“THE SOUND AND THE FURY” (1929)
A Psychological Novel
The Sound and the Fury was Faulkner’s fourth novel, the first three having been Soldiers’ Pay, Mosquitoes, and Sartoris. The Sound and the Fury was his first great novel, with an innovative technique. However, it cannot be regarded as a popular novel because it is deficient in action, being largely a psychological novel.
A Story of the Compson Family
The Sound and the Fury traces the decline of an old Southern family (the Compson family), the members of which are Mr. and Mrs. Compson, and their four children-Quentin, Candace (or Caddy), Benjamin (or Benjy), and Jason. Of these, Benjy is a born idiot, and imbecile who, when grown up, has to be castrated and who is eventually sent to a mental asylum in the city of Jackson (while the family has its residence in the town of Jefferson). Quentin, the eldest of the four children, is an idealist and a puritan ; but he has at the same time incestuous feelings towards his sister Caddy, and he commits suicide when still a student at Harvard University. Caddy grows into a promiscuous girl, becomes pregnant by one of her boy-friends, and marries another man who afterwards refuses to accept her baby daughter who is given the name Quentin and who has to be brought up in her grand-parents’ home. Jason is a practical and greedy kind of man, thoroughly materialistic in his outlook and devoid of any real sentiment.
The Four Sections of This Novel
This novel consists of four sections, the first three containing monologues by three different characters, and the fourth giving us a part of the story through the normal third-person mode of narration. The first section contains a monologue by the idiot Benjy who can give us only his sense-impressions without being able to organize his thoughts, with the result that this section is perfectly incoherent and almost unintelligible until after we have gone through the remaining three sections. The second section contains a monologue by Quentin, and the thoughts of the speaker here also are given to us in accordance with the technique of, stream-of-consciousness for which Faulkner is evidently indebted to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. This too is a very difficult section, almost baffling, because the present and the past are so mixed up in the speaker’s mind that it becomes almost impossible for the reader to disentangle one from the other. The third monologue, in the third section of the novel, is by Jason, and the narration here is quite straightforward and intelligible. The last section, as already pointed out above, gives us an objective account through the third-person mode of narration.
The Need For Four Sections
Faulkner himself said that this novel contained a story that required four tellings. Having presented Benjy’s experience, he found that it was so incomprehensible that he had to write another section for clarification. The second section accordingly became. both a clarification and a counterpoint to the first, while the third section became a clarification and a counterpoint to the second The story thus moves from the remote and strange world of Benjy’s idiocy and innocence, where sensations and basic responses are all we have ; through the intensely subjective as well as private world of Quentin’s fantastic kind of idealism ; to the more familiar, even commonsense-cal meanness of Jason’s materialism. The fourth section comes to us as though from an outsider. The story, as it finally emerged, tells not only of four children and their parents, but of a larger world of twilight. Indeed, the title which Faulkner had originally intended to give to this novel was “The Twilight”.
The Autobiographical Character of This Novel
It may also be pointed out that The Sound and the Fury has an autobiographical character. Faulkner put a bit of himself into his portrayal of Benjy, much more of himself in his portrayal of Quentin, and something of his father into the portrayal of Jason. The failure of the parents in this novel reflects Faulkner’s own feeling about the failure or at least inadequacy of his own parents. Caddy in this novel represents the sister whom Faulkner never had, but for whom he felt a great longing. The portrayal of Caddy filled the vacuum in Faulkner’s own heart. That was perhaps the reason why Faulkner, till the very end of his life, spoke of Caddy with deep affection. She was, he suggested, both the sister of his imagination and “the daughter of his mind”.
“AS I LAY DYING” (1930)
Fifteen Characters in This Novel
This is a novel which, like The Sound and the Fury, shows Faulkner’s amazing virtuosity. The author concentrates on one character at a time, there being fifteen of them in all. Each character, simultaneously refracting and participating in the forward movement of the story, cuts into the substance and suggests meanings to the degree possible to his consciousness and perception. The novel is divided into as many as sixty sections.
The Story of the Novel
Addie Bundren is dying. Cash, the eldest son, is building a coffin for her. Anse, her husband, allows others to carry his burdens and is in the habit of always trying to justify himself. Darl, the second son, rejected by Addie, has what is sometimes called ‘.second sight”. Jewel is Addie’s illegitimate son, fathered by Whitfield, a preacher. Dewey Dell, the fourth child, is pregnant by Lafe, a neighbour boy. Darl knows, without being told, that Jewel is Addie’s illegitimate, as well as best-loved, son and he knows that Dewey Dell wants to go to Jefferson to buy abortion pills. The youngest child Vardaman, who sometimes seems moronic, thinks Dr. Peabody has killed his mother, and confuses a dead fish with his dead mother. Addie wanted to be buried in Jefferson where her family were buried. After her death, the family set out for Jefferson. The journey is a nightmare. The coffin is upset in a stream Cash’s leg is broken ; and Anse, to save money, coats it with cement. Darl sets fire to a barn to destroy Addie’s dead body, but the dead body is saved by Jewel. Buzzards follow them. A druggist refuses to sell pills to Dewey Dell, and a soda clerk seduces her. Anse borrows a spade and shovel to dig Addie’s grave. Darl is. taken off to the asylum in Jackson ; and Anse, having taken Dewey Dell’s money, buys new teeth and gets himself a new wife.
A Heroic Effort By the Bundren Family
The whole of this novel is based on the heroic effort of the Bundren family to fulfil the promise to the dead mother, to take her body to Jefferson ; and the fact that Anse Bundren, after the heroic effort has been completed, immediately gets a new wife for himself does not negate the heroism of the effort, nor the poetry and the feeling which give substance to the book. We are told by one critic that “what should have been the drama of the Bundrens thus becomes in the end a sort of brutal farce”, and that we are “unable to feel the tragedy because the author has refused to accept the Bundrens, as he did accept the Compsons, as tragic”. Actually, however, the Bundrens seem to produce a somewhat better impression than the last generation of the Compsons (the whining mother, the promiscuous Caddy, the ineffectual Quentin, and the others). The Bundrens at least are capable of the heroic effort, and the promise is fulfilled. What the conclusion indicates is that even such a fellow as Anse Bundren, in the grip of an idea, in terms of a promise or code, is capable of rising out of his ordinary level. Anse certainly shows a decline at the end, but only after the idea and the obligation have been fulfilled.
Several Themes in the Novel
There are several themes in this novel. According to Addie, one has an obligation to be involved and to accept the accompanying and inevitable violence and suffering. Cash and Jewel apparently accept her doctrine, and live by it Anse and the remaining children, for various reasons, do not. The three children are also victims of the lack of love between Anse and Addie. Addie, while faithful to her belief in the need for violence, is not faithful to Darl, Dewey Dell, or Vardaman, the children of her flesh though not of her doctrine. She rejects them. And in Darl, as a poetic, speculative type, there is a third theme. He is similar to Quentin Compson (both see themselves as motherless) in his preoccupation with man as a lost creature in the universe. He gives himself to speculations and searches into the dark corners of other people’s minds. Cash holds fast to the physical world, and so does Jewel. But Darl, like Quentin Compson, loses his hold and goes mad. These, then, are the major themes––Addie’s doctrine of involvement, the consequences that follow the breakdown of family love, and the dangers in turning away from action and giving oneself to endless speculation. And if we wanted to concentrate attention on Anse or certain other characters, undoubtedly still more themes could be pointed out. The fifteen characters in their relationships with one another, especially with Addie, seem a part of the world’s mystery and complexity.
This tragic-grotesque story demanded a special form of writing. Out of more than fifty short sketches, each told by one person, Faulkner assembled an intricate design of psychological analysis. Besides the members of the family, various relatives, neighbours and friends enrich the narrative with tales told from their points of view. The effects on the reader vary, touching his emotions or his sense of humour. This book is, perhaps, Faulkner’s most congenial.
The Rape of Temple Drake With a Corn-Cob
This is the novel which made Faulkner famous. It might be described as a thriller, and it is not Faulkner’s fiction at its serious best. It opens as a Gothic story, then moves toward and merges into a double vision of amoral modernism and the world as ripe and over-ripe. The Gothic beginnings include the remote Old Frenchman’s place, a decayed plantation house, surrounded by a foreboding wood. The sky is dark, there are dimly perceived movements, and strange sounds. There is a blind man whose “cataracted eyes looked like two clots of phlegm”. The maiden-heroine is Temple Drake, and the hero is the ineffectual and alcoholic Gowan Stevens. They are both parodies of the usual Gothic heroine and hero. Temple flees -from Lee Goodwin who plans to seduce her, and she escapes with the help of the idiot Tommy, to a rat-infested corn-crib. She is discovered there by Popeye who shoots Tommy and rapes Temple with a corn-cob, a scene that exceeds any of the sexual crimes found in Gothic fiction. Popeye sets her up in a brothel in Memphis. He arranges for a. young man named Red to be her lover, while he himself is present when they make love. Temple soon becomes thoroughly depraved, a fact upon which much of the subsequent action depends.
Allegorical Interpretation of the Novel
Popeye is sometimes said to represent amoral modernism. He is impotent but, with the aid of natural lust represented by Red, he corrupts Southern womanhood represented by Temple and she becomes his ally. Formalized tradition, represented by the lawyer Horace Benbow, tries to defend Goodwin who is accused of the murder of Tommy, but the amoral modernists represented by the politician, the townpeople, and the district attorney Eustaee Graham see to it that Goodwin is lynched. Faulkner himself said that Popeye was “all allegory”.
Humour and Satire
Much of the humour in this novel is folk humour. Some of the satire on the townspeople of Jefferson is in the realistic tradition. That the humour, satire, and pre-defined characterizations do not destroy but rather merge into the nightmarish quality of the book is a tribute to Faulkner’s ability to control his materials. But the complexity may also suggest that Faulkner was more concerned with telling a sensational, grim, and sometimes funny story than he was with investigating its significances.
The Character of Popeye and its Significance
Sanctuary is the most violent of all Faulkner’s novels. It is also the most popular and by no means the least important in spite of Faulkner’s comment that it was “a cheap idea deliberately conceived to make money”. The story of Popeye and Temple Drake has more meaning than appears on a first, hasty reading. Popeye is one of several characters in Faulkner’s novels representing the mechanical civilization that has invaded and partly conquered the South. He is throughout described in mechanical terms : his eyes “looked like rubber knobs” ; his face “just went awry, like the face of a wax doll set too near a hot fire and forgotten” ; his tight suit and stiff hat were “all angles, like a modernistic lampshade”. Popeye was the son of a professional strike-breaker, from whom he had inherited syphilis, and the grandson of a pyromaniac. Like two other villains of Faulkner’s novels, Joe Christmas and Januarius Jones, he had spent most of his childhood in an institution. He was the man “who made money and had nothing he could do with it, spend it for, since he knew that alcohol would kill him like poison, who had no friends and had never known a woman”. In other words, he was the sum-total of the hateful qualities that Faulkner attributed to what is known as finance capitalism. Sanctuary is not of course a connected allegory, but it is at the same time not a mere accumulation of pointless horrors. It is an example of the Freudian method turned backward, being full of sexual nightmares which are in reality social symbols. It is somehow connected in the author’s mind with what he regards as the rape and corruption of the South.
“LIGHT IN AUGUST” (1932)
The Three Strands of the Plot, Loosely Tied
This novel consists of three major and largely separate story-strands. The book has justly been called “a triad of actions”. The three strands are : (1) the story of Joe Christmas, his murder of Joanna Burden, and his death, together with long retrospective sections that trace his life in considerable detail from his birth to the night of Joanna’s death ; (2) the story of Gail Hightower, his re-introduction into life through Lena Grove and Joe Christmas, and his death, together with retrospective and narrative sections on his marriage and , his priesthood ; and (3) the story of Byron Bunch and Lena Grove, of her search for the father of her illegitimate child, and of its birth. These strands are tied loosely together by the accident of time, some interchange of characters, and by the almost mechanical device of having characters in one strand narrate events in another strand. Lucas Burch, the father of Lena Grove’s bastard child, is Joe Christmas’s helper and would-be betrayer. Byron Bunch, Lena’s loving slave, is a friend of Hightower ; he narrates much of the Joe Christmas story to Hightower, and is himself the retrospective narrator for a good deal of Hightower’s early story. Joe Christmas’s grandmother tries, with Bunch’s help, to persuade Hightower to save her grandson, and Joe turns to Hightower in the last moments of his life. Hightower assists at the birth of Lena’s child, and Joe’s grandmother confuses Lena with her daughter Milly, and Lena’s child with Joe as a baby. However, these links are not sufficient to tie the triad of actions into a single action that is complete and whole.
A Mechanical Unity, Imposed on the Novel
A certain mechanical unity is imposed on the novel through Faulkner’s establishing the action of the story in the ten days between Joe Christmas’s killing Joanna Burden and his being killed by Percy Grimm. However, the significance of these present actions is to be found in the past, and the bulk of the novel actually consists of retrospective accounts of that antecedent action. Faulkner tries to preserve a sense of present action as opposed to antecedent action by the device of telling in the present tense all events that are imagined to be occurring in a forward motion during these ten days, and in the past tense all retrospective and antecedent events.
The Argument in Favour of a Real Unity
There has been considerable debate over the extent to which the three stories or actions are unified, and over the nature of that unity. It has been argued that the unity lies in an opposition between “images of the curve”, and “images of linear discreteness”, in the emphasis on Southern Protestantism, in the emphasis on man’s search for community, in the contrast between the brooding self-conscious, introverted life imposed by modern civilization on both Joe and Hightower and the simple normal virtues of a life close to nature like that of Lena and Byron, and in the analogies with the Christ story. The case for the unity of the novel may also be put in this way : “There are three distinct bodies of material in the book : formal Protestant religion, sex, and the negro in Southern society. Each of the story-strands deals predominantly with one of these matters but contains the other two in some degree. The story of Joe Christmas is centred on the problem of the negro in Southern society; the Gail Hightower story is centred on the Protestant church; and the sex element is the controlling factor in the story of Lena Grove, her search for the father of her child, and Byron Bunch’s love for her. The interplays of these materials among these separate story-strands help to knit the parts of the navel into a whole, but these bodies of material and the stories constructed from them find their most meaningful thematic expression as contrasting analogues of the Christ story.”
“ABSALOM, ABSALOM !” (1936)
A Boy’s Ambition
The story of this novel is that of a mountain boy named Thomas Sutpen whose family drifted into the Virginia lowlands where his father found odd jobs on a plantation. One day the father sent him with a message to the big house, but he was turned away at the door by a black man in livery. Puzzled and humiliated, the mountain boy was seized upon by the life-long ambition to which he would afterwards refer as “the design”. He too would own a plantation with slaves and a liveried butler ; he would build a big mansion ; and he would have a son to inherit his wealth.
Sutpen’s Marriage and His Desertion of His Wife
A dozen years later, Sutpen appeared in the frontier town of Jefferson, where he managed to obtain a hundred square miles of land. With the help of twenty wild negroes from the jungle and a French architect, he set about building the largest house in northern Mississippi, using timbers from the forest and bricks which his negroes moulded and baked on the spot. The mansion was named “Sutpen’s Hundred”. Only one man in Jefferson––he was Quentin’s grandfather, General Compson––ever learned how and where Sutpen had acquired his slaves. Sutpen had voyaged from Virginia to Haiti, worked there as overseer on a sugar plantation, and married the rich planter’s daughter, who had borne him a son. Then, finding that his wife had negro blood, he had simply discarded her with her child and her fortune, but had kept the twenty slaves.
Sutpen’s Second Marriage
In Jefferson, Sutpen married again. This time his wife belonged to a pious family of the neighbourhood, and she bore him two children, a boy Henry and a girl Judith. He became the biggest cotton planter in Yoknapatawpha County, and it seemed that his design had already been fulfilled. At this moment, however, Henry came home from the University of Mississippi with a new friend, Charles Bon, who was in reality Sutpen’s son by his first marriage. Charles became engaged to Judith. Sutpen learned his identity and ordered him out of the house. Henry, who refused to believe that Charles was his half-brother, renounced his birthright and followed him to New Orleans. In 1861, all the male Sutpens went off to the war, and all of them survived four years of fighting. Then, in the spring of 1865, Charles suddenly decided to marry Judith, even though he was certain by now that she was his half-sister. Henry rode beside him all the way back to his father’s house, but tried to stop him at the gate, killed him when he insisted on marrying Judith, told Judith what he had done, and then disappeared.
The Complete Failure of the “Design”
But this story of the Deep South does not end here. Sutpen came home after the war to find his wife dead, his son Henry a fugitive, his slaves dispersed (they had run away even before they were freed by the American army), and most of his land about to be seized for debt. Still determined to carry out his “design”, he did not even pause for breath before trying to restore his house and plantation to their original greatness. The effort failed, and Sutpen was reduced to the position of an ordinary merchant. Now, in his sixties, he tried again to beget a son ; but his wife’s younger sister, Miss Rosa Coldfield, felt shocked by his proposal (“Let’s try it”, he said, “and if it’s a boy we’ll get married”) ; and later poor Milly Jones, with whom he had an affair, gave birth to a baby girl by him. At this Sutpen gave up hope and provoked Milly’s grandfather into killing him. Judith survived her father for a time, as did the halt-caste son of Charles Bon by a New Orleans octoroon. After the death of these two by yellow fever, the great house was inhabited by an aged mulatto woman who was Sutpen’s daughter by one of his slaves. The fugitive Henry Sutpen came home to die ; the townspeople heard of his illness and sent an ambulance after. him ; but the old woman, Clytie, thought they were arresting him for murder, and set fire to the house. The only survivor of the fire was Jim Bond, a half-witted creature who was Charles Bon’s grandson.
No Hatred For the South
After hearing this story told by Quentin Compson, the listener, Shreve McCannon, asks : “Now I want you to tell m: just one thing more. Why do you hate the South ? Quentin quickly says, “I don’t hate it. I don’t hate it. I don’t. I don’t hate it.”
A Tragic Fable of Southern History
We cannot help wondering why this sombre and, at moments, unbelievable story had so seized upon Quentin’s mind that he trembles with excitement when telling it and feels that it reveals the essence of the Deep South. The story seems to belong to the realm of Gothic romances. Then slowly we realize that most of the characters and incidents have a double meaning, and that, besides their place in the story, they also serve as symbols or metaphors with a general application. Sutpen’s great design, the land he obtained from the Indians, the French architect who built his house with the help of wild negroes from the jungle, the woman of mixed blood whom he married and discarded, the unacknowledged son (Charles Bon) who ruined him, the poor white man (Milly’s grandfather) whom he wronged and who killed him in anger, the final destruction of the big house like the downfall of a social order––all these might belong to a tragic fable of Southern history. Indeed, the whole novel can be explained as a connected and logical allegory, but this would perhaps mean going far beyond the author’s intention. Faulkner was writing a story, one that affected him deeply, but he was also brooding over’ a social situation. More or less unconsciously, the incidents in the story came to represent the forces and elements in the social situation, since the artistic mind naturally works in terms of symbols and parallels. In Faulkner’s case this kind of parallellism is not confined to this novel ; it can be found in the whole fictional frame-work that he elabonated in novel after novel, until his work became a myth or legend of the South.
“THE WILD PALMS” (1939)
The Lovers’ Belief in Naturalism
This novel contains two entirely different stories, in alternating sections ; but the stories are complementary in that they both derive from the conflict between humanism and naturalism. For Harry, the young doctor, and Charlotte, his mistress, all humanistic morality is equated with mere “respectability”. Of that code of mere respectability, one of the characters expresses the following opinion : “If Jesus returned today we would have to, crucify him quick in our own defence, to justify and preserve the civilization we have worked and suffered and died for two thousand years to create and perfect in man’s own image.” Charlotte and Harry are trying to escape from that code into pure naturalism. Charlotte is the natural or amoral woman. With her, Harry becomes the natural, amoral man. They are constantly insisting upon the entirely physical nature of their love. Their fear of the moral code amounts to an obsession. When they begin to feel as if they were married, living and working together in Chicago, they run off to a remote mining colony in order to escape the feeling of respectability. But Harry is conscious of doom. Their fear is justified, because they are defeated by the very naturalism to which they have fled’: Charlotte dies from the effects of an abortion which Harry, under pressure from her, performs upon her. Harry is arrested, tried, and sent to prison. The defeat of the lovers is symbolized by the palms jeering and mocking in the wind. Charlotte’s love was at the expense of her husband, her children, her own life and Harry’s career and peace of mind. She was not in love with Harry so much as she was in love with love. She tried to find the “meaning” in sex and love. In a sense, Harry is her victim. Faulkner is not saying that he accepts Charlotte’s view that society destroys love. On the contrary, he is saying that an excessive commitment to love is itself destructive.
The Story of the Tall Convict
The other story concerns an unnamed convict, adrift in a small boat on the Mississippi River during the flood of 1917. Like Harry and Charlotte, the convict exists in a realm of unchecked natural forces ; but, unlike them, he has been put there against his will. With him on the boat is a pregnant woman whom he had been sent to rescue. Like Anse Bundren, the convict is capable of genuine moral action ; and his struggle with naturalism is based upon the ethical urge to return to his prison and to carry back the woman he has saved. When he is finally captured, he says : “Yonder’s your boat, and here’s the woman.” With simple-minded tenacity, he has fulfilled his ethical obligation. A noteworthy point is that, when the convict is back in prison, he expresses his view of woman as an affliction from which he is delighted to be free. Despite the sexual deprivation involved in “ten more years without a woman”, he pronounces a judgment which becomes the last word of the novel : “Women, shit !”
One Story a Criticism of the Other
This story, entitled “Old Man”, is a criticism of the love story of Charlotte and Harry. The tall convict, who is the principal character, accepts his obligations and goes to almost ridiculous lengths to satisfy his sense of duty. He fights the river in flood, subdues snakes and alligators, avoids bullets intended for him, and voluntarily returns to prison after his agonizing adventures. Like Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury, the tall convict is one of Faulkner’s “accepters”. He does no theorizing about his lot. He is courageous and dedicated because he feels compelled to be so. He accepts the lot which fate has intended for him, and he is happy in it. He is truly “free”. On the contrary, Charlotte and Harry refused to let their love confront their limitations and restraints, and in the struggle they were almost completely destroyed.
No Real Unity Between the Two Stories
Technically The Wild Palms fails. Only the complementary themes connect the two parts, and the connection is not strong enough for any kind of fictional unity. Indeed, it is a pity that the two parts are printed together, because the story of Charlotte and Harry is one of Faulkner’s failures whereas the story of the tall convict is one of his successes.
“GO DOWN, MOSES” (1942)
A Culminating Work
Go Down, Moses is the last work of what has been called Faulkner’s great period. This book has been regarded by many critics as one of the four or five of the greatest of Faulkner’s novels. Its publication marked the end of an era of Faulkner’s splendid fictional achievements that had begun with The Sound and the Fury. Indeed, Go Down, Moses is a culminating work in many ways, revealing important links to earlier works even as it introduces new fictional themes with a depth and richness almost unique in Faulkner’s work. It is also, however, a transitional book. It shows the author dramatizing new sorts of issues and introducing somewhat different types of characters. Here Faulkner shows a concern with moral and socio-political issues in regional and national history, the problem of race-relations between white, negro, and Indian, and the question of ownership.
Undoubtedly the best of the seven ‘stories in the volume is the one called “The Bear”. In this particular story the author is saying that a right attitude towards Nature should lead a man to the right attitude towards human beings, whites and negroes. Old Ben, the bear, is more than a bear to be hunted : it is a symbol of the wilderness, of freedom, of courage, and of the fruitful earth. Sam Fathers, a negro slave, understands the wilderness and teaches its lessons to Ike (Isaac) McCaslin who learns from Sam Fathers endurance, humility, and courage. No one owns Nature, and no one should exploit it.
“Pantaloon in Black”
Possibly the second best story is “Pantaloon in Black”, a marvellous rendering of the actions of a young grief-crazed negro. However, not all the stories are so successful, nor do all of them fall easily into place in the intended over-all pattern. The story called “Was” is a humorous account of Uncle Bud and Uncle Buck, and of the latter’s being trapped into a marriage he was far from desiring.
No Real Unity in the Book
Faulkner always referred to this book as a novel, although all of its component stories had been written separately and each of them, except “Was”, had been published in some form before the book appeared. It first came out with the title Go Down. Moses and Other Stories, but the title annoyed Faulkner who regarded it as a novel and who therefore asked his publisher to call it simply Go Down, Moses. Accordingly, the title was modified. Nonetheless, the work stands like The Hamlet somewhere between a novel and a cycle of stories Faulkner’s, careful interweaving of the seemingly separate stories is not immediately apparent ; the unity becomes obvious only retrospectively. The title-story comes last in the volume and seems intended to pull the work together.
“INTRUDER IN THE DUST” (1948)
Extraneous Speeches in This Novel
This novel is a moving account of the relationships between a young boy called Charles Mallison and a negro called Lucas Beauchamp. The novel shows the slow process of the boy’s learning to accept the negro as a human equal On this level, Intruder in the Dust is a fine story, but Faulkner introduced Gavin Stevens (Charles’s uncle), and Lucas’s lawyer, and put into the mouth of Stevens long and often extraneous speeches about the South versus the North, and the methods that should be followed to bring about better race-relations. Unfortunately Stevens’s theories are not always convincing, and they seriously interfere with the pace of what would otherwise be a very interesting story.
A Negro, Lucas, Saved From Lynching
Lucas is a man who was going to be almost lynched for a crime which he had not committed. He was saved only because the boy Charles (or Chick) and an old lady, Miss Habersham, went to desperate and dangerous lengths to prove his innocence. The plot of the novel is comparatively uncomplicated ; it focuses quite consistently on the theme of the white man’s responsibility towards the negro, and it casts very little doubt upon the need, desirability, or justice of Chick’s effort to save Lucas.
The Man Versus the Novelist in Faulkner
Faulkner was certainly capable of dramatizing the need for racial equality, but he was incapable in his private life of always treating the negroes as his social equals. In his private life, he could not resist the social pressure to observe racial barriers. In other words, while Faulkner the novelist sensitively delineated the problems and some of the solutions, Faulkner the man was unable to find the proper course of action. Still, he cared deeply, and his conscience continued to haunt him on this subject, compelling at a later date to set apart some of his Nobel Prize money to be used for college scholarships for able negroes.
Ingredients of a Detective Thriller
Chick’s evolving psychic relationship with Lucas is obviously central to Intruder in the Dust. However, this novel began as Faulkner’s first sustained effort to write a full-length detective thriller. He had subtly used some of the conventions of the genre in Absalom, Absalom, in the slow unravelling of a mysterious series of events. Nam, in Intruder in the Dust, he employed numerous elements familiar to readers of mystery stories such as the wrongly accused suspect the jingle-minded detective, the search for a missing body, the ballistic identification, and the final explanation of the murderer’s motives and methods-and techniques like concluding a chapter with a shocking discovery that almost forces the reader to go on. However, it may be pointed out that, towards the end of the novel, the emphasis shifts from the boy Chick and the problem of white-black relations, to the town square and the evils of mechanization and standardization.
The Main Protagonist, a Negro
In this novel, for the first’ time in Faulkner’s work a negro was placed squarely in the centre of the action which takes place in the South. This negro is, in addition, a “pure” negro in that both his parents are pure negroes. Everyone knows bin), and he shows pride in his race. Here no misunderstanding can occur ; here the skin-colour proves the descent and no escape is possible. The hybrid position of a Joe Christmas has here become a problem of the past. The negro in this novel, who is the main protagonist, is Lucas Beauchamp. The combination of his’ name from elements of French and of the New Testament suggests his metaphysical and also his social origin. Lucas (Luke), the apostle, is supposed to have been the son of a Greek slave who was freed. That is exactly the position of Lucas Beauchamp the ex-slave who values his freedom above everything else.
“REQUIEM FOR A NUN” (1951)
Not a Successful Work
Requiem For a Nun is a sequel to Sanctuary. It is a strange morality play involving Temple Drake and Gowan Stevens, as well as Nancy Manigoe and Gavin Stevens. The different Acts of the play are interlarded with long historical chapters on the town of Jefferson and the State of Mississippi. Temple and Gowan (whom she had married) are here a good deal older and the parents of two children. Both of them are restless and unhappy. The action which includes the murder of a child by Nancy, the negro servant,, carries them to a point where they believe in purification by suffering and are ready to accept their burdens. The chapters, which involve Temple and Gowan in history, are convincingly written, but they do not keep this book from being a poor performance for a writer of Faulkner’s calibre.
Nancy’s Murder of Temple’s Baby
The main part of this book, written in dramatic dialogue, concerns Nancy’s success in preserving the marriage of her white employers, Temple and Gowan. While Temple here is an improved version of Temple Drake as she was depicted in Sanctuary, Gowan is an improved version of Temple Drake’s alcoholic boy-friend in that novel. The plot here hinges upon Nancy’s discovery that Temple is about to elope with a blackmailer, who is no other than Pete, the ruffian brother of Red who was her lover in Sanctuary. Instead of confessing to her husband what he already suspects about her past, she is prepared to forsake her family and run away with Pete. Nancy can frustrate this plan only by murdering the small baby, the younger of two children, that Temple intended to take with her. Nancy’s action in murdering the child is depicted by Faulkner as a redeeming gesture. Nancy knows that the salvation of the world lies in human suffering, and out of this dubious knowledge proceeds her determination to kill the child.
The Portrayal of Nancy
Nancy’s sacrifice is a virtual parody of Dilsey’s devotion to the Compson family in The Sound and the Fury. In both works the stock literary image of the negro house-keeper devoted to her white employers is transformed into a symbol for moral understanding. But Dilsey’s role is fortunately a static one ; the significance of her patience and understanding is evident only to the reader. Nancy’s role, on the other hand, is carefully explained by herself and by Gavin Stevens. The reader is expected to reconcile her philosophy of passive suffering with the fact that she intends her sacrifice to accomplish a definite social end. “So good can come out of evil,” Temple says ; and Gavin adds : “It not only can, it must.” Faulkner suggests a comparison between Nancy’s suffering and the Crucifixion. But the negro is deprived of the divine status that would make her sacrifice bearable to others, or even assure its success. She is an inadequate moral agent because, she so ruthlessly places ends above means, an error which Faulkner ordinarily condemns. She surrenders a concrete value, namely her responsibility as the child’s nurse and guardian, for the sake of an intangible moral value.
A Doubtful Sacrifice
In Sanctuary, the author described the rape of Temple Drake; her stay in a brothel, and her rehabilitation in Paris without her attaining full moral success. Requiem for a Nun shows her marriage, adultery, and a second moral breakdown. In order to save Temple (now Mrs. Stevens), Nancy tries to keep her away from immoral acts ; and, when her efforts fail, she strangles Temple’s baby in order to prevent the final catastrophe of one of the two children remaining without a home and a mother. Nancy is executed for infanticide, and it is a matter of opinion whether her sacrifice was worth while.
“A FABLE” (1954)
The Opposition Between the Commander-in-Chief and the Corporal
The story of this novel centres on the mutiny of a French and British unit on the Western Front in the First World War. There are discussions among the officers who have to decide the fate of the mutineers, and in these discussions is located the philosophical centre of all the developments in the novel, including the action, characters, and levels of style. The novel presents a clearly tragic world, tragic because it is shown in successive pairs of opposites each of which is absolutely unresolvable. The most important pair of opposites is that of the commander-in-chief of the Allied forces and the corporal who instigates the mutiny. If their relation to each other and to the total pattern is comprehended, the other problems almost solve themselves. The commander-in-chief is a unique combination of the most praiseworthy qualities. He is just, wise, serene, friendly, and even loving. He has the highest intelligence and self-control. And, besides, be is connected by birth with one of the wealthiest and most influential French families. His military career brings him first to a remote part in Morocco, then to Asia Minor where, through a love-affair with a native girl, a son is born to him. He knows of his son’s existence, but he never sees him until the decisive moment. The son is no other than the corporal who starts the mutiny in the French regiment, is taken prisoner, and faces execution. The son too is a combination of excellent qualities, though be stands very low in the social hierarchy. He possesses endless patience, tremendous strength to endure and to suffer, a goodness of heart, and the spirit of forgiveness.
The Resemblance Between the Corporal and Christ
There is a close parallel between the character of the corporal and that of Christ, and this resemblance makes the story a religious allegory. For example, the corporal has in the regiment twelve disciples. Of these twelve, one betrays him, another denies him, while a third represents him during a temporary absence. Then, the corporal is executed at the same time as a murderer and a thief. The corporal has a crown of barbed wire, and his body is hidden by three women––Marya, Martha, and Magdalena, the first two being his half-sisters, while the third is a prostitute with whom the corporal had at one time an affair.
War Depicted as a Frustrating Affair
Thus the book may be regarded as Faulkner’s version of the Passion of Jesus Christ. The allegory is superimposed upon the story of a false armistice which ties place toward the end of the First World War. Faulkner portrays the war as an endless, frustrating affair which seems meaningless to those caught in it, a war so destructive to the spirit that it does not even provide ambitious young men with any chance for winning glory. Into this atmosphere, Faulkner introduces the Christ-figure, an illiterate corporal serving in the French army who inspires a whole regiment to mutiny. The mutiny frightens all the top brass of both sides so thoroughly that they suspend hostilities in order to hold a conference for the purpose of forming a united front against this revolutionary move.
The Expression of an Attitude of Affirmation
The purpose of the novel is to express an attitude of affirmation. Two years before writing this novel, Faulkner had, in his Nobel Prize address, “declined to accept the end of man” and had declared that man would “endure”. In this novel, there is a passage, spoken by the commander-in-chief (who is the corporal’s father), which shows the same attitude. This is what the commander-in-chief says to his (illegitimate) son while condemning him to death:
“I don’t fear man. I do better : I respect and admire him. And pride : I am ten times prouder of that immortality which he does possess than ever he of that heavenly one of his delusion. Because man and his folly will endure. They will do more. They will prevail.”
Heavenly immortality, then, is a “delusion”. Man’s true immortality lies in his glorious career on earth. Although Faulkner is a very religious writer, his work can surely be interpreted as a tribute to man, not to God. He turned to the Gospels as the source of his affirmation, not because he suddenly discovered traditional Christianity but because he rightly saw in the Gospels the greatest tribute to man ever conceived. The Gospels tell how God became man and man became God for a brief moment, and it therefore probably lies in man’s power to become God again.
THE SNOPES TRILOGY (1940; 1957; 1959)
A Chronicle of the Snopes Family
Three of Faulkner’s novels constitute a trilogy because they all deal with the fortunes, adventures, and fate of the Snopes family. The first volume of this trilogy is called The Hamlet which was published in 1’’1a0. The other two volumes, published in the late 1950’s bear the titles The Town and The Mansion respectively. The three novels together cover several decades in the lives of Flem Snopes, his many relatives, and those with whom they come in contact, following their various triumphs and defeats as they move towards old age and death. The Town and The Mansion, which are works of Faulkner’s late middle age, are less energetic than The Hamlet ; but they have their moments of fine comedy and piercing poignancy.
“The Hamlet” (1940)
The Hamlet, the first volume of Faulkner’s trilogy about the Snopeses, begins a saga that is the most extended of Faulkner’s fictional efforts, depicting a large cast of characters and dramatizing a broad spectrum of private and public issues over a period of several decades. Yet The Hamlet continues the bleak commentary begun by Faulkner in his previous work about the penalties incurred by a commitment to passion. The novel includes a series of what we might call “love stories”, a group of tales about five actual or thwarted liaisons. The first three stories are essentially comic ; the fourth receives a poetic treatment ; and the last has a tragic quality. Faulkner carries off this mixture’ of modes with great stylistic skill while managing to achieve a large degree of narrative unity because the stories themselves offer a combination of likenesses and contrasts. Although The Hamlet is a rich work, it lacks the single focus of The Wild Palms, since the theme of defeated passion is complicated by the factors of economics and moralism. We see here in its first manifestation the broadening and enrichment of the fictional scope that was to mark much of Faulkner’s late work. Another noteworthy feature of this volume is that it reveals a vision of women darker than it had been just a year or two before, and this could be attributed to the author’s over reaction to the failure of his personal romantic involvement with a woman called Meta Carpenter.
Essentially The Hamlet is the story of the Snopes family, especially Flem, moving into Frenchman’s Bend, twenty miles from Jefferson, and systematically defrauding the community. Neither Flem’s face nor voice ever indicates emotion and he does not even entertain the possibility of acting decently or respecting the rules of fair play. He takes advantage of every gesture of goodwill made towards him. Flem victimizes the Varners, who are the largest landowners in Frenchman’s Bend, marries Eula Varner, dupes most of the townspeople, outwitting even the crafty Ratliff, and at the .end of the book is seen going back to Jefferson.
“The Town” (1957)
The Town deals primarily with the incursion of the Snopes family into Jefferson and Flem’s rise to economic power. The book opens and closes with comically terrifying anecdotes about the family. But, the story of Stevens’s thwarted involvements provides a vividly continuous background to the various tales of the Snopeses. The book shows Faulkner in the process of evolution as an artist and a man, yet perpetually carrying on some sort of dialogue with his earlier works and perhaps feeling again the frustrations of his earlier periods. The characterization of Gavin Stevens owes much to Faulkner’s preoccupations in the 1920’s ; and this character has a significant resemblance to Faulknerian protagonists of the 1920’s. Gavin Stevens especially recalls Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury, becoming a comic version of that earlier pivotal autobiographical character. Gavin Stevens is Quentin Compson grown older, foolish instead of tragically doomed, but still held in thrall by the same immature attitudes that made life so difficult for Quentin.
“The Mansion” (1959)
It may be pointed out at this stage that each volume of the Snopes trilogy was preceded by one or the other of Faulkner’s most .passionate extra-marital entanglements with women. The Hamlet treats, among other things, of the anguish of thwarted love, while the later two books contain comic portrayals of a middle-aged man’s ardent yet abortive involvements with an old sweetheart and with two young women. All of these depictions grew out of Faulkner’s own frustrating liaisons over a period of some twenty five years.
In The Mansion Faulkner returns to the problems of Gavin Stevens and the case of the people of Jefferson versus Snopes. This novel, generally regarded as stronger than The Town, contains some passages of superb writing, conveys a powerful sense of the passage of time, and has a wonderfully memorable character in the vicious and yet pathetic Mink Snopes. On him and on the moving dramatization of his plight, both in itself and as it mirrors that of the other characters, rests much of the value of The Mansion.
Faulkner carefully makes this work continuous with the previous two Snopes novels, despite minor inconsistencies which he acknowledges in the preface. He summarizes events in The Hamlet and in The Town and begins where each of the preceding novel ends, with Mink in jail and Gavin Stevens persisting in his ambiguous “protectorship” of Linda Snopes, now a deaf war widow, and in his ineffectual battle to arrest the tide of Snopesism. Drawn into an ‘odd Platonic romance with Linda, Stevens refuses her offer of a sexual intercourse on the ground that he wants them to be the only two “in all the world who can love each other without having to”.
Faulkner was over sixty when he wrote The Mansion, and many elements in the novel indicate that it is the work of an aging man acutely aware of the approach of death. Everyone in the novel is old and seems filled with a sense of futility.
“THE REIVERS” (1962)
An Autobiographical Novel
After the publication of The Mansion, Faulkner had just enough time, before his death (6th July, 1962), to complete a novel which he had begun in 1940 and which he had then abandoned. This novel was The Reivers which was published shortly before Faulkner’s death. The title of this novel was derived from a word .of Scottish origin meaning “raider”. It was a subtle acknowledgement of his Scottish ancestors, the Falconers, who had migrated to the U.S.A. many generations before the writer’s birth. This novel lacks the range and splendour of his great works, but in its own small way it is a first-rate achievement and serves as an excellent farewell. It is especially interesting because of its marked autobiographical character. Many of the episodes in it are amusing, and the world of Faulkner’s own childhood is skilfully evoked.