His Great Works
Faulkner wrote at least five masterpieces. They are The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August, and The Hamlet. Some people of good judgment would add to this list The Wild Palms and Absalom, Absalom !, books that contain some great writing.
The Theme of Passive Suffering Faulkner’s great subject, as it was Flaubert’s and Proust’s, is passive suffering, the victim being destroyed either by society or by dark forces within himself. Faulkner is one of the great exemplars of the international school of fiction which for more than a century has reversed the Aristotelian doctrine that tragedy is an action, not a quality.
Two Secondary Themes
Two secondary themes in Faulkner have obscured the critics’ awareness of the great theme. These are : the white man’s legacy of guilt for slavery and the rape of the land. These themes are almost obsessive but they are not the main theme. William Faulkner was not a segregationist. (Whether he was an integrationist is a different question). But how could he not have been a segregationist when he said that he would shoot negroes in the streets if the Federal government interfered in Mississippi ? Unless the European reader understands that for Faulkner, and for thousands of other Southerners of his generation, the separatism and possible autonomy of the South came before all other problems, he will misread Faulkner because he will not have discerned the great theme.
In connection with Faulkner’s fiction, we have to become acquainted with the phrase “Yoknapatawpha County” which is the setting of a number of his novels beginning with Sartoris and including such masterpieces as The Sound and the Fury and Sanctuary. “Yoknapatawpha County” is in fact Lafayette County in the State of Mississippi (in the U.S.A) ; and the town of Jefferson which is the scene of several stories is in fact the town of Oxford. In other words, “Yoknapatawpha County” is the fictitious name which Faulkner gave to an actual region in the American South in the same way as Thomas Hardy gave the name of Wessex to an actual region in England which he made the setting for his novels. Faulkner was himself a Southerner : he was born in New Albany (in the State of Mississippi) and spent many years of his life in the town of Oxford (also in the State of Mississippi). But by using imaginary names (Yoknapatawpha and Jefferson) for an actual territory and an actual town, Faulkner has created his own mythology. The novels which have their setting in this region are therefore called the Yoknapatawpha novels, with Sartoris as the first of the series. Sartoris is regarded by critics as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha source-book, the germinal work in which he introduced characters like the members of the Sartoris and the Snopes families ; treated of the wars that haunted his imagination throughout his career as a novelist ; presented types that would become recurrent (such as the indomitable elderly woman and the patient negro family servant) ; and developed such themes as the heritage that is both an ideal and a curse. (It is interesting to know that on the map of Yoknapatawpha County appended by Faulkner to his novel Absalom, Absalom Faulkner wrote himself down as the “sole owner and proprietor” of that region).
The Sartorises and the Snopeses
Two recurrent family names in Faulkner’s fiction are the Sartorises (i e., members of the Sartoris family) and the Snopeses (i.e., members of the Snopes family). These two families represent two kinds of characters in Faulkner’s mythology ; they represent two different worlds which are in conflict with each other. In all of his successful books, Faulkner explores these two worlds in detail, dramatizing the conflict between them. The Sartorises act traditionally ; that is to say, they act with an ethically responsible will; they stand for vital morality and humanism. The Snopeses are anti-traditional ; they act only from self-interest, acknowledging no ethical duty. The Snopeses are thus a-moral : they represent naturalism or animalism. The Sartoris-Snopes conflict is thus fundamentally a struggle between humanism and naturalism. In The Sound and the Fury, Quentin Compson represents all that is left of the Sartoris tradition. The rest of the Compson family have either succumbed entirely to the Snopes world (like Jason Compson), or else have drugs to isolate them from it-Mr. Compson his fragments of philosophy, Uncle Maury his liquor, Mrs. Compson her religion and her invalidism, and Benjy his idiocy.
The Virtues and Vices in His Novels
The themes in Faulkner’s novels and short stories have to do with the elementary Christian virtues of self-respect and mutual respect, forgiveness of others as well as oneself, fortitude, a proper balance between humility and pride, and charity. Although he is not in favour of any particular orthodoxy, he obviously, accepts the Christian moral code. He does not, however, wholly admire the practising Christian. Some of his bitterest satire is written at the expense of self-assured piety. He despises stiff-necked and literalminded righteousness; whether it is in the service of the Southern mode or life and behaviour, or of Christian doctrines. Since so many of his stories have Southern settings, these virtues and vices are frequently presented in a context of white and black relationships. And sometimes his concern with them leads him to study the Southern heritage and the “Southern code”. When Faulkner undertakes subjects of a certain magnitude and order, as he did in Pylon and A Fable, he flounders badly. But when he is treating subjects and themes that he feels in his bones, he is magnificent. The themes of the latter variety are the frustration of the negro in “Dry September”, the decency of Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury, the self-preoccupation of Anse Bundren in As I Lay Dying, and the anguish of young Sarty Snopes in “Barn Burning”.
Ownership of Land as a Theme
Ownership of the land is the basic theme of the stories in Go Down, Moses. The book relates the story of a family, the McCaslins, their white and their black branch, narrated not in novel form but in more or less long short stories (the most substantial being “The Bear”) which are focused on various members and events in the family history. This is their common background : Old Carothers McCaslin bought his land “with white man’s money” from an Indian chief who in turn possessed it by treachery. There is no sentimentalizing about the Indians here ; they share the guilt. “McCaslin tamed and ordered or believed he had tamed and ordered the wilderness for the reason that the human beings he held in bondage and in the power of life and death had removed the forest from it and in their sweat scratched the surface of it to a depth of perhaps fourteen inches in order to grow something out of it which had not been there before and which could be translated back into money.” The ownership of the land through money as well as its use for money and profit-making are a part of the guilt, because God created the earth to hold it “mutual and intact in the communal anonymity of brotherhood.”
A Story of the South
The McCaslin saga is one of Faulkner’s representations of the story of the South : the ownership of land by one man (the white man) under exclusion of another (his black cousin) results in tension and guilt, and this is the famous “curse of the South. But not only of the South. Already in Go Down, Moses allusion is made to the rapacity of the westward expansion, and the plantation is made a symbol of exploitation on world-historic scale.
The Anti-Theses in His Novels
Faulkner’s work seems to invite interpretations in terms of various anti-theses. A Fable, for instance, makes a basic division between the meek of the earth and the ambitious, rapacious but creative ones who participate in the works of civilization. Many critics have tried to explain Faulkner’s writings by tracing in them a pair of anti-theses : traditionalism against anti-traditionalism, the Sartoris world against the Snopes world, sickness against primitivism, humanism against animalism, and so on. However, none of these scholarly schemes can describe the whole of Faulkner’s turbulent imagination.
Not a Traditionalist in the Accepted Sense
Still the conception of Faulkner as a traditionalist, who hates and condemns the anti traditional forces represented chiefly by the Snopeses, prevails in most discussions of his work. Actually, Faulkner was never a traditionalist in any accepted sense of the term. His attachment to the South, like Quentin Compson’s in Absalom, Absalom, is one of tormented love, but not of admiration. Although he frequently went far enough back into history, he never chose to concentrate on Southern society in its happier ante-bellum days ; or to hold it up as a model for preservation. He always shows a tradition in the process of going to pieces, and probes into the past for the causes. In the casual complexity there is always at bottom the same thing : a guilt of rapacity and greed which has corrupted the tradition right at its starting-point, an inevitable sin in man’s civilizing efforts. In other words, tradition itself is part of the curse ; and history for Faulkner is really nothing but a working out of the guilt, either by atonement, (as in the case of Isaac McCaslin) or by disasters administered as punishment. They are not disasters of a blind fate, but proceeding logically from the guilt and Drought about by the same spirit which created the guilt. Justice in Faulkner is always done by self-inflicted punishment. Sutpen’s downfall is a perfect illustration of this. But he is not the only sinner : the McCaslins, Sartorises, Compsons, all the other aristocratic planters of the South, also acquired their land by devious means. In Go Down, Moses Faulkner shows that the older families had the sine doubtful beginning, and the system of a Southern plantation can serve as a symbol for the exploitation of ancient Rome. And by 1954, in A Fable Faulkner sees the same guilt, which cursed the South, in all civilization.
His Methods of Handling a Narrative
Faulkner was an incorrigible and restless experimenter so far as technique is concerned. He was peculiarly sensitive to the expressive possibilities of shifts in technique, and did not develop in a straight tine. We may distinguish in his work three basic methods of handling a narrative. One is best typified in Sanctuary, where there is a tightly organized plot, a crisp, laconic style, an objective presentation of character. This is his impersonal method. Another method is best typified by As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury where each character unfolds in his own language or flow of being before us. This may be regarded as a dramatic method because the author here does not obtrude. However, this method makes the subjective reference of character the medium of presentation. The third method is best seen in the story called “Was”, the story called “The Bear”, or the story of the Tall Convict in The Wild Palms where the organization of the narrative is episodic and the sense of a voice, a narrator’s presence, is almost constantly felt. This is a method in which the medium is ultimately a “voice” as index to sensibility.
The Unity in His Work
According to some critics, Faulkner’s work shows a certain unity. From this point of view, his novels and short stories are to be regarded as aspects of a single, large design. This point of view is especially important with regard to the handling of character. A character, Sutpen for instance, may appear in various perspectives, so that from book to book we move toward a final definition much as in actual life we move toward the definition of a person. The same principle applies to events, the principle of the spiral method which t ekes the reader over and over the same event from a different attitude and a different angle. In relation to both characters and events this method makes for a kind of realism and a kind of suspense not common in fiction. The emphasis on the unity of Faulkner’s work may, however, lead to an underestimate of the degree of organization within individual works. For instance, it may not be strictly true that The Hamlet tends to resolve into a series of episodes resembling beads on a string. Actually, we have in that novel a type of organization in which the thematic rather than the narrative emphasis is the basic principle, and once we grasp that fact the unity of the individual work may become clear. Indeed, the whole subject of the principle of thematic organization in the novels and in the long stories needs investigation. In works which seem disjointed, or which seem to have the mere tale-teller’s improvisations, we may sometimes discover the true unity if we think of the line of meaning, the symbolic ordering, and surrender ourselves to the tale-teller’s “voice”.
The Portrayal of Negroes in His Novels
The actual role of the negro in Faulkner’s novels is consistently one of pathos or heroism. It is not merely that Faulkner condescends to depict the good and faithful servant, the “white folks’ nigger”. There are figures like Dilsey, but they are not as impressive as the negro in “Red Leaves” or Sam Fathers who, with the bear, is the hero of “The Bear”. The fugitive, who gains in the course of the former story a shadowy symbolic significance, is told in the end by one of the Indians who overtake him : “You ran well. Do not be ashamed, and when he walks among the Indians, he is “the tallest there, his high, close, mud-caked bead looming above them all”. And Sam Fathers is the fountain-head of wisdom which Ike MacCaslin finally gains, and the repository of the virtues which are eternal for Faulkner- “an old man, son of a negro slave and an Indian king, inheritor on the one hand of the long chronicle of a people who had learned humility through suffering and learned pride through the endurance which survived suffering, and on the other side the chronicle of a people even longer in the land than the first, yet who now existed there only in the solitary brotherhood of an old and childless negro’s alien blood and the wild and invincible spirit of an old bear.” Even Christmas, in Light in August, though he is sometimes spoken of as a villain, is a mixture of heroism and pathos. He is the lost. suffering, enduring creature (the figure like Sam Fathers, the tall convict of The Wild Palms, or Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury), and even the murder which he commits at the end is a fumbling attempt to define his manhood, an attempt to break out of the iron ring or mechanism, to lift himself out of “nature”, for the woman whom he kills has become a figure of the horror of the human which has surrendered the human attributes. We may compare Christmas to Mink Snopes in The Hamlet in this respect : Mink, mean and vicious as he is, kills out of a kind of warped and confused pride, and by this affirmation is set off against his kinsman Flem, whose only values are those of pure Snopesism.
The Memorable Subsidiary Facts in His Novels
After a second reading of Faulkner’s novels, we continue to be impressed by his villains, Popeye and Jason and Joe Christmas and Flem Snopes ; but this time we find more place in our memory for other figures standing a little in the background yet presented by the author with quiet affection : old ladies like Miss Jenny DuPre, with their sharp-tongued benevolence ; shrewd but kindly bargainers like Ratliff, the sewing-machine agent, and Will Varner, with his cotton gin and general store ; Ion; suffering farm-wives like Mrs. Henry Armstid (whether her name is Lula or Martha) ; and backwoods patriarchs like Pappy MacCullum, with his six middle-aged but unmarried sons named after the generals of Lee’s army. We remember the big plantain houses that collapse in flames as if a whole civilization were dying, but we also remember men in patched and faded but quite clean overalls sitting on the gallery of a cross-roads store that is covered with posters advertising soft drinks and patent medicines ; and we remember the stories they tell while chewing tobacco. Everything in their world is reduced to anecdote, and every anecdote is based on character. We remember Quentin Compson not in his despairing moments but riding with his father behind the dogs as they quarter a sedge-grown hillside after quail ; and not listening to his father’s story, but still knowing every word of it.
Family Affection in His Novels
Faulkner’s novels have the quality of being lived, absorbed, remembered, rather than merely observed And they have what is rare in the novels of our time, a warmth of family affection, the brother’s for brother and sister, the father’s for his children–a love so warm and proud that it tries to shut out the rest of the world. Compared with that affection, married love is presented as something calculating, and illicit love as a consuming fire. And because the blood relationship is central in his novels, Faulkner finds it hard to create sympathetic characters between the ages of twenty and forty. He is better with children, negro and white, and extremely good at delineating older people who preserve the old standards of life.
The Charge of Sensationalism Against Him
Faulkner has had his share of adverse criticism. It has been alleged, for instance, that he has no ideas and no point of view and that, consequently he is melodramatic, a mere sensationalist. He has also been accused of being a deliberate manufacturer of superfluous horrors, a belated literary descendant of Edgar Allan Poe. One of the critics says that Faulkner stresses the grotesque and the horrible to the point where they become simply ludicrous. These criticisms are, however, misconceived. There is a lot of difference between Poe and Faulkner. Poe’s frightful fiction is the product of a morbid taste for pre-arranged nightmares while Faulkner is a realist. The very brilliance of Faulkner’s realism seems to have confused critics who, startled by it, have missed the subtle implications of idea in the novels. At, the same time, while differing radically from Poe in being a close observer and realistic reporter of the human tragedy, he departs just as radically from the naturalistic school’s baldly objective, documentary method. He is constantly interpretative ; he sees his subjects in the light of humane ideas ; his realism always intends signification ; and this lifts his most extreme passages above sensationalism.
Faulkner’s Spokesmen in His Stories
Faulkner’s view of human life is most pessimistic, and his writing is of a predominantly melancholy tone. Some critics have failed to make the necessary distinction between the statements of his characters’ in the novels and his own ideas. The words of Mr. Compson that “history is an illusion of philosophers and fools” have, for instance, been attributed to Faulkner himself Undoubtedly Faulkner, like any other novelist or dramatist, stands behind some of his character., but which of them are his spokesmen can be decided only in terms of the preponderance of his ideas In many of Faulkner’s stories there is the compassionate troubled observer. Such is Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury and in Absalom, Absalom. Such also are Benbow in Sanctuary, hightower in Light in August, and Ratliff in The Hamlet. It is no doubt indicative of Faulkner’s own attitude that these compassionate observers so largely provide the reflective point of view from which the story is told and thereby determine its moral atmosphere. This typical technique is in itself a refutation of the charge that Faulkner is nihilistic and merely sensational. Indeed, it shows that the intention, of Faulkner’s temperament is idealistic, while its awareness of the preponderant realities of human behaviour is pessimistic.
Positive Values in His Novels
It is significant also that the pendulum of mood in his novels usually swings to positive assertion. Hightower and Benbow, for instance, return again and again to the struggle. Even the crazed Quentin Compson realizes that beyond despair is something still more intolerable, and that something is indifference. Says he : “It’s not when you realize that nothing can help you-religion, pride, anything-it’s when you realize that you don’t need any aid.” Quentin Compson is obsessed by his father’s teaching that “all men are just accumulations, dolls stuffed with sawdust” etc. but still he cannot accept his father’s argument that virginity is a silly notion. These characters do not surrender principle. In fact, even the skeptical Mr. Compson often shows an awareness that the moral issue is not fragmentary and he sees human virtue manifested sometimes in acts of apparent evil. Another point in the ethics of Faulkner’s characters is an idealization of honesty. Often the unassuming virtue of simple people provides the foil to evil, and furnishes the atmospheric tension in his scenes. And thus Faulkner’s deep pessimism does not proceed from a denial of values but from a melancholy recognition of the great weight of evil opposition to very real values.
The Other Side of the Picture
The affirmative aspect of Faulkner’s outlook should not, however, be over-emphasized. Ever since his assertion in his Nobel Prize speech that man will endure and pevail, much emphasis has been placed on the affirmative aspects of his vision. This affirmation seems somewhat ambiguous if we just consider what most visibly and clearly endures in his major novels. In The Sound and the Fury, Dilsey endures, no doubt. But Jason and the idiot Benjy endure too, and even more visibly. And the last image of humanity in the book is that of Benjy. In As I Lay Dying, the Bundren family endures and it does include Cash, who can up to a point be viewed affirmatively ; but Darl, probably the most fully human of the Bundrens, has not endured, and the Bundren who most clearly prevails and who provides our last glimpse of humanity, is the shiftless and parasitic Anse. In Light an August we can draw comfort from the fact that it is Byron and Lena who endure, but it is a greatly diminished comfort in view of their reduced appearances when we last see them. In Absalom, Absalom, what endures of the Sutpens is a howling idiot. Quentin the inheritor of the Southern past, barely endures at the end of the book and commits suicide not long afterwards. Faulkner’s other books produce the same general effects. Worth noting also, in this connection, is the darkness in Faulkner’s vision that comes from the fact that the agony of his characters almost never leads them or those who outlive them to any wisdom as understanding of their own or the human condition. Even Hightower, who more than any other character, does experience an illumination, but draws no real comfort or peace from it and at the end retreats again into the obsession which has destroyed him.
Faulkner at His Best
Faulkner is best and most nearly himself either in long stories like “The Bear” in Go Down, Moses, and “Old Man” which was published as half of The Wild Palms, and “Spotted Horses” which was first printed separately, then greatly expanded and fitted into the loose frame-work of The Hamlet ; or rise in the Yoknapatawpha saga as a whole. That is, he is most effective in dealing with the total situation that is always present in his mind as a pattern of the South ; or else in shorter units that can be conceived and written in a single burst of creative effort. It is by his best that he should be judged, like every other author ; and Faulkner at his best has a power, a richness of life, an intensity to be found in no other American novelist of our time. He has “the element of simple genius, the quality of imagination.”