A Land Called Doom: Fatalism in Faulkner
“Noah’s children had inherited the flood although they had not been there to see the deluge” (Go Down, Moses 276). This sense of doom follows through five of the major novels written by William Faulkner set in his mythic Yoknapatawpha County. Doom settles upon the land through the fatalistic attitude of the people living there, fatalistic because there is a realization that the things going to happen are unavoidable. In his article “Fate”, Richard Taylor, a renowned fatalist, says “No power in heaven or earth can render false a statement that is true” (107). Furthermore, no matter what the offspring of the doomed South could do, there was no altering their fates, no matter how hard they struggled against it. Through the fallen and decadent society of the old South with their fall in the Civil War, a doom that generations of descendants would suffer eventually settled over the land.
In looking at the doom in the post-War South, it should be noted that God’s laws cannot be altered without consequences, according to fatalists. Anyone that attempted to alter the predestined outcome of their lives became cursed, whereas those who accepted it, though doomed, found the freedom to live their lives to the fullest extent and with the least amount of suffering. Fatalists who do not accept the allotted end will become consumed by their own fear.
An example of one who accepted fate was Candace in The Sound and the Fury. She was “doomed and knew it, accepted the doom without either seeking or fleeing it” (412). Out of all the Compsons, perhaps she was the only one whose life ended with comfort. Though the curse of the South doomed the family, “one of them is crazy [Jason] and another one drowned himself [Quentin, after the family sold the last bit of land of their inheritance to send him to Harvard] and the other one was turned out into the street by her husband [Candace], what’s the reason the rest of them are not crazy too […] not letting her daughter’s name be spoken on the place until after a while Father wouldn’t even come down town anymore but just sat there all day with the decanter” (290). The doom continued on from the first Compson, Quentin Maclachan Compson, to Jason Compson, the last of the legacy who remained a childless bachelor because he was doomed to watch his family wither and die away, thus turning him bitter toward the world in which he lived. The Compson Dynasty came to an end with him because he failed to uphold the qualities of his ancestors “who had something in them of decency and pride even after they had begun to fail at the integrity and the pride had become mostly vanity and self-pity” (415). His ancestors’ luckless heritage continued on through the family tree. The doom was ultimately brought on by a Compson governor, Quentin MacLachan, and a Compson general, Jason Lycurgus Compson II, both of whom not only fought and lost the Civil War but also gave their lives. Next in line was an alcoholic man married to a hypochondriac woman, who bore the children that put an end to the Compson name: the mentally handicapped Benji, who was not only put away in an insane asylum but also castrated; Quentin, who killed himself; Candace, who ran away, never to return after dumping another doomed child on her parents; and Jason, who was the last because he had accepted his families doom with a hard heart and gave up on them and himself long ago, wishing to end the curse with him once and for all.
The end of Jason, fighting against the doom and seeking to put an end to it, is contrasted with Candace’s, who accepted her doom and moved on. Jason lives his life in a “gloomy cavern […] a railed enclosure cluttered with shelves and pigeonholes […] and rank with blended smell of cheese and kerosene and harness oil and the tremendous iron stove against which chewed tobacco had been spat for almost a hundred years” (414-15). Whereas, Candace, though still doomed, ends her life in the lap of extravagance. She is found by a local librarian in a “picture filled with luxury and money and sunlight – a Cannebiere backdrop of mountains and palms and cypresses and sea […] the woman’s face hatless between a rich scarf and a seal coat, ageless and beautiful, cold serene and damned” (415).
Quentin too struggles against his father’s cynicism as seen through much of his inner dialogue with his father. What he ultimately wants is to prove his father wrong. Mr. Compson gives him a watch telling him, “Not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not all your breath trying to conquer it” (93). Quentin must forget his concern of Caddy’s growing sexuality. His father’s advice that by forgetting time the problem will also be forgotten would only make his frustration with Caddy meaningless; his antebellum view of honor that women, especially virgin’s virtues, must be protected. There must be meaning to his feelings, so he chooses to stop time for good since he cannot put an end to it through defacing his watch, to make sure Caddy’s virginity is never marred. Thus, he commits suicide. The doom of the fathers does not end with him. Caddy not only gets married, she also has a child before she does. God’s will cannot be ignored.
From the ashes of these ruined lives comes the second point of fatalism that the name determines the destiny. Why does one character become a fatalist? “Because there existed a set of true statements about the details of his life, both past and future, and he came to know what some of these statements were and to believe them, including any concerning the future” (Taylor 106). Like the Compson name that acquired the doom to “fail at everything he touched save longevity or suicide” (The Sound and The Fury 408), the characters in Light in August also found that a name was an “augur of what he will do” (33). With Christmas, it was the very meaning of his name, containing the word Christ, that he would be lynched and killed out of self-righteous fury. Christmas, also like Christ, accepted his fate and knew he could not escape it. And though he knew he was being corrupted by Miss Burden, and it scared him, “something held him, as the fatalist can always be held: by curiosity, pessimism, by sheer inertia” (260). However, what was it that kept him to this woman who seemed to be two people? The past had doomed him to his lot in life and chained him to his future destiny.
The bigotry of Christmas’s grandfather would forever alter the life he would lead. His grandfather had tried to get rid of him only to curse him to roam the earth as Cane, to inherit the curse of the black man as well as the curse of the white man. “The curse of the black race is God’s curse. But the curse of the white man is the black man who will be forever God’s chosen own because He once cursed him” (253). Thus, Christmas became his own curse, being of white and black blood. For it was the mixed blood fighting within him that led to his death at the hands of the white supremacist Grimm, the mixed blood pushing him from violence to inactivity. In the end, Christmas defied his black blood only to be caught by the curse of the white blood to be castrated like an animal and to die a gruesome death. He also accepted this fate as well as Christ accepted his own.
Not until the novella of “The Bear” in Go Down, Moses is it totally explained why the South is doomed. “The whole South is cursed, and all of us who derive from it, whom it ever sucked, white and black both, lie under the curse? Granted that my people [white man] brought the curse onto the land: maybe for that reason their descendants alone can – not resist it, not combat it – maybe just endure and outlast it until the curse is lifted” (266). But cursed from what? The white men despised those who cultivated and were the closest to the earth, the black men, and controlled them through slavery. This would be the “ravaged patrimony” inherited by the sons and grandsons of the antebellum South (284). Yet with this mistreatment, intermarriage flourished to the point where all lost their heritage and identity. All moved to the cities as well and became lost, losing contact with the land and destroying it. Only the doomed and lowly of heart would ever be able to survive (249).
Absalom, Absalom! further explains the land being cursed by the Civil War, which was the result of the South’s abuse of slavery. The land would betray and destroy the lineage of not only those who inherited that “Doomed and fatal war […] 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” (209), but all who lived upon the doomed land. All the gentlemen had made the women into ladies during the antebellum days of the South, “then the War came and made the ladies into ghosts” (7). The women as well inherited the doom although they had not been there to see the fall. This can be seen through how Faulkner portrays the once proper ladies of the South in his novels as mere shadows of their former glory.
The mother, Caroline, in The Sound and the Fury becomes a hypochondriac and a constant torment to those around her. However, it is the curse of her children and husband who drive her to brood in the dark confines of their once great estate. Though she adds to the doom by forbidding Candace’s name being spoken in her house, and ceremoniously burning the child support checks, allowing Jason to swindle almost seven thousand dollars that would be later stolen by the rightful heir, she seems to suffer the most.
Miss Burden, in Light in August, became a recluse in her mansion after Colonel Sartoris shot her grandfather and brother because they fought to establish the rights of the black man in the South. Thus, the doom of her grandfather carries on to her to be treated as a foreigner.
In “The Bear,” Ike drives his wife to be barren when he chooses to reject his inheritance of the doomed land and gives the money to the black blood in his family. Thus, to rectify the curse of his fathers through mixing with black blood and then repudiating them, he dooms his wife and bloodline forever.
Rosa in Absalom, Absalom! is driven to spinsterhood by the doom of the men around her and the bad luck of her family. With the death of her sister, married to the demon Sutpen, she takes care of her older niece, Judith, in hopes of saving her from the Sutpen doom. Nevertheless, she only gets sucked into the raging torrent of her family’s destiny by moving in with Judith in the doomed house and accepting marriage with the fallen Sutpen, who only wishes to marry her if she bears a son. As an eternal spinster she tries to push the doom onto Quentin, whose grandfather was Sutpen’s only friend. In the end, going out to the old house to take her nephew, Henry, to the hospital, her presence causes the house’s caretaker, Clytie, to burn the house and Henry, leaving yet another horror heaped at Rosa’s feet.
In addition, Addie in As I Lay Dying would rather spend her life making herself and all around her miserable instead of making life better for her and her family all because of her husband’s lack of love. She finally dies amidst poverty surrounded by a family she hated and drug through flood and fire only to abase the selfish desires of her family.
Thus, all the men of the South must suffer for these atrocities and many others. On a smaller scale, in Absalom, Absalom! all of Sutpen’s lineage must suffer for his madness. He, like many of the men of the South, is brave, but that the South’s “very life and future hopes and past pride, should have been thrown into the balance with men like that to buttress it – men with valor and strength but without pity or honor. Is it any wonder that Heaven saw us fit to let us lose?” (13). The great gentlemen of the South also became phantoms of the antebellum gentlemen. The novel records Sutpen’s life without pity or honor as he repudiates his first wife and son on account of black blood, and yet commits the same act again with his slave, giving birth to a daughter of mixed blood before he marries a woman of white stalk to fulfill his dreams of building a great plantation. However, Sutpen becomes caught in the trap of mixing his white blood with that of black. It is not the mixing of blood that brought on his doom, but that he acted without honor in producing this line of “tainted” blood. The doom follows Sutpen through to his death and carries on to all those with whom he or his lineage associates with. This includes Quentin Compson, who is of no relation to the Sutpens, but is brought into their curse because his grandfather befriended Sutpen, thus accepting the doom of death. Quentin kills himself that same year over his family’s own doom as previously illustrated, but perhaps Sutpen’s doom included him in trying to end it in death, for the rest of Quentin’s family survived.
Because of Sutpen’s pride, his sole heir and salvation became caught in the same doom. Rosa saw this and knew that “those two doomed children growing up whom she was helpless to save”(12). Because there was no saving them, they needed protection from themselves. Rosa could only sit and watch as her sister Ellen marries into the doom and then pushes the curse onto her children. Ellen was “projecting upon Judith [the daughter] all the abortive dreams and delusions of her own doomed and frustrated youth” (55,56). This was inevitable, of course. All inherit the flood without even seeing the deluge, a flood of destiny that is so overwhelmingly powerful that it sweeps all caught within it down its treacherous path, yet by the time any realize they are stuck in its currents, it is too late to save anyone, let alone themselves.
Case in point is Sutpen’s son Henry. Though Henry realizes his doom early, there is nothing he can do about it. He cannot flout God’s will, not even by running away. Seeing that he is caught in the current of the family curse, he first tries to repudiate his lineage and name. Even though he is a good friend with Bon, being his freshly discovered half-brother, he has unwittingly introduced him to his sister to further push the doom onto her. At the time his father told him Bon’s origins, he knew “that he was doomed and destined to kill” (72). Henry had hoped to avoid this curse, by running away, repudiating his name, even by going to war, yet there is not altering destiny, blood is blood though the name changes.
Bon realized this as well. If not even war could kill him to stop the doom, he would have to let it run its course. He, unlike Henry, accepted his destiny and even prepared for it well in advance: that he must die to stop the curse. When he noticed that Henry wouldn’t accept their fate, he goaded him on. “I’m the nigger that’s going to sleep with your sister. Unless you stop me, Henry” (286). Bon even goes so far as to put pictures of his octoroon and bastard son in the locket given to him by Judith. Thus, he could stop the doom with his death, not having anyone to weep for him, or feel sorry enough to care for anything of his, including his bastard son. But the doom carries on with his son being taken in by Clytemnestra and Judith. Bon’s death and sacrifice couldn’t stop the raging force of his doom any more than Henry running away from it helped him. In the end, God’s will claims all in the doomed house of Sutpen’s pride when Clytemnestra sets fire to it thinking the sheriff had finally come to get Henry for the murder of Bon, killing herself and Henry. Only Bon’s idiot grandson survived to carry on Sutpen’s legacy in a mental institution, just as Benji survived in an earlier novel.
All of this could have been avoided if Sutpen had acted with honor and had the courage to own up to his own mistakes, yet when he had the chance to warn his offspring of their mistakes by intending to marry Bon, he continued to “watch them for two weeks and did nothing […] and had doomed all his blood too, black and white both” (215-16). He could not act because he was afraid, afraid to alter the destiny laid out for him from when he was a little child turned away from the door by a black servant. If he ever interfered to alter destiny, he knew it would become a mockery, and the revenge he had set out to do spoiled. The fact that he had “entered in good faith, concealing nothing, while the other party or parties to it concealed from [him] the one very factor which would destroy the entire plan and design which [he] had been working toward” (220). He told all his plans to Rosa at the twilight of their lives that he only wanted a son from her to further his design, yet his first wife, Eulalia Bon, kept the fact that she had black blood from him until it was too late. He was cursed.
Black blood is the doom of the South. No matter how hard they tried to subdue the black race, it always cropped up amongst them in mixed blood and corrupted patrimony. It finally became Sutpen’s, and the whole South’s downfall, so Bon thought about reconciling with his father Sutpen, that “I would have done that, gone to him first, who have the blood after it was tainted and corrupt by whatever it was in Mother” (263). If Sutpen just acknowledged himself as his father, the curse could have been lifted, but Sutpen waited, out of pride. Thus, Bon plotted revenge, for getting back at Sutpen outweighed the doom that followed. Bon knew Judith was his half-sister and the repercussions it would bring to marry her, but he did it just to spite his father. Having lost his son, Bon, to black blood and Henry to Bon, Sutpen sets out to get one final son after Rosa refuses him—from Milly Jones, the daughter of Wash Jones, a poor white man living on Sutpen’s Hundred. She was to carry on the name through her son, but when she had a daughter, Sutpen repudiated her and the baby after which Wash killed him in a fury. This line also came to a tragic end when Wash killed Milly and the baby and was then shot by officers. If only Sutpen had accepted the black blood as equal to his own, as the entire South should have, the doom and tragedy that hung over him and the land would have been lifted. His plantation and indeed the entire South would have succeeded in all their hopes and dreams of glory.
In As I Lay Dying, the final scourge of fatalism is illustrated; that to kill the cause of the doom is a mistaken concept, for it is not usually the cause that is the ultimate source. The head of the Bundren family, Anse, seems to everybody to be the cause of all the family’s sorrows. “Then you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured the whole family” (230). However, this is the doom of the whole family. Early in the novel, Darl makes sure that Jewel is nowhere near the dying mother because all know that Jewel is her favorite son, and constantly rubs in the fact that she is dying, or dead. Cash wishes to travel through flood and fire just to buy a “graphophone,” and his mother’s death means no more to him than a beveled coffin. Dewey Dell wants her mother to hurry and die so she can get to town to have an abortion for her secret pregnancy. Vardaman, the youngest son, who is so disassociated with his mother, often confuses her with a fish, wants to go to town simply to buy a toy train, yet Anse has them all beat. He manages to con the ten dollars from Dewey Dell, given by her baby’s father for the abortion, to buy teeth he wanted from the very beginning, and he sells Jewel’s horse for the half starved mules he needs to take the family the rest of the way to Jefferson.
Not until midway in the novel does the secret revenge pulled by Addie be discovered. She had an affair with the Reverend Whitfield because she felt tricked by Anse’s empty meaning of love. “I realized that I had been tricked by words older than Anse or love, and that the same word had tricked Anse too, and that my revenge would be that he would never know I was taking revenge” (164). It is not until after Darl, the second child, is born that she makes Anse promise to take her to Jefferson to be buried among her own instead of his. Her secret revenge is Jewel. She does not love any of her children, except Jewel, whom she spoiled, for after they went to school she “would go down the hill to the spring where [she] could be quiet and hate them” (161). To make Anse’s children suffer, especially Anse by having a lazy man who thought that sweating would kill him to haul her all the way to Jefferson, is to be her next revenge, yet the doom she places on Anse does not work.
The entire family suffers through the journey to Jefferson, except Anse. He seems to find a righteous cleansing in his tribulations. “I’m the chosen of the Lord, for who He loveth, so doeth He chastiseth” (105). He alone does not suffer. Cash suffers a broken leg and the pain of having it cast in cement. Dewey Dell suffers through her plans for having an abortion thwarted and being tricked into sexual favors by a Jefferson pharmacist. Darl suffers to the point where he attempts to burn his mother’s rotting corpse in a barn, which later causes him to be committed to an insane asylum by his own family, and Vardaman’s train is sold by the time he reaches Jefferson. All bear the flood and fire and the burden to fulfill their desire, and all are flouted by Addie’s doom, except Anse, who finally buries her in Jefferson, fulfilling his old promise, buys his teeth, and even finds a new wife. The tables are turned as Anse’s own secret revenge is fulfilled in the end thwarting even Addie’s. Perhaps he knew or suspected his wife’s infidelity. He “just never wanted to be beholden to none except her flesh and blood” (218). Note his usage of “her” instead of “my.” He drags her through nine days of foul weather and bad luck perhaps just to destroy her only desire for living, which “was to stay dead a long time” (161). He made sure she does not rest in peace, even in death.
Thus, the children of the South inherit the doom although they have not been there to see the War. The South is seen by many to be just a dark a time as after the Flood, a “dark corrupt and bloody time while three separate peoples had tried to adjust not only to one another but to the new land which they had created and inherited too and must live in for the reason that those who had lost it were no less free to quit it than those who had gained it were” (Go Down, Moses 276-77). The doom will be lifted when the South can accept the black blood as that of their own, and fighting against this inevitability is as easy as the sins of mankind holding back a flood.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage International, 1990.
—. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1964.
—. Go Down, Moses. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
—. Light in August. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
—. The Sound and the Fury. New York: The Modern Library.
Taylor, Richard. “Fate.” Philosophy and Contemporary Issues. Ed. John R. Burr, Milton Goldinger. New Jersey: Simon, 1996. 34-35.
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