He gives us the impression, again and again, that men are helpless in the hands of their mothers, wives, and sisters ; that women do not think but proceed from evidence to conclusions by devious paths ; that they possess neither morality nor honour ; that they are capable of betraying men without either hesitation or any sense of guilt, though they are also capable of inexplicable loyalty ; that they enjoy an occasional beating at the hands of their men ; that they are unforgiving and without charity to other members of their own sex that they lose keys and other small useful articles with a strange regularity but are quite capable of finding things invisible to men; that they use their sexuality with cold calcuation in order to achieve their ends. In no other writer in the world do such obnoxious women appear with greater frequency and on more levels, from the most trivial to the most profound.
Faulkner’s Adverse View of Woman
Faulkner portrays women in a most unfavourable light. Indeed, the ordinary reader would feel shocked by the way in which Faulkner depicts women, especially the young women. He depicts them not only as promiscuous by nature but also as unreasonable and unduly possessive and aggressive.
Only Some Elderly Females, Treated With Respect
Until his very last books, Faulkner treated with respect only elderly females, white or coloured, past the menopause. The elderly maiden or widowed aunt is the only figure in his fiction exempt from a scornful and contemptuous portrayal. Such splendid old ladies as Miss Rosa Millard, Aunt Jenny DuPre, and Dilsey, all beyond the age of any sexual attraction, gain Faulkner’s admiration. These ladies neither threaten nor allure ; they give household orders and provide intuitive wisdom, but are beyond the magical powers of sexuality. There is hardly a young woman in Faulkner’s novels (a notable exception is Linda Snopes in The Mansion), who does not provoke our bitterness and contempt.
Faulkner’s Portrayal of the American Bitch
Up to the very verge of her climacteric, woman seems to, Faulkner capable of the most shameless sexuality, like Miss Burden in Light in August, cowering naked in the garden of the decaying house waiting to be captured and possessed in an obscene game of hide-and-seek. It would seem that Faulkner refuses to accept “any such theory as female chastity other than as a myth to hoodwink young husbands.” Few writers have’ shown such intensity in exposing the young American woman of loose morals. We come across a large number of bitches in Faulkner’s novels. There is Cecily the “papier mache virgin” of Soliders’ Pay : there is Patricia, the “sexless yet somehow troubling” flapper of Mosquitoes ; and there is that abominable female. Temple Drake in Sanctuary. The last-named woman, with her “cool, predatory, and discreet” eyes, anticipates the kind of modern woman who is cold and yet freely available. This kind of woman is to be found in any American town. To have portrayed such a woman with such deadly accuracy is surely one of Faulkner’s triumphs. Yet Faulkner feels quite disturbed while writing about her. Again and again, the thought or sight of her drives Faulkner to a pitch of hysteria and nausea, as if in her compulsive negation of the feminine she were also an embodiment of evil.
The Dominating or Possessive Woman
A similar intensity of hatred is directed by Faulkner against Belle Mitchell of Sanctuary, the kind of woman who consciously uses her body to confirm her domination over men. The same intensity is directed against that lump of fertility called Eula Varner in The Hamlet and against those young women like Charlotte Rittenmeyer in The Wild Palms and Laverne Schumann in Pylon, who sin not through personal malice, but through the impersonal’ mechanics of their sex. Even Lena Grove, for all her appearance of submissiveness. digs iron claws into her man with a serene possessiveness of instinct.
Men, Sufferers at Women’s Hands
Nor does Faulkner hesitate to express his feeling against such women explicitly. In Absalom, Absalom, Henry Bon learns that “you can’t beat women anyhow and that if you are wise or dislike trouble and uproar you don’t even try to.” This is a lesson which Faulkner never tires of repeating, though he knows that men are incapable of learning this lesson. Quentin Compson goes further than Bon. According to him, women have an affinity for evil. The Reverend Hightower, urging Byron Bunch not to marry Lena Grove, says : “No woman who has a child is ever betrayed ; the husband of a mother, whether he be the father or not, is already a cuckold. There have been good women who were martyrs to brutes. But what woman, good or bad, has ever suffered from any brute as men have suffered from good women ?” And in the story called “Was” these notions are given an amusing expression when a hardened bachelor who has accidentally wandered into an old maid’s bed-room is told that he will now have to marry her : “You come into bear-country of your own free will and accord. All right ; you were a grown man and you knew it was bear-country and you knew the way back out like you knew the way in and you had your chance to take it but no. You had to crawl into the den and lay down by the bear. And whether you did or didn’t know the bear was in it don’t make any difference.”
Two Classes of Young Women
Young, marriageable women, for Faulkner, fall into two classes : great, sluggish, mindless daughters of peasants, whose fertility and sexual attraction are very much like those of a bitch in beat ; and the feverish, almost fleshless but sexually ever-hungry daughters of the aristocracy. We have the peasant wench as earth-goddess like Lena Grove in Light in August, Dewy Dell in As I Lay Dying, and Eula Varner in The Hamlet ; and we have the co-ed as nymphomaniac Venus like Cecily in Soldiers’ Pay, Patricia in Mosquitoes, and Temple Drake in Sanctuary. Their very names seem to be symbolic : “Dewy Dell”, for instance, suggests both a natural setting and woman’s sex, her sex as a fact of nature ; while “Temple Drake” suggests both a ruined sanctuary and the sense of an unnatural usurpation : woman as a sexual aggressor, more drake than duck. These women turn out to be destroyers rather than redeemers. In his portrayal of Lena Grove, Faulkner softens for once into something like admiration ; but his Eula Varner is more typical.
The Portrayal of Eula Varner
Faulkner begins by describing Eula, the goddess who presides over the revels of The Hamlet and is married off in the end to its devil, Flem Snopes. This is how the description begins : “Her entire appearance suggested some symbology out of the old Dionysic times, honey in sunlight and bursting grapes, the writhen bleeding of the crushed fecundated vine beneath the hard rapacious tramping goat-hoof.” But what begins as a eulogy to the manifestation of sheer fertility gradually develops into a puritan cry of distress and distaste before unredeemed, burgeoning life. When Faulkner .abandons mythology for more direct physical description, his uneasiness before Eula’s languor and lusciousness is even more clearly expressed. Thus we read : “She simply did not move at all of her own volition, save to and from the table, and to and from bed. She was late in learning to walk. She remained in her perambulator long after she had grown too large to straighten her legs out. She did nothing. She might as well have been a foetus.” If Eula is a foetus, however, she is an extremely alluring one. When, for instance, she goes to school, men and boys stare at her, whistle, and howl, to express their admiration and their intense desire for her. Eula represents the allurement of mere inert female flesh.
The Portrayal of Temple Drake
If Faulkner’s Eula figures are all motionless, soft flesh, his Temple Drake figures are sheer motion, dancing legs and windblown hair in a speeding car : “sexless yet somehow troubling.” It is the assertion of femaleness which upsets Faulkner in Eula Varner ; and it is the denial of femaleness which distresses him in Temple Drake. Temple is disturbingly almost a man, almost phallic ; and, indeed, at the moment of her rape by Popeye, it is difficult to tell which of them is the phallous-bearer, to whom the bloody corn-cob really belongs. Afterwards Temple says : “Then I thought about being a man, and as soon as I thought it, it happened. It made a kind of plopping sound, like blowing a little rubber-tube wrong-side outward. I could feel it, and I lay right still to keep from laughing about how surprised he was going to be.” Sanctuary is the darkest of all Faulkner’s books, a brutal protest against the quality of American life ; but it is also the dirtiest of all the dirty jokes exchanged among men at the expense of women.
Temple Drake’s Degradation
Temple Drake is the very image of all those fair ladies whose fall or resistance had been the central subject of genteel literature in the U.S.A. Out of her delicate head, at any rate, look eyes which are “cool, predatory, and discreet” : but their discretion is belied by the “bold painted mouth”. She fools no one ; the wife of a gangster into whose hide-out she has stumbled sees immediately that, although Temple is a girl on the run, she no longer means to run fast enough to get away. Even Gowan Stevens, who is Temple’s male opposite number, is not too drunk to understand what she really wants. “Don’t think I don’t see your name where it’s written on that lavatory wall,” he tells her. It is the final degradation ; the holy name “Temple” on the lavatory wall !
Woman as the Violator
Before Faulkner has finished with Temple Drake, we have been compelled to watch this former golden girl, not only raped but begging to be had, whimpering for the sexual satisfaction from which she had once fled in terror. It is really shocking to see her, pleading with Red to satisfy her. Western literature is rich in images of destructive women–such as Thais, Cleopatra, and Lilith. But Temple exceeds them all. She represents a lust of the nerves rather than of the flesh, a programmatic concupiscence, sexuality detached from responsibility, impulse without mind Not content to be violated, the woman becomes the violator, and Faulkner responds with disgust
He came toward her. She did not move. Her eyes began to grow darker and darker. She began to say Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah in an expiring voice. When he touched her she sprang like a bow, hurling herself upon him. With her hips grinding against him, her mouth gaping in straining protrusion, she began to speak : “Let’s hurry. Anywhere. Come on What’re you waiting for ? Please. Please. Please. Please. You’ve got to. I’m on fire, I tell you.”
It is the ultimate desecration, the total denial of the ethereal virgin. The fair maiden of the tradition here becomes the rapist.
Faulkner’s Portrayal of Women in His Later Writings
In some of his last novels, Faulkner seems to have repented of his many blasphemies against women and tried to redeem his anti-virgins. In Requiem for a Nun for instance, he portrays Temple as married to Gowan Stevens who had once read her name on the lavatory wall, and a mother. Though she is burning once more for a new, passionate lover, Faulkner does not permit her to degrade herself again. In this novel, Temple is redeemed by the self-sacrifice of a negro girl, and is left at the end aching with a higher passion for religious belief, and about to follow her husband home. In The Town. Faulkner carries Eula’s redemption even further, actually re-writing her past history and turning her into the very model of female courage and endurance. This time the former embodiment of female corruption herself performs the act of self-sacrifice and dies to assure an honourable future for her daughter. The epitaph inscribed on Eula’s grave by her impotent husband is, we are asked to believe, truer than that husband can guess or any decent citizen is prepared to grant. The epitaph is as follows :
“A Virtuous Wife is a Crown to Her Husband Her Children Rise and Call Her Blessed.”
And even this is not the end. In “The Long Hot Summer”, a film written by Faulkner himself. Eula is converted into the customary Hollywood image of the sexy but sincere young wife. In the end .she helps to win her new husband from weakness to strength, returns to his arms and legitimate bliss when he has proved himself a true son to his father and a good citizen. But it must be pointed out that Faulkner’s art fails him when he turns from his original feelings of nausea and despair to sentimentality and maudlin pity in these later writings. Even the popular mind rejects his attempts of converting those sex-hungry women into the stereo-types of market-place culture.