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.
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.
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.
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.