William Faulkner Faulkner, William (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Faulkner, William 1897–1962

See also William Faulkner Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 6, 8, 9, 14, 18, 28.

Faulkner, an American novelist, short story writer, and poet, is considered one of the greatest writers America has produced. Although a variety of attitudes and themes are evident in his work, Faulkner is best known as the chronicler of the decadent South. His genius transcends regionalism, however: in his evocation of the mythical Yoknapatawpha, Faulkner's brilliant narrative technique, complexity of characterization, and innovative use of time sequence mark him as a major figure in American letters. Twice the recipient of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Faulkner also received the Nobel Prize in 1950.

Warren Beck

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Faulkner has not only remained guilty of occasional carelessness, especially in sentence construction, but seems to have persisted in mannerisms. On the other hand, his progress as a stylist has been steady and rapid; his third novel, Sartoris, while still experimenting toward a technique, was a notable advance over his first two in style as well as in theme and narrative structure, and in his fourth novel, The Sound and the Fury, style is what it has continued to be in all his subsequent work, a significant factor, masterfully controlled. (p. 53)

Repetition of words, for instance, has often seemed an obvious fault. At times, however, Faulkner's repetitions may be a not unjustifiable by-product of his thematic composition. Some of his favorites in Absalom, Absalom!—not just Miss Rosa's "demon," which may be charged off to her own mania, nor "indolent" applied to Bon, but such recurrent terms as effluvium, outrage, grim, indomitable, ruthless, fury, fatality—seem to intend adumbration of the tale's whole significance and tone. Nor is the reiteration as frequent or as obvious here as in earlier books; perhaps Faulkner has been making an experiment over which he is increasingly gaining control. (pp. 53-4)

[His] word-series, while conspicuous at times, may have a place in a style as minutely analytical as Faulkner's. In their typical form they are not redundant, however elaborate, and sometimes their cumulative effect is undeniable—for example, the "long still hot weary dead September afternoon" when Quentin listens to Miss Rosa's story…. [Often] the amplification redounds to the significance of the whole scene. Quite often, too, these series of words, while seemingly extravagant, are a remarkably compressed rendering, as in the phrase "passionate tragic ephemeral loves of adolescence."…

In the later books profuseness of language is always knit into the thematic structure. Thus the elaborate lyrical descriptions of the sunrise and of a spring rain in book three of The Hamlet furnish by their imagery and mood a sharp, artistically serviceable contrast to the perversion of the idiot Ike Snopes, and as such they deepen the melancholy perspective from which this episode is observed. (p. 54)

There is nothing unique … in Faulkner's use of direct and forceful diction or fine figurative image. What is most individual in his style is its persistent lyrical embroidery and coloring, in extended passages, of the narrative theme. In this sense Faulkner is one of the most subjective of writers, his brooding temperament constantly probing and interpreting his subject matter. Thus his full style is comprehensive in its intention. He may often be unfashionably rhapsodic, but he seldom falls into the preciosity that lingers over a passage for its own sweet sake. Definition of his story as a whole and the enhancement of its immediate appeals to the imagination are his constant aims. (p. 55)

[Side] by side with [a] richly interpretative style there exists in almost all of Faulkner's work a realistic colloquialism, expressing lively dialogue that any playwright might envy, and even carrying over into sustained first-person narrative the flavor of regionalism and the idiosyncrasies of character. In the colloquial vein Faulkner's brilliance is unsurpassed in contemporary American fiction. He has fully mastered the central difficulty, to retain verisimilitude while subjecting the prolix and monotonous raw material of most natural speech to an artistic pruning and pointing up. Sanctuary, for an example, is full of excellent dialogue, sharply individualized. (p. 58)

Master of colloquialism in dramatic scene though he is, Faulkner sometimes lays aside this power in order to put into a character's mouth the fullest expression of the narrative's meaning…. For the most part, however, the transcending of colloquial verisimilitude in the novels is a fairly controlled and consistent technique, the characters Faulkner most often endows with penetration and eloquence being his philosophical spectators. Undoubtedly his chief concern, though, is with a lyric encompassment of his narrative's whole meaning rather than with the reticences of objective dramatic representation.

Thus many of his characters speak with the tongues of themselves and of William Faulkner…. The justification of all such practices is empirical; imaginative writing must not be judged by its minute correspondence to fact but by its total effect; and to object against Faulkner's style that men and women don't really talk in such long sentences, with so full a vocabulary so fancifully employed, is as narrowly dogmatic as was Sinclair Lewis, in Main Street, insisting that Sir Launcelot didn't actually speak in "honeyed pentameters." (pp. 59-60)

It is interesting to note that Faulkner's full style somewhat resembles older literary uses, such as the dramatic chorus, the prologue and epilogue, and the dramatis personae...

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Kenneth G. Johnston

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The sound of ticking clocks and watches often provides the accompaniment for William Faulkner's tales of decline and change in the South. A clock strikes the quarter hours in the afternoon quiet of the Sartoris mansion; Miss Emily's "invisible watch" marks the passage of time within the shadowed rooms of the decaying Grierson house; and Quentin Compson's timepiece, once his grandfather's, its hands twisted off, ticks on, adding to the sound and the fury of his final day. The sound is appropriate because, as Robert Penn Warren has observed, "the anguish of time, the tension of change," is Faulkner's basic theme. But in Faulkner's short story "Barn Burning," there is a silent clock. In the wagon of Abner Snopes, "among the sorry residue of the dozen and more movings," there is a clock, "which would not run, stopped at some fourteen minutes past two o'clock of a dead and forgotten day and time." (p. 434)

"Barn Burning" is a chapter in the continuing story of [the South's] stubborn retreat. A generation after the war, the planter-aristocracy is still quite powerful as we see by the fact that Major de Spain is a large landowner and lives in a white mansion, staffed by Negro servants and furnished with imported rugs and glittering chandeliers. But there has been an erosion of his authority…. The Justice of the Peace, although finding against the plaintiff Snopes, reduces by half the penalty assessed against him by his landlord. It is thus symbolically appropriate that the broken clock is in the possession of a barn burner who, by means of the law and the torch, is successfully challenging the authority of a standard-bearer of the old tradition. For time is on the side of Abner Snopes. He represents a new emerging force, a new class, in the post-bellum South. When he walks across the "hollow portico" at the Major's mansion, his stiff foot strikes the boards with "clocklike finality."… But the glow in the night sky tells us that he has lost this skirmish, too. Meanwhile, "the slow constellations" wheel on…. (p. 436)

Kenneth G. Johnston, "Time of Decline: Pickett's Charge and the Broken Clock in Faulkner's 'Barn Burning'," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1974 by Newberry College), Fall, 1974, pp. 434-36.

Brent Harold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although Faulkner never thought of his work as political in the usual sense … early in his career he commenced a determined struggle against dehumanization in his social milieu (soulless technology and commercialism, the alienation of human powers and identity) and, more importantly, in the literary milieu itself. By the time he wrote The Sound and the Fury he had experimented with versions of at least three of those dominant aesthetic modes of his time which were, according to [George] Lukács, the modernist options. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Faulkner had sensed the denial of human and artistic potential latent in those modes and, at least in his essential method, rejected them. The three modes may be roughly characterized as positivism (detached observation, a transparent medium); art for art's sake (literary solipsism, an opaque medium); and primitivism (deference to states of existence unrealizable in art and unavailable to its audience).

Faulkner's second novel, Mosquitoes (1927), may well be his weakest, but it contains, as Michael Millgate and Hyatt Waggoner have shown, a powerful and pertinent literary manifesto. The satire of Dawson Fairchild (usually identified with Sherwood Anderson) as a "bewildered stenographer … clinging spiritually to one little spot of the earth's surface," noting "details of dress and habit and speech,… trivialities in quantities," implicitly rejects several related versions of the malady of the observer…. (pp. 214-15)

Faulkner reacted to his own verbal passivity and conventionality … by assuming, in other early works, narrative condescension toward his subjects, achieved in part by outrageously whimsical metaphors such as "the moon had crawled up the sky like a fat spider," or "twilight ran in like a quiet violet dog." (p. 215)

The literary criticism in Mosquitoes is accomplished primarily not in satire at the expense of writers but in the portrait of the novel's hero Gordon, a sculptor…. Unlike the passive novelist of surfaces and the precious poet, the sculptor actively shapes his materials, penetrating with his chisel to essential form…. Sculpture was quite obviously [for Faulkner] … a way of announcing, in effect, that he had launched himself on a trajectory that would take him beyond the literary styles of his day. He would write not as writers write but as the potent and fully human Gordon sculpts…. He obviously enjoyed employing the diction of shaping and carving to suggest Gordon's consciousness and on quite a few occasions borrowed it for other narrative tasks as well, notably in combatting his own still predominantly romantic feelings about women and nature…. (pp. 215-16)

As for primitivism, the third mode offered Faulkner by his milieu and tradition—it may certainly be found in abundance in his third novel, Sartoris (1929). The novel centers upon a lost generation character (young Bayard) whose drunken ride on a stallion that "moved beneath him like a tremendous, mad music" becomes, like sculpting, an image of what the author could not yet consistently achieve in literary style, although—because Bayard's dynamism is self-destructive, nihilistic, and obscure—it is a contradictory, unsatisfactory image. Blacks depicted singing in the background in "quavering, wordless chords" and formulaic references to "liquid" birdcalls with which they are associated establish another vague center of value in the novel. (When the blacks are removed from the mystical backdrop and given words and a role in the plot, they become, for the most part, comic shufflers embarrassing to many admirers of Faulkner.) Such primitivism may be encountered occasionally in later work, as in the clairvoyance of the characters of Light in August; but it is implicitly criticized in advance by the vision of Mosquitoes and, despite what many critics have written, it runs counter to Faulkner's dominant fictional strategy.

Faulkner's verbal appropriation of the sculptural motif in Mosquitoes suggests that even when he was to reach beyond a neighboring artistic medium and take his models of psychic health from among ignorant countrypeople, Indians, idiots, even bears, dogs, and cows, he had no intention of deferring to such forms of simple, untainted or wordless existence…. Despite Faulkner's tirades against words, which should be read … to refer to certain misuses...

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Robert Martin Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are little touches [in Faulkner's early novel, Soldier's Pay,] of narrative pace—crucial incidents withheld …, ironic juxtapositions, abrupt yet unmarked transitions within and between scenes which would confirm a sense of Joyce if one approached them with the Joyce parallel already in mind. Yet as a whole, Faulkner's novel is not Joycean in either theme or style. The almost wordless figure of Lieutenant Mahon, a massive, unmovable rock in the stream of time, fills the center of the novel; he can hardly fail to remind us of Benjy, who will occupy a similar position in The Sound and the Fury, but for such a figure there is no parallel in Joyce at all. Around his unmoving figure the characters...

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Richard Gray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

How can we be "in" history and "outside" it at one and the same time? The problem that dogged Faulkner throughout his career can be stated as simply as that, but not his answer to it—because, of course, the answer does not lie in this expressed opinion or in that but in the imaginative discovery of Yoknapatawpha County. Loving his inheritance and hating it, involved with its mythology and yet well aware of the difference between history and myth, Faulkner was in a sense obliged to create his fictional world—a paradigm of his region existing beyond established categories, where all that he had found in the South and felt about it could be absorbed into a coherent form of knowledge….


(The entire section is 5971 words.)