion of the reader into Will Falls' scrambled, intensely allusive, recitation of the family legend” (p. 280).

    Kreiswirth also argues that the narrative structure of Soldiers' Pay and Flags in the Dust prefigures The Sound and the Fury in yet another way: all three novels revolve around absent characters, absences with which remaining characters must come to terms. Just as Caddy in The Sound and the Fury “never appears in the narrative present and is characterized almost exclusively by means of her brothers' monologues,” so Soldiers' Pay revolves about the wounded aviator Donald Mahon (pp. 291-92). With less success, Kreiswirth asserts that this technique of the “empty centre” is the primary narrative structure of Flags in the Dust, arguing that John Sartoris's death in aerial combat during World War I “creates a void which all the surviving characters attempt to fill” (p. 292). Of all the characters in the novel, however, only Bayard Sartoris' life is shattered by his brother John's death. Rather the structure of Flags in the Dust prefigures The Sound and the Fury by juxtaposing Bayard, Horace Benbow, and Byron Snopes's frustrated pursuit of Horace's sister Narcissa, who represents release from numbing grief to the first, innocence to the second, and cessation of physical desire to the third. More so than John, Narcissa seems to be the character about whom the major characters revolve in a futile search for the various satisfactions which she cannot provide any of them. In this respect the tripartite structure of Flags in the Dust anticipates the tripartite structure of The Sound and the Fury which is predicated upon Benjy, Quentin, and Jason's frustrated relationships with Caddy. Despite their obvious and significant differences, the three central males of Flags in the Dust also resemble the three Compson brothers: Byron shares Benjy's animal-like, barely-conscious nature; Horace's sensitivity, idealism, introspection, and sexual dilemmas resemble Quentin's; and Bayard has a cruel, cold arrogance much like Jason's. In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner again created a family, the Bundrens, in which one sister is surrounded by brothers. Here, the dead mother Addie is the center of the novel, and Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman all seek, with varying degrees of success or failure, to come to terms with her death.

  3. In class conferences and interviews, Faulkner said that he dipped into Balzac ever year (See Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia 1957-1958, eds. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner (Charlottesville, 1959), 50; and Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner 1926-1962 (New York, 1968), 217, 251). In a 1952 interview, Löic Bouvard reported that Faulkner claimed he “‘was influenced by Flaubert and by Balzac, whose way of writing everything bluntly with the stub of his pen I admire very much’” (LiG, p. 72).

    For comments on Faulkner's admiration of Flaubert, see Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography, Vol. I (New York, 1974), 459; and Richard P. Adams, “The Apprenticeship of William Faulkner,” Tulane Studies in English 12 (1962); rpt. in William Faulkner: Four Decades of Criticism, Linda Welshimer Wagner, ed. (East Lansing, 1973), 30. See also Michael Millgate, “Faulkner's Master's,” Tulane Studies in English 23 (1978), 153. Faulkner himself said, “Well, in Bovary I saw or thought I saw a man who wasted nothing, who was—whose approach toward his language was almost the lapidary's” (FiU, p. 55. Other comments by Faulkner on Flaubert may be found in FiU, pp. 56, 150, and 160; and in LiG, pp. 72, 135, and 157.

  4. See my article, “Madame Bovary and Flags in the Dust: The Influence of Flaubert on Faulkner,” forthcoming in Comparative Literature Studies.

  5. See my article, “Balzac and Faulkner: The Influence of La Comédie humaine on Flags in the Dust, and the Snopes Trilogy,” 37 (Summer 1984), 325-51. Mississippi Quarterly. As a writer beginning his literary career in the South of the early twentieth-century, Faulkner was confronted with startling transitions similar to those which Balzac excoriated in early nineteenth-century France.

  6. Studies of Faulkner's early work often employ an organic approach which sees the early sketches, stories, and novels as apprentice work in which Faulkner is learning to master the innovative techniques he employs so skillfully in The Sound and the Fury and in As I Lay Dying. While there is much merit in this approach, I believe it makes Faulkner into more of a literary modernist than he actually was. A broader perspective on his artistic growth would show that during the part of his literary career which followed the composition and publication of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, Faulkner attempted to incorporate the experimental techniques he had mastered into more traditional narrative forms.

  7. One might also note Faulkner's rejection of the traditional delineation of character by means of realistic external notation in favor of a highly stylized, expressionistic mode of characterization (See André Bleikasten's Faulkner's “As I Lay Dying,” 1970; trans. Roger Little, rev. and enl. ed. [Bloomington, 1973], 65-99; and Francois Pitavy's Faulkner's “Light in August,” 1970; trans. Gillian E. Cook, rev. and enl. ed. [Bloomington, 1973], 56-84.). Faulkner also abandoned omniscient narration for a mixture of authorial commentary and the dramatized voices of characters.

  8. LiG, p. 70. Faulkner also says in this interview that “There isn't any time. … There is only the present moment, in which I include both the past and the future, and that is eternity” (p. 70).

  9. Albert J. Guerard, The Triumph of the Novel: Dickens, Dostoevsky, Faulkner (1976; rpt. Chicago, 1982), 206.

  10. This particular problem raises the larger, more troubling question of influence in Faulkner's work as a whole. The normal difficulty of ascertaining influences is compounded in Faulkner's case because he wrote very little criticism. Faulkner preferred to write his novels rather than talk about them, and his comments on his work, often replies to interviewers, are the defenses of an intensely private man designed to preserve that privacy. Whether Faulkner's narrative techniques were inspired by philosophical and psychological sources such as the works of Freud, Jung, and Bergson or by literary and artistic sources such as the French Symbolists, Conrad, Joyce, Eliot, and the post-Impressionists may be impossible to determine.

  11. Robert Penn Warren, “Faulkner, the South, the Negro, and Time,” Southern Review 1 (Summer 1965), 501-29; rpt. in Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays. Robert Penn Warren, ed. (Englewood Cliffs, 1966), 251.

  12. Warren, “Faulkner, the South, the Negro, and Time,” pp. 251-52. Cleanth Brooks takes a similar tack when he writes that “the folk society that lies around them [the doomed characters] goes on in its immemorial ways. It is neither sick nor tired. It has all the vitality of an old and very tough tree” (WF, p. 115). These other groups do possess “some sort of grasp on the world,” but it is worth while to remember that neither old Bayard, who dies in the course of the novel, nor Aunt Jenny can pass this wisdom on to young Bayard, that the negro family is glimpsed only briefly in Book Four of the novel, and that the MacCallums seem unable to continue their line—all of them look upon the youngest brother, Buddy, with the hope that he will marry and so perpetuate the family name (See Albert J. Devlin's revisionist essay “Sartoris: Rereading the MacCallum Episode,” TCL, 17 [April 1971], 83-90, for a provocative rejection of the standard interpretation of the MacCallum episode as Southern pastoral.). These characters seem to be part of a valuable tradition which is, unfortunately, unable to help the representatives of the modern world: young Bayard destroys himself; Horace and Narcissa Benbow are insulated from life and crippled by their excessive gentility; Belle and Harry Mitchell are two different faces of the same coin—the rising materialistic bourgeoisie; and Byron Snopes is a victim of his own animal lusts. It can be argued that the older generation's inability to aid the younger is a negative index of its own vitality despite the nobility of its ideals.

  13. Thomas L. McHaney, “The Elmer Papers: Faulkner's Comic Portraits of the Artist,” MissQ, 26 (Summer 1973); rpt. in A Faulkner Miscellany, James B. Meriwether, ed. (Jackson, 1974), 39. Kenneth Hepburn's 1968 University of Washington dissertation “Soldiers' Pay to The Sound and the Fury: Development of Poetic in the Early Novels of William Faulkner,” pp. 51-79, contains one of the few other substantial discussions of Elmer. Also see Cleanth Brooks's William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, pp. 115-28.

  14. In Book 1, for example, we learn that in the Hutchinson Gallery of Chicago's Art Institute, Elmer himself had seen a picture

    by a Frenchman and it may have been a vase of flowers or a woman's dress: he had forgotten which; but from it he had learned that no color has any value, any significance save in its relation to other colors seen or suggested or imagined.

    (E 363)

  15. Because the Douglas Day edition of Flags in the Dust (New York, 1973) is textually unreliable—see Thomas L. McHaney's “The Text of Flags in the Dust,Faulkner Concordance Newsletter 2 [November 1973], 7-8; and George F. Hayhoe's review-essay “William Faulkner's Flags in the Dust,MissQ, 28 [Summer 1975], 368-86—I have drawn my quotations from the Flags in the Dust typescript which is on deposit at the University of Virginia Library's William Faulkner Collections. I am grateful to Mrs. Paul D. Summers, Jr., for permission to quote from this typescript. I have also used the 1961 Random House edition of Sartoris which reproduces by offset the original Harcourt, Brace (New York, 1929) edition. All subsequent references to these texts will be cited parenthetically in the essay.

  16. George F. Hayhoe, “A Critical and Textual Study of William Faulkner's Flags in the Dust,” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1979, p. 248.

  17. McHaney, “The Elmer Papers,” p. 61.

  18. Quoted in James B. Meriwether, The Literary Career of William Faulkner: A Bibliographical Study (1961; rpt. Columbia, 1971), 81.

  19. Michael Millgate, The Achievement of William Faulkner (1966; rpt. Lincoln, 1978), 22; and Hepburn, “Soldiers' Pay to The Sound and the Fury,” pp. 77-78.

  20. Noel Polk, ed., Sanctuary: The Original Text, by William Faulkner (New York, 1981), 303-4.

  21. McHaney, “The Elmer Papers,” p. 62.

  22. Michael Millgate, “Starting Out in the Twenties: Reflections on Soldiers' Pay,” Mosaic 7 (1973), 6-7.

  23. Millgate, “Starting Out in the Twenties,” p. 7.

  24. Another such set of repetitions involves old Bayard talking, arguing, and reminiscing with Will Falls in the bank's office. Almost all the heroic stories of Bayard's great-grandfather, Colonel John Sartoris, are presented here by Falls: the tall tale of how Sartoris evaded a Yankee contingent by posing as a yokel comes first (TS 1-4; FD 3-5; S 20-23), followed by an even more unbelievable account of how Sartoris single-handedly captured a Yankee patrol after a wild horse race had brought him careening into its midst (TS 364-69; FD 211-15; S 222-27), and then by how Sartoris shot two carpetbaggers who had been rallying blacks to vote during Reconstruction (TS 383-86; FD 223-25; S 234-36). But Faulkner also uses these repeated scenes in the bank to develop plot: the first such conversation occurs before Bayard has returned to Jefferson, the second (TS 110-14; FD 70-72; S 79-81) occurs after his arrival and here old Bayard learns for the first time from Falls how fast his grandson has been driving his new car. Here also Falls notices the wen on old Bayard's face. In the third encounter, Falls applies his Indian salve to old Bayard's wen, and in the fourth, he doses old Bayard again.

  25. Later, Jenny and Narcissa's conversation in the garden at Sartoris, punctuated by Aunt Jenny's savage clipping of flowers with her shears, centers on the trials of marriage and the greater endurance which women possess as compared to men (TS 68-73; FD 45-48; S 53-56) and on the anonymous love letters which Narcissa has been receiving from Byron Snopes (TS 89-93; FD 58-60; S 68-70).

  26. The culmination of Narcissa's repudiation of normal sexuality occurs during one last conversation with Aunt Jenny at the end of the novel. Earlier in a second garden scene, Aunt Jenny has decided Narcissa and Bayard's child should be named John (TS 451-52; FD 266-67; S 276-77). After her son has been christened at church that day, Narcissa now plays the piano for Aunt Jenny in the gathering twilight at Sartoris (TS 582-83; FD 369-70; S 378-80). In response to Aunt Jenny's remarks about the infant “John,” Narcissa answers quietly that the boy's name is “Benbow Sartoris.” As Aunt Jenny fumes, “‘Do you think … that because his name is Benbow, he'll be any less a Sartoris and a scoundrel and a fool?’” Narcissa continues to play, smiling at Aunt Jenny “quietly, a little dreamily, with serene fond detachment.”

  27. There is a gap between TS 156 and TS 157; the missing material may be found on MS 52-d to 52-e of the Flags in the Dust manuscript, also on deposit in the University of Virginia Library's William Faulkner Collections.

  28. There are other repetitions of scenes involving Horace. Just as Narcissa's changing attitudes toward the men in her life are developed through scenes in which she talks with Aunt Jenny, so Horace's recurrent conversations with Narcissa about Belle chart his estrangement from his sister and his surrender to Belle.

  29. Panthea Reid Broughton, “The Cubist Novel: Towards Defining a Genre,” in “A Cosmos of My Own”: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1980, Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie, eds. (Jackson, 1981), 44, 46. See also Watson G. Branch's “Darl Bundren's ‘Cubistic Vision,’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 19 (Spring 1977), 42-59.

  30. Ilse Dusoir Lind, “The Effect of Painting on Faulkner's Poetic Form,” in Faulkner, Modernism, and Film: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1978, Evans Harrington and Ann J. Abadie, eds. (Jackson, 1979), 140.

  31. Broughton, “Faulkner's Cubist Novels,” in “A Cosmos of My Own”, pp. 78.

Principal Works

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The Marble Faun (poetry) 1924

Soldiers' Pay (novel) 1926

Mosquitoes (novel) 1927

Sartoris (novel) 1929; also published as Flags in the Dust, 1973

The Sound and the Fury (novel) 1929

As I Lay Dying (novella) 1930

Sanctuary (novel) 1931

These Thirteen (short stories) 1931

Light in August (novel) 1932

A Green Bough (poetry) 1933

Pylon (novel) 1935

Absalom, Absalom! (novel) 1936

The Unvanquished (short stories) 1938

The Wild Palms (novellas) 1939

The Hamlet (novel) 1940

Go Down, Moses and Other Stories (short stories) 1942

To Have and Have Not [with Jules Furthman] (screenplay) 1945

The Big Sleep [with Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett] (screenplay) 1946

The Portable Faulkner (novellas and short stories) 1946; revised as The Essential Faulkner, 1967

Intruder in the Dust (novel) 1948

Knight's Gambit (short stories) 1949

Collected Stories of William Faulkner (short stories) 1950

Requiem for a Nun (play) 1951

A Fable (novel) 1954

The Town (novel) 1957

Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia 1957-1958 (lectures) 1959

The Mansion (novel) 1959

The Reivers (novel) 1962

Essays, Speeches and Public Letters (essays, speeches, letters) 1966

Lion in the Garden: Interviews With William Faulkner, 1926-1962 (interviews) 1968

The Marionettes: A Play in One Act (play) 1975

Mayday (novella) 1976

Selected Letters of William Faulkner (letters) 1976

Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner (short stories) 1979

Elmer (novel) 1983

Father Abraham (novel) 1984

Gail L. Mortimer (essay date spring 1986)

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SOURCE: Mortimer, Gail L. “The Ironies of Transcendent Love in Faulkner's The Wild Palms.Faulkner Journal 1, no. 2 (spring 1986): 30-42.

[In the following essay, Mortimer contends that Faulkner's narrative strategy in The Wild Palms causes the story to lose credibility as a love story.]

William Faulkner did not often write a fully developed love story. Fictionally, at least, the subject is not one he was comfortable with, nor was it particularly compatible with his more characteristic thematic concern with the vicissitudes of the South's decline. The Wild Palms, however, focuses on the love affair of two people, Charlotte Rittenmeyer and Harry Wilbourne, and their attempts to save their love from the pressures of convention and the mundane. In many ways the story resembles Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms: both novels concern runaway lovers trying to flee “a world antagonistic to love”;1 both women die as a result of pregnancy; both men are left tragically aware of what they have lost. But Faulkner's story is uniquely his own in that it conveys—along with the overtly tragic story of a “world well lost” for love—numerous signs of that love's disintegration from within. Faulkner's narrative presentation of his story, unlike Hemingway's, ultimately undermines its own credibility as a love story by its use of language and imagery that deny the very notion of transcendent love to be anything but illusory.

Basing his analysis on allusions in the novel to the ideas of Schopenhauer, Thomas McHaney writes that their consummation of the sexual act keeps the lovers bound to earthly things and destroys their love's spirituality (57-58). Panthea Reid Broughton expands on this view by suggesting that Charlotte and Harry are doomed not so much because of the presence of the physical, the fleshly, in their relationship, as because they insist that it be all there is. For them, the body alone must “supply love, meaning, even faith,” and in equating “love with the life of the body, they disregard the body's very needs” (40-41). The flesh, then, has its vengeance. Both critics note the erroneous thinking of the lovers, their improvidence and refusal simply to ignore the commonplace realities that they perceive as threats. At the level of plot, we see that Charlotte and Harry continually undermine their love by shortsighted decisions, but what is not evident in these analyses is the degree to which the text of the story itself—the language and images in which the story is conveyed—is subversive. For what Faulkner has created here is a pattern or substructure of Freudian meanings that establish the illusory nature of love as a psychological truth and not simply as a circumstance of plot.2

McHaney and Broughton reach different conclusions about the ending of the love story. For McHaney, Harry's final speech in jail is an affirmation of life, of memory, of love (175 ff). Broughton has come to see the ending as less positive because of the cynicism of the book's final chapter, in which the fate of the tall convict retrospectively insists that we view Harry's choices with some irony (35). What McHaney and Broughton share is the assumption that Charlotte's and Harry's beliefs about the meaning of their love for one another doom them, that they are undermined by cerebral or imaginative failures. Their different interpretations of the ending of the novel are both plausible precisely because the narrative itself is pervaded with ironies that continually subvert its own articulated “meanings.” Ostensibly celebrating the transcendent unity of two lovers, the story is told in language betraying an ambivalence toward the very possibility of romantic love. There is a continual tension caused by the disjunction between what Charlotte and Harry say about their love and what they do about it, but there is also a more subtle tension created by pervasive linguistic and imagistic ironies.

The novel is replete with literary and philosophic allusions, as McHaney has shown. Through allusion, paraphrase, and parody, Faulkner evokes themes and concepts found in such works as Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Idea, Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, Dante's Divine Comedy, and earlier novels by Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson (McHaney xvi-xix). And while we cannot establish the precise degree of self-consciousness with which Faulkner used the Freudian images this essay considers, the extraordinary interweaving of levels of meaning established by McHaney suggests that Faulkner also knew that he was using essentially anal compulsive language to link the two stories that make up The Wild Palms.3 His creation of such artifacts as the “Bad Smell” is blatant, distracting, but it is also part of a coherent pattern of psychological meanings that parody the apparent transcendence of the lovers. Instead of a boundless and ethereal love, theirs is disclosed as fundamentally (pun intended) weak.

Charlotte and Harry's relationship begins almost mystically. Their first words acknowledging their feeling for one another assume it as an established fact: “What to do about it, Harry?” “I dont know. I never was in love before” (42). The narrative tells us nothing about the basis of this love; it seems to arise ex nihilo, to be merely posited. This is the first of several instances in the novel whose implausibility strains our willingness to believe in this as a genuine love story. We are told of the immediate affinity between Charlotte and Harry, but its basis remains permanently unexplored. We are told, as well, that they have no choice but to act on their feelings. After Harry, unbelievably, discovers a wallet of money in a trash can, Charlotte leaves her husband and children to be with him. The lovers move from place to place to avoid succumbing to what they see as society's pressures to make them conform to conventional behavior. They move whenever responsibilities or the predictability of jobs begin to make them take their security and one another for granted. Looking for situations in which they will not fall into routines, they make increasingly reckless decisions, but habit and comfortableness haunt them. They fall into “the routine even of sinning” (126); Harry realizes, “I had turned into a husband” (132). Through carelessness, Charlotte becomes pregnant. Harry eventually performs an abortion, but he bungles it, and shortly thereafter, Charlotte dies.

The plot of the story insists that romantic love cannot last in contemporary society (“There is no place for it in the world today. …” [136]); Charlotte and Harry believe that the purity of their love is the source of their doom, that society cannot allow it to survive and remain itself intact. External circumstances appear to conspire to keep them from simply remaining together. Yet the two themselves are culpable in their fate because their perceptions and preoccupations prove them ultimately very unlikely candidates for transcendence. Allusions in the novel to famous doomed lovers are transformed into parodies when we realize the nature of the limitations that keep these contemporary lovers from truly losing themselves in their passion.

In The Wild Palms, as in Faulkner's other novels, it is the male protagonist's perspective from which we understand what is taking place. Even when Charlotte articulates the meaning of the relationship, as she often does, we hear her through Harry and know only as much about her feelings as he is capable of observing. It is helpful in understanding the implications of Harry's feelings about Charlotte to consider the responses of other Faulknerian males who are involved with women. Charlotte's closeness evokes feelings in Harry that are characteristic of men in numerous other stories. Descriptions of his sexual feelings are pervaded with anxiety. Harry finds her looking at him with an “unwinking yellow stare in which he seemed to blunder and fumble like a moth, a rabbit caught in the glare of a torch; an envelopment almost like a liquid” (87). This is language of entrapment of engulfment, conveying uneasiness about feminine presence. On similar occasions in other novels, women encountered as sexual beings are consistently imagined as bodies of water, especially threatening bodies of water (“Old Man,” the companion story to “The Wild Palms,” is entirely about a flood raging out of control). Horace Benbow in Flags in the Dust sees his lover, Belle Mitchell, as “enveloping him like a rich and fatal drug, like a motionless and cloying sea in which he watched himself drown” (243). In The Town Gavin Stevens is immobilized when Eula Varner offers herself to him: “[She was] still not moving: just standing there facing me so that what I smelled was not even just woman but that terrible, that drowning envelopment” (95). Joe Christmas in Light in August begins to see himself in his sexual liaison with Joanna Burden “as from a distance, like a man being sucked down into a bottomless morass” (246). In The Sound and the Fury (in which Caddy Compson's threatening sexuality is continually expressed in terms of her identity with a river) Faulkner tells us that her brother Quentin loved death “as a lover loves and deliberately refrains from the waiting willing friendly tender incredible body of his beloved, until he can no longer bear not the refraining but the restraint and so flings, hurls himself, relinquishing, drowning” (411). All of these passages share the assumption that sexuality involves anxiety about engulfment, that the male experiences sexual closeness as threatening, that the boundaries of the self will be lost, blurred, or annihilated. Anticipating his death by drowning (in effect, a fusion with the river that he identifies with his sister), Quentin Compson thinks, “I will look down and see my murmuring bones and the deep water like wind, like a roof of wind, and after a long time they cannot distinguish even bones upon the lonely and inviolate sand” (SF 98). Such imagery pervades The Wild Palms and expresses the identity in Harry's own imagination between Charlotte and the ocean she loves: “Maybe I'm not embracing her but clinging to her because there is something in me that wont admit it cant swim or [sic] cant believe it can” (84). Charlotte's yellow eyes, “like a cat's,” continue to cause him to feel helpless: “he seemed to be drowning, volition and will, in the yellow stare” (39).

As do other Faulkner women, Charlotte remains essentially inscrutable to the men who know her. Harry muses often about her assumed feminine ability to assimilate even an illicit relationship into her life. He shares with other male characters an awe at women's ability to enter such an experience wholeheartedly, with a “serene confidence in their amorous destinies like that of birds in their wings” (54). Unlike men, they seem able to hurl themselves “full-winged … into untried and unsupportive space where no shore is visible (54, italics mine). It is Harry (like other males) who needs a sense of where the shore is, who, as we shall see, needs boundaries and ritual to make him feel secure.

Another man in the novel who is looking for a shore is, of course, the tall convict in “Old Man.” Most of his story consists of his struggle to survive a “yellow flood” (155), a “yellow turmoil” (158) that takes charge of his skiff with “catlike” touches (150), “a rolling expanse which, even if he could have seen, apparently had no boundaries” (159). All he wants is something solid to land on, something that is not water: “it was earth, it did not move … it did not accept you substanceless and enveloping and suffocating” (232). The convict's helplessness, like Harry's, is imaged in his never having learned to swim.4 His story, whose chapters are interlaced with those of the love story, is a frantic parody of the anxieties Harry experiences in the presence of the female. Harry even thinks of himself as sharing a brotherhood in this regard with Charlotte's husband: “it seemed to him that they both stood now, aligned, embattled and doomed and lost, before the entire female principle” (57). The convict sees himself as “doomed from the very start never to get rid of [the woman]” (168).

Confirmation that the flood and feminine sexuality are imaginatively linked5 throughout “The Wild Palms” and “Old Man” is found in descriptions of the sexual act itself, a moment (for male characters) of utter helplessness, a going beyond some ultimate boundary. Harry remembers the instant at which he lost his virginity: “You remember: the precipice, the dark precipice; all mankind before you went over it and lived,” (137). He recalls his experience:

… the terror in which you surrender volition, hope, all—the darkness, the falling, the thunder of solitude, the shock, the death, the moment when, stopped physically by the ponderable clay, you yet feel all your life rush out of you into the pervading immemorial blind receptive matrix, the hot fluid blind foundation—grave-womb or womb-grave, it's all one.


Similar language appears in “Old Man,” where, with comically exaggerated Freudian imagery,6 Faulkner depicts the convict as flailing at the waters with his “impotent paddle” (145): he is “the man falling from a cliff being told to catch onto something and save himself” (171); “… he paddling again now, violently, as a man hurries toward the precipice for which he knows at last he is doomed” (169).

The anxiety expressed in these two stories is an anxiety about female sexuality—mocked with zest and wit in the Freudian caricature of the convict's tale and subtly undermining the love between Harry and Charlotte. The fear is more focused than this, however; it is the woman as mother who is terrifying. The convict's tale once again reveals explicitly the nature of the anxiety. A pregnant woman, the compressed image of all that he cannot deal with, drops out of a tree into the convict's foundering little boat. As the story proceeds and the convict wryly contemplates his helplessness, the woman and the water become interchangeable occasions for his outrage. She soon loses all identity for him except as a “swelling and unmanageable body” that he tries not to look at: “it was not the woman at all but rather a separate demanding threatening inert yet living mass of which both he and she were equally victims” (154); she “had ceased to be a human being … and had become instead one single inert monstrous sentient womb” (162-63). Ultimately, he longs “for severance at any price, even that of drowning, from the burden [the woman and her newborn child] with which, unwitting and without choice, he had been doomed” (177). At the end of the novel, the convict tells his cellmates that he never attempted sex with the woman because “his whole being would seem to flee the very idea in a kind of savage and horrified revulsion” (335). He turns his head from her rather than watch her nurse her child. It is little wonder, then, that he is so eager to find “something, anything he might reach and surrender his charge to and turn his back on her forever, on all pregnant and female life forever” (153).

In “The Wild Palms” Harry is intrigued by Charlotte's willingness to leave her children to be with him; that a mother could do this is a source of wonder to him: “she had already and scarcely knowing him given up more than he would ever possess to relinquish” (217). Alone with her, Harry sees himself as “existing in a drowsy and foetus-like state, passive and almost unsentient in the womb of solitude and peace” (110). It is when Charlotte's role as a mother threatens to reassert itself—she becomes pregnant—and to intrude again into their relationship that the events are set in motion which lead to the couple's final tragedy. Harry's behavior when he learns that Charlotte is pregnant symbolizes the boundary confusion that is the ultimate threat from women. He leaves Charlotte alone in their cabin because he cannot breathe in the room with her and takes to walking through heavy snow, “among but mostly into the drifts which he had not yet learned to distinguish in time to avoid, wallowing and plunging …” (207).7

The nature of the anxiety overwhelming the two men in these stories having been posited, it is possible now to return to the beginning of the novel and see more clearly how Faulkner builds for Harry a personality that will respond to the promised boundlessness of romantic love by looking, instead, for control, security, and ritual. When we first encounter Harry, he is living a monastic existence as a medical student waging “a constant battle” to balance “his dwindling bank account against the turned pages of his text books” (32). Early passages establish him as someone dogged by confining circumstances and meticulously concerned with details. He is obsessed with the need to make his money last while he completes his studies. Aware that this is to be a love story, the reader may hope that Harry will be freed from such concerns, “carried away” by his love for Charlotte. Certainly, the language in which the lovers discuss their relationship implies this surpassing of everyday concerns. Harry tells himself, “I look upon love with the same boundless faith that it will clothe and feed me as the Mississippi or Louisiana countryman, converted last week at a camp-meeting revival, looks upon religion” (85). Charlotte insists that their relationship be all honeymoon, “heaven, or hell: no comfortable safe peaceful purgatory between” (83). But Faulkner does not show Harry as overcoming his cautious use of money, measurement, or time. Quite the contrary. Harry's behavior is quickly dominated by an increasingly ritualistic concern for detail. When he prepares to send the wallet full of money back to its owner, for example, Faulkner describes at length how he took “scissors and a bottle of paste and made a neat surgeon's packet of the wallet, copying the address neatly and clearly from one of the identification cards and putting it carefully away beneath the garments in his drawer” (52). The choices of adverbs and the repeated use of the word “and” in this passage help to express the ritualistic quality of the behavior, exaggerated because Harry is so tempted to keep the money that his preparations for returning it become elaborate, as a form of denial of the wish. From this moment in the novel onward, the narrator never lets the reader forget precisely how much of the twelve hundred and seventy-eight dollars is left. The novel itself compulsively brings this fact back to our attention. Harry pays for a hotel room, we are told, with “the sixth two dollars” that he was supposed to have sent to his sister in repayment of a debt (46); we learn the fate of each dollar that brings the lovers closer to a need to re-enter society. Debts, interest, the price of postage, railroad timetables, a cashier's check for $300 (for Charlotte's return to her family if she needs it), calendars, a list indicating how long their money and food will last—such artifacts permeate the story8 and represent concerns that are betraying the relationship from within.

In one of many moves away from places that have threatened them with feeling married, Charlotte and Harry spend time in the Wisconsin woods at the end of a summer season. They have the lake and woods to themselves, and their circumstances seem to be, at last, idyllic. Here, with nothing to interfere with their relationship, we expect them to find moments of peace, and here, instead, Harry's compulsion becomes most exacerbated. Even the language in which he talks about his happiness reveals his real preoccupations: “‘I'm happy now,’ Wilbourne said. ‘I know exactly where I am going. It's perfectly straight, between two rows of cans and sacks, fifty dollars' worth to a side’” (100). Harry becomes obsessed with the number of cans of food (representing the money spent to buy them as well as the time left before he and Charlotte will run out and have to return to the city) and can do nothing but brood about them, count them, or consciously avoid counting them:

he believed that he was worrying, not about the inevitable day on which their food would run out, but at the fact that he did not seem to worry about it … It became an obsession with him; he realised quite calmly that he had become secretly quietly and decently a little mad; he now thought constantly of the diminishing row of cans and sacks against which he was matching in inverse ratio the accumulating days, yet he would not go to the closet and look at them, count them … all he would have to do would be to glance at the row of cans on a shelf: he could count the cans and know exactly how many days more they would have left, he could take a pencil and mark the shelf itself off into days … But he would not even look into the closet.


So numbed is he by his obsessions that Harry cannot even taste the food he spends so much time contemplating: “I dont know whether it actually is not foul, or if it's something protective—that what I taste is not this at all but the forty or fifty cents it represents” (103-4).

Psychoanalytic thought has much to offer us in clarifying the meaning of this convergence of compulsive behavior, obsessive thinking, and an ambivalence toward the feminine. As I suggested earlier, we cannot be certain whether Faulkner had the psychoanalytic paradigm in mind as he wrote. It is evident, though, from even a general knowledge or observation of compulsion that its characteristic rigidity is the antithesis of states of mind we expect in those sharing that ethereal phenomenon, being in love. I suspect a quite deliberate use of the model, however, in part because of Faulkner's precise, if infrequent, use of such explicit terms as “obsession” and “masturbation” and in part because of the consistency and cogency with which the anal compulsive language of this novel links together the experiences of the many characters who are mirrors for one another (the unnamed doctor and Harry, Harry and the tall convict, the tall convict and the short convict, the pregnant woman and Charlotte).9 What seems evident is that for the modern reader, the psychoanalytic explanation serves as a valuable model through which to understand the tensions in the novel between the appearance of love and the reality of anxiety. The disclosure of a coherent set of perceptions (on the part of the characters), behaviors and images reveals Faulkner's essentially ironic vision of a set of circumstances that effectively render the idea of an enduring romantic love chimerical. Psychoanalysis can explain the nature of this coherence and uncover the ambivalence accounting for the conflicting languages of transcendence and anality in a single text.

In his classic description of compulsion neurosis, Otto Fenichel writes that the conflicts leading an individual to regress to the “analsadistic instinctual orientation of the compulsion neurotic” have usually originated in Oedipal anxieties (272-73). That is, one defense we have against the fear of incest aroused by the realization of our inordinate attraction to the mother is a feeling of repulsion that can lead to behavior guaranteeing (or meant to guarantee) that we do not act on the original impulse. The almost infinite series of substitutions of behaviors that assure us we are not acting on that incestuous love comprises the complex and paradoxical patterns of compulsive behavior.10 We quickly forget the original wish and (in the Freudian paradigm) substitute for it a preoccupation with counting, measuring, and brooding about such things as money, feces, and time, but at the heart of all of these substitutions is anxiety and ambivalence about the possibility of separation from the mother and her later psychic surrogates. Compulsive behavior, then, enacts the individual's deep ambivalence (intense love for the mother and fright at the implications of that love, i.e., separation or castration anxiety) by appearing self-contradictory. Instinctual urges to do or not do something are thus combined in irrational ways with anti-instinctual defenses against doing it. Behavior which is at one moment a defense against doing a forbidden act can quickly and perversely become a substitute enactment of it, which in turn needs to be punished or undone.

In The Wild Palms we see Harry and the tall convict responding with identical expressions of overwhelming anxiety to the closeness of the sexuality of the mother (Charlotte, the pregnant woman, the raging flood) and the threat of being overwhelmed, engulfed, or drowned by its presence. The convict simply tries to get away; Harry's anxiety, in contrast, cannot be acknowledged because he so wants to believe in the romantic notion of love he and Charlotte have created between them, and it is his anxiety, rather than the convict's, that is transformed narratively into compulsive preoccupations.

In a compulsive individual's regression to an anal orientation, energies once used to defend him against acting on Oedipal impulses are used, instead, to defend against anal-erotic impulses. Harry's behavior enacts this regression. Unable to acknowledge the degree of anxiety generated by his closeness to Charlotte, he becomes interested, instead, in the artifacts of their lives: the presence and absence of money, food, and time. One concern is a substitute for the other; both have as their objective a feeling of being in control. Much of Harry's behavior, we recall, consists of brooding and trying not to brood, counting and trying not to count external things that affect his relationship with Charlotte. (Control and lack of it are obviously prime concerns in the anal stage of psychic and physical development.) But while Harry seems to need to be in control in order to preserve the relationship, he actually needs to be in control as a defense against it. Faulkner suggests Harry's decided ambivalence about the affair by consistently portraying him as inept, as undermining his own apparent motives: attempting to paint, he discovers he is colorblind; trying to determine when winter will set in, he finds he has completely lost track of time; even his “losing” of jobs and his mishandling of Charlotte's abortion (more about which, later) reflect the self-contradictory nature of much compulsive behavior.

In considering the role of the anal compulsive orientation in the novel, we are not forced to posit a particular etiology for the character Harry, whose infancy is, after all, neither present nor implied. What is significant is that in a novel in which male protagonists are confronted with the immediacy of feminine sexuality, language expressing anxiety about the mother is coextensive with language expressing obsessive-compulsive perceptions. And this language is not limited to Harry alone: it pervades the narration. Faulkner himself emphasizes the Oedipal nature of Harry's anxiety by portraying Rat, Charlotte's husband, precisely in his roles as father (to Charlotte's children), husband, and brother (to Harry). Late in the novel Rat is made avenger—and forgiver—of Harry's Oedipal crime.

Charlotte's behavior and language also contribute to the compulsive orientation of the novel, for although she is depicted as free of the debilitating anxiety Harry experiences as a result of their closeness, her language and actions elucidate the perspective implied in Harry's rigid behavior. Although Charlotte insists that the day on which she and Harry will run out of money is not important and she seems unaware of the obsessive measuring that characterizes so much of Harry's thinking, she too discusses their love in terms of measurement—its cost, its worth: “… love and suffering are the same thing and … the value of love is the sum of what you have to pay for it and any time you get it cheap you have cheated yourself” (48) and “what does it matter what it cost us, what we pay for it? or how? … Isn't it worth it, even if it all busts tomorrow and we have to spend the rest of our lives paying interest?” (87-88). Harry echoes her words in his despair as he tries to get pills that will end her pregnancy: “they must work, something must; it cant be this difficult, this much of a price” (208).

Charlotte's language is often explicitly anal, connoting the tense ambivalence between “holding on” and “letting go” that in an infant are assumed to accompany the anal stage of development.11 She describes their love to Harry as being like the ocean in that “if you are not good enough, worthy enough … if you begin to make a bad smell in it, it just spews you up somewhere to die” (83). She loves the ocean: “… I had rather drown in the ocean than be urped up onto a strip of dead beach and be dried away by the sun into a little foul smear …” (83). Comparable language in “Old Man” describes the violence of the convict's struggle with the water: it was “as though some forty hours' constipation of the elements, the firmament itself, were discharging in clapping and glaring salute …” (157); “the convict's native state, in a final paroxysm, regurgitated him onto the wild bosom of the Father of Waters” (158); he knew that when the water “was done with him it would spew him back into the comparatively safe world he had been snatched violently out of” (147).

Again, the paradoxical compulsive tendency to alternate between retaining things and irrationally squandering them (Fenichel 282) is seen in the interplay of Harry's caution with Charlotte's recklessness. While he counts, saves, and measures things, she pours their last whiskey onto a hearth (105), gives their last food (pork chops) to a cast iron dog (98), and wastes some of what little money they have left on a purposeless taxi ride (97)—all ostensibly in defiance of their “fate” but in fact helping to create it.

Harry's characteristic orderliness, a trait Fenichel describes as “a protective measure against dangerous instinctual demands” (284), is ultimately self-defeating. Systems of doing things—routines—are meant to protect a compulsive individual from committing some forbidden act. Yet in Harry and Charlotte's relationship, we see that the routine itself is soon experienced as the forbidden act, and thus the lovers find themselves in an endless flight both from routine and from spontaneity. This is typical of compulsive sequences, in which one behavior is substituted for another when the latter ceases to be an effective defense against an urge and becomes, instead, a symbolic enactment of it. Throughout his story, Harry alternately feels lost in time and trapped by it; both become occasions for severe anxiety. He struggles to forget time, then struggles to recapture it (by making a calendar, for example), then struggles to lose himself in it again.

Most conspicuous of all in conveying the anal compulsive dimensions of the story are Charlotte and Harry's roles as artists and their attitudes toward their “creations.” Charlotte is a sculptor who fashions a little figure a few inches tall that she calls the “Bad Smell” (95). She explains that it is an emblem of the sorts of things she and Harry could do that would destroy their love, make them unworthy of it; it is a warning, an objective correlative of their fears. It is also a bad product of the self, and by keeping it safe and being aware of it, Charlotte implies that she and Harry will retain what is good within themselves. It is significant that she gives the “Bad Smell” away to a stranger who visits them in their Wisconsin cabin, an act that proves to be premature.

Charlotte tells Harry that she values sculpture because it is “‘Not just something to tickle your taste buds for a second and then swallowed and maybe not even sticking to your entrails but just evacuated whole and flushed away into the damned old sewer, the Might-just-as-well-not-have-been’” (41). It is something “that you could be proud to show, that you could touch, hold, see the behind side of it and feel the fine solid weight” (47). When she stops making her little puppets, we are told that “it stopped as abruptly and inexplicably as it had begun” (89). Meanwhile, Harry writes for the confession magazines “stories which he wrote complete from the first capital to the last period in one sustained frenzied agonising rush …” (121) and then tries to sleep, “waiting for the smell and echo of his last batch of moron's pap to breathe out of him” (122). As should be evident by now, all of this excessively anal language reflects a concern both with the products and with the modalities of the anal compulsive orientation, with the created object (“something you could touch”), with how it is created (“stopped … abruptly,” “frenzied agonising rush,” “spewed”), and how it is disposed of: even the narrator describes the trash bin in which Harry finds the money as containing “the casual anonymous droppings of the anonymous who passed it during the twelve hours like the refuse of birds in flight” (50).

Ultimately, Harry, like many compulsive people, is as preoccupied with punishment as he is with his crime. His behavior becomes most ritualistic when he is in danger of losing something or has just lost it. While he delays telling Charlotte he has lost his job, he spends his days on a park bench, looking at the cashier's check that is her means of getting home: there was “something almost ceremonial about it, like the formal preparation by the addict of his opium pipe … while he invented a hundred ways to spend it … knowing that this was a form of masturbation” (94). Fenichel tells us that fears about the loss of fecal masses—and their later substitutes in compulsion neurotics: money, time, and such—are “archaic forerunners of the idea of castration” (276). That Faulkner should describe Harry's handling of the cashier's check in terms of masturbation suggests that for Harry masturbation represents the crime (again, a substitute for the Oedipal crime) just as the loss of the job is a punishment (a substitute castration in that it contributes to his impotence, his inability to control what is happening to them). Compulsion neurotics often see punishment both as a retaliation for a crime and, paradoxically, as a license to commit the crime again. The circle is a vicious one, as the individual may create substitute punishments for himself to put an end to doubts about when and how the “real” punishment will take place. Thus, some of the things Harry does can be seen as symbolic castrations, freeing him temporarily from both the possibility of committing the crime and from the fear of punishment (because, after all, he has already been punished). Only in this light can we understand Harry's decision, for example, to send Charlotte back to Chicago without him as a symbolic severing of himself from the possibility of committing incest and a symbolic castration/punishment for having done so. Assuming Harry's severe ambivalence also accounts for the paradoxical care and carelessness reflected in his response to Charlotte's pregnancy. Although he appears to be quite cautious, he is, in fact, improvident. His endless deliberations about the abortion cause him to wait so long that he ends by performing it hurriedly at the last moment, and his fumbling ineptitude, partly a consequence of the haste, causes her death. In view of compulsive motivations, the botched abortion is highly suspect. Charlotte's death is, after all, at his hands. Harry's clumsiness punishes both of them for their Oedipal crime. Rather too contentedly, he goes off to prison and is more serene there than we have ever seen him. In accepting his punishment, he is freed from the possibility the crime will take place again. The elaborate rationale he provides for accepting his sentence rather than the escape Rat offers him only thinly masks his sense of relief at being at last free of temptation. As the novel ends, both Harry and the tall convict embrace prison.

The language and imagery of anality so permeate Faulkner's love story that, once aware of it, the reader finds irony after irony in the text's surface insistence that this is a lovers' tragedy. How can we feel solemn, for example, about Harry's olfactory concerns? When he and Charlotte leave New Orleans together, he feels self-conscious, sure “that they must have disseminated an aura of unsanctity and disaster like a smell” (60). Charlotte expresses repeatedly her interest in looking at things (especially sculpture) “from the rear” (Abraham 390). The lovers are concerned about what they leave behind them, as when they move from “the apartment where they had lived for two months and left no mark other than the cigarette scars on the table. ‘Not even of loving,’ he said” (129). And so on. The very perceptions of the lovers seem dominated by compulsive meticulousness about the debris of their relationship and reinforce our sense that the notion of romantic transcendence is being subverted even as the story proceeds.

But while Harry spends much of his time in the novel performing what Freud called “‘secret scatologic rituals’” (Fenichel 274) to allay his anxiety about Charlotte, his constant brooding is counterpointed by the overtly Oedipal behavior of the tall convict in the companion story, “Old Man.” Harry's behavior reflects a regression to an anal compulsive orientation typical of compulsion neurotics; the convict's behavior, in sharp contrast, shows an openly aggressive confrontation of the forces that threaten him. His is the hostility of the Oedipal phase expressed rather than repressed. There is little time for the convict to brood about his situation because he is constantly struggling to survive. There are only glimpses of his terror, impressions of its causes, and expressions of his desire to be free. I mentioned earlier his flailing at the waters with his paddle. This paddle takes on a good deal of importance as an artifact in the story. Faced with the inexorable sexual presence of the female/mother—both the flood and the pregnant, then nursing woman—the convict laboriously and endlessly burns, whittles, and chips away at a tree trunk to make a new paddle that might save him: “for an instant in which he knew he was insane he thought of trying to saw it down with the flange of the bailing can” (234-5). The parodic conflict between potency and castration fears is evident, especially as the bailing can has just been used to sever the infant's umbilical cord.

All of the convict's energies are spent in searching for a way back to “that monastic existence of shotguns and shackles where he would be secure” from female life (153). He experiences increasing degrees of exasperation, powerfully conveyed in Faulkner's breathless prose, at the unreasonable presence of the female and the injustice of the role he has been asked to fill. He simply cannot believe, for example, that he has been forced to participate in the birth of her child, an event that he finds the apotheosis of her existence as the feminine and that leaves him enervated: “He felt the same outrageous affronting of a condition purely moral, the same raging impotence to find any answer to it … standing above her, spent suffocating and inarticulate …” (229).

Despite the continued presence of the woman, however, the convict discovers an interlude of peace. It occurs when he, she, and an old cajun share a cabin in a swamp. Daily the convict and the old man go out to hunt alligators. The convict wrestles them one to one, dazzling the local people with his courage. The encounters caricature the fighting of dragons to win the hands of fairy-tale damsels. As the narrator suggests, the convict's reading of adventure tales earlier in his life probably prepared him to see it this way: “who to say what Helen, what living Garbo, he had not dreamed of rescuing from what craggy pinnacle or dragoned keep” (149). In contrast to the obsessive inertia characterizing much of Harry's behavior in “The Wild Palms,” the convict's behavior in “Old Man” as he conquers each “sauric protagonist” (270) enacts an open battle with beings threatening castration, whether the beasts are seen as punishing fathers or devouring mothers. The potency he feels after each of these encounters provides a defense against the feminine threat he has fought throughout the story, and as if to emphasize the change, the woman and her child fade narratively into the background, temporarily harmless.

“Old Man” has been explored in specifically Freudian terms (its use of rebirth imagery, for example; Feaster 89-93). Here I want only to suggest that the events and artifacts in the convict's story, while they have some relevance for an independent reading that ignores “The Wild Palms,” are significantly clarified by juxtaposing them to the companion story and seeing them as elaborate, comic defenses against threats of engulfment and castration. Such phenomena as the paddle and the conquering of alligators have the effect of forestalling anxiety about the presence of women. Time and again, the convict's role is to enact parodies of strong or aggressive or chivalrous behavior vis-a-vis the feminine. When, at the end of the story, he returns gladly to the womb-like prison cell, grateful to be rid of women once and for all, even at the expense of a stupidly and cruelly lengthened prison term, we can fully empathize with his final epithet, the last words in the book: “Women, [shi]t!” And we can understand the juxtaposition here of language that compresses the idea of women with the excessive anality found throughout the novel. In his final expletive, the convict locates and articulates the nature of the anxiety that psychologically accounts for many of the paradoxes of this, Faulkner's major love story.


  1. McHaney, P. 13; see also pp. xvi, 3-24, et passim. McHaney's is the fullest, soundest explication of the novel thus far. On the parallels to Hemingway's work, see Moses and Richardson.

  2. I am not arguing that all love is based on the deflections of early desire this paper discusses or even that Faulkner necessarily thought so. Whatever his reasons, though, he has chosen to make his characters in this novel incapable of a genuinely transcendent love by suggesting ways in which it undermines its own potential. Thus, the word “transcendent” in my title is itself meant to be ironic, for no love so constituted could help but provide its own severest obstacles. We can only speculate about whether Faulkner may have been basing some of the parody on self-observation, on some sense in himself that he was his own worst enemy in love relationships. It is also plausible—given his caricature of so many elements in Hemingway's Farewell to Arms—that even this dimension of his love story was a conscious parody.

  3. When discussed as separate entities, the two stories making up the novel are indicated as “The Wild Palms” and “Old Man.”

  4. The language describing Harry's encounters with Charlotte and the convict's helplessness in the raging flood is often identical: “yellow,” “turmoil,” “catlike,” “drowning,” “doom,” “enveloping.”

    Women are behind the problems of all the men in the novel. The two convicts in “Old Man” are both in jail partly because of women: the tall convict shared his plan to rob a train with his sweetheart and feels he would not have gone through with it had it not been for telling her (338); the short convict chose a longer sentence rather than have to face the anger of the woman involved with him in his crime (27). Harry feels his years of virginity have left him unprepared for his relationship with Charlotte. See also FU, 173-74.

    These parallels reinforce the notion that the dilemmas of Harry and the tall convict are psychically equivalent. The anxieties described by the characters are identical, and their solutions are the same, both literally (going to prison) and psychologically (retreat, regression).

  5. McHaney notes (141) that the river is described in androgynous terms. Actually, when Faulkner speaks of the river itself, the “Old Man,” the “Father of waters” he tends to use masculine images, such as that of a bucking stallion. When he speaks of the flood, however, he uses the imagery of engulfment and drowning that, for him, are feminine threats. It is precisely the flood which leaves the “Old Man” indistinguishable, and Faulkner makes much of the fact that its boundaries are not discernible because of the flood: “as if the water itself were in three strata, separate and distinct, the bland and unhurried surface … the rush and fury of the flood itself, and beneath this in turn the original stream” (62).

    See also Cumpiano, 191: “The life force embodied in the river and the woman are hated and feared.” For Cumpiano, it is the “life force” which the convict flees, and his return to prison is “a rejection of life itself” (193), an embracing of the Nirvana principle, “the downward movement of the organism toward quiescence” (190). Cumpiano does not seek a particular reason for the convict's “death drive,” and his explanation seems, as a result, rather unnecessarily abstract.

  6. Faulkner uses similar “comic Freudianism” elsewhere; see McHaney, 43.

  7. The anxiety Harry experiences in realizing that he has again lost track of time through his closeness to Charlotte suggests fright at the boundary confusion, the blurred sense of self and, hence, of control, that is the essential danger of closeness to women (in Faulkner's view).

  8. McHaney recognizes (15) that Harry's concern with money “amounts to an obsession” and that he and Charlotte are very unlikely lovers. The Appendix to his book is entitled “Time and Money in The Wild Palms” and lists the numerous references to dates, numbers, and money that appear in the novel. He seems, indeed, to be on the verge of concluding, as I have, that the anal compulsive substructure is a significant dimension of meaning within the novel, but his analysis focuses, instead, on the philosophical and mythic aspects of the stories.

  9. In a very different argument—but one equally based on Freudian paradigms—John Irwin establishes the importance of such doubling or mirroring elsewhere in Faulkner's writing. His study shows how Faulkner was able to exploit a number of the dimensions of the Oedipal conflict through thematic concerns such as generational conflicts among grandfathers, fathers, and sons, and through reenactments of the psychic preoccupations of such complex figures as Quentin Compson even within their roles as narrators. Irwin's work leaves no doubt that the overdetermined nature of psychic phenomena as Freud elaborated them were well understood by Faulkner and often explicitly reflected in his fiction.

  10. Irwin's discussion of the repetition compulsion and its etiology (88-90) is especially helpful here.

  11. Harry's feelings about sexual climax equate it with death. Letting go is terrifying to him because subjectively it seems to threaten an annihilation of the self against which there is no defense, a fate as inexorable as death: “‘grave-womb or womb-grave, it's all one,’” as Harry puts it (138).

Works Cited

Abraham, Karl. “Contributions to the Theory of the Anal Character.” Selected Papers of Karl Abraham, M.D. London: Hogarth Press, 1927.

Broughton, Panthea Reid. “The Wild Palms: Structure, Affect, and Meaning.” Unpublished essay; page references are to the typescript.

Cumpiano, Marion W. “The Motif of Return: Currents and Counter Currents in ‘Old Man’ by William Faulkner.” Southern Humanities Review 12 (Summer 1978), 185-93.

Faulkner, William. Flags in the Dust. New York: Random House, 1973.

———. Light in August. New York: Random House, Vintage, 1972.

———. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Random House, Modern Library, 1967.

———. The Town. New York: Random House, 1957.

———. The Wild Palms. New York: Random House, Vintage, 1964.

Feaster, John. “Faulkner's Old Man: A Psychoanalytic Approach.” Modern Fiction Studies 13 (1967), 89-93.

Fenichel, Otto, M.D. The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis. New York: Norton, 1945.

Gwynn, Frederick L., and Joseph L. Blotner, eds. Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia 1957-1958. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1959.

Irwin, John T. Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins U P, 1975.

McHaney, Thomas L. William Faulkner's The Wild Palms: A Study, Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1975.

Moses, W. R. “Water, Water Everywhere: Old Man and A Farewell to Arms.Modern Fiction Studies 5 (1959), 172-74.

Richardson, H. Edward. “The ‘Hemingwaves’ in Faulkner's Wild Palms.Modern Fiction Studies 4 (1959), 357-60.

John E. Bassett (essay date fall 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6172

SOURCE: Bassett, John E. “A Fable: Faulkner's Revision of Filial Conflict.” Renascence 40, no. 1 (fall 1987): 15-29.

[In the following essay, Bassett examines the role of A Fable in Faulkner's canon.]

A Fable is a troublesome work. Written over a ten-year period, it is essential to understanding Faulkner's intellectual and artistic identity after 1940; but it inspires less interest and commentary than his other big novels. Partly due to its being outside the Yoknapatawpha saga that so involves critics with particular novels and with the relationships between novels, such neglect is also due to internal problems limiting its appeal. In 1966 Michael Millgate wrote that in this “sluggish” work, “Faulkner's writing is … denuded of much of that verbal and metaphorical richness, poetic in quality, vigorous in movement, which marks alike the dialogue and the continuous prose of his novels of the ‘thirties’ and early ‘forties’” (232). Cleanth Brooks has more recently defined the novel's weakness as an uncertainty of mode, not so much a failure of theme or “what” the book means but indecision over “how” it is supposed to mean. Ostensibly an allegory of sorts, Brooks argues, A Fable shifts between realism, allegory, and fable without clear signals to the reader of changing relationships between episodes and their thematic significance (235-50).

Both criticisms are valid, even though over the years Heinrich Straumann, Keen Butterworth, and others have skillfully defended the novel. Arguments for taste rarely persuade anyone but the writer, and it is unlikely more will read A Fable in the 1990s than did in the 1970s. It does, however, reveal patterns and motifs and conflicts from other novels transformed in new ways as they are moved out of Yoknapatawpha County. In a sense elaborate defenses of A Fable are attempts to re-center it in the canon, to explain its similarities to and relationships with the major novels, whose worth is established. Such defenses thereby justify the career as an even larger, more inclusive whole, and Faulkner as a writer able to work in yet another mode, one whose greatness did not flag in the twilight of his life.

Such arguments are not my concern here, though they do reflect the continuing problematic of the late Faulkner—prolific but not as profound, a writer whose difficult style seems at times to obfuscate otherwise clear meanings rather than enrich complex situations. In the late novels he begins to sentimentalize conflicts as he had not earlier. Between The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! deep personal concerns were interwoven with a social fabric and with consideration of the significance of verbal fictions themselves. Faulkner's next two novels signaled changes in his career. The Wild Palms is as pessimistic as Absalom, Absalom!; and if grief over the end of his affair with Meta Carpenter and over the nature of his home life lies behind the novel, the pessimism was a personal statement. In two concluding scenes prison doors clang shut on men whose main action has been a thrust for freedom; but in spite of the determinism in the book's images and structure, Faulkner insists that the characters' fortunes are also a product of free will and a chosen resignation. Harry chooses imprisonment over death, grief over nothingness, suffering over suicide. His sexual fantasy exploded, he will not die like Quentin. Nor will he become schizophrenic like Darl, or furiously chase his own death like Joe Christmas. Like a Sartrean character he accepts his closed world, although with a less clear notion of possibilities for engagement within that world. In all its bleakness, the novel implies—more confidently than The Sound and the Fury,Light in August, or Absalom, Absalom!—the existence of an order within which man can make choices and endure. Endurance in the face of grief becomes the explicit Faulknerian theme.

The Unvanquished goes in a different direction. It not only suggests the possibility of choice and will, but of progress, triumph over one's personal and social past, and hope. Although the book is a collection of magazine stories, it does represent one dimension of Faulkner's mind in the mid-1930s, especially when set next to Absalom, Absalom! Like Absalom it deals with the end of the old order but not as tragedy. The South and the Civil War are still romantic in the first tales, and brutal in the middle tales. The final story makes the South progressive. No longer is Faulkner's vision apocalyptic; no longer does he radically probe dislocations in his own world. The Unvanquished is an apology and a moral statement. It is not an agrarian defense of the values of the Old South from the perspective of the 1930s, for the novel repudiates the code of John Sartoris and replaces it with that of his son; but it does vindicate the South from the perspective of 1860. The derringdo of Colonel John is admirable, even in flight. The murder of carpetbaggers helping blacks to vote is not condoned, but rendered less significant than the romantic adventures of Drusilla and Sartoris. The relationship between little Bayard and his black pal is sincere and anticipates the relationship between Chick Mallison and Aleck Sander in Intruder in the Dust.Intruder and The Unvanquished, a decade apart, dramatize changes in the order of the South and the education of a young man in that age of change. Both optimistically assert the South's capacity to change, to learn, to reduce man's cruelty to man. Intruder [Intruder in the Dust] achieves some of its complexity from a tension between the voices of Gavin Stevens and Chick. The Unvanquished, in its simple narration by one sympathetic character, achieves its only similar tension between present and past, and the resolution of that is facile, hardly introduced until already resolved.

Significantly Faulkner chooses as his promising youth the same cantankerous Bayard Sartoris who ten years earlier in Sartoris fought such changes as the automobile and modern medicine and seems identified with a dead past. Faulkner is not, it seems, by this allusion undercutting his ostensible meaning in The Unvanquished; but neither is he unaware of the connection. Bayard's namesake and grandson, of course, is the alienated melancholic of Sartoris who cannot adjust to his own world and furiously moves toward his own death. He is of a piece with Quentin Compson. Bayard in The Unvanquished, though literally the grandfather as a younger person, is in other ways a rewriting of the grandson. Both grow up in wars that alter their world. One becomes self-destructive; the other not only eschews violence but reshapes his world in so doing. He becomes an embarrassment to the Drusillas of the South, perhaps, but the novel implies that the future is not with them.

Not only does Bayard survive and prevail but he does so over the father. It is rare in Faulkner's fiction when the recurring pattern of weak fathers, betraying fathers, absent fathers, and family conflict culminates in successful assertion by the son. But Bayard is also the first of a new kind of youth in Faulkner's fiction, a group that includes Bayard, the corporal, Chick, and Lucius, and replaces as it overlaps the Bayard-Quentin-Isaac group. The new young man, of course, is created by an older Faulkner, one whose most profound inner conflicts are not so likely to be embodied in a youth. The surface particulars of these youth, in fact, are often borrowed from younger relatives and friends of the period, and Faulkner's own self seems more deeply embedded in a Gavin Stevens. So although the young are paradigmatic structurally with the earlier youth they are less troubled and they are more sentimentalized.

Faulkner does not suddenly become an optimistic and sentimental writer. The Unvanquished is composed perhaps as a relief from the experience of writing Absalom.The Wild Palms is bleak enough. The Hamlet is hardly encouraging about stopping Snopesism and Go Down, Moses despite Ike's idealism is not promising about the future. The Hamlet, however, does suggest a set of values in opposition to Snopesism and thereby affirms a natural and moral order that can exist and a version of history at least unfavorable to the class represented by Snopes. Go Down, Moses does privilege certain kinds of traditions, rituals, and conventions that not only order life but can provide a means for change. By the time Intruder justifies a gradualism in racial progress it fits into a social/historical model that Faulkner is developing but that was not so apparent in the early novels.

A Fable is the book Faulkner begins a year and a half after completing Go Down, Moses. Certain contextual factors are significant. The novel was conceived at a time of great personal pessimism. Secondly, the war itself, and America's involvement, helped determine the choice of subject matter—which is that other war, the time of a traumatic period in Faulkner's personal life. Faulkner's own failure to be a participant in the war and the sense of personal loss he attached to the war years are relevant, as is also his own sense of being a tired, aging writer. The novel itself began as a shorter story and then grew as he elaborated its implications. The seminal image was the corporal leading a mutiny in the trenches. But A Fable also seems to have been more planned, thematically, than his earlier novels. Despite Butterworth's contention to the contrary the abstract issues seem to direct the growth of the book more than character and story and situation do. The Christian parallels were as original to the novel's conception as the corporal's act.

Perhaps the model of Joyce lay behind Faulkner's plan. Joyce had a great impact on Faulkner in the 1920s, and his use of the Homeric framework in Ulysses may have set an example for Faulkner's decision to employ the myth of the cross. But whereas Joyce's novel is full of meanings requiring no connection to the story of Odysseus, Faulkner's fable cannot be divorced from the story of Jesus (See Ziolkowski, and Brooks 414-16). The parallels and associations are asserted and re-asserted throughout. Faulkner did not intend for the book to be read consistently in an allegorical or analogical way; but then few allegories work by means of systematic allusions to an older story. Parodies do, but A Fable is not really a parody or burlesque. Nor does it develop by means of systematic conflict between signifiers that represent ideological or moral abstractions. Abstractions are mystified not analyzed. The Christ story offers a cultural shorthand that encourages the reader to globalize the act of rebellion at the center of the text; and to Faulkner it is a means to universalize a series of thematic statements about man and men, grief and endurance, idealism and rapacity, war and peace.

There are inconsistencies, however, in the ways a reader is guided to respond to the Christian framework and to individual episodes. These result from changes in Faulkner's conception of his book over the many years during which he wrote it, as well as from basic limitations in Faulkner's vision and handling of social themes.

Faulkner originally conceived the story in 1943 as a movie script in Hollywood, with the assistance of William Bacher and Henry Hathaway. Seeing it also as a possible short story, he wrote to Harold Ober: “It is a fable, an indictment of war perhaps, and for that reason may not be acceptable now” (Blotner, 178). It originated in the planned mutiny borrowed from Humphrey Cobb's 1935 novel Paths of Glory and also in a systematic association of a series of events with the story of Jesus “through the Three Temptations, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection” (179). Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor and the story of “The Unknown Soldier” were also influential (Meriwether, 178).

The earliest version, therefore, includes an anti-war theme, with Christian-humanistic parallels, drafted during World War II and during a difficult period in Faulkner's personal life. He was, however, unable to bring the work to closure; and as he developed it into a novel he took the story in a different direction. By then, however, the war had been won, prosperity had returned, his own life had settled somewhat; and during the final years of composition he was even a famous and successful Nobel Prize winner, one whose public speeches came from the same cloth as portions of the large novel.

In later years Faulkner did say that A Fable is not a pacifist novel; and despite numerous explications to the contrary one must conclude he was sincere and in certain ways correct. The final vision of the novel is markedly more conservative than its origins and of a piece with Intruder in the Dust, composed about the same time. It is similar to Go Down, Moses in its critical depiction of a certain kind of radical idealism, set against an institutional realism. Removed from the representational world close to Faulkner himself, however, it does not probe the relationships of real people to their world. It does not explore the kinds of restrictions and limitations found in the world of Lucas Beauchamp and Rider, or the process of grappling with an unjust society as Ike McCaslin does, no matter how ineffectually. The issues are givens; and if the characters in A Fable do at times take on vividness, they are still stripped of environments, motivations, influences, and credible relationships. This might not be a weakness in allegory or parable, where systematic analysis governs textual conflict; it is in A Fable, however, where signs have no consistent code within which they signify.

In A Fable the corporal's act of rebellion does not come from reading commissary ledgers or from fear at facing change or a too complicated reality. It does not grow out of political education or directly out of an act against the father, whom he does not know until the end. It is simply a given—a platoon carefully plans and implements a stoppage of the war, like Hawthorne opening a tale with one of his “what if's” and then tracing the consequences. But the consequences in A Fable are not psychological; they are tactical, political, and social. Faulkner essentially begins by announcing, topically, “Let us consider war,” as in Intruder he in a sense said, “Let us consider racial injustice.” This period of his career is marked by a conscious decision to open up unaskable questions. In the novels between The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner had confronted previously unapproachable matters, personal and internal. But in A Fable, for example, there was a more conscious decision to face social issues on the part of a writer politically and ideologically unsophisticated, and a corresponding retreat to conservatism and self-justification.

The failure of intellect beneath the novel emerges most clearly in Faulkner's handling of “Man” and men, or persons, or the mass. It is a commonplace of Faulkner criticism that he valued individuals, distrusted and disliked men in a mass or a mob or a government. What better way to establish him in a tradition going back to Twain and Emerson! It is another commonplace that his Calvinistic view of human nature, linking him to Hawthorne and Melville among others, divorces him from the current of romantic individualism and, consequently, the doomed and estranged individuals of his world. In his major novels the tragic and pathetic and comic and foolish ambitions and drives of “man” are embodied in characters—Sutpen, Compson, McCaslin, Hightower—through a sympathetic bonding with the author no matter how ironic their presentation. But in A Fable all of that yields to a mystified abstraction “Man,” the subject of disquisitions by the old General, Mama Bidet, and others, but never more than a straw man allowing Faulkner to play Billy Budd with the theme of world war.

Although war, like the corporal's rebellion, seems to be a given in the book, Faulkner does provide a cynical scenario of an international officer class propagating and perpetuating warfare for interests neither nationalistic nor patriotic. Faulkner does not literally explain war in this way, but the general message is repeated often so as to clarify Faulkner's purpose. The scenes of the generals at Chaulnesmont, the murder of Gragnon, the conversations between the Old General and both the corporal and the Quartermaster General—all reinforce the suggestion of a self-interested extra-national military controlling and manipulating warfare with utter disregard for persons. Nor is there reason to discount the German general's assertion that ‘It's the politicians, the civilian imbeciles who compel us every generation to have to rectify the blunders of their damned international horsetrading—’ (303). He is the most coldly vicious and cruel of all, but introduced by Faulkner not only for the narrative purpose of dramatizing international collusion but also for the thematic purpose of hyperbolizing the anti-war thrust of the book. The other generals quiet him not because of his brusque arrogance but because he nakedly articulates the truth of their own behavior and also implies that they may not have total control over the starting and stopping of wars. He must be made to apologize: ‘I forgot myself for a moment. You will please to pardon it’ (303). By the time he has finished assaulting the British and Americans for being such amateur soldiers he is ready for “formal ratification” of the agreement. But, of course, the more sophisticated, wily Old General can deny the need or even creation of any such pact:

“What agreement?” the old general said. “Do we need an agreement? Has anyone missed one?—The port is with you, General,” he said to Briton. “Fill and pass.”


The generals did not originate war any more than millionaires originated capitalism. War “created us,” as Bidet says (54). This war was due more to the board chairmen

and the others still who outnumbered even these: the politicians, the lobbyists, the owners and publishers of newspapers and the ordained ministers of churches … which control by coercion or cajolery man's morals and actions and all his mass-value for affirmation or negation. …


The generals simply “preside” over the ritual and establish the protocol for executing man's folly.

If man were to eliminate the one word “Fatherland” from his vocabulary, says Mama Bidet (54), he would destroy not the cause of wars but the basis for the sentimental enlistment of millions of persons in wars. What is threatened by the corporal's action, in which no officers or NCO's have been allowed to participate, is the generals' power to govern war once it has started. The stoppage of war is not a problem, but the possibility that people may learn their ability to stop war is dangerous.

This is the primary thrust of the novel—a situational conflict as one-sided and transparent as that of the most ingenuous proletarian novel: an insensitive oppressor class which acts for its own self-aggrandizement and uses the working class as a functionary to make attacks, for example, that must fail and in which they must be destroyed. They are abstractions, functions, but then so are the generals themselves.

Such a story would be bleak but simplistic. In developing it later Faulkner did not elaborate on the dialectic of idealism and the real world; rather he shifted the conflict and blurred the issues. First, he provided backgrounds and sketches for a series of major and minor characters, though not always clearly relevant to their function in the main narrative. Second, he composed a series of dialogues between spokesmen of the status quo or the establishment and characters whose motivations, whether narcissistic or altruistic, are in conflict with the goals of the generals. Third, he added suicidal actions that ensue from such oppositions. Fourth, he interpolated the story of the three-legged racehorse. Fifth, he mystified the concept “Man” and the opposed concept of the mass or crowd. Consequently he patronized the rebellion that was the genesis of the story. Significant actions of people are framed in an opposition between Man and men. “Man” is then objectified so that his eternal, global, enduring qualities can be described in opposition to frail, imperfect, venal real men as observed in masses and crowds. What is then valued, paradoxically, is what is abstract and impersonal; what is reduced are flesh and blood individual persons.

The confusion reflects a similar confusion in one strand of Southern thought manifested in the Fugitive-Agrarian-Formalist tradition. The enemy is a northern-industrialist-scientific-unionized-institutional system, which machine-like, replaces the organically related community of individuals with an impersonal machine. But to oppose it one cannot offer an Emersonian individual or a Puritan democracy, those New England programs. Rather, what is offered is a kind of feudal hierarchy in which persons are defined by roles, by classes, by functions, and in which an intellectual or aesthetic elite determines taste and preserves a set of abstract values. In A Fable Faulkner presents the hierarchy satirically; but finally the generals' dominance is left unchecked and unreversed. The maimed runner's futile gesture at the end, and the old spirit's recognition of its significance, are maudlin.

By the end every symbolic person and action set against the establishment, except the corporal, has been undermined. Faulkner has equivocated on the corporal so that only his martyrdom has meaning and those to whom it has meaning have little if any impact. The dialogue between him and the Old General is hardly that, hardly a dialectic between the ideal and the real, for the General articulates all the arguments, positions all the characters, determines the rules and therefore the outcome. Finally it is his paternalistic vision that governs the outcome of the novel: Man in his folly, greed and endurance will prevail, but he will always be controlled by men such as the general. Regardless of the somber tone, Christian parallels, and cosmic images, the scene smacks too much of a piqued father beseeching his wayward son to come home to the family business or else be disowned. Not only can the corporal be openly acknowledged as the son—as Charles Bon was not—but he can have half the power and his own life to boot.

So it is “Man” that will prevail, not persons. Persons are treated in two ways. They are depersonalized masses or mobs presented with the same contempt Mark Twain displayed in satirizing the lynch mob cringing in the shadow of Colonel Sherburn. They are mobs moving “like a cast of spent flotsam,” or “a herd of western cattle” (Fable, 132) or an ocean wave. They scream ignorantly for the corporal's head. They pay homage on parade to the dead Field Marshal, mouthing all the patriotic conventions, oblivious to the truth about war. They are a blind, undirected force. Secondly, in a series of individuals, men's attempts to achieve something in opposition to the practical expediency and power politics of the generals are dismissed or even ridiculed. There is General Gragnon who might be described as Horatio Alger in a French uniform. An orphan, he devotes his life to the military and its codes. His naive faith is in the army itself and he will not be disabused of his ideal. His cynical friend and corps commander Lallemont tries to proselytize him into the institutional church of the officer class, in which neither victory nor glory nor personal record is as important as unified military control of man's “seething spiritless mass” (30). Mama Bidet, another orphan made god, reminds Gragnon that the death of three or four thousand men is insignificant, that success is not victory, that “we” is not France. Signals to the reader are mixed at this point, since Gragnon, the putative butcher of his rebels, is the naif against unsympathetic critics. In one sense, though, Gragnon is paired with David Levine—who joins the war out of noble patriotic idealism, not for narcissistic glory; who is mama's boy, not an orphan; who takes his own life when he learns blank ammunition was fired at German planes (whereas Gragnon forces himself into a position where his life must be taken).

Levine, Faulkner said, was one of the trinity of conscience in the book, the others being the Quartermaster General and the Runner (Gwynn, 62):

The one that said, This is dreadful, terrible, and I won't face it even at the cost of my life—that was the British aviator. The Old General who said, This is terrible but we can bear it. The third one, the battalion Runner who said, This is dreadful, I won't stand it, I'll do something about it.

So much for conscience. Levine is as youthfully naive as Cadet Lowe in Soldiers' Pay. The Quartermaster General is that young Norman who worshipped his classmate at St. Cyr as the golden boy who would one day save France. His life seems lived in the pursuit of the false Messiah, unless one accepts the Old General's view of mankind, in which case the Quartermaster General is another case of arrested development. The runner certainly presents an example of misinterpreting the sign, for in emulating the corporal's mutiny that restored his faith in mankind he leads hundreds of men to a meaningless death. All three may be variations on the theme of Ike McCaslin, but none provides a serious opposition in the book's dialectic to the generals, as unsympathetic as they may be.

Such opposition is found only in the corporal. He is not myopic like Levine, not the hero-worshipper like the Norman, not the impulsive alienated romantic like the Runner. Nor is he prone to the self-centered obsessions of the sentry and Gragnon. He is a shrewd organizational planner who not only orchestrates an international mutiny but maintains its secrecy. He does not respect people, but is a good judge of men and situations. He enters his cause with no foolish ideals or goals, but understands what can and cannot be achieved through mutiny. Each in Faulkner's trinity of conscience falls far short of him in one way or another. Unlike the sentry, who says “we” for the first time only in a ridiculously suicidal attachment to the Runner's mutiny, the corporal has begun his course as one of a group. When tempted to betray them, as Polchek had betrayed him, his response is “There are still ten” (352), as if the group itself not the ideal motivates him. Unlike Gragnon he cares not about the personal record, the individual glory or shame. All of the sub-plots, that is, are stories of obviously flawed individuals, even types that seem created and developed to examine the weaknesses in real-life variations on the mystified, somewhat unreal corporal. Unlike those characters, who are given concrete recognizable pasts and even motivations, the corporal is kept on a separate plane. The schematic parallels with Jesus are Faulkner's primary means of doing that, along with the tendency of others to connect him with Christ. There is also Captain Middleton's confusion of him with Brzewski, the Pennsylvania coal miner who died of the flu, and another confusion of him with Boggan, the Briton who died at Mons in 1914 (276-79).

The separate plan of the corporal is achieved primarily through absences. He is never on stage during the action, except as an undifferentiated member of the gang of thirteen. He is present only in dialogues with the general and the priest. He is given very little background. Although the circumstances of his birth are described by Marthe and Mary, nothing therein contributes to his consciousness or personality. Education, values, personal relationships—none of these are clarified as they are for the Runner or Gragnon or Levine. The corporal is mystified, as Flem Snopes is in The Hamlet, because he is absent. Finally, there is the scene with the priest, his father's lackey, whose reaction to the corporal is as impulsive and wrongheaded as that of the Runner. He kills himself with a bayonet wound in the side, not from loss of faith but in his own furious attempt to imitate the death of Christ. Like the Runner, the priest thinks that mimetic action, iconic repetition of the model, fulfills meaning. The potential significance of the corporal's mutiny, however, lies not in its replication by other individuals and regiments in other situations and wars throughout time, but rather in its syntagmatic effect on a war at a particular time. It is this, not man's eternal belief in making such attempts, that the generals must eliminate.

In the end this is what Faulkner himself does and thereby changes the course of the novel. He cannot or will not explore the ramifications of the situation he has originally established. At least the frames he builds around that situation prevent it from expanding in certain directions. The original conflict is not—as the Old General, Faulkner, and most critics assert—between the “esoteric realm” and “mundane earth” (348). It is between a subversive international group of enlisted men and a powerful international group of generals; between forces of war and forces against war; between one class and another. The story is bleak because it leads to death and failure of the mutiny to have any real impact; the good guys lose. It is almost a conventional proletarian novel without a Marxist view of history. Except in what the soldiers oppose, there is no simplistic idealism behind their rebellion, only unified opposition to their exploitation as functionaries in a war neither originally in their interest nor now being fought in their interest. No attention is even paid to their ideals, only to their procedures in gaining widespread support.

In the expanded novel, the central class conflict is blurred by the addition of all the subplots and personal sketches. The corporal, by means of his scarce presence, becomes more mystified—even when present he says almost nothing—as all those other characters are presented. As a consequence of deploying in Quartermaster General, Levine, the Runner, and others, Faulkner shifts the conflict to one between an impractical, esoteric, short-sighted idealism and practical power politics, the perspective of the Old General. The debate between father and son, therefore, is not a debate but a monologue by the father against not what the corporal represents but what all of those other characters represent. In the last account the Old General, like Gavin Stevens, can articulate the final vision of a novel even as he is presented ironically. The corporal, instead of signifying a material alternative to the warfare state, now has performed a symbolic action. He is allowed a symbolic triumph because it is no longer a material threat. By implying that the Runner's gesture at the parade, the corporal's reinterment, Pyotr's return to the prison, and so forth, all signify the human spirit, man's endurance even in his folly, Faulkner strips the corporal of the defeat of the original story and grants him a victory of sorts as he articulates a very conservative position.

Why? Partly because of Faulkner's changed condition when writing the novel; partly because his original tale ran counter to his basic political assumptions and ideology; partly because the original story was naively simplistic in its conflict, and he adopted his usual strategy of multiple perspectives or intersecting narratives to explore theme. In A Fable, however, the multiple perspectives do not unfold the complexity and ambiguity of a central situation, rather they replace and undermine that central situation. Finally, the paternal-filial dimension of the conflict is important. Butterworth argues that the father-son relationship between the Old General and the corporal seems less important than what they stand for thematically; that it is tacked on to elaborate the Christian analogy in which the General can be both God and Satan, the corporal both the son and the “spirit of man,” and to allow Faulkner to chant his own “square deific.” The recurrence of that pattern of familial conflict and paternal betrayal, however, so crucial to Faulkner's early fiction and so tied up with memories from the Great War, is noteworthy. The attempt to stop war—death—by a young man who has lost both parents and is raised by a sister (with a retarded sibling nearby), recalls Quentin Compson's attempt to stop time, change, birth and death. The mother has died rather than actually betraying or failing as mother, and the father is not a weak alcoholic but a powerful man. Having deserted the family years before, he now stands ready to approve the son's death. The tone and underlying theme of his conversation with the son are reminiscent of the conversations between Mr. Compson and his eldest son, as well as those between Cass Edmonds and Ike McCaslin—practical avuncular advice to the apocalyptically misled son. In a series of novels Faulkner wrote after the death of his own father in 1932 the role of the father, and father-son conflict, radically change as the aging Faulkner identifies more closely with father-figures than with son-figures. Absalom, Absalom! is the first novel with a strong father and it foregrounds the issue of paternal betrayal more than sibling conflict. It includes, however, the violent death of the father as a culmination of a series of betrayals, and complements As I Lay Dying, which ends with burial of the mother. Each terminates, thereby, that central early theme of parental betrayal. In The Unvanquished, written along with Absalom, the son supplants the father, not so much through direct conflict as through succession of values. Yet by refusing to avenge the father's death Bayard, in the codes of his world, has also repudiated the father. It is the only Faulkner novel in which the conflict is resolved comically and is transitional in Faulkner's career (afterwards parental relationships are different). Faulkner, of course, was literally a father by then, rather than primarily a son, and if Jill presented fewer problems to him psychologically in the 1940s than his own parents had long before, it is still not surprising that the novels after 1940 depend somewhat on both experiences.

In part they reflect a defensive reaction against parental involvement. Ike McCaslin has three fathers—one dead, another dying, a third turned into his own heir. Conversely, by deliberate decision, he is never a father but “uncle to half a county and father to none.” Faulkner's most fully developed character in the late novels is Gavin Stevens, and although in Knight's Gambit he marries a widow and accepts two step-children, he is basically a bachelor, avuncular and celibate. The uncle-nephew relationship with Chick and the quasi-uncle-niece relationship with Linda are safer than fatherhood. That may lead to having an irresponsible and selfish wife cause the death of your child, as in Requiem for a Nun, or to the death of the purported father as in The Mansion, or to the sadness of the father whose son has killed a brother as in Intruder in the Dust, or to rebellion of the son against the betraying father, as in both Absalom and A Fable. As in Absalom the deserted son—again a strange foreigner—appears demanding his due. As in Absalom he is killed on authority of the father, and in accordance with the fundamental codes and rules of the order and power structure which the father represents. In Absalom, however, the order collapses and its errors are laid bare. In A Fable, the order's errors are bared, but the power structure continues. The alienated artist of Absalom, agonizing at the loss of his world and community, has been replaced by the acquiescent artist, part of the establishment itself. He accepts the necessary evils of the world, patronizingly mystifying a spirit of man to combat them, and centering in his big novel abstract and sterile conflicts between ideal and real, man and men, rather than socially contextualized conflicts of interesting fictional characters in a fictive world that is sympathetically bound to the author himself. Similarly the alienated son has been replaced by the father, mortal but securely in control—not immune to the spiritual and moral challenges of the rebellious son but safely ensconced in his authority and his authorial position. Like Faulkner's own triumph as Nobel Prize winner, the General's triumph is a victory of language, of rhetoric, of verbal fictions—those, however, that have ceased being fictions and have become myths for which men kill and die. Faulkner himself, however, retreats to this defensive posture in which his psychological conflicts become comfortable if unresolved tensions between unattainable but nice symbolic goals of the rebellious son, and practical if unpleasant realities controlled by the successful father. The pattern of change in the resolution of psychological conflicts is homologous with that in the resolution of social conflicts in Faulkner's fiction.

Works Cited

Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. New Haven: Yale UP, 1978.

Butterworth, Keen. “A Critical and Textual Study of William Faulkner's A Fable.” Diss. South Carolina, 1970.

Faulkner in the University. Eds. Frederich Gwynn and Joseph Blotner. 1959; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1965.

Faulkner, William. A Fable. New York: Random House, 1954.

Lion in the Garden. Eds. James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate. New York: Random House, 1968.

Millgate, Michael. The Achievement of William Faulkner. 1966; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1971.

Selected Letters of William Faulkner. Ed. Joseph Blotner. New York: Random House, 1977.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. Fictional Transformations of Jesus. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

Further Reading

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Banta, Martha. “The Razor, the Pistol, and the Ideology of Race Etiquette.” In Faulkner and Ideology: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1992, edited by Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie, pp. 172-216. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Examines the culture of weaponry and racial ideology in the American South as they are represented in Faulkner's “Fire and the Hearth” and Light in August.

Grimwood, Michael. Heart in Conflict: Faulkner's Struggles with Vocation. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987, 378 p.

Explores two phases in Faulkner's life—youth and middle age—in which he struggled to develop and maintain his notions of literary vocation.

Hoffman, Daniel. Faulkner's Country Matters: Folklore and Fable in Yoknapatawpha. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989, 181 p.

Traces Faulkner's use of the Southern oral tradition throughout his development of his mythical Yoknapatawpha County.

Kartiganer, Donald M. “‘So I, Who Had Never Had a War …’: William Faulkner, War, and the Modern Imagination.” Modern Fiction Studies 44, no. 3 (fall 1998): 619-45.

Comments on the shadows of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II in Faulkner's fiction.

Lencho, Mark W. “Dialect Variation in The Sound and the Fury: A Study of Faulkner's Use of Black English.” Mississippi Quarterly 41, no. 3 (summer 1988): 403-19.

Examines differing examples of Faulkner's portrayal of Southern black dialect in The Sound and the Fury.

Lester, Cheryl. “To Market, to Market: The Portable Faulkner.Criticism 29, no. 3 (summer 1987): 371-89.

Discusses the development of The Portable Faulkner and the effects the volume had on Faulkner's literary reputation.

Singal, Daniel J. William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997, 357 p.

Traces Faulkner's development as a modernist writer.

Watson, James G. William Faulkner: Self-Presentation and Performance. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000, 255 p.

Discusses Faulkner's presentation of his life—and the ways that he molded this presentation—as it appears in his fiction.

Werlock, Abby H. P. “Victims Unvanquished: Temple Drake and Women Characters in William Faulkner's Novels.” In Women and Violence in Literature: An Essay Collection, edited by Katherine Anne Ackley, pp. 3-49. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.

Argues that Faulkner attempted to speak through his female characters to highlight the degree to which his abusive male characters were isolated.

Additional coverage of Faulkner's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 7; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 5; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1929-1941; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 33; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 8, 9, 11, 14, 18, 28, 52, 68; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 9, 11, 44, 102; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1986, 1997; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 4, 8, 13; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 5, 6, 12; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 1, 35, 42; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism.

Leona Toker (essay date spring 1988)

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SOURCE: Toker, Leona. “Diffusion of Information in The Sound and the Fury.College Literature 15, no. 2 (spring 1988): 111-35.

[In the following essay, Toker explores the effects on the reader of the difficult narrative patterns in The Sound and the Fury.]

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time
          to keep and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time
          to keep silence, and a time to speak.

Ecclesiastes, 3:6,7

The text of The Sound and the Fury is at first difficult to follow. The diffusive presentation of material impedes the imaginative construction of the scenes: words tend to fall flat on our inner ear, failing to come alive in a dramatic illusion. And since the initial mist is at its densest in Section 1 (“told by an idiot”), it seems to be a side effect of Faulkner's experiment with the point of view. Actually, however, diffusion of information is a rhetorical device in its own right; it operates throughout the novel and exerts a strong influence on our interpretative activity.

The diffusion of information in The Sound and the Fury is the effect of numerous minor informational gaps which delay pattern recognition. Part of these gaps are called for by the narrative stance. The first three of the novel's four sections are written, as it were, “from the point of view” of Benjy, Quentin, and Jason Compson, respectively; the last section is presented by the so-called omniscient narrator. Though the three brothers are, strictly speaking, “focal characters” rather than “narrators,”1 their sections are based on the convention of withholding from the reader the things that the focal characters cannot know or register themselves. This technique accounts for the following four kinds of realistically motivated gaps (to be distinguished from rhetorically motivated gaps that do not stem from the point of view).

(1) The ostensible cause of the difficulty in following the narrative of The Sound and the Fury for the first time is the frequency of its time-shifts. But time-shifts create confusion only because they are not accompanied by a clear chronological reference that would help us piece together scattered bits of information on the first reading. The Sound and the Fury contains only four explicit chronological reference-points—the four dates which serve as titles of the four sections. The absence of additional explicit chronological guide-lines is a consequence of focalization (or point of view). Time-shifts are supposed to imitate the spontaneous associative backward-and-forward movement of the characters' minds and therefore cannot be expected to have date tags. For Benjy, notions like “before/after” and “past/present” do not exist; and Quentin keeps his mind away from concepts related to time. One of the reasons why confusion is reduced in Section 3 is that Jason does not block time references from his consciousness.

It therefore takes a long time to classify separate flashes of scenes around such events as Damuddy's funeral, Caddy's affair with Dalton Ames, her wedding, Quentin's suicide, Benjy's castration, the arrival of Caddy's new-born daughter (the girl Quentin), the deaths of Mr. Compson and of Roskus Gibson.2 The exact sequence of some minor occurrences remains unclear to the very end.

(2) Imitation of the characters' “stream of consciousness” involves a delay of expositional material. As a result, our filling in of “who's who” information is slow: the main characters, with the exception of “Father,” “Mother,” and Uncle Maury, are referred to only by their names; for a long time we are not informed about their appearance, family status, place in society, or antecedents. Allusions are made to facts with which we have not been made familiar. For instance, when Jason says to his mother, “Father and Quentin cant hurt you,”3 we cannot possibly infer that she is going to visit the graves of the father and the eldest son of the family: the only Quentin mentioned so far is the little girl playing in the yard with Luster. Nor is it possible to understand that Mrs. Compson's carriage has stopped by Jason's store. On the first reading veiled references of this kind make most of the conversations in Section 1 sound like indistinct background noise.4

Veiled references stem, as it were, from the focal characters' failure to conceptualize, from their short-cut thinking, or from their too profound familiarity with their environment. In Section 1, for instance, Luster's personality takes several pages to materialize from a collection of nagging remarks and mischievous actions because Benjy has no reason to think of him as a fourteen-year-old Negro or as Dilsey's grandson.5 In Section 3 some confusion results from the abuse of the pronoun “she” which Jason applies to all the women who encumber his existence:

I opened her letter and took the check out. Just like a woman. Six days late. […] And like as not, when they sent the bank statement out, she would like to know why I never deposited my salary until the sixth.


Even if we guess that the check is from Caddy, on the first reading we can hardly realize that the exophoric “she” of the last sentence refers to Mrs. Compson. We cannot, therefore, understand that Jason deposits Caddy's checks in his mother's account, pretending that they are the salary which he actually hoards in his room or speculates with on the cotton market. Jason does not dwell on these machinations because for him they are a matter of routine.

(3) The use of a retarded person as a focalizer of the first section motivates not only the narrative's strong reliance on sense perceptions but also the elisions of whatever is not directly perceptible. Benjy cannot use inference or memory to supply the missing elements in the flux of perception; so we have to do it for him. In the following passage, for instance, the rapidity of movement prevents Benjy from getting a clear view of what is passing:

It [the flag] was red, flapping on the pasture. Then there was a bird slanting and tilting on it. Luster threw. The flag flapped on the bright grass and the trees.


Benjy has not had time to identify the object thrown by Luster. Our reading pace slackens as we translate “Luster threw” into “Luster threw something at the bird.” We must also fill in the fact that “the bird flew away”: the repeated statement that the flag “flapped on the bright grass and the trees” implies that the bird is no longer perched on the flag—it has been frightened off by Luster. The metonymic nature of the repetition also suggests that the concepts of “cause,” “presence,” and “absence” are beyond Benjy's comprehension. So while elision is necessitated by the point of view, it is also a means of character portrayal. Moreover, it prolongs our attention to the strong image of the red flag flapping against the green pasture and prepares us for Benjy's tenaciousness respecting the few “bright shapes” in the Compson world.6

(4) Similar effects are produced by other cases of propositional metonymy, such as “the room came back” (53) used in lieu of “Dilsey switched on the light.” Here the local rhetorical effect of the substitution is emphasis on “going away” and “coming back” as the main reference points in Benjy's experience, a pair of notions that replaces the “presence/absence” pair. All metonymic propositions, as well as all the cases of veiled reference and elision, have specific local effects of this kind, while their cumulative effect is that of diffusing information, defamiliarizing scenes, and slowing down the pace of reading.

If all the informational gaps in The Sound and the Fury were thus necessitated by focalization, our initial confusion would appear to be a by-product of the point of view.7 This, however, is not the case: the text frequently elides things of which the focal characters are well aware.8 The resulting gaps do not reflect the characters' thought processes but perform specific rhetorical functions.

So it is in Section 1. Only from other characters' remarks—such as “He want your lightning bugs, T. P.” (43), or “Give him a flower to hold. […] That what he wanting” (10)—do we learn that Benjy wants a particular object. The narrative omits to mention the object on which his attention is riveted; instead it records the conversations (“the sound”) that is not of interest to the focal character. This selection of material conflicts with psychological accuracy, yet it emphasizes Benjy's lack of self-awareness and is, therefore, felt to be part of the code which renders the world view of an idiot.9 For a brief moment the “inside view” of the focalizer is discontinued and replaced by a diagnostic suggestion, without letting us register the jolt.

Section 2 excludes references to Quentin's conscious intentions. In particular, we are not explicitly informed that Quentin has decided to commit suicide at the end of the day. The same principle extends to the purposes of his seemingly humdrum activities: for a long time we cannot understand that many of them are a suicide's last tasks, especially since Section 1 has not made it clear that Quentin has killed himself. Quentin's fatigue and morbidity, the recurrence of the images related to death by water, his packing up, writing notes, mailing letters, and buying flat irons—all reveal Quentin's intention gradually. The motif of suicide grows, passing from our subliminal awareness to conscious certainty. We are thus led through a process parallel to the gradual crystallization of the thought of suicide in Quentin's own mind over the preceding year.

Another detail that the narrative omits to mention explicitly is Quentin's experiment with time, his attempt to deny time instead of renouncing life.10 This rhetorically oriented elision leads to a new set of puzzles. For instance, when we read that “Spoade had his shirt on; then it must be” (118), we wonder what the fatal “it” that “must be” is. Actually the sentence means “it must be about noon,” but we can understand this only on a repeated reading when familiarity with Quentin's attitude to time permits us to connect the aposiopesis with the remarks made about Spoade at the beginning of the section—only around noon would that gentleman appear in full attire (see 96-97). On the first reading it takes us a long time to understand that Quentin is dodging all sense perceptions that signal the hour of the day, yet we are struck by the energy with which he fragments his thoughts and impressions. This energy conflicts with the death-wish languor and suicidal impulses recurrent in Quentin's section.

The absence of reference to Quentin's intentions is an appropriate form of rendering his attitude to death and time. For Quentin, suicide is an intimate act, the privacy of which he guards even at the cost of repulsing his roommate Shreve's solicitude. It is his strongest argument against his father's quasi-Solomonic suggestion that love and grief pass like everything else.11 His conflict with time is a straw at which he clutches like a drowning man whose body does not yet wish to die. Both the misguided self-sacrifice and the unwillingness to commit it are screened from the strangers' eyes. The omniscient narrator protects Quentin's privacy from us just as Quentin himself protects it from the people who crowd his world.

In Section 3 the intentions of the focalizer likewise never make their way into the text. This concerns not only Jason's habitual activities, where the withholding of information may be explained by his taking his course of action for granted, but also his specific decisions on landmark days of his life.

One of these landmarks is the day of his father's funeral. As the narrative records the subterfuges that Jason uses in order to let Caddy see her baby in secret from Mrs. Compson, we are never warned of his malicious attribution of the strictly literal meaning to the word “see.” Only when shown how he lets Caddy catch a glimpse of Quentin and run after the carriage that is taking the baby away, do we realize what Jason has been planning all along. We find ourselves unprepared for Jason's cheating Quentin out of her mother's money order, or for his burning the passes to the show instead of giving them to Luster. Section 3 gives us a series of such surprises: we know that Jason is an unprepossessing person, yet we repeatedly find out, as Caddy does in her turn, that we have been underestimating his meanness. Surprise, indeed, is Jason's own favorite tactics in personal relationships: “Always keep them guessing. If you cant think of any other way to surprise them, give them a bust in the jaw” (240). Thus while the first-person narration yields insights into the focal character's mentality, rhetorically oriented gaps suggest what it would be like to have to deal with him. They supplement the imitation of his mental processes with a distancing external view.

Whatever the local effects of rhetorically oriented gaps, cumulatively they contribute to our confusion on the first reading of the novel. Hence confusion is a deliberate rhetorical device rather than a mere corollary of the point of view.12

How, then, does this device affect our quest for meaning in The Sound and the Fury? How does it influence our different courses on the first and repeated readings of the novel?

On the first reading of The Sound and the Fury the initial confusion provides a contrast for a few clear scenes thus bringing them into high relief.

These are the scenes that present Benjy's relationship with his sister Caddy. They stand out against the unlocated images and incomprehensible utterances of the rest of the section because they describe self-explanatory action: Caddy understands her little brother's wishes and “translates” his conduct for us. For instance, we do not know why Benjy insists on going out to the cold gate until Caddy fills in the gap: “Hello, Benjy. […] Did you come to meet me?” (5). When Caddy is absent we seldom know why other characters have to hush Benjy, but when she is present, the cause of his tears is usually revealed by her removing the cause. In most cases it has to do with the thought of her going or having gone away:

“I'll run away and never come back,” Caddy said. I began to cry. Caddy turned around and said “Hush.” So I hushed. Then they played in the branch. […] Caddy was all wet and muddy behind, and I started to cry and she came and squatted in the water.

“Hush now,” she said. “I'm not going to run away.” So I hushed. Caddy smelled like trees in the rain.


Because of our clear understanding of this one relationship set against a background of unassimilated information, our response to Section 1 is parallel to Benjy's own experience. For Benjy the world is divided into a foreground and a background; in the foreground are Caddy (later the old slipper, her vestige) and the smooth bright shapes that he enjoys watching—in the fire, in the mirror, in the jewel box, from a rolling carriage, or else in his dreams. As he holds Caddy's slipper during a meal, he recollects the days when she fed him and he remains undisturbed by the conflict between Caddy's daughter and Jason. This indifference is reenacted by the reader: we do not feel sorry for young Quentin on the first reading of Section 1 because we do not know who she is and only remember that she has been unkind to Benjy; moreover, the scene is so chopped up that its dramatic tension is lost even on a repeated reading. The violent confrontation seems to be taking place in the background while the foreground is occupied by the gradual improvement of Benjy's state of mind.

The lucid parts of Section 1 carry the major theme of the novel—the frustration of a fundamental human need, the need of love.13 Very early in the novel, in what we identify as Benjy's memories of his childhood, it is made clear that the egocentric Mrs. Compson does not satisfy her children's need for affection. Even her distress on account of Benjy takes a perfunctory form that does not deceive the sensitive though uncomprehending child:

“Come here and kiss Mother, Benjamin.”

Caddy took me to Mother's chair and Mother took my face in her hands and then she held me against her.

“My poor baby,” she said. She let me go. “You and Versh take good care of him, honey.”


Significantly, Mrs. Compson delegates her responsibility for Benjy to Caddy, and as it soon becomes clear Caddy fills the void that her coldness leaves in Benjy's life. It is on Caddy, a substitute mother, that his well-being depends: “You're not a poor baby. Are you. You've got your Caddy. Haven't you got your Caddy?” (8). Such a distribution of roles explains Benjy's misery in the fictional present: Caddy has gone away.

At this point we begin to wonder why Caddy has left home and whether her absence is permanent. We even hope, as we might do in more conventional novels, that she will eventually return. The abruptness with which her absence is suddenly explained parallels the brutality of the blow that it inflicts on Benjy:

You cant do no good looking through the gate, T. P. said. Miss Caddy done gone long ways away. Done got married and left you. You cant do no good, holding to the gate and crying. She cant hear you.

What is it he wants, T. P. Mother said. Cant you play with him and keep him quiet.

He want to go down yonder and look through the gate, T. P. said.

Well, he cannot do it, Mother said. It's raining. You will just have to play with him and keep him quiet. You, Benjamin.

Ain't nothing going to quiet him, T. P. said. He think if he down to the gate, Miss Caddy come back.

Nonsense, Mother said.


The callousness of the conversation casts a shadow on Caddy's image, even though a girl's getting married is not an unnatural development. We wonder whether she left Benjy with the same coldheartedness which rings in Mrs. Compson's reference to her absence. Caddy can now remain “beautiful and moving” only if she is shown to be contrite and unhappy. This demand, strangely different from the conventional concern for a heroine's happiness, is, to some extent, satisfied in the scene where Caddy is crying in Benjy's lap:

I could hear the clock, and I could hear Caddy standing behind me, and I could hear the roof. It's still raining, Caddy said. I hate rain. I hate everything. And then her head came into my lap and she was crying, holding me, and I began to cry. Then I looked at the fire again and the bright smooth shapes went on again. I could hear the clock and the roof and Caddy.


Caddy obviously has no one to turn to except the partly responsive Benjy. She is now the one whose need for love and understanding is frustrated. The intimation of adolescent despair (“I hate rain. I hate everything”) is later modified by Quentin's complaint about entrapment: “I wish it wouldn't rain. […] You cant do anything” (81). Caddy, the narrative suggests, is trapped.

We do not know the nature of her trouble, and (like Benjy) only fear that she will, after all, abandon him. Our uneasiness about her is revived in the scene that pertains to her loss of virginity:

Her hand was against her mouth and I saw her eyes and I cried. We went up the stairs. She stopped again, against the wall, looking at me and she cried and she went on and I came on, crying, and she shrank against the wall, looking at me. She opened the door to her room, but I pulled at her dress and we went to the bathroom and she stood against the door, looking at me. Then she put her arm against her face and I pushed at her, crying.


What troubles us in this scene is not Caddy's sexual misconduct so much as her unusual reluctance to do something that would soothe her brother. Taking advantage of focalization, the novelist makes it difficult for us to understand that Benjy is pushing Caddy to the bathroom, as if to make her wash and regain her smell of trees. Therefore, on the first reading we do not know that Caddy's lack of responsiveness stems from her sense of futility: water can no longer help.14

Since the beauty of her image depends on her ability to love, we expect the narrative not merely to provide us with details of Caddy's marriage but also to allow us to justify her defection, or at least to reconcile it with the sympathy that her image has evoked on the opening pages of the novel. Benjy's section does not meet this expectation. The tranquilizing effect of its ending is produced by a sequence of pleasant memories that come to Benjy after supper and while falling asleep. Here Caddy is again the tender little girl who smells of trees. The past and the present mingle in the darkness that begins “to go in smooth, bright shapes, like it always does, even when Caddy says that I have been asleep” (92). Yet these bright shapes are a tenuous oneiric comfort. We still wonder about Caddy's betrayal as we proceed to Section 2.

Though references to objects and people mentioned in Section 1 are by now more or less intelligible, Quentin's section presents us with new difficulties. There is not even a pretence of showing us the way through the focalizer's mind. Fragments belonging to different events are massed together; italics mark off not time layers but themes and motifs; and syntax appears to have a new set of rules. Eventually, Quentin's section becomes easier to follow because narrative stretches belonging to the same time layer are longer than in Section 1.

Absence of reference to Quentin's intentions often impedes our understanding of his experience in the fictional present. Other gaps make us lose track of his movements: when the narrative shifts to his thoughts and then returns to the account of the outer scene, some part of the story time elapses unrecorded and our hold on the fictional present becomes as uncertain as Quentin's grasp on reality. Therefore, the confusing account of Quentin's thoughts comes into contrast not with the fictional present but with two relatively clear flashbacks: his memories of Caddy's marriage, and of her affair with Dalton Ames.

These two episodes gain prominence for a number of reasons: their length favors sustained attention; they are typographically distinct (scenes that pertain to the latter event have no punctuation at all, whereas those pertaining to the former are printed in italics); the sequence of their parts is not distorted; and the context makes it clear “who says what.” Moreover, the information contained in these episodes is precisely what we have been expecting since the middle of Section 1: it sheds light on the events that drove Caddy away from home.15

Thus as in Benjy's section, the alternation of clarity and confusion enhances the impact of the episodes that involve Caddy and develop the theme of the need for love. Quentin's affections, like Benjy's, are entirely concentrated on his sister: he is conscious of Mrs. Compson's failure as a mother (“if I'd just had a mother so I could say Mother Mother,” 213) and disgusted by her petit bourgeois pretensions, her Griselda pose, and her part in arranging Caddy's marriage. He expects Caddy rather than his mother to embody the dynastic purity and pride. Yet this task, like the role of Benjy's substitute mother, is too restrictive for Caddy. The two painful flashbacks present Quentin's and Caddy's inability to perform the parts that each assigns to the other. Quentin fails in the strength, courage, and confidence that fascinate Caddy in Dalton Ames; Caddy, on the other hand, cannot renounce the whole world for his sake, as he would have her do in his vision of platonic incest beyond the flames of a disinfected hell (144).

Unable to control Caddy, Quentin wishes to hurt her—just as the reader wishes to see her suffer lest the beauty of her image be marred by a suggestion of callous egotism. This expectation, aroused in Section 1, is largely satisfied in Section 2. In Quentin's flashbacks we see Caddy trapped, frightened by her own initiation, “sick” (early stage of pregnancy combined with existential nausea), tormented by anxiety about Benjy and by guilt for having stimulated her father's alcoholism:

I'm just sick I can't ask anybody yet promise you will


There was something terrible in me sometimes at night I could see it grinning at me I could see it through them grinning at me through their faces it's gone now and I'm sick


it'll be all right it won't matter don't let them send him to Jackson promise


I've got to marry somebody


can you think of Benjy and Father and do it not of me


Father will be dead in a year they say if he doesn't stop drinking and he won't stop he can't stop since I since last summer and then they'll send Benjy to Jackson I can't cry I can't even cry


The end of Section 2 thus creates a faint sense of completion. Caddy's suffering cancels the suggestion of cold betrayal; its pathos restores the appeal of her image and makes the frantic young woman as “moving” as the headstrong little girl of the novel's early pages. The second half of The Sound and the Fury is, therefore, somewhat anticlimactic: it never reaches the pathetic pitch of the first two sections.

Confusion is not intense in Section 3, yet some parts of this section are more difficult to understand than others. In keeping with the demands of focalization, all the references to Jason's salary, Caddy's money, blank checks, investments, and cotton market gambling remain unintelligible for a long time. By contrast, the episodes involving Caddy's daughter Quentin (whom we finally identify as such) stand out much more clearly against this background. Their action is self-explanatory; their obscure references are few. Thus the foiling effect of the confusion of Sections 1 and 2 is reproduced, in a fainter form, in Section 3.

In the more comprehensible parts of Jason's section, it is now young Quentin's turn to be the bearer of the novel's major theme. Like Benjy, Quentin is denied her mother's love. Though vulgar and ill-tempered, she becomes pathetic when she cries, “Dilsey, I want my mother” (230). Her subsequent rudeness to kind-hearted Dilsey is symptomatic: the exhausted old housekeeper is a poor substitute for Caddy.16 Unlike Benjy, young Quentin has never enjoyed the tenderness of even a substitute mother. Now our former uneasiness about Caddy is revived: we wonder how she could have left her child in the household that has grown still gloomier than in her own day. Though it is aesthetically appropriate that this girl, born in the year of Quentin's suicide, is replacing both her mother and her uncle in the Compson house, we are troubled by the suspicion that Caddy has not escaped the contagion of Mrs. Compson's callousness. This suspicion is eventually allayed by Jason's memories of Caddy's desperate attempts to see little Quentin.

Thus our response undergoes a development analogous to that of the first half of the novel, only here it is compressed into one half of a section. As in Section 1, a shadow is cast over Caddy's image, and then, as in Section 2, the shadow is removed when Caddy appears to be miserable, trapped, and defying a new set of bans.17

Caddy still embodies the capacity for love which has not completely vanished from the novel's world though thwarted by the jealousy of the Compson brothers, the weakness of the father, and the egocentric affectations of the mother. In Section 3 these qualities—with the addition of sadism—combine in Jason Compson. Jason has been harshly condemned by the early waves of critical response to The Sound and the Fury: indeed, on the first reading he seems to be an unmitigated villain, a Snopes among the Compsons, a traitor to the values of the aristocratic South. This, however, is an oversimplified view stemming from the absolutization of the response elicited by Section 3 on the first reading.

This response is largely caused by a touch of resentful impatience. The narrative of Section 3 is tantalizing: its comparative clarity promises further elucidation of Caddy's fate, yet, much as we would like to see Caddy again, she appears only in the scarcely recognizable shape of Jason's subdued antagonist. Jason's cherished memories are not of Caddy's personality or fate, but of the revenge that he took on her for unintentionally depriving him of a job in a bank. By the middle of Section 3 Caddy's image recedes from the narrative as the account of Jason's affairs becomes progressively more intelligible. Jason's meanness and self-defeating impulses gradually capture our reluctant attention, and we let Caddy's story fade out, leaving the foreplane for precisely that part of the fictional world which was formerly perceived as the hazy background of Benjy's section.

In Section 4 the alternation of confusion and clarity is further compressed into a still shorter stretch of the narrative—the account of Parson Shegog's Easter sermon. The bulk of the section is not confusing, even though the absence of explanatory comments and the selectiveness of the camera eye often delay our understanding of the characters' movements. The only really incoherent part of the discourse is Parson Shegog's Application, during which he slips into the Negro accents and starts bombarding the congregation with incomplete, disconnected, allusive, emotionally charged phrases:

When de long, cold—Oh, I tells you, breddren, when de long, cold—I sees de light en I sees de word, po sinner! Dey passed away in Egypt, de swingin chariots; de generations passed away. Wus a rich man: whar he now, O breddren? Wus a po man: whar he now, O sistuhn? Oh I tells you, ef you aint got de milk en de dew of de old salvation when de long, cold years rolls away!


This poetic confusion serves as a foil for an unexpectedly clear image that the preacher creates at the end of the sermon. He presents the Passion in terms of the thwarted feelings of Mary, who emerges, in an apocryphal scene, as an ordinary loving “mammy” helpless in the face of a hostile power:

Bredden! Look at dem little chillen settin dar. Jesus was like dat once. He mammy suffered de glory en de pangs. Sometime maybe she helt him at de nightfall, whilst de angels singin him to sleep; maybe she look out de do' en see de Roman po-lice passin. […] Listen, breddren! I sees de day. Ma'y settin in de do' wid Jesus on her lap, de little Jesus. I hears de angels singin de peaceful songs en de glory; I sees de closin eyes; sees Mary jump up, sees de sojer face: We gwine to kill! We gwine to kill! We gwine to kill you little Jesus! I hears de weepin en de lamentation of de po mammy widout de salvation en de word of God!


The emphasis given to the clear and pathetic image by surrounding it with a farrago of confused motifs makes the sermon a compact model of the novel's central rhetorical effect. As in the preceding sections, the image brought into relief by the contrast of confusion and clarity embodies the theme of love, yet Caddy and her kin are no longer the exponents of this theme. Their function is transferred to the Eternal Motherly. By comparing Jesus to the children in the church choir, the preacher emphasizes the universal human significance of Mary's image and underplays its supernatural connotations.

A miniature model of the novel's rhetoric, the sermon evokes in Dilsey a response analogous to our own experience on the first reading of The Sound and the Fury: it directs her attention to the essence rather than to the details of the Compson tragedy.

When young Quentin's room is found empty in the morning and Jason telephones the police, Dilsey seems curiously unconcerned about the girl's whereabouts. Her energies are directed towards preserving a semblance of peace in the house, and, having done her utmost to calm Mrs. Compson, she sets out for church, as planned, as if nothing were wrong. The seeming callousness of her conduct is the result of efforts to persevere despite nervous exhaustion (“I done stood all I kin,” 357). Staving off a breakdown in order to cope with her duties, she subconsciously defers her understanding of the new catastrophe.

Parson Shegog's sermon releases Dilsey's grip on the immediate situation. She stops hushing Benjy, and cries unashamedly, ignoring the people around her. The sermon sanctions the luxury of emotional release and allows her to attain an overview (“I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin,” p. 371) of the fall of a family that could not endure in the face of social change because its root were cut by lovelessness. Dilsey's experience interprets Parson Shegog's “old salvation” (369) as love rather than as religious belief.

The cathartic weeping aroused by pity for the unloved and for those whose love is subjected to torture renews Dilsey's power of endurance; she can again “lif up [her] tree en walk” (370). The use of the word “tree” rather than “cross” plays a double role: in addition to forming an important recurrence (cf. the tree that Caddy climbs in Section 1), it activizes the connotation of endurance rather than that of martyrdom.

Dilsey's repeated cryptic remark “I seed de first en de last” (375) puts an end to our expectations that Section 4, which is directly presented by the omniscient narrator, will give us concrete information about the fate of the main characters. Despite the open ending, the story is completed: like Dilsey, we have “seen the last.” The lives of the Compson children have been wasted, no matter what shapes their fate may now take. Society is moving forward, the slaves, according to Parson Shegog's allusion, have come out of Egypt, and the “swinging chariots,” the generations of the Southern upper classes, cannot rally as long as among them love is withheld, banished, crushed. The recurrent Faulknerian themes of inner conflicts, of social mobility, and of psychic inertia gain prominence on repeated readings; on the first reading, however, it is the theme of the frustrated need for love, the differentia specifica of The Sound and the Fury, that is brought into high relief by the interplay of clarity and confusion.

The Sound and the Fury clamors for a repeated reading, and not only because all great books must be re-read. Its last section, which purports to be the clearest, fails to elucidate a great number of moot points. At the same time, since many of our early questions, e.g., “Who is the female Quentin?” or “Why does Caddy not return home?”, have been answered and since we now possess the facts to which the veiled references and allusions of the first two sections pertain, we feel that a second reading will yield a clearer understanding of the story. The portrait sketches of Dilsey, Benjy, and Jason, provided in Section 4, likewise contribute to our wish to return to the novel's early scenes and reconstruct them with a new precision in visual detail. The transition to a repeated reading is facilitated by the open ending, by the absence of a formal introduction or exposition in Section 1, and by the fact that the fictional present of Section 1 refers to the day immediately preceding the one described in Section 4—in effect, Section 1 reads as if it were Section 5.

A repeated reading, however, both frustrates and exceeds our expectations. We find out that a full explication, an unambiguous imaginative construction of the characters' actions and thoughts, can never be achieved. To give but one example, we do not know what passes in Quentin's mind when Shreve urges him to hurry to chapel:

He looked at his watch. “Bell in two minutes.”

“I didn't know it was that late.” He was still looking at his watch, his mouth shaping. “I'll have to hustle. I cant stand another cut. The dean told me last week—” He put his watch back into his pocket. Then I quit talking.


Quentin's reply may be one of the last sallies of his smouldering vitality—he “quits talking” when he remembers that he is going to die that night, so he need not worry about the dean. Or else it may be a sham: he starts talking in order to prevent Shreve from naming the exact hour and stops as soon as Shreve gives up this intention. If we resolve the ambiguity by saying that Quentin's wish to ignore time is a remnant of his vitality, we pass from explicating to interpretating the text.

Section 1 never makes it clear how much Benjy's intuitive understanding exceeds or falls short of the material presented in his section. In Section 2 the status of the narrative blocks remains vague to the end—we cannot establish, for instance, whether Quentin recollects the end of the Dalton Ames affair while or after he is beaten by Gerald Bland, whether he actually relives the past or has it flash through his mind in an instant, whether the textual space devoted to his memories is supposed to approximate the duration of the Bland picnic. Section 3 never explains Jason's feelings: his cruelty to young Quentin may be an expression of sadistic vengefulness or of incestuous attraction; his “feeling funny,” i.e. crying, after his father's funeral may be caused by genuine grief or by a childish resentment at being left alone in the rain. Section 4 gives us no specific insights into Dilsey's or Luster's mind.

Thus the inner worlds of the characters resist penetration. After any number of readings, The Sound and the Fury still gives the impression of overhearing people who have been close to one another and need not explain the things to which they refer. In time, we begin to grasp the meaning of their allusions, yet, not having shared their common experience, we remain excluded from their mutual understanding.

Our sense of exclusion is parallel to the experience of the characters who live in a world where the potential for love is not realized. It is one of the motifs symbolically expressed by Caddy's climbing the tree to look in through the parlour window when the children are excluded from mourning (though their mental health requires participation in the ritual of grief). The reader's re-enactment of the characters' sense of exclusion replaces the element of “vicarious experience” which is now sabotaged by essentially the same techniques that account for the confusion on the first reading.

Indeed, whereas in personal relationships a deeper understanding usually promotes sympathy, this does not always happen in the reading of fiction. In The Sound and the Fury the opposite is true: the more subtle and precise our imaginative reconstruction of the characters' predicament, the greater our detachment from them, the stronger the “anaesthetic” element of the aesthetic distance.

Our growing familiarity with the setting and the major events and our success in piecing together disparate strands of information are sources of pleasure in themselves, largely divorced from vicarious experience. For instance, in Benjy's first drive to the cemetery with Mrs. Compson we are pleased to recognize the precedent of his habitual Sunday drives. We are delighted to be able to connect the flower that he likes to hold during such drives with the plant that Dilsey detaches from Mrs. Compson's bouquet on the first occasion. If we remember the broken narcissus that Benjy is holding during his drive in the last scene of the novel, we read the account of its precedent as a symbol in the making. The intellectual component of this experience almost completely cancels emotional response.

On the first reading our emotional response is promoted by the prominence of the episodes that emphasize the poignancy of the need for love. These episodes attract less attention on a repeated reading because our new competence neutralizes the device that made them prominent; that is, the interplay of clarity and confusion. For instance, on the first reading, Benjy's hope that Caddy will come home if he waits for her near the gate at the end of schooltime is especially moving because among the little that we have so far understood there is the scene of his meeting Caddy by the cold gate at Christmas-time. On a repeated reading the connection between the two episodes is diluted by the multitude of details presented in between. Whereas on the first reading most of these details merged into the vague background complex, now, being much more intelligible, they acquire an interest of their own and so reduce the impact of the Benjy-Caddy plot line.

On a repeated reading we are, moreover, constantly diverted from the pathos of the scenes to features of the narrative and of the reading process.18 For instance, though we may have grown accustomed to the special code used in Benjy's section and can automatically “translate” a metonymic proposition like “the bowl went away” (30) into “Versh took the bowl away,” there still remain stretches of narrative that are less easily “translated” into conventional notions. For example:

I could hear Queenie's feet and the bright shapes went smooth and steady on both sides, the shadows of them slowing across Queenie's back. They went on like the bright tops of wheels. Then those on one side stopped at the tall white post where the soldier was. But on the other side they went smooth and steady, but a little slower.


On the first reading it would take an extraordinary perceptiveness to understand that the carriage stops by the sidewalk: the shapes that cease moving are houses on Benjy's side of the street, and the shapes that go on moving on the other side are vehicles on the roadway. In any case, it takes a repeated reading to achieve a full imaginative reconstruction of the scene because we must know the significance of smooth bright shapes in Benjy's life in order to visualize him sitting in placid contentment during Mrs. Compson's nervous dialogue with Jason. On a repeated reading we construct both the outside scene and the way in which it is reflected in the character's consciousness. Such dramatic irony increases our detachment from the character and weakens the impulse of sympathetic identification. It is the parallel experience, rather than the sympathetic vicarious one, that promotes an intuitive understanding of the characters where intellectual understanding is bound to fail.

Yet we do not merely re-enact the character's experience—on a repeated reading we are called upon to transcend it by reassessing their conduct and by granting it an expanded significance.

The reassessment of the characters results from a better comprehension of the details of the plot. On the first reading of the following episode, for instance, we are inclined to understand Benjy's assault on a schoolgirl in the street in terms suggested by the text itself: abandoned by the only person who understood his unarticulated meanings, Benjy seems to be making a pathetic attempt to overcome his muteness in order to talk to the schoolgirl about Caddy:

I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say, and she screamed and I was trying to say and trying and the bright shapes began to stop and I tried to get out. I tried to get it off of my face, but the bright shapes were going again. They were going up the hill to where it fell away and I tried to cry. But when I breathed in, I couldn't breathe out again to cry, and I tried to keep from falling off the hill and I fell off the hill into the bright whirling shapes.


On a repeated reading we know that Benjy is castrated in consequence of this incident. His assault on the schoolgirl must have looked like a sexual assault—we begin to suspect that it was so since Benjy cannot convey, or understand, the difference between sexual advances and regular communication. Such a possibility calls our attention to the metaphorical meaning of the word “say” (cf. the eighteenth-century euphemism “conversation”): both talking and sex are means of communication, of overcoming exclusion from the life of another, of a fulfillment in union; both can signify love. On the first reading both the literal meaning and the symbolic significance of the episode are eclipsed by the pathos of Benjy's frustrated search of his sister, a more powerful but less versatile expression of the theme of the need for love. Moreover, on the first reading it is difficult to understand that what Benjy recollects is his being etherized for castration. The episode does not convey the whole intensity of his horror: on the first reading this horror is screened by the incompleteness of reference and on a repeated reading our attention is divided between the contents of the passage and the need to decipher it, between the object and the medium of presentation.

If Benjy's assault on the schoolgirl has been sexual without his knowing it, then, by extrapolation, his love of Caddy may contain an element of incestuousness. This is indirectly borne out by Quentin's explicitly incestuous fantasies with which we are now familiar. Even in the absence of an a priori psychoanalytic bias, Benjy's character is thus reassessed on a repeated reading. He now appears to be not only a defenseless innocent, a victim of cosmic injustice, but also the most complete embodiment of the childlike possessive egotism common to all the Compson brothers.

Paradoxically, while on a repeated reading we become more critical of Benjy (and of Quentin whose brutal egotism and morbidity have likewise been screened by the diffusion of information and eclipsed by pathos on the first reading), our attitude to Jason is mollified. His character holds no more unpleasant surprises—we have already seen him at his worst. Conversely, a better understanding of the details of Section 1 offers insights into Jason's motivation. On the first reading of the scenes pertaining to Grandmother's funeral Jason seemed to be a mean boy with a middle-child syndrome. On a repeated reading we are more sensitive to the emotional vacuum in which Jason finds himself very early in his life:

After a while even Jason was through eating, and he began to cry.

“Now you got to tune up,” Dilsey said.

“He does it every night since Damuddy was sick and he can't sleep with her,” Caddy said. “Cry baby.”


Since this scene is placed before the references to Benjy's trauma at growing up and being put to bed without Caddy, on the first reading it is difficult to understand that Damuddy plays the role of a substitute mother for Jason, as Caddy does for Benjy. Our awareness of the analogy between Benjy's and Jason's emotional destitution is thus delayed until a repeated reading. While on the first reading the most prominent feature of the adult Jason's character is a craving for revenge, a repeated reading reveals that his real obsession is with getting back what he has lost:

I don't want to make a killing; save that to suck in the smart gamblers with. I just want an even chance to get my money back. And once I've done that they can bring all Beale Street and all bedlam in here and two of them can sleep in my bed and another one can have my place at the table too.


Jason does not know that what he really wants—the affection lost too long ago to be remembered—cannot be replaced by a fetish. Nor does he realize that his losses of the promised bank job, of the family property squandered on others, or of Caddy's money carried away by the eloping Quentin, are only emblems of his major loss. He eventually seems to understand that the symbolic weight of these losses does not measure up to the real value of endurance and survival. Jason's fight with an old man in the show caravan is followed by a relief that places things into perspective: nothing could have been as bad as senseless death; having escaped that, he can endure the rest, “lift up his tree and walk.”

The adult Jason's compensation for being emotionally orphaned is his role as head of the family, the role symbolized by his place at the table. This explains his insistence on going home for dinner despite the protests of his boss. It is not so much for Dilsey's cooking that Jason comes home: he needs the presence of his mother and niece at the table so that he might enjoy his precedence and his role of the provider.

The reduction of the reader's sympathy for Benjy and Quentin and the growing understanding of Jason on a repeated reading is the justice (the “even chance”) which Jason receives from the reader. The novel which condemns maternal coldness and parental favoritism19 first leads us through an analogous favoritism and then demands a rectification of this attitude. No similar adjustment of sympathies takes place in the Compson world: the reassessment of the characters is tantamount to a transcending of their experience.

Our movement towards a moral/intellectual stance unavailable to the characters also involves a passage from the orientational (explicative) to interpretative activity. On a repeated reading each of the sections reveals layers of significance that have been veiled by the diffusion of information on the first reading.20 The delay in our response to these layers of meaning is associated with the hierarchy of the novel's values.

On the first reading of Section 1, diffusion of information obstructs our understanding of the symbolic connotations inherent in the novel's central image, viz., Caddy's climbing the forbidden tree in pursuit of the mystery of death. This image, surrounded by such details as the snake that crawls from under the house, the timid brothers who condone the action against their better judgement, the muddy drawers, and Dilsey's exasperated “You, Satan” (54), strongly suggest the story of the Original Sin, yet on the first reading we practically ignore these hints. Instead, we concentrate on the literal meaning of the episode since we are unaware of its compositional centrality.

As soon as Caddy settles down between the branches of the tree, the narrative moves to Benjy's memories of her drifting away from him and his temporary success in arresting her. These scenes form a clear pattern of their own, and we do not expect the narrative to return to the tree-climbing episode. Our memory of the image of the snake is further dulled by a sudden increase of confusion: in this part of the section the alternation of type face to indicate time shifts is often neglected. When the tree-climbing episode resumes, the snake seems to be just one of the pretexts for the children's bickering. The Sound and the Fury camouflages its allegorical element on the first reading.21

On a repeated reading the symbolic meanings are activized. What had seemed to reflect the associative sequence of the focalizer's memories now turns out to be a matter of structural calculation. Thus, though Benjy's flashbacks are usually not arranged according to the sequence of the events to which they pertain, the account of the evening of the grandmother's funeral is always resumed precisely at the point where it was discontinued. Therefore this time-layer is singled out from Benjy's other memories and forms the second major line of action, intertwining with the fictional present. Whereas on the first reading the confused stretches of the narrative foiled out the episodes presented with a degree of clarity, on a repeated reading the distortions of chronology foil out the two chronologically consistent accounts.

Moreover, since now we know that the tree-climbing episode will be resumed, the narrative shift that occurs when Caddy is hidden among the branches freezes the scene into a tableau and its memory lingers over the sequence of the scenes in which Benjy is losing his hold on Caddy.

Finally, the symbolic connotations of the tree-climbing image are enhanced by ingenious transitions between narrative blocks. The scene immediately following this image refers to Caddy's wedding:

[Versh] went and pushed Caddy into the tree to the first limb. We watched the muddy bottom of her drawers. Then we couldn't see her. We could hear the tree thrashing.

The tree quit thrashing. We looked up into the still branches.

“What you seeing,” Frony whispered.

I saw them. Then I saw Caddy, with flowers in her hair, and a long veil like shining wind. Caddy Caddy

“Hush,” T. P. said, “They going to hear you. Get down quick.” He pulled me. Caddy. I clawed my hands against the wall Caddy.


The transition is not effected through verbal association: in the wedding episode the word “see,” which forms the link between the two narrative blocks is never pronounced. In a way, however, the words “I saw them. Then I saw Caddy” are Benjy's mute answer to Frony's question “What you seeing” uttered in the tree-climbing scene.22 Benjy tries to catch sight of Caddy in the tree but she is hidden from his view. Instead, in his telescoped memories, he has a vision of her unhappy wedding. A connection is thus established between Caddy's pursuit of forbidden knowledge and the tragic outcome of her desire for romantic love.

If the symbolism of the Original Sin had been obvious on the first reading, we would have been inclined to connect it with Caddy's sexual promiscuity. On a repeated reading, however, under the influence of the earlier impression that the novel deals with a frustrated need for love,23 we realize that the sin lies in the lack of love that excludes the children from the ritual and from their places in each other's lives—at a time when history forces them out of their traditional place in society. The diffusion of information is, among other things, a means of controlling interpretation so that the heavy-duty Scriptural symbolism should be read in accordance with the novel's scale of values.

Sections 2 and 3 provide a metaphysical, historical, and socioeconomic perspective on the story of the Compsons' decline and fall. In Section 4, the scion of the aristocratic family turns into a tired inconspicuous man in a small car in the street. Even though Jason can still rally at emergency, his history and emotions are incidental to the life of the community, in particular to the life of the black congregation at the Easter service.

If this impression of the family's and individual's diminishing importance had not been tempered by the strong emphasis on the need for love produced on the first reading, Parson Shegog's references to the passing of generations (his allusion to Ecclesiastes 1:4—“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever”) would suggest that individual life, with its transient sounds and furies, signifies little. However, owing to the residual prominence of the novel's major theme, this allusion is understood to mean that certain basic principles and values remain unaffected by the passage of time.

Thus diffusion of information in The Sound and the Fury channels our attention to the theme of the need for love and defers our understanding of the symbolic layers connotative to this theme so that they should modify, expand, but not jam it. It encourages interpretative activity on a repeated reading by promoting a detached attitude yet it also controls interpretation. It leads us through an experience parallel to the characters' attitudes yet eventually invites us to transcend it by cautious reassessment and a delayed move from explicative to interpretative attention.

As has often been noted, numerous images and motifs of The Sound and the Fury are reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Eliot's poem is based on massive allusions to the Holy Grail romances in which the waste land can be redeemed by the knight who asks the right question. No such knight is in evidence in the poem: his role is played by the reader who probes the meaning of the text. The reader of The Sound and the Fury is assigned a similar role. He has “to see” the Compson tragedy, “passionately” at first, and calmly thereafter, and integrate it into a broader perspective without losing sight of the poignancy of its central theme.


  1. A “focal character,” or “focus,” is the character who provides the center of vision in a particular stretch of discourse. He is to be distinguished from the “narrator” or “voice,” who is supposed to be performing the narrative act; see Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay on Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980) 186-89. The Compson brothers cannot perform the acts of narration allotted to their sections: Benjy is mute; Quentin is on the verge of suicide; and Jason is too stubbornly self-righteous to have an urge for an apologia. It is the “omniscient” narrator whose voice we hear throughout the novel yet in the first three sections he imitates the thought processes or the idiom of the focal characters—he speaks with them instead of letting them speak; cf. Faulkner's remarks on telling Caddy's story “with” the three brothers, Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia, ed. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner (Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1959) 1. The grammatical first person of Sections 1-3 is a sign of the imitation. In Section 4 the focus is also attached first to one then to another character yet the styles of these characters are not imitated in the authorial discourse.

  2. For a discussion of clues that help us identify time-layers see Olga W. Vickery, The Novels of William Faulkner (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1959) 32-34.

  3. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (New York: Random House, 1929) 12. All subsequent references in the text are to this edition of the novel.

  4. André Bleikasten also mentions this effect; see The Most Splendid Failure: Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1976) 69.

  5. For a sensitive analysis of Luster's motivation see Thadious M. Davis, Faulkner's “Negro” (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983) 76-83.

  6. Prolonging defamiliarized perception is an aesthetic feat in itself; see Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, ed. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965) 12.

  7. Faulkner claims that he wanted to have the text of the novel printed in different inks in order to help the reader identify time-layers but that was too costly; see Faulkner in the University, 94. However, in Benjy's section Faulkner often neglects the cheap printing device that indicates the borderlines between different scenes, i.e., the alternation of italics with the regular type (e.g., 40, 46, and 53). Obviously, confusion here is not a case of malum necessarium.

  8. In Genette's nomenclature such a technique is called “paralipsis,” see Narrative Discourse, 195.

  9. Benjy's section, indeed, cannot accurately reproduce the flow of a disturbed memory; it merely conveys the impression of an underdeveloped mind; see Irving Howe, William Faulkner: A Critical Study (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975) 162.

  10. Quentin seems to be trying to live in a Bergsonian durée rather than in time. Unless he frees himself from the consciousness of the passage of time, the appointed hour of suicide will arrive, and death be the only way of getting out of time; see Perrin Lowery, “Concepts of Time in The Sound and the Fury,English Institute Essays, 1952, ed. Alan S. Downer (New York: Columbia UP, 1954) 71-72, and Julie M. Johnson, “The Theory of Relativity in Modern Literature: An Overview and The Sound and the Fury,Journal of Modern Literature, 10 (1983): 227.

  11. Cf. John Irwin's psychoanalytic interpretation of Quentin's suicide, Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1975) 44 and 116 ff.

  12. In his attempt to account for the structure of The Sound and the Fury Faulkner betrays a preoccupation with the reader's response. He says that Caddy was “too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on” and so “it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else's eyes.” Faulkner in the University (1). The word “see” (“see her” rather than “present her”) suggests anxiety about the “eyes” of the reader.

  13. This theme may be disquieting in its simplicity yet psychologists would not question its importance. Abraham H. Maslow, for instance, notes that “considering all the evidence now in hand, it is probably true that we could never understand fully the need for love” no matter how much we know about such prepotent needs as the hunger drive; moreover, “from a full knowledge of the need for love we can learn more about general human motivation.” Motivation and Personality (New York: Harper and Row, 1970) 21.

  14. Cf. Lawrance Thompson, “Mirror Analogues in The Sound and the Fury,English Institute Essays, 1952, 90.

  15. As I. A. Richards notes, in reading, as in life, “expectation as a preparation for certain stimuli may lower the threshold for them,” so that we receive them the more readily. Principles of Literary Criticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1926) 89.

  16. Davis interprets Quentin's relationship with Dilsey in racial terms: “the white girl reaches out for Dilsey as a mother substitute and rejects ‘the nigger’ who could never be her mother.” Faulkner's “Negro” (93). Yet it is no less important that Dilsey cannot satisfy Quentin's emotional needs because her psychic energy is all but exhausted. This aspect of Dilsey's portrayal distinguishes her from the “mammy” stereotype of Southern fiction.

  17. In Quest for Failure: A Study of William Faulkner (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1960) 151, Walter J. Slatoff discusses the ambivalence of our attitude to Caddy as an instance of Faulkner's typical irresolution.

  18. This is the phenomenon of “foregrounding”: the “foregrounded” manner of presentation competes with the mimetic contents for the attention of the reader; see Boris Ejkhenbaum, “How Gogol's ‘The Overcoat’ is Made” and “The ‘Skaz’ Illusion” in Jurij Striedter, comp., Texte der Russischen Formalisten, I (München: Wilgelm Fink, 1969) 122-58 and 160-66.

  19. See Linda Wagner, “Jason Compson: The Demands of Honor,” The Sewanee Review 79 (1971): 556-60. The article contains an excellent study of the scenes of Jason's childhood yet overstates its defense of the adult Jason. Another interesting reassessment of Jason's character is made in Donald M. Kartiganer, The Fragile Thread: The Meaning of Form in Faulkner's Novels (Amherst: U Massachusetts P, 1979) 14-16.

  20. For some of the interpretations on which the scope of the paper does not allow me to dwell see Richard Adams, Faulkner: Myth and Motion (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968) 215-48; Jean-Paul Sartre, “On The Sound and the Fury: Time in the Work of Faulkner,” Literary and Philosophical Essays, trans. Annette Michelson (New York: Collier, 1962) 84-93; and Carvel Collins, “Christian and Freudian Structures,” Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Sound and the Fury, ed. Michael H. Cowan (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1969) 71-74.

  21. By ignoring the symbolism of the episode we re-enact the attitude of the children, who, as Faulkner noted, see the “lugubrious matter of removing the corpse from the house,” their first encounter with death, “only incidentally to the childish games they [are] playing.” Faulkner at Nagano, ed. Robert A. Jeliffe (Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Press, 1970) 103.

  22. See Dorrit Cohn's discussion of analogous cases in Quentin's section, Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978) 251-53.

  23. Cf. the discussion of “the primacy effect” in Meir Sternberg, Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1978) 99 ff., and Menakhem Perry, “Literary Dynamics: How the Order of a Text Creates its Meaning [With an Analysis of Faulkner's ‘A Rose for Emily,’]” Poetics Today, 1 (1979): 53.

Barbara Monroe (essay date summer 1988)

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SOURCE: Monroe, Barbara. “Reading Faulknerian Comedy: Humor and Honor in The Hamlet.Southern Quarterly 26, no. 4 (summer 1988): 33-56.

[In the following essay, Monroe contends that the characters in The Hamlet employ humor as a way to ward off modern capitalism and maintain their honor.]

Many studies have shown that Faulkner's comic achievement owes much to nineteenth-century frontier humor.1 In stressing the historical influences, however, scholars have often overlooked the social and political functions of Faulkner's humor within its cultural context, the New South of the early twentieth century.2 Both regional-specific and gender-marked, Faulknerian humor is honor-bound, for it both serves and services a residual honor-shame culture. In The Hamlet, we see a prelegalistic, agrarian community in initial conflict with modern legality and the capitalist ethic of individual acquisitiveness. The characters deploy humor as a kind of rearguard action to contain creeping Snopesism and to maintain their honor. The Snopeses, in turn, parody honorable conduct by emulating their detractors. Paradoxically, the characters' allegiance to honor and humor empowers their enemies to exploit them and to undermine the efficacy of the honor-shame system. At the same time, reading Faulknerian comedy is also honor-bound: jokes, like bids for honor, are ultimately evaluated by an audience; only readers can laugh, not texts. Although Faulkner wrote within a male frontier-humor tradition about males engaged in bids for honor through their humor, female readers may also find occasion to laugh. Thus the text is encoded with alternative readings that accommodate both male and female readers. These readings both endorse and criticize the role of honor and humor in conserving the status quo.3

The southern code of honor at play in The Hamlet is “inseparable from hierarchy and entitlement” (Wyatt-Brown 4). Although the social paradigm appears strictly hierarchical, the system is also reciprocal. The most honored person—the Greek hero, the Renaissance prince, the southern gentleman—serves as a kind of fountainhead of recognition, radiating out and downward, each social degree receiving less and less status according to its distance from the head. Each step in turn seeks to emulate honorable displays of the positions above. The pyramidal structure of this social arrangement ostensibly pays honor to the figure at the top, but this man in turn requires acknowledgment from below to authenticate his position at the top. This circuit of mutuality tends to destabilize a potentially oppressive system.

The system's potential for mobility, therefore, requires daily maintenance of personal status. Daily enactment and dramatization that require recognition and acknowledgment, however, jeopardize the very status such performances seek to maintain. The honorable man must daily risk his honor in order to gain it. The final arbiter of honor to be paid is the communal audience, for whom dramatic bids for honor are played. This consensual power of recognition, this public evaluation, comes from below, radiating upward, thereby empowering the man at the top (Wadlington 56).

Honor certainly reifies hierarchy, but this hierarchy is dynamic, one that thrives on the impermanence of personal status. Wyatt-Brown explains the code at work in the Old South:

Ambivalence was inseparable from honor: … For honor to thrive there must be room to jockey for position—an invitation to rebelliousness, though it might be duly suppressed. Were it otherwise, honor could not survive. It cannot exist under absolute despotism because the tyrant assumes all honor, leaving none for others. And too much groveling, obsequiousness, and slavishness demeans [sic] not only the subjects but also the object of such unmanly worship. … Likewise, if there had been a rankless democracy in the Old South, honor would soon have become irrelevant, its ubiquity cheapening its value. Between these two poles, then, there was a gray area of ambiguity and potential explosiveness that accompanied the bestowal and receipt of deference and honor. …


This “gray area” is disambiguated by the honorable man's audience, who decides whether the honorable man has overstepped the acceptable margins of hauteur into the arena of affront and outrage. The public sector, like the honorable man, may also display “insultability,” converting the man's bid for honor into shame. But shaming is also “potentially dangerous to the group deriving its identity from the previously honored figure” (Wadlington 57). The public may then decide to accept the insult as a form of empowerment that acknowledges their relationship to the honorable man, enabling them to feel, in Kenneth Burke's words, “‘vicariously heroic’” (qtd. in Wadlington 55). Insult is convertible to compliment (Wadlington 60).

Further, in a world of honor, there is no private sector strictly beyond the purview of the public eye. Personal status is inseparable from human identity and inner worth. Human identity becomes strictly performative, externally visible, “physically demonstrable” (Wyatt-Brown 33). Appearance is ascribed, but also may be achieved to a certain degree. Physical stature is a “signal of divine favor” (Wyatt-Brown 48), but posture, oratory and physical gesture are acquired virtues that can spotlight inner merit as well (Wyatt-Brown 47). Singled out for distinction and reputation is the man who is “an eloquent orator, enchanting storyteller, or witty raconteur” (Wyatt-Brown 47). Conversely, silence can be a powerful rhetorical weapon, for the insult is implicit: the other person is beneath notice, unworthy of reply, inferior in status.4

Silence and poker-faced reticence are performances of nonchalance or effortlessness, first codified by Castiglione as sprezzatura (Whigham 93). This coolness could be read as disdain, both a defensive and offensive posture that refuses to engage in combat on grounds that the challenger is beneath the honorable man's contempt. Or the honorable man may acknowledge the challenger's insult and engage in a contest of dueling wits. But, as the southernism goes, the first one to start shouting loses, for he has lost his sprezzatura. Counterpoised to this value of coolness is the high evaluation of hotness of temper, or “insultability,” as mentioned earlier. “One does not slight with impunity” the man of honor (Wadlington 52). Violence, competitiveness and aggressiveness are endemic to the forensics of daily living in such a society as methods of both maintaining honor and amending shame (Wyatt-Brown 366; Wadlington 56).

I have isolated a few of the salient features of honorable conduct, especially in the antebellum south. These ethical rules of honor-shame still held sway in the New South of the twentieth-century, only slowly giving way to a dispensation of conscience-guilt (Grimwood 78 passim). These rules, however, are features of male honor. For women, honor meant simply reticence, restraint, subjugation and forebearance (Wyatt-Brown 234-35); shame meant barrenness, kinlessness, promiscuity and spinsterhood (Wyatt-Brown 236-38). Nonetheless, women were feared and even hated because they held the power to shame their men through sexual misconduct and to unman their men through negative evaluation of male performances in war, in polite society and in the bedroom—impotence became the greatest humiliation of all (Wyatt-Brown 52, 172, 290).

These tenets legislate much of the action of the male characters in The Hamlet. Emulative rivalry is their raison d'etre. Jody Varner wears a soiled shirt and baggy trousers with studied casualness, “a costume at once ceremonial and negligee” (11). When Flem takes his job as clerk at the store, he assumes the same costume personalized by his own cap and machine-made black tie, “which gave him Jody Varner's look of ceremonial heterodoxy raised to its tenth power” (66). After Flem “passes” Jody in the community's eyes, he proceeds to out-emulate Will Varner, “mounting the steps and jerking his head at the men on the gallery exactly as Will Varner himself would do, and enter the store, from which presently the sound of his voice would come, speaking with matter-of-fact succinctness to the bull-goaded bafflement of the man [Jody] who once had been his employer and who still seemed not to know just exactly what had happened to him” (102). At the annual accounting at the cotton gin, “parrot-taught” Flem sits next to Will, who never even allowed Jody to assist previously (69). After Flem passes Will (acquiring the Frenchman's place, the prestigious Varner buggy, two tickets to Texas, and three-hundred dollars in exchange for marrying the pregnant Eula), his cousin Lump assumes the position of clerk at the store, “the new clerk exactly like the old one but a little smaller … as if they had both been cut with the same die” (183). Hierarchy remains in place, but emulative rivalry keeps personal status fluid, keeps people “passing” others. For every one of those who “come up” (as Flem orders his horses in the last line of the book), there are those who must come down.

The male characters enact the honorable ideal of sprezzatura with certain southern flourishes, such as spitting and whittling. Will Varner is so nonchalant that he keeps his hat on during sex with his mistress (161). In arguments, the one who remains cool at least saves face. While Major De Spain is “cussing a blue streak” about his ruined rug, Ab “says nothing” and continues to tend to his horse, business as usual (18). When Ratliff and Flem face off in the last business deal of the book, the sale of the Old Frenchman place, Ratliff waits for Flem to get to town, “leaning against a gallery post, indolent and easy, as if he had not ever even heard of haste” (402). During the actual bargaining, the two “didn't look at one another” (405). Flem, of course, is the most nonchalant character in the book and, not coincidentally, the one who comes out on top in the end. He always operates through indirection, through other people, such as the Texan,5 or by giving oblique answers to direct questions (26-27), or by not acknowledging the presence or the words of other people (64; 337; 417). When he does speak, his voice is “matter-of-fact, succinct” (69). Most often, his response is to keep chewing without missing a beat or to spit (25), a traditional debasing gesture (Bakhtin 148). Flem's effortlessness is clearly studied and performative; it is always clearly in view: “[Jody] watched [Flem] raise his arm and with his other hand pick something infinitesimal from the sleeve with infinitesimal care” (27). His award-winning performance, however, is his refusal to acknowledge the lawsuits against him over the spotted horses episode, when his nonchalance even outrages the judge: “Flem Snopes flatly refused to recognise the existence of the suit against himself, stating once and without heat and first turning his head slightly aside to spit, ‘They wasn't none of my horses,’ then fell to whittling again while the baffled and helpless bailiff stood before the tilted chair with the papers he was trying to serve” (367; my italics).

Faulkner's descriptive technique also seems to confirm the honor ethos that human identity is a social, public construct. The human-made status of personal definition is implied by the many metonymic descriptions that assume a person is his clothing. Flem is frequently reduced to just a white shirt, a machine-made tie, a “constant jaw” (66; 68; 96; 101; 171; 309). Ratliff thinks of what Will had to do “to get that patented necktie out his store and out of his house” (179). Later, as he acquires more status, he also acquires more props: the straw suitcase, a plaid cap. By the end of the novel, Flem is that white shirt for Bookwright: just one sighting of a white shirt digging in the dark provides ocular proof that “it's Flem” all right (390). Faulkner uses this technique throughout the novel for other characters as well. In several instances, he explicitly draws attention to the theatrical nature of these props. Jody's soiled shirt and rumpled trousers are “a costume” (11). He sells his worn-out suits to Negro families, “so that on almost any Sunday night one whole one or some part of one of his old suits could be met—and promptly recognized—walking the summer roads” (7-8). I. O. dresses as if for the stage: he wears a paper dickey and cuffs attached to his coat sleeves in place of a shirt and glass frames with no lenses (229). Mrs. Armstid is always just a gray garment “hanging in rigid, almost formal folds like drapery in bronze” (360). Faulkner's description of the anonymous townspeople in group formation also suggests what is important in this fictional world. In the courtroom scene, the Tull girls are just heads that move in unison (373). The faces and heads are the parts in evidence in the last scene also: “Then the heads along the ruined fence turned as though to follow [Flem's] look” (420). These heads and faces that watch and look are emblematic of the social evaluation of the various characters' performances. Thus the forensics of enactment and critical reception so important to an honor-shame society are inscribed insistently in the novel through the frequent use of metonymic description. For in this cultural theatre, “the play, the show, is the thing itself” (Wadlington 53). Theatricality becomes self-referential; the signifier is the signified.

In fact, such descriptions are so pervasive that they lean toward the parodic. Although the characters clearly live by the honor code, Faulkner deploys parody and burlesque to subvert and criticize that code as an efficacious strategy for living in the modern world. Since the characters are clearly a “passel of shiftless men” (36), their plays for honor have something of the same effect as Don Quixote's playing chivalry. In the Ike episode, the cow parodies the modesty of southern womanhood, when Ike receives “the violent relaxing of her fear-constricted bowels” (198), after which she scrambles away “in a blind paroxysm of shame, to escape not him alone but the very scene of the outragement of privacy where she had been sprung suddenly upon and without warning from the dark and betrayed and outraged by her own treacherous biological inheritance, he following again, speaking to her, trying to tell her how this violent violation of her maiden's delicacy is no shame” (198-99). Flem Snopes's “squat” and “froglike” appearance and rhetorical silences mock the impressive, divine stature of southern orators, just as his impotence (only hinted at in this book) would be the ultimate shame of a true man of honor. I. O., dressed in his paper dickey and lensless glasses, “burlesqued ratiocination and firmness and even made a sort of crass roman holiday of rationalised curiosity” (229). The platitudinous I. O., “already (or still) talking” (72), also carnivalizes the high evaluation of eloquence in official southern culture. It is also I. O. who worries about the family name: “A man cant have his good name drug in the alleys. The Snopes name has done held its head up too long in this country to have no such reproaches against it like stock-diddling” (230). Like any honorable man, he is mainly concerned with reputation in a futile attempt to clinch the argument with Eck about paying for Ike's cow:

“I don't want fifteen dollars worth of beef,” [Eck said].

“It ain't the beef and the hide. That's just a circumstance. It's the moral value we are going to get out of it,” [I. O. said].

“How do I need fifteen dollars worth of moral value when all you need is a dollar and eighty cents?”

“The Snopes name. Cant you understand that? That aint never been aspersed yet by no living man. That's got to be kept as a marble monument for your children to grow up under.”


But it is through the women characters that Faulkner most often sends up this male ethos, as I will discuss later at length. First, we need to locate the role of humor in honor cultures and explore how humor circulates along the same conduits of power.

“[L]aughter is always the laughter of a group,” according to Bergson (64). “To understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all must we determine the utility of its function, which is a social one” (65). As a socializing process, joking serves two functions: “to define and maintain group relationships and to act as a deterrent against outsiders” (Boskin 10). “‘[L]aughter forms a bond’ but … it ‘simultaneously draws a line’ as well. Both functions reinforce each other” (Boskin 5). These two functions are produced in two types of joking situations: “the symmetrical situation, in which the persons involved are equals …, and the asymmetrical context, in which only one party is permitted to tease or make fun of others, reflecting a superior-subordinate relationship” (Boskin 10). Like honor, then, humor moves within and across hierarchy, rearranging the relative status of persons, even if just momentarily, declassifying hierarchy even as it realigns it. Humor can subvert an asymmetrical human relationship into a symmetrical one, and vice versa, repositioning the joker to a higher point in the hierarchy at the expense of the person who serves as the butt of the joke. Bids for laughter—group acknowledgment—become inseparable from bids for honor. A failed joke can shame its joker. As with bids for honor, the decisive evaluation rests with a joke's audience.

In an honor-shame culture, laughter is an “affective communication” (Levine 4), even a matter of life and death, for to lose face, to suffer ridicule publicly in such a culture, is to suffer a social death (Levine 6).6 Faulkner's characters in The Hamlet are not pictured as laughing to themselves. For them, laughter is a social response to a social situation; as Bergson states, “Laughter appears in need of an echo” (64). In The Hamlet, Faulkner not only describes the circumstances of a joke's delivery but also frequently records how a joke's hearers respond—with guffaws or silence. These nonverbal communications—the performative execution and the audience's reception of a joke—are all important to an honor-shame culture.

Humor, then, can be used to maintain, pique or repair honor, competing with other honor-accruing means. Historically, the primal value of violence and revenge in honor-shame cultures gradually became civilized and diverted by the legal system and dueling rapier wits.7 In The Hamlet the three strategies for honor-repair—violence, legality and humor—consistently collide. In these collisions, the text demonstrates, legality and humor save lives, but only humor saves face.

Gary Stonum has pointed out that the honor society of Beat Four could be divided into those who participate in the male myth of honor and those that do not (168). The humorless men resort to violence when they are outraged; the other men use humor as a culturally sanctioned form of aggression—a transformation in the code that mitigates its disruptive, violent bent that tends to destabilize civilized society.8 Flem does not fall into either category for he uses honor to achieve profit, the reverse motivation of most of the other men in the book. In dealing with Pat Stamper, Ab “just wanted to recover that eight dollars' worth of the honor and pride of Yoknapatawpha County horse-trading, doing it not for profit but for honor” (41). Pat Stamper is a horse-trader “for the pleasure of beating a worthy opponent as much as for gain” (34). Ratliff, too, likes his job “for the pleasure of the shrewd dealing which far transcended mere gross profit” (77).9

The humorless men use violence, or threaten to use violence, to vindicate their shame. Hoake McCarron calls out his rivals by name and “cursed them in a pleasant, drawling, conversational voice and dared any two of them to meet him down the road. They could see the pistol hanging in his hand against his flank” (156). Labove is ready to die defending his honor but “felt rage and outrage” when he mistakenly suspects that Jody has sent everyone away, denying Labove a public audition for reclaiming his honor (143). At an early stage of the argument between Mink and Houston, “they cursed each other, hard and brief and without emphasis, like blows or pistol-shots” (103). At one point, the two consider dueling—placing a pistol on a post and racing for it—but apparently Will Varner stops the proceedings and makes them agree to go to court (180-81). Although the court settles the case to the public's satisfaction, Mink's sense of honor is still not satisfied, for a man of honor is not slighted with impunity. He would like to label Houston's body with a placard (not just a note): “This is what happens to the men who impound Mink Snopes's cattle” (251). He feels that the forces of legality and public opinion are conspiring “to frustrate and outrage his rights as man and his feelings as a sentient creature” (251). Unlike his cousin Lump, Mink does not even think of killing Houston for his money (268). He decides to return to the hidden body in an attempt to recover any money Houston may have had on his person at the time of murder, only after he refuses to accept his wife's offer of aid, presumably to fend off being shamed by a woman. After many frustrating attempts to return to the body, Mink thinks, “It's like just about everything was in cahoots against one man killing another” (289). All of these humorless characters ultimately lose their honor (except Houston, who loses his life), all expelled from the community in symbolic charivaris.

Violence and humor as two alternative methods of honor-repair are held up for examination in at least one scene in the book. Faulkner plays the scene for laughs, notably at the expense of the violent alternative. When the family discovers Eula is pregnant, Will and Jody react quite differently, one with humor and the other with violence. Jody is outraged and out for vengeance for the damage done to the family name. True to cavalier form, he orders his horse saddled, but he must wrestle with his father for the family pistol. His dashing exit brought to an inglorious halt, Jody cries.

“Maybe you dont give a damn about your name, but I do. I got to hold my head up before folks even if you aint.”

“Hah,” Varner said. “I aint noticed you having any trouble holding it up. You have just about already got to where you cant get it far enough down to lace your own shoes.”


Jody declares that he will find all three suspects to bring the right one to justice, but he is not even allowed to finish his vow. Will's interruption reduces the mortal affront done to the family honor to just a matter of “tomcatting” and “diddling”: “What for? Just out of curiosity to find out for certain just which of them was and wasn't diddling her?” (164). Will then tells him to “cool off” and “go fishing”: “If this family needs any head-holding-up done, I'll tend to it myself.” Will exits with jest: “Hell and damnation, all this hullabaloo and uproar because one confounded running bitch finally foxed herself. What did you expect—that she would spend the rest of her life just running water through it?” (164-65). Will then proceeds to save the family honor in terms of a business deal with Flem.

Ratliff's story of Ab Snopes could also be taken as an object lesson in the shameful consequences of losing one's sense of humor. We see Ab after he has lost his humor and honor, who now treats animals with “senseless savageness” and “absolutely needless violence” (55), his voice “rusty,” “lifeless” and “dead” (8-9). But Ratliff knew him before and knows how he first “soured” and then “just went plumb curdled” (37). In his bid to vindicate “the entire honor and pride of the science and pastime of horse-trading in Yoknapatawpha County” (39), he is resoundingly defeated by Pat Stamper. Shamed but with his nonchalance and humor apparently still intact, Ab returns home to face his wife. Only when his wife parades his shame by transacting business in public with Stamper in order to buy her milk separator is Ab ultimately “separated” from his sense of humor, curdled to the core. But when she first returns with the separator and runs borrowed milk through it a third time, Ab is still able to save face with his then-young companion Ratliff with heatless, humorous jest, as Ratliff recounts their conversation years later:

“There it goes again,” Ab says. “Don't forget that other gallon tomorrow.”

“No sir,” I says. We listened to it. Because he wasn't curdled then.

“It looks like she is fixing to get a heap of pleasure and satisfaction outen it,” he says.


Ratliff's story ends there. The next the reader hears of Ab Snopes, he is a barn-burner and a humorless man who has lost his bond with other men.

Legality also toes up with humor as another alternative method of honor-repair. Again, we see the Snopeses expropriate another public form, as Stonum points out in regard to Flem's use of respectability, “for purposes that subvert the social relations they are supposed to embody and the values they are supposed to guarantee” (180). Flem first uses legality to usurp the “honor system” of payment at the general store (62), even making Will Varner pay. Ratliff humorously fantasizes that Flem, “his mouth full of law,” could beat even the Prince in hell, swapping his soul “in good faith and honor,” but coming to redeem it, “like the law says” (171). In the spotted horses episode, when Flem refuses to acknowledge the lawsuit against him, he cannot legally be charged with contempt until it is proven he owns the horses (371). The potential insult to the court, however, converts to his own honor, for, as Lump chortles, “You can't beat him” (356; 363). Thus Flem even out-laws the law. Cora Tull also tries to recover the family honor by taking her complaint of injury and insult to the courts to redress. Tull has lost face almost literally in the accident on the bridge, and he is at risk of losing face once again in the public forum of the courtroom when he tries to calm down his raging wife, who is quick to reply: “Don't you say hush to me! You'll let Eck Snopes or Flem Snopes or that whole Varner tribe snatch you out of the wagon and beat you half to death against a wooden bridge. But when it comes to suing them for your just rights and a punishment, oh no. Because that wouldn't be neighborly. What's neighborly got to do with you lying flat on your back in the middle of planting time while we pick splinters out of your face?” (375). The Tulls lose their case, the outcome of which tends to reverse faith in the legal system as an efficacious honor-repair mechanism. Thus being “neighborly”—“good ol' boyism”—remains the only game in town. Although Flem has confiscated both honor and legality as effective weapons, he never exploits the rich possibilities of male humor in his rise to power, even though Freeman tries to joke with him in the end (417), because he refuses to acknowledge the mutual status of other men. Humor remains the male community's last stronghold against Snopesism.

Good ol' boyism, a rich interplay of humor and honor, governs the conventions of everyday conversation between the male characters. This word-slinging and ritualistic joking serve both to assert one man's authority at another's expense and to establish male community.10 These conversations, which range from storytelling to business dealing, thinly veil their competitive, often insulting, potentially hostile tone. But humor takes the starch out of these exchanges, as in the Virginian's famous pronouncement, “When you call me that, smile.” After Tull relays the information that the Snopeses have a barn-burning past, he protests that he “aint repeating nothing.” Varner quips, “I wouldn't. … A man dont want to get the name of a idle gossip” (11). Irony and understatement make this insult to Tull's masculinity allowable, who is really just his wife's “eldest daughter” anyway, the narrator informs the reader (10). Later, Jody Varner tells his father that he must go through with his proposed contract, to which Will offers, “Then you can point out to him which house to burn too. Or are you going to leave that to him?” Jody replies lamely, “Sho. … We'll discuss that too.” (12). “Sho” can be translated as “touché,” for the word punctuates conversation throughout the book, marking off points conceded in these exchanges. The dueling function of humor is specifically evoked in the same passage: “[N]ow all levity was gone from his voice, all poste and riposte of humor's light whimsy, tierce quarto and prime” (12).

Ratliff's version of the confrontation between Ab and De Spain, after Ab has burned down De Spain's barn, is also overwrought with humorous barbs. In Ratliff's recreation of the scene, Ab's and De Spain's last oral exchange is marked with understatement, an apt tool for a man of honor displaying his sprezzatura: “It looks like me and you aint going to get along together,” Ab says, “so I reckon we better quit trying before we have a misunderstanding over something. I'm moving this morning.” De Spain responds, “What about your contract?” Ab closes the conversation laconically, “I done cancelled it” (18). In one of their many conversations, Bookwright warns Ratliff in what could be taken as insulting terms that he is no match for Flem:

“I believe I would think of something if I lived there,” Ratliff said.

“Yes,” Bookwright said. … “And wind up with one of them bow ties in place of your buckboard and team. You'd have room to wear it.”


“Or maybe them tennis shoes,” Bookwright said. “He aint wore them in a year now—No,” he said. “If I was you I would go out there nekkid in the first place. Then you wont notice the cold coming back.”


In the course of this same conversation, Ratliff makes a few well-placed ripostes to the counterman, who needs to be reminded to keep the coffee warm-ups coming. “This here cup seems to have a draft in it. … May be you better warm it up a little. It might freeze and bust, and I would have to pay for the cup too.” (81)

The novel also dramatizes the failure of humor to gloss over the potentially hostile interaction between men, most especially in dealings with Flem, but also with other characters such as the Texan, Buck Hipps. The jokes about his vest that run through the horse auction scene serve to establish the Texan, the outsider, as the Other to the male community's We. As butt of their jokes, he fails to dominate the gathered group and bend its members to his will. For Hipp's first sale's pitch, he tries to handle one of the horses. “See? All you got to do is handle them a little and work hell out of them for a couple of days.” A horse “slashes at his back, severing his vest from collar to hem down the back. …” “‘Sho now,’ Quick said. ‘But suppose a man dont happen to own a vest’” (312). But the hierarchy turns over in this scene:

“Come up, boys,” the Texan said. “You're just in time to buy a good gentle horse cheap.”

“How about that one that cut your vest off last night?” a voice said. This time three or four guffawed. The Texan looked toward the sound, bleak and unwinking.

“What about it?” he said. The laughter, if it had been laughter, ceased.


By exposing the hostile intent of the challenger's humor, the Texan refuses to play the butt and gains the crowd's respect. After this scene, the Texan clearly controls the men, who fall into line and buy the horses.

Humor can also cut too close to the bone, hitting a violent nerve, as when Lump says,

“If Flem had knowed how quick you fellows was going to snap them horses up, he'd a probably brought some tigers,” he said. “Monkeys too.”

“So they was Flem's horses,” Ratliff said. The laughter stopped. The other three had open knives in their hands, with which they had been trimming idly at chips and slivers of wood. Now they sat absorbed in the delicate and almost tedious movements of the knife-blades.


The early gentle humor gradually heats up in the course of the narrative, as the stakes get higher and Flem keeps winning. In the horse auction scene, Ratliff's remarks cut deeper, just short of drawing blood.

“Maybe if Ratliff would leave here tonight, they wouldn't make him buy one of them ponies tomorrow,” a third said.

“That's a fact,” Ratliff said. “A fellow can dodge a Snopes if he just starts lively enough. In fact, I dont believe he would have to pass more than two folks before he would have another victim intervened betwixt them.”


After the auction and trial, Ratliff comes dangerously close to losing his humor, as Stonum discusses at length (177-80). Again, his conversation partner is Bookwright and the exchange is conducted in the spirit of good humor; but it ends in a decidedly bitter note: “I never made them Snopeses and I never made the folks that cant wait to bare their backsides to them. I could do more, but I wont. I wont, I tell you!” (367) Although arguably Ratliff has not lost his humor, he has lost his nonchalance, which renders him vulnerable to losing face on this cultural stage.

Even though others also have momentary lapses in their senses of humor, they still continue to laugh, though “without mirth” (367). Humor may be lost, but the appearance of good humor is maintained for the sake of honor. This value is enacted by Jody in the first episode of the book. He takes the news of the barn-burning Snopes in stride, assuming the posture of good humor but only laughing through his teeth: “‘Well well well,’ he said, bulging, slightly apoplectic. ‘And now, out of all the men in this country, I got to pick him to make a rent contract with.’ He began to laugh. That is, he began to say ‘Ha. Ha. Ha.’ rapidly, but just from the teeth, the lungs; no higher, nothing of it in the eyes” (21). Jody laughs “fiercely, with no mirth” when he dares to challenge his father's method of handling the pregnant Eula affair (162). Odum Bookwright, Henry Armstid, Buck Hipps, the men at the auction and Ratliff all have been known to laugh without mirth (390; 326), like the father of Hoake McCarron, who met his angry father-in-law after eloping with his daughter with “his fine teeth exposed though the rest of his face took no part in the smile” (153). Mirthless laughter is a strategy for defusing the situation, at once surrendering the upper hand and extending the hand in a bid for male bonding.11

But mirthless laughter parodied with voiced sarcasm reverses this intention back into a threatening challenge, the “Hah” that several characters use throughout the book, most suggestively by the women: “‘Hah,’ Mrs. Tull said. She said it exactly as Bookwright would have. ‘Dangerous. Ask Vernon Tull. Ask Henry Armstid if them things was pets. … Hah,’ Mrs. Tull said again” (376), after the judge has asked her to be quiet. Female characters consistently challenge male honor in their actions or in their words. Mink's wife laughs at him “harshly, without mirth” (84; 253). She is also described as “masculine” and as a “confident lord of a harem” (272), who refuses his direct orders (84). Eula presents the most obvious reversal of “the myth of male dominance” inscribed in the code, as Stonum discusses (170-71). Mrs. Varner is angry that she has been disturbed while trying to take a nap, apparently unconcerned that the family honor is at stake (163). Mrs. Snopes threatens Ab with a skillet, while he backs off with, “Now Vynie, now Vynie. I always was a fool about a good horse and you know it and aint a bit of use in your jawing about it” (35). Later Mrs. Snopes says to herself, “Horse-trader! Setting there bragging and lying to a passel of shiftless men with the weeds and morning glories climbing so thick in cotton and corn I am afraid to tote his dinner down to him for fear of snakes” (36). Mrs. Littlejohn most often assails the male community directly, using humor as her weapon. As she stands over Henry Armstid's bloodless face after he has been brought in from the corral, she attacks. “‘I'll declare,’ she said. ‘You men. … Go outside. See if you cant find something else to play with that will kill some more of you’” (348). Later when she and Mrs. Armstid are discussing the possibility of recovering Mrs. Armstid's five dollars, Mrs. Armstid says, “‘Maybe I better go and talk to Henry.’ ‘I would,’ Mrs. Littlejohn says. … ‘Then Henry can buy another five-dollar horse with it. Maybe he'll buy one next time that will out and out kill him. If I just thought he would, I'd give him back that money, myself’” (360). Women characters are often portrayed as pitted against men and their honor, as is Cora Tull, “a strong, … slightly dumpy woman with an expression of grim and seething outrage … directed not at any Snopes or at any other man in particular but at all men, all males …” (370). Cued by such female responses, a female reader may chortle to see these male characters get their comeuppances. The narrative voice, as joker to the book's readership, at times seems to invite the female reader to feel superior to this “passel of shiftless men.”

But it is essential to note that these scenes are played for laughs, a fact that destabilizes the butt of the joke. For example, Ratliff's report of the conversation between Mrs. Armstid and Mrs. Littlejohn is to a male audience, is complete with background noises, and mocks the very real anger Mrs. Littlejohn must have felt: “Then I just heard the dishes. They would have two pans, both washing. … Mrs. Littlejohn never said nothing. It sounded like she was throwing dishes at one another. … And I be dog if it didn't sound exactly like she had two plates in her hands, beating them together like these here brass bucket-lids in a band. … And then it sounded just like Mrs. Littlejohn taken up the dishes and pans and all and throwed the whole business at the cookstove—” (360). Mrs. Littlejohn, the narrator reports, keeps coming out of the hotel, holding a coldly logical female eye on the proceedings in the lot during the horse auction while she continues with her chores (320-32). But her potentially shaming female gaze becomes part of the narrator's joke when Eck's runaway horse takes her by surprise, and she splits her washboard over its head (346). She becomes part of the joke pattern, the innocent bystander who first serves as a measure of incongruity and then becomes swept away by insane events. Even aloof Eula is cut down to earth when she is forced to marry the squat, impotent, “froglike” Flem (169). Similarly, Cora Tull's day in court showcases female anger—and female humor to vent that anger. But just when she appears to have made her point and won her case, she unwittingly undoes her cause, disclosing to the judge that Eck was given the horse but never had legal possession of it. The joke pattern is clearly a case of the-woman-who-didn't-know-when-to-shut-up. We are consistently shown a female critique of male honor, which in turn is subverted by male humor delivered by male jokers, Ratliff or the narrative voice.

The narrative voice does not always portray these female challenges to male honor in a humorous tone, however. Eula's marriage fills Ratliff with very real regret. And when Lucy Pate apparently decides that she will make sure Houston passes to the next grade in school, Houston can see that “the ancient worn glove of biological differentiation had been flung and raised” (239). Lucy proves to be a worthy opponent, Houston consistently underestimating “female ruthlessness” (240) until he finally has to leave town in a futile attempt to escape her. But, again, it is difficult to stabilize the narrative voice, for the tone is too serious to be taken absolutely seriously, at least for these early courtship scenes. Later, when Houston returns, marries Lucy, and Lucy is killed, Houston's very real grief reestablishes the serious tone as authentic.

Authentic also are the economic losses sustained by the victims in the novel. Readers of The Hamlet when it was first published in 1940, who were still living through the Great Depression, would recognize that grinding poverty is no laughing matter (cf. Grimwood 117). Ab, as a sharecropper in a subsistence economy, probably never recovers financially from losing his cow and mule and Beasley's horse, a fact that Ratliff glosses over (cf. Stonum 169). The narrative voice invites us to laugh off Eck's loss too, as Jody does when he finds out Eck's “free” horse has broken its neck: “Varner, looking down at him, began to laugh steadily and harshly, sucking his teeth” (365). But the narrative is much more ambiguous about the Armstids' disaster. When Henry literally beats Mrs. Armstid away during the auction, her passivity invites the reader's sympathy, at least a female reader's sympathy (337).12 Even the Texan cannot resist her genuine pleas for her money. Her pleas evoke even more grief in the courtroom, when she explains what she had to do to get that five dollars, that she would know her five dollars anywhere (372-73). When Henry is carried into Mrs. Littlejohn's bedroom after breaking his leg, the narrator records his screams of pain right after scenes of the other men laughing, as if to remind the reader how expensive humor can be: “‘Don't ask me,’ Ratliff said. ‘I cant even get nowhere in time to buy a cheap horse.’ Two or three guffawed this time. Then they began to hear Henry's respirations from the house: ‘Ah. Ah. Ah.’ and they ceased abruptly, as if they had not been aware of their closeness to it” (351). It is unlikely many readers will laugh in triumph with Lump when Flem refuses to return Mrs. Armstid's money, but rather patronizes her with “a little sweetening for the chaps” (362). And no one is laughing in the last scene of the book: Henry, wasted with impotence and fury, has broken his leg a second time and has mortgaged his farm, “including the buildings and tools and livestock and about two miles of three-strand wire fence” (405). As he digs for gold not there, “the people watched him in a silence so complete that they could hear the dry whisper of his panting breath” (420).

This modulated tonality is central to understanding The Hamlet, according to Grimwood. This divided voice reflects Faulkner's deep ambivalence for his material, a society in transition (Grimwood 145). Originally, Faulkner envisioned the trilogy as a satire on redneck ascendency, but “ambiguous sympathy … complicated his vision and diluted his satire” (Grimwood 166). Grimwood argues convincingly that “the Faulkner trilogy expresses deep-seated anxieties about the egalitarian forces at work in the South during the first half of the twentieth century” (163). He also shows how the narrative framework, borrowed from southwestern humor, sets up a “dialogue” between “folk culture and official culture,” allowing for “partisan expression by either side” (169). Ratliff provides a “folk perspective on the Snopeses, just as the omniscient narrative voice provides a genteel perspective on them”:

In effect, Snopesism is condemned both from above, by the aristocracy it threatens, and from below, by the peasantry it exploits. Through Faulkner's manipulation, both ends of the social hierarchy combine to form a stylistic alliance—Lynn's cordon sanitaire—that is united by victimization against any movement across the hierarchy. Though the novel's parliament of voices reaches a conservative consensus, however, it remains unable to enforce that consensus. The Hamlet is a series of narrative frames (frames within frames, sometimes) in a variety of styles, each one contrived as a new perspective on, and as a new entrapment of, the yahooism it encloses, and each one broken open by its contact with the other styles with which it must contend.

(Grimwood 173)

Grimwood's analysis is convincing and compelling but incomplete, for his reading centers on cognitive and epistemological issues, excluding the affective and performative (cf. Wadlington 26-27; 36-38). If we see reading as performance, we will see that the bivocality of The Hamlet not only reveals Faulkner's ambivalence toward his material, but also invites the reader to perform a variety of roles. These roles include those of the joke paradigm, with all the empowering and disabling possibilities these roles entail: as joker, as audience, as butt. Further, if we genderize our monolithic ideal reader, we will see that a woman reader may be laughing for different reasons. Men can laugh at these male characters in the spirit of mutual status; women can laugh in the spirit of Otherness. If we also factor in class and race, the tonality of the text becomes multivocal indeed. Humor, like honor, relies and thrives on this kind of fluid reversibility.

So reversible are the dynamics of a humorous situation that Faulkner exposes the oppressive possibilities of humor but uses humor to do so, thereby reversing the political implications of his critique. The narrative voice, then, both serves and subverts any call to arms, conservative or otherwise. Consistently Ratliff warns the citizens of Frenchman's Bend that they are being exploited:

“Flem has grazed up the store and he has grazed up the blacksmith shop and now he is starting in on the school. That just leaves Will's house. Of course, after that he will have to fall back on you folks, but that house will keep him occupied for a while because Will—”

“Hah!” Bookwright said shortly.


After Ratliff hears of Bookwright's story about the black man who borrowed five dollars from Flem and pays him a nickel every Saturday for interest, he quips, “‘Well well well. … So he's working the top and the bottom both at the same time.’” Then, without humor, he chastens, “‘Aint none of you folks out there done nothing about it?’” (81). Later, when Ratliff loses his patience with the docility of the townspeople at the pasturage trial, Bookwright asks him what is wrong with him. “‘Why, nothing,’ Ratliff said. ‘What could be wrong with nothing nowhere nohow in this here best of all possible worlds?’” (185). He then tells the bawdy story, too strained to be humorous, of the woman who pays for her lard on credit and in sex too, and then asks how much for the sardines. The moral of Ratliff's story is lost on his male listeners, however, for they leave before he is finished when Lump tells them “‘it's time’” to catch the next show starring Ike and his lady love (186-88). Thus the narrative voice, by subverting Ratliff's role as joker, undermines his moral as well. When the Texas horses come to town, Ratliff repeatedly warns his fellows, in insulting, humorous terms, that they are going to be taken in by the scam (316-18). Afterwards, his I-told-you-so is a bitter denunciation of the victims who “bare their backsides” to the Snopeses (367). Ratliff also uses humor to reprimand Will Varner (and readers) who would brush aside with jest the community's losses in the horse scam:

“They are going to come out even on them things, after all,” Varner said. “They'll get the money back in exercise and relaxation. You take a man that aint got no other relaxation all year long except dodging mule-dung up and down a field furrow. And a night like this one, when a man aint old enough yet to lay still and sleep, and yet he aint young enough anymore to be tomcatting in and out of other folks' back windows, something like this is good for him. …”

“That's one way to look at it, I reckon,” Ratliff said. “In fact, it might be considerable comfort to Bookwright and Quick and Freeman and Eck Snopes and them other new horse-owners if that side of it could be brought to their attention, because the chances are aint none of them thought to look at it in that light yet. …”


Such passages indict the male community for laughing all the way to the poorhouse (cf. Stonum 185).

But most of the passages are themselves humorous, thereby implicating the laughing reader in Ratliff's critique. In the final sting of the book, the narrator solicits the reader's complicity in watching Ratliff take the fall, inviting the reader to take a superior stance to Ratliff, to share in the joke for which Ratliff will be the butt. When Ratliff first sees Eustace Grimm, the narrator allows the reader a rare glimpse into Ratliff's private thoughts: “[A]s soon as he recognised Grimm, something in him had clicked, though it would be three days before he would know what it was” (400). If the reader does not hear the click, the narrator plays it again a few pages later, adding another clue that Ratliff is deluded: “And Eustace Grimm—again his mind clicked; still it would be three days before he would know what had clicked, because now he believed he did know, that he saw the pattern complete …” (402). The next hint is louder still: “[S]omething had clicked in his mind again. It might have been while he was asleep, he didn't know. But he knew that this time it was right. Only I don't want to look at it, hear it, he thought …” (412). The reader knows the joke is coming, just not when and where and how. In other passages, written in serious tone, the narrative voice comments directly on the nature of “true slavery” and the mutually capacitating bond between the master and slave. Houston had always “proffered slavedom” to the women in his life—his mother and his mistress. But “[w]hat he did not comprehend was that until now he had not known what true slavery was—that single constant despotic undeviating will of the enslaved not only for possession, complete assimilation, but to coerce and reshape the enslaver into the seemliness of his victimization” (237). The implication is clear: the citizens of Frenchman's Bend have chosen their own masters. Even Ratliff knows something is amiss before he allows Flem to scalp him for the Old Frenchman place, “only I don't want to look at it, hear it, he thought …” (412).

On the other hand, Faulkner strikes this serious note to endorse the therapeutic, recuperative power of humor as well. After Ratliff finds out that Flem is Ike's guardian, he thinks to himself, “Only thank God men have done learned how to forget quick what they aint brave enough to try to cure” (99). Laughter is a forgetting (cf. Stonum 175). Houston discovers that his “grim icy rage had given way to an even more familiar sardonic humor, a little clumsy and heavy-footed perhaps, but indomitable and unconquerable above even the ruthless grief” (216). In the last section, the narrator again returns to his humorous mode. The peasants may have been chasing their horses for two days, but by nine o'clock on the second morning, the men—including Ratliff—have once again resumed their positions on the gallery of the store, whittling and swapping punchlines about the town's misadventure, rescripting their disasters into guffaws (353). In the last sting of the book, when Ratliff and Bookwright realize that they have been taken in, they immediately fend off defeatism with competitive jest. Speaking of the coins Flem used as bait, Ratliff says,

“Bet you one of them I beat you.”

“1901,” Bookwright said. “I even got one that was made last year. You beat me.”

“I beat you,” Ratliff said.


Defiant humor is shown as a male community stance, a strategy by which they cut their losses and save their honor by flaunting their sense of humor. “Humour is not resigned; it is rebellious,” Freud has written, making visible the ego's rejection of the reality principle by asserting that a person can afford to live by the pleasure principle (163), a kind of southern version of a potlatch (cf. Stonum 167). It publicizes “the triumph of narcissism, the victorious assertion of the ego's invulnerability” (Freud 162). Thus the humorous attitude intimately partakes of the honor code, cavalier at any cost. Similarly, readers familiar with poverty might welcome the chance to laugh at economic ruin, laughter as extravagant as a Busby Berkeley movie, so popular in the thirties. As a literary form, humor may or may not serve up a gain in pleasure for the fictional characters, but the humorous narrative certainly intends to yield pleasure for its “non-participating onlooker,” the reader or the listener (Freud 161). The narrative may intend such pleasure, but the final evaluation of that intention lies with its readers. Humor, like honor, is always risky business.

In our final evaluation of The Hamlet, then, we must keep in mind that it is above all a comic novel. The comic frame, as a mode of production of meaning and value for readers, is designed to enact a dialectic process, the experience and performance of which can offer ameliorative possibilities. As Kenneth Burke explains,

A comic frame of motives, as here conceived, would not only avoid the sentimental denial of materialistic factors in human acts. It would also avoid the cynical brutality that comes when such sensitivity is outraged, as it must be outraged by the acts of others or by the needs that practical exigencies place upon us.

The comic frame, in making a man the student of himself, makes it possible for him to “transcend” occasions when he has been tricked or cheated, since he can readily put such discouragements in his “assets” column, under the head of “experience.” Thus we “win” by subtly changing the rules of the game—

In sum, the comic frame should enable people to be observers of themselves, while acting. Its ultimate would not be passiveness, but maximum consciousness.



  1. For the most influential work on nineteenth-century humor generally, see Blair. For Faulkner's debt to that tradition, see especially Wheeler, McHaney, Jacobs and Inge.

  2. A major exception to this claim is Michael Grimwood's chapter on The Hamlet (135-86), which I found valuable in developing my discussion of the political consequences of The Hamlet later in this paper.

  3. I need to acknowledge Warwick Wadlington for my title, which plays off the title of his Reading Faulknerian Tragedy, and for the theoretical orientation of this study, reading performance as empowerment. See especially his chapters “Reading and Performance: Reproduction and Persons” and “Faulkner and the Tragic Potentials of Honor and Shame.”

  4. “Keeping cool, keeping distant as others challenge you or make demands upon you, is a strategy for keeping the upper hand,” explains Sattel. “What better way is there to exercise power than to make it appear that all one's behavior seems to be the result of unemotional rationality. Being impersonal and inexpressive lends to one's decisions and position an apparent autonomy and ‘rightness’” (120; italics his). Mitchell makes the same point (68).

  5. Stonum's point is well-taken here: Flem “works through intermediaries like Buck Hipps, Lump Snopes and Eustace Grimm, thus denying the affirmations of relatedness and mutual status which the ritual is supposed to constitute” (173).

  6. Levine also points out that Greenland Eskimos “duel” with laughter. Participants ridicule each other with insults. “The duelist who wins the most laughter from the audience is the victor. The loser is profoundly humiliated, often going into exile” (6).

  7. Queen Elizabeth I sought to divert this vigilante bent in the honor code by establishing legal precedents for handling the disputes of honorable men and by stripping the nobles of their standing personal armies. Also, rapier wits became sharper in this period. See Whigham and Stone. Mitchell's thesis is that “[q]uick wits are prized over quick draws” in The Virginian. For an extensive annotative bibliography of “Verbal Dueling and Ritualistic Joking” based on linguistic studies, see Thorne, et al. (296-97).

  8. Levine points out that a society that represses aggression tends to appreciate humor more (5).

  9. I think Stonum overstates the case: “Although the object is to win, profit is not as important as honor. … A man gains simply for participating in the ritual; he need not come out on top. Ab Snopes's prestige is heightened just because he dares to challenge the legendary Pat Stamper” (167).

  10. Stonum emphasizes the mutuality of these exchanges, overlooking the implicit power also at stake: In swapping stories and trading material goods, “every man … is assumed to be autonomous, worthy, and in possession of an essential dignity. The affection and mutual respect of such free and independent men for one another is apparent in their goodnatured banter and the witty stratagems of sharp dealing” (168).

  11. One humor theory, developed on the Darwin-Spenser model, speculates that laughter, as “a primitive display of fangs,” was developed as a survival technique to ward off aggressors on the ground while swinging from the trees. Simon mentions this as an example of humor theory that is “too often just silly” (210).

  12. In their introduction, Flynn and Schweickart give two examples of empirical reading reactions to the short story “Spotted Horses.” “Both students are critical of Flem Snopes, and both refer to Mrs. Armstid and to the people who allow Snopes to take advantage of them. The two students provide decidedly different emphasis, however. … One concentrates on the ignorance of the townspeople; they are lazy and pass meaningless time. The other is ‘outraged’ and ‘saddened’ by the reaction of the townspeople to Snopes. The first response was written by a male, the second by a female” (x-xi).

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Bergson, Henri. “Laughter.” Comedy. Ed. Wylie Sypher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1956.

Blair, Walter, Native American Humor. New York: American Book Company, 1937.

Boskin, Joseph. Humor and Social Change in Twentieth Century America. Boston: Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston, 1979.

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

Faulkner, William. The Hamlet. New York: Random, 1940.

Flynn, Elizabeth A., and Patrocinio P. Schweickart, eds. Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.

Freud, Sigmund. “Humour.” The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and Its Discontent. Vol. 21 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1961.

Grimwood, Michael. Heart in Conflict: Faulkner's Struggle with Vocation. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1987.

Inge, M. Thomas. “William Faulkner and George Washington Harris: In the Tradition of Southwestern Humor.” The Frontier Humorists: Critical Views. Ed. M. Thomas Inge. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1975. 266-80.

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Carolyn Norman Slaughter (essay date March 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6088

SOURCE: Slaughter, Carolyn Norman. “As I Lay Dying: Demise of Vision.” American Literature 61, no. 1 (March 1989): 16-30.

[In the following essay, Slaughter provides a close examination of Faulkner's use of language in As I Lay Dying.]

The criticism of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying manifests the heterogeneity, the ambivalence, and the outright contradiction that characterize Faulkner criticism in general.1 Meanwhile the work continues to provoke ever more provocative commentary. Among traditional interpretations that even yet attempt to find meaning as statement, nontraditional readings are beginning to let the meaning lie while they follow Faulkner's strange experiments with time and space, with memory and imagination, with consciousness and unconsciousness.2 Still, whatever the reading, it is usually expressed in terms of rationalist thinking, i.e., in negative terms, as disruption, disjunction, vacancy, and absence, as distortion and loss. The only novelty I hope to offer is that my interest is to describe what shows up or what happens where old meanings have disappeared without merely speaking in reverse. Exploring the novel's explicit treatment of language, my study will make its way literally along, searching the bare bones of the narrative, attempting not to repeat or to archaeologically reconstitute the work, but to follow alongside it in a thinking.

It is Addie who gives emphasis to (raises the spectre of) language as such. Words, she claims, are ineffectual.

And so when Cora Tull would tell me I was not a true mother, I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.3

Not words but “doing”—something terrible that belongs to the earth—is what matters. Addie's essential disagreement with Anse turns on precisely this point of doing versus not-doing, a horizontal-vertical earth-space set of contraries. Things God meant to stay in one place, says Anse—such as trees, men—He set in an upright, vertical position; things devoted to moving—roads, snakes—He made horizontal. Anse cordially loathes movement. Living in Addie's terms is evil in his (pp. 34-35).4

Living in her terms is evil in the terms of her culture, too: Mississippi bible-belt terms which counsel to suffer the little children, not to relish whipping them; to honor father and mother, not to hate the father for “planting” one; to submit to the husband, not to deny unequivocally his significance; to bring up a child in the way he should go, not to reject him (Darl), not to worship him (Jewel); not to commit adultery; not to refuse to confess or repent; not, above all, stubbornly to choose one's own terms. In Addie's culture, natural instinct is fallen nature; desire is concupiscence; will is willfulness; initiative is disobedience; independence is pride.

But when Addie insists on choosing her own “terms,” does she escape the function or the necessity of words? And can we ignore the tautology in the denial of the validity and utility of words by the character whose words provide the title of the novel and the central chapter? Setting these doubts aside for the moment, we commence our exploration after Addie's example, with a story, with Addie's story, taking her literal statement as our first subject of inquiry. The “Addie” chapter gives an account of Addie's lifetime of interpreting and reinterpreting (1) the nature of the words of her culture, their emptiness and inadequacy, and (2) the nature of living—a “doing,” separate and different from those words.

Addie's first interpretation is partial and instinctual, derived as a young teacher, a lonely, educated woman in a Mississippi country community, profoundly frustrated, all the more for the lack of a direct cause or a direct object. The opening sentence in her chapter sets the tone: “In the afternoon when school was out and the last one had left with his little dirty snuffling nose, instead of going home I would go down the hill to the spring where I could be quiet and hate them.” At night, as she recalls, “Sometimes I thought that I could not bear it, lying in bed … with the wild geese going north and their honking coming faint and high and wild out of the wild darkness,” and during the day, “it would seem as though I couldn't wait for the last one to go so I could go down to the spring.” She interprets her hate in terms of the “secret and selfish” thoughts and lives of the children, each with his own “strange” blood. Thus she whips them till the skin welts and bleeds, till she has “marked” their blood with her own in a cruel empathic (sado-masochistic) catharsis.

In a later reinterpretation Addie expressly attributes this early frustration to the problem of words. Whipping the children was a futile attempt to mitigate the condition of aloneness—aloneness, she later understands, by reason of their dependence upon words for touching. She and the children “had had to use one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching, and … only through the blows of the switch could [her] blood and their blood flow as one stream” (p. 164). In this image, the beam is a part of an apparently stationary structure. Hanging from the beam at intervals are spiders that dangle and twist without touching each other. Each spider is connected to the beam by its own thread, but the connection of spider to spider is contingent on the beam, whose essential function is not related to spiders'. Like the given beam, preestablished language does not originate in Addie and the children or in their essential function: doing. In this image, as in the vertical-horizontal image above (and the geese image below), language is a high, separate, separating nonmediator.

Addie and the children “use” each other “by words” as the spiders hang onto the beam “by” their mouths. Words are like the spider threads; their origin is essential but their function is artificial and mechanical, routed through the non- and dis-connecting beam, dysfunctional language. When words do not mediate, cannot penetrate, interpenetrate, then human intercourse requires something more, more essential: doing. “Doing” for Addie incorporates a principle of violation—a violation not merely physical, but a violation of aloneness. Whipping the children is an attempt to make-them-aware-of-me; and it fails (p. 164).

“And so I took Anse.” The word “so” (pp. 162-63) indicates an essential relationship between Addie's frustration and her “taking” of Anse (not her being-taken-by Anse; “doing” is her modus operandi, not his). The same implication is given by the same word a few paragraphs later. Addie tells Anse that she has never known any kind of people, living or dead, who were not “hard to talk to”; the next paragraph begins, “So I took Anse.” Again the “so” implies a relationship between frustration and taking Anse, but this time the problem is indirectly identified with ineffectual language in her first—implicit—critique of language.

Marrying Anse means a violation-of-virginity, the oldest remedy in the world for the oldest frustration; but marriage fails to satisfy Addie's violation-principle. The violation which satisfies her demand occurs with the birth of Cash. This “doing” brings the more-than-physical violating and restoring of aloneness which provides at last a wholeness (of aloneness), a “circle” exclusive of “time, Anse, love, what you will”—but not of Cash or of loving, the deed displaced by the word “love.” (This insular self-inclusiveness is characteristic of Faulknerian women, an often bitter, hard, wise insensitivity, principle of female endurance, enduring.) A second violation, a second pregnancy—a “trick” of Anse's word “love”—will motivate the rest of the story, but to our purpose here, the “doing” of “having” the children is, Addie discovers, the “answer” to “terrible” living; and it includes, involves, the earth: “Sometimes I would lie by [Anse] in the dark, hearing the land that was now of my blood and flesh” (p. 165). If we analyze Addie's condition, if we sort her answers and terror and blood into mental, emotional, and physical categories, or if we attempt to define her state in terms of objective reality or subjective interpretation, we sacrifice their “flooding,” “boiling” actuality, and enact the very process of abstraction that she has discovered and denounced.

Compare Addie's former frustration, lying at night alone listening to the geese cries overhead. Now, after she has “had” Cash and Darl, when she has achieved some essential potentiality, she lies awake, “hearing the dark land talking of God's love and His beauty and His sin; hearing the dark voicelessness in which the words are the deeds, and the other words that are not deeds, that are just the gaps in peoples' lacks, coming down like the cries of the geese out of the wild darkness in the old terrible nights, fumbling at the deeds like orphans to whom are pointed out in a crowd two faces and told, That is your father, your mother” (p. 166). “Other words” are orphans, though their parents are living: words as deeds, which belong to the “dark voicelessness” of the “dark land talking.” “Other words” are all the words she knows, we assume, since she denounces words per se, denies and contradicts their meanings. “Other words” are alienated words, dissociated from and without effect upon real—i.e., doing—living. “Other words” are inert and must be forgotten in order to deal directly with living, doing.

She thinks about the function of words:

I would think: Anse. Why Anse. Why are you Anse. I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch him liquefy and flow into it like cold molasses flowing out of the darkness into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless: a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame; and then I would find that I had forgotten the name of the jar. I would think: The shape of my body where I used to be a virgin is in the shape of a and I couldn't think Anse, couldn't remember Anse. It was not that I could think of myself as no longer unvirgin, because I was three now. And when I would think Cash and Darl that way until their names would die and solidify into a shape and then fade away, I would say, All right. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what they call them.

(p. 165 [As I Lay Dying])

In Addie's analogy a name is like a jar that has a shape, a prefabricated form—with contours, definition, limitation (a name already belongs to language). Into this jar the strangely adapting Anse flows. Since the form is already made, shaped, limited, the transforming Anse fills that form, takes that shape, admits that limit. The jar is not Anse, is not an image of him, not a representation, but a shape (a form, signifier) lent to Anse (a doing, signified), a shape which accommodates Anse himself. The adaptation of Anse to the jar is reminiscent of what we usually call “concept,” meaning a psychological construct of Anse in the mind of Addie. But if we resist the temptation to call it “concept,” we may obtain a new view of the phenomenon appearing here. In Addie's description the jar is not the same phenomenon as Anse himself, sleeping beside her as she thinks about the function of his name; yet to install a third entity in the scheme, an idea in the mind of Addie, does not answer to the phenomenon either, since the jar is only temporary. The jarname dissolves and leaves Anse behind—or it leaves nothing, since Anse is “dead.” What remains is not the jar but what flows into the jar and is released.

And what is the nature of what the jar “Anse” receives and releases? Anse himself, strangely (unaccountably) adapting to the transference, is present to Addie through the function of the word, and outside it. This being-present-to is perhaps another mode of the same miracle by which Anse sleeping would be present to her if she turned her attention to him. The notion of a recurring or cumulative Anse who has been and may be present to her ignores or dismisses the metaphysical concept of Anse-in-himself. Thus we object that this Anse is, or is altered by, Addie's subjective perception. But in this text it is not possible to locate any entities-in-themselves, and so the point is moot. At any rate, to return to the function of the word, the jar does not so much contain Anse as it maintains him. That is, Addie recalls the name “Anse” first, separately, then recalls Anse—flowing into, filling the word-jar. The name serves to bear or carry Anse, to bring or call him to presence. But once the name has performed this function, the name itself is displaced by Anse and in itself is forgotten.

Addie would forget the name of the jar; to recall it she would think of Anse himself. If a name stood in a reciprocal or a necessary relationship with a person, then the recollection of the person should recall the name. But when Addie thinks of the person Anse, she recalls a blank. The experiment seems to corroborate her theory that names function to signify doings (“Anse” recalls Anse to presence), while doings function quite healthily without reference to names (Anse does not recall “Anse” to mind). Another implication concerns the character of Anse. When Addie thinks of the word “Anse” (and of Anse's word “love”), the form (filled jar) is like an empty doorframe. An empty doorframe is a base for a door, the preparation for a door, and it implies the intention of a door; but ultimately it functions to signify the absence of a door. Like words in themselves, outside their function, like a mere doorframe, Anse is “a significant shape profoundly without life.”5

Now when Addie forgets Anse's name and tries to recall it by thinking of him, she thinks of sexual intercourse, according to her violation-of-aloneness principle (doing). But in spite of the fact that he has fathered her two children (“I was three now”), in spite of the profound significance that these two “violations” have had for her, still Anse himself has never touched her according to her violation-of-aloneness principle; thus he has no meaning. The name “Anse” is a sign signifying nothing: a shape signifying a lack.

It is different with “Cash” and “Darl,” although the function of names remains the same. When Addie thinks of “Cash” and “Darl,” the names “die and solidify into a shape and then fade away,” as “Anse” did. But “it doesn't matter what they call them.” She learned when she was pregnant with Cash “that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at” (p. 163). The names “Cash” and “Darl” are shapes which function to signify (recall, bring), but the shapes in themselves are not significant; in Addie's view names in themselves are arbitrary and unnecessary. “When [Cash] was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the one that had the children didn't care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride” (pp. 163-64). The significance in “Cash” and “Darl” is the reality of “having” these two children. Cash and Darl, with or without names, are genuine doings, according to her violation-of-aloneness principle.

There is one more active understanding of life and of words that Addie achieves before she must clean her house. This time the doing is passion and the word is “sin.” Motherhood has provided the key to (“terrible”) living, Anse has “died,” and now she interprets her duty in life as duty to life, to “the alive.” (Cora will castigate her for neglecting her Christian duty, but Cora's “duty” is another high, dead sound in the air.) “I believed that I had found it. I believed that the reason was the duty to the alive, to the terrible blood, the red bitter flood boiling through the land” (p. 166).

“Sin” is the word people who haven't sinned use to cover up what-sin-is. “Sin” is for people who have to have a word for something they never had. It is a shape to fill a lack. But for Addie, the sinner, “sin” is a “gallant garment already blowing aside with the speed of his secret coming,” a garment her lover and she lay aside in order “to shape and coerce the terrible blood to the forlorn echo of the dead word high in the air.” The deed that “sin” displaces is a living, life-forcing doing.

The meaning of words is for Addie only the doing of human living. Words like “sin” and “love” and “fear,” which have lost their connection with doing, which have flown off from doing (which is clinging to the earth) into the wild, dark air, have become falsifiers and expropriators of life and language. Thus Addie's injunction against substituting words for doings and her warning that people will never experience doings until they forget words.

But does the principle enjoin silence? Does it address literally all words? As we have already noted, Addie's principles of life and language are themselves “terms.” Having examined these directly, we peruse her chapter again for further implications about the function of words.

There are the words of Addie's father, his dictum: “the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.” Addie contemplates this sentiment at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of her narration. What her father says in this dictum is at the beginning an ironic witticism to which her experience gives a bitter, humorless interpretation. If this (teaching school, hating and whipping the children, unmitigated aloneness) is the only way to get ready to stay dead, she wishes her father had not “planted” her. In the middle of the chapter the words occur again. After the “trick”—Anse's, “love”'s life's—of a second pregnancy, this violation violating the consummation of the first, and after Darl's birth, Addie extracts Anse's promise that when she dies he will take her back to Jefferson where her people, presumably her father as well, are buried, “because I knew that father had been right, even when he couldn't have known he was right anymore than I could have known I was wrong.” Now she knows the doing to which the dictum refers, knows that violation-of-aloneness is not “the answer” to living after all. At three moments of bitter revelation Addie interprets her father's dictum as each wave of violation overwhelms the last. Perhaps with the second she begins to know the inherent self-contradiction life is, the violation that it commits against itself—continuous moving precluding the possibility of arrival, continuous getting precluding the possibility of attainment, continuous process precluding the possibility of product, until afterward.

At the end of her narration, after the secret “sin,” when she discovers the new pregnancy, Jewel, and its price (cleaning up the house afterward), Addie “knew at last what [her father] meant and that he could not have known what he meant himself, because a man cannot know anything about cleaning up the house afterward.” Her father's dictum signifies a doing which he could not have “known.” She has speculated at three different points as to the meaning this saying had for him, who, as far as we know, authored the words. At each point the saying has come to mean something different for her. The saying is always composed of the same words, words of her father who is dead; but their meaning is not fixed, has not solidified, died. If Addie's experience with her father's words is an indication of the legitimate function of living words, then the difference in old words that are dead and old words that are living is not in their age nor in their sound or sense, but in their relationship with living doing.

Addie has illustrated the difference between dead and living words. In both cases the name (word) is a given shape that has an arbitrary relationship to what it names. But dead words are only given shapes; and what-they-name, what Addie's “jar” holds, is inert or nonexistent. Living words are dead names/shapes too (names/shapes in themselves are dead), arbitrary too, and forgettable, but what-they-mean is living, real. Name them or not, name them something particular or something else, in any case what-they-mean “is,” is memorable. And what the words mean is memorable by way of language, as Addie's experience with her father's words has shown.

In fact, there seems to be an ambiguity principle operating in living words—not that the meanings of words are not determinable or clear but that they are not fixed, not static, not complete, finished, totalled. We have seen it in Addie's father's words living out of the past. We find it again, for example, in Addie's conversation with Cora on the subject of her refusal to confess, even under the ardent admonitions of the sanctified Brother Whitfield (pp. 158-60). Addie's words (e.g., “I know my own sin. I know that I deserve my punishment. I do not begrudge it”) are extremely provocative to poor spiteful Cora, whose nose for iniquity is quite reliable, but who is helpless to get a hold here without a “word” from Addie. And though Addie is confessing in words, words that have the meaning that both she and Cora understand, she nevertheless withholds the word outright (the confession, naming the party) that would satisfy Cora's malicious curiosity (and perhaps atone for the fact that Addie has sons and can cook).

Ostensibly Addie is returning to Cora language of her own kind. Cora uses words no one can refute, religious phrases straight from the mouths of the likes of Brother Whitfield, hardened empty “jars” the church has handed around to everyone and stands every day to authorize. And her use of these empty truisms is fairly transparent; a bully, she uses them like clubs. But the tantalizing, maddening thing about Addie's use of such words is that they are not empty forms when she says them; they are living, and for Cora they are brimming with a salacious mystery. Addie's words accommodate, house, what she means, a doing. Cora's words deny, belie, her doing meaning.

The ambiguity principle that allows dead language to serve the living, to live again, operates in reverse as well, allows living language to serve the dead, to die. Anse is fond of characterizing Addie in such phrases as “She was ever a private woman”; “She was ever one to clean up after herself” (pp. 18-19). In such remarks Anse states words whose meaning is true, i.e., going-on, doing. Addie has been and is doing what these words indicate. Nevertheless the words in Anse's mouth are the solidified forms that Addie despises. The words are dead, for Anse is dead. He says the words, as Cora says her platitudes; but he means nothing by them. That is, the words mean what he means, which is nothing. They serve at best as an excuse for not-being, a substitute for being. At their most positive, Anse's words are a complaint. Anse's arduous trek to Jefferson to bury Addie is his ultimate (doing) word (deed) of this kind; he seems glad that the task is impossible, absurd, indecent. The degradation is his manifest abdication of responsibility for his own doing (he disapproves of doing, we know): this obscene advertisement of ignorance and stupidity is her idea, her wish, her command (“It's a trial. … But I dont begrudge her it,” p. 156).6

Where is the living in living words? Are the words doing the living? Anse says words that are “true,” that say doing, and yet his words are empty. When we, readers, read his words, we understand that they are living by Addie's standards even though Anse does not know it. The answer seems to be that words belong to speakers and hearers. For Anse the words are dead; for us they are living, just as Addie thinks the words of her father were dead to him though they are living to her. Living does not belong to any abstract or objective “reality” and not to words in themselves, but to whoever is living, doing. And living words are unfinished, are ambiguous; they allow doing to happen in them. Like the words of Addie's father, they accommodate changing, living doing.

The legitimate use of words, to hold a place for meaning to go on, has been shown above. But is the use of words, even the legitimate use, necessary? What is the effect of words? The novel shows in many cases the point of origin of words. That is, characters approach a word and break off—refuse to say it. Why?

“It's laying there, watching Cash whittle on that damn …” Jewel says. He says it harshly, savagely, but he does not say the word. Like a little boy in the dark to flail his courage and suddenly aghast into silence by his own noise.

(Darl, p. 18)

When they get it finished they are going to put her in it and then for a long time I couldn't say it. I saw the dark stand up and go whirling away and I said. …

(Vardaman, p. 62)

Before the word, at the point of origin, there is an approaching. Jewel approaches coffin; he stops short. We recall that earlier he could not stand the sound of Cash's hammer. “One lick less. One lick less. One lick less until everybody that passes in the road will have to stop and see it and say what a fine carpenter he is” (p. 15). Jewel is right; for Cash the coffin does amount to a good job to do well. But for Jewel, who cannot bear to finish his sentence, the completion of the job would mean: coffin. The sound of the hammer, the deed (doing) of the making of the coffin, is a sound he hates, for he hates the sequel—denies, refuses the spoken or carpentered reality. He suppresses the word; denies, opposes the deed, as he will suppress, deny, oppose the truth (doing) of his own identity that Darl knows; suppress, deny, oppose Darl who could say the word.

Before the word, we have said, at the point of origin, there is an approaching. Vardaman approaches nail-her-up. He says it: “Are you going to nail her up in it, Cash? Cash? Cash?” A breathless space and he says it again, this time discovering where the emphasis is: “I got shut up in the crib the new door it was too heavy for me it went shut I couldn't breathe because the rat was breathing up all the air. I said ‘Are you going to nail it shut, Cash? Nail it? Nail it?’” (p. 62).

What is the principle here? It is expressed by Darl, telling Dewey Dell (in their unspoken language), “‘You want her to die so you can get to town: is that it?’ She wouldn't say what we both knew. ‘The reason you will not say it is, when you say it, even to yourself, you will know it is true: is that it? But you know it is true now’” (pp. 38-39). This story is full of secret knowledge, private and shared knowledge, subconscious motivation and determination of what characters say and do, knowledge that could perhaps subvert dead forms that their lives are trapped by, made impotent and crippled by. Saying it would drag it into the light, bring it into view, expose it. Saying it would mean seeing it. Saying false words fixes falseness, nothing; fixes a blight, death. Saying doing words means seeing doing, establishing it in view so that one, and others, can continue to see it. We find ourselves at something of an origin here: to say words is to create reality.

An ontology of language has been traced in this novel to the problem of a beginning. In such a novel, which treats such a subject, we should at least glance briefly at the question of art. If language functions to create reality, then the makers of language are gods. How does this novel characterize the artist?

The artist is Darl—the rejected seer, oracle, prophet; separated from the others, apparently uncaring and uninvolved, alienated, and finally excommunicated. Jewel and Dewey Dell, the others abetting, get him, fix him. Like the abortion Dewey Dell wants desperately to get to town for, this “fixing” will eliminate the tell-tale indicator of the truths about themselves. The truth could set them free? Crucify him! Darl's last word is mad, ironic laughter.

Vardaman's experience of making language to articulate Darl's disappearance is suggestive. His words break off again and again when they approach what-has-happened-to-Darl. The blank/stop seems to run into a genuinely empty space—not horror or fear, but incomprehension, enigma. He says “crazy” without difficulty, but that does not finish the matter, the thought, the syntax. There is more doing, not brought into words yet. Darl my brother went crazy and was sent to Jackson but that is not all.

And there is another ambiguity. I have suggested that the Bundrens are suppressing and denying self-knowledge. They might drag themselves out of the mud primeval by making words, creating life, I have implied. Perhaps they could. They are profoundly guilty for their own condition and for the loss of the artist and for his immolation. But their fear of the truth is not simple perversity. Something fearful does lie beneath the language of the novel. Darl's vision from time to time takes on Faulknerian tones, pessimistic: “How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-strings: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls” (pp. 196-97); or “Life was created in the valleys. It blew up onto the hills on the old terrors, the old lusts, the old despairs. That's why you must walk up the hills so you can ride down” (p. 217). We pause before the artist Faulkner to consider the novel for a moment in terms of its own treatment of language. What kind of language does it use—dead or living?

Innumerable conventional “words” are employed in the construction of the novel: conventions of epic, of tragedy, of comedy, of romance, of allegory; motifs of the journey, descent into the underworld, hell, Christ, the scapegoat. There are techniques borrowed from the art of painting—impressionism, cubism, pointillism: comparisons to paintings (Darl often sees life like a painting, life imitating art), literal descriptions that exclude perspective, stream of consciousness, lack of narrator, collage of many narrations, many voices, points of view. Language theory, Freudian thought. No doubt the list could go on till the last echo from the past has been transcribed. The crucial question: Are these forms solidified fossils, deadweight, or are they living? Do the words define a space where “doing” is happening still?

The difference between the old meanings of the words and the new ones is part of what the new ones mean. The new living (doing) words stand here in a dialogic relationship with the past. (Bakhtin's polyglossia principle corresponds interestingly with the Heideggerian thought that has guided this reading.) We can make a few generalizations at once. There is a falling off. Whereas epics deal with heroes and warriors, and tragedy with men of elevated rank and superior character, the Bundrens represent the very lowest elements of human society. They are shabby and ignorant and grossly insensitive as they bear the stinking corpse across the country, the buzzards unnecessarily advertising what every bystander's olfactory apparatus has already told him. The motives of the family are shabby too. Tull says during the crossing of the river episode, “Just going to town. Bent on it. They would risk the fire and the earth and the water and all just to eat a sack of bananas” (p. 133). Bent on going to town—Anse for teeth, Cash for a talking machine, Dewey Dell for an abortion. Their episodic odyssey is a spectacle of stupid heroics, “putting out” neighbors along the way and offending every sentient being. The elements of this story would be appropriate for comedy, but they are treated here with seriousness and often, as in Darl's chapters and Vardaman's, informed with a grotesque or naked beauty. The effect is a painful comedic irony.

Tragic heroes fall and in the falling grasp at last a bitter self-knowledge. If Jewel—who is Addie's savior from the flood and the fire—is taken for the hero, we must note that he extinguishes the oracle—“fixes” Darl who is the sign of his true identity. Oedipus, awakened, blinds himself. Jewel blinds himself to prevent awaking.

How does the novel reflect upon itself? We may set the first scene into contra-diction with the last. In the beginning Darl is dogging Jewel. Addie—the one signifier of truth for Anse, the central focus of meaning for Jewel and Darl—is dying, and a storm is coming. Surely crisis is at hand. At the end of the story the family is standing on a street corner eating bananas. There are two obvious changes. First, there is a new Mrs. Bundren, a substitution for Addie (a shape to fill a lack). Second, Darl is gone. The artist-character, always suspect, alien, has been declared crazy and he will be crazy. If Addie functions in the story as something of a center (her chapter occurs at about the center of the book; her meaning in the lives of the others is the meaning of the story; her death is the event of the story) and as fundament (her voice is given the first and last word as it gives the title, precedes and outlasts the story), then “I” as center, as self-consciousness, is what does die in this story, since the only seers, Addie and Darl, are put away in Jefferson (though seeing endures as potentiality in Vardaman).

The substitution for the traditional prophet-priest is Cash—Cash, whose first principle is precision and whose fine art is perfect, methodical carpentry. The last words of the story are his. His simple meagre soul is pleased with the new Mrs. Bundren's graphophone (signifier of a new kind of word, technological), only one brotherly ripple of a doubt disturbing the bucolic peace.


  1. For studies before 1973 see André Bleikasten, Faulkner's “As I Lay Dying,” trans. Roger Little, rev. and enlarged ed. (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1973); for a general overview a decade later, see Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie, eds., New Directions in Faulkner Studies: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1983 (Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1984).

  2. For example, John T. Irwin, Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1975).

  3. William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (New York: Random House, 1964), pp. 165-66.

  4. Compare Faulkner's remarks in an interview for Paris Review in 1956, in which he equates life with motion and motion with motivation, claiming that the intention of the artist is “to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.” Quoted in Lion in the Garden, eds. James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate (New York: Random House, 1968), p. 253.

  5. Compare Sutpen's empty doorframe in Absalom, Absalom! where the ironies of intention misdirected, misapprehended, thwarted, and shattered are multiplied ad infinitum.

  6. We see the principle in small when in the passages I have cited both Anse and Addie use the word “begrudge,” with different motivation and to different effect. Anse's word conceals his meaninglessness (not-doing), at least from himself; Addie's word indicates her meaning (doing), at least for herself, for us. We note that Addie's word does not reveal her meaning to Cora, for whom living language can indicate only mystery—and menace.

Carol M. Andrews (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7419

SOURCE: Andrews, Carol M. “Faulkner and the Symbolist Novel.” In Modern American Fiction, edited by Thomas Daniel Young, pp. 118-35. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Andrews discusses affinities Faulkner's writings have with the French symbolists and argues that these similarities confirm Faulkner as a uniquely American writer.]

Despite the enormous amount of research done each year on the novels of William Faulkner, scholars are only beginning to explore his connections with the modernist movement of the early twentieth century. One of the most important of these connections may well turn out to be the French Symbolist poets, whose influence on the modern novel is so pervasive that Melvin J. Friedman can identify the novels of James, Proust, Joyce, Conrad, Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf as all being “in some sense fictional inheritances from French Symbolist poetry.” Friedman coins a term, Symbolist novel, to account for the new mingling of prose and poetry in a single work. That Faulkner is working in this tradition can be seen from his conscious or unconscious echo of the Symbolist aim in poetry in describing the feeling evoked in him by The Sound and the Fury: an “emotion definite and physical and yet nebulous to describe.”1

Faulkner's “first mentors,” as Hugh Kenner calls them, gave him the title of his first published poem, “L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune,” a dreamily erotic and world-weary poem that owes its persona and situation to Mallarmé and that was published in the New Republic on August 6, 1919. Also, Faulkner's translations of four poems by Paul Verlaine appeared in 1920 in the University of Mississippi newspaper, the Mississippian. As Martin Kreiswirth has pointed out, all four of these poems—“Fantoches,” “Clair de Lune,” “Streets,” and “A Clymène”—were translated in the appendix to Arthur Symons' The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1919), a book Phil Stone probably had in his library. A letter from Stone to James B. Meriwether, dated February 19, 1957, states, “As to the French Symbolist poets, Bill read a good deal of them that I had, some in the original and most in translation, and I think they had some influence on his own verse.”2 But the French Symbolists did much more for Faulkner than influence his early poems. They gave him a form for his novels that would encompass all Yoknapatawpha. As Kenner says, “Faulkner discovered … that the Symbolist expansion of incident, provided we imagine the incident in a real world and not in an art world … expands it into a kind of unbounded interrelatedness, the kind taletellers count on everyone knowing.”3

But ironically, Faulkner's affinities with French Symbolism merely reaffirm the Americanness of our greatest modern writer, for these affinities place him firmly within the tradition of American symbolism that Charles Feidelson traces through Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, and Poe. In fact, Feidelson's definition of the symbolist method seems to be one of the most apt characterizations available for Faulkner's narrative structures:

The symbolist … redefines the whole process of knowing and the status of reality in the light of the poetic method. He tries to take both poles of perception into account at once, to view the subjective and objective worlds as functions of each other by regarding both as functions of the forms of speech in which they are rendered. Here is the sum of his quarrel with reason. Meaning, for him, as Mrs. Langer puts it, is “a function of a term,” not an external relation between word, thought, and thing. “A function is a pattern viewed with reference to one special term round which it centers; this pattern emerges when we look at the given term in its total relation to the other terms around it.” Once we refuse to contemplate a separate reality “meant by” the word, meaning becomes an activity that generates a pattern.4

Viewed in this way, as a culmination of the two symbolist influences on its author, The Sound and the Fury becomes an endlessly expanding pattern centered around the lost sister, Caddy. Through her absence (she is equally distant from the subjective and the objective poles of experience), she becomes both an elusive goal and mediator for those, including her author, who would seek her recovery.

As many critics have pointed out, the introduction Faulkner wrote for a proposed 1933 edition of the book gives important insights into its origin: “One day I seemed to shut a door between me and all publisher's addresses and book lists. I said to myself, Now I can write. Now I can make myself a vase like that which the old Roman kept at his bedside and wore the rim away slowly kissing it. So I, who had never had a sister and was fated to lose my daughter in infancy, set out to make myself a beautiful and tragic little girl.” André Bleikasten uses this explanation to define the work of art as “a libidinal object or, more precisely, a fetish, an object standing instead of something, the mark and mask of an absence.” John T. Matthews counters this interpretation with further statements from Faulkner that make the issue more complicated: “When I began it I had no plan at all. I wasn't even writing a book,” Faulkner stated in the 1933 introduction. In another, longer version of this introduction, also written in 1933, he said: “I did not realise then that I was trying to manufacture the sister. … I just began to write.” Matthews comments: “However fine a distinction this may be, the consequences are considerable. To begin to write, to mark the page, produces the mood of bereavement, as if the use of language creates the atmosphere of mourning. Writing does not respond to loss, it initiates it; writing is as much a kind of loss as it is a kind of compensation.” His point is significantly close to the idea of language expressed in Jean Moréas' “Manifeste du symbolisme”: the poem is to “conjure up, in a specially created penumbra, the negated object, with the help of allusive and always indirect words, which constantly efface themselves in a complementary silence.” The nature of language is to negate the world, but also to negate itself as it points toward an even more compelling realm of silence. At one level, The Sound and the Fury, born of a kind of silence (the shutting of a door), constantly moves toward the silence at its center, the “beautiful and tragic little girl.”5

Yet Caddy is also presented as a flesh-and-blood character in a recognizable social setting; she is the little girl who climbs a tree to look in at her grandmother's funeral: “‘Course, we didn't know at that time that one was an idiot, but they were three boys, one was a girl and the girl was the only one that was brave enough to climb that tree to look in the forbidden window to see what was going on.” In the various accounts of the genesis of the novel, Faulkner describes his central image differently: in Lion in the Garden he says that he began with the children kept away from the funeral, thought of Benjy, and only then arrived at the character of the sister, whereas in Faulkner in the University he states that the whole book began with the little girl's muddy drawers. All of these beginnings draw upon an absence, whether the grandmother's death, the idiot's lack of reason, or the girl's loss of innocence, but Faulkner most often in these accounts returns to the image of Caddy. Significantly, he chooses the central image with the most potential for passionate life, and his method of presenting her emphasizes this potential: “Caddy was still too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, [and I felt] that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else's eyes.”6

Caddy is thus a paradox: the most alive of the children, she is transformed by her absence from reality to dream, and like Frank Kermode's romantic image, she offers a “terrible knowledge” to her brothers that they are incapable of sharing. Kermode's romantic image is an emblem for the modern conception of a work of art as it evolved from Symbolist aesthetic—“some sort of complex image, autotelic, liberated from discourse, with coincident form and meaning.” This image finds its most perfect embodiment in the Dancer of Yeats's “Among School Children.” Ilse DuSoir Lind summarizes the attributes of the romantic image, here represented by Salome, in referring to Marietta of Faulkner's Symbolist dream-play Marionettes:

In this aesthetic tradition, within which Faulkner is clearly working, Salome is the embodiment of motion in the moment of arrest, as before the beginning of her dance. She also represents both life and art—life as experienced directly by the senses (instead of by the intellect) and apprehended as being both beautiful and terrifying; art as a vital force which expresses its influence directly through the senses, exerting a fatal power through the strange beauty it creates. In her own being, Salome is seen also to be the container of eternal contradictions, the emblem of the rhetorical concept of the oxymoron.7

Caddy, though a much more humanized figure, represents even more fully than Marietta the woman who is beautiful and terrible in her self-contained power. What Lind does not discuss, however, is the “terrible knowledge” possessed but not directly expressed by the image; it is this knowledge, nondiscursive, nonrational, and nonintelligible, that fascinates the poet.

The germ of The Sound and the Fury, the scene of the grandmother's funeral, is entirely contained in Benjy's section. Hugh Kenner attributes the creation of Benjy to the symbolist principle of indirection, according to which we must not be told what the children see. His innocence is in effect an absence, the absence of logic and coherence that diffuses events throughout his section and forces whatever comprehension is possible to depend on reflexive imagery and associative patterns. But symbolically, this absence becomes a presence; as Kenner points out, “The mind of Benjy Compson is not a process, but a kind of place for the elements of the story to exist in.” His absence of reason thus functions in both of the ways Gail Mortimer finds typical of Faulkner's use of absence: “(1) a type of causality, being the occasion for other events, and (2) a tangibility that makes of absences places or things within which other things can exist.” Benjy's narrative is the first place in which Caddy exists in the novel, and because his evocation of her cannot exactly be called memory, she is more immediately (un-mediatedly) present in this section than the others. And yet from the first, Faulkner calls attention to the symbolic nature of her presentation: “Caddie” literally refers to the golf game rather than Benjy's sister and provokes bellowing only through associations within Benjy's mind. Benjy presents an image, but he cannot comprehend its significance. It is left to the reader to piece together Caddy's meaning for the novel.8

What can be put together is an association between Caddy and knowledge; the obvious leader of the children, she climbs the pear tree because she wants to know something that for some reason has been forbidden. She shows several characteristics of the romantic image, not the least of which is the uncommunicableness of what she sees. The children watch the muddy bottom of her drawers until she disappears, but then the dominant image is stillness: “The tree quit thrashing. We looked up into the still branches. ‘What you seeing,’ Frony whispered.”9

Even when she returns, she only tells everyone to be quiet and then comments: “They're not doing anything in there. Just sitting in chairs and looking” (54-55). When the children go to bed that night, she still thinks that Damuddy is sick (89). Her knowledge is thus emblematic, not discursive, and the reader must be the one to see in the episode echoes of the edenic fall with its connection of sexuality (the muddy drawers) and death (Damuddy's funeral). Lewis P. Simpson gives one of the clearest summaries of her possible associations: “As she comes to us in Benjy's recreation, Caddy is an avatar of all the women who have borne heirs to the Compson lineage, a Compson princess, a sacred vessel of the family's perpetuation and a symbol of living motherhood. She is also an avatar of Persephone, the goddess of fertility and queen of Hades. She is also an avatar of the Grecian nymphs of the woods and waters. She is also herself, a daring little girl, who is braver than her brothers.”10 Such symbolic resonance is possible precisely because of her nondiscursive presence.

Benjy, of course, sees nothing of these significances; he only knows Caddy as the primary source of love in his life, a substitute for the cold, self-pitying Mrs. Compson. It is difficult to ascertain exactly his understanding of absence and loss. In the Appendix to the novel, written in 1945, Faulkner states that Benjy “loved three things: the pasture which was sold to pay for Candace's wedding and to send Quentin to Harvard, his sister Candace, firelight. Who lost none of them because he could not remember his sister but only the loss of her, and firelight was the same bright shape as going to sleep, and the pasture was even better sold than before” (423). It perhaps does not make logical sense that Benjy recreates with perfect clarity scenes in which Caddy is an active participant and yet bellows when he hears her name, but as Mortimer points out, it is the affective quality of Benjy's experience that Faulkner wishes to convey: “an absence felt as an absence, that is to say—in Faulkner's world—a loss.”11 His response may also be a reflection of Mallarmé's dictum that “to name is to destroy”; he is aware of her loss most acutely when he hears her name. Cut off from the world of time and change, Benjy is to some extent a descendant of Faulkner's marble faun; when he says that “Caddy smelled like trees,” he creates an image of her innocence that associates her with the nymphs of Mallarmé and Faulkner. But as Matthews points out, he “associates the fragrance of trees contradictorily—both with Caddy's virginal innocence and with the onset of sexual betrayal.”12

In fact, the imagery of mirrors in this section identifies Benjy as a type of Narcissus who sees in Caddy a reflection of his own needs. Benjy's experience may derive from that of a puzzled farmhand in Faulkner's early prose sketch “Nympholepsy” who has a fleeting, teasingly erotic encounter with a nymphlike figure in a stream.13 Looking down into the water, he sees “death like a woman shining and drowned and waiting,” and as Bleikasten says, “water is thus equated with woman, and the symbolic equation connotes both desire and death—a highly pregnant complex of associations recurring in many of Faulkner's novels, and at the very core of the Quentin section of The Sound and the Fury.14 That Benjy's need for Caddy also has a sexual element can be seen in his attack on the Burgess girl, who seems to be a substitute for Caddy: “I opened the gate and they stopped, turning. I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say, and she screamed and I was trying to say and trying and the bright shapes began to stop and I tried to get out” (64). Bleikasten points out that “trying to say” refers to both the writer's creative endeavor and to the character's sexual impulse.15 But this experience is also a “nympholeptic” episode, for the juxtaposition of the attack and the “bright, whirling shapes” (64) of the anesthesia at his castration links desire and a kind of drowning: “But when I breathed in, I couldn't breathe out again to cry, and I tried to keep from falling off the hill and I fell off the hill into the bright, whirling shapes” (64). In a sense he has achieved reunion with the only person who ever cared what he was “trying to say.” But because it is his own projection, the experience leads only to another loss.

Quentin's section continues the revelation of Caddy as a warm, loving, courageous young woman despite Quentin's attempt to twist her sexuality into something horrifying. His degree of success shows him to be to a large extent responsible for her tragedy, and his own tragedy comes from his inability to separate the Caddy he has known from the Caddy he has created. Whereas Benjy's evocation of his sister is tempered by an overwhelming anguish at her loss, Quentin's is characterized by an overriding fear. The beauty and terror of Quentin's image of Caddy is like that of Keats's Moneta or Wilde's Salome; Quentin, in fact, shares several of the characteristics of the Symbolist and Decadent poets—the sensitivity, the aestheticism, and the fascination with death, as well as what Kenner calls the “high finish” on the language of his section of the novel. But Quentin also hearkens back to his American roots: as Faulkner once admitted, “Ishmael is the witness in Moby Dick, as I am Quentin in The Sound and the Fury.16 Whereas Melville provides the symbolist vision and its critique in two characters, Ahab and Ishmael, Faulkner incorporates them both in one: close as he is to his creator, Quentin presents a vision he cannot entirely comprehend, and Faulkner uses his monologue to express the possibilities and liabilities of obsession with the image.

If Benjy's interest in Caddy's sexuality reflects a kind of pagan sensuality (“Caddy smelled like trees”), Quentin's is associated with a puritan harshness and repression.17 The Appendix presents him as one “who loved not his sister's body but some concept of Compson honor” (411). In order to negate his sister's loss of virginity and her subsequent promiscuity, he attempts to transform her behavior into a sin so heinous that it will isolate them forever from the rest of the world: “Roses. Not virgins like dogwood, milkweed. I said I have committed incest, Father I said. Roses. Cunning and serene” (95). Thus, Quentin projects onto Caddy his simultaneous fear of and attraction to sexual experience, and just as she has done at the time of their grandmother's death, she comes between her brother and a fact of existence. As Bleikasten says, she is “a symbolic reminder, perhaps, of the mythic mediating function of woman through whom, for man, passes all knowledge about the origins, all knowledge about the twin enigmas of life and death.”18 This knowledge is as uncommunicable as the truth about Damuddy, and in spite of Quentin's sensitivity, he is as unable as Benjy to comprehend the meaning of Caddy's actions.

What he does is construct an image of his sister that incorporates his deepest desires and fears. Michael Millgate summarizes the aspects of this image.

In his most agonising recollections of Caddy, [Quentin] sees her at twilight, sitting in the cleansing waters of the branch and surrounded by the scent of honeysuckle, and these three elements of the scene—the twilight, the water, and the honeysuckle—take on an obsessive significance for Quentin himself and operate as recurrent symbols throughout this section of the novel. As water is associated with cleansing, redemption, peace and death, and the honeysuckle with warm Southern nights and Caddy's passionate sexuality, so twilight, “that quality of light as if time really had stopped for a while,” becomes inextricably confused in Quentin's mind with the scents of water and of honeysuckle until “the whole thing came to symbolize night and unrest.”19

These elements recall the visionary experiences of the poetry and “Nympholepsy”; the scent of honeysuckle is simply an addition to the complex imagery uniting death and desire. “Twilight,” which is the Symbolist moment of revelation, was the working title of Benjy's section of The Sound and the Fury, but Benjy uses the word twilight only once, in his description of the attack on the Burgess girl, his own particular union with a nymph (64). The scene of Damuddy's death, which takes place at dusk, is temporally set by indirect clues, such as supper and the lights in the windows. Quentin actually refers to twilight more often than Benjy, and his use of the word always indicates a moment in the past until his last day draws to a close and he approaches his moment of death. At this point appears a passage that Millgate cites as central to Quentin's entire section.

This was where I saw the river for the last time this morning, about here. I could feel water beyond the twilight, smell. When it bloomed in the spring and it rained the smell was everywhere … until I would lie in bed thinking when will it stop when will it stop. The draft in the door smelled of water, a damp steady breath. Sometimes I could put myself to sleep saying that over and over until after the honeysuckle got all mixed up in it the whole thing came to symbolise night and unrest I seemed to be lying neither asleep nor awake looking down a long corridor of grey halflight where all stable things had become shadowy paradoxical all I had done shadows all I had felt suffered taking visible form antic and perverse mocking without relevance inherent themselves with the denial of the significance they should have affirmed thinking I was I was not who was not was not who.


Here Faulkner uses twilight to signal a revelation of mocking irony: Quentin finds that his experiences “deny the significance they should have affirmed,” and as a result he loses any sense of a stable identity.

The scene that has brought him to this state is the one he relives with uninterrupted intensity while he is fighting Gerald Bland.20 The remembered scene begins with Caddy's loss of virginity and Quentin's attempted suicide pact with her; in finding his sister at the branch, Quentin describes her in terms that recall the shadowy figure in “Nympholepsy”: “she was lying in the water her head on the sand spit the water flowing about her hips there was a little more light in the water her skirt half saturated flopped along her flanks to the waters motion in heavy ripples going nowhere renewed themselves of their own movement” (186). Caddy proves as elusive as the nymph, for she talks to Quentin about her lover Dalton Ames, her thudding heart belying her words as she at first denies that she loves him. She links desire and death as Quentin himself will do: “yes I hate him I would die for I've already died for him I die for him over and over again everytime this goes” (188), but the difference is that Caddy refers to actual experience while Quentin has “never done that” (188). He reveals his impotence when he holds a knife to Caddy's throat but cannot kill her, and again when he calls Dalton Ames to a meeting at the bridge but passes out “like a girl” (201) instead of hitting him. Ironically, Quentin accomplishes something of what he wants, because Caddy sends her lover away, but his presence still remains between them as she responds to the sound of his name: “her blood surged steadily beating and beating against my hand” (203). To Caddy, who lives in actuality, to name is to evoke rather than to destroy, and Quentin finds that union with his sister, either physical or emotional, is impossible. Thus, when we learn that he has committed suicide by drowning himself, we know that he has chosen to go beyond sexuality to a union that promises “peace, nonmemory, stasis, nothingness itself.”21

Instead of Caddy's passionate sexuality and the changes it heralds in his life as well as hers, Quentin has chosen the safety and stillness of “Little Sister Death.” This phrase appears in another early work, the allegorical tale Mayday, in which a knight on a quest through an enchanted forest is given the choice to relive any past experience of his life or to lose himself in the waters of a flowing stream. In the stream he sees the face of “one all young and white, and with long shining hair like a column of fair sunny water,” and after he chooses to join her, St. Francis comments, “Little Sister Death.” Quentin's image of Caddy at her wedding is eerily similar: “That quick, her train caught up over her arm she ran out of the mirror like a cloud her veil swirling in long glints” (100). Morrison maintains that Faulkner's source, St. Francis's Sister Bodily Death, does not have the sexual quality Faulkner ascribes to her.22

Although some commentators have warned against using the Appendix to interpret the novel, it is interesting that in Quentin's summary Faulkner makes the connection between desire and death even more explicit: “But who loved death above all, who loved only death, loved and lived in a deliberate and almost perverted anticipation of death as a lover loves and deliberately refrains from the waiting willing friendly tender incredible body of his beloved, until he can no longer bear not the refraining but the restraint and so flings, hurls himself, relinquishing, drowning” (411). He gives Quentin the godlike identity bestowed on the poet by the Symbolists:23 “Who loved not the idea of the incest which he would not commit, but some presbyterian concept of its eternal punishment: he, not God, could by that means cast himself and his sister both into hell, where he could guard her forever and keep her forevermore intact amid the eternal fires” (411). That he has achieved an earthly form of this damnation for his sister can be seen before his death in her telling him she is “sick” and “bad”: “There was something terrible in me sometimes at night I could see it grinning at me I could see it through them grinning at me through their faces” (138). By 1943 she is the romantic image incarnate: “the woman's face hatless between a rich scarf and a seal coat, ageless and beautiful, cold serene and damned” (415). Fearing her sexuality, Quentin has chosen the chaste serenity of death by water, leaving Caddy her own version of the terrible knowledge possessed by the image. But Faulkner in the Appendix still pictures her as a possible mediator for Quentin: “Knew the brother loved death best of all and was not jealous, would (and perhaps in the calculation and deliberation of her marriage did) have handed him the hypothetical hemlock” (412). Caddy herself becomes Little Sister Death.

In their final remembered conversation, his father says to Quentin “you are not thinking of finitude you are contemplating an apotheosis in which a temporary state of mind will become symmetrical above the flesh and aware both of itself and of the flesh it will not quite discard you will not even be dead” (220). This would be the ultimate ideal of the Symbolist poet, to create himself as separate from the world and yet aware of it, and in a sense the form of Quentin's section suggests this dual existence as Quentin narrates from the moment of death. Yet this illusion is possible only in art; in actuality Quentin simply ceases to be, and no structural device makes this point clearer than the absence in the narrative of his actual death. The figure he has wished union with is his own projected self, and as such it promises only emptiness. Despite the intensity of Quentin's emotion and the significance he attempts to create, Faulkner the novelist ultimately separates himself from Quentin the character. As Gary Lee Stonum points out, “However much Quentin's ideals are pure and universal, we are shown that they also proceed directly from his personal, worldly idiosyncrasies.”24 Placing the Symbolist in the real world shows the danger of a purely solipsistic vision.

After Quentin's intensely private and poetic narrative, Jason's comes as something of a relief. At least for the first time in the novel present events and existing people seem to be important, and Jason's villainy has enormous energy and even a darkly comic appeal: “Blood, I says, governors and generals. It's a damn good thing we never had any kings and presidents; we'd all be down there at Jackson chasing butterflies” (286). It is a critical commonplace that as The Sound and the Fury progresses it opens out into a more recognizable social world, and although the following comment was made about As I Lay Dying, it is equally apparent in Jason's section of this novel “that the basic symbolist form begins to yield to something else.” Jason is clearly more social satirist than visionary poet, and yet his affinities with his two brothers and the equally indirect method of his narrative place him also within Faulkner's symbolist aesthetic. The method of his section is to reveal Caddy's doom “refracted through the cheaper doom of her daughter.”25 Just as Quentin has had an important role in provoking Caddy's promiscuity, Jason contributes to that of her daughter; at one point Quentin II tells him pointedly: “Whatever I do, it's your fault. If I'm bad, it's because I had to be. You made me. I wish I was dead. I wish we were all dead” (324). Behind Jason's treatment of Quentin is his bitterness at the loss her mother represents to him—the loss of the job promised to him in her husband's bank. As Bleikasten states, in Jason's section the brother-sister relationship changes “from plus to minus: what Jason feels for Caddy is hatred, hatred as intense and uncontrollable as Benjy's love or Quentin's love-hate.”26

The inversions of pattern in Jason's section center around Caddy. His is the first section in which she at least communicates with the family in the present, through her monthly checks to her mother and letters to Jason and Quentin. Jason's remembered encounter with Caddy occurs at Mr. Compson's funeral, about which she has not even been told; his reaction is far different from those of her other brothers in parallel episodes: “What are you doing here? I thought you promised her you wouldn't come back here. I thought you had more sense than that” (251). Jason's sense of loss is as deep as Benjy's or Quentin's, and he is equally inarticulate in expressing it: “We stood there, looking at the grave, and then I got to thinking about when we were little and one thing and another and I got to feeling funny again, kind of mad or something” (252). It is impossible, however, to feel sympathy for Jason, because of the means he chooses to get even. He makes a point of informing Caddy of the extent of her exile: “We don't even know your name at that house. Do you know that? We don't even know you with him and Quentin. Do you know that?” (252). He gives her only a momentary glimpse of her daughter for a payment of fifty dollars (253-55), and he tells the story with obvious satisfaction: “And so I counted the money again that night and put it away, and I didn't feel so bad. I says I reckon that'll show you. I reckon you'll know now that you cant beat me out of a job and get away with it” (255). But in his efforts to achieve what he considers justice, Jason creates a world as removed from normal reality as those of Benjy and Quentin.

Jason's image of woman is as rigid and life-denying as those of his brothers: “Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say” (223). His section begins with a seemingly trivial absence, the absence of Quentin II from school, but Jason's inability to control her comings and goings as he wishes becomes the central issue of his section. He is not concerned with her personally, but only as symbol: “Then when she sent Quentin home for me to feed too I says I guess that's right too, instead of me having to go way up north for a job they sent the job down here to me” (243). For fifteen years he has been pocketing Caddy's monthly support checks, but as the third-person narrator says in the fourth section of the novel, the money has no value to him in itself: “Of his niece he did not think at all, nor of the arbitrary valuation of the money. Neither of them had had entity of individuality for him for ten years; together they merely symbolized the job in the bank of which he had been deprived before he ever got it” (382). His frustrated attempts to hold on to these two symbols are like Benjy's and Quentin's attempts to hold on to their sister; the irony of his section is that though he has no use for Caddy at all, he will go to almost any lengths to keep what he sees as his due. In doing so, he “fools a man whut so smart he cant even keep up wid hisself” (311-12).

The extent to which he hides the truth from himself can be seen in a typical statement as he prepares the forged check for his mother to burn: “I went back to the desk and fixed the check. Trying to hurry and all, I says to myself it's a good thing her eyes are giving out, with that little whore in the house, a Christian forebearing woman like Mother” (269). Jason's version of Symbolist indirection is a deflection of blame that assures the continuation of the emptiness of the Compson household. In this sense he is like his mother, who, as every section makes clear, is the central absence in the Compson family and yet who takes absolutely no responsibility for its failings. As Cleanth Brooks says, she “is not so much an actively wicked and evil person as a cold weight of negativity which paralyzes the normal family relationships.”27 Jason, the only one of the children who is not considered a reproach by his mother, “a Bascomb, despite your name” (225), is as motherless as the others. Faulkner in the fourth section presents mother and son as mirror images of each other: “When she called the first time Jason laid his knife and fork down and he and his mother appeared to wait across the table from one another, in identical attitudes” (348). In the final section Faulkner presents graphically what has been indirectly apparent all along: Mrs. Compson is the emptiness reflected by the emptiness in the lives of all her children.

Jason's section of the novel ends in a circle, with the emphasis still on getting even: “Like I say once a bitch always a bitch. And just let me have twenty-four hours without any damn New York jew to advise me what it's going to do. I dont want to make a killing; save that to suck in the smart gamblers with. I just want an even chance to get my money back. And once I've done that they can bring all Beale Street and all bedlam in here and two of them can sleep in my bed and another one can have my place at the table too” (329). The futility of Jason's efforts has been obvious all along, but his frustration is brought to a head in the last section of the novel as Quentin II escapes down the pear tree with his savings, almost seven thousand dollars, although he can report only about three thousand, the rest being the remnant of Caddy's money for Quentin. In the Appendix Faulkner enjoys playing with the poetic justice of the robber robbed (424-26). In the fourth section of the novel the emphasis is all upon Jason's outraged pursuit. Critics have pointed out that Jason's obsession with Quentin's promiscuity is as unnatural as his older brother's with Caddy's. It is at least apparent that Faulkner is again presenting a grotesquely distorted “nympholepsy”: pursuing his niece around the countryside leaves Jason “drowned” in the blinding headache caused by gasoline fumes. His wild search ends in a futile stasis: “the man sitting quietly behind the wheel of a small car, with his invisible life ravelled out about him like a wornout sock” (391).

But Jason's frustration is not the complete end of the novel. The fourth section also contains a movingly orchestrated vision of wholeness and hope. Faulkner's technique in achieving it is a telling comment upon his failed visionaries throughout the novel. Instead of allowing Caddy to be a mediator between them and certain mysteries of life and death, introducing them by word or example into the motion of life, all of her brothers try to force her into some preconceived notion of what they think woman, especially fallen woman, should be. The beauty and the terror and the uncommunicableness of the image are created by them, but also lost on them. It is part of the great disturbing profundity of the book that Faulkner's “beautiful and tragic little girl” is so absent to her brothers. But in Dilsey's section of the novel the third-person narrator is able to find a medium that makes the mysteries of life and death a presence rather than an absence.

In the Reverend Shegog's sermon the author allows “voice,” the oral patterning of the black minister's message, to take complete control over character and scene: “Then a voice said, ‘Brethren.’ The preacher had not moved. His arm lay yet across the desk, and he still held that pose while the voice died in sonorous echoes between the walls. It was as different as day and dark from his former tone, with a sad, timbrous quality like an alto horn, sinking into their hearts and speaking there again when it had ceased in fading and cumulate echoes” (367). Faulkner is using words as the Symbolists do, words “which constantly efface themselves in a complementary silence.” The passage continues: “And the congregation seemed to watch with its own eyes while the voice consumed him, until he was nothing and they were nothing and there was not even a voice but instead their hearts were speaking to one another in chanting measures beyond the need for words” (367).

This experience leaves Dilsey with the calm serenity of faith in something greater than herself. The difference between the frustration of the Compson brothers and the assurance of this sermon points up a danger inherent in the symbolist method, one that Faulkner shows himself very aware of. As Feidelson points out, “Seen rationally, as an object, the world is inaccessible; but, seen as accessible, the world swallows up the visionary.”28 Feeling Caddy's presence to be somehow recoverable, through Benjy's bellowing, Quentin's drowning, and Jason's scheming, her brothers lose themselves in a significance of their own devising. Dilsey maintains her identity through an acceptance of a truth that she does not try to possess. Her vision is only partial, but as Faulkner expands his novel beyond it, he allows it to take its place in the larger pattern of his narrative. In doing so, he creates a vision of the modern world both beautiful and terrifying.


  1. Melvin J. Friedman, “The Symbolist Novel: Huysmans to Malraux,” in Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarland (eds.), Modernism, 1890-1930 (New York, 1976), 453; William Faulkner, “An Introduction for The Sound and the Fury,” ed. James B. Meriwether, Southern Review, n.s., VIII (1972), 709; William Faulkner, “An Introduction to The Sound and the Fury,” ed. James B. Meriwether, Mississippi Quarterly, XXVI (1973), 414.

  2. Martin Kreiswirth, “Faulkner as Translator: His Versions of Verlaine,” Mississippi Quarterly, XXX (1977), 430; George P. Garrett, “An Examination of the Poetry of William Faulkner,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, XVIII (1957), 128. The Symbolist influence on Faulkner's poetry has been discussed by Garrett, Kreiswirth, H. Edward Richardson, and Judith L. Sensibar. Richardson, in the first book-length study, points to Faulkner's Symbolist indirection and his use of “devices of synesthesia which tend to merge the amorphous with the concrete, the fluid with the solid, the intangible with the tangible.” H. Edward Richardson, William Faulkner: The Journey to Self-Discovery (Columbia, Mo., 1969), 77. Sensibar, who presents extensive analyses of The Marble Faun,The Marionettes,The Lilacs, and Vision in Spring, focuses on Faulkner's use of the figure of Pierrot, “a mask generated in part by his reading of Arthur Symons' The Symbolist Movement in Literature and early Modernist adaptations of the Laforguian Pierrot mask.” Judith L. Sensibar, The Origins of Faulkner's Art (Austin, 1984), xvii.

  3. Hugh Kenner, “The Last Novelist,” in Kenner, A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (New York, 1974), 209. Although Richardson, Journey to Self-Discovery, discusses Sartoris, Faulkner's third novel, and Sensibar, Origins of Faulkner's Art, makes connections between the Pierrot mask and pierrotique characters in Faulkner's fiction, Kenner is the only critic to discuss the Symbolist influence on Faulkner in terms of form. Sensibar sees Faulkner's development of multiple points of view as a movement away from the Symbolist influence through the symphonic poem sequences of Conrad Aiken. Aiken had a desire, “not shared by the Symbolists, to create a narrative” (Sensibar, Origins of Faulkner's Art, 95). So did Faulkner, but the Symbolists continued to influence his narrative form more than Sensibar allows.

  4. Charles Feidelson, Symbolism and American Literature (Chicago, 1953), 56.

  5. Faulkner, “Introduction for The Sound and the Fury,Southern Review, 710; André Bleikasten, The Most Splendid Failure: Faulkner's “The Sound and the Fury” (Bloomington, 1976), 46; Faulkner, “Introduction for The Sound and the Fury,Southern Review, 710; Faulkner, “Introduction to The Sound and the Fury,Mississippi Quarterly, 413; John T. Matthews, The Play of Faulkner's Language (Ithaca, 1982), 19; Jean Moréas, “Manifeste du symbolisme,” in supplement to Le Figaro litteraite, September 18, 1886, translated and quoted in Clive Scott, “Symbolism, Decadence, and Impressionism,” in Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarland (eds.), Modernism, 1890-1930 (New York, 1976), 209.

  6. William Faulkner, Faulkner in the University: Class Conference at the University of Virginia, ed. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner (New York, 1965), 31, 1.

  7. Frank Kermode, Romantic Image (London, 1957), 110; Ilse Du Soir Lind, “Faulkner's Uses of Poetic Drama” in Evans Harrington and Ann J. Abadie (eds.), Faulkner, Modernism, and Film: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1978 (Jackson, Miss., 1978), 72.

  8. Kenner, “The Last Novelist,” 200; Gail L. Mortimer, Faulkner's Rhetoric of Loss: A Study of Perception and Meaning (Austin, 1983), 82.

  9. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (New York, 1929), 47. Subsequent references to the novel are to this editon and will appear in the text.

  10. Lewis P. Simpson, “Sex and History: Origins of Faulkner's Apocrypha,” in Evans Harrington and Ann J. Abadie (eds.), The Maker and the Myth (Jackson, Miss., 1978), 62.

  11. Mortimer, Bleikasten, Matthews, and Kreiswirth (see his The Making of a Novelist [Athens, Ga., 1983], 144-46) have all dealt with the force of absence in Faulkner's novels; none of them, however, have connected it with the Symbolist aesthetic, in which “the real object, or the absence of a real object, is abandoned for one of pure imagination.” Wallace Fowlie, Mallarmé (Chicago, 1953), 52.

  12. Matthews, The Play of Faulkner's Language, 68.

  13. The sketch “Nympholepsy,” written in 1925 but not published until 1973, contains other Symbolist elements. The forest through which the farmhand walks seems to be imbued with some animistic force, perhaps a reference to the god Pan. The “green cathedral of trees” recalls Baudelaire's “Correspondences,” and though the protagonist half expects “a priest to step forth,” his experience remains sensual rather than spiritual. William Faulkner, “Nympholepsy,” ed. James B. Meriwether, Mississippi Quarterly, XXVI (1973), 405.

  14. Ibid., 407; Bleikasten, The Most Splendid Failure, 13.

  15. Bleikasten, The Most Splendid Failure, 84.

  16. Kenner, “The Last Novelist,” 194-95; Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography (2 vols.; New York, 1974), II, 1522.

  17. Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven, 1966), 331-32.

  18. Bleikasten, The Most Splendid Failure, 54.

  19. Michael Millgate, The Achievement of William Faulkner (New York, 1966), 86. The quotations from the novel in the passage are from pp. 209-11.

  20. Thomas Daniel Young, “Narration as Creative Act: The Role of Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom!” in Harrington and Abadie (eds.), Faulkner, Modernism, and Film 85-87.

  21. Gail Moore Morrison, “‘Time, Tide, and Twilight’: Mayday and Faulkner's Quest Toward The Sound and the Fury,Mississippi Quarterly, XXXI (1978), 352.

  22. William Faulkner, Mayday, ed. Carvel Collins (Notre Dame, 1978), 87.

  23. It is a common error to think that all Symbolists had the same idea of the role of the poet. Anna Balakian shows that Symbolist interpretations of the poet as “voyant” (“seer” or “visionary”) covered a broad spectrum, from Balzac and Swedenborg's strictly inner visions to Mallarmé's attempt to achieve an Orphic significance in his poetry. The closest to Faulkner's attitude seems to be that of Baudelaire, for whom “the process of the transformation of reality gives the poet a sense of his own divinity, rather than an aspiration toward divinity.” Anna Balakian, The Symbolist Movement: A Critical Appraisal (New York, 1967), 21.

  24. Gary Lee Stonum, Faulkner's Career: An Internal Literary History (Ithaca, 1979), 83.

  25. Friedman, “The Symbolist Novel,” 459; Kenner, “The Last Novelist,” 203.

  26. Bleikasten, The Most Splendid Failure, 150.

  27. Brooks, Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country, 334.

  28. Feidelson, Symbolism and American Literature, 33.

Walter Taylor (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6216

SOURCE: Taylor, Walter. “‘Pantaloon’: The Negro Anomaly at the Heart of Go Down, Moses.” In On Faulkner: The Best from American Literature, edited by Louis J. Budd and Edwin H. Cady, pp. 58-72. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Taylor argues that Faulkner's portrayal of the experience of African Americans in the South ultimately fails to provide an accurate picture.]

The “sense of how negroes live and how they have so long endured,” wrote James Baldwin in 1951, was “hidden” from white Americans. The barriers, he felt, were formidable; foremost was “the nature of the [white] American psychology.” For whites to accept the qualities of Negro life, that psychology “must undergo a metamorphosis so profound as to be literally unthinkable.”1 The statement summed up years of Negro frustration at the fumbling efforts of white writers to portray Negro character. It remains a significant expression of a widely shared attitude; and yet, obviously, some “sense of how Negroes live” is indispensable for the white artist. For if the Negro is not, as Richard Wright has asserted, “America's metaphor,”2 he is obviously one very important metaphor; and our classic writers have generally acknowledged this by attacking the issue.

No white writer of stature has committed himself to this problem more strongly than Faulkner; “The Negro,” Robert Penn Warren concludes, “is the central figure in Faulkner's work.” Warren, like other Southerners of moderate and liberal persuasion, has found much to satisfy him in Faulkner's efforts. Because of his open-eyed rendering of Negroes, Warren contends, Faulkner was able to accomplish “a more difficult thing” than Joyce's Dedalus: “To forge the conscience of his [white Southern] race, he stayed in his native spot and, in his soul, in images of vice and of virtue, reenacted the history of that race.”3 Few writers receive such praise. But Faulkner's formidable efforts have left Negroes far from satisfied. Precisely because he is “the greatest artist the South has produced,” Ralph Ellison asserts, Faulkner's Negro characterizations illustrate the usual difficulties of white writers; “even a glance” at Faulkner's fiction “is more revealing of what lies back of the distortion of the Negro in modern writing than any attempt at a group survey might be.”4

Go Down, Moses (1942) contains perhaps Faulkner's most comprehensive vision of the Negro's role in American history: a panorama of the effects of slavery and manumission on five generations of white and Negro descendants of a plantation patriarch, Carothers McCaslin. In Isaac McCaslin, Carothers's grandson who refuses his inheritance because it is “founded upon injustice and erected by ruthless rapacity,” Faulkner finds one of his most attractive white heroes; and Faulkner motivates Isaac's gesture by allowing him a virtually rhapsodic theory about the descendants of those slaves. Negroes, Isaac concludes, “are better than we are. Stronger than we are.” Their very “vices are vices aped from white men or that white men and bondage have taught them.” They possess formidable virtues: “endurance” and “pity and tolerance and forbearance and fidelity and love of children.” And they are vessels of a singular racial spirituality: they have “learned humility through suffering and learned pride through the endurance which survived the suffering.”5 At face value, Isaac's beliefs constitute as glowing a compliment to the Negro race as any in our literature.

Warren feels Faulkner shares Isaac's attitude. Although “I am not saying that we should take the word of Isaac … or any single character in Faulkner,” still “such characters do lie within a circumference of Faulkner's special sympathy and their utterances demand respect.”6 Isaac, however, is only one voice in a complex dialogue. McCaslin Edmonds, his cousin, argues an opposing and very familiar, view: Negroes are irresponsible, child-like creatures, ravaged by congenital vices: “Promiscuity. Violence. Instability and lack of control. Inability to distinguish between mine and thine” (p. 294). They must be protected from themselves by responsible whites. In the terms which Faulkner presents, Isaac's gesture of repudiation must stand or fall according to which view of Negroes is more accurate. Edmonds is a formidable representative of conservative thought; and although the balance in their debate is shown to weigh in favor of Isaac, he is never allowed the satisfaction of certainty. Faulkner reveals in “Delta Autumn” that Isaac will take to his grave the suspicion that Edmonds was right, that in rejecting the plantation he has deserted his duty to its Negroes rather than responded to it.

Like Isaac, Faulkner seems never to have resolved these issues on a personal level. His 1955 stand on the integration of Mississippi schools recalls Isaac's idealism. “If we are to have two school systems,” he pleaded, “let the second one be for pupils ineligible not because of color but because they either can't or won't do the work of the first one”7; it was an attitude little more calculated to win popularity in Mississippi in 1955 than Isaac's in 1888. But when the question of the nature of Negro character arose, Faulkner's attitude contrasted starkly to his protagonist's. Granting that “the white man is responsible for the Negro's condition,” he nevertheless asserted that it is a “fact that the Negro does act like a Negro and can live among us and be irresponsible.” The Negro's “tragedy,” he suggested, “may be that so far he is competent for equality only in the ratio of his white blood.”8

Coming as they did toward the end of his career, these more reactionary statements suggest that Faulkner's feelings toward blacks were never more than ambivalent: that he was incapable at any time of presenting an Isaac McCaslin without a balancing McCaslin Edmonds. If this is true, it follows that such feelings must have affected most—if not all—of his Negro characterizations. Most interesting is the fact that Faulkner's typical Negroes are either females or males who have large portions of white blood. Much has been made of Dilsey of The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Nancy Mannigoe of Requiem for a Nun (1951) as successful Negro characterizations. But the most obvious thing about each of these figures is its traditional nature. Dilsey and Nancy are both “mammies” whose chief source of identification is the white family they serve; their very heroism is a kind of subservience. Male figures like Joe Christmas of Light in August (1932), Charles Bon of Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Ned McCaslin of The Reivers (1962) present other difficulties. Christmas and Bon are shown by Faulkner to be raised as whites, in a white environment; their experience is a very different thing from that of the average Negro. Although Ned is at home in the Negro community and even comes forward on occasion as its spokesman, a major source of his personal identification is revealed to be his white ancestor, Carothers McCaslin. Is it too much, then, to suggest that the Negro female became tragic for Faulkner only through her role as “mammy” to a white family, or that the Negro male was worthy of serious attention “only in the ratio of his white blood”?9

Go Down, Moses swarms with characters of African descent. The novel is dedicated to Caroline Barr, the “mammy” of the Faulkner household, and dark-skinned Molly Beauchamp—of whom Caroline Barr is clearly the prototype—seems indeed the image of most of Isaac's Negro virtues. But the ambivalence suggested in the commissary dialogue is extended—perhaps on an unconscious level—to most of the book's male characters. Lucas Beauchamp, the mulatto grandson of Carothers McCaslin, lives in imperial isolation from other Negroes, lording it over them because of his McCaslin blood; he is, according to the white kinsman who knows him best, “more like old Carothers than all the rest of us put together” (p. 118). And part-Negro, part-Indian Sam Fathers also isolates himself from blacks, finding his identity in his Indian, not his Negro heritage, which he rejects as that of slaves. There are brief portraits such as George Wilkins, Sickymo, and the husband of Isaac's Negro cousin Fonsiba: but these are based, disappointingly, on stereotypes. If Isaac's ideas of Negro character are to apply to males as well as to females, the weight of their dramatization falls on one portrait: Rider, of the story “Pantaloon in Black.”

This story, for several reasons, has never received the attention it deserves. Its plot appears, at first, a mere retelling of such earlier lynching tales as “Dry September” (1931) and Light in August (1932). Moreover, the tale bears no direct relationship to the McCaslin family history; its flimsy connection is that Rider lives on the McCaslin plantation (“Rider was one of the McCaslin Negroes,” Faulkner told Malcolm Cowley10). In other ways, however, “Pantaloon in Black” is unique. It undertakes several important approaches to Negro characterization Faulkner never attempted elsewhere. In contrast to Light in August, “Pantaloon” dramatizes the lynching of a full-blooded black man with a relatively typical Southern background; unlike “Dry September” it offers an extended portrait of the lynched victim. In contrast to practically all of Faulkner's stories, the important events of the plot of “Pantaloon” are isolated from white influence; only after Rider's death are we presented with a callous white deputy and his racist wife who provide a further perspective. Rider, moreover, represents Faulkner's only attempt at anything approaching a genuine African hero: the dominating male who is the reverse image of the clown of plantation propaganda. And finally, the story contains an ambitious attempt at an image stream from inside the mind of its black protagonist, the only lengthy effort of this kind Faulkner ever undertook.11 The result is a Negro characterization which is, perhaps, his most ambitious.

Rider, on the surface, possesses every quality of an authentic hero. A magnificent laborer of “midnight-colored” skin, “better than six feet” and weighing “better than two hundred pounds,” he works in a lumber crew where he handles “at times out of the vanity of his own strength logs which ordinarily two men would have handled with canthooks.” He is a natural leader, at twenty-four the “head of the timber gang itself because the gang he headed moved a third again as much timber between sunup and sundown as any other moved” (pp. 144, 135, 137). An orphan, raised by an overly devout aunt and uncle, Rider has recently made a good marriage; American life, which promises little to men of his race, seems to offer Rider much. But after six happy months, Rider's bride, Mannie, unexpectedly dies.

Faulkner's plot centers on the strange outburst of emotionalism which follows. Rider cuts all ties with his former life, including—very pointedly—his relationship with God, whom he attacks in a drunken speech. Unable to sleep, he rambles the countryside, drinking prodigiously, growing increasingly hysterical. For no apparent reason, he attacks and kills a white gambler, Birdsong, and shortly after is found innocently asleep on his front porch. In prison, his hysteria begins once more; he becomes violent, and has to be subdued by the other prisoners. Pinned to the floor at last, Faulkner's deputy relates, Rider lies “with tears big as glass marbles running across his face …, laughing and laughing and saying ‘Hit look lack Ah just cant quit thinking. Look lack Ah just cant quit’” (p. 159). Eventually he is taken from the prison and hanged by Birdsong's relatives.

This final martyrdom aside, Rider's seems a familiar tragic pattern: the strong extrovert who cannot reconcile a private loss. But as Faulkner controls it here, the tragedy's significance is peculiarly racial. In a society in which few blacks succeed, Rider has experienced no failure before his loss of Mannie; and pointedly, Faulkner never specifies the cause of that bereavement. To have revealed any reason for Mannie's death would have forced him to connect Rider's grief with the accidents of Negro experience; with the cause unspecified, Rider can be shown consciously able to account for his loss only as an act of God. The treatment effectively emphasizes the roots of Rider's hysteria: in his soul he believes that all Negro tragedies stem from the same source. These feelings are the deep, permanent ones, and they ignore the logic of the situation, denying him rest until they have found a racial expression in the murder of Birdsong.12

The root of all this is a familiar experience of Negro life: a point at which an individual feels all whites blending into a common image of his personal frustrations. It is an experience to which black writers have addressed themselves with compulsive repetition. Such a scene controls the efforts of Ralph Ellison's hero in Invisible Man (1952) to explain his “invisibility”: “You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you're a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you.” Insulted on a dark street, he is shocked to find himself in a murderous “frenzy.” He beats the stranger to the pavement, and “in my outrage I got out my knife and prepared to slit his throat.” Only his final sense of the man's incomprehension saves the situation.13 Eldridge Cleaver has described a series of similar experiences from his own youth; with Cleaver, moreover, violence was a conscious expression of his sense of being dehumanized. “I became a rapist,” he confesses. “I did this … deliberately, willfully, methodically.” The crimes provided the strange thrill of revolutionary commitment. “Rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man's law. … I felt I was getting revenge.” Yet a profound desperation, like that of Ellison's man, was just beneath the surface: “looking back I see that I was in a frantic, wild, and completely abandoned frame of mind.”14 Only after arrest and imprisonment was he able to view his actions objectively.

But it is Richard Wright who in Native Son (1940) has given us the Negro prototype of these experiences, as well as their most exhaustively particularized elaboration. Published the same year “Pantaloon” appeared independently in Harper's, Wright's novel features in Bigger Thomas a protagonist who possesses no such articulate self-understanding as Ellison's man, or even the young Cleaver. Bigger, an ignorant, self-centered youth, is twice a murderer: first, by accident, of a wealthy white girl; and then, with deliberation, of his Negro mistress. Wright stresses Bigger's inability to perceive the humanity of whites: “To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead.” Hence rather than shame, Bigger feels an exhilaration similar to Cleaver's. He has discovered, however accidentally, the power to strike back at that nameless “force”; and in doing so he has acted out his most deeply repressed fantasies. Surrounded by unknowing whites on a streetcar he reflects excitedly, “Would any of the white faces all about him think that he had killed a rich white girl? No! They might think he would steal a dime, rape a woman, get drunk, or cut somebody; but to kill a millionaire's daughter and burn her body?” At the thought, Wright relates, Bigger “smiled a little, feeling a tingling sensation enveloping all his body.”15 For Wright, even the most uncritical black man's status reflects the familiar existential paradox that Rider feels so deeply: to gain his humanity, it appears necessary to assume, however unconsciously, the responsibility for violating conventional morality.

The point is of primary significance for Go Down, Moses. Rider's is the pivotal portrait in the reader's understanding of Isaac's romantic view of the Negro; although the commissary scene takes place before Rider's birth, we must assume that Rider's portrait is inserted to illustrate the kind of experience Isaac has had. “Pantaloon” is one of three episodes which precede “The Old People” and “The Bear”—the core of Isaac's story—and are designed to prepare the reader for the commissary dialogue. “Was” and “The Fire and the Hearth” are centered upon character studies of men of mixed blood. “Was” shows how Tomey's Turl, Carothers McCaslin's son by his own half-cast daughter, is forced into the tragi-comic Black Clown behavior of slaves: in Isaac's terms “vices … that white men and bondage have taught them.” “The Fire and the Hearth” attacks the same problem from another angle, suggesting how Turl's son Lucas Beauchamp, motivated by knowledge of his white ancestry, can in his own words remain “a nigger … [but] a man too” (p. 47). The function of “Pantaloon in Black” is to dramatize the experience of a full-blooded black who like Lucas rejects slavish behavior.

The result should be a story which truly strengthens Isaac's credibility. Forced to take a second look at violent Negro conduct in Rider, the reader is presumably prepared to accept Isaac's radicalism in the commissary. Confronted with Edmonds's list of Negro vices, he presumably connects this kind of thinking with that represented by the deputy and his wife, and Isaac's list of Negro virtues with the qualities of Rider before Mannie's death. Hence he is also presumably ready to understand Isaac's belief that Negroes are “better than we are. Stronger than we are,” and to accept his repudiation of the plantation.

Faulkner's hopes for “Pantaloon in Black,” then, were ambitious. He addressed himself to a Negro problem to which Negroes have assigned a central importance. He attacked it through channels usually out of bounds for the white writer. And he gave the story a pivotal position in a major attempt at rendering the Southern past. But for the reader who looks beneath Faulkner's technical virtuosity for some genuine sampling of the sense of Negro life on which his views are based, “Pantaloon in Black” can only disappoint. In a story which must stand or fall on a convincing portrayal of Negro identity, Faulkner consistently recoils whenever he seems closest to committing himself to that identity. In critical spots, furthermore, Faulkner falls back on matter so obviously from a white, not a Negro, heritage, as thoroughly to undermine his verisimilitude. And perhaps most important, “Pantaloon in Black” does not perform the function in Go Down, Moses for which it was intended.

From the opening pages, Faulkner involves the reader, almost as though it were a reflex, in a tradition very alien indeed to the unliterary black's way of looking at himself. The most obvious fact about “Pantaloon” is that it is stamped from the venerable mold of southern Gothicism; its plot recalls Poe's familiar dictum that “the death … of a beautiful woman is … the most poetical topic,” that it should be told through her “bereaved lover.” The funeral scene, Rider's return to the place of the consummation of his love, his encounter with Mannie's ghost, his attempt to drown his sorrows in alcohol, his longing for a death he finally achieves—all this is as old as Gothic romance itself, and has little enough to do with Negroes.

Granted such dependence on literary tradition, we may anticipate that Faulkner's rendering of Rider's stream of consciousness will be in large measure an artificial effect. And that is precisely the case. It is achieved through the familiar Faulknerian impressionism that suggests rather than specifies. The encounter with Mannie's ghost is typical. As Faulkner tells the story, Rider is first aware of the apparition through the reactions of his dog:

Then the dog left him. The light pressure went off his flank; he heard the click and hiss of its claws on the wooden floor as it surged away and he thought at first that it was fleeing. But it stopped just outside the front door, where he could see it now, and the upfling of its head as the howl began, and then he saw her too. She was standing in the kitchen door, looking at him. He didn't move. He didn't breathe nor speak until he knew his voice would be all right, his face fixed too not to alarm her. “Mannie,” he said. “Hit's awright. Ah aint afraid.”

(p. 140)

This passage is a very successful one technically. Faulkner's imagery (the “click and hiss” of the dog's claws, the “upfling of its head as the howl began”), and his careful specification of Rider's more superficial thoughts (“He didn't breathe nor speak until he knew his voice would be all right”) evoke vivid emotional and visual impressions. But significant insights into Rider's consciousness—the pathos and shock of seeing Mannie, his desire to join her in death—are portrayed indirectly through his only articulated thought: “Hit's awright. I aint afraid.”

The passage is revealing. Faulkner never truly gives shape to the deeper workings of Rider's mind; there is nothing here of the carefully evoked private imagery of a Benjy or a Quentin Compson. His success in suggesting Rider's identity as a Negro is due entirely to a single technique: a rhythmical repetition of imagery, action and dialogue indicating the more superficial aspects of Mississippi Negro experience. Too often, furthermore, Faulkner relies on mere clichés which, plucked from the stream of his rhetoric, grate on the consciousness of any sensitive reader. Rider carries a razor, drinks “moon” whiskey. He and Mannie subsist on a diet of sidemeat, greens, cornbread and buttermilk. He refers to whites, singular and plural, as “white folks,” he punctuates the crap game with cries of “Ah'm snakebit” (pp. 139, 147, 153).

Faulkner's use of idiom of this sort is of special interest. A familiar reaction from critics has been praise for Faulkner's ear for black English. Irving Howe comments that “No other American novelist … has listened with such fidelity to the nuances of … [the Negro's] speech and recorded them with such skill.”16 This is a doubtful estimate. But even if true, it still fails to reach the heart of the problem, which is that convincing dialect, far more than a splattering of clichés like soul food and “moon” whiskey, can be a successful means of avoiding deeper characterization.

Typical are the passages in which Rider belligerently rejects his God. His uncle counsels, “De Lawd guv, and He tuck away,” that Rider should “Put yo faith and trust in Him.” Rider objects impatiently, “What faith and trust?” and complains, “What Mannie ever done ter Him? What He wanter come messin wid me … ?” Later, alone, jug in hand, he drunkenly addresses this rejected deity. “Dat's right. Try me,” he asserts. “Try me, big boy. Ah gots something hyar now dat kin whup you. … Come on now. You always claim you's a better man den me. Come on now. Prove it” (pp. 145, 147-148). Such passages serve the purpose of reminding us that Faulkner's characters are intended, after all, as Negroes; but if we strip away such surface “realism” we are left with little more than a black Shropshire lad, calling on homebrew to outstrip doctrine in reconciling God's intransigence.

The incident, like others, illustrates a significant irony. Granted that Rider's tragedy offers insights into the Negro identity crisis, that Faulkner is presenting an archetypal plot which many Negro writers have chosen. Still the specificities of its presentation—the warp and woof of Faulkner's tapestry—are of white origin. Throughout “Pantaloon in Black” Faulkner's formidable techniques are not employed in dramatizing Negro life. Rather, they are employed in obscuring it. The story does not offer what it promises. It is no slice of Negro life, but rather another, more skillful, interpretation of Negro life on white terms.

Such considerations are of primary importance for Go Down, Moses. Whether or not one accepts Warren's dictum that “The Negro is the central figure in Faulkner's work,” Faulkner, by motivating Isaac's gesture through his understanding of Negroes, has made the issue a critical one for this novel. But when Faulkner attempts to dramatize that life from the inside, the reader finds the fundamentals of Negro life avoided rather than attacked. If this is the limit of Faulkner's ability to realize Negro experience, the reader must assume, Isaac's exalted views are not, finally, based on a genuine understanding. To accept this is to conclude that Go Down, Moses is in an important sense a failure.

But Faulkner's difficulties with “Pantaloon in Black” do not end with his failure to produce a convincing sample of Negro life. The story is also surprisingly inadequate as an illustration of Isaac's beliefs. Rider may be “better” than Faulkner's whites spiritually, and his emotions, like his physique, may be “stronger.” But he is the dramatic antithesis of a fundamental point of Isaac's romanticism: the “endurance” on which Faulkner himself laid such stress. For Isaac, the race has “learned humility through suffering and learned pride through the endurance which survived the suffering.” But among those qualities the only one which is illustrated by Rider's portrait is that of having suffered. The experience has, furthermore, taught him (justifiably?) no humility, whether toward his white boss or his job or the God he sarcastically addresses; and yet his soaring pride is hardly the Faulknerian kind which develops “through the endurance which survived the suffering.” The most obvious thing about Rider, in fact, is that he does not endure. The white deputy and his nagging wife are through their very insensitivity equipped to survive in Yoknapatawpha society; but Rider, Faulkner's most nearly heroic black male, is not.

Rider's presence in the book, in fact, argues that “endurance” in Go Down, Moses is no heroic African quality, but one reserved rather for mammies and mulatto males. The Negroes who endure in this novel are the superstitious, self-effacing Molly Beauchamp, and her husband Lucas, who patterns himself after his white ancestor. In a novel in which Lucas and Molly survive and Rider succumbs, is not the reader justified in questioning whether the Negro's endurance is not reserved for subservient females, or parcelled out to the male only in the degree Faulkner later acknowledged his readiness for “equality”: “in the ratio of his white blood”? The fact is that Faulkner, in characterizing Rider, has inadvertently undermined Isaac's carefully phrased concepts. His full-blooded Negro male is not “stronger” than whites if “stronger” means the ability to survive.17

It is a significant failure. For Faulkner to have backed off from dramatizing Negro life at the very point at which he intended to attack it is understandable, if regrettable. But to have been led into a dramatization of Negro character which undermines rather than illustrates the beliefs of his white hero is a problem of a different order. It suggests the significance of Ellison's remark that “even a glance [at Faulkner] is more revealing of what lies back of the distortion of the Negro in modern writing than any attempt at a group survey might be.” Ellison feels that “Faulkner's attitude is mixed.” Granting that Faulkner “has been more willing perhaps than any other artist to start with the stereotype … and then seek out the human truth which it hides,” still, Faulkner takes “his cue from the Southern mentality in which the Negro is often dissociated into a malignant stereotype … on the one hand and a benign stereotype … on the other”; he “most often … presents characters embodying both.”18 Although this at first may itself appear a stereotyped attitude, it is in fact an understatement of the problem in “Pantaloon.” Faulkner's intention was, clearly, to start out with the “malignant” Black Beast, then to reveal the “truth” of Rider's tragedy: that a man “better than we are” has been flawed by shortcomings “that white men and bondage have taught them.” But the reader who looks beneath the surface realism of Faulkner's techniques and the romantic fervor of Isaac's rhetoric finds a third possibility: an image of black manhood which is too physical, too emotional, too childish, finally, to survive the rigors of American life, an image which suggests inevitable failure without white help. It is plain both from the structure of Go Down, Moses and from Faulkner's emphasis on other occasions on “endurance” that this was not the image he consciously intended. The implication is obvious that his feelings on the subject were so “mixed” that they prevented a coherent approach to the issue. In this context Baldwin's remark that the “sense of how Negroes live and how they have so long endured is hidden” from whites is striking in its suggestiveness.

Ironically, it is this very matter of endurance which Faulkner makes such an issue in Isaac's speculations that marks Rider's portrait off from the similar creations of Negro writers. Ellison's hero, poised knife in hand over his victim, realizes that “the man had not seen me,” that “as far as he knew, [he] was in the midst of a walking nightmare.” Such understanding is the index of his humanity, for from it issues a guilt Rider never feels: he is “both disgusted and ashamed.”19 The point is a telling one. Ellison's man is capable of a willed choice, and because of this, he achieves a transcendence over the circumstances imposed by society. Similarly, the youthful Cleaver, encountering a more lenient justice than Rider, lived to learn the meaning of his rapes: “I lost my self respect. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile moral structure seemed to collapse.” It was the beginning of a new life. “That is why I started to write. To save myself.”20 This is a moral development that, in Rider's Mississippi, he might never have lived to achieve; still, the important difference between Soul on Ice and Go Down, Moses is that he does achieve it. Cleaver's self-portrait demonstrates that even in the worst circumstances, a degraded state may be transcended; Rider's tale suggests that under relatively favorable conditions such transcendence may be illusive. The case of Wright's Bigger Thomas at first seems different; Bigger is no more a survivor than Rider. But the implication for Negro characterizations in the two portraits differs sharply. Bigger is a confused, trapped young man, and there is never any suggestion in Native Son that he represents the best the race can produce. Wright's portrait shows how a white-dominated society can turn an ordinary youth into a dangerous criminal; Faulkner's that the best of full-blooded Negroes cannot escape such a transformation. Apparent similarities notwithstanding, in short, there is an enormous gap between the attitudes of these Negro writers and that of Faulkner toward Negro characterization.

Despite Faulkner's difficulties, Go Down, Moses is, obviously, a contribution of lasting importance to the novel of race. To have understood Rider's tragedy in somewhat the same terms that Wright, Ellison, Cleaver, and others have understood the problem is a considerable achievement. So also is Faulkner's dramatization of the horror of the McCaslins' miscegenous, incestuous history, and his creation of a white protagonist who could not bear the guilt of such a heritage. The significance of all this increases when one considers how far in advance its creation was of the recent Negro literary successes which have so enlarged our national awareness. And if Faulkner fails in damaging ways, it is not enough merely to deplore his difficulties. What Negro critic, truly, could desire the Faulkners, or Warrens or Styrons, to break off all efforts at fictional realization of Negro life? To do so would be to ring down a curtain of literary segregation more absolute than any political one. That Faulkner made the effort, and made it in his characteristically ambitious fashion—that is of basic importance.

Still, Faulkner falls lamentably short in Go Down, Moses of what Warren promises of him: that “To forge the conscience of his [white Southern] race, he stayed in his native spot and, in his soul, in images of vice and of virtue, reenacted the history of that race.” The contradictory feelings with which he approached the subject of Negro character preordained that this formidable book would be in a final sense a failure. What began as an ambitious attempt to assess the total tragedy of slavery becomes, finally, a kind of case study in the accuracy of Baldwin's belief that for whites to accept the qualities of Negro life, “the nature of the [white] American psychology … must undergo a metamorphosis so profound as to be literally unthinkable.” Perhaps Faulkner came to realize this. Addressing the readers of Ebony during the integration crisis of 1956 he expressed an attitude striking in its similarity to Baldwin's. “It is easy enough,” he wrote, “to say glibly, ‘If I were a Negro, I would do this or that.’ But a white man can only imagine himself for the moment a Negro; he cannot be that man of another race and griefs and problems.”21


  1. James Baldwin, “Many Thousands Gone,” Partisan Review, XVIII (Nov.-Dec., 1951), 673, 674.

  2. Richard Wright, White Man, Listen! (Garden City, N.Y., 1957), p. 109.

  3. Robert Penn Warren, “Faulkner: The South and the Negro,” Southern Review, I (Summer, 1965), 512, 529.

  4. Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York, 1964), p. 42.

  5. William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses (New York, 1955), pp. 298, 294, 295. Subsequent references to this edition will appear in the text.

  6. Warren, p. 521.

  7. Faulkner, “To the Editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal,” in Essays, Speeches and Public Letters, by William Faulkner, ed. James B. Meriwether (New York, 1965), pp. 220-221.

  8. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, ed. Faulkner in the University (Charlottesville, Va., 1959), pp. 213, 210.

  9. An interesting departure from Faulkner's pattern of dark-skinned mammies and mulatto males is the black youth Ringo of The Unvanquished (1938). Ringo is a rarity in Faulkner: an intelligent, witty, aggressive individual of African blood who seems destined to succeed at anything he undertakes. But Ringo, like Dilsey, values himself as a member of a white family; his source of personal identification is his position as one of the stalwarts in the white order of things on John Sartoris's plantation. Furthermore, Faulkner finds no real place for a mature Ringo in The Unvanquished. He is kept in the background in “An Odor of Verbena” as Bayard Sartoris assumes the hero's role. To provide a mature version of this promising black youth is perhaps no artistic necessity; but in the context of Faulkner's understanding of Negro character, his failure to do so is most suggestive.

  10. Malcolm Cowley, The Faulkner-Cowley File: Letters and Memories, 1944-1962 (New York, 1966), p. 113.

  11. In “The Fire and the Hearth” Faulkner makes a similar effort to enter Lucas Beauchamp's mind. As I have emphasized, Lucas does not truly identify himself as a Negro.

  12. That Rider's story had a lasting attraction for Faulkner is evidenced in the fact that he allowed Temple Drake Stevens to retell it in capsule form in Requiem for a Nun as a part of her speculations about race. Temple is specific about Rider's motivation: “… at first he tried just walking the country roads at night for exhaustion and sleep, only that failed and then he tried getting drunk so he could sleep, and that failed, and then he tried fighting and then he cut a white man's throat with a razor in a dice game and so at last he could sleep for a little while.” Requiem for a Nun (New York, 1951), pp. 198-199.

  13. Ellison, Invisible Man (New York, 1952), pp. 7-8.

  14. Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (New York, 1968), p. 14.

  15. Richard Wright, Native Son (New York, 1966), pp. 108-109.

  16. Irving Howe, William Faulkner: A Critical Study (New York, 1962), p. 134.

  17. There has been a good deal of confusion about the significance of the term “endurance” for Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury. Endurance is, obviously, one of Dilsey's virtues. But the Faulkner who philosophizes about such virtues is the Faulkner of the 1940's. The Faulkner of 1929 shunned abstractions of this type; amid the concreteness of imagery and action with which Dilsey is realized, they would have been out of place. It was only in 1945, when he composed the Compson history which was first published as an appendix to Malcolm Cowley's The Portable Faulkner (New York, 1946) that Faulkner gave Dilsey a life in Memphis after the disintegration of the Compsons, and summed up her earlier experience with the statement, “They endured” (p. 756). This was sixteen years after the publication of the earlier novel, and Faulkner was now in a more philosophical frame of mind. He had recently worked out the concept of endurance which he articulated through Isaac McCaslin in Part IV of “The Bear,” published for the first time with Go Down, Moses only three years earlier. Now he was speculating with Cowley about how to represent all aspects of Yoknapatawpha County in The Portable. The Compson history was created to help explain the Dilsey section which, wrenched out of its original context, was to be included in the new book. The expression “They endured” suggests that the Dilsey narrative is representative of Negro life in general—as it is not intended to be in the novel. See The Faulkner-Cowley File, pp. 28, 31, 35, 36, 39.

    Dilsey is, in many ways, the most appealing of Faulkner's blacks. But figures like Dilsey and Nancy Mannigoe typify only the relatively small number of black women who once regarded themselves as members of white households. This is in itself a comment upon the nature of Dilsey's endurance. The tragedy she lives through is that of her adopted, not of her natural, family. A less fully developed but more logically consistent figure is the mulatto Clytie Sutpen of Absalom, Absalom! As Thomas Sutpen's illegitimate daughter, Clytie is literally a Negro member of his family; hence her tragic loyalty is more fully motivated.

  18. Ellison, Shadow and Act, pp. 42-43.

  19. Ellison, Invisible Man, p. 8.

  20. Cleaver, p. 15.

  21. Faulkner, “A Letter to the Leaders of the Negro Race” (originally “If I Were a Negro”), Essays, Speeches and Public Letters, p. 110.

Bernhard Radloff (essay date spring 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9446

SOURCE: Radloff, Bernhard. “The Fate of Demonism in William Faulkner.” Arizona Quarterly 46, no. 1 (spring 1990): 27-50.

[In the following essay, Radloff discusses the concept of demonism in Faulkner's works.]

The spirit of revenge, my friends, has so far been the subject of man's best reflection; and wherever there was suffering, there punishment was also wanted.


In Absalom, Absalom! the calculative and vindictive mentality which characterizes Sutpen in his devotion to a “design” constitutes the archetype of demonism definitive of the novel and the entire tradition of design in Faulkner's work. In a literal sense, Sutpen's “design” is simply his determination to transcend the meanness of his poor-white roots and to found a dynasty. Yet the meaning of his design far outweighs this simple story. The design is defined by the semantics, the rhetoric, of a historical tradition. This rhetoric weaves Sutpen's moral blindness, what he calls his “innocence,” and his will to transcend the animality of his brute existence into one coherent structure.1 Because the design originates in Sutpen's desire to “vindicate the boy” he was from brute existence it signifies the will to transcend animality (274): the design is the project by which Sutpen's descendants will be “riven forever free from brutehood” (261). Therefore the import of the design is not restricted to mere dynasty building, nor can Sutpen's first marriage satisfy the demands of the design. The fraction of black blood Sutpen's Haitian wife supposedly carries links her being to that of the slave, and the slave is the purest essence of that exploited animality Sutpen sees in his own sisters (235-36). In consequence, because the Haitian marriage would have “voided and frustrated without his knowing it the central motivation of his entire design” (262-63), Sutpen pays off his first wife and renders himself “innocent” of her, of his son, and of his own guilt.2

Sutpen's innocence emerges out of the desolate realization that he is merely a working animal in the Tidewater world. The “severe shape of his intact innocence” becomes the basis of his projected transcendence (238). Innocence originates in the oscillation of the will between the brute animality of existence and the transcendence of existence: it is the present internalization of not-having-fallen, of not-being-guilty (past), and the flight from death inherent in transcendence (future). The design signifies the revenge of the will upon having-been-brute; the innocence of the designing will is a willful innocence of guilt and mortality. Innocence wills to perpetuate itself in innocence. The design signifies the revenge of the will upon time: it intimates the fixation of the will upon the anticipated “transcendence” of its own brute being in the world; and thus, in the deceived eye of Wash Jones (the poor-white tenant farmer who serves as Sutpen's double and nemesis in the novel) Sutpen appears in the avatar of divinity (282).

The threefold, unitary structure of vengefulness, transcendence, and willful innocence determines the nature of design. It also constitutes the archetype of demonism in Faulkner's work.

In Absalom, Absalom! it is Rosa who evokes the “demon” who “came out of nowhere and without warning” to “overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and formal gardens violently out of the Soundless Nothing” (9, 8). While her story is literally unreal to modern sensibilities (we no longer take talk of “demons” seriously), the use of the word “demon” in Rosa's narrative serves the important function of a surplus value term for an “inexplicable excess of meaning” which cannot be grasped directly.3 The primary import of the rhetoric of demonism is to reveal the semantic design of the oral tradition from which Sutpen emerges; its purpose as a psychological characterization of Rosa is secondary. The romance conventions typical of Rosa's narrative do indeed annul our everyday logic of cause and effect;4 but this only makes it more fully commensurate with the sense of the design as the revenge of the will against time. In consequence, while the rhetoric of demonism cannot give us a realistic description of Thomas Sutpen, it serves the more important purpose of pointing out the context of significance in which the character of Sutpen, his designs and intentions, become meaningful.

This context of significance is none other than the rhetorical heritage which generates the stories the narrators tell. I propose that the heritage has the structure of a language-game in Gadamer's sense: it is a self-consistent semantic system which prefigures a set of existential possibilities.5 Speakers entering into the game perforce subordinate themselves to its rules and thus realize aspects of the semantic structure of the tradition. Hence the individual (“psychological”) aspects of Rosa's vision are grounded in the logical priority of the heritage. In speaking, the narrators perform possible ways of understanding inherent in the governing context, such “points of view” as were previously unperformed, or silent. Since the heritage, the unspoken context of telling, retains priority, the interpretations of the narrators cannot arise arbitrarily. The “original ripple-space,” the “old ineradicable rhythm” of which Quentin speaks (261), should therefore be understood as the creative and limiting context of the language-world through which the narrators come to express themselves. This “rhythm”—the formal semantic structure of the rhetorical tradition—prefigures a set of possible interpretations.

Within this structure the notion of design plays a crucial role in generating narrative performances. The rhythm of design, moreover, allows itself to be unravelled as an explicitly temporal structure, as we shall see. Consequently I propose a temporal semantics of the structure of the heritage which Faulkner narrates: the semantic structures enunciated through the rhetoric of design are correlates of specific temporal structures.6

The question arises whether we should regard the rhetoric of design and revenge, as Faulkner represents it, as an expression of the historical realities of nineteenth-century Southern culture. The fact that Faulkner's fiction undoubtedly can be interpreted as a literary representation of the historical South allows it to be related to allied discourses, such as anthropology. Berndt Ostendorf proposes that “anthropology and fiction share a basic stock of what Northrop Frye calls pregeneric myths”: both discourses call on narrative to articulate knowledge, for storytelling is “man's most essential structuring activity.”7 Warwick Wadlington's interpretation of the narrative conventions of Absalom, Absalom! is guided by a similar anthropological impulse inasmuch as he explicates the novel's narrative structure in terms of the oral culture and the “honor-shame code” of the South. The narrative conventions of the novel “are those of a transcriptive, largely oral, manuscript culture, where speech is rather freely transcribed and conjectural embellishment fulfills dialogical and transcriptive conventions.”8 The emphasis I develop here is intended to support these investigations on a fundamental level; my basic point of departure is that structures of storytelling—as explicated by anthropology and correlative enterprises in the field of literary criticism—presuppose the historical and linguistic nature of human existence. Understanding of human being in its historical concreteness is only possible through an interpretation of the ways in which a culture has “come to word,” has inscribed its being in language. In this sense I assume that literary and anthropological studies presuppose a general “ontological” hermeneutics as developed by Gadamer and Ricoeur.

The preeminence of rhetorical conventions—such as those Wadlington also notes—allows us to shift our focus from the “psychology” of characters to the semantics of the heritage which articulates itself through them. The rhetoric of innocence and design, vengeance and fate, generates what we call “characters.” For this reason, what Mr. Compson has to tell us about “fate” pertains to the design of the tradition itself. According to Mr. Compson, Sutpen is “unaware that his flowering was a forced blooming too and that while he was still playing the scene to the audience, behind him Fate, destiny, retribution, irony—the stage manager, call him what you will—was already striking the set and dragging on the synthetic and spurious shadows and shapes of the next one” (72-73). In his own way, Mr. Compson perceives that Sutpen has lost his freedom to the project to which he has dedicated himself as to an overwhelming, inscrutable fate. Hence Sutpen's failure to take responsibility for his actions, and his determination to render himself innocent of the design he plays out, marks his surrender to the world into which he has ‘fallen’ (222). Instead of accounting for himself, Sutpen allows the design to justify him. Mr. Compson's use of the word “fate,” like Rosa's use of “demon” serves to indicate the governing context of significance in terms of which Sutpen has a meaning.

Miss Rosa and Mr. Compson, each in their own fashion, illuminate Sutpen's history in an essential way, not primarily by accumulating facts, but by showing what made the actions (“the facts”) of Sutpen possible. The narratives of Rosa and Mr. Compson, moreover, complement each other in the following way: the spirit of demonism which drives Sutpen to transcend brutehood is the fate to which he has surrendered himself in both accounts. Because of his demonism Sutpen becomes a plaything for the fate he exemplifies. This fate articulates itself as the spirit of revenge. This spirit, which Sutpen has neither created nor exhausted, speaks through Rosa and Bon's mother, through Mr. Coldfield and Ellen, even through Henry, always with a certain difference, an individual modulation of the “design.”

Although Rosa and Mr. Compson, in their different ways, help to disclose the meaning of Sutpen, they are unable to grasp this meaning, for they are victims of the same demonism and the same fatalism. In both cases the truth of the heritage speaks through their narratives in an incomplete—although fundamental—way, but this fragmented truth is not fully recognized by those who speak it.9

Rosa's understanding of Sutpen is prefigured in the way she lives her own life, in her own “demonism.” Nor is this demonism Rosa's invention, for it is the heritage bequeathed to her. According to the oral tradition the child Rosa was “the object and the victim” of her aunt's “vindictive unflagging care and attention” (70). The aunt's vindictiveness is not exclusively directed at its ostensible object, Thomas Sutpen, because it is the mood, or spirit, which permeates the aunt's entire way of life. Rosa's childhood is passed “in grim mausoleum air of Puritan righteousness and outraged female vindictiveness” in the company of the “strong vindictive consistent woman” who is her aunt (60, 62). The aunt takes Ellen's marriage to Sutpen as an insult demanding revenge. Striking in “blind irrational fury” at the entire “human race,” the aunt's life is one long act of “still taking revenge” for something irretrievably past (60). Driven by her “vindictive anticipation” to vindicate her own being against the past the aunt is characterized by the kind of vengefulness, or demonism, which defines Sutpen (60).

Rosa is thrown into this world like a spirit unwillingly embodied. She carries her “small body” like a “costume borrowed at the last moment” (65). Animated by hatred alone she loses humanity and freedom of choice to her vindictive “design” more graphically, at least, than Sutpen does. Witness Quentin's final image of the woman: “foaming a little at the mouth” she becomes a “doll” to her own “nightmare” of vengefulness, which dominates her as her fate (376).

But the most fundamental experience of demonism which Rosa imparts to us is disclosed by the revulsion of her willful spirit from death. To Rosa's mad rage to “vindicate” herself Sutpen's death is “the final and complete affront” (14). The spirit of revenge cannot forgive death because the will breaks on death: “And that's what she [Rosa] cant forgive him [Sutpen] for: not for the insult, not even for having jilted him: but for being dead” (170). Thus it is quite apt that Rosa dies only to her hatred and that in death her hatred should become absolute (377): the spirit of revenge, or demonism, must negate time in order to be what it is. Therefore the vengeful spirit cannot experience a timely time, nor the release of a timely death. For these reasons, given that her family heritage is defined by revulsion from time, and that vengefulness is the root form of the demonic, then Rosa's introduction of the term “demon” explicates her own tradition, one she holds in common with Sutpen. The design articulates itself as revenge against time.

The character who embodies perhaps the most extreme instance of untimeliness in Absalom, Absalom! is Sutpen's bride. Not only does Ellen refuse to take responsibility for her heritage, being content to prattle “bright set meaningless phrases” (69), but she seems incapable of “suffering and experience” (70). Her “plump,” “unblemished” face betrays no sign of her “being in the world” (68). This “foolish unreal voluble preserved woman” (69) seems to sunder herself out of the world into a “timeless” realm. “Unimpeded by weight of stomach and all the heavy organs of suffering and experience” she “rose like the swamp-hatched butterfly” into a “bright vacuum of arrested sun” (69-70). Yet her grotesque attempt to transcend time only delivers her over to time all the more powerfully: time takes its revenge on her by subjecting her to untimely growth. The untimely time is the time which is not properly her own, and this time becomes her doom, or “fate”:

She had bloomed, as if Fate were crowding the normal Indian summer which should have bloomed gradually and faded gracefully through six or eight years, into three or four.


Since Ellen has “escaped at last into a world of pure illusion” nothing she does can be timely or untimely, appropriate or inappropriate (69). Once her will has “frozen” itself (not time) in the form of her chosen design she ceases to have a time of her own and becomes a toy of fate.

Therefore the meaning of Ellen's preserved, timeless state of arrest is the perpetual lack of the right time: hers is the emptiness of a time devoid of essential decisions, a time innocent of the ability to suffer or to understand. She lives in a present which is without relation to past or future except on the trivial level defined by her petty “designs.” Driven by fate, she cannot comprehend the meaning of her situation. In each of these respects she represents a grotesque, exaggerated version of her husband, a mere husk in comparison, and yet the measure of his inner reality. As the perpetuation of the will to transcend time Sutpen's design is the ultimate form of untimeliness as such.

We may now summarize how the triumph of fate reveals itself through the governing rhetoric of “design” in Absalom, Absalom!:

  • (i) in respect to the past: as a vengeful failure to take responsibility and as such, as the fateful repetition of the tradition's governing design;
  • (ii) in respect to the present: as flight and fall into the momentary, “respectable,” willfully innocent designs of day to day life;
  • (iii) in respect to the future: as the projection of a timeless time which closes off the arrival of new possibilities for being and “freezes” life into attitudes of untimeliness.

This threefold lack condemns the “undestined” to the fates they live out, and marks their subjection to the tradition's governing design. Each of these aspects is implicated in the other two; in their mutual self-determination they define the nature of the demonic. Within the dynamics of this configuration, the character of Bon as it is grasped in the oral tradition has a timely potential.

In Absalom, Absalom! the comportment of Bon raises the possibility of an “overpassing” of the threefold, demonic lack which defines the design of the tradition (316). Consequently, by means of a distinction which rests on Heidegger's analysis of inauthentic and authentic historicity in Being and Time, it is useful to distinguish between the communal fate, which is none other than the governing design of a given heritage, and a destiny.10 An individual can make a destiny for himself to the degree in which he is able to appropriate the heritage into which he is born and make it his own. In other words, a destiny must be wrested from the communal fate. For his part, Sutpen exemplifies the design so powerfully because he has allowed himself to be so perfectly expropriated by the fate the design articulates. Sutpen has no meaning, no destiny, he can call his own: he simply performs the possibilities already inscribed in the rhetoric of the tradition. The same expropriation, in different forms, is evident in the cases of Rosa and Ellen. The demonism of which Rosa accuses Sutpen, for example, is nowhere in better evidence than in her own vengeful spirit: Rosa lives out this possibility in her own life. She repeats it. Repetition, then, is one way in which the narrators situate themselves in relation to their heritage; it is also one way the narrative moves and is structured. A second narrative form arises out of the “overpassing” of demonism. We may call this strategy “recollection” because it recalls the past more radically than repetition: the way of recollection holds the promise that the governing “design” of the past may be surpassed. In Absalom, Absalom! the possibility of overpassing is put into play for the subsequent narrators and interpreters of the tradition by Bon. Bon has a destiny simply by virtue of raising this possibility; yet we cannot claim that he is able to realize the possibility of overpassing.

The heritage in which Bon is inextricably entangled (to the extent that its conflicts are fought out in his own blood) is the racial strife of black and white. It is characteristic of Bon's response to this heritage that he neither attempts to flee it nor does he despair. This distinguishes Bon from his son Charles Etienne who attempts to flee from his mixed blood with the consequence that he loses himself in a series of violent, exaggerated, and hopeless gestures (201-10). Bon resolutely endures and accepts the conflict inherent in his fate as his own destiny. He appropriates this fate to himself by his endurance of it. This is the first step toward the transformation of heritage into a liberating power. For Bon can only liberate himself from his heritage through his heritage. This is graphically illustrated by the act in which he carries (in Shreve's imagination) the wounded Henry from the battlefield (344-45). Bon is prepared to take the burden of his heritage upon himself and freely accepts its accumulated guilt as his own. Only thus—by making the past his own—is Bon granted the possibility of a future which is truly his.

The fate to which Bon is subject may be defined more precisely as the spirit of revenge which animates the design of his heritage. According to Shreve, Bon is born into the grasp of his mother's “implacable will for revenge” (298). As he gets older he gradually discovers “she had been shaping and tempering him to be the instrument” (299) by which her “unbearable unforgiving,” her “fury and fierce yearning and vindictiveness” (297, 298), were to be satisfied. Allied to the mother in her vengefulness is her lawyer, a kind of pure embodiment of the spirit of calculation. In the estimation of Shreve (who invents him), the lawyer has “been plowing and planting and harvesting” Bon like a rich potential field from the moment of his birth (300). Bon is the “rich rotting dirt” jointly “created” between the “watering and manuring” of the lawyer and the feverish vengefulness of his mother (306). The spirit of conjoined revenge and calculation into which Bon is born constitutes the heritage which he must appropriate and transcend. This becomes possible insofar as Bon is able to offer a rejoinder to the way the heritage has been handed down to him in all its power and efficacy. Through such rejoinder the heritage is held in recollection (as opposed to being forgotten) yet its governing form in the present is disavowed.11 The governing power of Bon's heritage, which unites his father and his mother, is the spirit of revenge. Bon initially declines to repeat and thus become a mere plaything of the spirit his mother already exemplifies. As opposed to her “implacable will for revenge” (298), he gives up the “right” to vindicate and justify himself; he declines to exact punishment; he is willing to “renounce” Judith; he declares himself ready to renounce “love and all” (327). Awaiting Sutpen's mere acknowledgment “in secret” (321), Bon is willing to forgo restitution or Sutpen's confession of guilt. He approaches his father “with humility yet with pride too,” in “complete surrender” (320). In this way Bon recalls his heritage, not by repeating its guiding possibility for being, but to the extent that he disavows the temptation of revenge and offers a rejoinder to it. This rejoinder would signify the transcendence of revenge to love, for love intimates the abandonment of the will to revenge oneself (316).

The fulcrum of possible overpassing is Bon's endurance of the heritage he takes upon himself. By enduring his fate, by refusing to sidestep or conceal it from himself, Bon challenges those who belong to the same heritage to endure it in kind. Thus, even in the act of allowing “himself to be watched” by Henry, held in “the probation, the durance” on which Henry insists, Bon's mere presence brings the heritage of the Sutpens home to them (119). In this way he demonstrates the superior power of a man who accepts his fate and makes it his own destiny. As Bon reflects at one point:

It will be Henry who will get the letter, the letter saying it is inconvenient for me to come at the time; so apparently he does not intend to acknowledge me as his son, but at least I shall have forced him to admit that I am.


His need for his father's recognition drives Bon to proceed with the marriage to his sister (357) in the face of Sutpen's willful innocence. And precisely at this point, with the triumph of his need to be acknowledged (with this lack), the suspicion arises that Bon no less than Sutpen is entangled in the spirit of revenge that motivates the design of his heritage. Bon's will to force the acknowledgment of his being remains ambiguously suspended between overpassing and vengefulness.

Shreve's speculation that Bon loves Judith and that this love constitutes an overpassing of revenge (322-24; 316) remains speculation, although not an unfounded one. Shreve grasps a possibility inscribed in the rhetoric of the tradition: he seizes upon what remains unsaid in the metaphysics of transcendence and willfull innocence. Accordingly, “transcendence,” which signifies revenge against time in the rhetoric of the heritage, “passes over” to time, to the timeliness of a new marriage, the reconciliation of the races, to the founding of a new history. Bon's letter bears witness to this possibility (129-32). However, passing over is not a historical “fact” discovered in the past, but a possibility for being generated in the course of Quentin's and Shreve's constitution of the past under the aegis of the rhetoric out of which their discourse emerges. For while overpassing is a possibility for being, a comportment, that Bon first raises through his appropriation of the tradition, what we call “Bon” is only intelligible in terms of the ongoing tradition which interprets him.

“Bon himself” remains enigmatic. As Bon's letter intimates, he grasps the “is” in which he is caught as the moment in which a turn in the time, a change of direction from the past into a new, different future, becomes possible and necessary. Bon understands his personal situation within the context of this possible turn as an opportunity for the kind of timely action as can bring the turn about: now is the time. He and Judith, his letter tells us, “have waited long enough” (131).

A change, or turn in the time, allows history to happen; the overcoming of revenge, however, is the most needed and appropriate of possibilities—and in this sense overpassing is the turn which offers the best prospects for timely action and the renewal of the tradition. The concrete historical possibility which overcoming opens up is that of a new social contract between the races. This possibility is raised through Bon's endurance and resolution—only to be betrayed by his willful courtship of his sister and his calculated suicide; Bon takes his revenge.

The governing design which thus traces itself out in Bon also determines Quentin's comportment. When Shreve asks Quentin if he hates the South the violence of his friend's denial makes it suspect, and tells us that Quentin is still bound to a heritage he can neither forget or accept. Quentin will render himself innocent of a heritage he has not the strength to assume: his suicide in The Sound and the Fury—an act of self-destruction which is not so much an acknowledgment of death as an attempt to stop time—consummates his design. The suicide marks the displacement of death; in its willful innocence the will “calculates” with death and subjects it to a design.12 The structure produced by the will's displacement of death attains its greatest clarity in As I Lay Dying.

What is noteworthy about As I Lay Dying is that the vehicle of the narrative—the trek which the Bundrens undertake to bury mother and wife—is their obedient response to the willfulness of Addie. The trek is the fulfillment of the promise Anse gave his wife and the embodiment of her vengeful determination to perpetuate her will even after she has died. As Anse tells it, “I give her my promise. Her mind is set on it.”13 Addie's will is still present and it is the presence of her will, her taking revenge (164), which unites the members of the family like the rim of a wheel binds its spokes together (102).

Addie's willfulness, however, is just one way, although the most powerful and decisive, in which the will manifests itself in the novel. “The will”—this is to say—the will itself is at stake.14 Will, however, should not be interpreted purely or even primarily in psychological terms. Rather, human willing, as well as the “willfulness” of animals and the dumb and sometimes violent obstructiveness of insensible natural forces, may be conceived as aspects of the dynamism of nature, where nature is understood in the broadest sense as the power which pervades all that is. This power wills to be: that is, its inherent dynamism drives it to manifest itself in the fullness of its varied potentiality.15 The violence of the raging stream in As I Lay Dying is an expression of the dynamic, inherent drive of nature to manifest its multifarious potency—and this drive to reveal itself is precisely what I call “will.” What is significant about As I Lay Dying is that the entire hierarchy of being is articulated as will, in terms of which human acts of willing may be understood as a special aspect.

The will wills to be; it wills to maintain itself in its unity and self-integrity. Because the will wills to endure, to persist, and thus wills its continued presence, it wills itself as a temporal unity. Darl's reflections on the meaning of “is” and “was” (76), and Vardaman's concern with the “integrity” of horse and fish are reflections on the primordiality of the will (52), as it expresses itself through temporal and physical coherence respectively. In As I Lay Dying being itself—the being of horse and fish, the being of the living or of the dead, the being of fire and flood—is as will.

In the final analysis, any attempt to interpret the novel in the unity of its expression hinges on the meaning of Addie. Throughout the series of episodic adventures which compose the novel, Addie is present through the husk of her corpse and in the driving power of the will frozen in it. Addie's willfulness becomes the goad, or excuse, or torment, which drives the other members of the family. The “dying” of her will unites the Bundrens, but not so much with each other, as with and to the will, as such.

Considered in purely formal terms, the extended “now” of the trek may be characterized as the arrival (future) of what has been. This motion unifies the novel. But that which has been and which continues to arrive and make its presence felt is nothing less than the willfulness Addie so powerfully exemplifies. The arrival of what has been, the approach of the past, opens up the dimension of the present. At first glance the novel merely narrates a series of “presents.” But this is an illusion and a short-lived one, for it is shattered by the inclusion of Addie's chapter. In terms of the narrative “now” of the trek, this chapter, which is placed outside of realistic temporal sequence, throws the entire temporal scheme of the novel into question. Yet the position of Addie's chapter is justified precisely to the extent that she embodies the power of the will; and the will, in turn, unifies the narrative as the arrival (future) of what has been. The successive episodes which make up the time-present of the narrative are centered in and unified through the continuing arrival (future) of the promise Addie extracted from Anse (past). The “linear” sequence of the narrative is therefore formally—and not merely metaphorically—unified in the unity of the three dimensions of time.

In As I Lay Dying the will is the obstruction to dying with death; consequently, death is not experienced as death: it is displaced by the will which wills to endure in presence. The “dying” of the will is thus the afterlife of life. In Go Down, Moses16 the displacement of death by the will to endure is traced back to its root entanglement in the rhetoric of the tradition; in this novel Faulkner's reflections on the closure of the heritage achieve their greatest intensity. The career of Ike shows how the “wilderness heritage” which Ike had inherited from Sam Fathers is lost, not only because the wilderness gradually ceases to exist, but also because Ike misinterprets the meaning of the wilderness in terms of a second, more powerful, heritage. The fourth section of “The Bear,” which is the central text of the novel, dramatizes the process through which Ike appropriates and is expropriated by his dual tradition. In its formal aspect this section is a direct development of the dialogue of Quentin and Shreve in Absalom, Absalom!; in thematic terms the rhetoric of “timeless truth” which it unfolds offers a fundamental insight into the essence of Sutpen's design.

Within the context of “The Bear,” as is well known, the wilderness is opposed to civilization. Ike is initiated into the wilderness when he strips himself of the tools and instruments of human power (the gun), direction (the compass), and measurement (the watch). “Then he relinquished completely to it” (208). He gives up, it seems, the human will to mastery and in return the non-human grants him a rare epiphany. Yet that which is most obviously and fundamentally human cannot be left behind or stripped away. This “residue,” as the fourth section of “The Bear” clearly shows, is language itself, as it is embodied in some unique and historically rooted tradition.

The narrative structure of the fourth section of “The Bear” arises out of an interpretation of a series of texts in the course of the conversation between Ike and McCaslin. The texts which are explicitly placed in the foreground are the ledgers and the notes of Beauchamp. The texts which remain in the background, but which are nevertheless decisive for Ike's understanding of the South and his “wilderness experience,” are the Bible and Keats' “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The latter two texts are the basis of Ike's understanding of Southern history and of his conception of the true as the ideal and ever-abiding (the atemporal).

Truth is related to freedom through the majestic bear which is emblematic of the wilderness throughout the novel. The bear is introduced into the discussion of the historical destiny of the South by the authorial voice as a contribution to the question of freedom (295). The bear, we are told, savours and affirms its freedom by willingly risking death. According to McCaslin's interpretation, the bear comes to know its freedom in the wager against death, and in doing so shows that freedom is always finite. Thus the meaning of the bear and of the wilderness, in turn, is precisely the revelation that all that is free and most powerfully alive is granted by mortality. According to the hunters this revelation is the truth of the wilderness in the sense that the wilderness demonstrates a necessary relation between freedom and mortality.

Within this context the hunt functions as the ritual commemoration of death. The death of the animal also marks the hunter, calls upon him to remember death and thus the origin of freedom in finitude:

I slew you; my bearing must not shame your quitting life. My conduct forever onward must become your death.


To “become” the death of the animal means to take its death to heart and to comport oneself in remembrance of the mystery of death.

I suggest that the acknowledgment of this mystery essentially is the heritage bequeathed to Ike by Sam Fathers. Yet Ike allows his wilderness experience to be interpreted through, and distorted by, another, explicitly literary tradition. In response to the question as to why Ike did not shoot the bear, McCaslin cites the famous “Ode” and says: “He was talking about truth. Truth is one” (297). The truth which the “Ode” reveals to McCaslin is the atemporality of truth. The true is the always-abiding and ever-present. In “The Old People” the narrator articulates this idea of the true in the characteristic rhetoric which echoes the “Ode”:

The buck still and forever leaped, the shaking gun-barrels coming constantly and forever steady at last, crashing, and still out of his instant of immortality the buck sprang, forever immortal.


With this rhetoric truth becomes ideal, atemporal and ahistorical, and it is placed in direct opposition to the truth revealed by the ritual of the hunt.17

Ike does not, in fact, succeed in remaining true to his wilderness experience and the ritual remembrance of death: he misinterprets this experience in terms of the rhetoric of timelessness and strives to free himself from the limitations of a finite, historical existence and the responsibility which this imposes. Thus he is finally content to “see the two of them—himself and the wilderness—as coevals … the two spans running out together, not toward oblivion, nothingness, but into a dimension free of both time and space” (354).

The universal Christian history which Isaac enunciates in the fourth section of “The Bear” is essentially congruent with the rhetoric of timelessness. Ike's Biblically inspired history of America posits a pure, Edenic beginning and awaits the day when time and history will be abolished in an apocalyptic return to the Origin, to the One. It is on the basis of this understanding of truth that the cousins draw the conclusion that the land is “undoubtedly, of and by itself cursed” (298). The true is the eternal; therefore the merely temporal and historical is the untrue, the false. Ike draws the appropriate conclusions from this fallen and degenerate state of social humanity: he forsakes society and withdraws to treasure the original purity of the wilderness ideal, as he has misinterpreted it. Thus the negation of finitude becomes the meaning of Ike's existence; and this dissimulation of death marks it as demonic.

In actual historical fact, by the end of Go Down, Moses the wilderness has practically ceased to be. Whereas in “The Old People” and in “The Bear” the hunt has the positive quality of a ritual commemoration, in “Delta Autumn” the hunt has been degraded to an exercise in killing. The animals have taken on the quality of stock reserved for weekend entertainment. The killing of does and the use of unsportsmanlike weapons turns the reduced wilderness into a slaughterhouse. The dying animal has lost the power to be a messenger of the mystery of death and to mark the hunter with his own mortality; it never rises above the level of butchered stock. This marks the closure of the wilderness legacy Sam Fathers bequeathed to Ike.

The tradition of atemporal, ideal truth, conjoined with Christian history and the rhetoric of the timeless moment is the “design” through which the heritage is closed out in Go Down, Moses. The “closure” of the tradition means that the heritage has lost its potentiality for creative growth and its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The tradition turns in, closes in on itself, closes off the past and hardens into a sterile, merely repetitive series of “presents.” The closure of the tradition means that it has become pure fate and no longer has a destiny. The fate of Ike, as it is revealed in “Delta Autumn,” where he appears as an embittered old man, is indicative of the closure of the heritage. Whether or not the wilderness heritage of Sam Fathers, had it not been distorted by the rhetoric of timelessness, might have provided a center for modern life in some new and transformed fashion remains an intriguing question, yet one which is raised only indirectly in the novel. The central thrust of Faulkner's work, both before and after Go Down, Moses, is to intimate the inevitable closure of the old tradition, and the immense difficulty, if not impossibility, of a “recollective” transformation of the heritage.

In Pylon, for example, which is perhaps Faulkner's most explicit reflection on the city of modern man, the world of the novel is reduced to the mere present. Pylon comments obliquely on the Yoknapatawpha tradition by showing how the interplay of past and future, out of which a tradition generates a living present, has been narrowed to a single dimension of time. The humanity of the mere present, cut off from the past and helpless to project a future which is more than a simple repetition of what it already possesses, is characterized by its “irrevocable homelessness.”18 Cleanth Brooks has commented that in Pylon “the airplane becomes the prime symbol of rootlessness. … It compresses time and almost eliminates place.”19 The temporal world of the novel is compressed into an “eternal” present because the present, cut off from the past, is cut off from those possibilities for being which can bring about qualitative change. But where such possibilities no longer exist, where the present has lost its roots in a heritage, no future can arise.

The pure present is all-pervasive in the encompassing presence of the city:

if he [the reporter] were moving, regardless at what terrific speed and in what loneliness, so was it, paralleling him. He was not escaping it; symbolic and encompassing, it outlay all gasoline-spanned distances and all clock- or sun-stipulated destinations.

(Pylon 283-84)

The city remains “present” despite every change of place and its presence is always the same. The temporal field of the city is thus reduced to the sameness of a single dimension, the present. The sterility of the world which Pylon portrays arises directly out of the fact that the present is absolute and allows no negation.

With the invention of the Snopes clan and through the delineation of what might be called the “Snopes mentality,” Faulkner acknowledges that the world of Yoknapatawpha is also subject to the rootlessness of modern existence which characterizes the world of Pylon. Yet the Snopes are less representative of a foreign invasion than of the acceleration of the forces of decline within the native tradition. With the advent of the Snopes the dynastic designs of Sutpen are adapted to an environment of petty chicanery and small-time business. The Snopes mentality signals the culmination of the tradition expressed through the rhetoric of design.

One must be wary, of course, of reducing “the Snopes” to an abstraction, for Faulkner is careful to individualize each member of the clan. The most “perfect” Snopes is undoubtedly Flem Snopes in The Hamlet, and it is primarily from this figure that I take my point of departure. The triumph of Flem would mean the exhaustion of the tradition in the calculation and exploitation of whatever is immediately available. In this fashion the heritage closes itself off to the incalculable. In The Hamlet Eula Varner exemplifies the powerful, unforeseen irruption of the earth's fecundity into the more or less stable network of everyday calculations:

her entire appearance suggested some symbology out of the old Dionysic times—honey in sunlight and bursting grapes, the writhen bleeding of the crushed fecundated vine beneath the hard rapacious trampling goat-hoof.20

The triumph of the tradition of design threatens to close the world of the novel to what is unknown or radically other, thus to perpetuate itself in the sameness of ever more intricate calculations. With Eula's marriage to the impotent Flem the creative possibilities which she represents are also drawn into the framework of the calculable, and the horizons of the future are narrowed accordingly.

Every attempt to control the future by calculating it is already a denial of the future. This form of willful denial constitutes the essence of demonism in Faulkner's universe. Demonism perpetuates and entrenches itself because to the extent that it calculates the future it is incapable of admitting its own negation. As such, the ostensible future merely becomes a repetition of the present. Despite his being so much less imposing a character than Sutpen, Flem Snopes may be Faulkner's purest exponent of demonism, for demonism goes hand in hand with the day to day “respectability” behind which it conceals and entrenches itself (compare Absalom 278). Demonism wills itself, wills—as Faulkner intimates in A Fable—to “endure” in its calculations.

The general's speech to the corporal is in all likelihood the central philosophical statement of A Fable even if, as one may presume, Faulkner intended the weight of the argument to rest elsewhere. The general's speech is a reflection on what makes man to be man. The old general envisions that man will become a slave of his technology, “his own frankenstein which roasts him alive with heat” and “asphyxiates him with speed.”21 Mankind will merely be left with “the harmless delusion” of mastering the instrument which controls him (354). Yet, despite all this, man will “survive”:

he will survive it because he has that in him which will endure even beyond the ultimate worthless tideless rock freezing slowly in the last red and heatless sunset, because already the next star in the blue immensity of space will be already clamorous with the uproar of his debarkation, his puny and inexhaustible voice still talking, still planning.


Man will survive, endure and prevail as the planning, the calculating animal, always conceiving to “build something higher and faster” and “more efficient” than “ever before” (354). The endurance of man, in the general's view, is, therefore, the endurance of man precisely as designer. This word carries the entire weight of its heritage as we have come to know it in Faulkner's work.

The author's use of the word “endure” in the context of the general's speech is instructive and may bear some reflection. The word “endure” is one of those key words which resonates through Faulkner's novels. Since the word has the temporal implication of persistence through change, the question arises as to who or what persists and maintains itself. The exact connotation of the verb changes with the various subjects it predicates. In the “Appendix” to The Sound and the Fury the phrase “They endured” is added solely to Dilsey's name, although other Blacks are also listed.22 Dilsey's endurance is more than a question of mere survival, because the word acknowledges her ongoing struggle for the welfare of her “family.” Disley's endurance is founded on her Christian faith. As such, “endurance” takes on distinctly positive connotations, but its range of application is just as surely circumscribed.

In A Fable, if we take the passage quoted above as our point of departure, “to endure” means to persist in action. Action here is understood as a planning which produces results. As such, man's endurance is manifested through his ability to adapt himself to circumstances and to turn these to his own advantage in order to control and manipulate his environment. To “endure” means to effectuate. Yet to the extent that he prevails over the world in this way, the danger arises that man will forget to ask who he himself is in his exclusive concern for the objects of his designs.

Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech echoes the words of the general, but beyond this it constitutes a reply to, and a rejection of, his position. In Faulkner's estimation, the essential situation of modern man is defined by the possible advent of the “end of man” brought about by the death of “man's soul.” “There are no longer,” Faulkner continues, “problems of the spirit.”23 This is to say that modern technological man has “forgotten” to take these problems, and thus the question of who he is, to heart.

Faulkner rejects the notion that man will prevail by virtue of his “puny inexhaustible voice, still talking,” and he dismisses the idea that the ultimate measure of man's endurance is his ability to plan and calculate. Rather, man “is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” The duty of the writer, in turn, is to “help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him” of the old truths of the heart (Address 724).

The triumph of technological man and the exclusively calculative mode of thought which characterizes him threatens the complete closure of the tradition by reducing it to what can be represented and reckoned.24 To the extent to which the unappropriated possibilities—for the past continues to arrive as possibility—of the past are forgotten, and the future comes to presence merely in the form of pre-determined designs, the time-field of modern man is reduced to a present which changes and “progresses” while remaining essentially the same. In calling upon the writer to remember compassion, honour and sacrifice, and all the old virtues of the human heart, Faulkner calls upon him to appropriate what man has been in order to hold open the possible advent of a future which cannot be reckoned in advance. Love or friendship do not calculate effects in advance in terms of a pre-conceived design. They necessarily place themselves in the open, risk the unexpected, and leaving themselves open to negation, first become free for what has never been before. By the same measure, a heritage still has a future when those who carry the past—Ike or Quentin, for example—let the past go, leave the accumulated past be, in order to free themselves for those as yet unrealized possibilities inherent in the heritage.

The attitude of mind which expresses a willingness to let go of certainties, thus to stand in the openness of time, Faulkner sometimes dramatizes as grief. In most cases, in Go Down, Moses, for example, the mood of grief is not distinguished from regret. Yet grief is essentially opposed to regret. Regret clings to what has been and strives to maintain what has passed, if only in memory, if only in the unchanging atemporal realm of ideal images. Quentin's state of mind in The Sound and the Fury, for example, is fundamentally one of regret. Quentin is unwilling to allow the ideal image he has of Caddy and Southern virtue to pass away; he is unwilling to let these images, which are just as intimately images of himself, die. As his father points out, Quentin “cannot bear to think that someday it (Caddy's shame) will no longer hurt” (220). Yet to let the past go, to let it be, without, in turn, becoming forgetful or indifferent, would be to grieve. As such, grief would be a willingness to endure letting-go, a willingness which cherishes what has passed away and which commemorates what has died without clinging or grasping. In short, grief would be “recollection,” properly understood as the liberating gathering of the past. Within the concrete limits of her situation, Dilsey is liberated through the gravity, the “grief,” of recollection.

Understood in this fashion, “grief” would also be the word for the comportment which Sam Fathers attempts to bequeath to Ike. With Ike's initiation into the fraternity of hunters, Sam Fathers, as we are told, “consecrated and absolved” the boy, “not from love and pity for all which lived and ran,” but from “weakness and regret” (Moses [Go Down, Moses] 182). As opposed to “regret,” “grief” would be the name for “love and pity,” which loves in letting go. “Grief” would name the willingness to allow oneself and all one's calculations to shatter against the awesome majesty of death.25

A tradition, such as the tradition of design which Quentin inherits, is preserved and handed down through the efficacy of its characteristic rhetoric. And if the heritage which has been handed down to Quentin more generally tends toward the closure, as opposed to the liberation, of creative possibilities for life, this may be referred back to the semantics of the dominant tradition itself. And this is indeed the case. The rhetoric of idealism and design bears witness to the exhaustion of a heritage.

This leaves the language of “honour and sacrifice,” which was so dear to Faulkner, in a precarious position, for the same rhetoric of honor is central to the perceptibly failed heritages of the Sutpens and Compsons and McCaslins. The outlines of a possible recovery, or “recollection,” of the language of sacrifice, in turn, remain indistinct, although the case of Bon can give us a clue: the heritage of the past can only be recovered through a creative transformation of the language of the past. Thus the transcendence of time could become an “overpassing to time.” Such recollection would pass over from what sacrifice pre-eminently has been to what it was and could be again—in a new appropriation of the ritual remembrance of death. Such remembrance requires a new language, and as Nietzsche convincingly teaches, the surrender of the will for revenge. Whatever the attendant difficulties, it is clear that Faulkner does not see the abandonment of the rhetoric of sacrifice as a serious option. Rather than this, the course of Faulkner's work may be interpreted as a consistent attempt not only to delineate the traditions which have distorted the language of sacrifice, nor simply as a portrayal of the difficulties of those, such as Quentin, who are faced with the task of renewing their heritages, but, on the most fundamental level, as an effort to keep the possibilities for life evoked by the language of sacrifice alive.

The language of sacrifice and honor is historical and therefore subject to the exigencies and vicissitudes of circumstance, and to the often self-serving decisions of the men and women who call upon these words to justify themselves and perhaps to absolve themselves of their actions. For the demonic takes root in language and realizes itself through the debasement of language. Because the old words are in constant danger of distortion and decay, the task of the writer, as Faulkner saw it, is to articulate a world within which the language of sacrifice may be allowed its full and authentic reverberation and appeal, even as the mask of what is false is ruthlessly exposed and stripped away.

In this respect the writer's vocation bears a remarkable similarity to the philosopher's. In Being and Time Heidegger calls upon philosophy to “preserve the force of the most elemental words in which human being expresses itself” in order to keep “the common understanding from levelling them off” into “unintelligibility.”26 The language of sacrifice becomes essentially unintelligible when words become labels and ends in themselves. The task of literary criticism, in turn, is to bring the elemental words of the human heart to conceptual clarity, in order to free the possibilities for life which an author has opened up through his work as existential possibilities for the reader of the artistic work.27 It is the responsibility of the literary critic to intensify the conflicts which a work articulates in terms of the unitary set of existential possibilities out of which these tensions arise. In revealing these possibilities, in turn, he may finally step aside and allow the world of the novel to speak out of the depths of its own simplicity.


  1. Absalom, Absalom! (New York: Random House, 1936) 238.

  2. I discuss the structure of Sutpen's design in detail in “Absalom, Absalom!: An Ontological Approach to Sutpen's ‘Design,’” Mosaic 29.1 (Spring 1986): 45-56.

  3. Gary Lee Stonum, Faulkner's Career: An Internal Literary History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979) 131.

  4. As Olga W. Vickery (The Novels of William Faulkner [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964] 87) and many subsequent critics have pointed out.

  5. See Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. ed. Garrett Barden and John Cumming (New York: Seabury Press, 1975) 91-99.

  6. See Paul Ricoeur, “Narrative Time,” Critical Inquiry 7.1 (1980) 169.

  7. Berndt Ostendorf, “An Anthropological Approach to Yoknapatawpha,” in New Directions in Faulkner Studies: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, ed. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1983) 95.

  8. Warwick Wadlington, Reading Faulknerian Tragedy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987) 175.

  9. Recall Faulkner's famous image of the thirteen blackbirds in Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia 1957-1958, ed. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner (New York: Vintage Books, 1965) 273-74.

  10. See Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 12th ed. (Tuebingen: Max Niemeyer, 1972) Section 74 (382-87). In the English edition, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (London: SCM Press, 1963) 434-39.

  11. Heidegger, Sein and Zeit 385-86; Being and Time 437-38.

  12. I have dealt at length with Quentin's text in “Time and Time-Field: The Structure of Anticipation and Recollection in the Quentin-Section of The Sound and the Fury,Dalhousie Review 65.1 (Spring 1985) 29-43.

  13. As I Lay Dying (New York: Random House, 1939; 1964) 109.

  14. Thomas L. McHaney (William Faulkner's “The Wild Palms” [Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1975]) interprets The Wild Palms as an extended reflection on the primordial reality of the will.

  15. On the will as dynamism, see William J. Richardson, Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to Thought (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974) 364-67, where Richardson gives an account of Heidegger's interpretation of Nietzsche.

  16. Go Down, Moses (New York: Random House, 1942).

  17. Patrick McGee (“Gender and Generation in Faulkner's ‘The Bear,’” The Faulkner Journal 1.1 [Fall 1985]) has noted the conceptual struggle in “The Bear” between a concept of history inscribed in the ledgers and “the myth of an original, uncorrupted nature, of a world without writing” (46). The myth of the woods, however, has its own logos, its own prior inscription in the Bible and the neoplatonic text of Keats' “Ode.” The ritual of death which emerges as the authentic heritage of the woods lacks inscription and is therefore easily displaced, distorted by the governing tradition.

  18. Pylon (New York: Random House, 1932; 1962) 79.

  19. William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978) 187.

  20. The Hamlet (New York: Random House, 1940) 107.

  21. A Fable (New York: Random House, 1954; Modern Library Edition, 1966) 353.

  22. The Sound and the Fury (New York: Random House, 1929, 1956) 427.

  23. “Address upon Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature,” in The Portable Faulkner, ed. Malcolm Cowley (New York: The Viking Press, 1967) 723-24.

  24. On the distinction between calculative and meditative thinking see Martin Heidegger, Gelassenheit (Pfullingen: Neske, 1959); translated as Discourse on Thinking, trans. J. Anderson and E. H. Freund (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).

  25. In Being and Time the willingness to allow one's “self” to shatter against death is the key to authentic existence and is called “being toward death” (Sein zum Tode) 279-311; Sein und Zeit 235-67.

  26. Heidegger, Being and Time 262; Sein und Zeit 220. Italics in original. Translation slightly emended.

  27. Heidegger notes that “in ‘poetical’ discourse, the communication of the existential possibilities of one's state-of-mind can become an aim in itself, and this amounts to a disclosing of existence” (Being and Time 205; Sein und Zeit 162). Robert C. Post (“A Theory of Genre: Romance, Realism, and Moral Reality,” American Quarterly 33 [1981]: 369) has noted that “a criterion of major and unvarying importance is that the quality of a novel depends upon the richness and depth with which it illuminates the possibilities of human value and significance.” In “Metaphor and the Main Problem of Hermeneutics” (in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, ed. Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart [Boston: Beacon Press, 1978] 144), Ricoeur writes as follows: “Far from saying that a subject (a reader) already masters his own way of being in the world and projects it as a priori of his reading, I would say that interpretation is the process by which the disclosure of new modes of being—or, if you prefer Wittgenstein to Heidegger, of new ‘forms of life’—gives to the subject a new capacity of knowing himself.” Italics in original.

John N. Duvall (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9752

SOURCE: Duvall, John N. “Androgyny in The Wild Palms: Variations on Light in August.” In Faulkner's Marginal Couple: Invisible, Outlaw, and Unspeakable Communities, pp. 37-56. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Duvall examines constructions of gender in The Wild Palms and Light in August.]

“What?” the plump convict said. “Hemophilic? You know what that means? … That's a calf that's a bull and a cow at the same time.”

—William Faulkner, The Wild Palms

When François Pitavy claims that Light in August begins “a search for a new form—a contrapuntal structure—which reaches an extreme development … in The Wild Palms,” he makes a promising move to connect Faulkner's seventh and eleventh novels (7-8). But this link may be elaborated. The Wild Palms, in fact, repeats not only the narrative structure of Light in August but also the earlier novel's delineation of the structures of community. Moreover, an Agrarian voice speaks through the criticism on The Wild Palms, just as it does on Light in August, inviting the reader to accept the values of the novel's textual communities.1 Perhaps out of its concern for maintaining the sexual code comes Agrarianism's condemnation of Charlotte Rittenmeyer that also implicitly judges female sexuality; this judgment often sounds like the voice of Harry Wilbourne's “They,” the forces of respectability and conventionality.2 Read with Light in August as an intertext, however, The Wild Palms more clearly questions our culture's binary construction of gender. This intertextual relation recalls the self-reflexive cohesion of “Wild Palms” and “Old Man,” another two narratives that publishers and readers initially had trouble connecting.

Both Malcolm Cowley's extraction of “Old Man” from The Wild Palms for The Portable Faulkner and the New American Library's decision to print the two narratives as discrete units rather than alternating chapters, it is now generally agreed, showed a misunderstanding of a profoundly and playfully unified text.3 Responding to Saxe Commins' news of the New American Library's plan, Faulkner wrote in a letter of August 3, 1953: “Dismembering THE WILD PALMS will in my opinion destroy the overall impact which I intended” (Brodsky and Hamblin, 117). Cowley's decision is perhaps more understandable if we recall how the openings of the two narratives stress their difference.4 “Wild Palms” immediately establishes a contract with the reader that promises conventional realism: “The knocking sounded again, at once discreet and peremptory, while the doctor was descending the stairs, the flashlight's beam lancing on before him down the brown-stained stairwell and into the brown-stained tongue-and-groove box of the lower hall” (WP [The Wild Palms], 3); “Old Man,” however, offers a fairy/tall tale: “Once (it was in Mississippi, in May, in the flood year 1927) there were two convicts” (WP, 23). The endings of the two stories—the one a tragic indictment of the race of man, the other a comic indictment of the race of women—again signal difference. Harry Wilbourne still affirms the value of his love for Charlotte: “between grief and nothing I will take grief” (WP, 324). And the tall convict provides the punch line to his narrative's misogynistic joke: “Women _____t!” (WP, 339). Thomas L. McHaney assures us that “Faulkner's manuscripts and typescripts and his public statements about the writing of The Wild Palms reveal unmistakably that he conceived and executed ‘Old Man’ as a chapter-by-chapter counterpoint to” the other narrative, “Wild Palms” (WFWP, xv). An interesting contradiction, however, occurs in two of Faulkner's statements about the novel. “The story I was trying to tell,” Faulkner confided to a first-year English class in 1957, “was the story of Charlotte and Harry Wilbourne. I decided that it needed a contrapuntal quality like music. And so I wrote the other story simply to underline the story of Charlotte and Harry” (Gwynn and Blotner, 171, emphasis added). The hierarchy of the two narratives seems clear: “Wild Palms” is serious, realistic, tragic, and primary while “Old Man” is nonserious, imaginary, comic, and secondary. Yet Faulkner's 1955 claim about this novel works in a different direction:

I did not know it would be two separate stories until after I had started the book. When I reached the end of the first section of The Wild Palms, I realized suddenly that something was missing, it needed emphasis, something to lift it like counterpoint in music. So I wrote the “Old Man” story until the “Wild Palms” story rose back to pitch. Then I stopped the “Old Man” story at what is now its first section, and took up the “Wild Palms” story until it began to sag. Then I raised it to pitch again with another section of its antithesis, which is the story of a man who got his love and spent the rest of the book fleeing from it, even to the extent of voluntarily going back to jail where he would be safe. They are only two stories by chance, perhaps necessity.

(Meriwether and Millgate, 247-248, emphasis added)

“Old Man” in this version becomes necessary, something that makes possible both “Wild Palms” and The Wild Palms. This discrepancy in Faulkner's two descriptions of his novel embodies Derrida's twin logics of the supplement (Of Grammatology, 144-145). “Old Man” is at one and the same time the supplement as surplus, underscoring something already present in “Wild Palms,” and the supplement as a completion, filling a lack in “Wild Palms.” Thus are the two narratives doubly intimate.

The relation between The Wild Palms and Light in August, while not something Faulkner claimed to intend, also partakes of chance and necessity, suggesting another moment of supplementarity. Some traditional Faulknerians who see the Yoknapatawpha county line as the boundary of Faulkner's “genius” may resist my turn into non-Yoknapatawpha regions. Such critics do well to stay within the county borders, since the foregrounded androgyny of the characters outside Yoknapatawpha returns to problematize Agrarian assumptions about gender within Jefferson and makes the non-Yoknapatawpha a dangerous supplement indeed.5 In both novels two sets of women and men form unlikely unions that do not escape, but that do call into question the values of the larger community. The tragic lovers Harry Wilbourne and Charlotte Rittenmeyer are to Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden what the tall convict and the hill woman are to Byron Bunch and Lena Grove. Like Joanna, who orchestrated the early part of her relationship with Joe after the fashion of romantic love, complete with notes in the hollow of a tree, Charlotte has notions of romantic love largely determined by literary convention. Harry, though dissimilar to Joe in most respects, remains the passive partner in the relationship. Both males kill with a blade the women they love in response to a struggle over how the couple will live their future lives together. In both cases, the struggle originates as a reaction to the news of the woman's pregnancy. The tall convict and the hill woman, on the other hand, are almost a parodic inversion of Byron Bunch and Lena Grove—a story of a man's hatred, rather than love, at first sight.

Over and above these larger structural parallels between The Wild Palms and Light in August, the implicit and explicit contracts that delineate characters and define character relations in the opening chapters of the two novels prove quite similar. In “Wild Palms,” the conversations between the doctor and his rental agent, Cofer, and then between the doctor and his wife serve much the same function as Armstid's conversations first with Winterbottom and later with his wife. Just as the appearance of Lena Grove, a stranger, becomes the occasion for community values to reveal themselves, so too does the arrival of Harry and Charlotte, who are strangers in the small gulf coast town in which they find themselves. Although The Wild Palms takes place outside Yoknapatawpha County, the agrarian community is never far away and remains a site of exclusion, a place that marginalizes difference.

Winterbottom and Armstid, as I pointed out in chapter 2, ostensibly discuss the price of a cultivator while speculating on Lena Grove. The conversation between the doctor and Cofer also has an economic reality; we discover that the doctor is the lessor and Harry and Charlotte are the lessees.6 This conversation, more than setting out the terms of the rental agreement, allows the larger community (represented in its minimal structure of two people talking) to classify the strangers. Cofer, in commenting on Harry and Charlotte, focuses on differences. He notices that Harry has little money but that he is unconcerned about it “like he was Vanderbilt or somebody” (WP, 7). In describing Charlotte, Cofer provides the first clue to Charlotte's sensual androgyny: “She's got on pants … I mean, not these ladies' slacks but pants, man's pants” (WP, 6). Because Charlotte wears pants that are “just exactly too little for her in just exactly the right places” (WP, 7), Cofer concludes that Harry and Charlotte aren't married: “Oh, he says they are and I don't think he is lying about her and maybe he aint even lying about himself. The trouble is, they aint married to each other, she aint married to him” (WP, 8). In Cofer's risible silence lurks the judgment of patriarchy—female sexuality, manifesting itself through tight jeans, is a dangerous surplus. In this one small piece of character delineation—Charlotte's jeans and Cofer's reading of Charlotte's jeans—we find a microcosm of conventional society's relation to the lovers.

The doctor's wife, like Cofer, notices difference, especially a confusion of gender roles in the new couple: “She told the doctor about [Harry's] cleaning (or trying to clean) a mess of fish at the kitchen steps, told the doctor about it with bitter and outraged conviction” (WP, 9). She is also disturbed that Harry rather than Charlotte does their cooking. In a number of ways, the doctor's wife, Martha, is a reincarnation of Light in August's Martha Armstid. Mrs. Armstid is a “gray woman not plump and not thin, manhard, workhard, in a serviceable gray garment” (LA [Light in August], 17) “with a savage screw of gray hair at the base of her skull” (LA, 19). The other Martha “with her gray hair screwed into papers” (WP, 10) is “a shapeless woman yet not fat … who had begun to turn gray all over about ten years ago, as if hair and complexion both were being subtly altered, along with the shade of her eyes, by the color of the house dresses which she apparently chose to match them” (WP, 9). More importantly, Martha Armstid's charity, both the food she cooks and the money she gives Lena, is performed with the same “grim Samaritan husbandry of good women” (WP, 10) the doctor's Martha exhibits in preparing gumbo for Charlotte and Harry. Such acts of “charity” (“uncompromising Christian deed[s] performed not with sincerity or pity but through duty” [WP, 10]), often pointed at as signs of the health of the small Southern community, are anything but altruistic gestures. In accepting charity the recipient acknowledges the giver's right to judge; it is an implicit contract in which food is exchanged for an affirmation of the hegemonic value system.

Martha Armstid's desire to be quickly rid of the socially stigmatized Lena (“come sunup you hitch up the team and take her away from here. Take her all the way to Jefferson, if you want” [LA, 24]) again points to the hollowness of her charity and anticipates a similar moment in The Wild Palms; trying to rid her property of another socially stigmatized entity, the unmarried couple, Martha ignores the seriousness of Charlotte's condition and tells her husband, who is bent on bringing Harry to justice: “Put that [gun] down and give [Charlotte] whatever it is so she can get out of that bed. Then give them some money and call a taxi-cab, not an ambulance. Give him some of my money if you wont your own” (WP, 290).7 Martha's pronouncement on men that follows points out the complicity of men, specifically the doctor and Wilbourne, in acting out male justice: “I never yet saw one man fail to back up another, provided what they wanted to do was just foolish enough” (WP, 290). Martha Armstid is more succinct, but the sentiment is the same: “You durn men” (LA, 18).

A more significant parallel between Light in August and The Wild Palms is the recurrence of the father figure as destinator or quest giver. This ideological destinator first appears in the opening pages of “Wild Palms” through the delineation of the doctor. The doctor “married the wife his father had picked out for him and within four years owned the house which his father had built and assumed the practice which his father had created …” (WP, 4). The father even forms his son's beliefs about sleepwear and tobacco. The opening of the second chapter of “Wild Palms” focuses on Harry's relation to his father's “will” and creates distinct parallels between the doctor of the first section and Harry.8 Harry's father is also a doctor who plans his son's future. Although leaving the boy an orphan at age two, Harry's father is clearly a destinator, his desire made law through the word; Harry literally is subject to the will of the father as his father's legal will provides a small sum of money for Harry to use to pursue a medical career: “To my son, Henry Wilbourne. … I hereby bequeath and set aside the sum of two thousand dollars, to be used for the furthering and completing of his college course and the acquiring of his degree and license to practice in Surgery and Medicine, believing that the aforesaid sum will be amply sufficient for that purpose” (WP, 31-32).

The sum of money proves woefully inadequate, leaving Harry in poverty, yet we can see the extent to which he has internalized the father voice of the patriarchal destinator when a fellow intern, Flint, invites Harry on his twenty-seventh birthday to a party in the Vieux Carre. Faulkner's italics represent the dialogue of internal voices: “Now he did begin to think [about the invitation], Why not? Why really not? and now he could almost see the guardian of the old trained peace and resignation rise to arms, the grim Moses, not alarmed, impervious to alarm, just gauntly and fanatically interdicting: No. You will not go. Let well enough alone. You have peace now; you want no more” (WP, 35). The literal will, the physical document that is the law of and from Harry's father, becomes internalized as the voice of Freud's founder of monotheism, the lawgiver Moses. That the portion of the will pertaining to Harry is actually represented in the novel reminds us that the tall convict's desire, like consciousness itself, is an effect of writing. Just as Harry Wilbourne, whose direction in life is born in the will, lets the words of a text play themselves out through him in the first twenty-six years of his life, so does the tall convict allow pulp Western-detective fiction to author him.

The tall convict, whose outrage in prison is “directed not at the men who had foiled his crime, not even at the lawyers and judges who had sent him [to Parchman], but at the writers” (WP, 23, emphasis added), proves an unsophisticated theorist of fiction, expecting in good faith that fiction should provide one with useful, accurate models for living one's life. His belief explains why, when he made his plan to rob a train, he read and reread his paperbacks, “comparing and weighing story and method against story and method, taking the good from each” (WP, 24).

Harry also momentarily reflects on fiction's relation to reality. After he has found the wallet full of money, he tries to figure out how to kill time until he goes on duty. His thoughts speak almost directly to the issue of the subject's creation through ideology: “Maybe I can read. … That's it. It's all exactly backward. It should be the books, the people in the books inventing and reading about us—the Does and Roes and Wilbournes and Smiths—males and females but without pricks or cunts” (WP, 52). Harry, in a moment of frustrated desire (caused by his inability to consummate his love with Charlotte), makes a teasingly ambiguous statement about the way characters in books produce the desire of readers. The confusion turns on whether the two concluding phrases (“the Does and Roes and Wilbournes and Smiths” and “males and females but without pricks and cunts”) refer to “us” (“real” people) or “the people in books” (not people at all but characters). A strictly grammatical reading would insist that both phrases modify “us,” leaving us with the odd sense that real people do not have genitals but that characters do. But as this moment represents a character's thought, we perhaps should not expect the sentence rigorously to follow the rules of grammar. (Thus, both phrases could refer to “people in books” or the first phrase could modify “us” and the second might modify “people in books.”) At any rate, Harry's list of generic names, whether of generic readers who should be characters or of generic characters who should be readers, is startling because he interrupts the series “Doe, Roe, Smith” with his own name, Wilbourne, making this a densely self-reflexive passage, one that traverses the line between subject and object. The reader reads of a character in a novel who distinguishes between real people and characters in novels but who blurs that very distinction in the moment he makes it by naming himself as a fictional character-reader.

Unlike the literalist tall convict, Harry correctly senses that fictional characters do influence the behavior of real people; novels may not be the best way to learn to rob a train, but they do provide models of how men and women can interact. In fact, Harry need look no further than to his own lover for proof of this. Charlotte's conception of love has a textual base; she tells Harry: “The second time I ever saw you I learned what I had read in books but I never had actually believed: that love and suffering are the same thing and that the value of love is the sum of what you have to pay for it and any time you get it cheap you have cheated yourself” (WP, 48, emphasis added). So in a strange way one of Charlotte's patriarchal destinators might be Papa Hemingway, since her lesson on love corresponds to Jake Barnes' “fine philosophy” of values in The Sun Also Rises (Hemingway, 148).9

In their attempts to avoid life's troubles by immersing themselves in exclusively male worlds, both Harry and the tall convict reveal themselves as literary cousins of Byron Bunch. Byron's escape from life in the all-male world of the planing mill is but a modified version of Harry's intern's dorm or the tall convict's prison. All three have their homosocial worlds shattered by sudden, unexpected encounters with strangers who are women. Both Byron and Harry immediately fall in love; but the tall convict's instant hatred of the hill woman does not negate his relation to Byron. Rather, the tall convict's story parodies Byron's. The tall convict, like Byron, has in his male world a special friend with whom he is particularly intimate, even to the point of being manacled together; the plump convict is, then, the tall convict's Hightower. Like Hightower, the plump convict, who has failed at all the manly occupations at Parchman State Farm, is delineated effeminately: “In a long apron like a woman, he cooked and swept and dusted in the deputy warden's barracks” (WP, 27). Similar to Byron's encounter with Lena, which causes him to end his communion with Hightower, the tall convict's rescue of the hill woman signals an end to the relationship with the plump convict. The parodic twist in the tall convict's story is that the similar exchange—a replacement of the male companion with a female—is unwilled and unwanted.

The Hightower-Byron relationship involves deep emotional commitment and is especially poignant when Byron chooses to reject his old friend. In “Old Man” the exchange occurs simply as the result of circumstance—the plump convict sees a chance to save himself from drowning and escapes the rowboat by grabbing onto a tree branch. The flood's current then takes the tall convict to another tree where the hill woman awaits him. The hill woman, like so many of the characters in The Wild Palms, is androgynously marked; when we first see her, she is wearing “a calico wrapper and an army private's tunic and a sunbonnet … her stockingless feet in a pair of man's unlaced brogans” (WP, 148), a description that recalls Lena Grove, who “wears no stockings” with her “dusty, heavy, manlooking shoes” (LA, 12).

Although the tall convict plays a similar role to Byron's, acting as a surrogate for the absent father, protecting and aiding the hill woman before, during, and after the birth of her child, the tall convict's relationship with the woman is certainly not based on love. Byron falls in love with Lena at first sight, but the tall convict's “first startled glance” merely reveals a pregnant woman “who could have been his sister if he had a sister, his wife if he had not entered the penitentiary at an age scarcely out of adolescence” (WP, 148, emphasis added). This last detail is telling for surely the tall convict is a case of arrested development, a man still psychologically a teenage boy. Here also the tall convict's putative destinator, pulp fiction, is recalled. We learn that he continued, after his incarceration, “to consume the impossible pulp-printed fables … carefully smuggled into the penitentiary” (WP, 149) even though these are the very texts that had “outraged” his eyes and robbed him “of liberty and honor and pride” (WP, 23-24). Hence the tall convict's disappointment that the hill woman is not the “Helen … [or] living Garbo” (WP, 149) he had hoped to rescue can be read as a male adolescent's idealization of woman and corresponding fear of actual women. Harry Wilbourne—another case of arrested sociosexual development, we should remember—writes pulp fiction and, although writing in a different subgenre of pulp fiction, Harry is metaphorically linked to the tall convict in a relationship of production and consumption of adolescent sexual fantasy.

The tall convict's goal, then, which is to get rid of the hill woman and “turn his back … on all pregnant and female life forever and return to that monastic existence of shotguns and shackles” (WP, 153), is primarily derived from his reading. It might be argued that the tall convict's first sweetheart, “a girl a year or so younger than he, short-legged, with ripe breasts and a heavy mouth and dull eyes like ripe muscadines” (WP, 338) is his legitimate destinator, since “the thought occurred to him that possibly if it had not been for her he would not actually have attempted” the train robbery (WP, 338). And yet the tall convict has already read his sweetheart into a pulp fiction plot; that is, as subject (which is ideologically produced by pulp fiction), the tall convict subjectifies the woman, postulating for her some “Capone's uncandled bridehood” as “her destiny and fate” complete with a “fast car filled with authentic colored glass and machine guns, running traffic lights” (WP, 338). The tall convict, who like Byron Bunch is described as steady, honest, and reliable, is influenced in another way by reading pulp fiction. He reads, one should note, material close to Joe Christmas' fiction of choice, “a magazine of that type whose covers bear either pictures of young women in underclothes or pictures of men in the act of shooting one another with pistols” (LA, 121). At times it seems as though the tall convict were Byron Bunch trying to talk like Joe Christmas. One might speculate that the convict's terse, tough talk to the hill woman reflects his reading of Wild West pulps.

Minority voices notwithstanding, conventional wisdom still sees Charlotte, because of her androgynous delineation, as another of Faulkner's warped and twisted masculinized women.10 Her androgyny is foregrounded when she meets Harry. She is described as having “that broad, simple, profoundly delicate and feminine articulation of Arabian mares” (WP, 38). One might recall here Joe Christmas' words when he leaves Brown to sleep in the barn: “Even a mare horse is a kind of man” (LA, 119). Charlotte's yellow eyes stare at Harry “with a speculative sobriety like a man might” (WP, 39). As she takes Harry by the wrist, her grasp is “simple, ruthless and firm” (WP, 39), all adjectives of masculinity in Faulknerian discourse; the description in fact recalls Joe Christmas' adoptive father, Simon McEachern. Even her handwriting is ambiguous, since it appears masculine at first but is actually “profoundly feminine” (WP, 81).

We see in Charlotte a portrait of a woman who desires, a woman in charge of herself and her relationships. Initially, she scripts her relationship with Harry: she invites him to dinner, she decides not to make love to him in the hotel room, she orchestrates the consummation of their love on the train to Chicago. Throughout the novel she more frequently initiates sex than Harry; this is what many Faulknerians have difficulty with—the woman who desires, for to desire is to be a subject (no matter how socially constituted that subject is), not an object. But Charlotte's desire encompasses more than sex. As she puts it more than once, “I like bitching, and making things with my hands” (WP, 88). As this sentence suggests, Charlotte's sexuality is closely linked to her art. In her desire to control her body as a sexual being and to create art, she relates herself, oddly enough, to Joe Christmas when she continues her speech: “I don't think that's too much to be permitted to like, to want to have and keep” (WP, 88); just as Christmas' desire for the peace of community—which is all he wanted—fails because of racial ambiguity, Charlotte's quest for subjectivity is too much to ask for in the world of “Wild Palms” because she threatens society's traditional gender distinctions.

Perhaps then the Agrarian hostility toward Charlotte can be explained by the feeling Harry first develops when he tries to argue against engaging a drawing room on the train and that he finally articulates when she announces she intends to work in the studio apartment she finds in Chicago: “There's a part of her that doesn't love anybody, anything” (WP, 82). What Harry learns is that there is a part of Charlotte that cannot be touched, that is inaccessible to him; this zone is her desire to create art, which neatly reverses Agrarianism's male subject/female object dichotomy. Instead of being the natural creator (mother), Charlotte wants to be the cultural creator (artist). Her desire to appropriate a traditionally male role threatens the Agrarian critic's way of seeing women.

The Agrarian stance toward Charlotte carries over into her relationship with Harry. This relationship, like Joanna and Joe's in Light in August, is seen not merely as fundamentally flawed but as perverse. But, stepping away from the Agrarian fear of the strong woman, we can see in Charlotte and Harry's relationship another alternative community based on shared codes of eating, thinking, and sexuality. The health of this alternative community can be seen in how quickly the defensive pretenses between the two disappear when they first meet. Initially, perhaps intimidated by Harry's apparent wealth—he wears a tuxedo—Charlotte lies about her talents, claiming to be a painter. Harry's frankness in revealing that the tuxedo is not his and that it is his twenty-seventh birthday prompts an equally revealing response from Charlotte, who mentions not only how she got the scar on her face while fighting with her brother but also obliquely her incestuous desire for her brother and the reason for marrying Rat (Rittenmeyer was her brother's roommate at college). Charlotte then clears up her lie that has bothered some critics, explaining that she sculpts. In a longish speech she tells Harry about her desire to create art “that displaces air and displaces water and when you drop it, it's your foot that breaks and not the shape” (WP, 41). This is not something she could say to her businessman husband with his perpetual expensive double-breasted suits. Charlotte and Harry's immediate ability to communicate openly points to the communion they will achieve.

McHaney asserts that when Charlotte and Harry are in Chicago “they are not in a community but in an indifferent impersonal world” (WFWP, 71). Because they are not in a cohesive community, “the lovers slip into mechanical roles,” since Chicago represents “a society which doesn't put obstacles in [their] way” (WFWP, 71). Yet a conventional morality does obtain in Chicago and elsewhere in Charlotte and Harry's travels north, west, and south. In Chicago as well as Jefferson there exists a structured hypocrisy of the hegemony. Harry's losing his job at the charity hospital where he tests people for syphilis is a case in point. Because Charlotte fails to write Rat one month, her husband sends a detective to look for her. The detective reveals the adultery to Harry's employer, and, as Harry puts it, “I was fired from a job which existed because of moral turpitude, on the grounds of moral turpitude” (WP, 96).

Of all the “deviant” couples in Faulkner, Charlotte and Harry are probably the most self-conscious of their marginality. In part this self-consciousness may be linked to Faulkner's own recently ended marginal communion with Meta Carpenter. In April of 1937, Carpenter married Wolfgang Rebner, temporarily ending a relationship with Faulkner that had begun in Hollywood two years before. Undoubtedly the most bizarre incident of this passionate relationship occurred when Faulkner decided to “introduce” Carpenter to his wife. After a short trip home in the summer of 1937, Faulkner returned to Hollywood with his wife and daughter. One night, at Faulkner's request, Ben Wasson brought Carpenter as his date over to the Faulkners' for dinner. This uncomfortable scene, which the author seems to have designed to humiliate Estelle Faulkner, registers the extreme contempt he must have felt for his wife at this time. The moment, however, made Carpenter sympathetic toward a rival whom she previously had held in disdain.11

Although in life it is William who teaches Meta self-consciousness by such acts as the one just mentioned, in The Wild Palms Charlotte must teach Harry of their difference. When they first arrive in Chicago, Harry objects to Charlotte's finding an apartment so quickly, since he believes their first few days together should be a honeymoon. Charlotte responds, saying: “Listen: it's got to be all honeymoon, always. Forever and ever, until one of us dies. It cant be anything else. Either heaven, or hell: no comfortable safe peaceful purgatory between for you and me to wait in until good behavior or forbearance or shame or repentance overtakes us” (WP, 83). Charlotte defines love almost exclusively in opposition to the relationships of married couples. It is this opposition, ultimately, that proves to be Charlotte and Harry's undoing, a point I will return to later in this chapter. One of the worst things Charlotte can accuse Harry of is acting like a husband; at the Wisconsin cabin she tells him: “My God, I never in my life saw anybody try as hard to be a husband as you do. Listen to me, you lug. If it was just a successful husband and food and a bed I wanted, why the hell do you think I am here instead of back there where I had them?” (WP, 116-117).

The text, at one level, seems to support Charlotte's distinction between their love and the relations of married couples. The two representations of marriage in “Wild Palms” are hardly positive. The middle-aged doctor and his wife who appear in the first and last chapters of “Wild Palms” lead a barren, lifeless existence, lacking in purpose. It is difficult not to read this unhappily married couple as a veiled commentary on the Faulkners' own troubled marriage.12 The other married couple, the Buckners, provide a different contrast to Harry and Charlotte's communion. When Harry takes the job with the Utah mining company, he and Charlotte share a one-room house with Billie (who calls herself Bill) and Buck, a couple slightly younger than Harry and Charlotte.13 This married couple have but one kind of communication—nightly “abrupt stallion-like” (WP, 192) sexual intercourse which the Buckners continue even when the extreme cold forces the two couples to move their mattresses together for warmth. Harry and Charlotte abstain from sex for the two months that they live with the Buckners, since for Harry and Charlotte private conversations are as much a part of their love-making as the sex act itself. The presence of the Buckners also works against those critics who wish to read “Wild Palms” as Faulkner's antiabortion tract. That line of reasoning claims: Charlotte has an abortion and dies; therefore, Faulkner did not approve of Charlotte and Charlotte is aligned with the forces of death. But Billie has an abortion too and lives through it, so apparently Faulkner felt no need to kill off women who have abortions.

Harry is a long time learning Charlotte's lesson on the opposition of love and marriage. When he suggests she leave the Wisconsin cabin and return alone to Chicago to take the job a friend has arranged for her while he waits in Wisconsin until a job can be found for him, Charlotte cries, “No! No! Jesus God, no! Hold me! Hold me hard, Harry! This is what it's for, what it all was for; what we are paying for: so we could be together, sleep together every night: not just eat and evacuate and sleep warm so we can get up and eat and evacuate in order to sleep warm again!” (WP, 118-119). Charlotte's message on love is repeated many times with different words, but the sense seems to be that love takes place only in the present, so to maintain love it is necessary to abandon all relation to or thoughts of the future. For Charlotte, putting energy into developing a space in which she and the one she loves will someday be able to love safely works against the notion of love; an act that defers love, even in the name of love, is not love. When Harry finally does take up Charlotte's view of love, he does so with a vengeance. In Chicago for a second time, he sees their life together become a routine, albeit a well-paying one. So on Christmas Eve, when Charlotte tells him that the store for which she works has offered to keep her on through the summer, Harry decides it is time to leave Chicago.

As McCord and Harry talk in the train station just before he and Charlotte leave for Utah, Harry responds to McCord's question about why they are leaving by saying “I had turned into a husband” (WP 132), the very thing Charlotte had accused him of while still in Wisconsin. He goes on to explain to McCord: “I had tied myself hand and foot in a little strip of inked ribbon, daily I watched myself getting more and more tangled in it like a roach in a spider web; each morning, so that my wife could leave on time for her job, I would wash the coffee pot and the sink and twice a week (for the same reason) I would buy from the same butcher the groceries we needed and the chops we would cook ourselves on Sunday” (WP, 134-135). Harry might have been more accurate had he told McCord he had turned into a wife. (“Househusband” certainly would not have been a word available in the winter of 1938.) Charlotte and Harry's life together in Chicago is marked by several gender role reversals. Charlotte goes out into the world to her job. Harry stays home, washes the dishes, cleans the kitchen, and goes grocery shopping. He supplements their income by writing pulp fictions that begin “I had the body and desires of a woman yet in knowledge and experience of the world I was but a child” (WP, 121) or “At sixteen I was an unwed mother” (WP, 123). Wilbourne's tales, which he bangs out at his typewriter in a state of near unconsciousness, are another indicator of an androgynous imagination, since they always have women as narrators and protagonists.

Although Wilbourne never fully recognizes his own androgynous humanity, he is correct in his reflections on the attitude of society toward his union with Charlotte. Referring to “Them” (the forces of respectability and conventionality), Wilbourne tells McCord that

Anno Domini 1938 has no place in it for love. They used money against me while I was asleep because I was vulnerable in money. Then I waked up and rectified the money and I thought I had beat Them until that night when I found out They had used respectability on me and that it was harder to beat than money. So I am vulnerable in neither money nor respectability now and so They will have to find something else to force us to conform to the pattern of human life which has now evolved to do without love—to conform, or die. … So I am afraid. Because They are smart, shrewd, They will have to be; if They were to let us beat Them, it would be like unchecked murder and robbery. Of course we cant beat Them; we are doomed of course; that's why I am afraid.

(WP, 140)

His belief that his and Charlotte's love poses a threat to conventional society is not paranoia. Despite the limitations of their lives, married couples such as the Buckners and the doctor and Martha look upon Harry and Charlotte with scorn or superiority. But Harry is wrong about a literal conspiracy. It might seem, therefore, like common sense to say that a chance of nature proves their undoing, since Charlotte's pregnancy cannot be blamed on Them.

Still, when Harry is arrested for manslaughter after Charlotte dies of complications from the abortion, the cohesive Southern community he finds himself in responds with judicial ferocity. The description of how the plump convict in “Old Man” was sentenced to Parchman could as well describe Harry's experience at the bar: “The paladins and pillars of justice and equity … during that moment become blind apostles not of mere justice but of all human decency, blind instruments not of equity but of all human outrage and vengeance, acting in a savage personal concert, judge, lawyer and jury, which certainly abrogated justice and possibly even law” (WP, 26). Just as Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden's relationship is read by the community in terms of its grossest stereotypes so that what people already believe is confirmed, so too are Charlotte and Harry reductively interpreted by the members of the small gulf coast town in which Charlotte dies: Adulterers and adulteresses will come to a bad end.

As in Light in August, the community demands its “nice believing” (LA, 317); that is to say, it uses narratives as a strategy of containment—all behavior must fit into certain stories. During Wilbourne's trial, the community's attempt to write its adulterers' narrative nearly unravels. Rittenmeyer enters the courtroom. The men can see only one possibility; the jealous husband has come to kill the man who stole his wife and killed her. Several men jump on Rat only to discover he has no gun. He wishes only to make a plea for Wilbourne, but this is so incomprehensible to this community of males that they shout him down: “‘Hang them! Hang them both!’ ‘Lock them up together! Let the son of a bitch work on him this time with the knife!’” (WP, 320-321). And so the communal morality play, though temporarily interrupted, works itself through to the end.

Despite the agrarian community's righteous reaction at the perceived threat when the invisible communities Joanna-Joe and Charlotte-Harry become visible, neither Jefferson nor the gulf coast town is threatened fundamentally by these alternative formations; the hegemony has already won the day, since both Joanna's and Charlotte's thinking about their sexuality is co-opted from the start by patriarchal categories; thus, these alternative communities' dissolutions are encoded in their origins. Although both women author their relationships with their partners, Charlotte and Joanna are, we might say, logocentrically prescripted.

Charlotte opposes love and marriage. In doing so, she buys into an opposition of passion and boredom, not to mention the whole tradition of romantic love, as Cleanth Brooks is surely right in pointing out. Charlotte's desire for an abortion is a case in point of how the metaphysics of romance, another form of male textuality, silently informs Charlotte's behavior. For Charlotte, another child would mean that she and Harry would “fall” again into the everyday, rendering their relationship like a marriage. Charlotte's pregnancy itself, which I suggested earlier invites the commonsense perception that here is surely naked nature, may be seen as another instance in which the romance tradition writes itself. Charlotte becomes careless about birth control in Utah because of another cultural narrative: “I remember somebody telling me once, I was young then, that when people loved, hard, really loved each other, they didn't have children, the seed got burned up in the love, the passion. Maybe I believed it” (WP, 205). Charlotte's misinformation reinscribes the love-passion/marriage-procreation opposition she lives by and reminds us that such binary oppositions are not determined merely from a particular source but rather are overdetermined—simultaneously shaped and reinforced by multiple voices and narratives. This pregnancy, then, more than simply a chance of nature, is an instance of culture's molding influence. Oddly enough, Charlotte's decision not to have another child because “they hurt too much” (WP, 217) helps us better understand Joanna's passionate desire to have a child with Christmas. Joanna is more sharply dualistic in her androgyny than Charlotte. Manlike by day, feminine by night, Joanna too operates from a binary opposition that determines her sexuality. Joanna's Calvinism, however, causes her to overlay an opposition of salvation and damnation on Charlotte's opposition of marriage and passion. Like Charlotte, Joanna sees herself in a romance plot, as suggested in particular by her concealing notes for Joe in a hollow fence post and forcing Joe at times to come to her through her bedroom window. These machinations stop, however, as Joe and Joanna's relationship enters its third phase, one that Christmas notices is like a marriage (LA, 289). Perhaps Joanna's position can best be summarized by her brief (non)prayer: “Dont make me have to pray yet. Dear God, let me be damned a little longer, a little while” (LA, 290). In About Chinese Women, Julia Kristeva's reading of the way monotheism produces our eroticism through an economy of symbolic desire speaks to Joanna's dilemma in which she is trapped between the maternal body and the paternal prohibition of her jouissance:

Monotheistic unity [and hence any community worshipping a monotheistic deity] is sustained by a radical separation of the sexes: indeed, this separation is its prerequisite. For without this gap between the sexes, without this localization of the polymorphic, orgasmic body, laughing and desiring, in the other sex, it would have been impossible, in the symbolic sphere, to isolate the principle of One Law—One, Purifying, Transcendent Guarantor of the ideal interests of the community. In the sphere of reproductive relations (at that time inseparably linked to relations of production) it would have been impossible to insure the propagation of the race by making it the only acceptable end of jouissance.


For Joanna, marrying Joe and having his child would obviate expiation for her passion, since passion leading to procreation is not sinful. Her passion will be justified only if it leads ultimately to a child, which will allow her to be inserted into the symbolic economy of her monotheistic God. Kristeva, following Lacan, tells us that woman as such does not exist, but she also reminds us that “one can make a woman believe that she is (the phallus, if you like) even if she doesn't have it (the serpent—the penis): Doesn't she have the child?” (Kristeva, 22).14

When Joanna discovers she is not pregnant but rather experiencing menopause, she seeks entry into the symbolic via a different route. She reverts wholly to the masculine and speaks to Joe as if impregnated instead by the Word of God. In her final encounter with Joe, Joanna denies self-interest, claiming to speak the unmediated will of God, in her request that Joe pray with her: “I dont ask it. It's not I who ask it” (LA, 310). By renouncing the maternal body for the symbolic Word, Joanna therefore dies in this psychosexual economy as a male homosexual.15 This psychoanalytic interpretation leads us to conclude that the androgyny and its attendant gender role reversals that we see in Joe-Joanna and Harry-Charlotte are not in and of themselves sufficient to construct alternative community, inasmuch as androgyny also may be contained—and is in some ways produced—by the paternal Word.

“Wild Palms” ends with Harry sitting in his jail cell, masturbating while he thinks of his life with Charlotte. Harry, who has defied the social order, will serve his sentence at Parchman, that patriarchal institution par excellence with its all-male hierarchy (prisoners, trustees, guards, deputy warden, and warden). At this same prison, the tall convict is seduced into forfeiting his will in part by “screens against the bugs in summer and good stoves in winter and someone to supply the fuel and the food too; the Sunday ball games and the picture shows” (WP, 166), but more importantly through his participation in a system that simultaneously victimizes and supports him in the creation of “his own character … his good name, his responsibility not only toward those who were responsible toward him but to himself, his own honor in the doing of what was asked of him, his pride in being able to do it …” (WP, 166). The tall convict so believes in this patriarchal system that when the warden tells him he is being given ten additional years for attempted escape (a move necessary to protect the career of the politically well-connected deputy warden), he only says, “All right. … If that's the rule” (WP, 331).

But what is the “good” of the tall convict's good and where is the “honor” of his honor? Just as Harry's final appearance in the novel has autoerotic implications, so does the tall convict's final scene. As the tall convict narrates his incredible journey, the questions the other prisoners ask turn to sexual matters. They want particularly to know if the hill woman acted as his “wife,” “just from time to time kind of, you might say?” (WP, 333). Throughout this scene, the tall convict suggestively plays with the cigar the warden gave him. Denying sexual relations with the hill woman, the tall convict nevertheless claims he had to quit one job he took to finance the return trip to prison because he got into trouble with another man's wife. To this revelation, the plump convict responds: “You mean you had been toting one piece up and down the country day and night for over a month, and now the first time you have a chance to stop and catch your breath almost you got to get in trouble over another one?” (WP, 334). The plump convict's use of a particularly degrading term for a woman underscores the misogyny of this all-male world.

We learn here also, as the tall convict thinks about why he was not attracted to the hill woman, that the last time he had had sex was two years before when he apparently raped “a nameless and not young negress, a casual, a straggler whom he had caught more or less by chance” (WP, 335). Goodness and honor, it seems, apply only to other men. Women for this group of men are subhuman, things you merely violently master for sex. The tall convict might have forced the hill woman “if it had not been for the baby” (WP, 334), but experiencing the full procreative power of the woman as she gives birth on the island covered with snakes removes her from the realm of desire as constituted by his narratives of masculinity and femininity. Although Faulkner could not have been familiar with Freud's fragment “Medusa's Head” (written in 1922 but not published until 1940), the Greek myth and Freud's reading of it seem to speak to the convict's absence of desire for the hill woman. Medusa, the reptilian female with a human face and snakes for hair, represents for Freud a moment “when a boy, who has hitherto been unwilling to believe the threat of castration, catches sight of the female genitals, … essentially those of his mother” (“Medusa's,” 212). Such a woman “is unapproachable and repels all sexual desires—since she displays the terrifying genitals of the Mother” (“Medusa's,” 213). The Medusa myth for Freud has homosexual overtones, and the presence of the plump convict in the final scene reminds us of the incompleteness of binary sexual constructions because he reintroduces a homoerotic element. Each time the possibility that the tall convict had sex with a woman arises, “the plump one blinked at him” (WP, 333, 335). The blink registers the plump convict's surprise and disappointment that the tall convict might violate their friendship in this fashion.

The androgyny that pervades The Wild Palms is perhaps best summarized via parallel jokes in the two narratives. While speaking of his encounter with a doctor on a riverboat, the tall convict tells his audience that the doctor suggested he was a hemophiliac. The prisoners malapropianly think the doctor was calling the tall convict a hermaphrodite. “That's a calf that's a bull and a cow at the same time,” one claims (WP, 242). All agree that it is an insult. Similarly, when McCord meets Harry and Charlotte to help them move out of their Chicago apartment: “The manager shook hands with all three of them and expressed regret at the dissolution of mutually pleasant domestic bonds. ‘Just two of us,’ Wilbourne said. ‘None of us are androgynous.’ The manager blinked, though just once” (WP, 129). Here the manager repeats the plump convict's blink of surprise. Although we laugh with Wilbourne (and not at him—as we had at the convicts), the offense taken at the suggestion of deviance in one's sexual orientation is the same in both instances. In the world of The Wild Palms at least, one might more accurately reverse Wilbourne's denial—all of us are androgynous. There is of course no changing the novel's communal morality that narrowly conceives of masculinity and femininity, but readers might, one hopes, hazard greater sympathy for the androgynous couple, Charlotte and Harry. Although no hopeful alternative couple survives to continue the struggle against gender dichotimization, as Lena Grove and Byron Bunch do at the end of Light in August,The Wild Palms continues to push us away from an uncritical appreciation of community and toward a scrutiny of the socially constructed nature of gender.


  1. As always, Cleanth Brooks is interested in community. Speaking of both The Wild Palms and Pylon, Brooks warns that “the loss of community has all sorts of distressing consequences. Among them is the disturbance of the sexual code and the concept of love” (A Shaping Joy, 266). Brooks tries to recuperate The Wild Palms by seeing “Old Man” as part of the Yoknapatawpha that Faulkner used to “provide a base line” for the novel (TY, 207). The problem with this reasoning is simply that “Old Man” occurs entirely outside Yoknapatawpha County.

  2. The condemnations of Charlotte come whether she is seen as an amoral flapper, as M. E. Bradford (“Faulkner's ‘Elly,’” 186) would have her, or as an amoral earth mother, as David M. Miller (16) types her. “Charlotte,” Michael Millgate decides, “is to be criticized for demanding the abortion”; moreover, her “desire not to have [additional] children is … the outward sign of something lacking in her make-up, in her capacity for life” (172). For Sally R. Page, when Charlotte “attempts to use sexuality as a means of escaping the reality of life's limitations rather than as a means of reproducing life, she aligns herself with the forces which destroy life …” (134). Lewis A. Richards goes so far as describing Charlotte as a woman who “abandoned her two young daughters and her husband for carnality and lechery” (329); her “urging Harry to perform the illegal abortion on her is the greatest proof of her sexual looseness …” (332).

  3. For Maurice Coindreau, “Wild Palms” and “Old Man” “illuminate each other, and without their alternation the deepest meaning of each would be lost” (62); Cleanth Brooks finds the two stories “lock into each other” while considering “the same human situation” (TY, 207). Thomas L. McHaney is more explicit: “What happens in ‘Old Man’ helps explain what happens in ‘Wild Palms.’ The physical events of the one correspond to the emotional events of the other” (WFWP, 108). McHaney draws numerous parallels in narrative structure, imagery, and language between the two stories. He suggests that the opening chapter of each forms “a miniature of the larger structure of the novel,” a structure that depends on “the motif of the circular journey”: “Wild Palms” begins and ends on the gulf coast and “Old Man” begins and ends at the state penitentiary at Parchman (WFWP, 39). Interestingly, Random House still publishes “Old Man” in its Vintage Three Short Novels.

  4. Like so many of Faulkner's narratives, “Wild Palms” begins with a key incident—a young woman is dying in a small rented summer cottage while living with someone who is apparently not her husband. Toying with our expectations of a narrative beginning, middle, and end, the text forces us to attend not so much to what will happen as to how this moment came about. Our perception of the lovers is external, since it is focalized through a minor character, a middle-aged doctor. After this initial prolepsis, “Wild Palms” is presented chronologically. “Old Man” then introduces both the nameless tall convict, who has been sentenced to the state penitentiary at Parchman for trying to rob a train, and his companion, the plump convict. The chapter ends with news of a possible flood and preparations to evacuate the prison.

  5. Writing specifically about Faulkner's war stories, Anne Goodwyn Jones notes that Faulkner incorporated both female physiology and feminine psychology into his “redefined man” (139). I am sympathetic to her claim that Faulkner was unable to work through the implications of his strong women characters (140). The rest of my argument, I hope, will show that Jones is not entirely correct when she claims that after 1929 the “project of reconstructing gender, for Faulkner, is over” (141).

  6. For an in-depth study of the way financial transactions are foregrounded in The Wild Palms and Pylon, see Zender (17-29).

  7. The hill woman and the tall convict also encounter their own “Martha”; that is, they are given false charity—bread and salt meat—by a woman who refuses to allow her male companions, who are also convicts, to bring the pair in the row boat onto their larger and safer boat (WP, 167).

  8. McHaney points out that the middle-aged “doctor and his wife represent what Harry … and Charlotte, stifled in conventional marriage, might have become” (WFWP, 27).

  9. To name Hemingway as the author of Charlotte's sense of love is somewhat arbitrary, but less so when we recall that a number of critics have noted parodic allusions to Hemingway in The Wild Palms—for example, the overall parallel between Charlotte and Harry and Catherine and Frederic of A Farewell to Arms (WFWP, 13-17), the drunken table talk of Charlotte, Harry, and McCord (including McCord's line “Set, ye amorous sons, in a sea of hemingwaves” [WP, 97]) and their pilgrimage to Oak Park in the style of The Sun Also Rises, and the tall convict's hunting alligators in which he is “like a matador” with his cajun “aficianados” [sic] (WP, 263).

  10. Critics recently have begun to rethink Charlotte's androgyny, seeing it as a source of strength and tragedy. Karen Ramsay Johnson's “Gender, Sexuality, and the Artist in Faulkner's Novels,” which appeared shortly before my manuscript went to press, exemplifies this more generous reappraisal.

  11. For a full account of this dinner, see Meta Carpenter Wilde's A Loving Gentleman (172-174). Blotner has a brief account of this evening in his revised biography (FABr, 374).

  12. Symptomatic of the marital discord was the classified ad Faulkner ran in the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Oxford Eagle in late June, 1936: “I will not be responsible for any debt incurred or bills made, or notes or checks signed by Mrs. William Faulkner or Mrs. Estelle Oldham Faulkner” (FAB, 938).

  13. The woman character named Billie/Bill makes one wonder what kind of self-representation Faulkner may be making here. Faulkner often seems to put bits of himself into his characters so that physical descriptions sometimes suggest Faulkner himself. Interestingly, in published interviews Estelle Faulkner usually spoke of her husband as “Billy.” Meta Carpenter Wilde, however, in A Loving Gentleman calls Faulkner “Bill.” Two times Charlotte comments on Billie/Bill's name, calling it “a perfect whore's name” (WP, 179) and “the whore's name” (WP, 209). These isolated references suggest that Faulkner may be making an indirect comment on his work at Twentieth-Century Fox, where he had been assigned to such films as Slave Ship, Splinter Fleet, Dance Hall, and Drums across the Mohawk prior to beginning The Wild Palms.

  14. The phallus is not the literal penis but rather, as Kristeva uses it here in the Lacanian sense, “the very notion of exchange itself—it is not a value in and of itself, but represents the actual value of exchange or the absent object of exchange” (Mitchell, 395). In other words, “the child becomes all that would satisfy the mother's lack, … becoming the ‘phallus’ for the mother, all that would complete her desire” (Wright, 108).

  15. Kristeva, following Ernest Jones, elaborates a psychoanalytic reading of the Christian myth of the Virgin impregnated by the Word. The Word or Breath emanates “not of the glottal sphincter, but of the anal” and “tends to prove that impregnation by the fart (hiding behind its sublimation into Word) corresponds to the fantasy of anal pregnancy, the fantasy of penetration or self-penetration by an anal penis, and the fantasy of an identification of anus and vagina: i.e., a denial of sexual difference. Such a scenario is probably more frequent in male subjects, and represents the way in which the little boy usurps the role of the mother, by denying his difference in order to submit himself in her place and as a woman to the father. In this homosexual economy, we can see that what Christianity recognizes in a woman, what it demands of her in order to include her within its symbolic order, is this: while living or thinking of herself as a virgin impregnated by the Word, she lives and thinks of herself as a male homosexual” (26).

John T. Matthews (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9168

SOURCE: Matthews, John T. “The Autograph of Violence in Faulkner's Pylon.” In Southern Literature and Literary Theory, edited by Jefferson Humphries, pp. 247-69. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Matthews examines Pylon for evidence of greater complexity than Faulkner credited the novel with.]

“It's not the money” / “It was the money”

Readers of Pylon have grown used to accepting Faulkner's legend about the circumstances of its composition and its significance to him. Caught in the toils of confronting the central questions of southern history and identity as he drafted Absalom, Absalom!, arrested by the technical tension between shifting perspectives and narrative coherence, Faulkner confesses his need to find release in simpler work. In Pylon, he says, he concentrated on characters who, unlike Sutpen and his tortured descendants, “had escaped the compulsion of accepting a past and a future[;] … they had no past.” Faulkner “had to get away” from Absalom by writing about barnstorming aviators, who had “no place … in the culture, in the economy” (Gwynn and Blotner, 36). By then treating the narrative through a single focalization (the reporter), Pylon seeks to reduce effort, subject, and effect. Did this “holiday” clear Faulkner's head because his topic and approach were so purely different from Absalom's, as he implies? Or might Pylon not have forced Faulkner to realize one of the main empowering principles of his greatest novel: that all individuals are radically conditioned by the historical and material realities of their eras, and that no writer can afford to believe his characters have no places in their cultures or economies.

Faulkner's insistence that the flyers are historically and socially anomalous accords with the reporter's dreamy view of these homeless gladiators of the air. In his efforts both to appreciate the flyers and also to facilitate their passage through New Valois, the reporter emphasizes their differences from the rest of the human race. Describing the improbable lives of Roger Shumann, his wife, Laverne, and Jack Holmes to his editor, the reporter marvels at their inconceivable freedom, at their unearthly exploits:

and then the other guy, the parachute guy, dropping in, falling the couple or three miles with his sack of flour before pulling the ripcord. They aint human, you see. No ties; no place where you were born and have to go back to it now and then even if it's just only to hate the damn place good and comfortable for a day or two. … Because they dont need money; it aint money they are after anymore than it's glory because the glory cant only last until the next race and so maybe it aint even until tomorrow. And they dont need money except only now and then when they come in contact with the human race like in a hotel to sleep or eat now and then.


Neither money nor places of their own; neither jack nor homes: Faulkner lets the name of the parachute jumper squint at the reporter's sentimental idealization of the aviators' freedom.

The more the reporter insists on the flyers' otherworldliness, of course, the more we may wonder what such denial defends against. The reporter works tirelessly to shelter the aviators from the degradations of wage earning and class conflict. They are not, he contends, like “a gang of men hired to go down into a mine,” who would surely strike if one day “the bigbellied guys that own the mine would tell them that everybody's pay had been cut two and a half percent … to print a notice how the elevator or something had fell on one of them the night before” (890). In the reporter's eyes, the flyers “submit” to the race organizers' tariff on their prize pool because money is less important to them than the exhilaration of flight.

Because he wants to champion the aviators' defiance of economic and social determinants, the reporter refuses to see their deep indebtedness to those who hold money and power. The flyers talk of virtually nothing but money, yet the reporter is so busy denying its importance to them that he never hears what they say. Pylon begins with a vivid account of Jiggs's effort to buy new boots. The narrative records the profound commodification of desire represented by the mechanic's fancy.2 His eyes gorge on the boots in the store window, displayed as seductively as those in “the posed countrylife photographs in the magazine advertisements” (779)—the real source, we suspect, of Jiggs's longing, and perhaps the real destination of his gaze. But whatever bourgeois dream of gentrification his boots may betoken (and their purchase both stimulates and deflects that deeper desire to rise), Jiggs can plot his acquisition only in terms of the money he has and the money he will make. The opening pages disclose—in grotesque slow-motion—the relation between wages, credit, labor, and time upon which the aviators' world is inescapably founded. Like his fellow workers, Jiggs wholly depends on others for his means of survival. Though they are nomadic, the aviators are little different from the miners the reporter contrasts them to; the clerk in the store sniffs the stink of an “incorrigible insolvency” (780) on Jiggs.

The question of whether insolvency was indeed incorrigible was being confronted by both Faulkner (in his sharpening crisis in personal finances in 1933 and 1934) and by the country at large (in the renewed doubt about the efficacy of Roosevelt's New Deal).3 Given these superimposed preoccupations with economy, it is all the more significant that Pylon should need to establish its concern with money against the grain of the reporter's attitude. The reporter's contact with the aviators immediately adds to his expenses; he volunteers food, liquor, transportation, even cash advances against their prize winnings; and he obsessively justifies to his editor every penny he spends on their behalf. Yet he dismisses their indebtedness to him as nothing. The appearance of the aviators endangers the reporter's unexamined accommodation of economic injustice. He insists on his availability so emphatically that they borrow to the point of theft from him, a discovery that provokes in the reporter a renewed effort to deny that money might be the issue. If only Laverne will acknowledge to him that they took his cash as he lay asleep outside his own doorway, then the reporter's faith in an ethics beyond economics will remain unshaken. The reporter's hostship lets him seize the provision of money from the aviators and take it on himself, as if he chooses to degrade himself in order to keep them free. This relation involves an arrangement of mutual benefit and injury between the host and his guests. As Holmes observes, “maybe you never sent for us to come here, and maybe we never asked you to move in on us” (952).

That each party has moved in on the other to establish a parasitical relation may also suggest that the failure of communication between them involves a special kind of suppression or denial. Michel Serres has elaborated the coincidence between several senses of “parasite,” a word which in French also denotes static: noisy interference. The reporter cannot hear the involvement of the aviators in questions of money because his own involvement requires and furnishes that interference. If he were not so deafened, the reporter would notice that the flyers share Jiggs's concentration on earnings. To them the prize winnings are a payday, to be converted instantly into life's necessities and scant pleasures.

The harsh constraints of the aviators' lives are summarized by Jiggs when he hears of a fellow pilot's fatal crash: “Burn to death on Thursday night or starve to death on Friday morning” (813). Shumann's unexpected victory in an early race means just one thing to the mechanic: “Yair, we're jake now. We can eat and sleep again tonight” (798). Why must Shumann place? “Jesus, he better had come in on somebody's money or we'd a all set up in the depot tonight with our bellies thinking our throats was cut” (796). The aviators constantly calculate money against risk as the quotient of their livelihoods: Shumann, for example, considers army pursuit planes “oversouped,” liable “to kill you if you dont watch them. I wouldn't want to do that for two-fifty-six a month” (880).

Pylongestures toward the money motive because the novel cannot contradict the reporter openly until the end. One of the gestures in its repertoire is punning, in which language can be made to point to one meaning while mouthing another. Pylon plays on the slang term for money—“jack”—so extensively that it forms a subliminal insistence on money's importance. There are the repeated references to getting and spending “jack,” including the reporter's closing words to his editor, “and when you come bring some jack because I am on a credit” (992). Both objects and characters take on its name. From a jackstaff, the Hotel Terrebone displays a placard designating it as headquarters of the Aeronautical Association (814); Jiggs searches for his bootjack; death becomes “the old blackjack” (807). Jiggs calls the anonymous busdriver “Jack” (801); the child Jack is named in part for Jack Holmes; Jiggs jokes with him about his fatherlessness, prompting a flurry of fists and the reporter's joke about another Jack, Dempsey; and after Shumann's death Jiggs throws in his lot with Art Jackson.4 On the eve of Shumann's race in the plane that will kill him, he discovers Laverne already in bed, waiting naked for him with the child beside her. The tangled relation of passion, loyalty, risk, and money seems summarized in Shumann's laconic and perhaps innocent question as he enters the bed: “Want to move Jack to the middle?” (907).

At this point we might conclude that the struggle of interpretation in Pylon pits the reporter's sentimental idealization against a more realistic analysis. In one view, the aviators burn with the splendor of freedom, flight, fraternity, and honor; in another, they are workers struggling to maintain themselves against the exhaustions of southern history and economy. This interpretive contest might conclude with a colleague's contradiction of the reporter: “‘And dont kid yourself,’ the first said. ‘It was the money. Those guys like money as well as you and me’” (976). This reporter goes on to predict correctly Laverne's decision to return her son to Shumann's parents; he sees that the economic motive must outweigh whatever sentiment is involved. Does this simple reversal of the reporter's position satisfactorily disclose the “truth” to be recovered from below the reporter's discourse of suppression? Can the novel—by finally articulating and at last acknowledging a contradictory view—come into possession of its own meaning?

If we grant that Pylon's narrative furnishes more information about the aviators' situation than the reporter is willing to accommodate in his interpretive romance, then we must as well doubt that simply reversing his denials will correct all distortions. In both cases the reporter's account determines the range and terminology of the questions. Instead, I want to pursue registers of meaning that elude the reporter's control. The reporter's purposeful blindness to historical context—which frees him to concentrate on the aviators' perceived transcendence of historical embeddedness—is a blindness that the novel does not entirely share.

Deliberately between the lines, Faulkner invites us to consider the aviators' appearance at Mardi Gras as an event with historical, economic, and social significance—a significance that insinuates the revolutionary potential of the thirties. This potential for social transformation is not a subject often associated with Faulkner's fiction, and we shall have to admit the extent to which the reporter's will to trivialize the subversive energy of the economically oppressed is related to Faulkner's fear of that energy.5 Whether it is or is not the money becomes a binary bracket that wards off a more profound question. The flyers neither transcend nor wholly accept their lot as wage earners; rather, they represent—however fleetingly—the very derangement of the order that prevails over them. The visualization of economic reversal, social equality, bodily indulgence, and collective intimacy is the essential thrust of the carnivalesque, and it is presented in Pylon as a thrust that may have to be reckoned with and not merely denied.


The thirties also stimulated one of the richest considerations of the carnival we have, Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World.6 Bakhtin's reading of Rabelais celebrates the revolutionary freedom of the carnivalesque and extols Rabelais's achievement in transmuting its street forms into novelistic ones. By concentrating on the power of the people to challenge all official truth through their practice of the carnival, Bakhtin also suggests the structural opposition in any society between the upper and lower strata, between authorized and unauthorized truth, between the designed work of reform and the heedless play of revolution. In the carnival, everything is at risk.

The sense of real risk, of pandemic jeopardy and unforeseeable transformation, agitates the period in which Faulkner is writing Pylon (and in which Bakhtin is writing Rabelais). The newspaper headlines reproduced in Pylon alone—cryptic and confused as they are—point to the desperation of the oppressed in the United States and abroad: “Farmers Refuse Bankers Deny Strikers Demand President's Yacht” (826). Amplified by the accounts that actually appeared in the New Orleans newspapers of early 1934, when the opening of the Shushan Airport was being covered by Faulkner's reporter friend, Hermann Deutsch, these stories chronicle the continued anguish of the unemployed worldwide, the hopes of socialistic reform, protests against fascism, and the rise of Hitler.7

Pylon rides on an interplay between this sense of imminent historical transformation and the celebration of the Mardi Gras carnival. The sober struggles of workers around the world to emancipate themselves may seem the very inverse of the narcotic revelry of carnival parades and air shows. Yet Bakhtin argues that the carnival—especially in its medieval roots—carries the threat of popular revolt and the promise of social betterment. Rather than sublimating and defusing such subversive impulses, the carnival actually stimulates them, in Bakhtin's view, and gives them material reality—for however brief a spell. The essential components of the carnivalesque include: (1) a charged sense in individuals of themselves as “the people,” (2) the practice of parody and reversal, (3) an appreciation of the discrepancies between the upper and lower orders of society, (4) masked challenges to official truth, (5) exaltation of the body through its purposeful degradation, (6) celebration of physical renewal and reproduction, and (7) the fleeting materialization of utopian possibilities such as luxury, leisure, freedom, and equality.

Even the mention of these components will, I hope, resonate with the issues I have been emphasizing in Pylon. When the narrator describes Jiggs's rapturous face before the store window as having “hot brown eyes [that] seemed to snap and glare like a boy's approaching for the first time the aerial wheels and stars and serpents of a nighttime carnival” (779), I think we are meant to keep in mind a context often ignored by the reporter. In the novel, as in the events Faulkner witnessed in New Orleans in February 1934, Mardi Gras and the air spectacle constitute a single phenomenon. The “aerial wheels” are the “nighttime carnival,” and Faulkner embodies the carnival mentality in the aviators and their fellow “revelers.” Yet as I go on to interpret Faulkner's use of the carnivalesque in Pylon, I will observe that its original spirit appears deformed, though deformed in instructive ways. Ultimately we shall notice the strain of translating a medieval folk spectacle into the New Orleans of Roosevelt and Huey Long through the idiom of Joyce's and Eliot's high modernism.


To Bakhtin's ears, the sound of the carnival is the sound of laughter. Laughter shakes what is established and shifts thoughts to its overthrow: “medieval laughter … is the social consciousness of all the people. Man … in the carnival crowd … comes into contact with other bodies of varying age and social caste. He is aware of being a member of a continually growing and renewed people. This is why festive folk laughter presents an element of victory not only over supernatural awe, over the sacred, over death; it also means the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that oppresses and restricts” (92). “Carnival laughter” possesses a “complex nature” in that it is, “first of all, a festive laughter. Therefore it is not an individual reaction to some isolated ‘comic’ event. Carnival laughter is the laughter of all the people. Second, it is universal in scope; it is directed at all and everyone, including the carnival's participants. The entire world is seen in its droll aspect, in its gay relativity. Third, this laughter is ambivalent: it is gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding. It asserts and denies, it buries and revives” (11-12). Bakhtin honors the purely corrosive, unbinding forms of laughter in the carnival: the parodies of church liturgy and ritual; the bawdy, playful language of the marketplace; the sport of mock imprecation and naked hucksterism.

Faulkner acknowledges the force of such carnival laughter in Pylon even as he refuses to give it space sufficient to its ends. The overwrought surface of the novel teems with grotesquerie. “Laughing Boy in fit at Woishndon Poik!” calls a newsboy (Laughing Boy in fifth at Washington Park). Here language grows deformed in the mouth of the people. The dialect pronunciation produces an accidental but significant pun: the hawker's cry conjures up a laughter that might cause fits—uncontrollable social eruptions. The newsboy possesses “a new face, young, ageless, the teeth gaped raggedly as though he had found them one by one over a period of years about the streets” (813). This description conflates literary conceit and economic analysis: it looks as if the child has scavenged in the streets for his teeth, yet such a worker is no more than a scavenger unprovided for. In such subsidiary moments the novel expresses its subversive laughter. The newsboy's face holds the promise of “ageless” youth, and—like a laughing fit—holds the possibility of a new order to succeed the old.

Festive laughter, Bakhtin asserts, derides the powers that oppress. The mouthpiece for this kind of utterance is Jiggs. His own continuous punning and sarcasm eat away at the reporter's romantic interpretation of events, at the kind of incomprehension that masks the exploitation of the aviators. In the following exchange the reporter rails about the race organizers, who may be found at the hotel, paying at once for both lodging and sexual services:

“Yair,” the reporter cried, “they'll be here. Here's where to find guys that dont aim to sleep at the hotel. Yair; tiered identical cubicles of one thousand rented sleepings. And if you just got jack enough to last out the night you dont even have to go to bed.”

“Did what?” Jiggs said, already working over toward the wall beside the entrance. “Oh. Teared Q pickles. Yair; teared Q pickles of one thousand rented cunts if you got the jack too. I got the Q pickle all right. I got enough Q pickle for one thousand. And if I just had the jack too it wouldn't be teared.”


One must admit that Jiggs's response verges on unintelligibility, but it is the sort of wild unintelligibility that suggests semantic terrorism. The reporter simply envies those who have the cash to buy sex, but Jiggs's resentment exposes a more fundamental question begged by the reporter: his pun evokes both the stubborn misery of poverty (“teared”) and the social stratification responsible for his plight (pushing the reporter's “tiered” to its metaphorical consequence). The potency of Jiggs's puns arises from the verbal violence they can perform. (Indeed, his other comment about his Q pickle being enough for a thousand cunts threatens the sexual and financial order that favors the Feinmans of this world.) Puns puncture the semantic precision of language, subverting univocal sense in the same way political subversion attacks authority.

Jiggs's laughter often ridicules his oppressors and defenders at the same time, suggesting their complicity. Explaining the meeting called to announce the cut in the prize purse, Jiggs mocks the reporter's belief that it's not the money: “‘Contestants' meeting. To strike, see? … Sure. For more jack. It aint the money: it's the principle of the thing. Jesus, what do we need with money?’ Jiggs began to laugh again on that harsh note which stopped just as it became laughter and started before it was mirth” (875). This laughter cuts with the ambivalence of carnival laughter; it derides and triumphs at the same time.

Pylon allows for the performance of popular humor. Throughout the novel the aviators and revelers appear as comedians: Jiggs and the reporter resemble “the tall and the short man of the orthodox and unfailing comic team” (812); the reporter holds the flyers “immobile in a tableau reminiscent (save for his hat) of the cartoon pictures of city anarchists” (829); the barnstormers are said to disappear wherever “mules and vaudeville acts go” (975).8 The carnival charges such humor with revolutionary potential.


The carnival's celebration of the “contradictory world of becoming” (Bakhtin, 149) pays ambivalent tribute to carnal reproduction. Superimposed on the carnival's association with the lower orders of society is its association with the lower stratum of the body. Bakhtin describes the gestures and language of debasement characteristic of the carnival: they “are based on a literal debasement in terms of the topography of the body, that is, a reference to the bodily lower stratum, the zone of the genital organs. This signifies destruction, a grave for the one who is debased. But such debasing gestures and expressions are ambivalent, since the lower stratum is not only a bodily grave but also the area of the genital organs, the fertilizing and generating stratum. Therefore, in the images of urine and excrement is preserved the essential link with birth, fertility, renewal, welfare” (148). The imagery of desecration—of digestive and excremental befoulment—materializes the world and insists on the potency of all that is natural and carnal. Pylon presents a special case of Faulknerian scatology. The sexual, reproductive, and excremental become one, for instance, in Laverne's spectacular first parachute jump. Returning to the cockpit from the wing of Shumann's plane, Laverne straddles her pilot-lover. Roger realizes she is wearing nothing under her dress: “[s]he told him later that the reason was that she was afraid that from fear she might soil one of the few undergarments which she now possessed” (908). The modest seduction concluded, Laverne leaps overboard, settling to earth under the parachute, a vision of promise so naked that at least one onlooker falls into profoundest self-distraction. We should not be surprised that she is degraded in this same act; on the ground, “she now lay dressed from the waist down in dirt and parachute straps and stockings” (909). Roger refers to his startled erection as “the perennially undefeated, the victorious … the bereaved, the upthrust, the stalk: the annealed rapacious heartshaped crimson bud” (909). This description is a little less clinical than symbolic, and I suggest that its context is the grotesque exaltation of the phallus in carnival.

The same conflation of burial and resurrection—of both agricultural and coital sorts—may be seen in the reporter's gloss on the ménage à trois. Shumann and Holmes must lie in bed with Laverne so: “‘two farmers' boys, at least one from Ohio anyway she told me. And the ground they plow from Iowa; yair, two farmers' boys downbanked; yair, two buried pylons in the one Iowadrowsing womandrowsing pylondrowsing’” (849). Here the implanted pylon becomes the upthrust phallus, the buried plow, the triumphant “stalk.” These images underpin the unified process of degradation, interment, and rebirth associated with the carnival.9

That life arises from the foulness of death is the miracle of the carnival. “Folk culture organized the inferno according to its own fashion, opposing sterile eternity by pregnant and birth-giving death; preserving the past by giving birth to a new, better future,” Bakhtin notes. “If the Christian hell devalued earth and drew men away from it, the carnivalesque hell affirmed earth and its lower stratum as the fertile womb, where death meets birth and a new life springs forth. This is why the images of the material bodily lower stratum pervade the carnivalized underworld” (395). Lazarus figures this function in the medieval pageant, and it is no accident that Jiggs constantly refers to the cadaverous reporter by that name (797). Though he refuses to acknowledge its possibilities, moreover, the reporter does once approach the fundamental fusion of death and life achieved by the carnival, “confusing both the living and the dead without concern now, with profound conviction of the complete unimportance of either or of the confusion itself” (955).

Earlier the reporter has verged on the metamorphic possibility of the spectacle. Sickened by his deprivation and fatigue, he feels “the hot corrupted coffee gathering inside him like a big heavy bird beginning to fly as he plunged out the door and struck a lamppost and clinging to it surrendered as life, sense, all, seemed to burst out of his mouth as though his entire body were trying in one fierce orgasm to turn itself wrong-sideout” (849). This is the stress of a new perception struggling toward birth, a perception represented in the carnival by grotesque imagery of the body's reversibility. In the carnival such reversal appears in “curses” that take the body and “burn it, hurl it to the ground, cripple the legs, cause diarrhea, and gripping; in other words, they turn the body inside out” (Bakhtin, 166).

In his unnatural height and thinness the reporter evokes the grotesque body of the carnival, a body that represents the prospect of the individual's merger with others through the transcendence of its limits. The carnival shows the body opening itself outward through “copulation, pregnancy, childbirth, the throes of death, eating, drinking, or defecation” (Bakhtin, 26). The reporter serves as host to the activities of “grotesque” physicality that he does not actually practice himself. Through them, the lower stratum insists on the recognition normally withheld by the official truth of reason, repression, sublimation, and individuality.


On the eve of a Second World War, the dominant ideologies of the West were hardly threatened by folk carnivals. But the 1934 Mardi Gras in New Orleans must have represented to Faulkner's eyes an image for popular revolution and a suspension of the verities. During a time of continuing national and international crises, stymied by personal dilemmas in money and love, Faulkner explores in Pylon the complex relation between order and reform, power and resistance, stability and discontentment, entitlement and exclusion.

Those who possess power in New Valois remain concealed in Pylon. The signal of this situation is Colonel Feinman's absentee authority in the meeting with the aviators. Though the flyers are promised his appearance, Feinman exercises his right to summon and dismiss his employees, to rob them of their time, to make them deal with his representative rather than his person. Feinman's power increases according to this untouchability. The aviators glimpse his photograph, notice his name and initials all over the airport, and sense enviously his command of luxury (particularly women), but not until Matt Ord threatens to ground the plane Shumann wants to race does Feinman himself actually intervene. Feinman steps in to defend the integrity of capitalist entrepreneurialism: “‘Aint we promised these folks out there—’ he made a jerking sweep with the cigar—‘a series of races? Aint they paying their money in here to see them? And aint it the more airplanes they will have to look at the better they will think they got for the money? … Now, let's settle this business’” (929-30). Feinman wants to insure that there are no slips between production, advertisement, and consumption. Indeed, when Burnham crashes early in the races and his name must be deleted from the published program of subsequent events, the aviators are told that the “committee representing the business men of New Valois who have sponsored this meet and offered you the opportunity to win these cash prizes … feel that they are advertising something they cant produce” (879). In the tumultuous, irregular marketplace of the carnival, this kind of instability must be avoided at all costs. Any break in the smooth operation of the economic system may provide a point of puzzlement or dissent. The enfranchised protect their interests: the reporter and Jiggs drive through suburban New Valois on the way to the dump, hardly noticing that “even the sunlight seemed different, where it filtered among the ordered liveoaks and fell suavely upon parked expanses and vistas beyond which the homes of the rich oblivious and secure presided above clipped lawns and terraces, with a quality of having itself been passed by appointment through a walled gate by a watchman” (959).

At least part of the reason Feinman and the other members of the “committee” guard themselves so carefully involves the volatility of the working class in 1934. Against even his own sympathies, as Quentin's aghast disbelief reflects, Faulkner was well advanced toward an understanding of the sins of capitalism as he sorted out the economic and moral issues of slavery in Absalom, Absalom!10 In Pylon, the relative invisibility of those in power does not prevent the central question of their legitimacy from being raised. To the extent that a tiered economy and society depend on the violence of exploitation and oppression—certainly one of the truths Absalom comes to see—to that extent the carnival mentality represents trouble. Bakhtin notes that “[t]he serious aspects of class culture are official and authoritarian; they are combined with violence, prohibitions, limitations and always contain an element of fear and of intimidation” (90). The announcer of the air races attempts to mediate the conflict between worker and management, but he must occupy an impossible no-man's-land between parties that are quietly at war with each other: “the very slightness of the distance between him and the table postulated a gap more unbridgable even than that between the table and the second group” (877). Distracted by Laverne's departure, the reporter stands holding a wad of bills given him by Holmes for the return of Shumann's body; the warning to him should remind us of the violence of getting and keeping money: “‘Better put that stuff into your pocket, doc,’ the soldier said. ‘Some of these guys will be cutting your wrist off’” (954).

One strategy of the upper class is to concede a little to save a lot. Hagood, for example, feeds the reporter just enough money to secure him. Hagood's clothing and car, “which unmistakably represented money” (833; and cf. 834), link him to the authority of wealth. When Hagood agrees to lend the reporter more money for the flyers, Jiggs allegorizes the terms of the relation:

“Write on my back if you want to, mister,” [Jiggs] said, turning and stooping, presenting a broad skintight expanse of soiled shirt, apparently as hard as a section of concrete, to Hagood.

“And get the hell kicked out of me and serve me right,” Hagood thought viciously. He spread the blank on Jiggs' back and wrote the check.


For a moment, Jiggs becomes the very stuff airports are made of, and adopts the very posture of the South's beast of burden.

Official culture retains its power throughout the New Valoisian Mardi Gras, even though we can occasionally glimpse openings for challenges to it. The organizers of the 1934 New Orleans carnival saw in the dedication of the Shushan Airport a chance to add novel thrills to the usual festivities. The air circus crowned a Mardi Gras that was to be the biggest and best in years. In an editorial appearing the day of the pageant, the Times-Picayune pointed out the historical significance of that year's Mardi Gras:

The 1934 Carnival is the first in many years that has been free from certain hampering influences. The observance was suspended when America went into the World war, and scarcely was the war ended before prohibition came to cast a blight upon merriment. More recently the shadow of increasing economic trouble dampened all spirits and checked even the most determined efforts to be entirely gay, if only for a period of a few days. The war is long gone, prohibition has ceased and industrial problems are being solved. … Those of us who refuse to believe in Santa Claus have to admit that the day has certain intangible values, certain qualities that help us get over the hump of existence.

(Feb. 12, p. 6)

Official interpretations of the carnival, like this one, emphasize the merely cathartic benefits of the celebration; through temporary release and indulgence, the carnival sublimates and pacifies discontentment.

The carnival as staged in New Orleans in the thirties nervously protected the social status quo. The main activities were parades during the day and society balls at night. Although the carnival pretended to disguise—however briefly—the distinctions between classes and races, the arrangements actually reinscribed those divisions. Negroes paraded separately, for instance, “King Zulu” leading his “dusky” subjects costumed as African savages (Times-Picayune, Feb. 8, 1934, Mardi Gras supplement, p. 26). Masks could not be worn after sunset, and at this point even superficial egalitarianism dissolved; the balls were by invitation only and were thick with debutantes and the city's elite.

Against this official culture the carnival ought to protest. Yet that its force has become vestigial, domesticated by the very institutions it was meant to subvert, does not mean it has vanished. Faulkner identifies real threats in the carnival performers—particularly the aviators. Their form of relation strikes all of the novel's observers as scandalous, and strikes some of them as appealing too. The reporter's colleagues, for example, puzzle over the ménage à trois practiced by Laverne, Shumann, and Holmes. They wonder if Laverne is intimate with both men simultaneously, and cannot fathom the pilot's attitude: “But how about the fact that Shumann knew it too? Some of these mechanics that have known them for some time say they dont even know who the kid belongs to” (974). Jiggs's joke about the boy's paternity—“Who's your old man today, kid?” (787)—points to a radically alternate social order, one in which the bonds of fatherhood, ownership, and family are seriously revised. Laverne herself starts the joke after deciding on the boy's name by a roll of the dice; it is as if she wants to memorialize her nonconformism.11

Laverne's promiscuity protests the patriarchal authority of the nuclear family—the kind of family run by her brother-in-law. Faulkner associates the stability of such a unit with economic power: Laverne's brother-in-law profits from her dependence, since she cannot imagine being anything but a kept mistress or a neglected wife. That she comes to expect greater autonomy may be seen in her style of dress; her emphatic transvestism—those coveralls, walking shoes, and men's undershorts—converts practical necessity into social sign. Her cross-over signals a world of overturned gender roles, and evokes the association in Bakhtin between transvestism and revolution: “Men are transvested as women and vice versa, costumes are turned inside out, and outer garments replace underwear” (410). The reporters catch this note of self-reliance in Laverne, even though they think it's just risqué. Wondering what Laverne must have been thinking while Roger hung in the air before plunging to his death, one suggests she must have said to herself, “Thank God I carry a spare” (974). Holmes is a spare husband, but the joke's ambiguity also allows for references to both the phallus itself and to her child. In other words, Laverne has become custodian of the object of power; losing Shumann reconstitutes the authority she has sought to exercise from the moment she left her sister's and threw in with a barnstormer. Living with a kind of husband has settled her toward the bourgeois standards she's fled; at one point she even complains about not having a home like the Matt Ords' to which they can return Monday after Monday after Monday (887). Shumann's death forces Laverne once more to confront the economic realities of her life, to threaten the system with the “unnatural” solution of placing her son in sounder circumstances, and to expose to the reader's eyes the determination of the proletariat to escape the prisons designed for them.

The force of the carnival to unsettle economic and social structures will prevent this last formulation, I hope, from seeming too extreme. Barnstormers in Faulkner's fiction invariably appear as morally disruptive, from the curious ménage in “Honor” to the defiantly unlicensed clowns in “Death Drag.” It is no wonder that Shumann should discover that his efforts to spring Laverne from the “dingy cadaver of the law” in one town should earn him the suspicion that he is spreading “criminal insinuations against the town's civil structure” (910).

The events of Pylon become more portentous in their indirect but sure reference to national and local politics. Faulkner could never have hoped to conceal Shushan Airport in New Orleans, Louisiana, behind Feinman Airport in New Valois, Franciana. He says as much in admitting that readers might recognize the originals through their thin disguises.12 Since Abraham L. Shushan was Huey Long's chairman of the Levee Board, we might wonder exactly how the economic and political issues of the novel are inflected by the Long phenomenon, the enabling pretext of the novel's events. It is widely known that Faulkner modeled the novel's anonymous reporter on his friend, Hermann B. Deutsch, a writer for the New Orleans Item-Tribune. Deutsch wrote a number of by-line stories on the air show at Shushan Airport in 1934, and Faulkner's accounts incontestably reflect Deutsch's.

It is perhaps not as widely known that Deutsch also published a number of articles in national periodicals on the rise of Huey Long. The Shushan/Feinman airport rises out of the waste-filled shores of Lake Pontchartrain as a monument to the Kingfish's reign. Like the reporter in Pylon, Deutsch shows himself oblivious to the profound questions raised by Long's popularity, avoiding them through the sardonic bemusement of his journalism. In an article for the New Republic called “Huey Long of Louisiana,” for example, Deutsch recounts Long's capture of the governorship. Though he acknowledges Long's ambition, Deutsch lets Long's imperial style distract him from the popular demand for reform that empowered the Kingfish's flight: “how these drought-stricken farmers brought themselves to vote for the expenditure of five and a half million dollars for the building of a new state house remains a mystery to this day” (350). Deutsch sees Long as nothing but a buffoon playing to the vulgar masses, but he misses what the reporter in Pylon misses: irreverence is the first step in the serious performance of revolution.

Whether greeting official visitors in his bathrobe or trying to relieve himself between the legs of a predecessor at a crowded urinal, clown Long possessed a singular talent for inciting laughter that was deeply derisive of power and wealth.13 Long's ability to convert derision into votes sustained his career. Long threatened serious economic reform both in his warfare with big business, especially the oil companies like Standard that had controlled Louisiana, and in his plan to redistribute personal wealth. The reversal of official order shoots through his slogan, “Every Man a King, No Man Wears a Crown.” For all his demagoguery, Long must be given credit for understanding that the maldistribution of wealth was a central impediment to economic recovery. In agitating the oppressed, Long was willing to risk reform that was not orderly—at least in his rhetoric: “I tell you that if in any country I live in … I should see my children starving and my wife starving, its laws against robbing and against stealing and against bootlegging would not amount to any more to me than they would to any other man when it came to a matter of facing the time of starvation” (quoted in Brinkley, 44).

Long's nature was to be, or at least to seem, utterly uncontrollable. The sense of risk and revolution that he represented inevitably informs the conflict between the entitled and the oppressed in Pylon. When the air family steals the reporter's money, we can register the vibrations of the act all the way through the economic scale—down to the black maid, who picks the leavings, and up at least to Standard Oil, which posts the prize money so that Feinman can sell tickets so that Hagood can sell papers so that the reporter can borrow from the profits and open his pockets. The reporter in Pylon seeks to tone down the more subversive implications of the aviators' behavior. They do end up confessing to their crime, reaffirming a private code of ethics among thieves, and finally resigning themselves to domination by Feinman's will. This consoles the reporter, but it does not eradicate the novel's glimpse of lawless revolt.

The corporate sponsors of the air races firmly control the event. The pilots accept the cut in prize money in quarters that look like “a board room in a bank” (876). The local newspapers covering the dedication of the Shushan Airport ran several pictures of oil company officials posing with the winning pilots; these groupings underscore the forced cooperation of employee with employer. The more natural antagonism of the parties emerges not only in Faulkner's mild version of the pilots' near strike, but also in an incident upon which it is apparently based.14 The Pan American Air Races had been plagued during Mardi Gras week by bad weather, and so the schedule of events had been extended several days. One gathers that many of the pilots had planned to move on to their next engagements, or to return to family between meets, but had agreed to stay in the hopes that all the races could be held. A week late, a few races still had not come off, and the pilots, growing restive, insisted that the one major remaining prize be split among the scheduled contestants. The organizers refused to dispense the prize unless the race took place. Finally the winds slackened the next day and Jimmy Wedell headed the list of those who competed and shared the $1,400 prize. At issue must have been contrary views of what the money constituted: was it wages or prize money? Feinman (like the actual organizers) wants to call it prize money and keep it under the control of its dispensers. The pilots, of course, see it as compensation for their time and labor, due them regardless of what the elements actually allow. The aviators' will to broach a hostile confrontation with their sponsors deepens the embeddedness of Pylon in the economic and social conflicts of its times.


One kind of violence in Pylon involves the conflict of classes. This is the sort of conflict indicated by framing the novel's master question as whether it is or is not “the money”; the sort to be seized on by reductive Marxian analysis; the sort to emerge from comparing Pylon with proletarian novels of the thirties. But a novel as tonally complex, linguistically tortured, and helplessly unpolemical as Pylon, releases other kinds of violence from its central contradictions. The power of Faulkner's writing characteristically draws on the internal incoherence of the social, historical, and economic structures that condition the lives of his protagonists. The violence of these incoherencies frequently appears in the register of the narration, as well; the characters who are in positions to perceive such contradictions typically sheer away from the horror. This is one point of contact between the reporter and better-known Faulknerian protagonists like Horace Benbow, Gail Hightower, Quentin Compson, Ratliff, and Ike McCaslin, all of whom stare finally with empty eyes at the enormities of their heritage.

In my reading, Pylon revolves around the axis of declaring or suppressing, avowing or disavowing, the material reality of the South in the thirties. The reporter bears the marks of his interposition between the superficial conflicts of his world. When he tries to mix in with the flyers' “utopian” sexual arrangements, Holmes draws the line by slugging him. Next day the reporter sports a “bluish autograph of violence like tattooing upon his diplomacolored flesh” (914). But this is the kind of autograph that fades, that slips back into the gap between cause and sign. Later, after the reporter and Shumann have signed a promissory note for Ord's plane, a hearing must determine whether their signatures are valid. We are reminded that writing always leaves the province of the person proper. Even an autograph, the most intimate token of selfhood, is still open to avowal or disavowal. From this standpoint I think we can appreciate much more fully the phenomenal disembodiment of voice in Pylon.15 It is not only that speech and writing—particularly in their impersonally technologized forms—are sundered from the body; this condition of language, even in its emphatically modern cast, figures in the specific suppression of the economic and political questions raised by Pylon.

With Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom! the reporter shares the sense of having seen too much and been blasted into solitude. The reporter has flirted with some of the enticements of the carnival, but any chance for real change subsides under the pressure of the official culture. Once Shumann is dead and Laverne has told her host to get lost, the reporter can listen to a colleague's advice to turn away: “Yair. I could vomit too. But what the hell? He aint our brother” (938-39). By the novel's end, the reporter denies anything but the sublimative function of the carnival: the masses disperse, the celebrants go “home now, knowing that they have got almost a whole year before they will have to get drunk and celebrate the fact that they will have more than eleven months before they will have to wear masks and get drunk and blow horns again” (968). The reporter's indifference to misery remains intact: the newspaper headlines wash over him, seeming nothing to him but “the identical from day to day—the bankers the farmers the strikers, the foolish the unlucky and the merely criminal” (917-18). By blocking out the clamor of this strife, the reporter countenances the status quo. He resigns his fortunes and his friends' to an incorrigible universal law: “Four hours ago they were out and I was in, and now it's turned around exactly backward. It's like there was a kind of cosmic rule for poverty like there is for water level, like there has to be a certain weight of bums on park benches or in railroad waitingrooms waiting for morning to come or the world will tilt up and spill all of us wild and shrieking and grabbing like so many shooting stars, off into nothing” (847).

In these passages Faulkner wants us to see the dynamic of avowal and disavowal at work in all writing. Literature worthy of the name for Faulkner must be writing that measures the ideological stakes of insight and blindness. This question empowers Absalom, Absalom!, the novel whose composition encases Pylon, and which struggles in kind over evading and acknowledging history. It is no accident that the language of one novel should well up in the other. The reporter, like a character in Mr. Compson's saga (or like his misfortunate son), sees himself as “the nebulous and quiet ragtag and bobend of touching and breath and experience without visible scars, the waiting incurious unbreathing and without impatience” (968).16 By this point the scars—those autographs of violence—are no longer visible. The reporter has been carried on the tide of the carnival, but by its conclusion he falls back into isolation from the mass: taking a cab to the airport, he has “the sense of being suspended in a small airtight glass box clinging by two puny fingers of light in the silent and rushing immensity of space.” Like Prufrock or the despairing Macbeth, the reporter looks into “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow; not only not to hope, not even to wait: just to endure” (970).

On this note of self-parody (who has reserved greater import for the word endure?), Faulkner leaves his meditation on the carnival. Bakhtin observes that one of the signs of the degeneration of the folk carnival is its transformation into literary equivalents. The carnival's truly ambivalent, universal laughter decays into the reduced versions of literary parody or irony. Pylon's peculiar resurrection of Joyce and Eliot at this point in Faulkner's career I attribute to the carnival material, which inevitably drives a modernist like Faulkner to the storehouse of literary parody.17 Faulkner draws on the most potent forms of parody in his literary heritage, on Joyce's efforts to resuscitate the common imagination through a polylogic music, and on Eliot's early shorings of the fragments against ruin. These traces of the carnival spirit in literary parody are not adequate, however, to make a place for the activation of revolution. The carnival appears in Pylon as the image of lost possibilities for self-awareness, connection, and gaiety. Or as Jiggs puts it, and the narrator comments: “‘So this is Moddy Graw. Why aint I where I have been all my life.’” But the reporter continued to glare down at him in bright amazement (813).


  1. Page numbers cited parenthetically in the text refer to works in the Works Cited section at the end of this essay; quotations from Pylon are taken from the Library of America edition of Faulkner's novels. Citations of works from his Collected Stories are abbreviated CS.

  2. Torchiana demonstrates the aviators' domination by the force of “finance capitalism” (297), arguing that they act self-sacrificially and heroically to resist the prevailing system of economic exploitation. Torchiana emphasizes the economic issues too often ignored in criticism of the novel (and of Faulkner in general). I depart from his reading by trying to understand how the reporter's kind of admiration actually smothers the potential for systemic change the novel almost glimpses; Torchiana follows the reporter—“the sensitive observer of the novel” (301)—in celebrating the flyers' alleged “disdain for money as such and their quixotic devotion to flying” (299).

  3. See Blotner (324-26) on the details of Faulkner's mounting responsibilities after his father's death.

  4. In two short stories also about barnstormers, “Death Drag” and “Honor,” we find one pilot named Jock, another named Jack, and a driver called Jake.

  5. Pearce identifies this potential for change in the novel as a vision of the apocalypse, “a minor but powerful current in the literature of the thirties” (131). My aim is to show how the dread of such decentering has ideological implications, and that Faulkner sees how the oppressed hardly share the fear.

  6. Since Bakhtin's work encountered official opposition in the Soviet Union, Rabelais and His World remained unpublished until the mid-sixties, when his thinking began to be taken up in the West as well.

  7. The papers sympathetically tell the story of various workers' movements—from the coal miners' effort to negotiate a thirty-hour week to the New York City taxi drivers' strike against a Tammany Hall fare tariff. The National Recovery Administration is touted in a New Orleans Times-Picayune editorial as the “greatest legal instrument from the standpoint of human welfare since the emancipation proclamation” (Jan. 18, 1934, 24). A special series of articles in the New Orleans Item-Tribune by Ralph W. Page defends a strike by California cotton pickers, and denies that they are actually communists: “In Southern California they had just been shooting and jailing ‘communist’ strikers and agitators. But California's definition of a communist, anarchist and enemy of government is any workman who would strike for more pay. The strike was conducted by cotton pickers. Some called themselves communists. What they asked was more than 60¢ a hundred for picking cotton. Even a Negro can do this much, in Georgia, without offense” (Feb. 6, 1934, 5). Both dailies report the bloody riots by workers in Paris and Austria, the latter over the perceived softening of the aristocratic government to Nazi overtures. The Item-Tribune explicitly endorses Vienna's socialist reform: “There has been nothing wild or extreme about their measures. They have carried on much as progressive administrations in some American cities do, but more intelligently” (Feb. 16, 1934).

  8. Faulkner refers to the vaudeville qualities of the barnstormers in “Death Drag” and to the flying circus in “Honor” (CS, 187, 559).

  9. Other scatological references seem less gratuitous as a result of this nexus. Shumann's annoyance at Jiggs's drinking produces this insult: “‘One drink, huh?’ Shumann said. ‘There's a slop jar back there; why not get it and empty the jug into it and take a good bath?’” (115). Excrement and maternity coincide in the editor's grotesque comparison of the reporter's mother to “a canvas conceived in and executed out of that fine innocence of sleep and open bowels capable of crowning the rich foul unchaste earth with rosy cloud where lurk and sport oblivious and incongruous cherubim” (92-93).

  10. Porter discusses Sutpen's design from the standpoint of slavery as an instrument of capitalism, and Sundquist emphasizes Faulkner's struggle in the thirties to acknowledge the economic and moral investment of the South in the ideology of racial separation.

  11. Faulkner also uses a ménage à trois in “Honor,” focusing on the attitudes of two pilots toward the woman who is wife to one and lover to the other.

  12. Blotner (328-42) establishes the main resemblances between factual and fictional material in Pylon. More than many of his works, this novel drew on real acquaintances of Faulkner, like Vernon Omlie and Jimmy Wedell, and on their experiences in barnstorming events. There were several mishaps at the Pan American games marking the inauguration of the Shushan International Airport during Mardi Gras of 1934; those Faulkner either witnessed or heard about after his arrival on February 15 are described partially in Millgate (138-49).

  13. See Brinkley, especially 8-81.

  14. See the account in the Times-Picayune, Feb. 20, 1934, 3.

  15. Bleikasten brilliantly illuminates the problematics of signification, and Gresset the power of the silent gaze in the novel. Pitavy studies the gap of desire across which écriture seeks to move while admitting its own impossibility.

  16. The narrator of Absalom, Absalom! describes Quentin and Shreve creating characters “out of the rag-tag and bob-ends of old tales and talking” (303).

  17. On the allusions to T. S. Eliot, see Millgate (esp. 144).

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Bleikasten, André. “Pylon, ou l'enfer des signes.” Etudes Anglaises 29 (1976): 437-47.

Blotner, Joseph L. Faulkner: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1984.

Brinkley, Alan. Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. New York: Random House, 1982.

Deutsch, Hermann. “Huey Long of Louisiana.” New Republic, Nov. 11, 1931.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Random House, 1936.

———. Collected Stories. New York: Random House, 1950.

———. Novels 1930-1935. New York: Library of America, 1985.

Gresset, Michel. “Théorème.” Recherches anglaises et americaines 9 (1976): 73-94.

Gwynn, Frederick L., and Joseph L. Blotner, eds. Faulkner in the University. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1959.

Millgate, Michael. The Achievement of William Faulkner. New York: Random House, 1966.

Pearce, Richard. “Pylon, Awake and Sing! and the Apocalyptic Imagination of the 30's.” Criticism 13 (Spring 1971): 131-41.

Pitavy, François. “Le reporter: Tentation et dérision de l'écriture.” Recherches anglaises et americaines 9 (1976): 95-108.

Porter, Carolyn. Seeing and Being. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1980.

Serres, Michel. The Parasite. Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Sundquist, Eric J. The House Divided. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Torchiana, Donald T. “Faulkner's Pylon and the Structure of Modernity.” Modern Fiction Studies 3 (Winter 1957-58): 291-308.

Scott DeShong (essay date fall 1995)

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SOURCE: DeShong, Scott. “Towards an Ethics of Reading Faulkner's Sanctuary.Journal of Narrative Technique 25, no. 3 (fall 1995): 238-57.

[In the following essay, DeShong attempts to provide a framework for reading Sanctuary “for human and humane value.”]

In this reading of William Faulkner's Sanctuary, I will interrogate the idea of character in narrative and examine a problematic relationship between character and ethics. In doing so, I will gesture toward an ethics of reading that might avoid manipulation of the reader, of the text, and of what in a reading experience the reader takes to be substantive human feeling. I can make this gesture only by approaching ethics through close attention to the narrative text. I dispense with an introductory framework of theoretical argument because I mean to move toward an ethics of reading, not to delineate such an ethics: indeed, the latter would transgress ethics itself, insofar as ethics is the continually incomplete task of humanely considering the other. From this standpoint, ethics involves the always incomplete work of empathy (which is distinguishable from sympathy in that empathy implies no correlation between determinable subjectivities). I am influenced by the thinking of Emmanuel Levinas, who argues that we must base ethics on our attention to what he describes as the infinite concreteness of the human other—the full dimensions, which cannot be totalized, of the other's experience.1 Faulkner's narratives, particularly the more involute ones, are known for their ability to problematize their own structures and movements, and it is through such problematics that we may work toward concrete humanity that escapes and exceeds the contours of narrative and of character. I have chosen Sanctuary because it confronts us with the suffering of the other and with various kinds of violence done to the other; I approach the ethics of reading through a novel that has garnered, for such confrontations, much derogatory criticism.2 My main purpose is to provoke and engage questions concerning how we can read for human and humane value, questions we must pursue for the sake of our self-awareness and sense of purpose in literary criticism.


In his discussion of Sanctuary as an American Gothic text, Eric Sundquist notes the novel's

fascination with flat, blurred, or metonymic characterization—in fact, its denial that it deals with characters at all, but rather deals throughout in things, in allegories of modernism, in the style of a cartoon.


I do not find this point fully applicable to the novel, since we can develop ways of reading character in the narrative, of reading in the text character and of cultural ethos (terms implicated with each other at least since Aristotle was first translated into English). But I agree with Sundquist's gist that Faulkner's writing in Sanctuary tends to rub out character. Humanity in the text emerges in a sort of fascination for reading, to cite André Malraux's and Michel Gresset's depictions of Sanctuary: the fascination is a “bewitching” (etymologically), a mystery, involving a confrontation of humanity which appears to lack determinate contours or nature. Insofar as we may take the material of a text itself to be something human, Faulkner's description of writing (referring here to The Wild Palms) suggests that the human is not fully apprehensible in terms of contours or nature:

To me, it was written just as if I had sat on the one side of a wall and the paper was on the other and my hand with the pen thrust through the wall and writing not only on invisible paper but in pitch darkness too, so that I could not even know if the pen still wrote on paper or not.

(Selected Letters 106)

Faulkner depicts textuality with imagery of darkness and illegibility, rendering an appropriate context for approaching humanity that is weak in contours, that is difficult to naturalize.

Many critics have noted a darkness and a richness in Faulkner's writing which to an extent are due to his diegetic narrative style.3 As he blends focalizations and points of view, and shifts among them, he confounds attempts to locate objective positions or to draw reliable assimilations of narrative elements, i.e., he confounds attempts to illuminate or clarify narrative truth. Begun just after he had written The Sound and the Fury and only finally revised after As I Lay Dying had been published, Sanctuary belongs to Faulkner's early experiments with slippages of narrative and voice (Karl 351-52). For instance, the night scenes in the novel at the derelict Old Frenchman Place shift among focalizations without consolidating in a central point of view (chapters II and VII-IX). Amid the darkness of the later grouping of these scenes, the shifting and the male characters' blending, drunken voices are key in developing disorientation and fear for Temple Drake, the seventeen-year-old whom Popeye—an impotent gangster—eventually rapes with a corn cob and then abducts. We get fairly coherent images of her surroundings at first, but as the day wanes and the men begin drinking, the narrative draws more and more upon horror story conventions of fragmented, nonsubjective voice and point of view. Temple's vulnerability is only partly due to specific threats, such as Van's repeated advances: her fear emerges largely as an effect of a lack of reliable contours of character and event. Ruby Goodwin, the only other woman present, becomes her stay against disorientation, remaining with her until daylight (65); once the two separate, Temple again suffers events that occur without clear delineations.4 As I will discuss further below, Temple is the novel's primary sufferer and also the character through whom we most recognize a weakness of human and narrative contours. Indeed, the weakness of contours foregrounds the amorphous substance of her suffering.

While Temple exemplifies being lost in the cracks of narrative and voice, Horace Benbow's rambling speech and thought emphasize the cracks, beginning with his drunken discourse in the first of the dark scenes. His compulsive, semi-analytical language, which sounds “crazy” to Ruby (9-10), sets a tone that persists into the collage of voices in the later group of dark scenes, when he is not present. It is especially in his rambling that in Sanctuary we read the familiar Faulknerian layers of voice, more than we see scenes: our reading is emphatically reading, and we become literally an audience insofar as we hear the text as voice-over or as voices in our heads. The tone of Horace's early language persists in his later thoughts, through which it tends to dominate the narrative, and his rambling sometimes emerges in the third-person narrating voice when he is not present. Horace's idiom is refined, the sentences clear and the diction precise: just as he writes, he speaks neatly. But as depicted in the letter to his wife that would state his reasons for divorce—a letter “written neatly and illegibly over”—his language does not attain coherent logic, but rather emerges disordered and illegible (207). Horace's voice is a good example of what Frederick R. Karl calls Faulkner's technique of writing “aslant” or “hitting off-key,” creating “the sense of place which is not quite place, the sense of time which is not quite time” (354; 365).

Coming early in the narrative—that is, in the published version, as opposed to the early full manuscript—the dark scenes help set the main characters in relation to each other as the reader develops relations with them. Horace and Temple first come into proximity, for the reader, by both partaking of the disordered discourse of these early scenes. The result, as indeed obtains between most characters in the novel, is an indistinct relationship, but one that is nevertheless tangible. André Bleikasten notes that “characters' words, thoughts, and feelings” are less the focus for reading than “the intricate web of signs written into the novel through [the characters'] postures, gestures, and positions”—signs that have “no fixed meaning.” We have a largely corporeal diegesis that disrupts the notion of character or of mind as comprehensive of the human person, therein also disrupting intersubjective communication. “The physical has ceased to gesture toward the meta-physical, just as it has ceased to reflect the psychological,” Bleikasten notes: Faulkner's moments of human textuality appear signs emphatically, with “no depths awaiting beneath the surfaces” and no order by which moments of human nature may fall into objective relation with one another (“Terror” 18-19). As we fail to comprehend contours of human character, we find “the body in its opaque inertia and the contingency of its being-in-the-world” (27-28).

Throughout Sanctuary, imagery of the body brings to reading a sense of palpable and opaque humanity. Bleikasten notes, for example, a preponderance of imagery of mouths. There are fewer uses of mouths than of eyes, as we would expect, but a relatively high number considering the common predominance of the imagery of eyes in fiction. (As I will discuss later concerning Temple, key images of eyes in Sanctuary are of opaque ones; also, with Popeye's name, the novel presents the eye as a physical organ, signifying both a missing eye and leering vision, vision not of a self-possessed eye but of an organ strained in fascination.) The emphasis on Temple's mouth is notable, on the mouth of the sufferer who cannot use it to communicate: images of her mouth emphasize its carnality and its bluntly cosmeticized presence. The emphasis on the mouth presents “the organ of dumbfounded amazement rather than articulate speech,” in Bleikasten's terms (“Terror” 24): the mouth does not bring the logocentric, metaphysical presence of character. As “one of the body's gates” (23), but not a supposedly transparent one like the eye, the mouth—“the hole made flesh” (25)—becomes a metaphor for human being which opens up, which is desirous, and the extent of which is unfathomable. Bleikasten continues:

This, then, is what the mouth finally comes down to: a yawning gap, an unfillable hole, the orifice of nothingness. In Sanctuary the organ of human need and greed turns into an organ of destruction and death, and death, conversely, appears as a voracious, all-engulfing mouth.


I cite Bleikasten's remarks mainly to extend for reading the imagery of the mouth—that is, to emphasize vocal diegesis over the purview of the eye, to find in the mouth a metaphor that supplements the metaphysics of vision and of the supposedly transparent dimensions of character. (Mouth imagery similarly extends to reading in the common figure of “devouring” a text.) The palpability and the inexhaustible openness of human affect come together in the image of the mouth, an image which does not order the richness of humanity that it presents, revealing human contour or nature, but which rather presents human existence as an opaque and dangerous locus of expression and absorption. That is, the fleshiness of the mouth is an internal, disruptive supplement of the supposedly transcendent logic of human speaking and seeing. Baffling as the mouth, Faulkner's narrative voice inhabits and swamps the locus of vision, emerging there as a darkness and richness that opens reading to material language. There is no closure for this language: as it presents palpable humanity to reading, it reveals at the same time the impossibility of full apprehension of humanity.


While Faulkner's text resists metaphysics of vision and character at the level of narration, it has some narrative contours, nevertheless. And for almost all readers' habits of reading, it will have characters. We need not, and practically cannot, discard the use of character as a heuristic, or for that matter discard any particular narrative categories (one of which is the reader). Indeed, it is mainly through a reading of emergent character that we can examine the ways reading deals with, and commonly naturalizes, humanity. In the narrative of Sanctuary, the voice of Horace—even with its incoherence—is a distinct moment of character insofar as it is a discernible locus of ethos, and it is also a discourse that itself plays out and problematizes strategies of establishing character. Through Horace as a character and as a force that exerts a will to character, we may examine how ethics as it relates to character becomes a regulatory discourse, but also a discourse that must deal with and suffer from internal problems and passions. In examining relations between character and the concreteness of the other, we find concrete desires and fears within character that are part of its structure, so that the contradictions involved in these matters of affect destabilize the structure of character.

Horace represents the ethos of a cultural order in his heritage of old Southern aristocracy, in his British education, and in his proprietorship of the distinguished law practice left by his father. When the innocent Lee Goodwin, the bootlegger in charge of the Old Frenchman Place, is indicted for shooting Tommy (Goodwin's lackey, killed by Popeye incidentally to the assault on Temple), Horace takes up his legal defense “for the sake of its being right,” adding that it is “necessary to the harmony of things that it be done” (219) so as to uphold “law, justice, civilization” (105). The particular civilization for which Horace stands, however, exhibits a stark, cold ethos that he disclaims. His sister Narcissa best exemplifies this ethos, which mainly entails the society's will to maintain the order of civilization. Maintaining order means securing Goodwin's conviction, regardless of whether he has committed the crime, as discipline against the Prohibition-era liquor trade and as a reinforcement of class distinctions. Narcissa's foremost interest, however, is in keeping Horace, who has recently estranged himself from his wife, from embarrassing the family through divorce and/or involvement with Goodwin's wife, Ruby. The novel repeatedly emphasizes Narcissa's firmness in maintaining order, especially in the way her “cold, unbending voice” addresses Horace (144-45). She even secures his and Goodwin's defeat in the murder case by turning over the results of Horace's investigations to the prosecuting attorney (210).5

Distinguishing himself from the ethos of Narcissa and the town, Horace upbraids the townspeople for their “odorous and omnipotent sanctity” (145). His own moralistic character, in turn, depends upon his ability to regulate his own and others' concrete feelings, which he tries to achieve mainly through abstraction and idealization. Horace emphasizes his personal ethos particularly to resist the lure of sex: his self-fortifying remark, “you cannot haggle, traffic, with putrefaction,” is a pronouncement on sexuality (as well as on the bootlegging industry, 103). Indeed, he feels repulsion for his wife, whose sexuality he represents by the odor of the dripping shrimp he has customarily carried home for her dinner (11-12); throughout the novel, Horace shows repulsion concerning concrete sensations, mainly tactile and olfactory ones (Vickery 113-14). But he is deeply absorbed by the sexuality of his teenage stepdaughter, Little Belle, whose photograph he fawns upon when he is alone. His desire for her brings him to associate female sexuality with spring, as the “green snared promise of unease” (8). Also, innuendoes from Miss Jenny Sartoris help depict an undercurrent of passion in him, particularly a desire for Ruby which—fully self-regulated, without hope for consummation—helps drive his decision to defend Goodwin (87; 96).

Horace's conflicted relationship with his own emotions implicates him, beyond the cold ethos of Narcissa, in the more complex ethos of the townsmen who ultimately lynch Goodwin—who, in attacking Goodwin, exercise regulation of sexual energy. Sex becomes an explicit issue for the men with the revelation of Temple's molestation, at the end of the murder trial (when she arrives as a witness, sent by Popeye to lie that it was Goodwin who assaulted her). The townsmen act largely from their own desires, as is revealed in the remark that they protect their women because they “might need them ourselves” (236). A good demonstration of René Girard's theory of the scapegoat, the lynching of Goodwin is the townsmen's way of dealing with their own excessive or aberrant desires, subliminally working out their passions in the name of their ethos (they simultaneously work with their desire for liquor, sacrificing a bootlegger). When the prosecutor holds aloft in the courtroom the bloody corn cob with which Temple has been raped, it incites rage in the jury and the gallery that obscures the various technicalities of the murder trial (225). Reacting from their own misregulated desires, the townsmen seize the indicated perpetrator and inhabit the roles of “good men, these fathers and husbands,” in the prosecuting attorney's words. They take up, for Temple, pathos and moral rage: the prosecutor has told her they will “right your wrong for you” (226). The ritual immolation of Goodwin draws on the conflicted and opaque energies of its perpetrators, as the bonfire that kills him is “unabated, as if it were living upon itself” (234).

The tension and confusion of Horace's own desires persist for him until the end of the trial, when they resolve—if perhaps temporarily—once his legal case fails, and he succumbs both to the townsmen's involute ethos and Narcissa's more overt ethos of keeping one's house in order. His attempt to consolidate his own character first yields to the ethos of Narcissa, with whom he leaves the courthouse, as he knows she will return him in defeat to the marriage he has tried to abandon (231). Then, when the lynching obliterates the usefulness of suffering for Goodwin, in the same moment as it seals Horace's failure (obviating legal appeal), Horace succumbs to the apocalyptic moment that sublimates his and the townsmen's desires, succumbing to a peace past the catastrophe. The fire for him is “soundless: a voice of fury like in a dream, roaring silently out of a peaceful void” (234).

Moreover, the moralism Horace tries to articulate before this entails a desire for transcendence that itself brutally manages the human other as well as Horace's own passions. Toward a more cerebral resolution than he will find in the burning of Goodwin, Horace conjures narratives that tend toward apocalypse (etymologically “unconcealing”). As he travels by train in search of Temple and key information for his case, there emerges his perception of “bodies sprawled half into the aisle as though in the aftermath of a sudden and violent destruction, with dropped heads, open-mouthed, their throats turned profoundly upward as though waiting the stroke of knives.” The sense of immanent obliteration becomes more intense when he dozes and then wakes “among unshaven puffy faces washed lightly over as though with the paling ultimate stain of a holocaust” (132-33). Such visions, in the context of what Horace considers his moral duty, point to a metaphysical desire for annihilation of concrete humanity, including his own. Foreshadowing his swooning before Goodwin's burning body, these visions expand upon Horace's personal pathos and entail his acceptance of a broad sacrifice of living humanity, for the sake of abstract ethos.

A further example of Horace's desire to regulate humanity is his attempt to achieve resolution in the evocation of a death chamber, as a way of coming to terms with the possibility of “a logical pattern of evil,” after he has finally met Temple and witnessed her suffering. He offers that it would be better for all concerned with the trial to be dead; he recalls a “cooling” of “indignation” and a “fading” of “despair” in the eyes of the dead he has seen, moments that for him seem to follow recognition of a logic of evil. The chamber is for him a place wherein one may grasp a cathartic “single blotting instant between the indignation and the surprise” and perhaps see that the “only solution” is to have one's own being “cauterized out of the old and tragic flank of the world.” Horace views this scenario with himself being put to death along with all the others. But he distances himself from them as he continues to muse on obliteration, reflecting “we're all isolated” and following with images of personal rest that evoke solitude (175-76). Horace seeks a distance that would ease the difficulty of his fears and desires. And for the sake of purified ethical human being—for a coldness like Narcissa's—the moralist appears willing to obliterate his own and the others' concrete humanity.


Although we can read in Horace a manipulative regulation of humanity, through him we may also find Sanctuary's richest example of a confrontation of the concreteness of the other. During much of the novel, he seeks Temple as the key to his case, as his witness and as the narrative element that will put his world in order. He does not know that in seeking her, he approaches the site where the events that concern him have taken place, her body being the focal area near which the murder of Tommy has occurred and also the precise locus of the crime that will displace the murder's significance, both in the court's judgment of Goodwin and the townsmen's punishment of him (Horace has no sense, as he seeks her, that the sex crime has happened). In Tommy's absence, Temple is the crime's locus of violence, suffering, and pain, which become available for Horace's apprehension even though the crime remains vague in Temple's recapitulation to him at Miss Reba's brothel, where Popeye has sequestered her. Listening to the disordered chorus of Temple's memories, Horace unexpectedly confronts suffering that stands witness to both his own suffering—mainly, his suffering at the will of others (including Popeye, who has kept him prisoner also, 2-4)—and his own passion for a young woman, which involves his control of the concrete humanity of an other (in one instance, indeed, he physically restrains Little Belle, 9-10). In the witnessing that takes place between Horace and Temple, the narrative gestures toward concrete human experience and emphasizes that it cannot be naturalized. Examining this confrontation will lead us, finally, to consider how we face Popeye, including how Horace faces him in the opening of the published novel.

As the victim of greater or lesser sequestration by virtually everyone into whose company she comes, Temple is Sanctuary's prime example of managed humanity. But she does not express herself as such, nor does she seek to put her condition or any events to instrumental use. No one (except perhaps Popeye) can reconstruct the narrative of the crimes perpetrated on her, and for their sufferer the events are scarcely retrievable in logical form. Temple's diegesis at Reba's shifts temporally at random and does not keep a focus, except in loosely edging forward on the topic of her wish to change into a man (and thus perhaps to gain masculine character and the power that might come with it). Horace recognizes the narrative's shifting—“as if she were making it up”—without, of course, noting its similarity with his own rambling mode of relation. From his proximity to her body and voice, he gains little of what we could call knowledge; we see only how he responds to having apprehended what he can of her pathos. What we and Horace find legible in the interview is the pathos of a narrative without clear action, Temple's or any one else's: pathos seeps in her discourse and her presence, in detachment from any logic of cause, effect, or cure (171-75).6

Temple's alterity is palpable for Horace as he confronts her: she differs from the young women with “cold, blank eyes” whom he has observed on the college campus and the train (135). Her eyes are described as “all pupil” and “quite black,” earlier (22; 38), and Horace meets her “black, belligerent stare” in his first look at her face (170). The dark eyes remain a salient feature at the trial, where “her eyes, the two spots of rouge and her mouth, were like five meaningless objects in a small heart-shaped dish” (227). Tommy's and Ruby's views of Temple's eyes as “holes” support the depiction of them as black, if we read the holes not as transparencies but as openings onto an unreflecting abyss (53; 128). In the resistance of these eyes, Horace confronts what he does not expect, given his previous remarks on her as “a little fool girl” (130). Like Little Belle, whose presence for him in the “dead cardboard” of the photograph is “inscrutable,” Temple confronts him with the opacity of his object of desire (131). Other textual connections between the two women include the “whisper” of Little Belle's “curious small flesh” and of her “little white dress” (131-32), recalling the “whispering” of Temple's bleeding after the rape (118). There is also the play on Temple's name—an allusion to private, sacred space—as Horace perceives that Little Belle's image in the photo is always “contemplating something” (132). In Horace's confrontation of Temple, the stuff of his desire intervenes on the possibility of establishing a transcendent ethos under which to manage or judge the other. When the confrontation sinks in for him later in the chapter, the pathetic “Temple” turns the sacred space of contemplation for him into a space of his own unmanageable pain.

As Horace enters her room at Reba's, Temple is an unmoving “ridge” under the covers of her bed (169-70). He thinks he is on the verge of comprehension (a reader might think the plot is about to turn, as well), but the prone, pathetic sufferer looms indistinctly, lacking determined contours that could help determine narrative. Physically and figurally, she is an inassimilable ridge of tissue, a scar of pathos, both hers and Horace's. His main engagement with this pathos emerges after the interview, after he has left Reba's and ridden all the way home: it is very much a moment of Horace reading Temple. On the train, he contemplates the distancing judgment of the death chamber, while a cup of coffee he has drunk comes to “lay like a hot ball on his stomach,” a tangible representation of “all the nightmare shapes it had taken him forty-three years to invent” (176). Once home, having maintained some abstraction from his own and Temple's suffering, he stares at Little Belle's photo, as the odor of honeysuckle—the repugnant signifier of illicit sex for Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury—fills the room, “almost palpable enough to be seen,”

and the small face seemed to swoon in a voluptuous languor, blurring still more, fading, leaving upon his eye a soft and fading aftermath of invitation and voluptuous promise and secret affirmation like a scent itself.


Momentarily, the honeysuckle hovers like the pathos of Temple, but not quite at the point of pressure, not quite asserting the incomprehensible suffering of the sequestered woman. Then Horace's gaze comes up short, upon pathos overdetermined as the palpability of Temple and his own desire:

Then he knew what that sensation in his stomach meant. He put the photograph down hurriedly and went to the bathroom. He opened the door running and fumbled at the light. But he had not time to find it and he gave over and plunged forward and struck the lavatory and leaned upon his braced arms while the shucks set up a terrific uproar beneath her thighs. Lying with her head lifted slightly, her chin depressed like a figure lifted down from a crucifix, she watched something black and furious go roaring out of her pale body. She was bound naked on her back on a flat car moving at speed through a black tunnel, the blackness streaming in rigid threads overhead, a roar of iron wheels in her ears. The car shot bodily from the tunnel in a long upward slant, the darkness overhead now shredded with parallel attenuations of living fire, toward a crescendo like a held breath, an interval in which she would swing faintly and lazily in nothingness filled with pale, myriad points of light. Far beneath her she could hear the faint, furious uproar of the shucks.


At the same time as it implicates Horace, the passage—through him—is as close as the novel comes to representing Popeye's rape of Temple.7

Horace's transference with Temple occurs in an imagistic context like that of the nights at the Old Frenchman Place, of vision slipping into blackness as sensations of sound, motion, pressure, speed, and heat predominate in the imagery. The metonymic sequence of figures depicts the vertigo of trying to apprehend the concrete other and portrays a correlative loss of vision and logic. In the passage's figural conflation of moments of concrete humanity, the concreteness emerges not determinable as either proper to or other than the putative subject. The image of expulsion that signifies Horace's vomiting the “nightmare shapes” of his psychic life is the very image of the woman's body expelling the blackness that becomes the surrounding world, in a birthing of the very world that binds, oppresses, and terrorizes her. Insofar as Horace apprehends for himself—as himself—the being of the “female flesh” which he imagines at a distance throughout the novel, we see the sufferer birth the world in which she suffers in the same textual instance as the moralist expels the world on which he would pronounce judgment, a world he has complicity in creating and in which he profoundly suffers as well. As the managerial desire, which casts the other as object, and the concrete humanity of the other actually conflate in Horace's apprehension, his complicity in the management of the other comes in force: he reels in vertigo once he encounters the concreteness of the other. In other words, as the will to objectification not only objectifies, but confronts, and then itself becomes, the object—such that subjective desire comes to think the very position of the object—the violence of differentiation implodes the logic of differentiation, and the concreteness of the sufferer calls forth with all its weight. This moment persists only if reading dwells on it, however; the thread of the narrative returns Horace, the next day, to the task of trying to comprehend human life from the province of abstract and cleansing justice, forgetting the bothersome implications of the substantially dark gaze of the suffering other.


The reader's confrontation of the concreteness of Temple involves the kind of darkness and illegibility I have noted in Faulkner's remarks about writing. The imagery of blackness for Temple's eyes, like that for Horace's vomiting, resonates with other moments of human opacity in Sanctuary, such as Horace's early perception of Popeye's odor: to him, Popeye “smells like that black stuff that ran out of Bovary's mouth” (4). Bleikasten writes of this allusion to Flaubert as “a reduplication of the book within the book: black stuff, fallen on a white page” (“Terror” 29).8 Besides the density suggested in the olfactory image, the allusion suggests a certain tactility in the resistance ink presents to the eye, resembling the resistance we may seek in approaching, as readers, palpable humanity. As Faulkner's narrative puts narrative structures and categories into question, it allows such a tactile reading of the human, promoting access to human feeling that subtends naturalizations of character in narrative—feeling that may emerge unexpectedly, disruptively, even violently for reading. In such reading, we of course cannot take Popeye lightly. Attending to the other entails recognition of the palpable existence of the perpetrator, as well as that of the victim. (Indeed, as we have seen, ethical positions represented in the text—ones with which reading can become implicated—may themselves be implicated in perpetration as well as in victimhood.)

With Popeye, Faulkner demonstrates how we may see character as a patchwork through which the substance of human experience leaks. The patchwork shows particularly in the segments of the final chapter that cover his childhood. Faulkner added this material in a major revision of the original manuscript; its purpose appears to be one of filling in the details of Popeye's behavioral development, so that we might better understand his character. Almost universally, however, readers have recognized that this narrative material leaves Popeye opaque as ever, that further descriptions of his background and social context do not help shape or clarify his character. For example, the childhood “disease” the chapter indicates he inherited from his father—probably syphilis—explains little (except in perhaps alluding to a source of Popeye's impotence), mainly helping promote a sense that he suffers many events of his life (243). Popeye remains largely a matter of image, of indeed powerful and terrifying imagery, and his own desires, apprehensions, and suffering begin to emerge though our apprehension of him as image.9

Although we could argue that Popeye is simply inhuman, we may certainly read him as humanity that lacks character, a lack Faulkner depicts in various ways. Popeye lacks a proper given name, having only a nickname, moreover lacking a surname as a marker of the ethos of family, culture, or class (170).10 In the first pages, his face appears a “bloodless color,” and “his skin had a dead, dark pallor,” while the detail of his eyes' being like “rubber knobs” is given three times (1-3). Later, he is like “a doll” (246). Although he has a “delicate hooked profile” (191), and “his nose [is] faintly aquiline,” he has “no chin at all. His face just went away, like the face of a wax doll set too near a hot fire and forgotten” (2-3). He gives an impression of “that vicious depthless quality of stamped tin” (1), an image Faulkner uses elsewhere to describe the Snopeses. In the opening of Sanctuary, Horace sees that “one side of [Popeye's] face squinted against the smoke like a mask carved into two simultaneous expressions”; whether or not we doubt Faulkner's grammar in the line (if not, “one side” is itself carved into the two expressions), the result is a depiction of a face incommensurate with itself. This visage of doubling and self-contradiction emerges “watching” Horace from across the spring where he has been drinking: Horace first sees the face, where he should find his own, emerging amid the “broken and myriad reflection of his own drinking” (1-2). From the fragments of a narcissistic face that is expected to cohere as a whole, there emerges a face divided, shadowed in smoke, not yielding to a determining interpretation. (This mirror of a doubling suggests an incommensurability in the moralist's face as well as the face of the impenetrable other.)11

Among images that can yield for us the substantive human affect of Popeye is the corn cob he uses to violate Temple. It is not an image pertinent only to him, however: around the cob is a constellation of desire, fear, rage, pain, and a host of other feelings that implicate practically everyone in the novel. Yet all these moments lead to Popeye indirectly, even though no one who sees the cob at the trial, except Temple, can associate it with his perpetration of the rape (besides Popeye himself, if he is present, perhaps as the one who keeps Temple's attention “fixed on something at the back of the room” as she testifies, 226). For all onlookers as the cob is held up in the courtroom, the image signifies excesses and opacities of feeling, material not fully captured in what delineations we (or they) have of characters and events. To repeat, the rage of the townsmen is charged by the image of the cob, an image of their own sexual energy at the same time as it is an image of perverse substitution of that energy. This rage is itself anonymous and amorphous: in developing rage toward the bonfire, Faulkner does not articulate it in terms of any individual's actions. The cob also becomes a signifier of Goodwin's demise and of Horace's failure, therein involving a variety of associations. To all eyes, of course, it represents the pathos of Temple: held aloft by the prosecuting attorney, the cob exhibits in its length and circumference her body as it was contorted in the moment of invasion. As an image of her concrete suffering, it involves abuse and manipulation that she continues to suffer, abuse that proliferates as nearly everyone seizes on her pathos as an object of his or her own various emotions.

With the possible exceptions of Temple and Popeye himself, only the reader can sense the pathos of Popeye in this complex image. The cob figurally marks the exteriority of Popeye, the extent of his phallic presence: it marks the threshold of his presence for us, the means we have for gaining access to him. As such and as an image of horrific violence, it is an object that in an intense and conflicted way embodies the problem of objectification which obtains for any being with whom we might have empathy, the problem of thinking the position of the object. The image, indeed, looms closer to us than Popeye gets in his actions, which largely yield only a bad character that we can hold at a distance, that we might judge as having contours different from what we may prefer to imagine are the contours of natural human character. (I allude to Charles William Reed's summary of a key aspect of Levinas's ethics: “The other person is closer to me than is knowledge or ontology” [80].) This imagistic representation of Popeye's substantive passions will strike various moments of a reader's own passions and resonate with or against them (indeed helping constitute them) in reading. For instance, the bloody cob as a phallic substitute presents Popeye's desire as the trace of virility he suffers for not having, the pathos of which inhabits the very sign of violation, the sign of Temple's pathos. Thus, various moments of human substance emerge in an image that for various readers will render various responses knotted together, inextricable from which is the affect of Popeye.

We do have narrative portrayals of Popeye's emotions, although the text withholds indications of their value for him, particularly any sense of pleasure. For instance, we have his “whimpering” and “whinnying” during manual sex with Temple at Reba's and his “moaning and slobbering over the bed” as Temple has sex with Red (126; 184). Popeye's desire is desire which, unnatural as it may appear, does not appear to have determining causes or contours (although it is only ostensibly more opaque than desire marked male in other instances of the novel—the desire of Red, Horace, the townsmen, or the men at the Old Frenchman Place). In short, Popeye indeed dwells and operates at the level of the image. His affect, itself imagistic, manipulates imagery and thereby drives events. We find Popeye's pathos, among other affective moments, working through the corn cob to manipulate the townsmen, the justice system, the social elite represented by Judge Drake and Narcissa, and indeed our reading of the narrative. In the imagery associated with Popeye, we are made to face the pathos and vulnerability of multiple others, to include our own and that of the criminal perpetrator.

Reading human substance at the level of the image, we meet Popeye on his own terms, which is to say we meet him as we must meet human beings if we are to attend ethically to their otherness. Concerning Popeye, we must confront his opaque and seemingly inhuman presence, a pre-articulate locus of human substance, which presents dimensions of feeling we must be willing to engage if we are to engage any human other. His concrete pathos represents as well as Temple's pathos the difficulty at the heart of ethics. Such imagistic pathos keeps ethics working indefinitely in substantial human territory, beyond the limited focus of humanistic ethics and in excess of the reductiveness of the concept of character. Reading Sanctuary, we may approach humanity that exceeds any attempt to reduce humanity for determinate versions of ethics. We may move beyond the reach of practices that conscript the human to abstract naturalization, moving toward an incomplete and potentially abusive task that we must engage if we are to make any claim for humane reading or criticism. What Faulkner's self-problematizing narrative offers us is the possibility of an empathic approach to an infinite concreteness in material humanity.


  1. Readers familiar with deconstruction or post-structural ethics will no doubt recognize the theoretical moves in my essay. But I hope all readers will be able to follow my working-through of Faulkner's narrative so as to gain access to the problems with character and ethics on which I focus. For more on Levinas's ethics, see especially the first section of Totality and Infinity. For a development of his ethics as a method of reading and a discussion of his influence on deconstruction, see Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas. See Adam Zachary Newton, Narrative Ethics, for an extended consideration of the implications of Levinas's work for reading narrative. See also John D. Caputo, Against Ethics, who rejects what he sees as Levinas's stretching of the term “ethics” from its traditional, largely determinate meaning. Developing an alternative focus on the term “obligation,” Caputo underscores the incompleteness of ethics that I have cited.

  2. Faulkner himself trivialized Sanctuary, for instance, by calling it “a cheap shocker” in the introduction of the 1932 edition, when its reputation was beginning to make him infamous. See Frederick R. Karl for evidence that Faulkner was merely striking a pose (351-75); see also O. B. Emerson, Faulkner's Early Literary Reputation in America.

  3. My discussion of Faulkner's diegesis supplements other studies of his techniques, such as studies by Warren Beck and Hugh M. Ruppersburg; see also Lothar Hönnighausen, ed., Faulkner's Discourse. In a discussion of the elliptical quality of Sanctuary's narrative elements, John T. Matthews concludes—as I do—that a sense of palpable though inassimilable humanity is an effect of ellipsis in the novel (265).

  4. The connection between Temple and Ruby, along with other features of the novel, may prompt a gender analysis concerning the text's figurations of otherness and the body. There has been much attention to gender in Sanctuary and there remains much to say, indeed concerning how gender figures in reading. But the complexity of the matter exceeds the province of my essay, primarily since the function of the concept of gender in textual criticism is undergoing widespread scrutiny. Because many terms in Faulkner's text, my secondary sources, and my commentary will for some readers articulate points of gender, I open myself to the charge that I naturalize the implications of such terms (and it would be no use to claim that the terms deal only with psychical or philosophical categories). Thus, my essay admits a criticism whose interests lie with the discourse of gender, as well as one that would take the presuppositions of binary gender to task. See Frann Michel, “William Faulkner as a Lesbian Author,” for a suggestive opening of problems of gender in Faulkner's work.

  5. Horace, Narcissa, and other characters in Sanctuary emerge in other of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha narratives. For a discussion of Narcissa that explores her sexuality and emotions, see Ron Buchanan; see also Faulkner's treatment of her in “There Was a Queen.” See Flags in the Dust or its variant, Sartoris, for strong suggestions of Horace's infatuation with his sister, and see Sanctuary: The Original Text—Noel Polk's edition of the manuscript Faulkner first prepared for publication—for textual variants that involve the relationship between the siblings. In “Horace Benbow and the Myth of Narcissa,” John T. Irwin details their relationship and relates it to various implications of incest in Faulkner's fiction.

  6. Many readings of Temple tend to naturalize her by imposing on her a character that largely determines what she undergoes; see, for example, Leslie A. Fiedler (311-15), Albert J. Guerard (120-35), and Robert R. Moore.

  7. Homer B. Pettey calls this moment Horace's “own primal scene” (81), serving the larger point that “the primal scene of Sanctuary is the reader's interpretation.” Implicating both Horace's and the reader's perspectives, Pettey concludes that “rape is Faulkner's master trope for the process of interpretation in Sanctuary” (83).

  8. Bleikasten further discusses the allusion to the “black stuff” by analyzing its emergence in Sanctuary: The Original Text, where Horace not only alludes to it while accompanying Popeye (25) but also later, when he reflects on Popeye while ruminating on his own mother (60). Bleikasten writes that the maternal body becomes an “assemblage” of the women in Horace's life, and it “disgorges,” or delivers, Popeye (“Terror” 28). See also Bleikasten, “‘Cet affreux goût d'encre’: Emma Bovary's Ghost in Sanctuary.

  9. T. H. Adamowski, among others, somewhat overstates the dearth of Popeye's thought: it is not the case that a lack of thinking renders Popeye inhuman. Popeye certainly thinks as he muses over Goodwin's management of the house and—ironically for a liquor profiteer—the others' right to drink. And indeed, Popeye's “Goofy house” is a sympathetic line (67). Faulkner's own remarks give us varying angles on Popeye, as he claims that he is “all allegory” (Lion in the Garden 53) and alternatively calls him “another lost human being” (Faulkner in the University 74).

  10. Requiem for a Nun identifies Popeye's surname as “Vitelli” (125).

  11. In The Ink of Melancholy, Bleikasten writes that Popeye and Horace belong to different genres in the novel, Popeye's flatness being inconsistent with the “psychological” characterization of Horace (256); my reading weakens this generic distinction. As another moment of doubling in this scene, the two have corresponding bulges in their pockets: Popeye has a gun, Horace a book. At the level of imagery, the two bulges seem equal in power, the book as severe as the gun: to risk hyperbole, the text represents what one might hope to be a power in reading.

Works Cited

Adamowski, T. H. “Faulkner's Popeye: The ‘Other’ as Self.” Sanctuary: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. J. Douglas Canfield. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Spectrum-Prentice, 1982. 32-48.

Beck, Warren. Faulkner: Essays. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.

Bleikasten, André. “‘Cet affreux goût d'encre’: Emma Bovary's Ghost in Sanctuary.Intertextuality in Faulkner. Ed. Michel Gresset and Noel Polk. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985. 37-56.

———. The Ink of Melancholy: Faulkner's Novels from “The Sound and the Fury” to “Light in August.” Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

———. “Terror and Nausea: Bodies in Sanctuary.Faulkner Journal 1.1 (1985): 17-29. Revised and rpt. in The Ink of Melancholy. 237-52.

Buchanan, Ron. “‘I Want You to Be Human’: The Potential Sexuality of Narcissa Benbow.” Mississippi Quarterly 41.3 (1988): 447-58.

Caputo, John D. Against Ethics: Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference to Deconstruction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Critchley, Simon. The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.

Emerson, O. B. Faulkner's Early Literary Reputation in America. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984.

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage-Random, 1987.

———. Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia 1957-1958. Ed. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner. New York: Vintage-Random, 1959.

———. Flags in the Dust. Ed. Douglas Day. New York: Vintage-Random, 1974.

———. Introduction. Sanctuary. New York: Modern Library-Random, 1932. v-viii.

———. Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962. Ed. James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate. New York: Random, 1968.

———. Requiem for a Nun. New York: Vintage-Random, 1975.

———. Sanctuary. New York: Random, 1958.

———. Sanctuary: The Original Text. Ed. Noel Polk. New York: Random, 1981.

———. Sartoris. New York: Signet-NAL, 1964.

———. Selected Letters of William Faulkner. Ed. Joseph Blotner. New York: Random, 1977.

———. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage-Random, 1954.

———. “There Was a Queen.” Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Vintage-Random, 1977. 727-44.

———. The Wild Palms. New York: Vintage-Random, 1966.

Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the Novel. New York: Criterion, 1960.

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Gresset, Michel. Fascination: Faulkner's Fiction, 1919-1936. Ed. and trans. Thomas West. Durham: Duke University Press, 1989.

Guerard, Albert J. The Triumph of the Novel: Dickens, Dostoevsky, Faulkner. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Hönnighausen, Lothar, ed. Faulkner's Discourse: An International Symposium. Tübingen: Verlag, 1989.

Irwin, John T. “Horace Benbow and the Myth of Narcissa.” American Literature 64 (1992): 543-66.

Karl, Frederick R. William Faulkner: American Writer. New York: Weidenfeld, 1989.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay in Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969.

Malraux, André. “A Preface for Faulkner's Sanctuary.” 1933. Yale French Studies 10 (1953): 92-94.

Matthews, John T. “The Elliptical Nature of Sanctuary. Novel 17 (1984): 246-65.

Michel, Frann. “William Faulkner as a Lesbian Author.” Special Issue: Faulkner and Feminisms. Faulkner Journal 4.1 & 2 (1988-89): 5-20.

Moore, Robert R. “Desire and Despair: Temple Drake's Self-Victimization.” Faulkner and Women: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1985. Ed. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986. 112-27.

Newton, Adam Zachary. Narrative Ethics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Pettey, Homer B. “Reading and Raping in Faulkner's Sanctuary.Faulkner Journal 3.1 (1987): 71-84.

Reed, Charles William. “Levinas' Question.” Face to Face with Levinas. Ed. Richard A. Cohen. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986. 73-82.

Ruppersburg, Hugh M. Voice and Eye in Faulkner's Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983.

Sundquist, Eric J. Faulkner: The House Divided. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Vickery, Olga W. The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical Interpretation. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.

Deborah Clarke (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8393

SOURCE: Clarke, Deborah. “Gender, War, and Cross-Dressing in The Unvanquished.” In Faulkner and Gender. Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1994, edited by Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie, pp. 228-51. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

[In the following essay, Clarke examines the way war is dealt with in The Unvanquished by women, children, and African Americans.]

I'd rather engage Forrest's whole brigade every morning for six months than spend that same length of time trying to protect United States property from defenseless Southern women and niggers and children. … Defenseless! God help the North if Davis and Lee had ever thought of the idea of forming a brigade of grandmothers and nigger orphans, and invading us with it1

Are women defenseless damsels or consummate soldiers? The role of women in Faulkner's work is always problematic, but women's relation to war intensifies that situation in a particularly intricate and complex manner. As Susan Schweik has observed, “Wars have a way of revealing with special clarity how men as well as women are both intensely and uneasily gendered.”2 War, which sets up a system characterized by bifurcation and polarization, seems to reorder the world through opposition. But war, in fact, is a cross-dresser's dream. Civilians cross-dress as soldiers; women cross-dress as men; boys cross-dress as men; scared men cross-dress as heroes; homosexuals, these days, must cross-dress as heterosexuals to maintain the Pentagon's misguided assumption that there are no gays in the military; enemies cross-dress as friends, infiltrating each other's turf; and, in possibly the most tragic feature of war, especially civil war, friends and even family cross-dress as enemies. Thus, despite imposing a binary framework war also—somewhat paradoxically—opens up possibilities of transcending it, of finding an alternative position, of mixing the categories.

Examining the binaries of race and gender, Faulkner reveals their vulnerability to the pressures of war. Women may be ostensibly silenced by the rhetoric of war which, like combat, is generally controlled by men, but male absence from the homefront can transform defenseless creatures into active speaking subjects. Yet finding a discourse is not easy, particularly for the women of The Unvanquished caught between supporting the system which subordinates them and breaking free of that subordination. Consequently, Granny Millard and Drusilla Hawk wage war against both the Yankees and their own lack of power within the chivalric order, a battle in which they are joined by Ringo, whose defense of a slave-owning culture defies the framework of slavery itself. Ostensibly one of Faulkner's most military novels, The Unvanquished primarily examines not Colonel Sartoris, who rides in and out on his stallion Jupiter, playing a relatively minor role in the various military and nonmilitary struggles, but the ways in which “defenseless Southern women and niggers and children” deal with the war and the chivalric tradition which it attempts to uphold.

War, of course, has largely been viewed as a particularly male stronghold. Anne Goodwyn Jones notes, “if anything in our ‘adult’ culture has a history of establishing manhood in opposition to the feminine, it is war: war makes men.”3 Men fight; women wait. War grants men an authority of experience—both of combat and of representation—denied to women. Men write; women stay silent. One need recall only some of the most famous war poetry to see the pattern.4 English Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace begins “To Lucasta” with the injunction to his mistress to be quiet: “Tell me not, sweet, I am unkind / That from the nunnery / Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind / To war and arms I fly.” Then he ends it by insisting that she approve of all this: “Yet this inconstancy is such / As you too shall adore; / I could not love thee, dear, so much, / Loved I not honor more.” Not only must she keep her mouth shut, she must love sitting there in silence or she loses everything. Several centuries later, Wilfred Owen, in a dedication—“To Jessie Pope”—often left off of many contemporary reprintings of his famous “Dulce et Decorum Est,” directs his poem at a woman poet who has had the temerity to write about war. Jessie Pope wrote patriotic verse, but Owen does more than simply contest her glorification of war; he implicitly denies her the right to speak, by pointing to her lack of experience.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The conditional “If” says it all: she was not there, so she has no authority to speak. Jones, drawing on Jean Bethke Elshtain's analysis of the war story, notes that such a story “self-deconstructs by insisting on the importance of the actual experience of war for the production of manhood: a story is never enough, it tells its reader; you had to [will have to] be there.”5 Thus women are doubly excluded: from the experience and from telling the story.

Gender, then, appears to divide the combatants from the noncombatants, experience from spectatorship, voice from silence. But what of Faulkner, who spent much of his life lying about his war experiences? Clearly, he felt that his lack of combat duty unmanned him to a certain extent, and may have worried about being linked with the Jessie Popes. His belief in both the authority of experience and the gender division it gives rise to are implicit in a 1947 interview, when he noted, “War is a dreadful price to pay for experience. The only good I know that comes from a war is that it allows men to be free of their womenfolks without being blacklisted by it.”6 While the price may be high, he upholds the experiential definition of war, an experience relegated primarily to men, who enjoy unrebuked freedom from women. Faulkner's responses in interviews are often suspect, and the blatant misogyny of this statement, particularly when combined with his own lack of military credentials, simply doesn't hold up in his fiction where war seems to allow women to be free of their menfolks, though it rarely protects them from being blacklisted for it. While Faulkner's statement reveals a wry yearning for socially acceptable freedom from women, his fiction more often examines the ways that war both genders and ungenders human beings, and raises questions about who is freed from whom. He may have been inexperienced in combat, but his novels overflow with battles between the sexes, an arena in which he did have some expertise.

Even when he turns directly to war, Faulkner generally places greater emphasis on the impact and aftermath of war than on the battlefield. Possibly due to the untenability of his claim to combat experience, he examines most directly the experience of noncombatants and the inadequacy of gender to define both one's position in war and one's voice in response to it. In thus elevating the claims of the spectator—generally women and children—it may be that he vindicates his own unacknowledged feminine position. In so doing, Faulkner breaks the pattern—as he so often does—of other male modernists. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar claim that “inevitably, in the aftermath of the emasculating terrors of the war [i.e., WWI], many men insisted that the ultimate reality underlying history is and must be the truth of gender.”7 But despite his Nobel Prize speech, in which he insists that writing, in the aftermath of World War II, be comprised of “the old universal truths,”8 Faulkner's fiction rarely ascribes to any kind of absolute truth, particularly truth about the determinacy of gender. The stories of The Unvanquished, largely written some fifteen years after World War I, with World War II just beginning to hover on the horizon, rather reflect the ways that war strips away acknowledged truth about gender.

This is particularly true for the American Civil War, a war that, especially in the South, broke down the binaries of gendered experience. As Sarah Morgan of Baton Rouge wrote in her Civil War diary,

Oh! if I was only a man! Then I could don the breeches, and slay them with a will! If some few Southern women were in the ranks they could set the men an example they would not blush to follow. Pshaw! there are no women here! We are all men!9

Morgan moves from desiring men's opportunities to denying female identity, revealing the extent to which gender is deconstructed during wartime. And yet, it is women who are sacrificed: “there are no women here.” However, this annihilation occurs only if one equates sex with gender—only if donning breeches and slaying the enemy necessarily entails a sexchange operation. Margaret R. Higonnet observes, “Wars may awaken our awareness of the ways sexual territory is mapped because they disrupt the normal division of labor by gender.” Not only do women move into men's vacated peacetime occupations, they may also intrude into the ranks of the battle itself. Higonnet goes on to assert that “civil wars, which take place on ‘home’ territory, have more potential than other wars to transform women's expectations.”10 In the Civil War South, where the front lines often corresponded with the homefront, Southern women and children experienced war first hand, a situation which sometimes allowed women greater freedom to take on masculine roles and masculine language. Drew Gilpin Faust has noted women's expressed desires to participate in the war and concluded, “Without directly acknowledging such frustrations, Confederate public discussion of women's roles sought to deal with incipient dissatisfaction by specifying active contributions women might make to the Southern Cause and by valorizing their passive waiting and sacrifice as highly purposeful.”11 But Drusilla Hawk and Granny Millard content themselves neither with “passive waiting and sacrifice” nor with the specified contributions allotted to women, which rarely included mule-trading or cross-dressing. Aunt Louisa's horror that Drusilla has “unsex[ed] herself” (189) by fighting thus reflects Southern wartime ideology, and applies equally well to Granny Millard, a more formidable opponent than General Forrest.

In The Unvanquished Faulkner interrogates the conventional expectations of women's place in war. Women in the novel take two different approaches to war, yet each one adopts a kind of male persona. Granny Millard, in her vanquishing of the Yankee army, relies on—and manipulates—written texts and Biblical authority, while Drusilla reacts more with her body; she cuts her hair short, dresses as a man, and joins Colonel Sartoris's troop. In these varying responses, Faulkner tests the limits of gender and gendered discourse, examining the efficacy of men's texts and women's bodies in the war against a patriarchal system. While both women fight to uphold Southern chivalry, their modes of discourse seriously undermine the very system they set out to defend.

On the surface, Drusilla's cross-dressing marks her as male identified, unsexed, while Granny behaves more like a lady. Yet Granny's reliance on textuality reveals her dependence on what has often been identified as a particularly masculine form of discourse. Western tradition aligns women more closely with their bodies than with language. Women are physical, men figurative, creators. As so many feminist theorists have postulated, women's language tends to be tactile and literal, focused on the body. Margaret Homans observes, “For the same reason that women are identified with nature and matter in any traditional thematics of gender … women are also identified with the literal, the absent referent in our predominant myth of language.”12 Faulkner, however, is a prime example of a man who questions such paradigms. His male characters flounder amid the wreck of symbolic discourse, desperately trying to make words replace reality. Thus Quentin Compson kills himself because among other reasons virginity is not just a word; thus Harry Wilbourne finds his language inadequate next to Charlotte's drawings; and thus Reverend Whitfield can only “frame,” not speak, the words of his confession, while Addie Bundren knows that words are no good. Faulkner both reproduces and challenges this gendered linguistic split, and one often finds that women's silence and women's bodies hold greater sway than men's language.

The Unvanquished mixes these categories in curious and interesting ways. Granny, an avid supporter of the patriarchal system, relies on written texts to vanquish the Yankee army. While the misunderstandings behind her note from Colonel Dick provide an almost slapstick tone to her mule-trading—she demands the return of a chest of silver, her mules named Old Hundred and Tinney, and two slaves, which gets transcribed by the Yankee orderly as ten chests of silver, 110 mules and slaves (that equation is surely no accident)—Granny's participation in the procedure marks her reverence for justice and textual authority. Her note from Colonel Dick is legal; as she herself quickly points out, she “tried to tell them better. … It's the hand of God” (112). Associating the hand of God with the written hand of man firmly ensconces textual authenticity as akin to divine authority, and both are further affiliated with masculine power. But the Yankee orderly's comic mistake and the consequent blind obedience by the rest of the army to this text illustrate both the power of textual legality and its limitations. With nothing more than a “handful of durn printed letterheads” (122), Granny routs the Yankees so thoroughly that Ab Snopes wonders “if somebody hadn't better tell Abe Lincoln to look out for General Grant against Miz Rosa Millard” (123). The unquestioned authority of the masculine text can be effectively subverted by a woman who recognizes that fixed meaning can be manipulated, particularly in a system which does not question a lady's—or a Colonel's—word. Granny's appropriation of textual authority, for the sake of the Southern patriarchal system, places her in precisely the position which that system has denied her: in control of military men and military language.

But it is Ringo, an even more problematic supporter of Southern patriarchy, who first recognizes the full potential of the note, that it is a text with multiple applications. He, like Granny, claims only to be fulfilling the letter of the law: “I never [said] nothing the paper never said” (114). His reliance on what the paper said—or never said—illustrates his understanding of the cultural reliance on textual legality, which he then goes on to exploit. Yet his dedication to the cause which has declared him legally nonhuman demands attention. Certainly his loyalties are less to the South than to the Sartorises; he has, in a sense, cross-dressed as a white Southerner. He looks at the pathetic band of escaped slaves who have just been handed over to them and remarks, “The main thing now is, whut we gonter do with all these niggers” (114). His inability to recognize his own affiliation to these slaves may result from his youth and the decent treatment he has apparently received from the Sartorises, but it also reflects a lack of self-awareness striking in one so intelligent. Ringo's racial identification is as unfixed as his legal racial status is fixed, creating the “third term” which Marjorie Garber, in her book on cross-dressing, identifies as a challenge to “binary thinking, whether particularized as male and female, black and white, yes and no, Republican and Democrat, self and other, or in any other way.”13 It is a fitting description of Ringo who, as Bayard says, has grown up in the family so that “maybe he wasn't a nigger anymore or maybe I wasn't a white boy anymore, the two of us neither, not even people any longer: the two supreme undefeated like two moths, two feathers riding above a hurricane” (7). But this is the Civil War South; the possibility of there being a third term is denied by the very terminology of the dichotomy: nigger vs. white boy. In fact, the possibility of transcending race also indicates that to deny race is to deny human identity; once Bayard admits the possibility of their being neither nigger nor white boy, he realizes that the next stage is “not even people any longer.” Judith Butler has suggested that naming and labeling can constitute gendering of the individual self. “Such attributions or interpellations contribute to that field of discourse and power that orchestrates, delimits, and sustains that which qualifies as ‘the human.’ We see this most clearly in the examples of those abjected beings who do not appear properly gendered; it is their very humanness that comes into question.”14 In Faulkner's work, indeterminacy in either race or gender can question human identity; just as Drusilla's ungendering undermines her humanity, so here does the unracing of Ringo and Bayard challenge their existence as people. However, the power of the names, nigger and white boy, destroys the possibility implied in the “maybe” clause of Bayard's formulation; once those terms are employed, it is no longer possible to say, “maybe he wasn't,” for in these circumstances Ringo is a “nigger” and Bayard is a white boy, labels which the South is fighting a war, in part, to preserve.

Yet just as the war reinforces the binary, it also challenges it both in the opportunities it provides Ringo to assert his intelligence and resourcefulness and in the ways that it explodes the binary system of slave and free, putting Ringo on a par with Granny. In fact, he one-ups Granny by not merely accepting the note but enforcing it to the letter, and then turns to her and very adroitly challenges her language. “Hah … Whose hand was that?” (114). If Granny's manipulation of the text can be ascribed to the hand of the Almighty, then Ringo's action is similarly inspired. But his comment reflects more than an attempt to escape punishment; it asserts an equality to Granny in its tacit acknowledgment that the hand in question is, in fact, Ringo's.

By placing himself within the divine scheme of things, Ringo breaks down the dichotomy of slave vs. free which has hitherto defined his life. He does, I would argue, set up a third term as an African American subject, living the identity which Loosh has movingly but less successfully asserted: “I done been freed; God's own angel proclamated me free and gonter general me to Jordan. I don't belong to John Sartoris now; I belongs to me and God” (75). Like Ringo (and Granny), Loosh redefines the binary of honesty vs. theft, replying to Granny's condemnation of his violation of private property when he betrays to the Yankees the location of the silver, “Let God ax John Sartoris who the man name that give me to him. Let the man that buried me in the black dark ax that of the man what dug me free” (75). This unanswered demand that the legality and authority of slavery be named questions the very notion of such authority, a challenge which Ringo duplicates in his subversion of the legal text; his actions on behalf of those who have enslaved him may mark the degree to which he has been co-opted by the system, yet also illustrate the system's failure in that he has the ability to exploit it. His manipulation of written texts, which he goes on to produce himself—“by now Ringo had learned to copy it so that I don't believe Colonel Dick himself could have told the difference” (127)—grants him a kind of subversive power, as he undermines the very discourse which defines his status. Still it seems poor compensation: discourse is one thing; slavery is another. As Audre Lorde has pointed out, it is difficult to dismantle the master's house by means of the master's tools.

While one might claim that Ringo's appropriation of the master's tools—writing and legality—reveals him as incapable of imagining any alternative, we can also read Ringo's active participation in this attack against the army which will liberate him as his claim to personal worth. The boys grow up playing together almost as equals, though Bayard notes that their arrangement is that “I would be General Pemberton twice in succession and Ringo would be Grant, then I would have to be Grant once so Ringo could be General Pemberton or he wouldn't play anymore.” Despite the seeming equality of two boys who have “both fed at the same breast and had slept together and eaten together,” they both realize that “Ringo was a nigger too” (7), and thus lesser than Bayard. In this war against the Yankees, however, Ringo plays the starring role. His superior intelligence (“Father was right; he was smarter than me” [125]) finally places him, if only briefly, ahead of Bayard. In fact, as Bayard rather resentfully notes, “he had got to treating me like Granny did—like he and Granny were the same age instead of him and me” (126).

Yet once the peculiar institution has been overthrown, Ringo loses position. As he himself announces, “I ain't a nigger anymore. I done been abolished” (199). He speaks more truly than he probably realizes. With the war now over, his lead over Bayard vanishes. In fact, by the time of John Sartoris's murder, Ringo has been reduced, even in Bayard's language, to “my boy” (213). He now, however, seems more attuned to racial difference and what it means, for after suggesting that they bushwhack Redmund, he continues, “But I reckon that wouldn't suit that white skin you walks around in” (218). By suggesting that Bayard's whiteness is merely a covering, something “you walks around in,” Ringo again associates racial identity with a kind of cross-dressing. In this wonderfully subtle turn of phrase, Ringo aligns aberrance with whiteness and further suggests that this whiteness has been recently attained, something which desecrates Bayard's sense of self for, unlike Ringo's black skin, Bayard's white skin has gotten in the way of his family identity. “I remember how I thought then that no matter what might happen to either of us, I would never be The Sartoris to him” (215). Ringo, who has “changed even less than I had since that day when we nailed Grumby's body to the door of the old compress,” is still caught in Colonel Sartoris's era. His unique individuality can only be asserted in the upheaval of war, which may explain his reluctance to accept the changing postwar standards, a change recognized even by Colonel Sartoris, who tells his son, “But now the land and the time too are changing; what will follow will be a matter of consolidation, of pettifogging and doubtless chicanery in which I would be a babe in arms but in which you, trained in the law, can hold your own—our own” (231). Postwar law, a different type of textuality from the divine authority which Granny and Ringo play at so deftly, demands different talents: formal study, an opportunity denied to Ringo. It is only during war that he can define himself as outside the binary. In fighting, he can find his way to a third term; in voting, there is no third term—nor even a second. Wash Jones's words in Absalom [Absalom, Absalom!] resonate here with an eerie force: “[T]hey mought have whupped us, but they aint kilt us yit.”15 As long as that “us” defines a white culture, with its attention now turned back to governing itself, there is no place within it for Ringo.

Rosa Millard's world, while closer to the border of the white male hegemony than Ringo's, nonetheless also has some nebulous boundaries in times of war. Like Ringo, Granny struggles to maintain a world order based upon the very dualities which she destroys through her behavior. Trying desperately to retain her sense of good and evil, she discovers that war not only provides the opportunity to transgress the boundaries of being a lady, but it also enables her to cheat in her Christian beliefs. In fact, her usurpation of masculine power is tied to her challenge to divine authority. It is not surprising that Granny should find herself caught in a Christian vacuum, for war, of course, violates the central tenets of Christianity. All may be fair in war, but little is Christian in war. Her struggles are revealed in the ways that she tries to manipulate her Christian beliefs by making what even she admits is a sin acceptable due to extenuating circumstances: the horrors of war. Her attempt to justify the means by the end offers a further implicit criticism of patriarchal authority, in its open challenge to God the Father.

I did not sin for revenge; I defy You or anyone to say I did. I sinned first for justice. And after that first time, I sinned for more than justice: I sinned for the sake of food and clothes for Your own creatures who could not help themselves—for children who had given their fathers, for wives who had given their husbands, for old people who had given their sons, to a holy cause, even though You have seen fit to make it a lost cause.


Granny's complaint that God has “seen fit” to make a holy cause a lost cause suggests that God is not quite with it. The greater sin rests not with her but with God's inefficiency. Yet even in her concern for her lost cause, Granny focuses not on the men who died but on those who remain behind. She seems to be outraged not so much at defeat as at God's willingness to sacrifice the lives of “creatures who could not help themselves”—women, children, and the aged. God has been a bad Father in that He has ignored His obligations to the helpless. Thus war reveals the tenuous hold which God has upon the world, the limitations of patriarchy itself. Granny's complaint echoes the lamentations raised by many Confederate women, as Drew Faust has demonstrated. Yet there are some significant differences. Faust cites Almira Acors's letter to Jefferson Davis: “I do not see how God can give the South a victory when the cries of so many suffering mothers and little children are constantly ascending up to him. … [I]f I and my little children … die while there [sic] Father is in service I invoke God Almighty that our blood rest upon the South.”16

For Acors, the responsibility lies not with God but with the South, a charge which Granny Millard never quite recognizes. In her anger at this failure of patriarchal authority, Granny fails to see the implicit indictment of the Southern culture in which she is firmly entrenched. Interestingly, she omits any mention of the other “creatures who could not help themselves”: slaves. When saddled with 110 former slaves, she sends them back to their masters with the injunction, “if I ever hear of any of you straggling off like this again, I'll see to it” (115). Regardless of whether she could or would make good her threat, she still refuses to acknowledge that slavery itself is at least as great a betrayal of Christianity as war. She retains the position of mistress, arbiter of justice, and ultimate authority. Thus her critique of God the Father suggests that the system would be improved by bringing in God the Mother, someone more attuned to the problems of women and children, but who still knows how to keep the slaves in line. And, not surprisingly, Granny herself seems the perfect candidate for the job. Yet shifting from a patriarchal to a matriarchal God does little to undermine the system. Granny may challenge the efficiency of Christian patriarchy, but she seeks to improve it, not overthrow it. Again, the structure of the binary—patriarchy versus matriarchy—leaves no space for a third term.

This Christian order is held in place largely by language, a power Granny clearly recognizes, as Bayard and Ringo get their mouths washed out with soap for swearing, for desecrating the sanctity of the word. However her assumption that she can knowingly sin and then attain forgiveness on the grounds that God has fallen short on the job marks a far greater challenge to the sanctity of the word and the text than the boys' curses. Her adherence to divine authority is tenuous at best; as Ringo says, “She cide what she want and then she kneel down about ten seconds and tell God what she aim to do, and then she git up and do hit” (93). Then, if what she does is a sin, she dares God to damn her for it. In qualifying the Biblical injunctions against lying and stealing, she challenges both Biblical authority and the fixity of linguistic meaning, particularly in the face of war. Yet even this potentially subversive response to Biblical textuality is based upon her belief in another patriarchal system: Southern chivalry, which should defend women and children. In being unable to imagine an alternative to chivalry, even though she herself lives one, she reveals the degree to which she remains firmly grounded in the patriarchal order. We need that third term to destroy the binary which, as Hélène Cixous would point out, is inevitably hierarchic. One of the elements in such standard oppositions as male/female or black/white is always more powerful. Thus, if we cannot break down the dichotomy we have not a binary but a unitary ordering.

In fact, Granny's dedication to chivalry and the binaries of gender it inscribes, literally kills her. While even the Yankee Colonel Dick is willing to protect Southern women and children, the outlaw Grumby is not. Granny's involvement in patriarchy has blinded her to its limitations. Living in a world highlighted by war's oppositions of north and south, black and white, she takes for granted another hierarchical system: class. Diane Roberts notes that Granny's “guerilla cunning fails to take into account the way the war itself has destroyed old verities of class.”17 The polarization of war causes her to idealize one side. If “Even the Yankees do not harm old women” (153), then she is surely in no danger from Southern men. She “still believed that what side of a war a man fought on made him what he is” (149), and so fails to realize that the same war which allows her not to be a lady also allows men not to be gentlemen. Once the laws of chivalry break down, women and children need to fend for themselves, yet the system which has placed them on pedestals has also denied them the means to do so. Granny, who wants to correct and perpetuate rather than overthrow the system, is ultimately victimized by it. As Mr. Compson says in Absalom, “we in the South made our women into ladies. Then the War came and made the ladies into ghosts.”18 War destroys the lady, and in so doing, betrays the woman behind the lady.

Drusilla Hawk, on the other hand, vehemently rejects the lady's role. Though her mother believes she has achieved the perfect destiny when her fiancé dies in battle, “to be the bride-widow of a lost cause” (191), and thus chosen but sexually pure, Drusilla has other ideas.

Living used to be dull, you see. Stupid. You lived in the same house your father was born in … and then you grew up and you fell in love with your acceptable young man. … But now you … don't have to worry now about the house and the silver because they get burned up and carried away, and you don't have to worry about the negroes … and you don't even have to sleep alone, you dont even have to sleep at all.


Drusilla sees the war as liberation from domesticity and marriage, yet she fights to support the system which has imposed that domesticity upon her. Apparently unable to see beyond her immediate situation, she tries to become a man in order to preserve the man's world against which she rebels. Drusilla later claims that her aim was simply “to hurt Yankees” (191), but this brief statement lacks the power of her passionate condemnation of conventional female domesticity. While many Confederate women, in fact, expressed similar sentiments, and some few did fight, they were viewed, Catherine Clinton argues, as “gender traitors, impermissible patriots. Women dressing as men to serve as soldiers betrayed a fundamental tenet of Confederate faith.”19 To fight not only like a man but as a man defies the system which the men fought to uphold, to “protect,” as Aunt Louisa puts it, “the heritage of courageous men and spotless women” (190). Drusilla's cross-dressing violates this binary of “courageous men and spotless women,” illustrating Judith Butler's observation that drag may illuminate “the exposure or the failure of heterosexual regimes ever fully to legislate or contain their own ideals.”20 Cross-dressing exposes the ideals for which the South is fighting—stable racial and gender hierarchies—as a sham.

Not surprisingly, then, Drusilla's ostensible support of Southern patriarchy through her “manly” behavior in fact constitutes a more serious challenge to it than Granny's usurpation of divine patriarchal authority. Granny, who operates on the assumption that being a lady will protect her, does not seek to get beyond conventional gender roles; she is forced into action because of God's inattention to the situation, not through any apparent dissatisfaction with her sex. However, Drusilla's manliness does, indeed, radically “unsex” her, for her emphasis on her body suggests a more feminized kind of discourse than Granny's textuality. Women stand outside the realm of symbolic discourse as formulated by Lacan, who associates language with the child's move from a presymbolic union with the mother into the realm of the father. Thus Drusilla's use of a kind of bodily discourse represents a particularly feminine response despite its apparent masculinity. Having been objectified by a system which places women on pedestals, Drusilla then transforms that object into a subject by essentially speaking with her body. Her masculine attire speaks what she can barely articulate in language—her dissatisfaction with her gender. Drusilla, like Ringo and, to a lesser extent, Granny, also seeks a third position, one beyond the binaries of race and gender.

But only war offers such possibilities, as by intensifying binaries it also seems to circumvent them. Once the war ends, and the men reestablish control, women must fall back to their gendered positions. More thoroughly defeated than Granny, who at least gets a heroine's funeral and inspires a particularly gruesome form of vengeance, Drusilla ends up back in dresses and marriage. While ostensibly it is the women of community who impose this order, before condemning them too harshly we must remember that the male populace has no intentions of admitting women into its bastion of power; indeed, Drusilla's marriage is delayed while John Sartoris ensures that former slaves are denied their voting rights. Drusilla is tolerated only because she is one, not many, for the lone exceptions do not threaten male dominance. With both men and women trying to reconstruct as much of the antebellum white hegemony as possible, Drusilla stands no chance. Neither man nor lady, she discovers there is no acceptable third position for the likes of her, and must forgo even the costumes through which she had attempted to establish one. Bayard realizes, “But she was beaten, like as soon as she let them put the dress on her she was whipped; like in the dress she could neither fight back nor run away” (201). While this defeat by skirts may seem surprising, given Drusilla's strength of character, it fits with studies of the importance of dress, particularly in defining and protecting femininity for Southern women. In an examination of Southern women's diaries regarding Sherman's march to the sea, Jane E. Shultz remarks that large numbers of women express fear of taking off their clothes, even to sleep, and many more report wearing many layers of garments, both to protect the clothes from theft and to shield their bodies from violation. “Implicitly,” says Shultz, “the writers were donning clothing as armor.”21 Drusilla discovers that this armor does more than protect one's body; it determines one's identity. Or rather, it purports to do so, for Drusilla's behavior is not entirely dependent on her attire. After all, she successfully defended her horse against the Yankees while wearing her “Sunday dress” (90). Consequently, once “safely” married and in skirts, Drusilla becomes more threatening and mysterious than she was dressed as a man. She seems to become a femme fatale, sexually tempting her stepson and urging him to murder his father's murderer.

Her body speaks now not visually but sensually, through the verbena which she wears, “the only scent you could smell above the smell of horses and courage” (220), a smell which transcends war. In fact, it speaks even when she is absent. As Bayard walks to confront Redmond, he moves “in a cloud of verbena” (246). And not only does she speak her own body, she also reads other bodies, knowing the moment she kisses his hand that Bayard has eschewed violence. “Because they are wise, women are—a touch, lips or fingers, and the knowledge, even clairvoyance, goes straight to the heart without bothering the laggard brain at all” (238). This body language offers women participation in a discourse based on the literal rather than the figurative and thus a different kind of voice. Drusilla thus rewrites gender divisions, giving women bodies with voices.

Although this “voice” too is silenced, it clearly presents a far greater threat. As an ersatz man Drusilla can be dismissed as a freak, but as a sexually charged woman she is firmly ensconced within the system. As Bayard remarks, “I thought how the War had tried to stamp all the women of her generation and class in the South into a type and how it had failed” (228-29). But Bayard is wrong, as Faulkner's narrators so often are. The war had not tried to stamp all women into a type; if anything, war has opened up the possibilities for femininity by its defeat of masculinity. “And so now Father's troop and all the other men in Jefferson, and Aunt Louisa and Mrs Habersham and all the women in Jefferson were actually enemies for the reason that the men had given in and admitted that they belonged to the United States but the women had never surrendered” (188).22 Neither has Drusilla; she has simply shifted the terms of battle from clothing to what lurks beneath it, causing consternation not only for Bayard but for many readers as well. Even the more sympathetic critics of Faulkner's women have had some harsh things to say about her. Winifred L. Frazier identifies her as a “moon-cycled, bloody priestess … a symbol of destruction,” and David Williams calls her “a vessel of vengeance.”23 While it is certainly the case that Drusilla urges Bayard to violence, at other points in the novel violence is not treated with the same moral outrage. When Bayard not only murders Grumby but, in a particularly grisly scene, pegs his corpse to the door, cuts off the hand, and lays it on Granny's grave, he meets not shocked horror but communal approbation. It seems apparent, then, that Drusilla's quest for violence is only condemned because of her gender. By using her femininity to urge men to fight, Drusilla seems to violate gender boundaries in an even more deadly way than by riding with the troops.

Why? What makes a womanly woman more threatening than a manly woman? Joan Riviere has suggested that women who wish for masculinity may “put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men.”24 Thus, Drusilla's seemingly “put on” femininity may be perfectly consistent with her cross-dressing. Yet whether or not Drusilla seeks masculinity, Faulkner, I would argue, seeks to uncover the precariousness of both masculinity and femininity. In a much glossed passage, Luce Irigaray claims that to find a feminine voice, women must “play with mimesis.”

One must assume the feminine role deliberately. Which means already to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to begin to thwart it.

To play with mimesis … means to resubmit herself—inasmuch as she is on the side of the “perceptible,” of “matter”—to “ideas,” in particular to ideas about herself, that are elaborated in/by a masculine logic, but so as to make “visible,” by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language.25

Drusilla certainly makes visible the feminine by her not-so-playful acting out of female sexuality. Having had her gender reimposed upon her, she plays the role with a vengeance, and so uncovers the power of the feminine in language, particularly when juxtaposed to masculine discourse. “I thought then,” says Bayard, “of the woman of thirty, the symbol of the ancient and eternal Snake and of the men who have written of her, and I realised then the immitigable chasm between all life and all print—that those who can, do, those who cannot and suffer enough because they cant, write about it” (228). Writing is reduced to mere compensation for lack of experience in a striking reversal of the experience of writing about war, where women are condemned to silence due to lack of firsthand knowledge. But somehow, in sexual matters, one's lack of combat credentials becomes an asset in representation. Yet even this linguistic power falls short, for all the words in the world cannot bridge the “immitagable chasm between all life and all print.” At Granny's funeral, Brother Fortinbride preaches, “‘Words are fine in peacetime, when everybody is comfortable and easy. But now I think we can be excused’” (137). War and sex leave words behind. So, in her deadly play with mimesis, Drusilla becomes a far more potent force than through her cross-dressing, revealing the inadequacy of the language with which men attempt to control the world.

In fact, in some ways it seems to me that she is now cross-dressing as a woman, and thus revealing how thin the veneer of femininity can be, as she becomes so powerfully feminine as to seem masculine, urging vengeance and fondling the pistols whose phallic symbolism she understands perfectly. “‘Do you feel them? the long true barrels true as justice, the triggers … quick as retribution, the two of them slender and invincible and fatal as the physical shape of love?’” (237). Sherrill Harbison argues that Bayard and Drusilla reverse gender roles here, and that Bayard's appropriation of the feminine succeeds where Drusilla's masculinity fails. “For Bayard, adopting the more ‘womanly’ attitude toward violence and retribution served to restore his family to good graces with the community. For Drusilla, adopting the masculine, chivalric code of honor, demanding satisfaction for injuries by retaliation, led to the loss of all she had.”26 While these reversals may implicitly privilege the feminine mode by Bayard's triumph, it is the type of triumph Elaine Showalter describes in her famous critique of Tootsie: men teaching women how to be better women.27 Gender has been reconfigured as men now colonize the feminine and incorporate it into a new masculinity, one from which women are as fully excluded as they were from the old one.

Yet a disquieting issue remains: that female sexuality may lead to phallic power. Though Faulkner backs away from this possibility and sends Drusilla packing, he does not erase it altogether. In transferring her power into a phallic gun, a weapon of war, Drusilla also opens up the possibility that war may not be the manly realm it has been assumed to be. As even the Yankees recognize, not only are Southern women not defenseless, they are not even defeated. By shifting the arena of war from the battlefield to the noncombatants, Faulkner privileges a different kind of battle, a more frightening spectacle than bullets and cannons. In fact, the combination of female sexuality and violence proves so threatening that it must be immediately exorcised by Bayard's commitment to nonviolence. For when women play with mimesis to the extent that they uncover a potential phallic power, they also open up the possibility that gender, as Butler argues, can be “performative—that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be.”28 This possibility is beyond even the power of the Civil War to provide. Miriam Cooke has suggested that only postmodern wars successfully challenge gender codes.

Whereas wars previously codified the binary structure of the world by designating gender-specific tasks and gender-specific areas where these tasks might be executed, today's wars are represented as doing the opposite. Postmodern wars highlight and then parody those very binaries—war/peace, good/evil, front/home front, combatant/noncombatant, friend/foe, victory/defeat, patriotism/pacifism—which war had originally inspired.29

I'm not sure she's entirely accurate here, for Faulkner's Civil War literature opens up these possibilities, even if it does not sustain them. Gender may be performative, may be parodied during war, but as Garber points out, “Those who problematize the binary are those who have a great deal invested in it.”30 This is, I would say, as true for Faulkner as it is for Drusilla. Thus, as Roberts says, the “collapsing of hierarchies is intolerable in a cultural narrative that demands [Drusilla's] subordination as feminine, as a lady.”31 This cultural—and Faulknerian—narrative, I would argue, demands more than her subordination as feminine; it demands her subordination as female.

Ultimately in this novel gender gives way to sex: if you are a woman, it doesn't matter if your behavior is masculine or feminine; eventually your body will catch up to you and neither great Neptune's ocean nor all the verbena in the world will wash it clean of female sexuality and thus subordination. Granting that gender is performative, what does that matter in a novel that keeps coming back to the body itself? And Faulkner, by setting this as a war story, drives home this point all the more forcefully. All the cross-dressing, all the captured uniforms (which Colonel Sartoris seems to specialize in), and all the captured stock will not substitute for human bodies. Victory generally goes to whichever side has the most people alive at the end, regardless of what they're wearing and what gender role they may be enacting. Wars open up all sorts of performative potential, but ultimately the body count determines the outcome. So it is for race and gender. Neither African American nor white women's bodies can long be ignored or masked. Granny is murdered, Ringo abolished, and Drusilla banished as the binaries—in which so much has been invested—are reinscribed. Yet something does remain. Though Drusilla may retire defeated, she leaves behind a sprig of verbena, “filling the room, the dusk, the evening with that odor which she said you could smell alone above the smell of horses” (254). That the odor remains, even after the body has gone, may offer a lingering hope for a system of identity both grounded in the body and independent of it, a system which can operate beyond the upheaval of war, even as the verbena can be smelled “above the smell of horses.” A smell, after all, cannot be cross-dressed and may thus offer a fourth term, a term which depends neither on binary logic nor its dissolution.


  1. William Faulkner, The Unvanquished (New York: Vintage International, 1990), 143-44. Subsequent references will be to this edition and will be noted parenthetically within the text.

  2. Susan Schweik, A Gulf So Deeply Cut (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 3.

  3. Anne Goodwyn Jones, “Male Fantasies?: Faulkner's War Stories and the Construction of Gender,” Faulkner and Psychology, ed. Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), 24.

  4. I am indebted to Susan Schweik for drawing my attention to the following examples.

  5. Jones, 28.

  6. Lion in the Garden, ed. James Meriwether and Michael Millgate (New York: Random House, 1966), 57-58.

  7. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man's Land, vol. 2 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 343.

  8. Essays, Speeches, and Public Letters, ed. James B. Meriwether (New York: Random House, 1966), 120.

  9. Quoted in Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore (New York: Oxford University Press), 265.

  10. Margaret R. Higonnet, “Civil Wars and Sexual Territories,” Arms and the Woman, ed. Helen Cooper, Adrienne Auslander Munich, Susan Merrill Squier (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 80.

  11. Drew Gilpin Faust, “Altars of Sacrifice: Confederate Women and the Narratives of War,” in Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War, ed. Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 176.

  12. Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 4.

  13. Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992), 10-11.

  14. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993), 8.

  15. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), 349.

  16. Faust, 194.

  17. Diane Roberts, Faulkner and Southern Womanhood (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994), 16.

  18. Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, 10.

  19. Catherine Clinton, Tara Revisited: Women, War, and the Plantation Legend (New York: Abbeville Press, 1995), 98.

  20. Butler, Bodies, 237.

  21. Jane E. Schultz, “Mute Fury: Southern Women's Diaries of Sherman's March to the Sea,” in Arms and the Woman, 64.

  22. Drew Faust suggests that, in fact, the Confederacy failed, in part, because women resisted the roles allotted to them and so refused to offer their full support to the war. Faulkner, on the other hand, seems to be indulging in the postbellum rewriting of the myths of the South, including that of the Southern women's unwavering support for the cause. Yet the nature of that support, particularly as demonstrated through Drusilla and Granny, suggests that they were not upholding the Confederacy as much as they were fighting for female power and expression.

  23. Winifred L. Frazier, “Faulkner and Womankind—‘No Bloody Moon,’” in Faulkner and Women, ed. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986), 169; David Williams, Faulkner's Women: The Myth and the Muse (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1977), 211.

  24. Joan Riviere, “Womanliness as Masquerade,” in Formations of Fantasy, ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald, Cora Kaplan (New York: Methuen, 1986), 35.

  25. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 76.

  26. Sherrill Harbison, “Two Sartoris Women: Faulkner, Femininity, and Changing Times,” in Critical Essays on William Faulkner: The Sartoris Family, ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985), 292.

  27. See Elaine Showalter, “Critical Cross-Dressing: Male Feminists and The Woman of the Year,” Raritan 2 (Fall, 1983).

  28. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990), 25.

  29. Miriam Cooke, “WO-man Retelling the War Myth,” in Gendering War Talk, ed. Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 182.

  30. Garber, 110.

  31. Roberts, 24.

Minrose Gwin (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10187

SOURCE: Gwin, Minrose. “Her Shape, His Hand: The Spaces of African American Women in Go Down, Moses.” In New Essays on “Go Down, Moses,” edited by Linda Wagner-Martin, pp. 73-100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Gwin examines the physical and metaphorical spaces of African American women in Go Down, Moses.]

In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison has argued that Africanism is essential to the definition of Americanness and American modernity, as well as to the major themes and presumptions of the white North American literary imagination. In particular, she believes that the white literary imagination has been the ideological site of “the manipulation of the Africanist narrative (that is, the story of a black person, the experience of being bound and/or rejected) as a means of meditation—both safe and risky—on one's own humanity” (Morrison, Playing 53). Morrison calls for literary and cultural inquiries into “[h]ow the representation and appropriation of that narrative provides opportunities to contemplate limitation, suffering, rebellion, and to speculate on fate and destiny” in white North American literature. Criticism of this kind, she believes, “will show how that narrative is used in the construction of a history and a context for whites by positing history-lessness and context-lessness for blacks” (Morrison, Playing 53).

In part, at least, such literary criticism is no stranger to Faulkner studies in general, and to Go Down, Moses in particular. Thadious M. Davis, in Faulkner's “Negro”: Art and the Southern Context, has explored the workings and reflections of racial stereotype in Faulkner and the symbolic valence of “Negro” for the southern writer who wishes to convey concepts such as “slavery, sexuality, primitivism, fraternity, endurance, hope,” and historical contexts such as the antebellum South, metaphors for change, or social issues and problems (T. M. Davis 26-27). Lee Jenkins, whose Faulkner and Black-White Relations takes a psychoanalytic approach to race in Faulkner's fiction, bases his analysis on the premise that, in the minds of whites (Jenkins seems to mean white men), “the black” (he seems to mean black men) has become the mythic personification of repressed impulses and desires of whites, “the embodiment of the very idea of contamination and of the idea that the mind is divided against itself” (Jenkins 58-60). Eric Sundquist, on the other hand, explores Faulkner's “turbulent search for fictional forms in which to contain and express the ambivalent feelings and projected passions that were his as an author and as an American in the South” (Sundquist x).1

Morrison's suggested areas of inquiry, however, are more focused on narrative than symbol.2 Like Henry Louis Gates, she problematizes “race” as an unceasing and dynamic cultural narrative whose telling and retelling have historically served Eurocentric interests.3 She asks how the Africanist story in literature by white Americans becomes “the specter of enslavement, the anodyne to individualism” that makes freedom seem free (Morrison, Playing 56) and how Africanist character in such literature “is used to limn out and enforce the invention and implications of whiteness” (Morrison, Playing 52). In my reading of Go Down, Moses, certainly a novel with what Morrison would call an “Africanist presence at its center,” I should like to complicate these questions to ask how Africanist female narrative and character function in a text written by a white southern male in large part about their exploitation as Africans and as women.4 I am hoping to excavate what Chandra Mohanty has called a complex “relationality” (her emphasis)—relations of power “not reducible to binary oppositions or oppressor/oppressed relations.” Mohanty believes that feminist analysis must focus on the interactions between “the idea of multiple, fluid structures of domination which intersect to locate women differently at particular historical conjunctures” and at the same time “the dynamic oppositional agency of individuals and collectives and their engagement in ‘daily life’” (Mohanty 13). Although Mohanty is discussing relations of power in social and political life for Third-World women, her focus on these intersections of the cultural spaces of domination and the cultural spaces of resistance resonates with certain questions I want to pose about Go Down, Moses and its ideological productions and reflections.

I am primarily interested in the relations between material, cultural, and narrative space as they are occupied by African American women in the novel. This is not to imply that I see these three kinds of spaces as distinct or noncontiguous. By material space I mean representations of actual physical structures, landscapes, geographies, to which cultural space with its permutations of the dynamic and incessant workings of ideology is intimately linked; as is narrative space, constructed through the productions of language and what Faulkner might call not-language, or silence. In terms of Go Down, Moses, I am wondering how the cultural space of African women in North America—circumscribed by race and sexual vulnerability and described by African American women in their own critical and literary productions—may (or may not) translate to narrative space in a literary text written by a white southern man at least in part about their predicament. And what do the material spaces—the actual physical sites—that black female characters occupy in these texts indicate about where their Africanist narratives are located, both in terms of their agency as African women and the valence their stories and presence carry? In short, where are their stories located in Go Down, Moses? And what do they mean?5

I am wondering also whether Faulkner is participating in what Morrison has called the objectification of “bound blackness” even as he describes the white patriarchal usage of black women, or whether their narrative space—their boundedness within the stories of old Carothers McCaslin's abuse of Eunice and his own daughter Tomasina and their resulting deaths, Zack Edmonds' appropriation of Molly Worsham (later spelled “Mollie”), Roth Edmonds' abandonment of his unnamed lover, cousin, and mother of his son—take up more space than we might at first think. Do their stories push at the boundaries created by the white male characters whose narrative spaces exceed theirs and whose stories may appear to confine theirs to the space of objectification? In exceeding the narrative spaces created for them as objects of oppression, do their stories radicalize Faulkner's text in ways we have not yet recognized? Or, do they (their Africanist stories, their bounded yet somehow excessive spaces) serve a master narrative which has historically unfolded, as Morrison has maintained, “in the rhetoric of dread and desire” and whose manipulation of Africanness has offered “historical, political, and literary discourse a safe route into meditations on morality and ethics; a way of examining the mind-body dichotomy; a way of thinking about justice; a way of contemplating the modern world” (Morrison, Playing 64)? Or … are these questions whose answers are not mutually exclusive?


To situate these questions, we may turn to anthropological studies of the relations of space and ideology. Feminist studies in architecture and planning, as well as anthropology, have shown how space and its allocations in the material world “reflect and reinforce the nature of gender, race, and class relations in society” (Weisman 1). In a study of the gendering of space among the Marakwet of Kenya, anthropologist Henrietta Moore argues that material space—for example, a village—can be read as a text. To understand space as a text, Moore says, is “to conceive of the spatial order as something more than merely the physical manifestation, or product, of activities conducted in space. Spatial texts may, therefore, be said to have both a history and a future” (Moore 81). My project here is to try to read a white male literary text as both producing and reflecting African American female space. The kind of reading I am undertaking relies on a corporeal imagination, on a sense of how physical bodies inhabit physical space and how the lived experience of the female body, in this case the black female body, converges with representational practice, in this case the representational practices displayed and enacted in Go Down, Moses.

Following Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson, Moore suggests that a text, be it a book or a living space, is not representative of ideology but is a product and producer of ideology, “of the ‘lived’ conditions of social reality. … For ideology is not expressed, reflected or reproduced in the text; rather, it produces and is produced by the text, transforming it into a particular and irreducible representation” (Moore 87-88). In short, spatial texts (of Marakwet's gendered living arrangements)—and, I would argue, textual spaces (for example, of Go Down, Moses)—reveal the dynamic and incessant productions of ideology, as do our readings of them.6 The relation between ideology and the text is therefore one of continually “produced representation” (87). Because spatial representations “express in their own logic the power relations between different groups, they are therefore active instruments in the production and reproduction of the social order” (Moore 89). An analysis of spatial representations in a narrative about such power relations may lead to a more grounded notion of how those relations are produced, and how literary and cultural productions are inevitably entwined and synergetic.

Go Down, Moses lends itself to a spatial analysis. Obviously, there are distinct narrative divisions into various but interconnected stories. Moreover, one of Faulkner's primary concerns in the novel is space: the receding space of the wilderness, the effects of the (mis)appropriation of space. One of the more haunting images of the novel is that of the young bear that becomes entrapped in a tiny tree after he climbs up to escape the sound of the logging train. He has run out of space; there is no place for him to go. There is a sense throughout the novel of encroaching claustrophobia, of too much being crowded into spaces not meant to hold so much. The town and logging interests encroach on the wilderness, squirrels crowd hysterically in the big gum tree awaiting Boon Hogganbeck's shots, the old ledgers in the old store are too small a space to contain, in all their cultural and historical implications, the outrageousness of old Carothers McCaslin's crimes and the tragic stories of Eunice and Tomasina, whose lives are squeezed into cryptic phrases in the ledger book, a book whose original purpose was to record profit and loss.

In a very literal way, the constriction of these women's lives into the spaces of the ledger produced by white men is contiguous with the cultural spaces that African American women have historically occupied in a white dominated culture. In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins discusses how “white male power is largely predicated on Black female subordination” (Collins 189) and how that subordination has been figured in placing the black female body in the space of the object of display. The treatment of black women's bodies in nineteenth-century Europe and the United States, Collins argues, may well have been “the foundation upon which contemporary pornography as the representation of women's objectification, domination, and control is based” (Collins, 168). The exhibition in Europe of African women such as Sarah Bartmann, the so-called Hottentot Venus, reveals “the importance of gender in maintaining notions of racial purity” and demonstrates “that notions of gender, race, and sexuality were linked in overarching structures of political domination and economic exploitation” (Collins 169). As Sander L. Gilman points out, there were other African women displayed throughout early nineteenth-century Europe. In an 1850 erotic engraving, for example, a white man sitting in an easy chair with his dog at his feet is gazing through an uptilted telescope at the buttocks of an African woman who is standing on top of a large rock bent over with her skirts hoisted. (The man's dog is also gazing upward.)7 In a cultural analysis, these kinds of displays may be seen as physical manifestations of the historical paradox of African American women's material space, especially within southern slavery. Though women were often not so confined physically as men, their material spaces were nevertheless extremely confining and hazardous. The “open” space of the slave ship decks or the master's house made African women highly visible targets for what Angela Davis has called “an institutionalized pattern of rape” (A. Davis 23). For them, “open” space within white culture was not open but highly claustrophobic and dangerous.

Harriet Jacobs, for example, writes in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, that she preferred the nine-by-seven-by-three-foot (at its highest point) garret in which she lived for seven years to the more constricted and treacherous “open” space she occupied as a female slave in the house of a master intent on raping her:

To this hole I was conveyed as soon as I entered the house. The air was stifling: the darkness total. A bed had been spred [sic] on the floor. I could sleep quite comfortably on one side; but the slope was so sudden that I could not turn on the other without hitting the roof. The rats and mice ran over my bed. … This continued darkness was oppressive. It seemed horrible to sit or lie in a cramped position day after day, without one gleam of light. Yet I would have chosen this, rather than my lot as a slave.

(Jacobs, 114)

The solitary confinement and severe hardship of closed physical space may have been preferable to the terrors of “open” space in which, as Collins says, the black woman was “viewed as an object to be manipulated and controlled” (Collins 69).

It is not surprising to find that space is an issue of great importance in African American women's fiction. In Morrison's Beloved, when Paul D is protesting Sethe's hospitality to Beloved, a young black woman who appears out of nowhere, Sethe replies heatedly, “feel how it feels to be a coloredwoman roaming the roads with anything God made liable to jump on you. Feel that” (Morrison, Beloved 68). In the end, Beloved herself, who has had feelings of breaking into pieces, is dispersed into open space. She is everywhere and nowhere: “Down by the stream in back of 124 her footprints come and go, come and go. They are so familiar. Should a child, an adult place his feet in them, they will fit. Take them out and they disappear again as though nobody ever walked there” (Morrison, Beloved 275). In Octavia Butler's Kindred, Dana, a black woman living in a Los Angeles suburb in the 1970s, finds herself moving across time to enter the space of nineteenth-century slavery on a Maryland plantation. In what becomes a more and more difficult and injurious journey, Dana extends herself across the spaces of geography, history, and race to save her white male forebear, an oppressive slave master, and keep him alive so that he can coerce another black woman, Dana's great-great-grandmother, to have sexual relations with him, thereby beginning the family into which Dana would eventually be born. Dana finds herself caught up in the confinement of her great-great-grandmother's impossible position. The seeming openness of the space of time travel becomes increasingly restricting and dangerous as Dana gets caught, literally, in the vise between past and present and, in the end, escapes only by losing part of her body.

The fact that open spaces historically have been closed (objectifying, confining, dangerous) for African American women in a society dominated by white men situates any spatial analysis of the narrative configurations of Go Down, Moses on slippery footing. If “open” is “closed,” culturally and often materially, then how are we to measure black women's narrative space—the space of the Africanist/womanist story (if it exists)—in a white man's text where, if literary and cultural representations are correlative, the opening up of narrative space for black female characters may actually be their closing down? If we believe with Moore, however, that spatial texts/textual spaces are both products and producers of ideology, as are their readings, it may be important to explore just how ideology is translated spatially in narrative, not just in terms of Go Down, Moses and Faulkner but within a more general inquiry into the relations between cultural and literary productions.

For example, Go Down, Moses begins with the inscription:

                              TO MAMMY
                    CAROLINE BARR
          Who was born in slavery and who
gave to my family a fidelity without
          stint or calculation of recompense
and to my childhood an immeasur-
                    able devotion and love

The space of this epigraph may be seen as open. It pays homage to Caroline Barr and becomes the foyer leading into the novel. On the other hand, it summons the closed equation: black mammy equals love (devotion, fidelity), the figure of “mammy” and the ideological construction of mammy equals love being based materially, as Trudier Harris has pointed out, on the black mammy's separation from her own home space and family “in order to rear generation after generation of whites who would, ironically, grow up to oppress Blacks still further” (Harris 36).8 Centered on the page, the inscription to Caroline Barr is circumscribed by white space up, down, and on either side. It has the look of an epitaph on a gravestone.

Just as the epigraph page may be pictured spatially as the foyer which opens into the larger narrative space of Go Down, Moses, the novel's ending, or closure, is Gavin Stevens' commentary on Mollie (earlier spelled “Molly”) Beauchamp's desire to bring her criminal grandson home for a decent burial and her instructions to the newspaper editor that he print all there is to know about “Butch” Beauchamp's death (which, as she may or may not know, was by execution). Although Mollie cannot read, she wants to “look at hit” in the newspaper. Stevens' thoughts about her request close the story and the book:

Yes, he thought. It doesn't matter to her now. Since it had to be and she couldn't stop it, and now that it's all over and done and finished, she doesn't care how he died. She just wanted him home, but she wanted him to come home right. She wanted that casket and those flowers and the hearse and she wanted to ride through town behind it in a car. “Come on,” he said. “Let's get back to town. I haven't seen my desk in two days.”


These thoughts by the white man whose paternalism has prevented him from understanding or participating in Mollie Beauchamp's grief encloses her and her articulations of what she sees as her grandson's betrayal by Roth Edmonds and, by implication, her people's betrayal at the hands of whites. Stevens misreads Mollie's text and closes down the space of her Africanist narrative articulated in her chants: “Roth Edmonds sold my Benjamin. … Sold him to Pharaoh and now he dead” (62). Although Faulkner uses the device of a white man's misunderstanding the stories of black characters (for example, the sheriff's deputy telling the story of Rider's grief, which he mistakes for its lack, in “Pantaloon in Black”), Stevens' statements, if meant ironically or not, may seem an odd way of ending this particular story and this particular novel. Stevens mutes Mollie's narrative of accusation and mourning by trivializing her grief. The final enclosure of Mollie within the space of his paternalism is similar to the enclosure of Caroline Barr's life in the equation of mammy equals love that begins the novel. There is no reopening of black women's spaces, or recognition of the problematics of the position of white manhood vis-à-vis southern history such as that which informs Quentin Compson's last agonizing exclamation about the South in Absalom, Absalom!: “I don't hate it! I don't hate it!” (AA 303) The cultural implications of Mollie Beauchamp's accusations, and of the novel as a whole, seem to become muffled rather than intensified by Gavin Stevens' final pronouncements, which, in the end, distance us from her voice.

Between these two perimeters, the mammy bounded in a whitespace of “love,” “fidelity,” “devotion,” and the mammy's grief and reproach enclosed by white paternalism (Mollie is described as the only mother Roth Edmonds ever knew who nurtured both his body and spirit [113]), Go Down, Moses fluctuates throughout, both opening up and closing down black women's narrative space. And those spaces that contain the stories of black women are not always what they seem. Sometimes these women leave us wondering—as we do in “Pantaloon in Black” when Rider sees the ghost of his dead wife Mannie appear and then dissolve—whether they were ever there at all.


“The Fire and the Hearth” opens with Lucas Beauchamp moving his still because George Wilkins, his daughter Nat's lover, has set up another still on Roth Edmonds' land. Lucas has reported George's activities to Roth and is afraid that his own still, which has been operating for twenty years without Roth's knowledge, will be found in a search for George's. In the process of moving and burying his still in the middle of the night, he finds a coin which he believes is part of a buried treasure. As day breaks and he rises to his feet to go home, he hears a crash and then the sounds of “the quarry fleeing like a deer across the field and into the still night-bound woods beyond” (40). He finds the prints of his daughter's feet where she had squatted in the mud and spied on him. At first this space of the watcher gives Nat a certain amount of power in dealing with her father, her lover, and the law. Although Nat is clever and defiant in her dealings with both Lucas and George, in the end she does not get what she wants: a back porch and a well to make George's house more livable for her. In the last conversation of the story, Lucas and George are making plans to set up the new still George has bought with the money Lucas gave him for the porch and well. Patriarchal power closes around Nat when she is not watching, and the space she has demanded for herself is withdrawn by father and husband.

I want to trace Nat's footsteps, as Lucas does when he sees “the print of his daughter's naked feet where she had squatted in the mud, knowing that print as he would have known those of his mare or his dog, standing over it for a while and looking down at it but no longer seeing it at all” (41), yet this is impossible. Nat makes her prints in this story, but dissolves in the end in man talk carried on by African American men. She watches, but her watching and her clever manipulations dissolve like footprints being washed away. At the end of the story, Lucas, who had earlier been intent on teaching George a lesson “about whose daughter to fool with next time” (61) transfers possession of Nat to George, thereby transforming Nat's enclosure from “daughter” to “wife.” When George asks how they are going to tell Nat she won't be getting a back porch or a well, Lucas replies: “I don't give no man advice about his wife” (75). Like Gavin Stevens' dismissal of Mollie's grief in “Go Down, Moses,” “The Fire and the Hearth” ends with an enclosure of black female space. Nat the watcher, the clever daughter, is made into a wife. It is interesting that Faulkner, in a humorous way, propels two black men, Lucas and George, into the space of patriarchal power, ironically giving them ideological kinship to Old Carothers McCaslin.

Another woman described as watching is Tennie Beauchamp. In “The Bear,” Ike recalls from his childhood, his mother Sophonsiba surprised her brother Hubert Beauchamp with his mulatta mistress, who is wearing Sophonsiba's dress, and ran her out of the house screaming, “My mother's house! Defiled! Defiled!” (289). In the midst of the uproar, Ike remembers

(… Tennie's inscrutable face at the broken shutterless window of the bare room which had once been the parlor when they watched, hurrying down the lane at a stumbling trot, the routed compounded of his uncle's uxory: the back, the nameless face which he had seen only for a moment, the once-hooped dress ballooning and flapping below a man's overcoat, the worn heavy carpetbag jouncing and banging against her knee, routed and in retreat true enough and in the empty lane solitary young-looking and forlorn yet withal still exciting and evocative and wearing still the silken banner captured inside the very citadel of respectability, and unforgettable.)


From the margins, Tennie watches the white family eject the unnamed mulatta mistress from the crumbling house and send her scrambling down the road. Here black women occupy both the spaces of the watcher and the one being watched, subject and object, inside and outside. The space of this recollection within “The Bear” carries a peculiar tension and resonance, for, like Clytie Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! whose tragic face gazing from the window of Sutpen's Hundred becomes the avatar of the inevitable consequences of white greed and rapacity, Tennie's “inscrutable face” both frames the historical moment and becomes the space on which that moment is written. An impersonal syntax (“the routed compounded of his uncle's uxory”) records an image of the rapidly retreating back of one African American woman and the unreadable text of another's face.

What is the space between these two women, one still and unreadable—like Clytie, framed by the window of a crumbling big house—the other whose face we cannot see hurrying down the lane and off the page? What lost stories were here? What “safe spaces,” black women's locations “for resisting objectification as the Other,” as Collins would call them (Collins 95), have been lost? Tennie's “inscrutable face” remains inscrutable. And the mulatta mistress remains a blank spot in the novel, a rapidly receding figure whose story remains untold.


It is this untold story that haunts Patricia Williams. Specifically, the erasure of her great-great-grandmother's life and narrative provides the original vehicle for Williams' The Alchemy of Race and Rights, a brilliant study of the relations of race to individual and social contractual rights in this country. A lawyer and professor of law, Williams describes the bill of sale for her great-great-grandmother as “a very simple document but lawyerly document, describing her as ‘one female’ and revealing her age as eleven.” In a county census record of two years later, “on a list of one Austin Miller's personal assets she appears again, as ‘slave, female’—thirteen years now with an eight-month infant” (Williams 17). Since coming into possession of these documents which testify to her great-great-grandmother's existence and its circumstances, Williams writes that she has tried “to piece together what it must have been like to be my great-great-grandmother,” a girl purchased by a thirty-five-year-old Tennessee lawyer known to be temperamental and wealthy, after a fight with his mother about prolonged bachelorhood:

I imagine trying to please, with the yearning of adolescence, a man who truly did not know I was human, whose entire belief system resolutely defined me as animal, chattel, talking cow. I wonder what it would have been like to have his child, pale-faced but also animal, before I turned thirteen. I try to envision being casually threatened with sale from time to time, teeth and buttocks bared to interested visitors.

(Williams 18)

Like Ike McCaslin and his cousin McCaslin Edmonds, Williams searches historical texts (letters and legal opinions written by her great-great-grandfather) for clues to the past. She yearns to find “the shape described by her [great-great-grandmother's] absence in all this” (Williams 19). She sees “her shape and his hand”—“the habit of his power and the absence of her choice”—in the ideologies of power and dominance that continue to shape legal codes and cultural practice in the United States (Williams 19).

In “The Bear,” the space of the ledger is the repository of the overlapping spaces of southern white male rapacity and the need of white men for contemplation and exorcism. For Ike the ledger is inhabited by ghosts of southern history:9

a lightless and gutted and empty land where women crouched with the huddled children behind locked doors and men armed in sheets and masks rode the silent roads and the bodies of white and black both, victims not so much of hate as of desperation and despair, swung from lonely limbs.


The space of the commissary—the place of commerce for the white men who owned it and the land—encloses the shelf of ledgers, the desk and “the corner where it sat beside the scuffed patch on the floor where two decades of heavy shoes had stood while the white man at the desk added and multiplied and subtracted” (279). Within these concentric material spaces—the store, the desk, the ledgers—the female slave is enclosed as the signifier of “bound blackness.” For Ike and his cousin McCaslin, who, like Quentin and Shreve in Absalom, Absalom!, are constructing their own narratives of family and history, the small yet large, closed yet open, narrative spaces occupied by Eunice and Tomasina reveal what Morrison has called “the not-free,” that is, the “conveniently bound and violently silenced black bodies” which perform “duties of exorcism and reification and mirroring” for the white imagination (38-39). That the ledger is the space for performing those duties for Ike is abundantly clear:

To Him it was as though the ledgers in their scarred cracked leather bindings were being lifted down one by one in their fading sequence and spread open on the desk or perhaps upon some apocryphal Bench or even Altar or perhaps before the Throne itself for a last perusal and contemplation and refreshment of the Allknowledgeable before the yellowed pages and the brown thin ink in which was recorded the injustice and a little at least of its amelioration and restitution faded back forever into the anonymous communal original dust.


As in Williams' documents, the text that can be read is written in white men's hands. The sections on Eunice and Tomasina are written by Ike's father Theophilus (“Uncle Buck”) and his uncle Amodeus (“Uncle Buddy”), who both read and recorded the text of sexual violence perpetrated by their father; Buck and Buddy's text is read and its exorcistic function reproduced by Ike and McCaslin; their stories, of course, are of Faulkner's doing. In all these white men's “hands,” the black woman is a shape that is both revealed and obscured.

In a sense, then, the bodies of Eunice the mother and Tomasina the daughter occupy a double space of exchange: Their bodies are used sexually (and for their reproductive value as well) in the material spaces of their lives as slaves; those bodies, as objects of contemplation (Morrison might say, “on demand and on display”) within the space of the ledger, are manipulated again by Ike and McCaslin in performing their “duties of exorcism and reification and mirroring.” Because those duties are grounded in the same principles of exchange that rely on the objectification of bound blackness, they lack the recuperative power to generate new ideologies of empowerment. They are as meaningless as Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy's move into the slave quarters. Ike can only condemn “that whole edifice intricate and complex and founded upon injustice and erected by ruthless rapacity and carried on even yet with at times downright savagery” (285); he is unable to construct new ideological foundations in place of the edifice he decries because he is unable to read black women's texts outside the space of the ledger, the space of bound blackness.

Throughout his life, Ike's inability to envision the Africanist female narrative apart from the space of the white man's ledger sets the tenor of his relations with black women within the material and cultural spaces of the postbellum South they and he inhabit. His two important encounters with African American women reveal his inability to see them as subjects outside the space of bound blackness. Both encounters involve the trespass of material space. In “The Bear” we are told how Ike tracks down Fonsiba, who is Tennie and Terrel (Tomey's Turl) Beauchamp's daughter, to give her one thousand dollars from her grandfather Carothers McCaslin's estate. Having failed in a similar mission to find Tennie's Jim the previous year, he is driven by guilt through “slow interminable empty muddy December miles crawled and crawled,” telling himself, “I will have to find her. I will have to. We have already lost one of them. I will have to find her this time” (265). When he does find her, in a log cabin in the midst of a “roadless and even pathless waste of unfenced fallow and wilderness jungle,” he sees not a woman in her kitchen but

crouched into the wall's angle behind a crude table, the coffee-colored face which he had known all his life but knew no more, the body which had been born within a hundred yards of the room that he was born in and in which some of his own blood ran but which was now completely inheritor of generation after generation to whom an unannounced white man on a horse was a white man's hired Patroller wearing a pistol sometimes and a blacksnake whip always.


What Ike sees is not Fonsiba but bound blackness, and his relationship as a white southern man (the Patroller?) to bound blackness. When he later asks her if she is all right, she answers, “I'm free” (268), to which he does not respond but simply goes to the bank and arranges for the money to be paid to her at three dollars a month for the next twenty-eight years. In this scene, which is introduced as he and McCaslin read the ledger within the store, Ike trespasses on Fonsiba's space but does not recognize that he does so. He sees only that she and her husband are living in poverty, and he mistakes that physical poverty for spiritual poverty. For him, Fonsiba is only a body, “only the tremendous fathomless ink-colored eyes in the narrow, thin, too thin coffee-colored face watching him without alarm, without recognition, without hope” (268).

Reflections of Ike's blindness within his bounded whitespace, Fonsiba's watching eyes, like Nat's and Tennie's, give a fleeting glimpse of an opening into African woman's narrative space. There is another story here, another space opening with Fonsiba's assertion, “I'm free” (268). Ike, and Faulkner, rapidly retreat from that story. After Fonsiba utters those two words, which would seem to be but the beginning of her Africanist narrative, the next sentence in the text is a description of the town near Fonsiba and her husband's cabin; the bank; the bank's president, who is given more of a story than Fonsiba herself (“a translated Mississippian who had been one of Forrest's men too” [268]); and Ike's financial arrangements for Fonsiba. Upon hearing those words, “I'm free,” Ike rapidly retreats from Fonsiba's material space which he has trespassed upon. He re-enters the space of the ledger, the world of commerce in which debts of all kinds can be paid in money, the space owned by white men (“one of Forrest's men too”) whose hands inscribe the valuations of the ledger. That space is what Ike cannot retreat from, though he tries, for he himself has become its ideological producer and production.

And so in “Delta Autumn,” when Ike's mulatto kinswoman who is Roth Edmonds' mistress trespasses on the white male space of the hunting tent in the woods, with a baby in her arms, Ike, an old man, can only fumble with the envelope of money and thrust it at her, again aware of her watching eyes, “or not the eyes so much as the look, the regard fixed now on his face with that immersed contemplation, that bottomless and intent candor, of a child” (341). Like Clytie, calling out Rosa Coldfield's name on the stairs of Sutpen's Hundred, the woman says, “‘You're Uncle Isaac,’” to which he replies, “‘Yes … But never mind that. Here. Take it. He said to tell you No’” (341).

It is interesting that Ike's first response to the woman indicates disapproval of her sexual behavior outside marriage (as a white woman). He says:

You sound like you have been to college even. You sound almost like a Northerner even, not like the draggle-tail women of these Delta peckerwoods. Yet you meet a man on the street one afternoon just because a box of groceries happened to fall out of a boat. And a month later you go off with him and live with him until he got a child on you; and then, by your own statement, you sat there while he took his hat and said goodbye and walked out.


The cultural spaces of enclosure—her legal blackness, her and Roth's incest and miscegenation—begin to encircle their exchange as the young woman tells Ike that James (Tennie's Jim) Beauchamp, old Carother's and Tomasina's grandson, is her grandfather. She is Carother's and Tomasina's great-great-granddaughter. The “dark and tragic and foreknowing eyes” (of Tennie, of Fonsiba, of this woman)—the body of bound blackness—materialize suddenly for Ike, and he cries out, “in a voice of amazement, pity, and outrage: ‘You're a nigger!’” (344). His response is to cast her out of his space, male space:

“Then go,” he said. Then he cried again in that thin not loud and grieving voice: “Get out of here! I can do nothing for you! Cant nobody do nothing for you!”


In a moment that recalls Clytie and Rosa's electrifying “flesh on flesh” connection on the stairs, he touches her hand—“The gnarled, bloodless, bonelight bone-dry old man's fingers touching for a second the smooth young flesh where the strong old blood ran after its long lost journey back to home”—and then draws his hand back beneath the blanket (345). Ironically, then, Ike's space becomes the bounded text. He creates and maintains its boundedness, despite the woman's trespass into male territory marked by man talk and male activity, in which he has been an active participant. There is an interesting hint here of the limitations, exclusions, and potential for the misuse of power within such a space, in contrast to its valorization in the hunting segments of “The Bear,” even for morally conscientious men such as Ike.

Moving from “his hand” to “her shape,” though, I want to think about the “Delta Autumn” woman's narrative space. As Diane Roberts points out, the woman “imperils both the essential binaries of race and gender” by “passing” as white and as a man (85). Roberts believes that, although she colludes with “the Tragic Mulatta narrative,” she is “one of the most articulate female characters in all of Faulkner's fiction” (Roberts, Faulkner 86, 88). Despite her brave trespass into white man's space, it seems to me that the woman (I grow weary of calling her this) speaks from within a closed system of exchange, not so much because she is legally black (Roth does not seem to know this), but because, as a devalued woman (Ike's tone makes that much clear), she is entrapped by a masculinist social order. As Luce Irigaray argues, this is “an economy of desire—of exchange—[that is] man's business” (Irigaray 188). The circulation of women among men establishes the operations of patriarchal society; as Irigaray points out, such a social order results in the “trans-formation of women's bodies into use values and exchange values [that] inaugurates the symbolic order” (Irigaray 184, 189). Irigaray suggests that these valuations of women can be categorized into three areas: virgin (pure exchange value), mother (reproductive value), prostitute (use value). The woman's value for Roth obviously falls in the last category; although she loves him and is the mother of his child, he views her as a prostitute.

For the feminist reader, the “Delta Autumn” woman may reflect and reproduce in troubling ways the ideological components of her own victimization. The woman's profession of love for Roth Edmonds, her willingness to accept the “no” that Ike delivers as Roth's message, her acceptance of Roth's “code” (whatever that is), even her fondness for taking care of his clothes—all speak to a willingness to accept the terms, the bounded spaces, of her own commodification. If, then, she speaks for Eunice and Tomasina, she evokes only their victimization, not their courage, not Eunice's resistance. Ike, in the end, sees her and her baby as the embodiment of his family's crimes and the crimes of southern history. She remains within that bounded space: the story of being “a doe,” of being willing to be “a doe.” Thus, although Faulkner empowers her to enter male space, he also confines her within a narrative of heterosexual desire within a patriarchal economy that commodifies women and manipulates that desire. She trespasses in order to make her desire known, but, like the hunting horn Ike gives her in lieu of any real help or understanding, it has a hollow sound.


In “The Fire and the Hearth,” when Roth Edmonds looks up from the ledger one day, he sees an old woman walking up the road. He does not recognize her. Not until she comes into the store does he realize she is “the only mother he ever knew,” the woman who suckled him and took care of him until he went off to school at age twelve. He fails to recognize Molly Beauchamp because, for the past few years, he has never seen her outside of her own material space. In her own house and yard, where Roth visits her monthly with tobacco and “soft cheap candy which she loved,” she is described as moving slowly and painfully with her washing, or sitting on the porch, “her shrunken face collapsed about the reed stem of a clay pipe” (96). She is even more “placed” by several descriptions of her devotion to Roth, her “care for his physical body and for his spirit too … who had given him, the motherless, without stint or expectation of reward that constant and abiding devotion and love which existed nowhere else in this world for him” (114). In terms of her space within the novel, Molly(ie), perhaps more than any other character, travels the borders of race and gender. I want to suggest that she is a liminal figure whose identity(ies) as the “Molly” of “The Fire and the Hearth” and the “Mollie” in “Go Down, Moses” together transgress certain expectations of blackness and femaleness that Faulkner simultaneously reflects and deflects. I see Molly's transgression of the spaces of the novel as hinging not so much on her stereotypical role as “mammy,” with all its paradoxical implications for both the collapsing of racial barriers and the sustenance of white patriarchal power, but rather on her impact as a character whose liminal narrative can and does move across space and time. As a result of her own movement within and outside of the male narrative of Go Down, Moses, Molly/Mollie has the effect of creating an alternative narrative space, a space which contains both female and Africanist stories.

At the same time, as I've indicated earlier, the openness of such a space may be illusory. Certainly, Molly is not entirely outside of the mammy paradigm, and, in some ways, her character may well be conflated into the closed equation of mammy equals love. As Roberts notes, “Go Down, Moses contains places where the Mammy is refigured, only to slip back, in other places, into the inexorable racial and historical context that circumscribes her” (Roberts, Faulkner 53). In “The Fire and the Hearth,” even when Molly's place within her husband's or Zack Edmonds' house is being contended by the two men, she brings the white baby (Roth) back home with her upon returning to Lucas (“I couldn't leave him! You know I couldn't! I had to bring him!” [49]). This devotion to the white child is questionable for a black woman who has been forced into her situation with Zack, whatever that situation may have been. Yet Molly's energy here, as later in the final story, seems directed toward taking her, and us, out of the male-dominated spaces of the story.

What I find compelling about Molly/Mollie Beauchamp is the motion of her character, its/her movement across the landscape of Go Down, Moses. When Lucas will not give up the divining machine, Molly takes to the road to get a divorce. And when Roth Edmonds at first refuses to help her get a divorce and orders Lucas to return the machine and Lucas refuses to do so, Molly takes to the road again: This time she heads for the woods with the divining machine and is found face down in the mud by the creek. She makes her point. When Edmonds takes her and Lucas into Jefferson to the county courthouse to get the divorce and Lucas agrees, under threat of divorce, to give up the machine, she has won the battle. She has contested Lucas's insistence that he be “the man in the house” (117) and has asserted a different, female-centered narrative in its place. Her determined movement within both material and narrative space, despite her infantilization in certain scenes (at the end of the courthouse scene, Lucas gives her a bag of nickel candy and tells her to “gum it” [125]), lend to her actions and person a dignity and resonance that are unmistakably powerful and that make it difficult to dismiss her as a stereotypical mammy.

The Mollie Beauchamp of “Go Down, Moses” leaves home again, this time to come into town and demand that Gavin Stevens find her grandson, who, she is certain, is in trouble. Although she is again described as very small and old, with a shrunken face “beneath a white headcloth and a black straw hat which would have fitted a child,” Mollie will not be deterred from her mission. Nor will she be shut up. She tells Gavin her mission, and then begins her chant, which resonates throughout the story: “Roth Edmonds sold my Benjamin. Sold him in Egypt. Pharaoh got him—” (353). After Gavin interrupts her to ask some obvious questions, she begins again:

“It was Roth Edmonds sold him,” she said. “Sold him in Egypt. I dont know whar he is. I just knows Pharaoh got him. And you the Law. I wants to find my boy.”


When Stevens enters the black and white space of the Worshams' household, he finds Mollie and her brother sitting by the hearth and chanting.

“Sold my Benjamin,” she said. “Sold him in Egypt.”

“Sold him in Egypt,” Worsham said.

“Roth Edmonds sold my Benjamin.”

“Sold him to Pharaoh.”

“Sold him to Pharaoh and now he dead.”


The Africanist narrative told from within the space of the call and refrain, as well as the historical and cultural accusations with which the Africanist narrative is laden, sets up a claustrophobic space for Gavin Stevens. He almost runs out of the room and down the hall, thinking, “Soon I will be outside … Then there will be air, space, breath” (362).

Mollie's Africanist narrative is a counterpoint to and interrogator of the white paternalism that propels Stevens' thoughts and actions. When Stevens collects money to bring home the “dead nigger,” he tells “merchant and clerk, proprietor and employee, doctor dentist lawyer and barber”—clearly all white men—that it is for Miss Worsham (not Mollie) that the money is needed. When Beauchamp's body is brought into Jefferson, the hearse circles “the Confederate monument and the courthouse while the merchants and clerks and barbers and professional men” watch from various points around the square. The corpse of a black man is thus encircled by white paternalism and its ideological structures, which, as Mollie believes, probably caused his trouble in the first place. Her insistence that the editor put the story, all of it, in the newspaper is part of her insistence on the Africanist narrative. Though Butch Beauchamp's story is, in many ways, like the story of Beloved, “not a story to pass on” (Morrison, Beloved, 275), it is also a story that must be told over and over, as Mollie Beauchamp insists on doing.

Despite Gavin Stevens' perhaps deliberate misreading of that story at the end of the novel, the presence of Molly/Mollie Beauchamp still travels the spaces of Go Down, Moses. Her Africanist/womanist narrative seeps out onto the pages, from cover to cover, like a visible watermark across an open book. Whatever else this book is about must be traced through its presence, her shape.


And yet. Is it possible that Mollie's utterance of the terrible story of bound blackness actually creates, for the white reader, a space for exorcism—“a safe route into meditations on morality and ethics”—and with it, an attendant sense of the same relief that Gavin Stevens feels in returning to the open/free space of his whiteness as he and the editor watch the hearse carrying Butch Beauchamp's body gather speed and move out of town, “the light and unrained summer dust spurting from beneath the fleeing wheels” (364). After Stevens muses to himself about what I believe he misconstrues as Mollie's desire for a nice funeral for her grandson, he says to the editor, “Come on. … Let's get back to town. I haven't seen my desk in two days” (365). Just so do I, the white reader, put down this novel. My question here must be: Do I escape into a freedom made more free by my entry into the “safe” spaces of a novel about African American bondage? Or do I emerge from those spaces with a less safely settled white imagination? Does that novel show the fraudulence of Stevens' return to his desk? Does Go Down, Moses place white paternalism into the position of the object on display, and make black women the watchers, the ones whose gaze is accusatory?

I leave these questions unanswered not so much because I do not know the answers (which I admit I do not) but because I believe, with Morrison and in the spirit of her criticism, that these are questions we should be continually negotiating as North American readers of North American literature. I hope that this spatial reading has shown where black women's stories are located and how they are set into motion in Go Down, Moses. More problematic is the question of what those stories mean, or I should say what those stories can mean. If the relation between ideology and text is one of produced representation, then that production is also enormously complicated by the reader's relation to it. That relation, of reader to Faulknerian text, is in turn compounded in Faulkner studies specifically and American literature generally by having been mediated historically by white men. What I do know and what I have said before is that Faulkner's texts always move beyond what we can say about them.10 They always embody incommensurability and uncertainty. That embodiment of what we do not know is, in the case of Go Down, Moses, at least partially situated in the narrative spaces of the African American woman. “Her” shape is not only configured by “his” hand, as was the case with Patricia Williams' great-great-grandmother, but it is also created by his hand, the hand of a white southern man whose racist statements, like his sexism, are a matter of record.11 What are we to make of this?

Morrison believes that (white) Americans have chosen “to talk about themselves through and within a sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence” (my emphasis) (Morrison, Playing 17). In Go Down, Moses, however, Faulkner seems to open and close the spaces of literary utterance for black women, and sometimes to do so simultaneously. The text's engagement with race and gender within the narrative space of African American women both performs and transgresses the material and cultural spaces of region and country, and their attendant ideological permutations. But I do not want to leave this essay on the usual laudatory note of Faulkner's stunning (and it is stunning) ability to keep this kind of textual engagement alive.

Instead I am thinking about how black women in Go Down, Moses slip in and out of the spaces of this text, and in such fleeting ways. I am still wondering what Tennie Beauchamp was thinking when she watched Hubert Beauchamp's unnamed mistress get sent packing down the road. I would like to learn what young Molly Beauchamp held in her mind when she was nursing those two babies, and whether Tomasina ever knew why her mother drowned herself. I want to know whether Nat ever got her porch and well. I want to know the “Delta Autumn” woman's name.12


  1. For a more complete list of criticism through 1984 about Faulkner's fictional treatment of racial issues and black characters, see my Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature, 190-191, n. 5. All three studies point to Go Down, Moses as a paradigmatic text in Faulkner's treatment of race, Jenkins viewing the novel as a culmination of Faulkner's thematic concerns (Jenkins 244); Davis, as “a denouement” bringing together a lifetime of thoughts and observations (T. M. Davis 244); Sundquist, as a suffocating “crossing and recrossing of plots and symbolic action” (Sundquist 132). In addition, James A. Snead's Figures of Division shows how writing and telling in Go Down, Moses re-create and reinforce certain “oppressive social rhetorics”—“the linguistic supports of an immoral social system” that Faulkner “self-consciously analyze[s]” in most of his major novels (Snead x).

  2. It is interesting that Morrison in Playing in the Dark offers analyses of the fiction of Cather, Poe, and Hemingway, but not of Faulkner, though her 1955 M.A. thesis was written on Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Introducing a 1985 reading of Beloved, then a work in progress, at the annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference in Oxford, Morrison commented on Faulkner in ways that pointed ahead to some of her concerns in Playing in the Dark. Her reasons, she said, for “being interested and deeply moved by all his subjects had something to do with [her] desire to find out something about this country and that artistic articulation of its past that was not available in history, which is what art and fiction can do but sometimes history refuses to do” (Morrison, “Faulkner and Women,” 296).

  3. In his introduction to “Race,” Writing and Difference, Gates argues:

    The sense of difference defined in popular usages of the term “race” has both described and inscribed differences of language, belief system, artistic tradition, and gene pool, as well as all sorts of supposedly natural attributes such as rhythm, athletic ability, cerebration, usury, fidelity, and so forth. The relation of “racial character” and these sorts of characteristics has been inscribed through tropes of race, lending the sanction of God, biology, or the natural order to even presumably unbiased descriptions of cultural tendencies and differences.

    (Gates, 5)

  4. In a 1990 essay on the women of Go Down, Moses, Elisabeth Muhlenfeld writes that she can find no single article on any of the women in the book (Muhlenfeld 211). Muhlenfeld herself argues that the women of the novel “carry great artistic weight” (Muhlenfeld 199), although she seems to agree with Philip Weinstein's assessment that the female characters “have no instigating power” and are tragically passive objects of white male desire (Weinstein 183). In her 1994 study Faulkner and Southern Womanhood, Diane Roberts' discussion of Faulkner's representations of women in Go Down, Moses in terms of the cultural stereotypes of the tragic mulatta and mammy raises provocative questions of the text such as, “Where does desire intersect with subjugation? When does ‘black’ become ‘white,’ or, using the preferred image of the purity-obsessed South, when does the “drop of ink” pollute the clean white page?” (Roberts 79)

  5. Mine is a different approach from that of Susan Stanford Friedman who in her essay “Spatialization: A Strategy for Reading Narrative” visualizes two axes in narrative: the horizontal, which has to do with what happens in the story (plot, character, action, closure, etc.), and the vertical, which she relates to multiple resonances of a text, whether they be cultural, intertextual, psychodynamic, and so forth.

  6. In The Spatiality of the Novel, Joseph A. Kestner argues, in fact, that the interpretive act is itself spatial, “for the text creates a ‘genidentic’ field, incorporating the reader in a dynamic relation with it” (Kestner 22).

  7. The engraving is reproduced in Gilman, 239.

  8. In Faulkner and Southern Womanhood, which focuses on Faulkner's use of female stereotypes, Roberts employs the Bakhtinian concept of the “grotesque body” to explore representations of black women in general and the mammy figure in particular “as white southern culture understood them” and as Faulkner created them (Roberts xv). She elaborates on the relation between body, race, and gender in literary representations of the mammy in The Myth of Aunt Jemima.

  9. Sundquist believes that “the ledgers, like Benjy's section in The Sound and the Fury, are a concentrated representation, a mysterious and seemingly sacred account, of acts and passions whose symbolic value draws into itself and envelops the interpretations it necessitates” (Sundquist 137). John T. Matthews finds in Ike's reading and writing in the ledgers an effort “to confront and to contradict his grandfather” (Matthews 264). I see the ledgers in terms of Morrison's theory of Africanist narrative and American literature, as the highly claustrophobic space of “bound blackness” written by white men and functioning as a site of contemplation and exorcism for white men.

  10. In The Feminine and Faulkner: Reading (Beyond) Sexual Difference, I associate this excessiveness of Faulkner's texts with the dismantling of oppositional ways of conceptualizing gender.

  11. For a discussion of Faulkner's statements about racial issues, see Charles Peavy's Go Slow Now: Faulkner and the Race Question. Donald Petesch discusses the relationship of the fiction to the statements in “Faulkner on Negroes: The Conflict between the Public Man and the Private Art.”

  12. The “Delta Autumn” woman is nameless throughout the various versions of the story—in manuscript and in its published form as a short story in Story (published after Go Down, Moses but written first). See Joanne V. Creighton, William Faulkner's Craft of Revision, for a complete description of Faulkner's revisions in Go Down, Moses.

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Davis, Angela. Women, Race and Class. New York: Random House, 1981.

Davis, Thadious M. Faulkner's “Negro”: Art and the Southern Context. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Modern Library, 1966. Go Down, Moses. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Spatialization: A Strategy for Reading Narrative.” Narrative, 1, 1 (1990): 12-23.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes.” In (ed.) “Race,” Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, 1-20.

Gilman, Sander L. “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature.” In Gates, ed., “Race,” Writing and Difference, 223-261.

Gwin, Minrose C. Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.

The Feminine and Faulkner: Reading (Beyond) Sexual Difference. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

Harris, Trudier. From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Jacobs, Harriet A. [Linda Brent]. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Jenkins, Lee. Faulkner and Black-White Relations: A Psychoanalytic Approach. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

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Matthews, John T. The Play of Faulkner's Language. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpale. “Introduction: Cartographies of Struggle: Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism.” In Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

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———. “Faulkner and Women.” In Faulkner and Women: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1985, ed. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986, 295-302.

———. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.

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Noel Polk (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Polk, Noel. “Man in the Middle: Faulkner and the Southern White Moderate.” In Children of the Dark House: Text and Context in Faulkner, pp. 219-41. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

[In the following essay, Polk explores Faulkner's views on social issues—particularly race in the South—both in his fiction and his personal life.]

Faulkner wrote Intruder in the Dust in the winter and early spring of 1948, seasons during which the Mississippi Democratic party geared itself for a vital confrontation with the national Democratic party at the summer convention in Philadelphia over the report of President Truman's Commission on Civil Rights. Truman was urging Congress “to adopt his civil rights program embodying voting rights, employment opportunities, and other provisions destined to draw fire from Southern Democrats” (Winter 141). Governor Fielding Wright called a meeting of Mississippi Democrats for February 12, Lincoln's birthday, in Jackson. All members of the legislature attended, hoping to find some way to counter in advance the proposed civil rights planks in the national party's platform. On February 22, Washington's birthday, Mississippi Democrats met with representatives from the Democratic parties of nine other Southern states to plan strategies to force upon the Democratic platform planks favoring states', rather than civil, rights. Failing to sway the national body at the August convention, the entire Mississippi delegation and part of Alabama's walked out. In a subsequent convention in Birmingham Southern delegates founded the Dixiecrat party, which nominated the fiery states' rights Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for president and Mississippi's own Governor Wright for vice-president. Mississippi voted 87 percent for the Dixiecrat ticket, and was joined in the colossal losing battle by South Carolina, Louisiana, and Alabama (Winter 144). The political and emotional issues at stake in this Dixiecrat year—states' rights, anti-lynching laws, mongrelization, the future of the white race, and other associated issues—were surely not lost on William Faulkner as he wrote Intruder [Intruder in the Dust] in the spring and then saw it through the press during the summer.

Intruder was published on September 27. On October 23 Edmund Wilson wrote in the New Yorker that Intruder seemed to have been at least “partly … stimulated by the crisis at the time of the war in the relations between Negroes and whites and by the recently proposed legislation for guaranteeing Negro rights. The book contains,” Wilson went on, “a kind of counterblast to the anti-lynching bill and to the civil-rights plank in the Democratic platform.” This was a line that many reviewers would take, and most commentators since have generally agreed with Wilson's assessment that “the author's ideas on this subject are apparently conveyed, in their explicit form, by the intellectual uncle, who, more and more as the story goes on, gives vent to long disquisitions that seem to become so ‘editorial’ in character that … the series may be pieced together as something in the nature of a public message delivered by the author himself” (Wilson 335-36). About the time Wilson's review appeared, Faulkner paid his first visit to the New England home of Malcolm Cowley, a friend since their collaboration on The Portable Faulkner of 1946. Cowley had reviewed Intruder for The New Republic along the same lines as Wilson, although he had been a bit more generous than Wilson. In writing about Faulkner's visit, Cowley reports that Faulkner discussed Intruder in terms that might have been an “indirect answer” to his review: “[Gavin] Stevens, he [Faulkner] explained, was not speaking for the author, but for the best type of liberal Southerners; that is how they feel about the Negroes” (Cowley 110-11).

In this comment to Cowley, Faulkner seems to be distancing himself from Stevens's views on the South's racial problems in a way that should make the average New Critic very proud, although to be sure, it is not a distance many new or old critics either have been successful at finding. Yet barely three months later, in January 1949, Faulkner sent to Robert Haas, at Random House, a two-page addition to Intruder, along with instructions to insert it if there were ever a second printing: it was something, he wrote, that he had “remembered … last year only after the book was in press” (SL 285). The addition was to Stevens's long argument that Southern blacks and whites are the only homogeneous groups left in the United States. The addition has Stevens conclude this speech with the prediction that social and political assimilation of whites and blacks will eventually result in the extinction of the black race. In the closing lines of the speech, Faulkner makes Stevens actually refer to and quote from Absalom, Absalom!, a book, Stevens says, by “a mild retiring little man over yonder at Oxford,”; he quotes what he calls the book's “tag line,” from a conversation, he says, between a “Canadian [and a] self-lacerated Southerner in a dormitory room in a not too authentic Harvard.” The “tag line” is Shreve's parting shot to Quentin on the subject of the amalgamation of the races: “I who regard you will have also sprung from the loins of African kings” (WFMS 17:719-21).

In identifying Stevens as “the best type of liberal Southerner,” Faulkner was placing him in pretty good company—that of such people as Hodding Carter, P. D. East, James Silver, Frank Smith, Duncan Gray, and others who risked lives and fortunes in numerous ways during those tumultuous years. If in responding to Cowley Faulkner was distancing himself from Stevens, then, was he thereby removing himself from the company of “the best types?” If so, why did he go out of his way to inject himself into what Stevens has to say? If he were trying to distance himself, did he have in mind another category for such Southerners as himself? Was he trying to make some sort of statement about the “best type of liberal Southerner”? Was he speaking seriously to Cowley or was he simply putting on his novelist's mask of anonymity? Did he have a different opinion of this “type” of “liberal Southerner” in 1948 than he was to develop during his deliberate public identification with them during the fifties?

To be sure, it is difficult to escape a considerable sense of urgency, of “message” in Stevens's diatribe against the North, and equally difficult to resist assuming that Stevens is mouthing Faulkner's own feelings, especially given the similarity of Faulkner's rhetoric to Stevens's as his own public involvement in civil rights issues grew over the next few years. Even so, we should take seriously Faulkner's effort to distance himself from Stevens, if only because the novel itself problematizes Stevens's opinions about race; even Chick Mallison is suspicious. The garrulous lawyer is, in Intruder as in the other works in which he appears, more interested in talking than in doing. Three times in the novel's closing pages Faulkner describes Stevens as talking while he smokes his cob pipe:

his uncle even struck the match to the cob pipe still talking not just through the smoke but into it with it;

his uncle struck the match again and puffed the pipe still talking, talking through the pipe stem with the smoke as though you were watching the words themselves;

again his uncle was striking the match, holding it to the pipe and speaking through with into the smoke.

(ID [Intruder] 451, 454, 466)

It could hardly be clearer that in Intruder Gavin Stevens is largely blowing smoke—not altogether because of what he says but rather because of the relationship between what he says and what he actually does. Stevens says to the North: let the South free the black man; we owe it to him and we will pay him and we don't need anybody to interfere. Yet Intruder is precisely about the wrongful imprisonment of an innocent black man; given the opportunity to defend Lucas in court, or even to listen to his side of the story, Stevens—the “best type” of liberal Southerner—hastens to an assumption of Lucas's guilt that is worthy of even the reddest of Beat Four necks. Proven wrong by his nephew's impetuous trust of Lucas, Stevens elbows and mouths his way into Lucas's salvation. Much of what he has to say, then, should be taken as a vain attempt to fill up the gap between what Chick has done and what he, Stevens, with all the best intentions, has failed to do: to act in good faith with the judicial presumption of innocence.

The essence of Stevens's role in Intruder, then, is not the political relevance in 1948 of his diatribe against the North but rather in his inability to see past the persiflage of his own words. Stevens talks about everything but his own failure: he is defensive about the hypocritical North, fearful of federal interference in Mississippi's affairs, worried about amalgamation of the races; he is concerned whether blacks are ready for full equality; he is bothered that they imitate the ways of the lowest class of whites (instead, obviously, of the more acceptable manners of the Gavin Stevenses of the world); he condescendingly concedes that the reason rednecks fear blacks is that blacks can work harder and do more with less than whites can. What he has to say is in fact very much in line with what other moderates of the forties and fifties in Mississippi had to say and not at all unlike Faulkner's public statements during the same period. But as Stevens articulates them in the dramatic context of the novel, all of these topics become rhetorical, sophistical, devices to evade his own particular guilt in regard to a very particular Lucas; mostly he's covering his failure to operate according to the rhetoric, at least, of his own highest moral and social standards. He is, as I say, blowing smoke to hide behind: he throws up Sambo, the condescending abstraction, to avoid Lucas, the concrete human being. This is the same Stevens, we should remember, who in Light in August pontificates so superfluously on Joe Christmas's ambiguous blood, and the same Stevens whose good intentions in the concluding chapter of Go Down, Moses are seriously undercut by his consternation upon confronting Molly Beauchamp's real, impenetrable grief and by the reader's simultaneous discovery of how arrogantly Stevens has presumed to know what Molly—The Negro—wanted, and of how terribly little he understood of her life: how much he talked, how little he said: how much less he did. Among the other important things Chick comes to recognize is the “significantless speciosity of his uncle's voice” (344), and his “uncle's abnegant and rhetorical self-lacerating which was … phony” (384, my emphasis).

What is novelistically at stake in Intruder, then, are Chick Mallison and his efforts to find his own way through the tangle of Southern race relations. In this, Lucas and Aleck Sander and even the Gowries are his concrete experience of that tangle; Stevens is the tangle's abstraction, the looming and ponderous weight of history, of the tradition of black-white relations as seen from the secure financial and social position of the educated aristocrats who can afford easy platitudes, can afford to be “concerned” about Sambo precisely because, unlike the rednecks in Beat Four, they do not have to compete with Sambo for what living they can muster with their own sweat.

Faulkner's attitude toward Stevens in Intruder seems reasonably clear from the context that the novel creates: the novel provides sufficient evidence of Stevens's shortcomings to make us wary of accepting his words at their face value. The distressing extent to which Faulkner seems to have endorsed Stevens's opinions in the series of speeches, public letters, and more formal essays of the middle 1950s, which got him more and more publicly embroiled in the problem and more and more formally associated with the moderate point of view. As with other moderates in the South, Faulkner's moderation earned him the contumely and spite of both sides—whites, including family and friends, who were outraged at his break with traditions; and blacks, who felt that such moderates were more a part of the problem than of the solution. The middle was not an easy position to hold. Faulkner gave his white neighbors and friends plenty to scream at him about and, on one occasion, gave black accusers a real reason to question his racial sensibilities.

In February of 1956 Faulkner submitted to an interview by Russell Howe. Among numerous thoughtful responses to questions in which he articulated both his abhorrence of the injustices of racial segregation and his fear that the current crisis would precipitate bloodshed, he also, according to the interviewer, said this astonishing thing:

If I have to choose between the United States government and Mississippi, then I'll choose Mississippi. What I'm trying to do now is not have to make that decision. As long as there's a middle road, all right, I'll be on it. But if it came to fighting I'd fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes. … I will go on saying that the Southerners are wrong and that their position is untenable, but if I have to make the same choice Robert E. Lee made then I'll make it.

(LG [Lion in the Garden] 256)

When published, the remark created such controversy that Faulkner wrote a public letter in which he contended that the statement, as reported, was “more a misconstruction than a misquotation.” Without explaining the misconstruction, he concluded that such statements were both “foolish and dangerous”: “statements which no sober man would make and, it seems to me, no sane man believe” (Blotner [1974] 1599, 1601).1

There seems to be no question that Faulkner was accurately quoted in the interview, that he actually said he would shoot Negroes in the street to defend Mississippi. He himself did not directly deny having said it and his editor, Saxe Commins, who was present at the interview, never denied it—and one has to assume that he would have been quick to defend his author from the effects of such an admission if he could have (Blotner [1974], 15902). Faulkner apologists in the matter take some comfort in his implicit admission that he was drinking during the interview, and indeed, according to Blotner's account, he had been drinking heavily during the period of the interview, responding to pressures of the mounting racial crisis in his native state and particularly to that developing at the University of Alabama. His critics suspect that, liquor or not, the statement reveals William Faulkner for what he really was, at heart, a white Mississippian, with all the moral and cultural and even intellectual limitations that soubriquet implies.

The episode is a significant one in Faulkner studies because in it are crystallized and intertwined all of the biographical and historical and political considerations and, radiating outward from it, a number of artistic and aesthetic considerations, that make “Faulkner and Race” a hellishly complex topic. One can hardly call his purely outrageous confession that he would shoot Negroes in the street to defend Mississippi “moderate.” And yet the statement seems to be such a dramatic departure from the very straightforward moderate positions he had been taking during the decade of the fifties, and a far cry indeed from a more intimate view he had offered to Else Jonsson not quite a year earlier, in a letter of 12 June 1955:

We have much tragic trouble in Mississippi now about Negroes. The Supreme Court has said that there shall be no segregation, difference in schools, voting, etc. between the two races, and there are many people in Mississippi who will go to any length, even violence, to prevent that, I am afraid. I am doing what I can. I can see the possible time when I shall have to leave my native state, something as the Jew had to flee from Germany during Hitler. I hope that wont happen of course. But at times I think that nothing but a disaster, a military defeat even perhaps, will wake America up and enable us to save ourselves, or what is left. This is a depressing letter, I know. But human beings are terrible. One must believe well in man to endure him, wait out his folly and savagery and inhumanity.

(SL [Selected Letters] 381-82)

There is a very long distance between on the one hand abandoning in despair a homeland one loves and, on the other, being willing to go to armed battle against overwhelming odds in defense of the very land and people who have caused the despair that makes him consider leaving. He made his comment to Russell Howe in the context of a discussion of Autherine Lucy's attempts to enroll at the University of Alabama; he expressed a fear that she would be killed, and worried over the consequences of that eventuality. Just three months after Faulkner died, James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi. I doubt very much that if he had lived he would have taken up arms alongside other Mississippians against the Federal Marshals who were posted there to keep the peace and to insure Meredith's right to an education.

I said that Faulkner's statement to Howe that he would shoot Negroes in the street seemed to be a departure from his more moderate statements; for if the part of his statement about shooting Negroes is an appalling contradiction of his previous positions on racial justice, his willingness to “defend Mississippi against the United States” is at the same time perfectly consistent with his often reiterated desire to hold at bay any sort of outside intervention into Mississippi's affairs. While racial matters clearly dominate Faulkner's nonfictional pronouncements of the fifties, they are not his only concerns; there are others whose relationship to the Negro question, in Faulkner's mind, or at least in his rhetoric, has not, I think, been sufficiently noted.

Part of his anxiety about the modern world was caused by the degree to which social, economic, and political phenomena seemed to be conspiring to rob the individual of the capacity to act as an individual. The very idea of collective humanity, which he found abhorrent, expressed itself politically in the post-World War II world as a product of Communism and of the American government's various welfare and support programs that, in Faulkner's view, were depriving the individual of both the capacity and the right to be independent. Socially and economically it expressed itself in Madison Avenue's aggressive enforcement of a consumer conformity through the brand new power of television advertising; psychologically, it expressed itself as an increasing dependence upon technological gadgetry to do not just our work but our thinking for us. All of these forces were causing, in Faulkner's view, a standardization of life all across the world and, particularly in America, an intolerable conformism that threatened to swallow up the individual, to render the individual human being invalid.

To be sure, many of the views on the modern world that Faulkner expresses in his nonfiction emerge from a deeply rooted political and personal conservatism. At one level, for example, he never seemed quite able to reconcile himself to many of the New Deal's welfare and assistance programs, especially those programs of farm subsidies designed to bring some sort of order and stability to farm produce markets that were increasingly involved in very complicated national and international economies that made his own implicit ideal, the Jeffersonian self-consumer, not only obsolete, but virtually impossible even to imagine except as a historical oddity. His world vision also seems to be marked by a kind of xenophobia, which can be seen in a variety of his reactions both to the international problems connected with the Cold War and, especially, to the local and national problems connected with the racial antagonisms in his home state and region.

That is, while he supported equality of opportunity for all races as the morally right thing to do, his rhetoric tended to operate along the very pragmatic lines that for the South not to solve its own problems would be to invite the federal government to intervene in its affairs. Southern whites and blacks, he argued, had more in common with each other than any Southerner had with any Northerner; therefore, Southerners, black and white, had better stick together to stave off any outsider's challenge to their way of life. By the same token, he felt, all Americans, black, white, Southern, Northern, needed to stick together in order to present a united front to combat the menace of Communism.3 It was therefore in the best interests of the white majority to abolish the system that kept Negroes in economic and educational slavery; not to solve our own problems was to invite the federal government to solve them for us, probably in ways not to our liking. It was also in the best interests of Negroes, who had made enormous gains and who now had the political and economic power to continue the initiative, to “go slow,” not to precipitate crises which would weld the white majority, including moderates like himself, into a unit in backlash resistance, precipitate violence and bloodshed, and so create the conditions for yet another kind of federal involvement, another Civil War.

Indeed, the violence and federal intervention he feared did occur. But it may also be true—how will we ever know?—that the “moderate” positions Faulkner was advocating would have delayed social and political change for many years, perhaps generations. Certainly we look back now on the words and good wishes of the “best types” of liberal Southerners with an overwhelming sense of how empty the words advocating caution, patience, and good will must have seemed to black citizens, who had practiced these virtues for generations and had gotten so little from them. Southern liberals' best intentions notwithstanding, how could African Americans of the fifties not have taken admonitions to patience as yet another tactic of delay? The violence Faulkner feared had a bloody but immediate impact, and we seem now, on the other side of the chaos and misery of those awful years, to be at least some the better for it, though I, a male Mississippi WASP, may not be qualified to say how much better. It seems clear, in retrospect, that Faulkner simply underestimated the impatience of Negroes and their willingness to suffer and die for their rights as American citizens. He also overestimated the capacity of Southern whites to act in their own best interests. He never made this mistake in his fiction.

We should be very careful, however, not to read backwards from the public statements into the fiction, as readers have done so readily, for his attitude toward the modern world, as writer and citizen, was neither simplistic nor simple, and he was not, as he has sometimes been thought, a simple-minded reactionary retrenched against the modern world and longing sentimentally for the lost innocence of the Big Woods. He was no mid-century Miniver Cheevy, born out of his time and resenting it. No writer I know of places more value than he on the ability to cope with change—change of environment, of relationship, of historical and social circumstance. This was, from one way of looking at it, the point of his entire argument with Mississippi, certainly it was the point of his rhetoric whenever he talked publicly about race. That is, he did not try to change white Southern hearts, but only their behavior. He argued, very pragmatically, that change was inevitable and that it was in everybody's best interest, blacks and whites, North and South, for Southern whites themselves to effect that change and to learn to live with new social and political conditions. A large part of Gavin Stevens's problem in Intruder is that, unlike Faulkner, he is wedded, even if he does not know it, to the status quo. An even larger part of Stevens's problem is that, like other Faulkner characters, he is so completely wedded to the abstraction of justice that he does not see the concrete; he is so completely concerned with what he would call the larger picture that he does not see the details that make up that larger picture.

Readers and critics have been all too willing to accept Faulkner's post-Nobel public career, especially his engagement in the Civil Rights debate, as at worst an embarrassing mistake, at best a pious aberration, from his former artistic isolation from such battles, and borne of what Phil Stone called Faulkner's “Nobelitis of the head.” We might more generously attribute his public life of the fifties to his own direct, moral response to the racial morality of Intruder in the Dust,Go Down, Moses,Absalom, Absalom!, and Light in August, and take it as a sincere effort to communicate with an audience of blue-collar citizenry he had previously more or less forsaken in his pursuit of his art's high modernism (see “Faulkner at Midcentury”). If so, it is perhaps not to be wondered at that the intellectual content of his public pronouncements is not high or that his language is more utilitarian than poetic, though to be sure in public he never grasped at such tawdry conservative clichés as he wrote in private to Else Jonsson: “I think nothing but a disaster … will wake America up and enable us to save ourselves” indeed!

We may indeed see many similarities between Stevens's fictional and Faulkner's public rhetoric; but Stevens's abstractions, his preference for talking instead of doing, his overriding interest in Sambo rather than in Lucas, point directly to the differences between Stevens and the public Faulkner. Faulkner's concern during the fifties was consistently with the individual. Even while making public and private generalizations about race that could and should be construed as racist, that could be and were construed as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution, he never lost sight of the need to make specific contributions to the solution of specific problems rather than just blow smoke. His chief concern during the crisis at the University of Alabama was for the life of Autherine Lucy, who he feared would be killed if she tried to enroll there (ESPL 108; Blotner [1974] 1591). Rather than simply declare that blacks needed more education to be worthy of equality, he took part of his Nobel Prize money to establish a scholarship fund for needy and worthy black students (Blotner [1984] 535). Malcolm Cowley reported a conversation in which Faulkner told him, probably with some exaggeration, that his own farm was run by “three Negro tenant families. … He lets them have the profits, if any, because—he said, speaking very softly—‘The Negroes don't always get a square deal in Mississippi.’ He figures that his beef costs him $5 a pound” (Cowley 111). His actions in these and doubtless other cases did not, of course, speak louder than his words, but they certainly did help alleviate racial misery in these individual cases.

Faulkner, too, was a complex combination of historical, economic, psychological, and social forces; like the rest of us he was a product of his own time and place, and it would be surprising indeed if this were not reflected in his work. It would be astonishing if, writing fifty years ago and more, he had been able to please an audience of the 1990s, who are much more sensitized to the subtleties of racial prejudice than any white person in 1920s or 1950s Mississippi, or in the entire United States either, for that matter, could possibly have been. Can we argue that Caspey and Simon Strother never existed? Can we argue that individual Negroes have never been irresponsible, have never looked like the stereotype even if they were deliberately puttin' on ol' massa? Have no Negroes ever played to their white bosses' prejudices either to save their skins or to keep their jobs? If we can allow Faulkner to describe the dark and violent underbelly of the average Mississippi redneck as he saw and tried to understand him, can we not also allow him to describe the dark and violent and unsavory underside of the blacks he saw? Is there no coin for verisimilitude or historical accuracy? Many critics have tried too hard to discover the number and kinds of things that Faulkner did not or could not do correctly in writing about race; many seem happy indeed (Taylor) to catch Faulkner in his Southern limitations—the intellectual desire to improve things at odds with ingrained racial prejudice—and this is of course fair enough. But at the same time, we should not ever overlook the magnitude of what he did attempt, over the manifest opposition of his state and region and family, and no doubt over his own fair share of those ingrained racial instincts and phobias.

In the closing scene of Intruder a proud, independent Lucas Beauchamp comes to Stevens's office to pay Stevens his lawyer's fee. Early in the novel, Lucas had had the dignity to refuse Chick's attempts to pay him for his hospitality after pulling him from the creek: he knows that there are some things you can't buy, some things you can't pay for. Stevens has neither that knowledge nor that dignity, so he takes Lucas's proffered coins even though he has done nothing to save Lucas's skin. Technically, Stevens refuses to let Lucas pay him a legal “fee”; but he does accept a trivial, two-dollar payment for his “expenses.” This is a patently paternalistic ruse that can hardly be interpreted otherwise than as allowing Lucas to pay him for something he, Stevens, did not do. Stevens allows Lucas to pay for the very freedom that he, Stevens, has throughout the novel argued that the South, if left alone, would eventually give him. In this way, Stevens, the “best type of liberal Southerner”—and with what irony that phrase now rings in our ears—tries to keep Lucas obliged to him, to keep him in the bondage of gratitude. The shrewd Lucas understands what Stevens is doing, however, and in the novel's final line demands a receipt. Michael Millgate perceptively reads this scene as