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William Faulkner (1897-1962)


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William Faulkner

What made Faulkners vision so different from that of his contemporaries : the distinctive vision of Southern history T its chivalric and rural traditions broken apart by the Civil War, that lay sixty years in the past (Union-North against Confederacy-South 1861-1865) but was everywhere present in Southern consciousness when Faulkner began to write.

- This was one major source of his writing : the defeat of the South, the disorders of Reconstruction (the process, after the Civil War, of reorganizing the Southern States which had seceded and reestablishing them in the Union / 1867-1877), the growing predations (plundering) of industrialization and mercantilism.

- His writing was also marked by the impact of three important literary directions : Romantic, Decadent and modern literature. He came under the influence of Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg Ohio, 1919) and James Joyces Ulysses. Thus one might say that his great work linked the classic Southern romance (much influenced by Walter Scott0, with the modern sense of experimental form, a deep sense of regional history and an awareness of the fracture of historical time.

The Apprentice Novels

Soldiers Pay (1926) - Faulkners first novel, belongs to the considerable number of books about postwar disillusionment that appeared in the 1920s. Its subject is the home-coming and death of the young airman Donald Mahon. Both physically and mentally wounded, this moribund soldier personifies the horror and violence of war. The portrayal of the other characters is conditioned to an important extent by their reactions and attitudes towards Donald Mahon, who, even though he is semi-conscious, functions as the novels central character.

Storyline : On his way home to his father, the kindly Dr.Mahon, Donald is befriended and virtually adopted by two strangers, Joe Gilligan, a war veteran, and Margaret Powers, a young and attractive war widow. These two tke care of Donald bringing him safely home and nurding him and protecting him until he dies. Mahon, a dying man, is too far gone to appreciate their attitude; he barely recognizes his father and fiance, Cecily Saunders. and sinks gradually into a state of comatose indifference. Cecily marries another suitor, George Farr. Margaret marries Donald out of pity. His former sweetheart, Emmy, now housekeeper to the family, would gladly have married him, but is unable to express her desire. Shortly after Donald dies, after a brief momet of consciousness. This death makes the people around him face the reality they tried to ignore.

Such themes as suffering, betrayal, guilt, grief, bereavement and despair are central to this novel.

The point about Mahon seems to be that he is in large measure conceived in abstract terms as the Wounded Hero, a figure of myth. The book is full of mythological allusions, of literary references, and of hints of the symbolic significances lurking in natural phenomena. It is written at a time when Faulkner still thinks of himself as a poet, so the technique is allusive, there is an emphasis on the progress of seasons, associations are established between particular characters and particular natural objects or phenomena, the language is elaborate and poetic. It is in terms of this technique that we can understand the lack of direct chronological progression in the narrative and the reliance instead on what appears at first to be a series of excessively fragmented scenes: incidents are placed in an abrupt succession in an attempt to create simultaneity; characters appear and disappear with apparent inconsequentiality; moments of comedy and pathos meet and merge; at times we are given merely the disembodied voices of many different characters. Faulkner intention was that these brief scenes, interrealted by a pattern of recurring imagery and allusion, should finally be integrated into a single poetic whole, and that the diaparate thematic elements of the novel would similarly blen and cohere. It is amazing that in this first novel Faulkner already finds his way to the technique of juxtaposition   which was to be central to most of his major works.

Thus realism is sacrificed here to thematic continuity, pattern dominates plot and more attention is devoted to the establishment of a leit-motif (dominant theme or underlying pattern) than to the incident which justifies its existence. Faulkner has not yet learned at this stage to fuse technique with experience.

  Mosquitoes (1927) - presents a satirical portrait of the artists, writers and intellectuals of the literary circle in New Orleans. One of the most persistent themes in the novel is the sterility of talk, of the mere proliferation of words. This theme is related to the opposition between words and actions, the futility of talk which may be related to Faulkners growing awareness of his own needs as a writer.

  Sartoris (1929) - of the native soul through which Faulkner could interpret the fundamental drama of a Southern society eblematic of human life in an age of war, lost hopes. Yoknapatawpha County became a populous, rich, almost real literay landscape providing many universal themes. It is again the story of a young doomed airman returning back from the war. This soldier, Bayard Sartoris, is not outwardly maimed as Donald Mahon is, but his psychic scars are more painful than Donalds physical injuries.

He is burdened with an oppressive sense of family honour. The Sartoris clan are renowned plantation owners, members of the Southern aristocracy. Johnny, his twin brother continued the family tradition by dying as dashingly as his ancestors. Bayard is tormented by his inadequacy in respect to Johnny and to himself, because he has accomplished nothing to match his reckless ancestors. In the end Bayard succeeds in dying as irresposibly and gloriously as his brother, proving himself a true Sartoris.

In developing a social context for the central action, Faulkner presents a portrait of of the life of the South. This novel is one of the most directly and explicitly Southern of Faulkners novels, and the sense of the Southern past dominates the atmosphere and the action.

Sartoris is the work in which Faulkner discovered for the first time and explored the geographical, historical, social and imaginative world of his mature fiction embodying Yoknapatawpha County. He found here his own themes and setting, for it is the first novel in his long, loosely constructed Yoknapatawpha sag, whose themes include the decline of the Compsons, Sartoros, Benbow and McCaslin families, representatives of the Old South, and the rise of the unscrupulous Snopes family, which displaces them.

The Major Novels

The Sound and the Fury The great change came with this novel. It has rightly been acclaimed as the great American equivalent of Joyces Ulysses, which strongly influenced it, and its complex time scheme (the four narratives are set on four different days, three in 1928, one in 1910, not in consecutive order) and its stream-of consciousness methods which make it plainly Modernist. The story is told in four parts, through the stream of consciousness of three characters (the sons of the Compson family, Benjy, Quentin, and Jason), and finally in an objective account.

The Compson family, formerly genteel Southern patricians, now lead a degenerate, perverted life on their shrunken plantation near Jefferson, Mississippi. The family, which is disintegrating clings to its outworn aristocratic conventions. Benjy is 33 with a mental age of five. To him belongs the first, fractured story set in the present of 1928. Through his broken thoughts, whch rever now and then to his childhood is disclosed the tragedy of his drunken father, his proud mother, his weak minded uncle (Uncle Maury), his sister Candace (Caddy), whom he adores, his mean, dishones brother Jason and his sensitive brother Quentin. Then we move to the monologue of Quentin Compson on the day of his suicide back in 1910. We next hear the voice of the surviving, opportunistic Jason Compson and finally the enduring voice of the black servant Dilsey.

The Sound and the Fury is in part concerned with the elusiveness, the multivalence, of truth, with mans persistent and maybe necessary tendency to make of truth a personal thing: each man, apprehending some fragment of the truth, seizes upon that fragment as though it were the whole truth and elaborates it into a total vision of the world, rigidly exclusive and hence utterly fallacious (delusive). This forms an essential part the conception which Faulkner dramatised through the interior monologues of the first three sections of the novel.

The pattern established by Faulkners disposition of the novels four sections can be viewed in a number of different ways :

* as exemplifying different levels of consciousness

* different modes of apprehension or cognition

*contrasted states of innocence and experience

Faulkners preoccupation with time has to do with the endless interlocking of personal and public histories and with the realation of the past to the lost chaotic present. Thus, a central theme of the novel is Quentins attempt to arrest both subjective and historical time defending his sister Caddys virginity from psychic corruption and times flow. Benjy himself is locked in a single continuous moment of time that removes all causality or consequence from his peceptions. Jason sees matters empirically, Dilsey from a patient sense of human continuity.

As I Lay Dying (1930) - tells the story of the six-day funeral journey of the Bundren family through fifty-nine interior monologues, reflections on movement and stasis, living and dying, as they travel beside the moving wagon. Addie Bundren has died and her children intend to fulfill her desire to be buried in her native Jefferson, far from the crude backcountry surroundings of her married life. Both the main theme, the elusiveness of truth and its subject, the disintegration of a family because of lack of parental support and love, seem to continue, to be repeated here at a high degree of literary achievement.

As I Lay Dying represents a development from The Sound and the Fury in that the authorial voice is entirely dispensed with. Here the concern  with the many faces of truth merges with the examination of the many meanings of experience.

Light in August (1932) - tells the dramatic, intricate story of an orphan Joe Christman of black descent, a story of miscegenation (misijaneishan; here : marriage between a black and a white) and lynching. The technique is much more conventional than the one used in the previous novels.

Running throughout the book there is an irony exploring the gulf between appearance and actuality, the contrast between the public and the private self. Such is the contrast betweeen Joe Christmas outward face and his inner blackness.

Absalom, Absalom! (1936) - many of the previous characters are brought together. It tells the story of the downfall of a family, the tragedy of the house of Thomas Sutpen. Quentin Compson returns trying to understand and place the historical proces that has led the Sutpen family to its fate.

In the stories of The Unvaquished (1938) and Go Down, Moses (1942) he gave his characters wider room and a richer history, exploring the transformation of the land and the growth and the decay of its dynasties as they move towards a present of greed and expropration. In the latter volume we find one of the finest of all modern long short stories, The Bear, the tale of Ike McCaslins initiation into nature and the demands of time. In the late trilogy about the sharecropping, predatory Snopes family, The Hamlet(1940), The Town(1957), The Mansion(1959), Faulkner torns to comedy, and in his last novel, The Reivers (1962) to farce. In his late A Fable (1954) he attempted a summative work, using the First World War to tell an allegory of Christs suffering and the cricifixion of mankind. Faulkner had always been interested in the pains of Southern history and its relation to the crises of the modern psyche as well as in the plenitude of human nature, the lyrical and transcendental aspects of the natural world.

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