Cultural Paradoxes of the South
Faulkner is one of the Southern writers. The South which the American Southern writers have dealt with embodies a complex union of opposites such as calm grace and raw hatred ; polished manners and violence ; an intense individualism and intense group pressures toward conformity ; a reverence for self-determining action and a caste-and-class structure presupposing an aristocratic hierarchy. The literary imagination of Southern writers like William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and Tennessee Williams was shaped by the cultural paradoxes of the South, and these writers have intricately probed those paradoxes in such characters as Quentin Compson, Jack Burden, and Blanche DuBois.
Characters of 20th-Century Southern Literature
Characters of 20th-century Southern literature yearn for freedom from the past, from suffocating family responsibilities, old mistakes and corruptions, illusions, compromises, and mendacity. Americans all, they harbour to some degree the strong impulse to escape history to assert their innocence, and to declare independence from entanglements that would thwart their own individualism. But they finally cannot act on this impulse because as Southerners they feel that self-proclaimed pure motives, magnificent vitality, and millenialist faith do not constitute a destiny of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They have the knowledge that mansions decay, and riches turn to rags. Most of the Southern characters ultimately perceive the ancient tragic vision of the inescapable consequence of being human. To resist fate, to refuse the responsibility of acting in a time and place, to answer another’s need, to dismiss compassion and self-denial, and to refuse to accept the validity of thee community’s claim-this is to risk an awful freedom that sweeps, away the old sources of wisdom and contentment. To persist in, such radical innocence is a fatal, self-defeating prospect in the view of Faulkner and others who regard an existential freedom as a product of modernity leading rather to despair than to exhilarating, truth._, But alas, even these traditionalists among the writers of the 20th-century South suggest that the achievement of the classical or the Christian vision comes only fitfully. And a character like Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury not only lives the paradoxes but understands he is doing so. For him knowing his duty, not performing it, is the problem. At the conclusion of All the King’s Men, Jack Burden moves “out of history into history and the awful responsibility of time,” but the question remains whether any clearly defined community exists in which he can enact his moral vision.
Faulkner’s Interpretation of the South
Faulkner’s novels have a wide base in Southern history and present-day Southern society. In these novels we find Faulkner’s. profoundly philosophical interpretation of that history and society. Faulkner was born in the South ; he grew up in the South ; and he spent the major portion of his life in the South. He did not cut himself off from his roots. Instead he tied to penetrate and utilize those aspects of life which were presented to him by his heritage and his circumstances.
The Illusions of the Post-Bellum Southern Characters
Two wars seem to have contributed to Faulkner’s melancholy, the First World War and the American Civil War. His disillusionment with war was indicated in his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, with its ghastly portrait of the disfigured flier’s return and his sweetheart’s disgust with him and infidelity to him. But the most profound generalization of this war-born melancholy is found in his third novel, Sartoris, where one of the characters speaks of this “dark shape of doom”. In all Faulkner’s novels this “dark shape of doom” is recognized as eternal and omnipresent. In Sartoris, the theme of the soldier’s return from France is linked to the theme of the decay of an old Southern family, and of all the traditions which once supported it. In Faulkner’s novels, the post-bellum South seems to stand petrified in a morbid backward glance at the holocaust consuming a damned people. The Canadian Shreve describes Quentin Compson’s land (the South) as “a kind of vacuum, filled with anger and pride and glory at the happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago”. In a post-bellum stage, Southern complacency moves Mrs. Compson to declare that God would not permit certain things to happen to her because she is a lady. In its secondary form of snobbery, this delusion leads Temple Drake to assert again and again that her father is a judge ; and the tradition of gentility and gallantry reaches its final perversion in her drunken escort, Gowan Stevens, who takes Temple into Goodwin’s sinister farm-house, gets himself knocked down in a. quarrel over her “honour”, and then deserts her, after which he can, still say that he alone has suffered.
A Painful Realization By Some Southern Characters
Certain other Faulkner characters, however, cannot flatter themselves with the comfort of a decayed legend. Their consciousness of the South’s real history and position is painfully acute ; they have come individually to what. Mr. Coldfield in Absalom, Absalom foresaw as “that day when the South would realize that it was now paying the price for having erected its economic edifice not on the rock of stern morality but on the shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage”. Hence what Rosa Coldfield feels as “fatality and curse on the South”. Yet no matter how detached and judiciously critical Faulkner’s Southerners become, most of them are still bound by their instinctive and habitual filial piety, and are not inclined to disown their infirm, corrupt land. The hypersensitive Quentin Compson, conceiving of “the South, the deep South dead since 1865 and peopled by outraged, baffled ghosts”, thinks of himself as two separate Quentins, the one preparing for Harvard, and the other “still too young to deserve yet to be a ghost but nevertheless having to be one for all that, since he was born and bred in the deep South”. Quentin’s Canadian-born Harvard room-mate Shreve remarks ; “The South. Jesus. No wonder you folks all outlive yourselves by years and years and years. On another occasion, Shreve says “Jesus, the South is fine, isn’t it ? It is better than the theatre, isn’t it ? No wonder you have to come away now and then, isn’t it ?” This man, joking in an ironical tone, emphasizes the mental torture of Quentin who in Absalom, Absalom has been witness in imagination, and the philosophical expositor, of Thomas Sutpen’s overthrow by the South, and who sees in his own family the irredeemable products of a cycle of degeneration in The Sound and the Fury. Along with Benbow and Hightower and the Bayard Sartoris of The Unvanquished, Quentin Compson is undoubtedly one of Faulkner’s chief representatives. At the close of Absalom, Absalom, Quentin speaks for Faulkner when he cries out to himself the repeated assurance that he does not hate the South. Quentin’s suicide is the escape of a fastidious mind from the horror and shame of life as his own family leads it. Significantly the member of the Compson family who best endures is the thirty-three-year-old idiot Benjy ; he bellows when the carriage takes an unaccustomed turn which presents an unfamiliar scene, but when the customary route is resumed he becomes quiet. Thus the final rut of decadent formality and tradition is symbolized in the closing sentence of The Sound and the Fury
The broken flower drooped over Benjy’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and facade flowed smoothly once more from left to right ; post and tree, window and doorway, and signboard, each in its ordered place.
A Comprehensive View of the History of the South
Faulkner’s most comprehensive view of the history of the South is contained in the splendidly executed Absalom, Absalom. Not only Thomas Sutpen’s whole life is represented in 1869, but his story and subsequent events in the life of his family are reconstructed from observation and hearsay in 1910, so that the novel sketches almost a century, with the Civil War as its crisis, and with the dramatic arc of Sutpen’s rise and fall as a graph of slavery’s evil and the furious fatality of retribution.
The Victimization of Negroes
In Faulkner’s view, the South lost its integrity in victimizing the negroes. Hightower’s father had been “an abolitionist almost before the sentiment had become a word to percolate down from the North”, and his disapproval of slavery lay in a throwback to the “austerity” of pioneer times when a man had to do his work himself “by means of a sheer fortitude”. Here again, as in Faulkner’s frequent idealizations of honesty, is an index to a fixed value.
The Concept of Justice
Picturing the post-bellum fate of the South and Southerners, Faulkner seems to visualize what Rosa Coldfield calls “that justice which presides over human events which, incept in the individual, runs smooth, less claw than velvet ; but which, by man or woman flouted, drives on like fiery steel and overrides both weakly just and unjust strong, both vanquisher and innocent victimized, ruthless for appointed right and truth.” It is a justice sometimes working for redress through man’s destructive violence.
Faulkner’s Appreciative Attitude Toward Negroes
Faulkner does not attribute an attitude of relentlessness to the typical negroes in his Mississippi scenes. He more often shows them resigned in that state of life to which the white people have been pleased to put them. “It rests with the servant to lend dignity to an unnatural proceeding,” he writes in Mosquitoes, and frequently he shows the black man making that contribution. The negro’s unnatural paradoxical status is keenly felt by Faulkner. Quentin Compson realizes that “a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behaviour : a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among”. He credits that behaviour as having a quality of “shabby and timeless patience, of static serenity : that blending of child-like and ready incompetence and paradoxical reliability”, yet showing “a fond and unflagging tolerance for white folks’ vagaries like that of a grandparent for unpredictable and troublesome children”. Caspey, the family servant in Sartoris, is a full-length picture and something of a caricature of such a negro. A more profoundly conceived and more symbolic negro character, perhaps the finest in all Faulkner’s novels, is in The Sound and the Fury. She is the servant Dilsey who is crucified by work and worry, who speaks with open bitterness to her employers and her own family, but whose fidelity, beneficence, and endurance are endless. There is an unforgettable glimpse of her in the negro church when “two ‘tears slid down her fallen cheeks, in and “out of myriad coruscations of immolation and abnegation and time”.
The Sin of Slavery in the South
The whole of Faulkner’s work, far from idealizing the old South and its lingering legend, seems to suggest the thesis that the sin of human slavery Was so great as to require for its expiation nothing less than a wiping the slate clean, by a complete reversal to primitivism among a People who, whatever their pretensions to a culture, were never really just and sound enough to bequeath a working tradition. What they did bequeath, besides degeneration or disillusion, was ruthlessness with the hypocritical mask of aristocracy finally fallen away. The ultimate expression of this pessimistic view of the South’s doom is put by Faulkner into the mouth of Shreve, the totally detached, sarcastic observer who thinks that “in time the Jim Bonds are going to conquer the western hemisphere”.
No Mere Sociological Regionalist
Perhaps nowhere has Faulkner written more feelingly of the South, with a more filial sympathy for it, yet with so much of a Hamlet’s grieving disillusionment, as in The Unvanquished; and young Bayard Sartoris in narrating this story seems to speak most directly for the author. It seems probable that Faulkner, not only refusing to try to revenge the South but even refusing to condone its sins, feels himself like Bayard equally bereaved and alone. Such a personal feeling about himself as a Southerner added to’ the fundamentally melancholy bent of Faulkner’s temperament could account in no small degree for the dark tinge of his stories. Faulkner, however, while consistently a Southerner of his own kind and a novelist of the South, is no mere sociological regionalist. He is a literary genius who has painted what he saw in the light of a sensitive, comprehensive, and profound temperament. Front his contemplation of a region vexed with problems of peculiar complexity and difficulty he developed a view of human life that is psychologically representative, and in books which depend least on the Southern locale, such as The Wild Palms and Pylon, he has generalized the theme that man, when passion-ridden and irrationally seeking privilege or sensation or escape, plunges on toward stultification and tragedy.