William Faulkner Faulkner, William (Cuthbert) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William (Cuthbert) Faulkner 1897–1962

(Born William Cuthbert Falkner) American novelist, short story writer, poet, scriptwriter, and essayist. See also William Faulkner Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 18.

Faulkner is a seminal figure in modern American literature. Specifically, his works reflect the distinct heritage of the American South. The northern region of Mississippi where Faulkner lived all his life provided the geographical and cultural background for the Yoknapatawpha County of his novels and short stories. But only in a superficial sense can Faulkner be considered a regional writer: through their radical stylistic innovations and moral depth his works achieve a universality which places him among the major figures of world literature. Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in literature for 1949. In his acceptance speech, Faulkner stated that his basic theme was "the human heart in conflict with itself," and his exploration of this theme resulted in a variety of highly original, often difficult literary techniques expressing the full spectrum of human experience.

While Faulkner's importance rests almost solely on his fiction, his first ambition was to be a poet. His poems were published in various periodicals and collected in The Marble Faun (1924), Faulkner's earliest full-length book. Although the collection drew scant notice at the time, it is now considered of interest as an early display of the stylistic qualities Faulkner later developed in his fiction. For example, pastoral imagery and frequent use of symbol and image are characteristic of both his poetry and his prose. The Marble Faun was followed by the publication of Faulkner's first two novels, Soldier's Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927), neither of which received much critical response. Soldier's Pay is categorized as a "lost generation" novel because it centers on a physically and emotionally scarred young soldier who returns home from war and finds only further trauma and disillusionment. Mosquitoes features a character type that reappears throughout Faulkner's work—the individual who lives a life of unfulfilled hope but strives to endure, even in grief. The necessity to struggle and to endure is central to Faulkner's view of human existence. In his famous Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he stated: "I believe that man will not only endure: he will prevail."

With the publication of his third novel, Sartoris (1929), Faulkner won greater critical attention. Sartoris is considered by many to be the first "typical Faulkner novel," primarily because it is set in Yoknapatawpha County and displays a full array of storytelling techniques, but also for the tragic fate of its protagonist, Bayard Sartoris. Many of Faulkner's later works develop stories that he touched upon in Sartoris. In 1929, Faulkner also published The Sound and the Fury, a novel about the disintegration of the Compson family. The story is told through four separate points of view in a seemingly disjointed narrative that gradually reveals its meaning. Critics were impressed by the complicated structure of the novel, especially the opening section told from the viewpoint of the idiot man-child Benjy. However, the difficulty of fathoming Faulkner's narrative tactics turned many readers away. Through characters like Benjy, whose memories of past events mingle with present experiences with no distinction between the two, Faulkner was able to give a more complex rendering of char-acters and events. This technique was further developed and refined in subsequent 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 which 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, even in its revised form, caused a minor uproar. While it became Faulkner's best-selling novel, a number of critics disparaged the work for its sensationalistic depictions of violence. Critical studies of Sanctuary often focus on the character Popeye, particularly because he embodies the philosopher Henri Bergson's theory of humor—that we laugh at people who act rigidly and mechanically rather than at those capable of expressing diverse emotions. Faulkner himself acknowledged an interest in Bergson's ideas, including his theory of the fluidity of time. Faulkner stated: "There is only the present moment, in which I include both the past and the future, and that is eternity."

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), for example, is a novel composed of fifty-nine interior monologues: by this use of constantly shifting, contrasting points of view, Faulkner gradually and methodically reveals his themes and characters. In Light in August (1932), Faulkner examines the origins of personal identity and the roots of racial conflicts. Light in August 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 the novel suffered from faulty structure. However, 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), has been called the work in which he is most in control of his experimental narrative techniques. At the center of this novel is the story of 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. Upon 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 novels that received lukewarm critical response, The Unvanquished (1938) and The Wild Palms (1939), and following a brief stint in Hollywood as a scriptwriter, 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. While some critics view the tragedy in these novels as both heightened and made more tolerable by its juxtaposition with comedy, others feel that the humor is detrimental to a basically tragic theme. 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 becomes a common fixture in American society. Go Down, Moses (1942) is a short story collection that can also be considered as 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 which are more concise and complete than many of Faulkner's novels.

During the 1950s, Faulkner spent much time traveling and lecturing both abroad and at American colleges. His 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. Since his death, Faulkner's work has been extensively analyzed and is now more fully appreciated. Faulkner created a body of work that is distinctly American yet reflects, on a grander scale, the universal values of human life.

Wyndham Lewis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Faulkner, unlike Hemingway, is a novelist of the old school—the actual texture of his prose-narrative is not at all 'revolutionary' or unusual. Just occasionally (as in the opening page or two of Sartoris and here and there in Sanctuary and Light in August) a spurious savour of "newness' is obtained by a pretended incompetence as a narrator or from a confused distraction—a 'lack of concentration' it would popularly be called if it occurred in the narrative of a police-court witness. There is, very occasionally, a clumsy slyness of this sort, of the faux-naif variety, but it is quite a minor thing. Just now and then—only for a page or two—he will Joyce for a bit, but merely to the extent of innocently portmanteauing a few words just to show he is on the right side, such as 'shadowdappled' or 'down-speaking': but he has not much luck with this, as he is apt to arrive at such a result as the following: "the rank manodor of his sedentary … flesh"—which looks too like escupidor to be a happy conjugation. For the most part his books might have been written by a contemporary of Trollope or the early Wells. (p. 43)

There is no reason whatever why a novelist today should not use the most 'straightforward' methods of narrative—the code napoléon was good enough for Stendhal, and we might do far worse than model ourselves upon it—I am not at all … [damning] Mr. Faulkner for being 'old-fashioned': my object is to place him technically. More than half of his text belongs, as far as the genre of the writing is concerned, to the 'psychological' method of Conrad (or the translations of the great nineteenth-century Russian authors). (p. 44)

[There] is a lot of poetry in Faulkner. It is not at all good. And it has an in the end rather comic way of occurring at a point where, apparently, he considers that the atmosphere has run out, or is getting thin, by the passage of time become exhausted and requiring renewal, like the water in a zoological-garden tank for specimens of fish. So he pumps in this necessary medium, for anything from half a dozen to two dozen lines, according to the needs of the case. (p. 45)

His characters demand, in order to endure for more than ten pages, apparently, an opaque atmosphere of whip-poor-wills, cicadas, lilac, 'seeping' moonlight, water-oaks and jasmine—and of course the 'dimensionless' sky, from which the moonlight 'seeps." The wherewithal to supply them with this indispensable medium is as it were stored in a whip-poor-will tank, as it might be called: and he pumps the stuff into his book in generous flushes at the slightest sign of fatigue or deflationary listlessness, as he thinks, upon the part of one of his characters.

To compare him with Ernest Hemingway as an artist would indeed be absurd: but actually he betrays such a deep unconsciousness in that respect as to be a little surprising…. If in reading a book of his you came across [the word 'sourceless']—say upon the first page of Sanctuary where it occurs ("a thick growth of cane and brier, of cypress and gum in which broken sunlight lay sourceless") and said to yourself "sourceless—what for mercy's sake is that!" you would soon find out. For a dozen pages farther on (where more poetic atmosphere was being pumped in, in due course) you would probably come across it again: and after you had encountered it half a dozen times or so you would see what he meant. (pp. 45-6)

[There] are other words (apart from such hackneyed ones common to all American books as frustration) which he uses so repeatedly that it would be a game for an idle person to count them—'timbrous,' 'viscid,' 'shard,' 'sibilant,' etc. No one ever had less care for the mot juste. (p. 46)

There is no question here of conscious repetition. It reveals the character of this slipshod and redundant artistic machine. (p. 48)

Faulkner is as full of 'passion'—of sound and fury—as Hemingway is austerely without it. He is as hot and sticky as Hemingway is dry and without undue heat. He works up and up, in a torrent of ill-selected words, to his stormy climaxes. With Hemingway the climaxes are registered by a few discreet touches here and there. The characters in Faulkner's books are as heavily energized as the most energetic could wish. And if they are all futilely energized and worked-up to no purpose—all 'signifying nothing'—if each and all of his stories is 'a tale told by an idiot'—that does not make his Sartorises, Popeyes, Christmases, the priest in Mistral or Temple Drake, any the less an impressive company, in their hysterical way. All are demented: his novels are, strictly speaking, clinics. Destiny weighs heavily upon every figure which has its being in this suffocating atmosphere of whip-poor-wills, magnolias, fireflies and water-oaks (not to mention the emanations of the dark and invariably viscid earth). And the particular form that that destiny takes is race. Whether it is Christmas or Sartoris, it is a matter of a fatality residing in the blood. They are driven on in a crazy and headlong career by the compulsion of their ancestry. (pp. 48-9)

Violent death … is a matter of such importance in Faulkner's universe, it has such a baleful attraction, for his most ordinary puppets, in expectation or in memory, that it is able, two generations away, to so paralyze the imagination of one of them as to turn him into a dream of death-on-horseback!

The Civil War, and that apparently central problem of the American soul, the Black and White (for it is rather an important issue, all said and done, whether you shall give the negro equality and a century hence have a mulatto America, or on the other hand lynch him as soon as look at him) are the shadows over every life dealt with by Faulkner. The Sartoris family is literally rotten with fatality—there the doom becomes deliberately comic…. (p. 50)

A flash, a glare—that is what Faulkner's books are intended to be—a very long flash, and a chronic glare, illuminating a 'doomed,' a symbolical landscape—centred in that township of the Old Dominion...

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Alfred Kazin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The problem that faces every student of Faulkner's writing is its lack of a center, the gap between his power and its source, that curious abstract magnificence (not only a magnificence of verbal resources alone) which holds his books together, yet seems to arise from debasement or perplexity or a calculating terror. It is the gap between the deliberation of his effects, the intensity of his every conception, and the besetting and depressing looseness, the almost sick passivity, of his basic meaning and purpose. No writer, least of all a novelist so remarkably inventive and robust of imagination, works in problems of pure technique alone; and though it is possible to see in his books, as Conrad Aiken has shown [see...

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Clifton Fadiman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I came to every new Faulkner opus wearily determined to see in it what my betters saw. No more than the next man do I enjoy looking like a dunce. But, no matter how hard I tried, I was licked every time. Some major defect, some incurable myopia, prevented me from seeing in him more than a dazzling, though often unsuccessful technician, passionately and sincerely creating a private world whose inhabitants would be completely unrecognizable to the natives of Oxford, Mississippi, but are apparently immediately recognizable to a host of young academics and, let us be fair, to many non-specialized, average, intelligent readers.

For them there is no disproportion between Mr. Faulkner's Gothic-horrors...

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Michael Millgate

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is necessary to emphasise that Faulkner in his best work is not concerned with ideas in any abstract sense. His preoccupations are not intellectual but moral; what he offers is not philosophy but wisdom. At the same time, his public statements are in no sense divorced from his literary achievement. The Nobel Prize Speech has sometimes been regarded as very much a post hoc statement, a deliberate effort on Faulkner's part to match with his own grandiloquence the grandeur of the occasion. It should properly be seen as a distillation, necessarily couched in abstract terms, of the kind of statements and moral judgments which had been implicit in his work from the very first. As Faulkner wrote to Warren Beck in...

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Robert Penn Warren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It was in the Spring of 1929 that John Gould Fletcher, on a visit to Oxford University, where I was a student, gave me a copy of Soldiers' Pay. I had been out of the South for a long time—in a sense, in flight from the South—and at least half of me was oriented toward Greenwich Village and the Left Bank and not toward the Cumberland Valley in Tennessee; but at the same time I was, I suppose, homesick, and was making my first serious attempt at fiction, fiction with a setting in the part of the South where I had grown up. As a novel, Soldiers' Pay is no better than it should be, but it made a profound and undefinable impression on me. Then came, in the order of my reading, The Sound and the Fury, A...

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Arthur F. Kinney

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mayday is derivative in idea and technique, a product of a self-conscious affecting of Symbolist art quivering at its own fragility in a harsh and cruel world at the same time it openly parodies young passions and lusts. The setting is medieval: Sir Galwyn of Arthgyl is given a dream of death by St. Francis, and, accompanied by Pain and Hunger, he sets out on his journey of life to be united with this Little Sister. The first men who try to stop him protect Yseult whose naked bathing in a pool not only arouses Sir Galwyn but is meant to double the Little Sister Death he searches after. Naked, Yseult rises from the pool to romp and lie in the woods with her new lover until the cold darkness causes him to suggest...

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Calvin S. Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mayday itself is not, as one might expect, a fumbling piece of apprentice-work, but a skillful and amusing exercise in a very minor literary genre which might be described as a lightly allegorical medieval pastiche. It is the story of Sir Galwyn of Arthygal, who, accompanied by Hunger and Pain, rides forth as a new knight, kills "a small dragon of an inferior and cowardly type," seduces three beautiful princesses in three consecutive days and immediately abandons each of them, and finally, with the help of St. Francis, seeks and finds little sister Death in the river. On the way he encounters various figures, including Time, with whom he has philosophical discussions; and the whole work operates in a spirit of...

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Malcolm Cowley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Faulkner himself is to blame for the long critical disparagement of "Sanctuary," the fifth novel he wrote. "To me it is a cheap idea," he said in his introduction to the Modern Library edition (1932), "because it was deliberately conceived to make money…. I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought would be the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks and sent it to [Harrison] Smith, who had done 'The Sound and the Fury' and who wrote me immediately, 'Good God, I can't publish this. We'd both be in jail.'"…

Being a "cheap idea" hastily executed to make...

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Sean O'Faolain

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Faulkner] was a richly gifted writer and there are times when he writes with real genius. He is keenly observant, and when he so wishes can be stereoscopically graphic. He gives us the intimate feel of an old banker's run-down bank and an easy-going little town, its age and southern heat, by referring in passing to the gold lettering on the bank's windows as 'cracked'. He evokes idle days spent sitting on the steps of a country store by letting us catch on the wing a reference to those steps as 'heel-gnawed'. A dog nosing in a cupboard has a 'barometric tail'. The dusty, hot air is 'insect-rasped'. The frost tonight will shrink the water in a pool about 'rank bayonets of dead grass in fixed glassy ripples in the...

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Cleanth Brooks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Brooks, one of the most notable scholars of Faulkner, says of his William Faulkner: First Encounters: "[This book] has been written for the general reader and for the student coming to Faulkner for the first time." Brooks adds that he "limits himself" to discussions of theme, character, plot, and historical and fictional settings. The following excerpts from Brooks's introduction illustrate his main concerns throughout this lucid, informative analysis of Faulkner's major works.]

Most of us identify Faulkner with the South, and it is natural that we should do so, for his fiction is filled with references to its history, its geography, its customs; and his prose often employs its special...

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