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Faulkner, William 1897–1962
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. See also William Faulkner Criticisim (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 8, 9, 11, 18.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4028
My sense of the relationship between Faulkner, Freud, and Nietzsche is that they were writers who addressed themselves to many of the same questions, and that at numerous point their works form imaginative analogues to one another. (pp. 2-3)
It is precisely because I understand Faulkner, Freud, and Nietzsche to be related specifically as writers that I treat the works of all three as literary texts whose implications are ultimately philosophical. (p. 3)
The figure of Quentin Compson—the narrator locked in an incestuous, suicidal struggle with his dark twin, the story—is the shadow that falls in one form or another across the works of most postwar American novelists; it is a presence, a pervasive influence that the novelist who aspires to major status must come to terms with. (p. 20)
Of the many levels of meaning in [Absalom, Absalom!], the deepest level is to be found in the symbolic identification of incest and miscegenation and in the relationship of this symbolic identification both to Quentin Compson's personal history in The Sound and the Fury and to the story that Quentin narrates in Absalom; Absalom! (pp. 25-6)
One reason that the voices of the different narrators sound so much alike is that we hear those voices filtered through the mind of a single listener: Quentin's consciousness is the fixed point of view from which the reader overhears the various narrators, Quentin included. Since Quentin is the principal narrative consciousness in Absalom, and since the story of the Sutpens contains numerous gaps that must be filled by conjecture on the part of the narrators, it is not surprising that the narrative bears a striking resemblance to Quentin's own personal history and that of his family…. This is not to imply that the factual similarities between the stories of the Sutpen and Compson families are a product of Quentin's imagination, but to point out that, given these similarities of fact, Quentin as creative narrator could easily presume similarity of motivation. It is a mutual process in which what Quentin knows of the motivations in his own family life illuminates the story of the Sutpens and, in turn, the events in the Sutpens' story help Quentin to understand his own experiences. (pp. 26-7)
Faulkner did not need to make Quentin Compson a narrator of Absalom, nor did he need to involve the Compson family in the story of the Sutpens. The fact that he did both indicates that what we know of Quentin Compson and his family from The Sound and the Fury is somehow material to the meaning of Sutpen's story…. [For] Quentin the objectification of subjective contents is an effort to give a personal obsession a more than personal significance.
To what extent, then, does the story that Quentin tells in Absalom resemble his own life story in The Sound and the Fury? We noted first of all that Quentin's failure to kill Candace's seducer and thus fulfill the role of protective brother has its reverse image in Henry's murder of Bon to safeguard the honor of their sister. Also, Quentin's incestuous love for Candace is mirrored by Bon's love for Judith. That Quentin identifies with both Henry, the brother as protector, and Bon, the brother as seducer, is not extraordinary, for in Quentin's narrative they are not so much two separate figures as two aspects of the same figure. Quentin projects onto the characters of Bon and Henry opposing elements in his own personality…. This separation of the unacceptable elements from the acceptable elements in the self, this splitting of Quentin's personality into a bad half and a good half, with the subsequent tormenting of the good half by the bad and the punishment of the bad half by the good, involves a kind of narrative bipolarity typical of both compulsion neurosis and schizophrenia. The split is the result of the self's inability to handle ambivalence, in this case, Quentin's failure to reconcile his simultaneous attraction to and repulsion by the incestuous desire for his sister. The solution is primitive and effective: one simply splits the good-bad self into two separate people…. If at points during the narrative Quentin divides his personality between the characters of Bon and Henry, at other points Henry and Bon merge into one figure by exchanging roles. (pp. 27-9)
Clearly, the relationship between Henry and Bon is a form of doubling: the hero-worshiping Henry imitates Bon's manners, speech, and dress, while Bon … looks at Henry and thinks "not there but for the intervening leaven of that blood which we do not have in common is my skull, my brow, sockets, shape and angle of jaw and chin and some of my thinking behind it, and which he could see in my face in his turn if he but knew to look as I know but there, just behind a little, obscured a little by that alien blood whose admixing was necessary in order that he exist is the face of the man who shaped us both out of that blind chancy darkness which we call the future; there—there—at any moment, second, I shall penetrate by something of will and intensity and dreadful need, and strip that alien leavening from it and look not on my brother's face whom I did not know I possessed and hence never missed, but my father's, out of the shadow of whose absence my spirit's posthumeity has never escaped."… (pp. 29-30)
In the doubling between Bon and Henry, Bon plays the role of the shadow—the dark self that is made to bear the consciously unacceptable desires repudiated by the bright half of the mind. Throughout the novel, Bon is identified with the image of the shadow. (p. 30)
As Otto Rank has pointed out in his classic study of doubling [The Double], the brother and the shadow are two of the most common forms that the figure of the double assumes. Rank locates the origin of doubling in narcissism, specifically in that guilt which the narcissistic ego feels at "the distance between the ego-ideal and the attained reality."… Rank points out that in myth and literature the appearance of the double is often a harbinger of death and that just as often the ego attempts to protect itself by killing the double, only to find that this is "really a suicidal act."… It is in the mechanism of narcissistic self-love that Rank finds the explanation for that "denouement of madness, almost regularly leading to suicide, which is so frequently linked with pursuit by the double …"…. (pp. 33-4)
Both the narcissistic origin of doubling and the scenario of madness leading to the suicidal murder of the double help to illuminate the internal narrative of Quentin Compson's last day given in The Sound and the Fury and in turn to illuminate the story he tells in Absalom…. [It] is only when we see in the murder of Bon by Henry what Quentin saw in it—that Quentin's own situation appears to be a repetition of the earlier story—that we begin to understand the reason for Quentin's suicide. And this whole repetitive structure is made even more problematic by the fact that the explanation which Quentin gives for Bon's murder (that Bon is black, i.e., the shadow self) may well be simply the return of the repressed—simply an unconscious projection of Quentin's own psychic history. (p. 35)
Like Narcissus, Quentin drowns himself, and the internal narrative of his last day, clearly the narrative of someone who has gone insane, is dominated by Quentin's obsessive attempts to escape from his shadow, to "trick his shadow," as he says. (pp. 35-6)
Quentin's narcissism is necessarily linked with his incestuous desire for his sister, for as Otto Rank points out, brother-sister incest is a substitute for child-parent incest—what the brother seeks in his sister is his mother…. Quentin's drowning of his shadow, then, is not only the punishment, upon his own person, of the brother seducer by the brother avenger, it is as well the union of the brother seducer with the sister, the union of Quentin's shadow with his mirror image in the water, the mirror image of himself that evokes his sister lying on her back in the stream. The punishment of the brother seducer by the brother avenger is death, but the union of the brother seducer and the sister is also death, for the attempt to merge the shadow and the mirror image results in the total immersion of both in the water on which they are reflected, the immersion of the masculine ego consciousness in the waters of its birth, in the womb of the feminine unconscious from which it was originally differentiated. By drowning his shadow, Quentin is able simultaneously to satisfy his incestuous desire and to punish it, and … it is precisely this simultaneous satisfaction and punishment of a repressed desire that is at the core of doubling. For Quentin, the incestuous union and the punishment of that union upon his own person can be accomplished by a single act because both the union and its punishment are a liebestod, a dying of the ego into the other. (pp. 43-4)
Quentin's incestuous desire for his sister and the disabling fear of castration that she embodies for him have made Quentin in effect Candace's eunuch—impotent with his sister and yet obsessed with preventing her from making love to other men…. Quentin's brother Benjy is in certain respects a double of Quentin—in his arrested, infantile state, in his obsessive attachment to Candace, in his efforts to keep Candace from becoming involved with anyone outside the family, Benjy is a copy of Quentin, and when their brother Jason has Benjy gelded for attempting to molest a little girl, Benjy's physical condition doubles Quentin's psychological impotence, acting out the fate of the brother seducer at the hands of the brother avenger. Jason is, of course, named after his and Quentin's father. (pp. 51-2)
As Quentin's suicide is associated in his mind with the image of the general resurrection, so the dating of the other sections in the novel associates Quentin's death with Christ's death and resurrection, establishing for Quentin's suicidal murder of the brother seducer by the father-surrogate a religious context in which the archetypal son sacrifices his life to appease the anger of the archetypal father. (pp. 52-3)
[The] sense of a cyclic repetition within whose grip individual free will is helpless presents itself in Faulkner's novels as the image of the fate or doom that lies upon a family. Certainly, it would be difficult to think of two words used more often in The Sound and the Fury and Absalom than "fate" and "doom." (p. 60)
[The] feeling that an ancestor's actions can determine the actions of his descendants for generations to come by compelling them periodically to repeat his deeds is the form that the fate or doom of a family takes in Faulkner. Often in his novels the actions of a grandparent preempt the life of a grandchild. One thinks immediately of Light in August …, where the three principal characters … have had their destinies determined by the lives of their grandfathers. (p. 61)
Rank notes that for primitive man the earliest image of the immortal self was his shadow—the shadow which departs with the death of the grandfather but returns with the birth of the grandson. It would seem, then, that in the reversal fantasy we have the archetypal form of the temporal aspect of doubling. (p. 66)
[The crux] of Quentin's problem is repetition, the temporal form of doubling, for it is those inevitable repetitions inherent in the cyclic nature of time that seem to rob the individual will of all potency. Yet it is not just repetition that is involved here, it is recollection as well—the awareness of repetition…. (p. 69)
Surely, there can be no question that Quentin reconstructs the story of Bon, Henry, and Judith in light of his own experiences with Candace and Dalton Ames…. Quentin's recollection or reconstruction of the events in the story of the Sutpens turns out to be a reincorporation or reliving of [earlier] events. (p. 74)
[The] most striking example of the way in which Quentin's narrative act becomes a reincorporation of the lives of the people in that narrative is to be found in Quentin and Shreve's identification with Henry and Bon. Indeed, that identification becomes so complete that Quentin and Shreve supply the missing information in the story with the authority of participants and not simply narrators…. [The] interchangeability of the persons with whom [Quentin and Shreve] identify springs from the interchangeability of the roles of brother seducer and brother avenger, for in Quentin's case they are, of course, simply two aspects of a single personality. Since the relationship between the brother avenger and the brother seducer is a substitute for the father-son relationship in the Oedipal triangle, it is not surprising that when Quentin and Shreve identify with Henry and Bon, the narration turns into a father-son dialogue…. This basic interchangeability of the roles of father and son is present in both the reversal fantasy and the incest complex, and it is internalized in the father-son relationship of the roles of the superego and the ego within the self. (pp. 76-7)
[The] latent homoerotic content in the story of Bon and Henry may well be simply a projection of Quentin's own state made in the act of narration. (p. 78)
What Quentin must face … is that in terms of the content of an event no actual repetition in time is possible…. It can only be the internal compulsion to repeat, that compulsion to repeat which is rooted in the unconscious and thus operates without or in spite of the conscious will, that compulsion to repeat which … is always frustrated, a frustration that is experienced by the conscious mind, paradoxically, as a failure of will. (p. 80)
[There] is a clear connection between the repetition compulsion and doubling, a connection which Freud discusses at length in his essay on the uncanny. He points out that doubling is one of those structures that commonly evoke the feeling of the uncanny…. (p. 82)
[According to Freud] it is not every repetition that evokes the feeling of the uncanny, it is only certain events whose repetition reminds us of that inner compulsion to repeat, and the specific character of those events, according to Freud, is that they all represent the recurrence of something that has been repressed. Freud points out that every emotional affect, whatever its quality, is transformed by repression into morbid anxiety, and that that class of morbid anxiety that is associated with the return of the repressed is what we refer to as the feeling of the uncanny, irrespective of whether the original event aroused dread or some other affect…. (p. 83)
One can, I believe, construct a model showing the structural links between the repetition compulsion, the regressive character of the instincts, and the morbid anxiety evoked by the return of the repressed through the involuntary repetition involved in doubling, and this model will serve as an imaginative analogue to Faulkner's texts, shedding light on the structure of Quentin's personal history and the story he narrates. (p. 88)
If the involuntary repetition experienced in doubling recalls the helplessness sometimes experienced in dreams, it is because the double as the return of the repressed evokes by both its form and its content that primal threat of the son's being rendered permanently helpless by the castrating father—an overruling of the will from outside that has as its analogue the internal overruling of the will by the unconscious through the return of the repressed, the same overruling by the unconscious that we meet in dreams.
This sense of helplessness, of impotence, is, of course, the very core of Quentin's dilemma, for when Quentin tries to play an active, masculine role, his will is always frustrated and overruled and he is shifted into a passive, feminine role…. [It] is not just within the scenarios of brother avenger and brother seducer that Quentin's will is frustrated and Quentin rendered helpless, it is also by the very unwilled recurrence of those scenarios within the story that he narrates and in the events with the Italian girl and Gerald Bland that he is again rendered passive in the grip of fate. (p. 97)
In his interviews at the University of Virginia, Faulkner repeatedly pointed out that Absalom is a revenge story—indeed, a double revenge story: Sutpen's revenge for the affront that he suffered as a boy and Bon's revenge for the affront that he and his mother suffered at Sutpen's hands during Sutpen's quest for revenge…. Sutpen wants revenge not against the injustice of that mastery which the powerful have over the powerless, but against those "artificial standards or circumstances" that determine who are the powerful and who the powerless, against the artificial standard of inherited wealth and the circumstances of one's birth. Faulkner says that Sutpen in his quest for revenge violated all the rules of decency and honor and pity and compassion. But there is one rule that Sutpen does not violate, and that is the rule of power. For the rule that Sutpen follows is that real power springs not from the external, artificial advantages of birth and inherited wealth but from something internal: for Sutpen the source of real power is the force of the individual will…. [The] central paradox of Sutpen's quest [is] that he seeks revenge on the artificial standards of birth and inherited wealth as the determinants of power by setting out to establish a dynasty—that is, by trying to confer those very same artificial advantages on his son. Faulkner gives us the key to this paradox when he says that Sutpen "wanted revenge as he saw it, but also he wanted to establish the fact that man is immortal, that man, if he is man, cannot be inferior to another man through artificial standards or circumstances." (pp. 99-100)
[What] is at work in Quentin's struggle to bring the story of the Sutpens under control is the question of whether narration itself constitutes a space in which one can be original, whether an "author" possesses "authority," whether that repetition which in life Quentin has experienced as a compulsive fate can be transformed in narration, through an act of the will, into a power, a mastery of time…. At the beginning of the novel, Quentin is a passive narrator. The story seems to choose him…. But in the second half, when he and Shreve begin their imaginative reconstruction of the story, Quentin seems to move from a passive role to an active role in the narrative repetition of the past. (pp. 113-14)
[In the novel the] primal affront that the son suffers at the hands of the father and for which the son seeks revenge throughout his life is the very fact of being a son—of being the generated in relation to the generator, the passive in relation to the active, the effect in relation to the cause…. [But] the son can never really effect that reversal by which he would become his father's father. The son's only alternative is to take revenge on a substitute—that is, to become a father himself and thus repeat the generative situation as a reversal in which he now inflicts [revenge] on his own son, who is a substitute for the grandfather….
When Sutpen takes revenge on a substitute for the affront that he received as a boy, he takes revenge not just on Charles Bon but on Henry as well. (p. 117)
Keeping in mind this notion of revenge on a substitute, we can now understand how Quentin's act of narration in Absalom is an attempt to seize his father's authority by gaining temporal priority. In the struggle with his father, Quentin will prove that he is a better man by being a better narrator—he will assume the authority of an author because his father does not know the whole story, does not know the true reason for Bon's murder, while Quentin does. Instead of listening passively while his father talks, Quentin will assume the active role, and his father will listen while Quentin talks. (p. 119)
As Quentin had to listen to his father tell the story in the first half of the novel, so in the second half Shreve must listen while Quentin tells the story. But what begins as Shreve listening to Quentin talk soon turns into a struggle between them for control of the narration with Shreve frequently interrupting Quentin to say, "Let me tell it now." That struggle, which is a repetition in reverse of the struggle between Mr. Compson and Quentin, makes Quentin realize the truth of his father's argument in The Sound and the Fury—that priority is not necessarily originality, that to come before is not necessarily to come first. For Quentin realizes that … Shreve will [in turn] try to take revenge on him by seizing "authority," by taking control of the narrative. What Quentin realizes is that generation as revenge on a substitute is an endless cycle of reversibility in which revenge only means passing on the affront to another who, seeking revenge in turn, passes on the affront, so that the affront and the revenge are self-perpetuating. (p. 120)
[If] for Quentin the act of narration is an analogue of … revenge on a substitute, then narration does not achieve mastery over time; rather, it traps the narrator more surely within the coils of time. What Quentin realizes is that the solution he seeks must be one that frees him alike from time and generation, from fate and revenge: he must die childless, he must free himself from time without having passed on the self-perpetuating affront of sonship. What Quentin seeks is a once-and-for-all solution, a nontemporal, an eternal solution. (pp. 122-23)
As the central enigmatic event in Absalom is Henry's murder of Bon, so its equivalent in The Sound and the Fury is Quentin's suicide, and the structures of both books, with their multiple perspectives in narration, point up the fact that the significance of these events is irreducibly ambiguous…. Certainly, by putting Quentin's suicide in the context of Christ's death, Faulkner makes the significance of Quentin's act more ambiguous, but this strategy works in two directions, for it also points up the irreducible ambiguities in the significance of Christ's death itself. With characters like Quentin and Joe Christmas, Faulkner uses the context of Christ's death to raise questions about the actions of these characters, and he uses their actions to question the meaning of the Christ role. His most explicit questioning of the ambiguous significance of Christ's redemptive act occurs in A Fable (1954), where Christ's passion and death are reenacted during the First World War in that struggle between the old general and the corporal, between the father who has supreme authority and the illegitimate son who is under a sentence of death. (pp. 124-25)
[In the structure that is central to Faulkner's work], the struggle between the father and the son in the incest complex is played out again and again in a series of spatial and temporal repetitions, a series of substitutive doublings and reversals in which generation in time becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of revenge on a substitute, the passing on from father to son of a fated repetition as a positive or a negative inheritance…. [Religious] sacrifice as an institutionalized substitute for those impulses is also a conscious, communal preserver and transmitter of those impulses…. (p. 157)
[Since this] structure is created by means of an interplay between texts, it must be approached through a critical process that, like the solving of a simultaneous equation, oscillates between two or more texts at once. The key to the critical oscillation that I have attempted between Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury, is, of course, the figure of Quentin Compson—Quentin, whose own oscillation constantly transforms action into narration and narration into action. (pp. 157-58)
John T. Irwin, in his Doubling and Incest / Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner (copyright © 1975 by The Johns Hopkins University Press), The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975, 183 p.
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As a fictionist Faulkner was not of any school, nor would he have abetted or blessed the recruitment of one…. In each work, and throughout each, he is his own man; and at his truest and best he has not yet been proved imitable. In various ways at many points he brilliantly intensified and refined effective fictional practices, by apt extensions of known artistic techniques…. [His] accomplishments remain unparalleled; and with the conspicuous tangentiality and cultural dispersions in more recent American fiction, it becomes plain that no one since him draws any such strong bow so closely aimed. What is still to be fully appreciated … is that despite some extravagances and excursions into the baroque, Faulkner stands as the central and preeminent American novelist, and if that fabulous entity the great American novel has already loomed above the horizon, it must be one of his major displays of mastery, such as Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August, Go Down, Moses, or the Snopes trilogy. (p. 144)
Realistic regionalist, regional realist—the factors are reciprocal in the substantive and artistic unity of a Faulknerian work. This will be felt if the thrust of his realism and the focus of his regionalism are closely discerned. Their interrelations are complex yet harmonized. Faulkner cannot be given two discrete faces, even though sharply drawn, as a kind of realist and conversely a kind of regionalist…. His realism and regionalism are most distinctly recognizable in their complementary aspects, the local matter broadly conceptualized in a sustained artistic unity. For Faulkner realism is something more than naturalism, and quite the opposite of its extreme forms. His narratives do not move at an automated pace along determinism's constricted path, nor are his protagonists wholly indentured to milieu, no matter how weighty its impingements…. Faulkner feels too nearly and concernedly for his major characters to consider any of them wholly explicable, and yet he ventures to represent them in their conscious active lives as discernibly motivated, and suggests in each some bent toward congruence, so that through successive actions there aggregates the suggestion of a personal trend in which character becomes the more defined to others as also more deeply committed to its intentional self. (pp. 145-46)
In Faulkner's stories a moving force operates through some major characters in their disinterested and magnanimous advocacy of [certain values] overtly in a socioethical context but also at deep subjective levels of their private realizations. Recognized in this aspect, Faulkner's realism can be termed humanistic…. While Faulkner's fictional proponents of humanistic values resolutely combat unprincipled men, they cannot always prevail, nor can they stave off further offenses by such as Flem Snopes and lesser villains; therefore a weighty element in many of the stories is at a subjective level, in the protagonists' frustration, somber doubt, and sometimes outrage under the stress of a resisted temptation to give up. Through their uncertainties, disenchantment, and exacerbations in the struggle against socioethical offenses and incorrigible disorderliness there comes to be heard as a recurrent undertone the artist's own melancholy apprehensions. By some this has been felt as morbidity, but these readers may not have fully assessed Faulkner's realism, with its humanistic imperatives…. His recognition in his fiction that the well-intentioned are often deflected and even defeated and the innocent may be basely betrayed, while moral victories are transient in the flux of ever-changing circumstances only proves the honest percipience of Faulkner's realism and makes more exemplary the persistence of his agents of justice and mercy. (pp. 148-50)
It is with primary reference to character that humanisticrealistic aspects merge in Faulkner's art, through works rising to an enhanced organicism and authenticity beyond the inconsistencies of average behavior and the transient improvisations of expedient men in societal contexts…. Faulkner is objectively-subjectively aware of his characters not only as individual but intrinsically solitary beyond any conforming or gregariousness or even the remedies of love; his narratives comprehend such isolation, yet treat of it not with that autographic mock-pathetic solipsism often exhibited in modern novels, but as under the genuine ordeal of onerous, frustrating, sometimes disastrous human involvement. For Faulkner as oriented artist the existential being always is of primary interest and importance…. (pp. 150-51)
A vitalizing factor in the flow of Faulkner's subjectively realistic narratives enters through recurrence in some characters of recollected awareness, whether out of earlier acts or observations or information, and now returned to in a not merely extended but experientially modified perception and evaluation of them. This strategic use of repetition is acutely illustrative of Faulkner's constant basic concern with existential motion and change…. [Some] of Faulkner's most penetrating effects are to be found in such repetitions, where substance previously communicated, especially as a character's subjective experience, is transposed by further instance into another mode and reorchestrated with a fuller significance…. When read with response to this mode of a ranging subjectivity, Faulkner becomes a most absorbing storyteller, paradoxically the more so by his repetitions, in which matter is modified within the character's further realizations under changed circumstances, and this is to be valued not only in itself for its honestly realistic relativism, but in the artist's tactical use of it in the total narrative structure. Such a basic progressional-consequential setting-forth is of course the plain main way of all fiction; Faulkner's unique, dynamically objective-subjective use of it show genius at its height. (pp. 154-55)
Faulkner the humanistic realist is never sensational. He does not embroider events for their separately arresting effects, and while aspects of his stories are startling and in some degree shocking, yet the more intense this is, the more pervading is the created sense, in a many-toned, subjectively-attuned composition, that the issue is one of basic values. Concurrently there is always Faulkner's strategic narrative momentum, which does not dwell unduly upon event in itself …, but draws action into the modulations of consequence as realized and ethically evaluated by at least some of its enactors. His practice seems a careful avoidance of preoccupation with mere incidents, lest they overshadow the realities of a continuum…. Not just plotted event …, but conception and embodiment of such a deepening fluidity of experience, conveyed primarily through a directly represented awareness in his characters, is at the heart of Faulkner's humanistic realism, and is what his dramaturgically apt composition is designed to undergird.
It is only as seen in the unified functioning of such complementary factors that Faulkner's realism can be adequately estimated. Within the conceptualized and imaginatively rendered unity of a Faulkner novel the abstracting of verities increasingly apprehended by the working consciousness of protagonists is in an intuitive and responsive relationship with reality. Here the subjective and the societal are interactive and indeed symbiotic…. [Relativism] becomes dynamic in narrative actions, since it sharpens delineation of any human life in the endured fluxions that are its cumulative lot, and in particular makes fully veritable a conveyance of the matter through the turbulent counterpoint of a protagonist's objective-subjective experience. Herein Faulkner's searching realism is unflinching in its admission that grave threats to humanistic values persist…. (pp. 159-61)
[For] Faulkner as humanistic realist, men individually are the undependable but essential and possibly effective agents of melioration and can most fully realize themselves within such orientations. This is of course not unique in Faulkner, but he stands supreme in modern American fiction through the primacy and potency he gives this fundamental view. (p. 161)
Faulkner as fictionist concerns himself with stresses, frustrations, and miscarriages even under the law and more often under the looser rule of custom, yet he postulates that while implemental conventions and institutions as well as personal attitudes ask for reassessment situationally, certain value-concepts though pragmaticaaly arrived at have proved abidingly applicable and hence imperative whatever the pains. Faulkner discovers this again and again as an active kind of folk knowledge among common people tempered in the brunt of their beset lives, and he finds it equally operative among men and women whose good fortune imposes a strict sense of obligation. (p. 162)
The declared "Sole Owner & Proprietor" of that variously peopled and fabled "Yoknapatawpha Co., Mississippi" is one of the greatest of regionalists and irresistibly solicits consideration as such, yet as a rigorous realist. Moreover, in the light of his relativistic humanism and his corresponding attention to his characters' subjectivity as the way of close approach to theme and a medium of the matter's full imaginative realization his regionalism may be termed romantic in the most central and persistent sense of the term. (p. 163)
It would be erroneous to characterize Faulkner as self-in-dulgent in any aspect of his art…. Even when his style is copious it is to a point and of a calculated weight; and his narrative structures however complex are not loosely rambling but of proportionate and effective design, entirely to serve his brooding reflectiveness even in proximity to a throng of characters in a flood of events.
Faulkner not only illustrated as transcendental reality that one can go venturing in one's own back yard, he showed that what a fictionist has seen most of he may be able to see into most deeply…. (pp. 164-65)
The broad dimensions of Faulkner's genius are to be estimated both from the magnitude and substantiality of his conceivings of regional subjects and from his commensurate imaginative penetration into a continuum of events given their coloration through characters involved by their awareness as well as in their actions. Thus his regionalism, humanistically realistic, goes deeper than the data of naturalism; thus his representations of subjectivity, going beyond that of an isolate introverted life, show involvement in matters of wide relevance and personal interrelation, and more than single import. Not that the narrative may not include characters' states of mind concealed from all but the reader, but those transpire in a context of circumstances; these are contributively particularized by the subjective responses to them, an interaction that epitomizes Faulkner's basic idiosyncratic fictional mode. In this fusion of scope and subjectivity his fictional art achieves an equilibrium and a steadily operative reciprocation, with a suggested symmetry, a uniquely potent aesthetic effect. It is indefinable, and its factors are scarcely to be analyzed, but it is there, the characteristic Faulknerian tone, an extraordinary achievement in the craft of fiction, that distinctive resonance which in some novels and in portions of others may seem comparable to the sostenuto of a perfected lyric poem or an unintermitted musical composition. (pp. 167-68)
Though racial interrelations constituted a major and in some ways central theme in Faulkner's regionally focused fiction, that was not his whole story. Tensions arising from racial antipathies and anxieties may have widest societal significance, and he seems to be probing most deeply when it comes to that, but there are other kinds of conflict on less extended grounds to which he gives as much intensity…. The socioeconomic and psychological stratifications in the South as typified in Yoknapatawpha County are not only a matter of race but of antecedents and ongoing tendencies and consequent distinctions in the whole society, within the perspectives of regional history. Yet quite possibly an adequate appreciation of Faulkner's works was retarded, perhaps even impeded for a while by the emphasis some critics put upon considering it a kind of epic in many episodes and books, even a saga of the South…. [Throughout] the oeuvre from novel to novel there are great differences in magnitude, narrative structure, and mode; and this may well be noted not only as evidence of a profuse imagination but also as a passion at that particular point for its own focus and concentration of effect. It seems especially the characteristic of his artistic temperament to be susceptible to absorbing commitments. With each work the artist appears to have given himself completely during the process of its creation, bent upon the most intense realization of its potentials. No doubt such absorption in the singular task and its opportunities was made easier by a continuing familiarity with regional materials, but the perfected autonomy in each novel as a work of art is closer to the essence of the Faulknerian achievement than the sense of locale or of recurring racial tensions, and a proof of the matter is that when an already known character enters into yet another narrative action he or she is absorbed into it, depending on no credentials from another country, and manifesting a fresh aspect in his new surroundings. This, however, is not by subordination of identity, but in fresh instancing of the subjective element as the pervading factor imaginatively uniting a humanistic reality and a romantic regionalism. (pp. 173-74)
Faulkner's works are each so particularly formed, colored, and consummated that he continues to defy the sort of imitation which can produce a school…. What was characteristic that could be an influence (in addition to a brilliant example of the regional transmuted into dynamically representative art) was his alertness to the forceful centrality of the subjective element, as he had found it in the strongest fiction of his times, and as he had gone along with this trend but to his own ends, with rapidly acquired skills, through adaptations less conspicuously technical than in The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. Therein he became more various, with a greater tonal range even if in less extensive subject matter and with less sophistication than James…. Faulkner was also more originative than Conrad, whom nevertheless he resembles greatly as a spirit, a temperament that must have some place in the work, though Faulkner's felt infiltrations, while more forceful, are less frankly personal. (pp. 218-19)
In Faulkner's narrative art a progressive modulation operates regulatively within the mingled flow of objective-subjective matter. Such gradations result in a more complex texture than that in pure stream-of-consciousness narration or in the typical uses of a central intelligence, whether first- or third-person. Both these modes, as well as overt omniscient narration, enter into Faulkner's practice; the difference is that often they are refracted from a formal, sustained employment of one or the other into transitory uses in a complexity that fluctuantly combines modifications, sometimes of them all, always with variances between objective-subjective extremes. Faulkner is not unique in this, but he was an independent pioneer in such synthesizing of representational modes within a unitary fictional narrative, and what is extraordinary is the intensity of his achieved effects, combining a fluidity of subjective penetration and an enhanced momentum…. Faulkner in his most characteristic bent left still further behind the easiness of a preempted and constantly presiding authorial omniscience, to achieve instead an almost Flaubertian aloofness. Even when narration is in first person it is the verified player speaking; and the widely proved advantage of such distancing in modern fictional art is that the characters, left on their own whatever the mode of expression given them, are made to stand forth and represent themselves in deeds, words, and states of inner being, as these are the immediate passing aspects of their roles…. By their involved, responsive, and projective imaginations Faulkner's protagonists become impressionistic poets of situation and involvement…. (pp. 220-21)
Faulkner has followed the main way of much of [modern English and American fiction at its most serious levels]. He is not an eccentric artist; he does not differ essentially from those in the fertile modern trend that derived its aesthetics of fiction, including control of point of view and narrative use of subjectivity, primarily from James and Conrad, and produced a remarkably various yet instrumentally conventionalized flowering in Faulkner's own time. Faulkner's distinction, which requires that he be named among the most distinguished of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, is not in a difference from the most significant trends in fiction; rather it is in his superlative accomplishment, in its scope, grasp, vigor, and intuitive penetration, and the sheer virtuosity of his greatest compositions. (pp. 257-58)
That Faulkner's closely centralized regionalism was not an opportunistically chosen fixed stance is apparent not only in his fictional excursions from native ground but in the thematic range of his Yoknapatawphan novels themselves as unique artistic autonomies. (p. 270)
Regionalism provided the rich substance and fluent modes of Faulkner's work, but the profound idiom of his communications is a humanistic realism…. While naturalism in fiction is not without objective grasp in its constancy to profuse materials, in this aspect Faulkner's regionalism, though forcefully authentic, was more selective of detail, to further ends. For him emphasis by comparative limitation of substance and selective ordering of narration itself served to implement a dynamic realism stressing what in the local instance also suggests the more widely typical. Thereby as a regionalist whose developing concepts … had feeding roots which ran close and deep in an immediate acquaintance, his fictions transcended entirely the dimensions of typical naturalism. (pp. 271-72)
Under Faulkner's synthesis of regionalism and realism what his technical accomplishment most differed from was not a simple objective naturalistic fiction but its opposite, stream-of-consciousness narration, with its narrowed exclusive subjectivity along a more random and desultory way, with a greater self-preoccupation and less involvement, in a diminution of dramatic tensions. The very life of each of Faulkner's greatest fictional works is in its lives figured as interpersonally situated, through which there fluctuantly interpenetrates a variable fusion of forces, objective-subjective, communal and individual, overt events and private responses tinged with relevant individual concern. Regionalism sharpens issue through its situational immediacy in the pressures of milieu, and thus frames the singular qualities of individual responses; correspondingly through that medium a humanistic realism makes the local representative and further sanctions its specificity. In this totality the private awareness of Faulkner's characters is shown moving through attitude into action, and such purposeful consciousness implies subjective configurations, the gestalts of organismic thought and feeling. Presumably out of comparable imaginative awareness and response there may have loomed more largely the cloudy silhouettes of not impossible fictional entities for this greatly gifted artist to arrest and perfect into the totalities of inclusive concept and aesthetically containing form. This apparently he had proved as the one thing needful for himself, given the fruitful juncture of regionalism and humanistic realism in an achieved objective-subjective juncture and functioning. That unity, ultimately validated in the holistic work of art itself, could have increasingly stimulated him to the pure sorcery, through style and structure, which liberated his genius and enabled consummate masterpieces. (pp. 273-74)
Warren Beck, "Realist and Regionalist" (revised by the author for this publication), in his Faulkner: Essays (copyright © 1976 The Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), The University of Wisconsin Press, 1976, pp. 144-274.
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William Faulkner's "address upon Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature" is a classic statement of humanist affirmation. (p. 366)
The text that appears in freshman anthologies is a noble statement, a model of rhetoric transcending platitude. But the text that Faulkner delivered to the Swedish Academy—albeit an identical one—is false and insincere. It lacks eloquence, because Faulkner did not fully believe what he was saying.
The first half—yes. He did believe what he said about other writers: that they had "forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing," and that those who fail to confront the "old verities and truths of the heart" doom themselves to write "not of the heart but of the glands." These sentiments reflect principles he had always held. But the final, longest paragraph of the Speech presents a teleological defense of his foregoing remarks which contradicts not only the pessimism implicit in his early works but opinions he was expressing in current books as well. That paragraph will be familiar to most students of modern literature:
Until [the writer] relearns [the old universal truths], he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
This stirring assertion of immortality for the human spirit, and of the writer's contribution to that immortality, presents only one side of an internal debate that preoccupied Faulkner throughout the 1940s and into the fifties. It therefore provides a false resolution to a question Faulkner was then still struggling to answer, a question that touched him personally in a way the Speech conceals: not only "Will mankind prevail?" (that is, does human history have meaning?), but also "Is it meaningful for me, William Faulkner, to write?" (is my voice "inexhaustible"?).
This context of internal debate can best be demonstrated by tracing the history of the central image in the last paragraph of the Speech—that of the lone man standing upon the last rocky island in an apocalyptic seascape. From early in his career, Faulkner used this image as a metaphor for his own literary situation; and variations in his use of it reflect important shifts in his attitude toward his vocation. (pp. 366-67)
While, in the Speech, Faulkner admonished writers to contribute their words to the construction of a refuge for mankind, in The Sound and the Fury the words themselves are a force from which the speaker seeks refuge. The Speech denies the possibility that man's voice will exhaust itself, but the novel seems to accept such a possibility as desirable: the ultimate goal of language is to move "beyond the need for words." A major change has occurred between 1928 and 1950; but it has less to do with Faulkner's supposed conversion to humanist affirmation than with the advent of severe doubts about the efficacy of his vocation—doubts he had to appease in order to continue writing. In 1928, Faulkner felt the imperative voice within himself too strongly to resist an attempt to move beyond it; but in 1950 he was too fearful of his own exhaustion, and too disillusioned with the idea that language can transcend itself, to speak favorably of the condition of silence.
The debate within him between faith and doubt began in earnest in the late thirties, when he complained for the first time of an intermittent inability to write. Financial difficulties, family responsibilities, and his failure to reach a comprehending audience contributed to this dilemma, but it also derived from his growing pessimism about the future of mankind….
[In Go Down, Moses the] river is an instrument of oblivion, embodying all of Faulkner's fears for his own vocation and for world history. The admonition in the novel's title to "go down" bespeaks his prevailing awareness of decline.
Yet Go Down, Moses also contains a hopeful vision, and it was within a confrontation between the two opposite attitudes that Faulkner first composed the germ of the last paragraph of the Nobel Prize Speech, using language that became formulaic for him even before he received the prize. As a young man, Ike McCaslin had become disillusioned with his social heritage. He chose to reject the past, to erase his historical memory, and to begin life hopefully anew. Consequently, he was willing to dispense with written records, for they only preserve past injustices without actively accommodating change. An exponent of oblivion, the younger Ike articulates Faulkner's own deep suspicion of the inertia and ineffectuality of words. Against this position stands Ike's cousin Cass Edmonds, who defends inherited evils and cultivates book-knowledge—consulting a volume of Keats's poetry, for example, in order to explain an experience Ike would rather leave to instinct. Thus, Faulkner entrusted his optimism about the human race to a man who belittles the value of writing and his defense of literacy to a man who accepts a bleak vision of history—a confusion he only artificially untangled in the Nobel Speech. (pp. 370-71)
Despite his covert pessimism, Faulkner adopted an affirmative pose before the world, and probably for his own benefit as well, during his laureateship. He frequently repeated the sentiments of the Nobel Address in interviews and in other speeches he delivered, as if he were consciously fulfilling the writer's duty to uplift the human heart which he had asserted in Stockholm; and he used the same language in many of his later books. (p. 373)
The immortality of mankind and, implicitly, the future of Faulkner's artistic legacy remain doubtful in A Fable. The debate between the general and the corporal—which they have no more resolved than Ike and Cass have theirs in Go Down, Moses—articulates the division between faith and despair that afflicted Faulkner throughout the forties and into the fifties. He tried to persuade himself that he, and mankind, had a future; and toward the very end of his life he may have succeeded in doing so. But in the Nobel Prize Speech he voiced only half of what was within him. While advising his listeners to write about "the human heart in conflict with itself," he was wishfully ignoring the conflict within himself, which his books revealed whether he wished them to or not. (pp. 374-75)
Michael Grimwood, "The Self-Parodic Context of Faulkner's Nobel Prize Speech," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1979, by Michael Grimwood), Vol. XV, No. 2, April, 1979, pp. 366-75.
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As I Lay Dying is a remarkable illustration of [the fusion of form and content], for in this tour de force the author blends the architectonic structure of a wheel within a wheel with subject matter based on the age-old quest resulting in geographically, psychologically, and philosophically cyclical movement. Two antithetical perspectives are represented in this novel, that of Bundrens and non-Bundrens toward the journey to Jefferson. These perspectives can be conceived of architectonically as the rims of two concentric wheels moving in opposite directions through time and space. The Bundren perspective is the inner wheel with the somewhat varying viewpoints of the individual family members represented as points on the wheel directed toward the hub of the wheel, Addie Bundren, the primary motivation for the journey. An outer rim, that of non-Bundrens, constitutes a different perspective toward the Jefferson trip. This rim of perspective views Addie and the Bundrens themselves in the process of their peregrination and regards the trip as absurd. (pp. 101-02)
Despite the fact that Addie has but one segment, written as though she were still alive and yet significantly placed after her death, her consciousness suffuses the entire book. (p. 108)
[All] of the Bundrens, in one way or another, sense and acknowledge Addie's continued presence, just as the entire family has internalized Addie's distrust of words—"the high dead words in time."… Thus the Bundren perspective focuses on Addie and her will to be buried in Jefferson…. (p. 109)
Those outside the Bundren family do not share this perspective. Addie's lover Whitfield does violence to Addie's central concern—the matching of word with deed. (p. 110)
The Bundrens seem oblivious to the spectacle their journey elicits and to the stench which Addie's unembalmed body produces…. Hence, the outsiders, the non-Bundrens, view the family and their journey as some kind of grotesque and ridiculous joke. To them the Bundren quest, although it cannot be ignored, is not to be taken seriously. Thus, the two perspectives—a wheel within a wheel—move through time and space to help reveal the complexity of modern consciousness in regard to life and to death.
Addie serves not only as the hub of the inner wheel but as the central metaphor of time and space. (pp. 111-12)
Another way in which Faulkner achieves this fusion of time and space is by stopping or elongating time. We have already noted how Addie's dying is elongated. Darl, who is Faulkner's chief spokesman regarding time, compares Addie's continuing consciousness to a road, one of Faulkner's favored time-related analogues. (p. 112)
However, there is one more aspect to be considered, that of the reader's perspective; for Faulkner, in his novels, relied on the reader's creative energies to form a heuristic concept. Thus, the reader's view toward the Bundrens' journey (a quest in many ways analogous to that of the reader's own journey through life to death) may not coincide with the Bundren perspective of heroic necessity or with the non-Bundren perspective of grotesque absurdity. The reader's perspective may encompass more than that of Bundrens and non-Bundrens so that the fusion of parts, by means of the heuristic process, results in a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. Subtly, Faulkner acknowledged the creative role of the reader when, near the end of the novel, he has Cash say "It was like he [Darl] was outside of it too, same as you."… (p. 113)
Alice Shoemaker, "A Wheel within a Wheel: Fusion of Form and Content in Faulkner's 'As I Lay Dying'," in Arizona Quarterly (copyright © 1979 by Arizona Board of Regents), Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 102-13.
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In Absalom, Absalom! the richness of texture and detail is so great that the full effect of the many narrative frames is easily obfuscated. The comparison between the present (the narrative frames) and the past (Sutpen's story) accentuates many of the central themes of the primary story, imparting a sense of timelessness to the story and showing how myth is created to contrast with the reality from which it grows. Yet a far more subtle and revolutionary effect of the novel's overlapping and interwoven frames is the manner in which they—as they reflect and distort both the primary story and one another—comment on the problems of epistemology, the imagination, art, and the creative process.
While Faulkner is centrally concerned with the imagination in all his novels,… he never directly extended this concern to the province of art…. Perhaps this omission was caused by a more traditional attitude toward art than, for instance, such a novelist as Gide or Mann had—one which both did not so radically question the possible conflict between the traditionally moral function of the novel and a more purely esthetic perspective, and one that accepted art's traditional function of representing an ultimate reality. Such an attitude might seem inconsistent with Faulkner's depiction within his novels of the imagination as a distorting mechanism that limited rather than increased man's contact with reality; but Faulkner … never fully applied his perceptions of the mind's inherent distortions to the functioning of his own artistic imagination. It is for this reason that Absalom, Absalom!'s narrative frames are of particular interest, for they set up an implicit—even if partially unintentional—metaphor for the artistic process, thus extending a concern for the imagination to the province of art.
Although the novel's themes, like its structures, are complex and diverse, the central theme of the primary story of Sutpen deals with love, which the novel seems to define as the ability to see and care for another in his own right. All the characters in the primary story lack this ability and this ubiquitous lack is the ultimate cause of evil in the novel. (pp. 135-36)
However, while this theme of love denied is central to the primary story, in the secondary narrative framework the central theme is the search for truth—the truth about Sutpen's, Bon's, and Henry's complex motivations, and, more generally, the truth about all human motivation…. As the novel progresses, we along with Quentin seem to progress toward the truth. (p. 136)
There is an ironic element to this sense of progress toward the truth, for each successive narration of the story appears to be told by a narrator who is further removed from the original action both in time and in direct involvement…. Such an inverse relationship between distance and truth suggests that a type of detachment, an emotional and artistic distance on events, is needed to discover the truth. (pp. 136-37)
However, there are problems with such a neat thesis. For one thing, the progression is not so clearly defined as it at first might seem…. More importantly, while in some ways we seem closer to the truth as the novel progresses, in others we seem equidistant or further removed from it, although the fact of our removal is subtly, even deceptively, made. The successive versions of the story are increasingly products of the imagination. Therefore, while they are more fully and vividly told, this sense of their reality is in inverse proportion to the actual knowledge the narrators have. (p. 137)
[A radical twist occurs near the end of the novel.] Not content to embellish upon and flesh out the truth upon the skeleton of bare facts, Shreve changes one of these facts. He insists that it was Henry, not Bon, who was wounded in the war…. The radical nature of this statement goes far beyond the one fact it alters. Although we may reject Shreve's logic as applied to this one case, it serves to suggest how tenuous is our hold on even the "facts" of the story. (pp. 138-39)
All the narrators' accounts are distorted by their own interests and needs…. [In Quentin's case] his concern with manhood, impotence, and incest is reflected throughout Absalom, Absalom! and it is not hard to imagine how he receives and in turn creates the various versions of the primary story. From this perspective, Absalom, Absalom! becomes a novel about the narrators rather than about their narratives. (pp. 139-40)
To fully appreciate the problems inherent in this question of narrator interference is to open a Pandora's box on rampant skepticism as to the reliability of any fact and to consign oneself to the impossibility of knowing anything absolutely. To the initial problem of deducing from an incomplete set of mere external facts complex motivations is added the consideration of a myriad of reasons and ways in which each of these facts may have been distorted. To separate the actual occurrence from narrator distortion and addition is an impossible task, for we cannot merely compensate for idiosyncratic reflections of the narrator in his narrative since there always remains the possibility, and in many cases, probability, that some such "reflections" have originated in the story itself and colored the narrator's personality. Thus it is not merely one distorting lens that we are faced with but two opposing, distorting mirrors, each reflecting the distortions of the other. Moreover, because of the series of narrators involved in most of the products we receive, we have a whole series of distorting lenses and mirrors, each conditioned by the distorted version received from an earlier narrator. Even such distortions, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. There is the more egregious problem of outright fabrication…. (pp. 140-41)
From this perspective, while the central theme of the primary story is the inability of any character to truly love another, the central theme of the secondary frames as they reflect that story is the inability of anyone to know the truth. Nor are these two themes of love and truth so separate…. [Both] failures—to love and to know the truth—have the same source, the overbearing ego that imposes and projects upon everything outside itself, itself. (p. 141)
Yet, although such speculations lead to a radical appreciation of the illusive and illusory nature of all truths, the case that Absalom, Absalom! presents for the attainment of truth is not so unilaterally bleak. The contrasting nature of the other imaginative level of truth does not allow so simple a skepticism. In a sense Faulkner seems to be playing a game with the reader. In the search for truth we are continually teased with facsimiles of the truth which, to the degree they seem real, are in fact false, for the meagerness of knowledge about the primary events forces any scrupulously scientific reportage to exist as mere skeletons, ghosts of truth, while the more truly imagined and thus more detailed scenes take on more readily the semblance of reality. What seems real and what is seen to exist in an inverse relationship to one another. (pp. 141-42)
[The] form of the novel, the interaction between narrative frames and primary story, introduces a concern for the imagination and the artistic process…. In fact, in what might seem a largely pessimistic novel, the only source of transcendence comes, not in the primary story through an individual's power to love, but through the secondary frames of the narrators, primarily Quentin and Shreve. Through the power of their imagination they transcend time and self, uniting with each other and with Bon and Henry…. In fact, if there is any sense of love shown in the novel, it is displayed by these two narrators as they work together, their imaginations united.
This link between the moral and esthetic sphere and the identification between imagination and love as transcending factors, so that the esthetic factor, the imagination, becomes a criterion for judging the moral sphere of love, are themes found usually in a more purely esthetic writer such as James or Nabokov. The paradoxes that Absalom, Absalom! inevitably creates because of its form—the paradoxical nature of truth and the necessity of creating esthetic distance to bridge emotional, psychological, and spiritual distances—link it with the involuted, self-conscious fictions of such writers as Nabokov, Barth, Cortazar, Borges, Robbe-Grillet, and Beckett. All are writers who deal with the problems of the relationship between reality and the mind as bridged by the imagination and who use the metaphor of the novel itself to discuss and reflect these relationships. By placing a representation of himself as novelist in his novel, the self-conscious novelist automatically creates a series of mirrors that not only reverberate within the novel but between it and the "objective" external reality of author and audience. In so dispelling the conventions of the novel form that established qualitative distances between the characters, the novelist, and his audience, the self-conscious novel challenges that absolute nature of any reality and investigates the relationship between truth and illusion, not merely as they undercut, but as they contribute to one another.
Absalom, Absalom! is Faulkner's most self-conscious novel and by internalizing narrators equivalent to himself he implicitly sets up the metaphor of novel-writing and creates truncated versions of many of the same effects that can be found in the fictions of more fully involuted writers. Like such fictions as Nabokov's Pale Fire or Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, but to a far lesser degree, Absalom, Absalom! is a novel about its own creation. Once the narrators, primarily Quentin-Shreve, are seen as novelists of a sort in the process of writing and rewriting a novel, each time moving a bit closer to the finished product, embracing a truer picture through a purer use of the imagination, all that has been said here becomes a series of statements about the artist's relationship to his art. (pp. 143-44)
Faulkner seems to be suggesting that the ideal artistic relationship between the artist, his material, and his audience is a symbiotic relationship in which each partakes of and is changed by the others and all are simultaneously active and passive. (p. 145)
In the application of this thematic duality of simultaneous creator and audience to Faulkner's relationship to his readers and his novels, it is interesting to note that not only does he force on his readers in many of his novels a greater participatory role than in most traditional novels, but in talking of his relationship to his characters he often places himself in the more passive role. (p. 147)
The involuted novels of Nabokov or Barth invariably describe themselves and in Absalom, Absalom! there are numerous passages that on a second reading can be seen to describe the novel itself. (p. 149)
The double metaphor that Judith Sutpen employs to describe the restrictions each individual encounters both from others and apparently from on high can also be read in this manner:
… you are born at the same time with a lot of other people, all mixed up with them, like trying to, having to, move your arms and legs with strings only the same strings are hitched to all the other arms and legs and the others all trying and they dont know why either except that the strings are all in one another's way like five or six people all trying to make a rug on the same loom only each one wants to weave his own pattern into the rug; and it cant matter, you know that, or the Ones that set up the loom would have arranged things a little better….
Both metaphors have their source in art and describe not merely the interaction between characters in the primary story but both the interaction between narrators, each attempting to impose his own patterns on events, and our trouble as readers attempting to separate our own meaning or pattern from the apparent chaos of narrator-imposed patterns. The two levels of the double metaphor imply a double level of patternmaking, not merely by the individual weavers or puppets but by the Puppeteer or the "Ones who make the looms"—that is, the artist-narrators and Faulkner. Judith's problem of asserting her will is thus not merely limited by her contemporaries (the other characters in the primary story) but by those succeeding generations of narrators who impose their own obscuring patterns upon hers. Yet the apparent chaos of this triple imposition of patterns is resolved—although Judith cannot see it—in the larger pattern of the novel (or Loom or Puppet Show) which uses the interwoven patterns of apparent chaos (the interwoven narrative frames) to form a clear, if intricate, meaning. (pp. 150-51)
[An] artist's imaginative patterning replaces outside fate and becomes a comment on the imaginative psychology of the creator of the pattern rather than a statement about an external fate.
The stylized nature of all the primary characters, who never seem to truly emerge as full characters, should also be viewed from this perspective. We are not viewing them directly through Faulkner's eyes but through the intermediary multiple veils of narrator-artists who, quite contrary to Faulkner's own realistic aims, are involved in mythmaking. That the primary characters, although we know far more about them, seem less real than the narrators, is Faulkner's comment on the limits of his narrators' imaginations. Although they create, their inability to fully conceive another person is a comment not on Faulkner's artistry but on Quentin's, Shreve's, and Mr. Compson's shortcomings. (p. 152)
Paul Rosenzweig, "The Narrative Frames in 'Absalom, Absalom!': Faulkner's Involuted Commentary on Art," in Arizona Quarterly (copyright © 1979 by Arizona Board of Regents), Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 135-52.
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Faulkner was both a realist and a romanticist and was positively Gothic: an artist can view life from various perspectives if his vision is sufficiently comprehensive and penetrating. Faulkner loved his land and his people too much to reject them in their everyday aspects, without romantic or Gothic makeup and lighting, and some of his characters share his love of the ordinary. He was enough of a romanticist to feel keenly the difference between the reality he observed and what his land and his people had been at their best, between the sometimes nightmarish present and the fine dreams they had cherished.
Faulkner achieved the fusion of dream and reality in his Yoknapatawpha novels…. By assuming many points of view and imaginatively sharing the experiences of many diverse characters, by showing the outer world as it appeared to the mentally deficient, the psychologically disturbed, or the romantic idealist, Faulkner revealed the inner worlds of dream and nightmare and the razor's edge which separated them. As the omniscient author or through a rational, humanistic central intelligence or narrator, he showed a world of everyday experience, cherished in its multiplicity and uniqueness. The scope provided by this fictional world, despite its short history and limited boundaries, accommodated a variety of approaches, within a single novel or within the Yoknapatawpha cycle. In this cycle, only As I Lay Dying, The Town, and The Reivers are more in the romance vein than some version of Gothic novel or romance. (Although As I Lay Dying has a macabre quality and a partially Gothic effect, I deal with it in my article as an ironic version of quest-romance.) For Faulkner, it is apparent, Yoknapatawpha was essentially a Gothic realm. (pp. 220-21)
Faulkner never abandoned the advantages of the omniscient author but tried various limitations of omniscience, always with the purpose of getting inside a character and involving the reader as fully as possible. With an inarticulate character or one of limited awareness and self-knowledge, such as Mink or Joe Christmas, the style must be the author's. The restriction or the relinquishment of authorial omniscience, however, had great advantages in securing reader cooperation and involvement in a Gothic tale. The most difficult and successful experiments with multiple points of view, with interior monologue or soliloquy, came early, in The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. Faulkner's predilection for the oral tradition, strong in The Hamlet and dominant in The Town, in much of The Mansion, and in all of The Reivers, is perhaps the most original feature of narrative method in his Gothic novels and the closely related romances. By never telling a Gothic tale in the first person from the point of view of the hero or heroine at the time of the action or in retrospect, Faulkner dissociated himself from the multitude of run-of-the-mill writers of Gothic romance.
In Yoknapatawpha the equivalents of the Gothic castles, symbols usually of past splendor and present decay, appear in most of the novels: the Sartoris plantation house in Sartoris and Sanctuary; the ruins of the Old Frenchman's place in Sanctuary and The Hamlet; the Compson house, in a state of dilapidation, in Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury; Sutpen's Hundred in Absalom, Absalom! from creation to destruction; Miss Burden's house in Light in August; the McCaslin plantation, still a going concern, in Go Down, Moses and Intruder in the Dust; the Backus plantation in decline in The Town and as transformed by Mr. Harriss in "Knight's Gambit" and The Mansion; the old De Spain mansion as transformed by Flem in The Town and The Mansion. All these "castles" represent the plantation days of the past, and all of them had or have neighboring slave or servant quarters. Only one novel, Intruder in the Dust, lacks a "castle": the Mallison house is a comfortable middle-class residence in which the family live happily and usefully in the present. Although Will Varner's house, the only two-storey one in Frenchman's Bend, was scarcely a "castle," it housed a princess, Eula Varner, the Helen of Frenchman's Bend.
The scenes of enclosure, the "other rooms," in these "castles" or in other buildings, signify isolation, whether captivity or withdrawal or self-imprisonment…. External nature ranges from the waste land despoiled by man, in The Hamlet and Sanctuary and Absalom, Absalom! and Light in August, to the pastoral and elegiac views of nature in The Hamlet and The Mansion, respectively. Productive plantations in Sartoris and Go Down, Moses, small farms in Sartoris and The Hamlet, and worn-out sharecroppers' or tenants' acres in the Frenchman's Bend area epitomize the agricultural economy and in context may be either Gothic or realistic. The most extended views of the natural scene in Yoknapatawpha are Gavin's panoramic survey from Seminary Hill in The Town, in which nature is least often a setting, and Chick's observations of his land and his vision of its place in the continent in Intruder in the Dust. Both Gavin and Chick show the romantic sensitivity to nature which is typical of Gothic fiction, but neither lives close to the land. Conversely, Ike McCaslin, despite his mystique of the land and the wilderness, shows little feeling for the areas which provide a living for man. (pp. 226-28)
[We] not only find all the traditional Gothic character types, but we find them in every novel, played straight, ironically inverted, or parodied: the Romantic, Byronic, or Faustian heroes and, for good measure and medieval flavor, the courtly lovers; the tragic villain-heroes, the revenge villain-hero, the rational villains, the villain seducer, and the archvillain of melodrama. The heroines, who may or may not be Persecuted Maidens, are less prominent than the heroes—in The Sound and the Fury Caddy appears only as a memory. What with adolescent heroes and heroes who can do without women, heroines would sometimes be as extraneous as in a horse opera. There is no traditional heroine in the action of Intruder in the Dust or Go Down, Moses. And Snopes makes do with two real heroines in three volumes, Eula Snopes and her daughter Linda, but they come closer to being romantic or romantic-Gothic heroines than do any other female characters. Evil Women or Temptresses are less numerous than villains and sometimes are disguised as heroines, like Narcissa, or beneath a bawdy exterior conceal a heart of gold, like Miss Reba. Snopes seems to lack a female villain until, at the end of The Mansion, Linda appears to qualify.
The parental figures who produced many of the heroes, heroines, and villains may be tyrannical or benevolent, but rarely were they successful as parents or grandparents…. In the record of ineffective or unloving parents, emotionally crippled children, and broken lives in Yoknapatawpha, Faulkner directly continued the Gothic tradition into the new American Gothic in which, Irving Malin said, "almost every work in the canon contains family terror."
The grotesques, which are the most easily recognizable of Gothic character types, appear in all the Yoknapatawpha novels, in part because Faulkner was both a Gothic and a comic novelist and combined the horror story with the comic tall tale…. The fact that Faulkner's grotesques, except those who are willfully or insanely evil, are presented with sympathy distinguishes them from those of some other Gothic writers and suggests the influence of Dickens in this as in other aspects of Gothicism.
Visible grotesqueness may or may not indicate psychological abnormality or sexual perversion, but characters who display such deviations from normality usually are indicative of themes typical of Gothic fiction, especially southern Gothic…. Narcissism, homosexuality, incest, and miscegenation are the specifically sexual themes in Yoknapatawpha which reflect the southern concept of upper class white women. (pp. 228-30)
The strongest theme in this group is that of incest, involved in some characters … with narcissism and homosexuality. (p. 231)
The recurrence of these Gothic themes in Yoknapatawpha points to a basic weakness in the society, an inability of its members to enter into harmonious, vital relationships in family and social groups, which is confirmed in other Gothic themes. One group of themes deals with individual problems and the attempts to solve them. Isolation, alienation, and lack of love appear [in many of the works]. (p. 232)
In contrast to the themes of individuals but not necessarily irrelevant to them are the extremely Gothic themes of family relationships and family heritage, often a heritage of doom. Only rarely does the positive and un-Gothic aspect, a heritage of love and fidelity, occur…. In the Yoknapatawpha novels the Gothic theme of family and social heritage signals the doom of those who look to the past and glorify the dead and implies Faulkner's abiding concern for the continuance of the family by those who have love, vitality, and courage to face the future.
Transcending individual concerns are themes based on the community, such as the theme of Negro-white relationships in The Unvanquished, Go Down, Moses, and Intruder in the Dust. The theme of truth recurs in various aspects: the themes of truth and justice (Sanctuary), of the truth of history (Absalom, Absalom!) of life-saving and spirit-saving truth (Intruder in the Dust), of essential human truth (The Town and The Mansion). When these themes involve a search, it is not primarily self-centered or self-seeking. (p. 237)
The extent to which Faulkner retained essential Gothic elements is impressive. He also transformed the Gothic mode in significant respects: by reducing it, by inverting it, and by parodying it. In Sartoris he undercut the Gothic effect by counterpointing the story of young Bayard with that of old Bayard and by using Aunt Jenny to deflate the Sartoris vainglory; both these effects are stronger in Sartoris than in Flags in the Dust, where the romantic-Gothic and grotesque-Gothic characterizations of Horace and of Byron Snopes divert attention from the Sartoris story. In The Sound and the Fury Faulkner provided a cheerful present scene in Benjy's and Quentin's sections and substituted psychological horror and pathos for mystery and suspense; the deaths take place offstage.
Omission of horror scenes is a favorite device with Faulkner…. In Sanctuary after the omission of the rape and the understatement of the two murders, the lynching scene is a devastating shock. Similarly, the omission of the actual murder of Joanna Burden in Light in August leaves the reader unprepared for the retrospective account of Joe's death in horrible detail…. The murders in Intruder in the Dust are distanced and understated, but the state of mind of Chick provides tension to lend Gothic suspense and mystery to setting and characters which in themselves are not Gothic. In Snopes the combination of Gothic and non-Gothic narrative sequences serves to modify the Gothic effects. Mink's two murders, of Houston and of Flem, admirably illustrate the two extremes of Faulkner's method, completely Gothic treatment and ironic understatement of violence.
In addition to diminishing some of the Gothic horror by such devices, Faulkner frequently, extensively, and significantly used ironic inversion, wherein characters and action are the reverse of what the Romantic or Romantic-Gothic tradition leads one to expect. This is done most completely in Sanctuary, to satirize the values and actions of respectable society…. (pp. 237-38)
Closely allied to ironic inversion is parody, which is inherent in Gothic romance. Parody is more comic in effect than irony, which may be bitterly satiric. (p. 239)
In addition to the ways in which Faulkner transformed or modified the Gothic elements he used are the ways in which he added new elements. First of all, he based the setting and characters on actual places and contemporary times or the relatively recent past, in an interrelated series of novels. He added individual characters which are not derived from traditional Gothic types…. In his experiments with point of view Faulkner covered all levels of intelligence, from speechless idiots to highly intelligent, sensitive, and articulate characters…. These are additions to the basic ingredients, as it were. Other additions are related to new purposes to which Faulkner adapted the Gothic.
These new purposes were rarely achieved in a single novel; the limited area and society made realistically possible the recurrence of characters, the repetition of incidents, the allusions to local legend, and the continued development of accounts of families and related themes…. The Gothic novel which deals with the more or less remote past or with a very limited scene and society in the present and with characters who are oriented to the past cannot attempt such a broad view as Faulkner's of social change and its impact on successive generations. (p. 240)
Of all the failures and weaknesses with which he dealt, Faulkner seemed most concerned with the failure of the family and society to preserve and observe meaningful rituals by which to initiate the young into mature life…. One of the great strengths of Faulkner's characterizations in his Gothic novels is his intense sympathy with and understanding of young people; his indictment of families and society is that they have failed to give their children love and emotional security or to instill in them by precept and example sound moral and ethical principles, truths to live by.
By great good fortune Faulkner had at his disposal what the original Gothic novelists, and even those of the generation before his, had lacked: the insight into the unconscious provided by Freud. Thus, in dealing with the irrational and instinctual aspects of the psyche, Faulkner was able to combine the subjective techniques of modern fiction with knowledge of depth psychology…. To pour into a whole row of old bottles of Gothicism a new wine fermented by a powerful creative imagination, stimulated by technical knowledge, and irradiated by intuition, this was Faulkner's distinctive achievement in Gothic characterization.
The Gothic revival of interest in the irrational side of man's consciousness tended to undervalue the rational side which had been too exclusively the concern of the age of reason. This lack of balance Faulkner could avoid because the scope of the Yoknapatawpha cycle allowed him to include characters who combined imagination and sympathy with reason and whose lives were more satisfactory and useful than those of either the irrational or the too rational characters…. Such characters are naturally rare in Gothic novels but can be accommodated in the Yoknapatawpha cycle because, first, the ample scope permits non-Gothic elements, and, second, the point of view of normal characters under stress involves multiple levels of consciousness and irrational phenomena which serve to illuminate the dark and secret areas in man's psyche. (pp. 241-43)
As the omniscient author, Faulkner could express his moral and ethical convictions, or he could use normal characters as spokesmen or reflectors…. He could always convey his meaning through the narrative events and thematic ideas. Instead of the good-evil polarity that Gothic romance often took over from medieval romance … Faulkner represented evil as white…. The same principles, Faulkner showed, apply to all men, black or white, and human dignity must be respected, regardless of caste or class. Intruder in the Dust dramatizes both the American Dream and the American Nightmare by revealing the unconscious reasons for and the conscious reactions to race hatred which violates these principles. No more serious new purpose could be conceived for revitalizing the Gothic tradition. (p. 243)
Faulkner belonged naturally to the tradition that accepts change and will not be held in bondage to the past. By choosing the Gothic mode, he was recognizing that man's "moral conscience is the curse he had to accept from the gods in order to gain from them the right to dream." He recreated the motivating dreams of the past in a specific region and showed how its society was destroyed by what was wrong with its dreams or by its failure to attain and maintain what was right. (p. 244)
The influence of Faulkner is not necessarily the chief source of Gothicism in later writers; but his work, like that of Dickens, contributes significantly to the Gothic tradition and to its capacity to accommodate the dreams and nightmares of modern civilization…. (p. 248)
Elizabeth M. Kerr, "From Yoknapatawpha to the World: Faulkner's Gothic Bequest," in her William Faulkner's Gothic Domain (copyright © 1979 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1979, pp. 220-48.
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