William Faulkner Faulkner, William (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Faulkner, William 1897–1962

See also William Faulkner Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 6, 8, 9, 11, 14, 28.

Faulkner, an American novelist, short story writer, and poet, is considered one of this century's most influential and highly regarded novelists. Derived from the southern oral tradition and existing somewhere between storyteller and listener, Faulkner's novels together form one larger work, the saga of a single imaginary world in which the characters are both sustained and contained by the region—more philosophical than geographical—that is Faulkner's deep South. Time, remembered but unrecorded, merges with what William Barrett calls "that peculiar fullness of time that is found in myth …, the time of the land itself—of the rhythm of the seasons, death and renewal, sowing and reaping," at the center of Faulkner's saga. Twice the recipient of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in 1950.

Claude-Edmonde Magny

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It may seem an exaggeration to look for [the] theological substructures in Faulkner's work, yet the critics have all been struck by his "puritanism," meaning by that term both his visible disgust before the mystery of sex and his deep-seated misogyny—quite natural in a world in which the Immaculate Virgin has not yet come to reestablish the order of things altered by Eve. Faulkner has at least once expressly referred to the Bible in one of his titles (Absalom, Absalom!)—precisely the one that most evokes the Hebraic ritual of meditation on the past. In addition, I do not see how—except by this perpetual referral of contemporary events to a sacred context that gives them their full meaning—one can explain the extravagant title of Sanctuary given to a story that is sordid to an extreme…. We are all familiar with the suggestion that Sanctuary marks the appearance of Greek tragedy in the mystery novel, but the tragedy, with its cruelty to which even death cannot put an end, is much more of a biblical nature.

It is thus a sacred spell Faulkner wants to cast over us, and the methods—or, if you prefer, the tricks—by which he exercises his magnetic power deserve a closer scrutiny. The most common one consists in having the real order of events reconstituted by (that is, in having the story told by) a spectator of the drama who is at first external and indifferent to it but who quickly becomes immersed—and by the end of a few pages, implicated—in these affairs that do not in any way concern him.

This is what happens to Horace Benbow in Sanctuary (he becomes Goodwin's lawyer and is involuntarily responsible for the latter's conviction and lynching), and to the nameless reporter of Pylon, who is fascinated by the strange ménage à trois of Roger, Laverne, and the parachutist and becomes so involved with them that he finally borrows the money with which to buy Schumann the defective "crate" in which he will ultimately go to his death. Such is also the fate of Shreve and Quentin in Absalom, Absalom! Caught up in events they necessarily learn about differently (they cannot intervene in the action since everything has already irrevocably happened and all the dramatis personae are dead), they are nevertheless far removed from the cold objectivity of the perfect journalist, since (for Quentin, at least) it is to some extent their own futures that they are reading in the tragic fates of Sutpen, Henry, or Charles Bon.

We are also reminded of those innocents peacefully fishing at the lake of Galilee, Thomas Didymus and Simon Peter, or the sons of Zebadiah, who almost despite themselves become the witnesses, the martyrs, of an extraordinary Event. In nearly all of Faulkner's stories one finds (sometimes modestly hidden in a corner) a Witness, making things happen (like Horace Benbow) or conducting an investigation (like Quentin), involved in but not necessarily understanding much about these affairs that do not concern him but from which he is incapable of freeing himself. (pp. 192-94)

[If] the situation of the "involved witness" is so important in [Faulkner's] novels, it is because that is also precisely the situation of the reader of these novels.

We can no more free ourselves from the fascination Faulkner's characters exercise on us than they themselves can stop contemplating their fate. True, this attraction is mixed with horror…. It is as if sanctuaries, in Faulkner's world, take on their sacred character only with the profanation that deflowers them forever…. (pp. 195-96)

[When] we lose ourselves in Faulkner's long sentences, heavy with adjectives and incidents, we get bogged down in them, we literally get entrammeled. Our consciousness, which congeals and becomes more obscure, tends toward the opaque, blind, and totally self-oriented mode of existence, which is doubtless that of the inorganic, of the thing, while, correlatively, objects begin to live and become charged with the intentions and qualities previously reserved to men…. (pp. 198-99)

To use Sartre's language, the "en-soi" and the "pour-soi" exchange their characteristics in Faulkner: men become as much as possible like things, stubborn and inert, while by means of epithets things become subtly alive, as if they could perceive and be aware…. The most striking example of this technique is perhaps to be found in Pylon, a novel completely dedicated to the description of the fascination exercised on men by the machine, and in which the planes and the pilots—the former so much more real than the latter—seem to have exchanged their qualities, as the Reporter tells the editor of his paper. Like his witness, like his reader, Faulkner is hallucinated by this spectacle of an inhuman humanity that might just as well have gas instead of blood in its veins. (pp. 199-200)

The abuse of epithets is one of the multiple instruments of the special sorcery of every great writer, by means of which, as Malraux says in his preface to the French translation of Sanctuary, he incorporates his private obsession into the web of the universe, thus seeking to free himself of it by projecting it onto the object—and, I will add, by forcing us to share it. (p. 201)

[The] author objectifies his fascination in a spectacle, projects his emotion outside himself by supposing for it an imaginary origin, a counterpart external to himself—what T. S. Eliot called the "objective correlative." But this "objective correlative" (that is, the structure of his stories, the plot) is not the only thing he counts on to set off in us the same emotion or to obtain our participation: the Witnesses, the Mediators, are charged with the task of communicating to us, by a kind of contagion, what they feel. (p. 205)

But Faulkner has still other ways besides his use of epithets and his recourse to...

(The entire section is 2451 words.)

Tony J. Owens

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although some of William Faulkner's short fiction is beginning to receive the critical attention it has long deserved, those stories that resist ready categorization, particularly those that lie outside the realm of Yoknapatawpha County, remain neglected. "Artist at Home" is such a work. An enigmatic, ironic, and not wholly successful story, it nevertheless makes significant use of narrative techniques, characterizations, and important themes that recur throughout Faulkner's work. The story's concern with the relation of art to life, with contrasting modes of perception and action, and with the modern dissociation of art and experience make it an important work. "Artist at Home" is also a rare example of Faulkner's direct representation of the artist figure. As an integral part of a larger continuum, it presents both a culmination of Faulkner's early artistic portraits and an anticipation of larger and related themes of perception, responsibility, and action.

The outline of the story is deceptively simple, based upon a typical husband-wife-lover triangle and concerned with the reactions of each to what is apparently an adulterous situation. But the conventional plot is complicated by the presence of a biased, unreliable narrator and an emphasis upon unusually complex human and artistic dilemmas. (p. 393)

First published in 1933, "Artist at Home" was probably composed early in 1931. The relatively early composition date adds significance to the story as a reflection of artistic and philosophical concerns that had occupied Faulkner throughout the 1920's. In the apprentice period in which he made the crucial decision to turn from poetry to prose, Faulkner repeatedly returned in his work to consideration of the role of the artist, the meaning of the artistic or creative impulse, and the relation between art and the rest of human experience. A recurrent theme during this period was Faulkner's rejection of aestheticism as an artistic mode and as a reliable mode of perception. Although strongly influenced by the aesthetic idealism of the French symbolists, Swinburne, and the English fin-de-siècle poets, Faulkner quickly perceived the narcissistic and self-indulgent tendencies in the decadents' emphasis on artificiality and egotism. His rejection of the aesthetic ideal as a distorted perception of reality is perhaps the most significant development of his early career. (p. 394)

Also related to this movement toward a more realistic perspective is Faulkner's growing awareness of the importance of perception as a recognition of the complexity of experience. Obsessive adherence to an abstract ideal results in a distorted or falsified perception of experience. (p. 396)

Distorted perception is also essential to Faulkner's portrayal of a modern wasteland where blindness characterizes those who cannot admit the complex fluctuations of experience and whose devotion to a static abstraction renders them ineffectual or destructive…. [This] failure of perception pervades "Artist at Home," and especially characterizes the males in the story: Howes, Blair, and the narrator. Each perceives experience in abstract terms; each is partially blind. Their blindness is clearly evident in their perception of the woman in the story, Anne Howes. The attempt to explain from an egotistical, imperceptive masculine viewpoint the feelings and actions of a woman is an important device in Faulkner's work, and it occurs in many of the early stories. (pp. 396-97)

Also important in the story is the analogous relationship between art and action; art is both a type of and metaphor for human action. As such, the creative impulse represents man's awareness of his responsibility to create a meaningful existence through conscious action. (p. 397)

Certainly one of the most significant features of "Artist at Home," heretofore ignored, is the implication that Howes has not only condoned his wife's actions, but perhaps instigated the situation and certainly used it for stimulation, to provide inspiration and subject for his art. Several details substantiate this reading. Howes invites the poet to his home (whereas his previous guests were unannounced and unexpected), he excuses to his wife the poet's incivility and contemptuous attitude, he remains carefully absent while the relationship is developing, he hides behind a bush to witness the first kiss, he then allows the poet to continue seeing his wife, and as soon as he thinks the adultery has occurred, he begins to record the events in his story. The possibility of Howes's complicity suggests that his actions are manipulative and recalls the theme of contrasting modes of action, manipulation (Howes) versus self-destructiveness (Blair). But even if Howes has not purposely instigated the situation, his vicarious use of it indicates the degradation of his actions. The story thus represents the dissociation and debasement of art and experience in a diminished, wasteland setting. The title becomes doubly ironic; neither art nor family can thrive in the climate of manipulation and exploitation Howes creates.

Perhaps the most rewarding method of perceiving the thematic complexity of the story is through an analysis of the three dominant characters. Faulkner's ability to create vital, fully developed characters is one of his greatest artistic strengths; one would assume, therefore, that the thin, one-dimensional characterization in "Artist at Home" is deliberate. The main characters appear to be caricatures and often comic burlesques of their...

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Lisa Paddock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Mistral" combines the mysterious death of a young village man on the eve of his wedding, with a priest's illicit passion for his beautiful female ward, the dead man's fiancée, and hence recalls not only the romantic suspicion and intrigue of "Jealousy" and "The Cobbler,"… but also the portrait of a libidinous, tormented priest, originally intended as part of the series of short stories and prose sketches Faulkner published in the Times-Picayune between February and September 1925.

As he subsequently did with several other tales (e.g., "Red Leaves," "Dry September," and "That Evening Sun"), Faulkner chose a title indicative of the story's correlation of theme and environmental conditions....

(The entire section is 977 words.)

Cleanth Brooks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Many informed Americans now consider William Faulkner to be the greatest American fiction writer of the 20th century and just possibly in our history. But his achievement of such recognition came to him with a painful slowness. He was 53 when he won the Nobel Prize, and in his acceptance speech he described his life's work as having been accomplished "in the agony and sweat of the human spirit…." Many of us now know enough about his life to realize that he did not exaggerate.

A distressing element was the circumstance that those novels written in the agony of the human spirit did not sell…. Faulkner frequently complained to his close friends and his literary agents that as a consequence he was...

(The entire section is 718 words.)

M. E. Bradford

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Faulkner's short fiction that was] not included in Collected Stories and Knight's Gambit—has survived only in the bound files of old magazines and in hard-to-find books: in obscure, out-of-the-way publications or in editions long out of print. Moreover, at the author's death in 1962, there were 13 essentially complete narratives left in manuscript, surviving but not conveniently available to students of Faulkner's career. With the Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner, Joseph Blotner, who has already written the authorized biography and edited a selection of the letters, completes the Faulkner canon and brings us toward a remedy of the situation just described. Though the book has its obvious...

(The entire section is 601 words.)

Calvin S. Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Uncollected Stories is not merely an act of publication, but a work of serious and useful scholarship. As the editor explains, it "consists of three kinds of stories: those which William Faulkner published but never reprinted in any of his short-story collections, those which he later revised to become parts of later books, and those which have remained until now unpublished." (p. 221)

It is a useful service to make the stories which were revised for inclusion in later books conveniently available…. For the general reader who knows his Faulkner but has no desire to collate texts, reading these stories is a fascinating experience. Such a reader is not aware of all the minor changes...

(The entire section is 497 words.)