The Autobiographical Character of Faulkner’s Fiction

The Extremely Subjective Quality of His Work
Unlike many major novelists, Faulkner left no autobiographical writings, except one or two unused prefaces and a semi-fictionalized essay which he wrote in 1953. Most of his letters deal with matters financial and technical ; many of the more personal letters are still unpublished and therefore unavailable.

He had a distaste for biography, and his fiction is in no obvious way confessional. He has therefore been generally regarded as an objective writer, one who writes from a “negative capability”, responding in many different ways to the needs of the theme and the subject, and whose work shows what has been called “the obliteration of his concrete personality”. Yet Faulkner’s work proves to be, upon closer examination, extremely subjective. In fact, his work is capable of being read in its chronological totality as an autobiographical document. And, even though he was opposed to biography as such, he revealed at times that he accepted the essential concept of art-as-biography. He admitted that “I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world.” Later he said : “That’s all any writer ever does, he tells his own biography, talking about himself, in a thousand different terms, but himself.” Faulkner knew that his fiction was all about Faulkner. Like so many writers, he was in one way or another many of his characters, from Julian Lowe to Bayard Sartoris, Quentin Compson, and Lucius Priest. Their narratives told the continuing story of his life.

His Indirectly Psycho-Biographical Books
Faulkner knew that his work was often directly autobiographical. He also admitted on one occasion that it was always indirectly psycho-biographical. “The writer unconsciously writes into every line and phrase his violent despairs and rages and frustrations or his violent prophecies of still more violent hopes.” If many of his characters were based on the “outer
Faulkner”, their dramas and the other characters in those dramas emerged from the “inner Faulkner”, from his fears and fantasies and from motives that ranged from self-castigation to wish-fulfilment. His deep-rooted personal struggles were transmuted into his fiction. Thus his inner life became his art in a most intense manner.
His Early Experiences, Reflected in His Work
The most important resource for a writer, said someone half-jokingly, is an unhappy childhood. Faulkner’s emotional reaction to his early years was far from happy, and that seems to be the reason why his fiction is full of males, young and old, who are haunted by the past and by memories of difficult formative experiences. Faulkner’s childhood was outwardly stable, but it was full of minor disruptions and underlying tensions which deeply disturbed the sensitive boy who experienced them. Consequently, Faulkner’s later life reveals, as does his fiction, the conflict between stability and disorder. Much of that fiction also embodies his inner struggle with the troubling figures and relationships of his childhood and young manhood. These often appear in the form of repeated motifs, such as a tension between father and son, fraternal hostility, and the failure of love. They also appear in recurrent character-types, such as the powerless child, the absent mother, the destructive father, and the young man who is impotent or doomed. Faulkner’s with-fulfilment fantasies, terrors, and exorcistic impulses were also produced by personal situations which he lived through or which he anticipated as an adult. His war experiences, both thwarted and actual, the unusual circumstances of his marriage, and the changing structure of his family-all these re-emerged in his work, both as they occurred and as his subconscious perceptions of their nature altered.
Elements From the Sub-Conscious as a Source of Inspiration
Faulkner spoke of the author as having a sort of lumber-room in his sub-conscious into which all his experience once goes, and from which an element might emerge to inspire him, an anecdote or a sentence, or an expression, or in the case of The Sound and the Fury, a visual image, a little girl with muddy drawers climbing a tree. Only later does the conscious artist take control : “Then when I have got a lot of it down, the policeman has got to come in and say, ‘Now look here, you’ve got to give this some sort of unity and coherence and emphasis’.” Faulkner’s conscious artistry, the “policeman”, operated in many different ways, some of them so closely related to the unconscious content that the psychological unity of matter and manner is quite striking.
Pairs or Trios of Characters Representing Contrary Impulses
At the dramatic level, Faulkner rendered the conflicting currents of his own mental life in terms of pairs or even trios of close but contrasted and often warring characters. It was a sign of the adaptive function of his art that he was able to recognize his contradictory urges, to embody them in separate characters, and to show them either functioning comparatively in accordance with varying standards of morality or psychic health, or conflicting for dominion and even survival. These groups of paired or tripled characters appear in nearly all his novels. They are fictional representations of contrary impulses in the author himself. Because the characters are projective fragments of Faulkner’s psyche, the predominance of one type or another in a novel tells us much about what was going on in his inner life at the particular time.
The Psychic Origins of Faulkner’s Experiments in Form
Many of Faulkner’s most impressive experiments in form had the same psychic origins as his paired characters. Although they were partly conscious and craftsman-like explorations of the new frontiers of technique introduced by influential predecessors like Joyce and Conrad, such experiments were also products of his strong compulsion to tell and re-tell the same story, as in The Sound and the Fury, to circle desperately in a quest for the ever-elusive central truth, as in Absalom, Absalom, or to balance a tragic, romantic vision of life with a comic and cynical rejection of it, as in The Wild Palms. The tensions created by these technical forms and the unresolved search for meaning which they reveal may be traced back to Faulkner’s own inner restlessness.
Faulkner’s Life Present in His Work
Faulkner himself came to realize what he was attempting to do in his fiction : “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and by sublimating the actual into apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top.” That “native soil” of which he spoke was northern Mississippi, but it was also himself. Whatever Faulkner felt about the unimportance of his life as a life, it was a vivid presence in his work. Faulkner the man, often unhappy and always filled with contradictory impulses, alienated from his own town and family, wrote and re-wrote his own story. He objectified and amplified it to create finally a mythic land, but one populated with the demons he found in his own psyche. His work depicts regional geography, history, and culture. But it offers at the same time a topography of his own inner being. His creativity depended upon his willingness to confront the darkest promptings of his psyche, his capacity to observe and portray what he saw there, and his great ability to sublimate the actual into the apocryphal. While the autobiographical elements occur in almost all his works, the two outstanding examples of the author’s personal life entering into his works are provided by Sanctuary and The Sound and the Fury.
The Links Between Faulkner’s Own Life and the Nightmares of “Sanctuary”
Although Sanctuary was not published until 1931, it was written between January and May of 1929 and was completed just before Faulkner’s marriage to Estelle, to whom he had been a. devoted friend and suitor for twenty-five years. In this novel Faulkner depicts a nightmare world of impotence, rape, murder, and the moral corruption that pervades every level of society. This novel i, a horror fantasy which is linked to a bidden struggle with fears of impotence-an impotence that signifies incapacity in all spheres of instinctual potency. How much of this horror originated in Faulkner’s own actual fears about his impending marriage and his adequacy as a husband and a father cannot be known, but the links between the events of his personal life and the nightmares of Sanctuary suggest that the novel may be representation of his own deepest anxieties in an exaggerated form. In The Sound and the Fury he had located the responsibility for ale problems of Quentin and Benjy in the failure of their parents, but in Sanctuary the horror is much greater and much less readily attributable to a given cause. It is as if Faulkner’s worries had become so intense that he lost the ability to diagnose and to attribute them to their cause, with the result that he could only magnify and portray them.
Personal Struggles in “The Sound and the Fury”
Faulkner has acknowledged that he had experienced difficulties of an intimate nature during the period when he wrote The Sound and the Fury, and those difficulties were probably objectified in Quentin’s Oedipal struggles and suicide. Sanctuary gives the distinct impression that the difficulties had increased, for its world contains terror and despair that are more extreme and less explicable than in The Sound and the Fury, and it seems reasonable to assume that this emotional aggravation was related to the events of 1929. On the surface, Faulkner’s life appeared ordinary. But there were under­currents which revealed that all was not psychically serene in his inner life.

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