William Faulkner Faulkner, William (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)...

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Virginia V. Hlavsa (essay date March 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Philip Cohen (essay date summer 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gail L. Mortimer (essay date spring 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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John E. Bassett (essay date fall 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Leona Toker (essay date spring 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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:...

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Barbara Monroe (essay date summer 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carolyn Norman Slaughter (essay date March 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carol M. Andrews (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Walter Taylor (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bernhard Radloff (essay date spring 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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John N. Duvall (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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John T. Matthews (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Scott DeShong (essay date fall 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Deborah Clarke (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Minrose Gwin (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Noel Polk (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sacvan Bercovitch (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bercovitch, Sacvan. “Culture in a Faulknerian Context.” In Faulkner in Cultural Context, edited by Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie, pp. 284-310. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.

[In the following essay, Bercovitch takes what he calls a “counterdisciplinary” approach to Faulkner's works.]

By “Faulknerian Context” I mean to suggest a reversal of tradition. As a rule, interdisciplinary study places literature in the context of another discipline: once mainly theology; now mainly the disciplines associated with cultural studies: anthropology, psychology, sociology, and so forth. And now as then, the result has been disciplinary...

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Linda J. Holland-Toll (essay date summer 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Holland-Toll, Linda J. “Absence Absolute: The Recurring Pattern of Faulknerian Tragedy.” Mississippi Quarterly 51, no. 3 (summer 1998): 435-52.

[In the following essay, Holland-Toll explores the pattern of alienation and absence in Faulkner's tragic novels.]

Between the conception
          and the creation
Between the emotion
          and the response
          Falls the Shadow
                    Life is very long(1)

At the heart of Faulknerian tragedy lies the Shadow, the absolute absence of any other and complete alienation from the communion through which life and love flourish. In many Faulknerian tragedies, a character, at times a...

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David R. Jarraway (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jarraway, David R. “The Gothic Import of Faulkner's ‘Black Son’ in Light in August.” In American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative, edited by Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy, pp. 57-74. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Jarraway explores gothic identity in Light in August in terms of Julia Kristeva's post-Freudian psychoanalysis.]

How much does it cost the subject to be able to tell the truth about itself?

—Michel Foucault, Foucault Live

I think that no one individual can look at truth. It...

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Matthew Lessig (essay date winter 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lessig, Matthew. “Class, Character, and Croppers: Faulkner's Snopeses and the Plight of the Sharecropper.” Arizona Quarterly 55, no. 4 (winter 1999): 79-113.

[In the following essay, Lessig examines the historical realm of poor Southern whites and Faulkner's portrayal and opinion of them in his Snopes fiction.]

Addressing the “recent aberrations of critical discourse” in Faulkner studies, Daniel Hoffman appeals for a criticism of history and memory, arguing that “a writer such as Faulkner can be comprehended only by readers possessing a sympathetic historical imagination to complement his own” (xiv). Faulkner found one such group of readers in the...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 531 words.)