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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.
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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 themselves in soliloquy and extended speech. The aim of any such device is not objective realism but revelation of theme, a revelation raised by the unstinted resourcefulness and power of its language to the highest ranges of imaginative outlook. No wonder that with such a purpose Faulkner often comes closer than is common in these times to Shakespeare's imperial and opulent use of words. If unfortunately his ambition has sometimes led Faulkner to perpetrate some rather clotted prose, perhaps these lapses may be judged charitably in the light of the great endeavor they but infrequently flaw. (p. 61)
In his most characteristic writing Faulkner is trying to render the transcendent life of the mind, the crowded composite of associative and analytical consciousness which expands the vibrant moment into the reaches of all time, simultaneously observing, remembering, interpreting, and modifying the object of its awareness. To this end the sentence as a rhetorical unit (however strained) is made to hold diverse yet related elements in a sort of saturated solution, which is perhaps the nearest that language as the instrument of fiction can come to the instantaneous complexities of consciousness itself. Faulkner really seems to be trying to give narrative prose another dimension.
To speak of Faulkner's fiction as dream-like … does not imply that his style is phantasmagoric, deranged, or incoherent. Dreams are not always delirium, and association, sometimes the supplanter of pattern, can also be its agent. The dreaming mind, while envisaging experience strangely, may find in that strangeness a fresh revelation, all the more profound in that the conventional and adventitious are pierced through. Similarly inhibitions and apathies must be transcended in any really imaginative inquiry, and thus do Faulkner's speculative characters ponder over the whole story, and project into cumulative drama its underlying significations. Behind all of them, of course, is their master-dreamer; Faulkner's own dominating temperament, constantly interpreting, is in the air of all these narratives, reverberant. Hence, no matter how psychological the story's material, Faulkner never falls into the mere enumeration which in much stream-of-consciousness writing dissolves all drama and reduces the narrative to a case history without the shaping framework of analysis, or even to an unmapped anachronistic chaos of raw consciousness. Faulkner is always a dynamic storyteller, never just a reporter of unorganized phenomena. His most drastic, most dream-like use of stream of consciousness, for instance, in The Sound and the Fury, is not only limited to the first two sections of the book, but it sketches a plot which in the lucid sections that follow gradually emerges clear-cut.
As clear-cut, at least, as Faulkner's stories can be. Here again is illustrated the close relation of his style to his whole point of view. If Faulkner's sentences sometimes soar and circle involved and prolonged, if his scenes become halls of mirrors repeating tableaux in a progressive magnification, if echoes multiply into the dissonance of infinite overtones, it is because the meanings his stories unfold are complex, mysterious, obscure, and incomplete. There is no absolute, no eternal pure white radiance in such presentations, but rather the stain of many colors, refracted and shifting in kaleidoscopic suspension, about the center of man's enigmatic behavior and fate, within the drastic orbit of mortality. Such being Faulkner's view of life, such is his style.
To this view the very rhythm of Faulkner's prose is nicely adjusted. It is not emphatic; rather it is a slow prolonged movement, nothing dashing, even at its fullest flood, but surging with an irresistible momentum. His effects insofar as they depend on prose rhythms are never staccato; they are cumulative rather than abrupt. Such a prose rhythm supplements the contributions of full vocabulary and lengthy sentence toward suspension rather than impact, and consequently toward deep realization rather than quick surprise. And the prolonged, even murmur of Faulkner's voice throughout his pages is an almost hypnotic induction into those detailed and darkly colored visions of life which drift across the horizons of his imagination like clouds—great yet vaporous, changing yet enduring, unearthly yet of common substance. It might be supposed that his occasionally crowded and circumlocutory style would destroy narrative pace and consequence. Actually this hovering of active imagination, while employing the sustained lyricism and solid abstraction which differentiate Faulkner from the objective realist, furnishes the epitome of drama. The whole aim is at perspective, through the multiple dimensions of experience, upon a subject in that suspension which allows reflection. The accomplishment is the gradual, sustained, and enriched revelation of meaning; in Faulkner's novels drama is of that highest form which awaits the unfolding of composite action, characterization, mood, and idea, through the medium of style. (pp. 62-4)
Faulkner's whole narrative method … may seem to be a retrogression in technique. Two main tendencies in modern fiction have been toward a more and more material dramatic presentation, depending simply upon the naming of objects and acts and the reporting of speech, and on the other hand, toward an ostensibly complete and unbroken reproduction of the free flow of consciousness. These methods have produced books as radically different as The Sun Also Rises and Ulysses, yet they have elements in common. In both types the author attempts to conceal himself completely behind his materials, to give them the quality of integral phenomena, and in line with this purpose the style aims at pure reproduction, never allowing definition and interpretation from any detached point of view. These have been honest attempts, a great deal of fine craftsmanship has gone into them, and some of the products have been excellent in their kind. Yet at their most extreme these have been movements in the one direction toward bareness, impoverishment, and in the other toward incoherence. Confronted by the imperfections and confusions of the present scene, and made hyperskeptical by deference to scientific method, the writers who have attempted absolute objectivity (whether dramatic or psychological, whether in overt event or stream of association) have sometimes produced what looks like an anti-intellectual aesthetic of futility and inconsequence. So in another sense Faulkner's narrative technique, particularly as implemented by his full style, instead of being a retrogression may represent one kind of progression through the danger of impasse created by too great submission to vogues of photographic or psychographic reproduction.
Yet Faulkner's is not altogether a return to an older expressiveness, not a complete departure from the modern schools of Hemingway and Joyce. In his colloquial passages he is quite as objectively dramatic as the one, in his rehearsal of the fantasies of acute consciousness he follows the other—and it should be remembered that he is superlatively skillful at both, so that it cannot be said that he puts these objective methods aside because he cannot use them. Furthermore, Faulkner is fond of employing in extended passages one of the favorite modern means of objectivity in fiction, the first-person narrator, using the device toward its most honored modern purpose, the attainment of detached perspective and the creation of realistic illusion concerning large vistas of the story. In short, there is no method in modern fiction which Faulkner does not comprehend and use on occasion. Fundamentally Faulkner's only heterodoxy by present standards of style is his fullness, especially as it takes the form of descriptive eloquence or abstraction and definitiveness. What is stylistically most remarkable in his work is the synthesis he has effected between the subtleties of modern narrative techniques and the resources of language employed in the traditionally poetic or interpretative vein. That such a synthesis is feasible is demonstrated in the dynamic forms of his novels, and it may be prelude to significant new developments in the methods of fiction. (pp. 64-5)
Warren Beck, "William Faulkner's Style," in American Prefaces (reprinted by permission of Warren Beck), Spring, 1941 (and reprinted in Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Penn Warren, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966, pp. 53-65).
Kenneth G. Johnston
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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.
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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 of language, his essential impulse was to create a prose which would actually embody some of the desirable qualities of primitive forms, thus demonstrating their availability to sophisticated audiences.
In Faulkner's conception, sculpture expressed its respect for reality, not in "clinging" fidelity but aggressive embrace, in shaping, in appropriation. In this sense all the experiments for which The Sound and the Fury (1929) is famous—especially its shocking violation of conventional arrangements of time and space—move toward the sculptural. Having emancipated himself from the traditional obligation to be a faithful observer of his own materials, Faulkner could create a version of Negro speech to transcend the dichotomy in Sartoris between the romantic idea of Negroes' "wordless" unity with nature and the stereotypically "realistic" portrayals of the same people. (This would explain what otherwise appears a startling conversion, during the year 1929 in which the two novels were written, from racism to non-racism.) He had discovered both the creative freedom and the technical means to use a character type as a motif…. (pp. 216-17)
Quentin's section is the most painful to read … because the section was a deliberate experiment in the language of disintegration and alienation. Quentin's thoughts and impressions are presented as a flow amid which he is passive, often lacking the force to shape it even with punctuation. His compulsive meditations on everything from such basic human functions as sex and eating to such abstractions as Time and Honor become a model of death in life…. [Even] Quentin's descriptions of processes in the present often take on a Hemingwayesque linearity and purity of image that in this context, in which one senses the latent powers of Quentin's creator, seem to plod. (pp. 218-19)
From all the languages which together delineate Quentin's mind, the language of certain other characters within this section comes as a relief. A bit of dialog from Shreve—humorous, energetic, imaginative, metaphorical—is the brightest spot in a dozen pages…. Major relief comes in conversations with the Negroes Roskus and Uncle Louis Hatcher, both of whom have speech refreshingly simple, colorful, and pleasantly rhythmic. Quentin, weary, it would seem, of the language of his interior monologue, conducts these conversations almost as interviews, saying only enough to keep the interviewee going…. (p. 219)
Louis's dialect, heavier than Negro speech Faulkner created in later books, does not dehumanize him, as their dialect does the Negroes in Sartoris. On the contrary, Louis's speech is the embodiment of an enviable ease with the self and nature….
The values usually assigned to Benjy are the virtues of his defects: irrationality and passivity. Lacking the human powers possessed by his brothers, he is able, despite his agitations, to live in the world more comfortably and, paradoxically, more humanely than either of them. Yet Benjy's powerlessness and wordlessness are represented in his section by language of considerable poetic power…. Faulkner was able to use the motif of mindlessness as an opportunity to experiment with an alternative to Quentin's tortured language. (p. 220)
The prose of Faulkner … while innovative in the extreme, seems to derive both strength and sustenance not from a nostalgic attachment to historical events but from an historical orientation. To become immersed in that prose is to experience a valuable alternative to the historical identity problem which [many see] as characterizing modern literature and life.
It is also essential to see, however, that Faulkner's fictional method of providing aid and comfort for the alienated (his bourgeois readership, if not that abstraction of the acceptance speech, "man") presents serious problems. If he had a more creative, dialectical, and historical sense than many modern writers about the artist's role in society, his sense of the dialectic of social change was nevertheless defective…. [The] inner logic, even the specific moral virtues of Faulkner's literary method must always have precluded his making an alliance with militants black or white;… his very method of overcoming the split between art and popular life required "complete dependence upon himself." For instance, in "The Bear": the linguistic "prop" is Ike's passionate meditation on Southern history. This speech, implicitly compared with that great chronicle of popular life, the Bible, is thematically linked with Ike's powerless initiation into the wilderness in the hunting sections of the story and thematically opposed to what are seen as the instruments of man's simultaneous willful domination of and alienation from the wilderness: the compass, the railroad, the gun. Ike recounts the past in such a way as to indicate the need and inevitability of future change and even insists on the strength in black people which will enable them to prevail in the end. But the Northern black man who "liberates" Sophonsiba from her place on the Edmonds farm—like most of Faulkner's other agents of social change—is given a fatuously abstract language, like that of an out-of-context Declaration of Independence …, which in the dichotomous value scheme of the novel the reader experiences as roughly aligned with the other unattractive, willful, abstract elements in the work. Faulkner was right, of course, to criticize this man's idealist revolution by fiat (not to speak of his idealistic farming); but he offers—can offer—no active alternative. The political act consistent with Ike's attractive speech—the rather passive repudiation of ownership as an alienating instrument of domination—is itself dramatized as a kind of alienation: from sexuality, from history itself. Despite his passionate will to aesthetic transformation—but because of the specific aesthetic results—Faulkner could not imagine a will to social or political transformation that would make one not a "detached and heatless" outsider to history but rather a warmly involved creator of it.
Faulkner's equation of verbal strength and health with deprivation and powerlessness de-emphasizes the painful reality which in actuality provides the motivation to social change. (Joe Christmas, perhaps Faulkner's closest approach to that reality, is, as many have remarked, an unsatisfactory wordless figure, one of Faulkner's infrequent lapses into primitivist obscurity.) What Marx and other theorists have seen as the goal of social change, namely the achievement of a more harmonious, humane existence, is made the precondition. The result is, that while Faulkner inspires his readers with verbal models, he experiences himself, and one experiences him, as without real allies in the form of creative, transforming energies in the social and political realms. The burden of his progressive outlook falls largely on language alone. In this, despite his historical orientation, he may be thought of as having more in common with such solipsistic singers as Joyce, Henry Miller, Nabokov, or Hawkes than with such realists as Shakespeare, Austen, Balzac, or Steinbeck, for all of whom the act of writing was one of many creative roles within or without established society. (pp. 227-29)
Brent Harold, "The Value and Limitations of Faulkner's Fictional Method," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1975 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), May, 1975, pp. 212-29.
Robert Martin Adams
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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 range themselves in response to various motivations and impulses, but not in accord with an underlying pattern, least of all a mythological one. The book fulfills "normal" narrative expectations by moving in time; its structure involves no sense of the cyclical. In all these ways, therefore, Soldiers' Pay, even as it confirms Faulkner's early acquaintance with Joyce, makes clear that mannerisms and surfaces were what the young Faulkner chiefly imitated. And much the same argument could be made regarding Mosquitoes, which an early reviewer commended, rather condescendingly, on the ground that the writing was occasionally good when it wasn't Joyce. It is a study of ephemerids, with more contempt for its characters and more esthetic lecturing than the author can quite control; and again it is through mannerisms that Joyce's influence makes itself most clearly felt…. But the basic tone of the novel, determined by its character as satiric social comedy, is closer to the youthful Aldous Huxley than to Joyce.
Faulkner's two apprentice novels are very different indeed from one another, but alike in showing clear awareness of Joyce and a set of superficial or fragmentary responses to him. The Sound and the Fury, which shows fewer traces of direct influence or imitation, is in fact much closer to the techniques and structural energies of a Joycean novel. The book makes much more thorough-going and consistent use of stream-of-consciousness techniques than did any of Faulkner's previous novels; those streams are choked and barricaded in more elaborate ways, and more intricately dappled with thematic repetitions. Under its surface, never quite explicit but increasingly felt as the novel progresses, is a mythical parallel (a parodic crucifixion, descent into hell, and resurrection) which can be treated either as a central narrative pattern in itself or, more interestingly, as a shadowy counter-structure to the contemporary fable. The energies of the reader are completely involved in piecing together fragments which, when assembled, tell a bitter tale of futility and circularity. Like Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury is relatively indifferent to the moral note, which is simply a way of saying that good and bad intentions don't count for much in the book's economy. The doom of the Compsons is deeper than any villain can spin out or any savior redeem. (pp. 84-5)
More than anything else, it is the field of centripetal-centrifugal forces in violent self-contained conflict that defines the greatness of The Sound and the Fury; the book could be described as a series of private, defeated furies united in a common doom. Having no use for the trappings of epic, and little interest in mimetic tricks or parodic parallels, Faulkner wrote a far tighter and more economical novel than Ulysses had been…. Quentin Compson, in the complexity of his mental processes and the layered, allusive quality of his mind, is comparable to Stephen Dedalus, but he takes no time out to exercise on the Indian clubs of literary criticism, as in the "Library" scene. His thinking on time is … pointed and functional (fictionally speaking)…. Ulysses had made some play with scrambled or undefined identities or different persons passing under the same name; Faulkner, as a man obsessed with temporal repetition, makes his reader discriminate between two Quentins, two Maurys, and no fewer than three Jason Compsons—yet holds these various confusions strictly subordinate to a passionate historical complexity in his own mind, which doesn't allow or require him to say a word of incidental explanation…. Faulkner has built from the bottom up and the inside out in turning Joycean techniques to his own purposes. He was not only a less informed but also a less formal artist than his great predecessor; certainly in The Sound and the Fury, he worked under a greater head of emotional steam, toward a more shattering, intimate, and personal experience than Joyce in many parts of Ulysses was attempting. Faulkner's masterpiece isn't, therefore, in any sense a Joycean imitation, though it's clearly a book which, without the example of Joyce, would not have taken anything like its present form. When Faulkner said that in writing it he had put the entire question of publishers and publication out of his mind, he meant something more than editors and audiences; a whole set of structural devices and narrative conventions went with them, as he stripped his novel down to the basic themes and the techniques essential to bring them living forth. That so much evidence of Joyce's presence remains is surprising; but it simply confirms that the Joycean influence wasn't for Faulkner either a passive or an adventitious thing; it was built, so to speak, into the structure of his fictional vision, into the way he defined consciousness, into the way he wove a web of past circumstance into a tissue of present action.
For example, Benjy is, beyond all question, the central pivot of The Sound and the Fury, not just because of his nature but because of his positioning. Around him all the other lives in the book revolve, to him the reader is constantly referring back his later experiences in the novel. His mental arrest, though different in all sorts of ways from the deadly stasis in which Stephen Dedalus is frozen during the first three units of Ulysses, functions similarly in the novel. He is the screen through which the reader's mind must penetrate; but, more than that, he is the hopelessly marred materials out of which full humanity must be built—built by the reader…. Benjy's consciousness is in fact less a flowing stream than a crossword, cross-referenced puzzle, a Daedalian maze. Simply by positioning him at the head of the novel, Faulkner converted into instant advantages most of the inherent deficiencies of "stream-of-consciousness" method. But in so doing he imitated, in a way that can't be described as "imitation" simply because its essence is boldness and audacity, the pattern of Joyce's fictional construction. No doubt this is one reason why Faulkner's novel has seemed, like Joyce's, to stand a little apart from other fictions, as involving the reader more radically, to the hazard of his equanimity, in a perilous personal enterprise.
After The Sound and the Fury, traces of Joycean structure and verbal device fade gradually from the work of Faulkner. Indeed, there is a pronounced mythical structure underlying Light in August, and both As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom make sustained use of a monologue which, if not fully interiorized, is at least given a heavy coloring of individual manner. But none of these novels reminds us decisively of Joyce; they are a working—eloquent, funny, impassioned—of indigenous materials that Faulkner needed no specially Joycean techniques to handle. Occasionally in later years, when he tried to draw his artistic calculations very fine, Faulkner fell back on fictional mechanisms as a substitute for the kind of unitary passion he generated in The Sound and the Fury. The solemn machinery of A Fable represents his most notable failure of the sort…. But the greatest of Faulkner's novels is less an example of Joycean influence or even inspiration than of Joyce's liberating effect on an indigenous and independent inspiration. Even apart from the masterpiece that resulted, it is one of the most interesting examples in literature of influence accepted and converted into the direct opposite of itself. Thus it became a substantial influence in its own right…. (pp. 86-8)
Robert Martin Adams, in his AfterJoyce: Studies in Fiction After "Ulysses" (copyright © 1977 by Robert Martin Adams; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press. Inc.), Oxford University Press, New York, 1977.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5971
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….
[Whenever] in his later years—when he was inclined to be more expansive on such matters—Faulkner was asked to talk about his home and his relationship to it, those two words, "loving" and "hating," came up almost inevitably, closely linked together. (p. 201)
With Sartoris … began the chronicles of Yoknapatawpha County. They did not, of course, spring full grown from Faulkner's head: he built them up slowly, adding a character here or altering a detail there, so that they have a repetitive, incremental pattern rather than a strictly chronological or logically consistent one. We need not infer from this, though, that (as some critics have argued) Faulkner was ever unaware of what he was doing in principle. Far from it, his aims—if not their detailed consequences—were, I believe, quite clear to him from the first; he was trying, as he knew, to create a microcosm of history. By this I mean he was attempting … to capture the essence of his region, its story compounded of legend and fact and the nature of his own involvement with it. Certainly, he may have kept returning to the same episodes while he was writing the series, often changing his interpretation of them as he did so. But this, instead of working against his general aims, actually helped him to fulfill them: because he was thereby adopting the classic procedure of the kind of historian he wanted to be—which is that of continually reenacting and recomposing the past. One reason why the story of Yoknapatawpha is such a convincing imitation of the story of the South, in other words, is precisely this, that it does not have a predetermined, linear pattern. Thanks to Faulkner's habit of writing and revising it over a number of years, it is founded—much more clearly than the work of any other Southern writer—on a dialectic between today and yesterday, a sustained engagement of event with memory. (pp. 205-06)
[There] is still a fairly common tendency, among both professional critics and readers in general, to associate Faulkner with the aristocratic strain in Southern thought; and to assume that the part of his fiction that deals with old Southern families and decaying mansions more or less accounts for the whole. Very often, if we were simply to read discussions of Faulkner's work rather than the work itself, we would be left with the impression that his real interest lies with the privileged, the powerful, or those once powerful who have fallen on hard times, and that he is concerned with the lives of the poorer inhabitants of his region only in so far as they are relevant to this.
No impression could, I think, be more misleading. To accept such an interpretation of Faulkner's work it is necessary to ignore a good half of it, and to forget that the barriers that Yoknapatawpha society erects between the privileged and the dispossessed are fairly easily surmountable. There is an extraordinary richness and fluidity about Faulkner's portrait of his environment, even on the simple journalistic level of reporting what he has seen, and that necessarily means an avoidance of the kind of mythologizing that would identify the Sartoris family with tradition first and last, or their homeplace with the entire South. Existing alongside the plantation order the Sartorises represent, sometimes mingling with it but always retaining its separate identity, is another world altogether that has nothing at all to do with vast cotton fields, slaves, or bold cavalry charges against the Yankees…. [He also presents] the domain of the small, and usually poor, farmer, with its own dangers and its own sort of heroism—the sort, perhaps we could say, that stubbornly confronts the ordinary instead of attempting to transcend it. Clearly, it lacks the glamour of the old plantation, but, for all that, it—and the values it embodies, the way of life it consecrates—forms as honorable a part of the Southern tradition as the planter's world does. (pp. 210-11)
Faulkner's special achievement, I think, was that … his version of the farming community and the Jeffersonian myth was based on a full acknowledgement of their latent contradictions rather than the more usual, and more convenient, attempt to neglect them. Certainly there are people in his work … [who] have the same courage and capacity for endurance that those earlier heroes have, and possibly the same general ability to set will above circumstance. But just as many of his characters must remind us of [early] peasant grotesques; even more to the point, there are a few here and there who manage to seem victorious and defeated, heroic and comic, at one and the same time. (p. 211)
Even in his most idealized form, which is rare in the Yoknapatawpha series, Faulkner's yeoman is quite unlike his previous avatars because he is neither as uncomplicated nor as insubstantial as they normally are…. What saves [Faulkner from sentimentalism or strained heroics] is his respect for the hard edges of the real—his recognition, among other things, of the commonplace, grim details of his characters' lives. (pp. 211-12)
He uses folk humor, not merely to criticize and place, but to celebrate. What he is after besides historical analysis is some sense of involvement in peasant life—its raw energy and the excitement that can occasionally spill over into violence—and for this his models are the people at the beginning of the humorist tradition rather than those at the end, whose undeclared purpose it was to honor the gusty pleasures of the life they described. They include … anonymous balladeers and amateur story tellers…. (p. 213)
Faulkner deals with [a favorite folk-theme of Southwestern humorists,] the horse-swapping theme, in … The Hamlet, the first part of the Snopes trilogy and the one most deeply involved in peasant life…. [The] bare bones of the story [involve] the familiar idea of the trickster being hoist on his own petard. But what gives these bones life and flesh … is Faulkner's choice of narrator. V. K. Ratliff, the itinerant salesman who acts as unofficial reporter and historian to the poor folk of the county, tells us everything that happened. And his voice, which is that of a man speaking to and about friends, colors the entire incident…. This, really, is the edge Faulkner has over most of his predecessors here, the other writers who have used the trickster theme. Ratliff, the story teller, is telling us about his own people, with whom he shares a certain idiom and a distinct system of values…. Just by speaking he reminds us of the folk community, invokes its traditions. And by speaking to us, by drawing us into the special world of his language, he seems to be asking us to become part of that community for a moment. (pp. 215-16)
Again, [in the famous episode of the "spotted horses,"] it is Faulkner's use of language that determines how we respond to these events. Its energy is a verbal equivalent for the energy of peasant life, its raw violence and color such that we are reminded possibly of the paintings of Brueghel…. [The] basic story is told to us by a voice that bears the accents of Frenchman's Bend but remains unassigned. It is the voice, in fact, of the community; the tale of the Texas ponies is part of the common history, the collective memory of the folk, and it is as such that we hear about it.
Put like that it may sound as if we are told everything in a strictly impersonal way, as in a ballad. That is not the case, though, and the reason for this is that Faulkner, as he goes along, manages to add other and quite different inflections of speech or dimensions of commentary to his story. At the very beginning of the tale, for instance, he places us firmly within the ambiance of Frenchman's Bend by a very simple device: turning from the anonymous narrator for a moment he allows the conversation and comment of a few bystanders to establish a perspective on Flem Snopes's arrival. The result is rather like those moments in Hardy when we are asked to stand back with the locals—people who have never left Wessex and are never likely to—to witness the appearance of an invader; necessarily, we are drawn closer to them, because we share in their reactions and their sense of distance from the man they describe…. The comments pass back and forth, question and answer, statement and response, and slowly a portrait is built up—an intimate portrait, seen from the inside, of that community which is equally the admiring witness and the amazed victim of the horse trade. Some of this intimacy then in turn carries over into those moments when the individual vantage point is lost and we are returned to the anonymous narrator…. A sense of communion is sustained because the voice, or at least the perspective it establishes, does not necessarily change even when its source does.
Communion there may be, but it is never quite perfect; the feelings of intimacy aroused by the story are always less than complete. Why? Because, really,… Faulkner's intention is not to reject all sense of difference between us and his folk characters, but to make us respond with them even while we are aware of our separateness from them. We must, he feels, know them for their relevance as cases—representative types of the rural life, and the traditions it fosters—quite as much as for their close connections with ourselves; and his way of ensuring that we do this is to use language occasionally to draw us back from the scene. Every now and then another idiom will be employed, quite different from the ones I have mentioned, more elegant and self-consciously sophisticated, which establishes our status as spectators as effectively as a camera moving away from close-up into long shot…. We can share in the humor of the folk, Faulkner implies, and consequently learn something about their traditions, but we cannot dissolve our identities, our experience and language, into theirs. Not only cannot but should not, since in order to know these people thoroughly we must apparently stand apart from them sometimes; we must participate in their history and also step aside from it occasionally so as to take a larger, more inclusive view. That seems to be the belief implicit in Faulkner's handling of the horse-swapping episodes in The Hamlet, and his excursions into folk comedy in general; and it is perhaps one of the reasons for their unique character and success.
The trouble with trying to define anything in Faulkner's novels is that sooner or later the definitions begin to break down under the pressure of the accumulating evidence; for all their apparent accuracy, they have to be qualified as soon as they are invoked. The moment, for example, that we really try to explain what Faulkner wants us to feel about his folk characters, the sort of response he is hoping to elicit, we find that conventional classifications are far too restrictive and we are forced to use apparently self-contradictory phrases like "sympathetic detachment."… No distinction can hold still for very long after it is applied to the world of Yoknapatawpha, and this for the simple reason that Faulkner's work seems to depend for much of its excitement on the actual engagement between the closed world of definitions and the open spaces of raw experience. Any category he uses (and which, subsequently, we may use to understand his work) serves him only in a provisional way; once adopted it is continually being modified or subverted—changed, in fact, by the mass of conflicting particulars that Faulkner feeds into it. To some extent, this could provide us with an explanation for Faulkner's special use of language—that is, if we accept the fairly commonplace notion that language contains within it its own implicit values and categories, a certain way of structuring the world. Faulkner, we could say, stretches words and syntax to the limits for the same reason he stretches categories: so as to squeeze new meanings out of the conflict between the rules and the occasions which those rules are meant to (but do not quite) circumscribe…. [This] general principle of Faulkner's—of never letting anything stay undisturbed by its contrary—applies as much to his use of the comic and heroic versions of the folk character as it does to anything else…. [The] low note of peasant comedy and the higher note clearly echoing Jefferson … is there usually just as every received element in his work is there: to be quickened into life by contact with individual experience—and to acquire form and strength … from the counterthrust of its opposite. (pp. 218-19)
Faulkner himself has described this ability of his better, more memorably, than anybody else can. "There's not too fine a distinction between humor and tragedy," he said once in one of his talks at the University of Virginia, "even tragedy is in a way walking a tightrope between the ridiculous—between the bizarre and the terrible." With very little alteration those words could, I think, be used to describe the kind of tension I have been talking about here: "walking a tightrope," achieving a balance between different perspectives, is precisely what Faulkner is doing…. They also bring us back, though, to another problem altogether—since clearly they have a larger frame of reference than just the people of Frenchman's Bend—which is, the relevance of all this to Faulkner's general criticism of experience. What does his treatment of the folk tradition have to do with that? How do his versions of the poor farmer fit into the total imaginative structure of his work—if, really, they can be said to fit in at all? Obviously, to ask this question is to move beyond consideration of any local, intrinsic interest Faulkner's portrait of the South may possess and to start thinking about its representativeness, the use of Yoknapatawpha society as a model for the study of social and historical relationships in general. To use Allen Tate's valuable distinction, it is to pass from the provincial context to the regional….
The book that, I think, could act best as a paradigm here is As I Lay Dying. One of Faulkner's four or five finest novels, it is almost entirely concerned with the Bundrens, a family of poor whites, and the journey they take to Jefferson where they have promised their mother Addie Bundren she will be buried. (p. 221)
As a supreme example of the artist who communicates before he can be understood, Faulkner does not "think" in the sense of having certain ideas, which he then sets about putting into words—that is, in his best work he does not. On the contrary, such ideas as his novels may contain are a product of the words themselves—a specific imaginative language that attacks, and at the very least drastically reworks, established concepts…. Faulkner's meaning is discovered in [his] style…. Are the Bundrens fools, most people ask when they try to "think about" or explain As I Lay Dying, or are they heroes struggling (as Faulkner once put it) "against God in a way"? The proper reply to this … is that the question itself is misconceived because it presupposes an either/or situation where none exists. The Bundrens are fools and heroes, and any inquiry which is so phrased as to ignore this paradox begins on the wrong foot immediately…. The journey that forms the spine of As I Lay Dying is a trial, among other things, a way of testing strength and endurance; and the qualities the different members of the family reveal during the course of it seem intended to invite our respect along with our laughter. (pp. 222-23)
[Another] characteristic strategy of Faulkner's that is exploited to the full in the story [is] … the device of the multiple narrator…. The Bundrens are presented to us in a variety of mirrors, as it were, which are meant to encompass them and to reflect eventually the "truth" about them. Voices join to tell us about their lives, to agree, to present evidence, or just to argue. No one voice can be regarded as authoritative but equally no voice can be discounted either; consequently, during the course of the debate, each member of the Bundren family tends to assume a multidimensional personality. He or she becomes as rich, edgy, as protean, and occasionally as baffling as somebody we might know from our own intimate experience. (pp. 223-24)
The entire structure of As I Lay Dying is dialectical, involving a continual and fructifying movement between inner world and outer…. (p. 225)
I doubt if it is possible to exaggerate the importance of … the almost dreamlike way in which the reader is tumbled down into deeper and deeper levels of a character's mind. Just when we think we have a clear picture of somebody like Dewey Dell, and can place her as an attractive, emotionally generous, but rather simple-minded farm girl, our assumptions are suddenly undermined—our snobbish detachment shown up for what it is—by the revelation of her inner fears and misgivings. We move in beneath the equable surfaces of her behavior to something else, a terror or sense of disaster by no means simple or simple-minded, that can only be expressed in the sort of language that lies completely beyond her personal reach…. In case we should now begin to feel secure, when Dewey Dell's conscious fears have been expressed, Faulkner will occasionally offer us a further jolt. Without any warning, he will take an abrupt step down beyond this toward a more incantatory and imagistic level of expression that is meant, clearly, to recover Dewey's subconscious for us—the secret, subliminal impulses that help make her what she is or prompt her to do what she does…. Just as certain aspects of Dewey Dell lie beyond the reach of her own words or the words of her companions so, we must suspect, the full scope of her character developing and changing in time is something that no language can properly contain.
If this sounds at all plausible as a way of explaining the effect Faulkner's narrative technique has on us it is, I think, because the gap between language and experience I am talking about now is something to which the entire novel testifies—in its plot, its assignment of motives, even its stated "message." Really, what words are adequate to explain Anse Bundren's reasons for traveling to Jefferson? How, if and when we try, can we describe his motives for doing what he does when he gets there? Of course, he goes to Jefferson to honor a promise he made to Addie when she was dying, but he also goes there to buy a new set of false teeth and, with the help of his improved appearance, to acquire a second wife…. [Obviously] one of the classic strategies of comedy, which involves raising expectations only to reverse them, often dictates the movement of the book. It is as though the writer were trying actively to lure us into a particular opinion, a certain way of looking at his characters and their behavior, so that the lesson he is bent on giving us can then be carried to us on the backs of our own shattered preconceptions. We learn, partly, by being taught a system and being told afterwards how constricted that system is…. One vocabulary is suddenly discarded for another one quite different, and then, almost as soon as we have come to accept that as accurate, it too is discarded in favor of something else. (pp. 226-27)
Faulkner's style … exists, as one of his critics has put it, at the extreme "edge of order"—exposing the inadequacies of language and grammar by pushing both to their limits…. [Words] are the ultimate category in As I Lay Dying, the prime example of the human need to classify experience. One passage in the novel, in particular, emphasizes this point: it is given to Addie Bundren, the mother, when she is already dead…. Issuing as it does from a coffin out of the mouth of a corpse, what she says here seems to have an oracular weight and authority to it—which is appropriate, really, since this is the closest Faulkner ever dares come to stating the "message" of his book.
… I learned that words are no good, that words don't ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he [Cash] was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn't care whether there was a word for it or not…. I would think how words go up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it….
There could hardly ever have been a more devastating assault on the harmful effects of language, the way in which it can castrate the personality and reduce experience to a series of rules. We talk, Addie suggests, and as we do so more than likely we impoverish and distort what we are talking about. (pp. 227-28)
As I understand it, neither the author nor his characters is dismissing categories entirely, although admittedly they come pretty near to it. Rather their intention, as expressed in the sum total of their actions, is to make categories as open and provisional as they can; "words" and "doing" are not seen as warring interests really, but as the two sides of a mutually profitable partnership, involved in a process of exchange that must last as long as the possibility of an absolute explanation or terminal vocabulary is excluded—in other words, indefinitely. A continuing transvaluation of values of every kind: that I think is what As I Lay Dying is arguing for, with the main emphasis resting on the idea of continuance. And this in turn would explain why the book itself does not seem to finish but merely stops short with the arrival of a new character, the second Mrs. Bundren, trailing a fresh set of possibilities in her wake—because its procedures are meant to be a demonstration of its "message," right down to the very last incident described on the last page. The best books, Faulkner appears to be saying, are like the best men: they do not stay still, ever. Living in a state of constant interchange between categories and raw experience, they must always be on the move, altering by leaving themselves open to strange influences and fresh conditions. Look, he seems to add with a touch of characteristically well-placed arrogance, here is an example of the sort of thing I mean—right here in the book I have just written. (pp. 228-29)
[Faulkner offers] the actual processes of his traditionalism, the way in which he involves the notions of the past with the exigencies of the present, as a design for living. As I have tried to explain, the "words" that Addie Bundren criticises so vehemently in As I Lay Dying are used essentially as a synecdoche. They refer us to all the forms, linguistic, moral, and social, which the human intelligence devises for dealing with experience. Behind her monologue lies the belief that there are certain intricate patterns implicit in everything ordained by a particular culture, including its language, which tend to systematize and inhibit its members' thoughts…. [Far] from inventing these patterns, Addie suggests, the individual may hardly be aware of their existence. They are inherited, imposed on him perhaps without his conscious knowledge, and since they are largely cultural (rather than biological) they can be included, most of them, under the familiar heading of tradition. This brings us back to Faulkner. With Addie's help he argues for a dialectic, a marriage between these "words" and "doing" so that the individual can reap the benefits of his culture without becoming completely enculturated. And it does not take a very great deal of effort…. [This] is exactly the sort of contact with tradition on which his own work is based…. The medium is the message in more than one sense in Faulkner's best novels, and this because his own relationship to his past (that is—it is worth repeating it—the relationship to inherited forms which makes such novels possible) supplies him with a sort of blueprint, an original basis of judgment. I do not want to make too much of this at the expense of some of Faulkner's other achievements: it should never lead us to forget, for instance, about the sheer historical accuracy of his renderings of folk dialect or the close acquaintance he reveals with the smallest details of country life. But it is still, I think, decisive evidence of the scope and weight of his attachment to his region: that, when all the accounts are in, he can actually use his own "Southern-ness" as a means of assessment. He can make something out of being born in a specific time and place, with a particular set of beliefs and practices to hand; and then afterwards, not content to stop there, he can make something out of this, the nature of his own encounters with the South, as well. (pp. 230-31)
[For] all the fluidity and social mobility of Faulkner's imaginary world and the overall consistency of his techniques, there is a clear distinction to be made between his portraits of farm and plantation. His farm people may fall under the sway of the past, but they rarely succumb completely, and never for very long. Their lives are basically situated in the here and now; and, if there is one thing nearly all of them have in common, it is a firm commitment to activity, sustained purposeful movement…. By contrast Faulkner's plantation folk seem pretty goalless and stationary: fixed quite literally in the past like Bayard Sartoris I or fixated by the past like his great-grandnephew, they have about as few significant connections with the South of the interwar years as they possibly could have. One reason for this difference, I believe, is that Faulkner, like many writers involved in the Southern "renaissance," must have recognized just how anachronistic the strictly practical or programmatic side of the aristocratic ideal had become. (pp. 235-36)
[For] whatever reason or reasons the plantation dream is firmly associated with the past in Faulkner's novels; which of course raises real problems for those—like Bayard Sartoris III or his grandfather "Colonel" Bayard Sartoris II—who live in the present. [They are drawn] back continually toward something that, like a half-remembered incident, at once obsesses them and eludes them…. Their lives become a sort of dialogue with specters, conducted in a language they hardly know. (pp. 236-37)
Gradually we are coming to something quite central to Faulkner's work, which grows directly out of his preoccupation with the plantation myth and gives it a wider relevance and impact. I mean by this the interest he shares with so many other writers of the Southern "renaissance" in the idea of history, the precise nature of the relationship obtaining between past, present, and future…. [It] is, I believe, his treatment of the planter families of Yoknapatawpha County that gives it a peculiar relevance and urgency. For people like Bayard Sartoris III and Quentin Compson the past is such a constant, nagging presence that the question of how to cope with it becomes their main preoccupation; so Faulkner can and, in a sense, must deal directly with the entire subject of the historical dimension whenever he describes them. The problems of time and identity are basic to their lives; and thanks to this they can be treated on one level rather like traditional hero figures, confronting dragons or meeting a challenge that (admittedly, in a much less obvious way) all of us must face. (p. 237)
Unlike The Sound and the Fury or Light in August, Absalom, Absalom! has never been supplied with a satisfactory "key": something that, while not explaining all of its labyrinthine complexities, might at least offer the reader a convenient means of entry into them. The title of the novel is a case in point here. Most of the titles Faulkner gives to his books contain a clue to the larger meaning of the action, whatever personal associations they may contain besides, and to this rule Absalom, Absalom! forms no exception. Critics have admitted as much, but they seem unwilling to follow the admission with any close analysis; beyond saying that there is probably a reference intended to the Biblical account of King David…. It is difficult to determine how far [Faulkner] would wish the reader to take the more detailed parallels between the stories of David and Sutpen: their common preoccupation with the crimes of incest and fratricide, for example, or the sense in which both describe an outsider rising to high station among men. But such difficulties hardly matter, I think, since what is far more important is the feeling of historical recurrence—the sense of the past repeating itself—which the broad rhythm of analogy between the two situations is intended to evoke. For central to Absalom, Absalom! is its examination of both this recurrence and, more generally, the tangled web of coinciding and conflicting forces that we call history. The book is,… like Sartoris and nearly all Faulkner's other ventures into the plantation tradition, a study of the meaning of history; and that is why events and experiences in it are so interrelated that each dimension of time seems to impinge physically on the other two, and each person appears transformed into "an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names" that he must try to understand if he ever wants to understand himself. The past, the present, and the future are interwoven and every incident [is] rendered, re-interpreted, and then rendered again…. [History] is a continuum out of which the individual person emerges and to which he eventually belongs. A series of intricate and unbreakable "strings" bind him to all other people before and after him, whom he influences and by whom in turn he is influenced…. [Any] particular experience, the moment when Thomas Sutpen knocks at a door, for example, may be of enormous bearing subsequently, however trivial it may appear at the time; and it means too that the past may so shape the present or the present the past as to make the one a mirror image of the other.
Like Robert Penn Warren, Faulkner sees man as a kind of spider entangled in the very web of historical circumstance he has helped to create…. The point, as Faulkner makes it, is that any perspective must be [inadequate] that does not take cognizance of this extraordinary interrelatedness, and consequent complicatedness, of men and events. The burden of Absalom, Absalom!, in other words, is not merely to tell us what history is, but to instruct us also in the way that we, the products and producers of history, should behave.
The importance of history, and its bearing on human behavior, are presented in their clearest and most consecutive form in the biography of Thomas Sutpen—insofar, that is, as there is any incontrovertible thread of facts in his case that can be said to emerge from the welter of countercommentary…. Sutpen [seems] to be innocent in the sense that the tragic hero often is, in that he adopts a particular purpose or "design" and then tries to fulfill it without reference to circumstances and other people. He has little capacity for compromise and no especial interest in it, either. (pp. 238-40)
[It] is almost impossible to separate the meaning of the story from its medium of communication, the various narrative and linguistic frames within which it is set. What is said in the history of Thomas Sutpen, in short, is more or less determined by how it is said; the different perspectives offered by the narrators furnish a means of definition and ultimately the standard of judgment also…. [All] those perspectives when taken together, as part of the composite effect of the novel, offer an approach to that sense of the complex simultaneity of every moment—and consequent interrelatedness of human beings—that Faulkner takes to be the prerequisite of the accomplished artist and the properly developed man. The historians may not know the truth as individuals, in other words, but their very contradictoriness pushes the reader toward some awareness of that truth, the multifaceted character of historical experience. (p. 243)
[Within] the "postage stamp" world of Absalom, Absalom!, as we have seen, the past [lives] in the present, reflecting it and being reflected by it, and time [becomes] a pattern of dependencies. The private and public levels of experience, also, are interrelated, affecting and to some extent even imitating one another. And experience itself within this psychic continuum is rendered in all its variability, its capacity for change and surprise: Faulkner's use of several, very different narrators and his kaleidoscopic prose style are alone enough to ensure that. The impetus created by the entire fictional technique in effect pushes the reader toward an awareness of the reality that the characters have evaded, and some consequent understanding of the function of history—which function, as [Faulkner] conceives of it, is to stimulate the growth of the consciousness by enlarging and complicating everything with which that consciousness must deal. History, it emerges even as we read Absalom, Absalom!, is an energy latent within us rather than a burden that, like Aeneas, we must carry on our backs. (p. 253)
Faulkner wanted to embrace the contradictions latent in his background without forfeiting coherence, to describe the mansion and the country store and his own ambivalent feelings about them in one great variegated portrait; and his stories, or more accurately his gradual invention of Yoknapatawpha County for those stories, was his means of achieving this. By developing Yoknapatawpha as a medium he could see the South clearly and yet in extraordinary detail because Yoknapatawpha was, as he liked to put it, an apocryphal county. It was described in the novels and tales but somehow existed separate from them; it was a fiction located, as it were, behind the fictions Faulkner wrote and published—and as such it enabled him to investigate the different aspects of Southern life, to keep them at an aesthetic distance, and to metamorphose them into parts of a larger plan…. As a place eventually existing complete in the author's mind it stands behind almost everything he says—something greater than the sum of his perceptions, which is nevertheless there buttressing them, giving them a substance and congruence they would not otherwise possess…. He comes as close as anybody does, and closer than most, to seeing his region steadily and seeing it whole. (pp. 254-55)
Richard Gray, "The Individual Talent: William Faulkner and the Yoknapatawpha Novels," in his The Literature of Memory: Modern Writers of the American South (copyright © 1977 by Richard Gray), Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977, pp. 197-256.