Faulkner Essay, Research Paper
William Faulkner is recognized by most individuals as one of the greatest American writers of all times. Though only a limited amount about his life before 1950 is known, critics such as Edmond Volpe have linked his experiences, beginning with his childhood, to many of his fictional works. Faulkner was born and raised in the South, specifically Oxford Mississippi. He lived there for most of his life and now rests there eternally. He not only learned about Southern traditions and people but lived these traditions and was a Southerner himself. Many of his novels were centered around the Southern tradition. Therefore, it is logical to conclude that Faulkner’s novels focus on an environment he’s familiar with in order to evolve universal problems and relationships. Faulkner’s Southern themes present universal human issues and his characters have true relevance to basic humanity. Though many of his novels are centered around the South, the Southern ordeals and themes that Faulkner creates reflect universal problems. Many reoccurring themes are evident in Faulkner’s work. Some of these major themes are pointed out by Edmond Volpe. They include: modern society as a wasteland, individualism, race relations, the prisoner of society, and the primitive man (21-27). In order to grasp a better understanding of these common themes, they must be examined individually. Kramer 2Many of Faulkner’s works deal with the degeneration of man as industry and technology grows within a society. As individuals become more prone toward the city life, they lose their moral values and become victims of their environments. For example, in Light in August, Joe Brown (also known as Lucas Burch) leaves his wife, promising to return for her when he has found a new home for them. As he is introduced to Joe Christmas and the ways of the city, he develops a more and more corrupted lifestyle. He spends his days and nights selling illegal liquor and running from responsibility. By the end of the novel, he runs away from his wife after she has located him. Joe Christmas also exhibits this same lacking of morals. However, this dissipation of morals transpired during his late childhood. It also differs form Joe Brown’s situation in that Christmas was also a victim of those individuals that raised him. Both Joe Christmas and Joe Brown have become victims of their environment. They are incapable of loving others and exhibit little to no guilt for their dishonest actions. Faulkner also used individualism as a central theme to his works. Much as man is de-sensitized by certain environments, he also must face numerous threats to his individualism. Many of Faulkner’s characters live in the past and are not able to become their own identity. Other characters are victims because of their personal beliefs and practices. On the other hand, those characters who take their practices to an extreme are the only truly individualistic characters. For example, the McCallums live in a world of their own in which when even the government tries to interfere with their affairs. Their ignore the demands and continue on with their own way of living. Often times the hero himself is struggling to find who he is. As Volpe points out, “The Kramer 3tragic plight of the Faulkner hero is that he is a prisoner of the past, of society, of social and moral taboos, and of his own introspective personality (21). Such is the case of Byron Bunch, whose last name itself serves as a perfect description. The name Bunch links him to a mass of common people or a large crowd in which he simply one of the components. Not until his sudden love for Lena Grove emerges does his repetitious routine begin to change. On a different level of individualism, Joe Christmas struggles with his own identity. He is faced with many uncertainties. For example, sometimes he claimed to be white and other times black; he at some point rebelled against both races. He is never able to stay fixed on one area for too long and was never involved in and long-lasting relationship. The list continues on and on of characters who struggled with their own identities. Perhaps this identity struggle is also evident in Faulkner’s life. He never graduated from high school, was not able to join the army because of his height, and lost his first true love. On a side note he did join the Canadian Air Corps. It is therefore reasonable to assume that these early life experiences of Faulkner greatly influenced his later works. During Faulkner’s entire life span, the Civil War and its effects were present within Southern society. The same is true within Faulkner’s novels. Faulkner’s novels are filled with examples in which the white man assumes superiority over the black man. Most characters have trouble relating to individuals of differing races or even individuals of the same race who support the other. However, it is safe to conclude that Faulkner was not racist. Much of his money from winning the Nobel Prize was donated to local black schools. In some of his books, like Absalom, Kramer 4Absalom and Go Down, Moses, Faulkner made the point that the guilt for slavery was a curse that would destroy the white Southerners. Clearly Faulkner showed concern of the environment around him and included some of these views within his works. Many of Faulkner’s heroes exhibit a pattern of sudden transformation in their convictions over their relationship with the black man. For example, a white boy may grow up with a black boy, sharing the same bed and playing together day and night. Then one day the white boy learns about his heritage and refuses to even talk to the black boy. He then realizes his mistakes, but it is too late. The barrier has been created and the two boys have become victims or their heritage, as well as the beliefs of society about race relations. This constant theme is found in Faulkner’s novels and clearly coincided with the life around him. Another transformation occurs when Faulkner’s characters think that people have even just a trace on black ancestry within their blood. Such is the case with Joe Christmas in Light in August and the wife of Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! This preoccupation of race contributes to the next theme of being prisoner of one’s society. In accord with being a prisoner to one’s society is the passing on of feelings and experiences through words. Because the past can only be expressed through words, it is words that shape each characters beliefs and responses to present and future situations. Volpe notes a passage in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying stated by the character Addie Bundren that discusses this conditioning through words: I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at . . . I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick Kramer 5 and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person the straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words. (463, 465)Clearly Faulkner is discussing a theme that reaches out to every individual. Society, one’s parents, and religion play a major part of shaping an individual’s character not just in his works but in life in general. Faulkner had a close family and he looked very highly upon his ancestors. We can see how they possibly influenced his future through the passing-on of words. His great grandfather had first served in the Civil War and than had written several novels. In a similar fashion, Faulkner attempted to join the army before he became a writer. Faulkner never knew his great grandfather but he served as a legendary figure in Faulkner’s life. Where as many of Faulkner’s characters are a victim of society and the past, Faulkner’s final reoccurring theme deals with the primitive man. The primitive man refers to those individuals who live in harmony with nature and the world in general. They live for the present with an open mind, rarely ever reflecting on the past or worrying about their future. A perfect example the primitive man mentality is Lena Grove in Light in August. She sets out on foot to find the husband that was supposed to return for her. She never considers that he has left her and goes merrily on her way. Because she is so open and innocent she receives the help of all those she comes in contact with. As conditions change and difficult situations arise, she simply makes the best of it and carries on. The primitive man also carries on through life without questioning the wonders of nature or the changes in society. Rather they accept them as part of a process. Kramer 6 These major themes set the pattern of Faulkner’s works. One must consider that a novel might include all of these themes and not just include one or two. These themes, for the most part, reflect a part of what Faulkner experienced as he grew up. The stories of his family and the effects off the Civil War each contributed to his works. Clearly Faulkner is able to adapt an environment he’s familiar with and relate it to conditions that effect a range of individuals. In order to understand some of Faulkner’s works, the reader may need to learn about the Southern state of mind; however, Faulkner’s books are not read to learn about the South. His books are read to perceive the heart in conflict with itself. Cleanth Brooks compares this idea to Melville’s Moby-Dick (3). While this novel deals with a whale, the story is obviously not read to learn about whales. Though the reader must learn a bit about whaling in order to understand the novel, they learn this in order to achieve the understanding of a much larger goal. The same is true of Faulkner. Many critics of Faulkner, including Cleanth Brooks, have stressed that Faulkner emphasizes the family, as well as the community (3). In some situations the family may be helpful and work as a unit while other families may work to suffocate each other. As stated earlier, Faulkner’s family was of great importance to him as he was growing up and helped to evolve him into a writer. That explains why the family is also important in his novels. Likewise, the community contributes to his works. For the most part the communities usually have a common consensus about basic issues. They seem to come together and banish or disgrace anyone who comes in conflict with the common census. For example, Joanna Burden in Light in August lives in isolation on the outskirts of Jefferson. There are a few interpretations of why she lives a Kramer 7secluded life. Burden is either a victim of the town or a victim of her own illusions. Perhaps a woman of Northern origins and who is sympathetic to blacks works to confirm the townspeople’s own state of “Southernness”. Or perhaps Joanna has effectively isolated herself from both Jefferson and all human life. In either case the community looks down on Joanna Burden and in this way they have unified. Faulkner’s novels also reflect much of history, or at least evidence of change through time (Brooks 4). The rifle fire and even cannon fire that remains in the walls of public buildings reflect these historical events. Again, this aspect of his literature was influenced by his childhood. As he was growing up there were plenty of Confederate veterans around who would share their war-time stories with a young boy. Furthermore, at this time the South had recently suffered the defeat of losing the Civil War and the Southern feelings and anger were still a part of Faulkner’s everyday life.
Before Faulkner began to write his, he wrote poetry. Critics like Harry Modean Campbell point out that some of the voices in Faulkner’s novels include lyrical language (14). However, unlike the work of other authors, Faulkner uses this language to enhance his work and serve a purpose. Campbell gives two perfect examples both taken from The Hamlet. The first passage relates the idiot’s love for the cow into a poetic description of dawn filling the earth: Now he watches the recurrence of that which he discovered for the first time three days ago: that dawn, light, is not decanted onto earth from the sky, but instead is from the earth suspired. Roofed by the woven canopy of blind annealing grass- roots and the roots of trees, dark in the bind dark of time’s silt and rich refuse-the Kramer 8 constant and unslumbering anonymous worm-glut and the inextricable known bones-Troy’s Helen and the nymphs and the snoring mitred bishops, the saviors and the victims and the kings-it wakes, up-seeping, attritive and unaccountable creeping channels: first, root; then frond by frond, from whose escaping tips like gas it rises and disseminates and stains the sleep-fast earth with drowsy insect- murmur; then, still upward-seeking, creeps the knitted bark of trunk and limb where, suddenly louder leaf by leaf and dispersive in diffusive sudden speed, melodious with the winged and jeweled throats, it upward bursts and fills night’s globed negation with jonquil thunder. (207)This passage present an ironical contrast between flowery language and the pathetic condition of the idiot. Joseph Warren Beech went as far as to say that Faulkner was simply “betrayed by the rhetorician in him” and became “drunk with sugared words.” However, this passage serves a far greater purpose than verbal intoxication. This passage expresses pity for the idiot. The second passage works to complement the first one: The sun is a yellow column, perpendicular. He bears it on his back as, stooping with that thick, reluctant unco-ordination of thigh and knee, he gathers first the armful of lush grass, then the flowers. They are the bright blatant wild daises of flamboyant summer’s spendthrift beginning. At times the awkward and disobedient hand, instead of breaking the stem, merely shuts out the escaping stalk and strips the flower-head into a scatter of ravished petals. But before he reaches the windless noon-bound shade in which she stands, he has enough of them., He Kramer 9 has more than enough; if he had only gathered two of them, there would have been too many: he lays the plucked grass before her, then out of the clumsy fumbling of the hands there emerges, already in dissolution, the abortive diadem. In the act of garlanding, it disintegrates, rains down the slant of brow and chewing head; fodder and flowers become one inexhaustible rumination. From the sidling rhythm of the jaws depends one final blossom. (210)In the passage “he” refers to the idiot and “she” refers to the cow. The lyrical language heightens the beauty of this intense situation. The idiot and the cow are ironically compared to a handsome lover who is gathering flowers a beautiful lady. In both passages, Faulkner uses imagery to enhance the relationships of the characters involved. Faulkner’s vision of reality is also broad enough to encompass both tragic and comic responses from his readers (Brooks 6). Campbell notes that humor is a major element of Faulkner’s art (94). Faulkner, himself, wrote an essay published in 1926, commenting on the importance of humor: We have one priceless trait, we Americans. The trait is our humor. What a pity it is that it is not more prevalent in our art. This characteristic alone, being national and indigenous, could, by concentrating our emotional forces inward upon themselves, do for us what England’s insularity did for English art during the reign of Elizabeth. One trouble with us American artists is that we take our art and ourselves too seriously. Kramer 10In order to understand the type of humor Faulkner uses throughout his works, we must discuss different types of humor. Most associate humor with laughing or something that strikes them as funny. However, humor can also be in the form of a more harsh or sadistic manor. Furthermore, it might include both conscious and unconscious levels of experience. According to Campbell, Faulkner himself has two main variations of humor (95). These two types of humor include surrealistic humor and frontier or native Southern humor. Surrealistic humor focuses on more of a disagreeable or cruel laughter. Such items as distortions and grimaces of extreme pain are considered to be funny. Also, the humiliation of an individual or group might fall into this category of humor. Campbell sites an example of this surrealistic humor in Sanctuary. The humor begins in the funeral scene of the young gangster “Red”. Red’s expensive black and silver coffin sits on the dance floor of a cheap road house outside of Memphis. The humor is found within the parody of the situation. Under normal circumstances, a funeral is considered to provide a pious aura. In contrast, Red’s funeral is surrounded by the atmosphere of a road house. In brief, the nightclub represents the church, the mourners include gangsters and prostitutes, they are listening to a bootlegger who suffices as the minister, and he delivers a drunken eulogy that serves as a funeral sermon. Then Red’s body is suddenly thrusted out of the coffin and onto the floor addind a hint of sadism. With this description the minimum ingredients for surrealistic humor can be defined. The first element is an object or belief, reverenced by convention. The second element includes a factor which violates the reverence. The final element is a psychic state that is a result of the above situation. Sadism may be iclusive within this last element. Kramer 11 Faulkner’s second mode or humor, the Southern frontier humor, appears in many of his novels. The Hamlet has numerous displays of this frontier humor. In one scene Jody Varner discovers that his unmarried sister Eula is pregnant. He storms angrily into the house where he is loudly rebuffed by the father. The Mrs. Varner yells, “Hold him till I get a stick of stove wood…I’ll fix him. I’ll fix both of them. Turning up pregnant and yelling and cursing here in the house when I am trying to take a nap!” (163) It is obvious that Mrs. Varner is chiefly concerned with being awoken from her nap and holds that as Eula’s main sin. Faulkner used the humor in this scene in order to transform the effect of Jody’s jealousy of his sister. These two examples of humor work to interest the reader ans lighten the seriousness of the tragic and discouraging universal problems that Faulkner depicts. Faulkner’s structure and technique also help the reader to better relate to the relationships of the characters and the situation they experience. Volpe offers that Faulkner is somewhat of a gossip or a gossip who has been elevated by genius to the stature of an artist (29). While Faulkner lacks the malice that instigates most gossip, he shares the gossip’s passion of the bizarre and the unpleasant. By playing the part of a gossip, Faulkner can more effectively portray the lifestyle of the individuals that don’t fall under the norm. Faulkner also uses chronological time in varying fragments in order to reveal the effect of the past on the present (Volpe 30). With this sequence, no act or thought is isolated at a certain time. Faulkner deliberately breaks up the chronology of his narrative in order to dramatize that the human body exists in chronological time while the mind does not function within this barrier Kramer 12imposed on the body. In fact, the mind fuses the past, present, and future into one. This pattern of a varying chronological sequence allows Faulkner to prove that the past influences the present and the future. Volpe explores how Faulkner’s novels are centered in a certain structure to tell a story while at the same time the story explores the social, historical, and moral significance within the story. For example, in Light in August, the present action extends over a period of a single week. Within that week, Joanna Burden was murdered, her home was set on fire, the murderer escapes, and the murder is hunted down when he is said to have Negro blood in him. From this present action, Faulkner is able to create a weaving effect of stories that lead to the situation. These stories complement and contrast one another and work to create a story with a universal theme. Another way that Faulkner is able to relate his novels on a universal level is through the use of symbolism (Volpe 35). Faulkner’s symbols fall into the two categories of narrative symbols and thematic symbols. The narrative symbol is used in order to develop the individual scene or the story within the novel. In Light in August, Joe’s assumed Negro blood causes him to neither fit within the black or white society. Throughout the entire novel, Joe represents the tensions that afflict modern man. While the narrative symbols that Faulkner uses are not always recognized as being symbols from the beginning, Faulkner is able to create situations in which the characters become symbolic. Cleanth Brooks stated in relations to Faulkner that, “What the reader will not find is mawkish sentimentality or mere farce, nor will he find special pleading for a thesis or cause.” This statement simply means that Faulkner is able tp present a universal problem. However, Faulkner makes little if any attempt to solve or offer a solution to that problem. Kramer 13 Faulkner’s novel are able to encompass massive content. Critics are not able to define his work as falling into a single tradition. He includes the traditions of naturalistic, realistic, Southern, humanistic, and humanitarian within all of his works. Faulkner is able to Use his themes in order to create universal understandings through a Southern setting. He is also able to include humor within his tragic situations. His sequence and structure work to relate a better understanding of the present and the feelings of the characters. By combining all of these qualities in each of his novels, Faulkner is able to adapt the environment he is most familiar with and evolve problems that effect all persons. Clearly Faulkner can be defined as one of the greatest writers in the history of America. Work Cited Page Volpe, Edmund. A reader’s Guide to William Faulkner. New York: Farrar, Straus and Girooux, 1964. Campbell, Harry M., and Ruel E. Foster. A Critical Appraisal-William Faulkner. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951. Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: First Encounters. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983. Karl, Frederick. William Faulkner: American Writer. New York: Weideenfeld & Nicolson, 1989. “William Faulkner,” America On-line, 1996