Overview of William Faulkner
William Cuthbert Falkner started his life on September 25, 1897, in Mississippi. He was born into a prominent family, who owned banks and a railroad. Mammy Callie, his childhood nurse, was a major contributor to his works. The stories she would tell him stayed with him for his entire life, and even inspired some of his stories. Although his greatest influence was his great-grandfather, whom everyone called the Old Colonel. Falkner decided from a young age that he was going to write just like the Old Colonel. He was not scholarly though, by the fourth grade he grew bored with school and finally dropped out his second time through the eleventh grade. Falkner had many jobs, before his first manuscript was published. He joined the British Royal Air Force and added a “u” to his last name, to make himself sound more British, but he would never see a day of combat. After his failed attempt at being a pilot, he returned to Oxford and became the Postmaster at the University of Mississippi Post Office. When he was fired for throwing mail away, he moved to New Orleans and started writing. The publishers did not like his first book Flags in the Dust, so he edited it down and renamed it Sartoris. Although he had a rocky start, his writing career soon took off with his second book, The Sound and the Fury (Harmon).
William Faulkner creates an entire world based on his own experiences. He predominately writes about Mississippi during its transition from the Old South, of the Civil War, to the age of industry. Early in his life Faulkner said “he realized he could write for a lifetime and never fully exhaust his little postage stamp of native soil” (Ferris 6). Although he gives the fictional name Yoknapatawapha County to his main setting, it is really based on Lafayette County where he spent most of his life. “Faulkner grew up surrounded by traditional lore–family and regional stories, rural folk wisdom and humor, heroic and tragic accounts of the War Between the States, and tales of the hunting code and the Southern gentleman’s ideal of conduct” (William Faulkner). This history coupled with his drive to be part of the modern world creates a conflict within Faulkner that comes out in his work.
As biographer Singal states, “All his life Faulkner would struggle to reconcile these two divergent approaches to selfhood—the Victorian urge toward unity and stability he had inherited as a child of the southern rural gentry, and the Modernist drive for multiplicity and change that he absorbed very early in his career as a self-identifying member of the international artistic avant-garde.” This struggle leads to Faulkner’s need to present traditional southern people through modern techniques. He achieves this goal by thorough character development, and these characters are brought to life through a variety of methods. Three of the most effective techniques Faulkner uses are his ability to capture the dialect and mannerisms of his characters, his character’s need to dwell on their past, and a stream of consciousness approach to much of his storytelling.
The South of Faulkner’s works is filled with the trappings of their time: an agricultural society, Southern belles and gentlemen, racial inequality, and especially the rural Southern dialect. Faulkner presents a realistic portrait of the South that he grew up in by using samples of the Southern language, including the speech of both the upper and lower classes. Faulkner establishes a unique voice which is recognizable for its distinct vocabulary, pronunciation, and lack of grammatical form, which is unique to the South. Faulkner uses this convention perfectly in “Barn Burning.” From the first time he uses Colonel Sartoris Snopes’ voice, it is clear who this child is and his probable lot in life. By describing his father’s enemy as “ourn! mine and hisn both!” (“Barn” 3), many details of the boy’s education are brought to light through these five words. When Abner warns Sartoris that “You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you” (“Barn Burning” 8), Faulkner shows in just one sentence how Abner acts towards his son.
Faulkner’s dialect is effective as both a literary device and as a link between the language, culture, and history of the South. Faulkner succeeds in representing the Southern dialect which consistently throughout his stories. In his writing, this can be described by such traits as an intentional misspelling, or the use of Miss along with a woman’s first name, such as Miss Emily. Linguists such as Raven McDavid have gathered that the oldest and least educated, as well as many Blacks, in their Southern language studies have demonstrated usage of improper verb past tenses such as div for dive, growed for grow, and riz for rise (McDavid 264-280). Accordingly, in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, there is an immense sign on the Negro Second Baptist Church which reads “He Is Ris.” One other trait of Faulkner’s language that is common to Southern dialects is the occasional loss of the “r” sound, as in the words “baun” for born, and “bastud” for bastard. These words, along with dozens of others appearing in many of Faulkner’s stories help solidify the speaker and dialect in the reader’s mind.
Faulkner’s representation of Southern speech in writing follows the actual linguistic parameters of the Southern Lowland, or Southern Proper, dialect very closely, by Raven McDavid’s classification. So, his written dialogue is a close copy to the Southern dialect he truly speaks. Faulkner makes a strong effort to display all the nuances of this dialect, even though many of them cannot really be sensed through writing alone. For instance, the clues presented by facial and bodily expressions must be made up for with written equivalents, such as pronunciation, grammar, and word usage.
Faulkner’s works also portray differing perceptions of time. Many of his main characters have neither present nor future; they are caught in their own pasts. “As to Faulkner’s heroes, they never look ahead” (Sartre 91). One of Faulkner’s most powerful disconnected characters is Joe Christmas, in Light in August. The first description of the protagonist is ‘rootless” (Light 21), and his memories begin from the age of five, when he was adopted from an orphanage. Therefore, he has no concrete knowledge of his heritage and undergoes a painful identity crisis. To his dismay, his foster parents, the MacEacherns, mercilessly force zealous religious beliefs on him. Always different from others, he becomes an outcast, and he is called a nigger so often that he loses all sense of self-worth. The childhood of abuse from his family and racial slurs from his peers scar every memory and he cannot escape his past.
Joe Christmas “is not determined by his past, he is his past” and has “no concept of his future” (Poullion 83). Joe develops negative associations, towards women, because the only time he sees them is at church. He falls in love with Bobbie, the waitress, but his original distrust of women is reinforced when he discovers she is a prostitute. “Thus through the persistence of past impressions, especially childhood impressions, Faulkner shows that the present is submerged in the past, that what is lived in the present is what was lived in the past” (Poullion 80).
Once Joe killed MacEachern, “he entered the street which was to run for fifteen years” (Light 223). During the time Joe is running away, he loses his grasp on reality and time. “He thought that it was loneliness which he was trying to escape and not himself” (Light 226). For a while he gains some stability in his relationship with Johanna Burden, and she threatens his life with religious conversion. He is again reminded of his history and cannot handle this relationship, so he kills her and runs away again. He looses his grip on time and reality, once again. “He could never know when he would pass from one to another, when he found he has been asleep without remembering having lain down, or find himself waking without remembering having waked” (Light 333). He does not think of eating and sleeping, and in two bouts of lunacy he even demands to know the day of the week. “It was as though now and at last he had an actual and urgent need to strike off the accomplished days toward some purpose without either falling short or overshooting” (Light 335).
The secret of Joe’s past is revealed at the end of the novel, after he has been captured and accused of murder. The pieces are put together for the reader alone. It is stated that he was the illegitimate son of a black circus worker, and that his grandfather, Doc Hines, was the janitor at the orphanage. Joe is never given this crucial piece of information, and it is not until Percy Grimm castrates and murders him that he can truly rest in peace. “Then his face, body, all, seemed to collapse, to fall in upon itself and from the slashed garments about his hips and loins the pent black blood seemed to rush like a released breath” (Light 465). His past is the permanent thorn in his side that keeps him from seeing his future, or even his present.
In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner creates a mentally retarded character named Benjy Compson. Among the novel’s four narrators, Benjy’s vivid observations combine to paint the most revealing picture of the Compson family. Benjy chronicles major events in his life such as his name change at early childhood, the realization that he has been castrated, and Caddy’s transformation. His awareness of his surroundings and aversion to change is not clear to others, because he has difficulty expressing himself. He has no sense of chronological time at all. His narration consists of mixed memories, constantly jumping from one thought to the next without any indication. Overall, Benjy’s recollections add a dreamlike quality to the novel: “The past takes on a sort of super-reality; its contours are hard and clear, unchangeable” (Sartre 89). What confuses the reader does not confuse Benjy, since his entire existence is a collage of his disjointed memories.
Benjy can only use his senses to register emotion, and relies mostly on his hearing and sense of smell. His past is “sensation” (Sartre 48). Almost instinctively, he knows when changes in his routine have occurred. For example, he loves the fact that his sister Caddy always smells like trees. On her wedding day, Benjy realizes, “Caddy put her arms around me, and her shining veil, and I couldn’t smell trees anymore and I began to cry” (Sound 40). He knows she is leaving home and he will be left without the only person who ever considered his feelings. While he is loosing his sister he also loses the only other thing that he loves, his pasture. “He lay on the ground under the window bellowing. We have sold Benjy’s pasture so that Quentin may go to Harvard” (Sound 94). His never ending continuum of memories makes his dysfunctional family background into a prison of despair.
Benjy Compson, in The Sound and the Fury, and Joe Christmas, in Light in August, are trapped in their own bitter pasts, which shows that “a man’s misfortune lies in his being time-bound” (Sartre 88). Consequently, time fixation is ever-present in the works of Faulkner to emphasize the stranglehold of the past. This fixation is usually coupled with a totally disjointed timeline. This meandering stream of consciousness can be used to show a major aspect about a character or situation. This is the premise for “A Rose for Emily,” one of Faulkner’s most widely read stories.
In “A Rose for Emily”, Faulkner relates the events of Emily’s life out of order. He does this through a mourner at her funeral sharing their memories, in the order that they remember them. Through theses memories Faulkner reveals the town’s feelings towards her. Since these events do not follow each other logically, the reader is kept in the dark to build suspense. Instead, the story starts from the end, with the mourners gathering at Miss Emily’s house, and jumps from time period to time period. Faulkner “juxtaposed the lives of different characters in scenes that did not proceed linearly or chronologically” (McHaney 50), and this slow revelation is created to place the events in order of importance and not just linearly.
Faulkner believes Emily’s pride and presence, in dealing with the aldermen, is more important than her past, so he gives the account of how she “vanquished them, horse and foot” (Emily 52), before he explained her past. He then jumps back thirty years, to further explain her hold on the community. By relating the story about the aldermen fixing the smell at Emily’s house, Faulkner is slowly revealing the clues to what is the ultimate discovery. Then he reveals Homer Baron, and how the town thought she would never “think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer” (Emily 55). Homer was Emily’s only real suitor and had left town shortly before the smell. The final clue is revealed by her purchase of the arsenic, and her ability to circumvent the law to get it. “Miss Emily just stared at him, her head tilted back in order to look him eye for eye, until he looked away and went and got the arsenic and wrapped it up” (Emily 56). Instead of blatantly stating that Homer was the reason for the smell, Faulkner makes the reader discover it, by giving Homer’s story after giving an account of the smell.
Faulkner’s gradual exposure of Emily’s character, through the memory of the mourner, subtly foreshadows the shock and horror of finding the monster in the matriarch of Jefferson, Mississippi. In this way, the reader learns what the town thinks of her, before the discovery, and the feelings that allowed Emily to get away with whatever she wanted for so long. The people of the town never expect this turn of events. Emily represented so much to the town that they could never have suspected her of anything more than eccentricity. This truly shows how their feelings for her clouded their perception of her. By making the reader discover the true sequence of events, Faulkner makes it so that the reader has insight that the town does not see. Although, Homer’s dead body may not be expected by the townspeople it is expected by the reader. While the stream of consciousness can be hard to follow, it does add a sense of accomplishment to figuring out Emily’s secret before the town does. If Faulkner would have used a linear plot in the story, part of its meaning and enjoyment would be lost. If there was to be no detective work, then the story would just be a story about an old lady who was a monster.
The honing of his techniques, over the years, is what makes Faulkner such a refreshingly individual novelist. Although he can be somewhat long-winded and overly descriptive, his character development is a hallmark of the modernist literature movement of the early twentieth century. His works transcend “Southern literature” and should be viewed as literature about the South. Even though the dialect may be hard to follow at times, Faulkner has a true gift at capturing the hearts and minds of his characters. The reader does not need to be from the South, or even know much about Southern life, to appreciate the depth and breadth of his works. The works covered are merely his best known, a showcase of what Faulkner can do with a pen. There are many other great stories in his catalogue, from “Two Soldiers” to Sanctuary, and Faulkner is well worth his reputation and recognition.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily”. Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner. Random House, 1932. 49-61.
Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning”. Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner. Random House, 1932. 3-27.
Faulkner, William. Light in August. Vintage International, 1990.
Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. Vintage International, 1980.
Ferris, William R. “A Sense of Place”. Humanities. National Endowment for the Humanities. July/August 1999. 4-13.
Harmon, Melissa Burdick. “William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury of a Self-Destructive Life”. Biography. June 2000. 96-101.
McDavid, Raven I. Varieties of American English: Essays. Stanford University Press. 1980.
McHaney, Thomas L. “Faulkner’s Techniques”. Gale Study Guides to Great
Literature Vol.6: William Faulkner. Gale Group, 2000. 48-57
Poillon, Jean. “Time and Destiny in Faulkner”. Faulkner. Ed. Robert Penn Warren. Prentice Hall, 1996.
Singal, Daniel J. William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist. UC Davis. 03 October 2001.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “On The Sound and the Fury: Time in the work of Faulkner”. Faulkner. Ed. Robert Penn Warren. Prentice Hall, 1996.
“William Faulkner.” Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967. Editor Horst Frenz. Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam. 1969
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