William Faulkner Faulkner, William (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

John T. Irwin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 4028 words.)

Warren Beck

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3077 words.)

Michael Grimwood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 1239 words.)

Alice Shoemaker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Paul Rosenzweig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(The entire section is 2272 words.)

Elizabeth M. Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2690 words.)