“Stalemate of dust and desire”:
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In the writing of William
Faulkner, the imagination is the enemy of life. Faulkner’s
art and the artists of his fiction attempt, courageously and always a
bit foolishly, to change things: to guide or alter fate, to communicate
ideas which only they will ever truly understand, to vitalize the past,
to redeem themselves even when their redemption is wholly out of their
hands. The characters of The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!, and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem
struggle against the negating forces extant in their worlds.
Their dreams are impossible because they are small actors on a grand
stage, directed and rendered impotent by agents who, like their
real-world counterparts, naturally and insolubly lean toward the abuse
and eventual destruction of all hope. By examining the lives of
figures that are doomed in their contest with life, fate, and time,
Faulkner seizes upon the opportunity to isolate and dissect the
divisions between the creative mind and the world it occupies, and
transcends the limits of prose to address the greatest challenges faced
In a 1956 interview with Jean Stein vanden Heuvel, Faulkner responded to the question, “What emotion does Benjy [Compson] arouse in you?” in a grave tone which elucidates the importance of The Sound and the Fury within his oeuvre: “The only emotion I can have for Benjy is grief and pity for all mankind. You can’t feel anything for Benjy because he doesn’t feel anything […] Benjy is incapable of good and evil because he had no knowledge of good and evil” (Faulkner 233). The author corroborates this position in “Appendix: Compson,” which describes Benjy as losing “nothing” upon being committed to an asylum “because, as with his sister, he remembered not the pasture but only its loss” (Appendix 346). That Benjy opens the novel is not insignificant given his status as a victim whose tragedy is his separation from the world. Likewise, the author’s feelings towards the character are revelatory in that they illustrate not only his compassion for his characters despite their confinement in fiction, but also his willing association of the individual figures whose experiences he details with people—with, in Benjy’s case, all people.
Of the four narrators in The Sound and the Fury, then, Benjy renders the stakes of Faulkner’s drama most explicitly. His chief problem is communication, and not strictly in a literal sense. Though in his verbal communication he is limited to “wailing,” in “that slow hoarse sound that ships make,” which “might have been all time and injustice and sorrow become vocal for an instant,” he also suffers from an inability to process linear changes in space and time in the idiom of the storyteller (Fury 288). For example, the description of light on the last page of the first narrative draws a characteristic distance between Benjy as narrator and the physical details of his surroundings:
the dark came back, and he [Benjy’s father] stood black in the door, and then the door turned black again. Caddy held me and I could hear us all, in the darkness, and something I could smell. And then I could see the windows, where the trees were buzzing. Then the dark began to go in smooth, bright shapes, like it always does, even when Caddy says that I have been asleep. (75)The processes of characterization, of the natural formulation of consistent and familiar scenery and figures, cannot occur from Benjy’s frame of reference—and yet the novel opens from that very point, without sufficient context for the inattentive reader to refine every detail which it provides. His personal investment in certain figures, specifically Caddy, prevents him from maintaining a perspective sufficiently detached from his memories to produce a fully comprehensible account. As such, the sorrow which he expresses by moaning, which even other characters do not understand and from which he assumes a noticeable proximity, as if Benjy the narrator and Benjy the actor were separate figures entirely, is only tied to the golfer’s cry of “‘Here, caddie’” in retrospect (3).
Benjy is hindered by his detachment from the world and from himself, but his narrative is particularly limited by a chronological and representational fragmentation which tends toward a highly personalized description of sensory content. When he closes his eyes, he thinks “[t]he room went away,” and when he opens them again, “the room came back;” he “could smell the cold” before he experiences it physically, and perhaps most significantly, he interprets certain objects such as the “box […] full of stars” with so little attachment that their very appearance is unclear (Fury 44, 6, 41). More often than not, Benjy provides details which are only meaningful to him, and then in a way that is lost on the reader. His restrictions as a speaker are compounded by his inability to distinguish the past from the present, as with his movement between the observation, “Caddy smelled like trees,” and Luster’s present question, “What are you moaning about,” in addition to the disorder which he is tasked with describing, exemplified in the statement “[h]e [T.P.] began to laugh, and the cellar door and the moonlight jumped away and something hit me” (6, 40). Benjy lacks both agency and the eloquence necessary to make sense of the world even on his own terms. He can only take pleasure from simple, fleeting things—otherwise, he suffers both from his circumstances and his own inability to fully understand them.
The other Compson narrators, Quentin the elder and Jason, understand their surroundings well enough, but they bear their own burdens as participants in their respective dramas and as speakers. Quentin’s obsession with time, the past, and the impossible salvation of the honor of his family, his sister, and himself constitutes an opposition to forces far too great for him to confront successfully, or endure. His father’s provision of his grandfather’s watch, the “mausoleum of all hope and desire” which “you will use […] to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience,” which is no more than “folly and despair,” is a curse of sorts, which sees its full realization in Absalom, Absalom! (Fury 76). Time is his antagonist in The Sound and the Fury only insofar as he tasks himself with honoring the dead, those who have come before him: and at least in his lifetime, this goal is beyond his abilities, along with his desire to “protect women” (96).
Quentin can repeat the name of the man who took Caddy’s heart, dwell on his bondage to his position in his drama as it unfolds (“Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. When he put the pistol in my hand I didn’t. That’s why I didn’t. He would be there and she would and I would”), and reflect on his past, but he cannot change the past, or even alter the present, as illustrated by his failure to return the little girl to her family in the latter half of his narrative (79, 132). He disregards what opportunities he does have to “pay for your [Caddy’s] sins as well as mine,” either by killing her and killing himself or murdering Dalton Ames, out of an awareness of his status as a figure that is communicated by his sense of helplessness, of looking “like a kid” and believing “there’s a curse on us” and that “man is the sum of his misfortunes” (103, 161, 160, 158, 104). Because he is cognizant of the past, and fully aware of his situation, which intertwines an impossible need to vitalize the archetypes of history with a desire unfulfilled either because of choice or fate to impose change on his life and the life of his sister, Quentin lacks the power typically afforded to a narrator, or any kind of agent in a text. He is an actor without the ability to improvise, content with his inevitable suicide only because he will be empowered by it, and until the last moment of his account, utterly at odds with his surroundings.
Benjy is powerless both as an agent and communicator; Quentin cannot elucidate his position because he is trapped between a historical mandate to change it and a present vulnerability emergent in his failure to so much as help a lost child without facing indictment. Jason differs from his brothers in that he is perfectly capable of speaking his mind and maintaining a measure of control within the space of his account, but exhibits an antagonism and distinctly authorial influence which mar his humanity. Jason is inaccessible because he is an authority and, in Faulkner’s words, “sane”—and thus lacking in vulnerability of any sort (Appendix 342). He is a humanized approximation of the destructive forces which should, for all intents and purposes, prevent characters such as Quentin and Benjy from finding any sort of positive resolution, akin to the unseen antagonists of The Wild Palms and the unwavering surges of the Mississippi River in Old Man.
Still, Jason is human, to the extent that his development from a figure to a fully realized and destructive agent can be traced in Benjy’s narrative, both in terms of his greed and his antipathy to Caddy in her allegation that he is “afraid of snakes” (Fury 37). His failure to completely triumph over the younger Quentin, evidenced in her escape down “a rainpipe from the window of the room in which her uncle had locked her at noon, to the locked window of his own locked and empty bedroom” from which she takes the money he has been keeping from her, complements his representation as an incomplete agent, and only a partial antagonist (346). In truth, Jason appears burdened by the antagonistic role assigned to him, as if the forces he has been tasked with serving—such as his mother, whose name along with his own and the younger Quentin’s he struggles to make “a byword in the town” and who draws him to reject his heritage as a Compson and regard Benjy and his niece more as stressors than human beings—have tasked him with a purpose outside of his own abilities (233). Certainly, his failure to retrieve Quentin stands as positive evidence of this point, despite the fact that “he was emancipated” from Benjy and Dilsey, and so accorded a small amount of personal satisfaction (Appendix 345). Nevertheless, he functions as a validation of an argument against the supremacy of the Faulknerian antagonist, whether formal or figurative, which is only fully crystallized in the combined texts of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem.
To fully appraise the range of limitations assumed by Faulkner’s characters and the forms of his narrative, before assessing his approach to resisting and even transcending those limitations, it is necessary to analyze the logical elaborations of the major problems raised by each of the narrators in The Sound and the Fury. Benjy contends with an absolute displacement, which locates him outside of his own body as a speaker with respect to time as well as space, while distancing him from the reader—as a result of his state of mind, he is incapable of enacting any kind of change, either on his own terms or on a thematic scale. Quentin is capable of engaging with his surroundings, but his attempts to relive the past and his present sense of overwhelming helplessness leave him with the sole option of contemplating what he is incapable of altering, both within himself and in the physical world. The full severity of his anguish is communicated by the discordant, nearly poetic construction of his narrative, as illustrated by the exchange, “Caddy/Dont touch me just promise/If you’re sick you cant” (Fury 112). Finally, Jason is compromised neither as a narrator nor as an actor, but his malicious sensibility weighs firmly against humanity in such a way that the merits of his account are not evident without a broader consideration of Faulkner’s works. Of the brothers, he is the least accessible, the least open—yet he operates within a space the very existence of which invalidates all preceding theories of the helplessness of Faulkner’s figures, and of humanity.
Obviously, this is quite an ambitious point, which will only be approachable in light of the novels which branch out in form and theme from The Sound and the Fury. The first is As I Lay Dying, a text which approaches life—an aggregate of sufferings and trials which leads inescapably to death if the work’s subtext is to be believed—from a fragmented, distorted, and dislocated perspective not unlike that of Benjy Compson, yet distinguished by the division of its narrative among all the members of the Bundren family, including its recently deceased matriarch, Addie.
Here, the separation of narrators from their surroundings is unambiguous, as demonstrated by the confused portrayal of cause and effect (“I can hear the bed and her face and them and I can feel the floor shake when he walks on it that came and did it”) which leads Vardaman to affirm, “I am not anything. I am quiet. You, Vardaman. I can cry quiet now, feeling and hearing my tears” (Dying 56). His infamous later statement, “My mother is a fish,” stands out largely because it constitutes the entirety of one segment of his account (84). The white space following the sentence reveals the extent of the figure’s dissolution, just as Cash Bundren’s itemized explanation of his construction of his mother’s coffin, “I made it on the bevel./1. There is more surface for the nails to grip./2. There is twice the gripping-surface to each seam,” gives way to a brevity consistent with that of Vardaman leading to a final state of analytical repose following his injury (82, 165, 233).
The most initially authorial member of the Bundren family, Darl, who arguably offers the most revealing details about the scenery and figures of the text, undergoes a transition of a different sort. Where Vardaman loses the ability to delineate between himself and the outside world, or to recognize that he even exists, and Cash rapidly abandons his almost neurotic thought process for the evaluative mode that produces such insights as “it’s better to build a tight chicken coop than a shoddy courthouse, and when they both build shoddy or build well, neither because it’s one or tother is going to make a man feel the better nor the worse,” Darl loses touch on a larger scale (Dying 234). This speaker, who so acutely and vibrantly describes an object as simple as a bucket of water as “a round orifice in nothingness,” finds himself narrating his life from the third person by the time he is committed to the mental hospital in Jackson: “Darl has gone to Jackson. They put him on the train, laughing, down the long car laughing, the heads turning like the heads of owls when he passed. ‘What are you laughing at?’ I said” (11, 253).
The formal transitions occurring in each of Darl’s accounts offer a valuable guide to the permutations of the varied catharses which result from the effort to bury Addie, but they also subtly critique those speakers with an inclination towards a more expressive mode of storytelling. If Darl is the most descriptive and apparently deep of the novel’s narrators at first, and his movement from a self-oriented perspective to one more inclined to a circumstantially bizarre—yet oddly conventional—close third person position is associated with his insanity, the state wherein “he foams” and repeatedly utters the word “yes,” then it is apparent that his status as an author or at least author-like makes him more vulnerable to the events of the novel than his family (Dying 254). Surely, his awareness of his situation as a character, as one of many “dolls” whose “furious attitudes” and “dead gestures” indicates that his detachment from the immediate moment, or rather, his involvement with the concealed factors involved, as it were, “behind the scenes” of the main developments of the novel, contributes to his transformation (207). His earlier descriptions of characters with hair “in a smooth smear […] as though done with a paint brush” and bodies “carved clumsily from tough wood by a drunken caricaturist” further establish the range of his hysteria as an author (156, 163).
Darl appears to be the victim not of the events occurring around him but of his own rational cognizance of the true implications of the drama in which he is entangled. Thus, his realization, “we had reached the place where the motion of the wasted world accelerates just before the final precipice,” functions not only as an interpretation of the crux of the work, but as an imposition of an external truth upon the narrator, who in stating it—as he must, in keeping with his personality and the supreme validity of the truth itself—becomes embroiled in an overwhelming, delusional subtext (Dying 146). The price of comprehension, at least for Darl Bundren, is madness. On the other hand, his mother only reveals her history and some of the truth underlying the subtext of the novel in death, as illustrated by the confession of malice veiled in her treatment of starting a family with Anse: “I gave Anse the children. I did not ask for them” (174). That Whitfield’s account would directly follow Addie’s narrative is integral to appreciating one of the central principles of As I Lay Dying, to the extent that the Bundren family’s darkest and most well-hidden secret—Jewel’s parentage—is revealed only after the novel’s deceased focal point is allowed to speak. The reader gains access to the same kind of heightened and empowered awareness as Darl when death, an absolute state and a condition of silence in all of Faulkner’s other works, is elided, and the central figure of the novel speaks for herself. Even before she dies, Faulkner allows Addie no opportunities to take her own position as an agent, or even a character. Instead, she is presented as an element of scenery until long after the time of her death.
When the author finally chooses to speak from Addie’s position, he enters an entirely new formal space, where the effects of death and time are significantly diminished and the processes of fiction, of characterization and the natural growth of plot and theme, predominate, both as effects and as laws. More simply, the author disregards the forces which he identifies as absolute in his fiction to allow his story to develop. The act of engaging Addie leads almost intuitively to the exploration of Whitfield’s mind, and grants Darl’s confrontational question of Jewel, “‘Your mother was a horse, but who was your father,’” a dramatic intensity appreciable solely because it is not hindered by the prosaic strictures which typically restrict Faulkner’s narrators (Dying 212).
Rather than reinforcing the supremacy of death as a presence which restrains the movements of characters and events, Faulkner treats the end of life as an opportunity to dismantle the structure of his own text to explore a pre-designed subtext most notable for its significance to the body of his work itself. To understand As I Lay Dying, it is necessary to adapt to the fluid integration of implicit and explicit content as conceived by the author, to recognize Faulkner’s use of prosaic controls as poetic tools—to, in essence, trust the transformative and generative powers of the imagination.
In William Faulkner: an Introduction and Interpretation, the academic and critic Lawrance Thompson describes Faulkner’s inflection via other characters as, respectively, a “soliloquy” or “reverie,” and goes on to regard his form as “essentially poetic, or at least essentially dramatic,” a “poetic process of implying analogies between the configuration of an immediate set of actions, in a familiar mythic narrative” (Thompson 20, 21). According to Thompson, Faulkner’s “innovations require the reader to modify conventional reading responses, through intensified acts of collaboration. When so many different kinds of meaning are implied, in so many different ways, there is more fore the reader to do […] than is required in the reading of a conventional narrative (20).
The fluid discourses of As I Lay Dying as well as The Sound and the Fury demand active participation on the part of the reader, insofar as they tend toward a changeability that necessarily leads to a “collaborative game of possibilities” between the agents and elements of each text and the mind of the consumer of the text (Thompson 20). Faulkner generates a vast and complex array of actors and “associations which are not immediately meaningful;” though Thompson argues that “one possibility” fully “becomes an actuality,” it is clear that the author’s aim in separating the static events of his prose from their poetic implications relates in at least some capacity to the creation of a workable analytical space (20, 21).
Thompson’s uncertainty regarding how Faulkner “could expect to convey thematic meanings through techniques which imply such detached and seemingly indifferent attitudes” toward his “created characters” may further depart from the author’s apparent commitment to his figures, but his grasp of the potential offered by the telling of stories from within the minds of agents who are not fully aware of their circumstances is incisive (Thompson 28). Without the implied authority granted to a more disconnected narrator, Faulkner’s speakers work to piece together what disassociated information which they possess the ability to even access, and thereby convey the illusion—and it is nothing more—that the absolute powers they confront are somehow more real, or at least more effective, than the creative faculties responsible for their genesis.
The greatest contest between the fictional voices comprising a text and the nonliving, passive forces of that text occurs in Absalom, Absalom!. Quentin Compson, the inheritor not only of an honor irrevocably sullied but also of a history that wholly imprints itself upon the lives of everyone who attempts to tell it, finds himself embroiled by the end of the novel in the literal destruction of the past, to which he is bound both in character and because of its stature. The tale of Thomas Sutpen’s grand design, produced “out of a soundless Nothing and [clapped] […] like cards upon a table between the up-palm immobile and pontific, creating the Sutpen’s Hundred,” divides Quentin into two separate entities (Absalom 4). The first of these is the young man tasked with recalling history in the novel at hand, the “Quentin Compson preparing for Harvard in the South, the deep South dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts, listening, having to listen, to one of the ghosts which had refused to lie still even longer than most had, telling him about old ghost-times” (4). The second is as he appears in The Sound and the Fury, “who was still too young to deserve yet to be a ghost but nevertheless having to be one for all that, since he was born and bred in the deep South the same as she [Rosa Coldfield] was.”
The dialogue between Quentin’s first and second iterations results in a tumultuous inner conflict exacerbated by external interactions with other figures affected by history and, by extension, Sutpen, from Rosa Coldfield to Quentin’s roommate, Shreve McCannon. Wistaria explicitly joins the past and the present; a “wistaria vine” grows “on a wooden trellis before one window” of the room where Rosa and Quentin talk, the “twilight was full of it” when Quentin discusses Sutpen’s history with his father, and Quentin recalls a “once-folded sheet out of the wistaria Mississippi summer,” as well as “the cigar smell, the random blowing of the fireflies” when thinking back on what has happened (Absalom 3, 23, 301).
Likewise, the conversation between Shreve and Quentin, best demonstrated in the argument which sees the latter repeatedly disputing the statements of the former by saying “‘But it’s not love,’” and the former reaching an impassioned fury in the affirmation, “‘Only, Jesus, some day you are bound to fall in love. They just wouldn’t beat you that way,’” suggests the triumph of the past over everyone, even those who are not directly connected to it (Absalom 258, 259). That the two characters would later be associated with their historical counterparts, and even formally combined into the united entities of “Charles-Shreve and Quentin-Henry,” verifies the tyranny of the relationship between the past and its representatives (267). Those who learn stories must tell them in Absalom, Absalom!, because those stories are greater than they are, because the pure and artificial form of the story is greater than their senses of individual selfhood.
The recollection of early events also imposes itself upon characters in the present because those events are so profoundly mysterious as to virtually invite contemplation. “A Justice,” like Absalom, Absalom!, features Quentin as its unwilling and very possibly unwitting historian, as well as a host of other mouthpieces whose collective interpretation of a single series of events remains hopelessly incomprehensible even in light of its subsequent presentation from other perspectives in novels such as Go Down Moses. He hears the story from Sam Fathers, who heard it from Herman Basket “when I was big enough to hear talk,” as well as his father (Justice 345). As with many of the recalled events in Absalom, Absalom!, the story is rife with mysterious incidents rendered otherworldly by the distance of the first narrator (Quentin) from its events. The almost magical realist presentation of the following scene is a direct product of time, which, based on the style of “A Justice,” distorts events over greater durations, turning men into heroes and moments into fables:
He [Ikkemotubbe] got off the steamboat with the six black people, Herman Basket said, and a big box in which something was alive, and the gold box of New Orleans salt about the size of a gold watch. And Herman Basket told how Doom took a puppy out of the box in which something was alive, and how he made a bullet of bread and a pinch of the salt in the gold box, and put the bullet into the puppy and the puppy died. (345)Why the New Orleans salt would kill the puppy and why this act would serve as an effective coercion remain unclear. Further, Sam Fathers’s way of telling the story—his distinction of Ikkemotubbe’s slaves with the word “the,” his separation of the puppy from the box that contains it, his curious approach to describing the act of feeding the puppy—demonstrate the influence of time on the storyteller’s conception of events. He cannot retell the story accurately, or at least without a degree of misperception, because he has learned it indirectly, and from a source as confined to the present as he is. Because he has no access to the past and knew none of the people, places, or incidents of his story, Sam Fathers can only offer a discolored reflection of what actually occurred. Consequently, time is a source of stress for the speakers of “A Justice” as well as Absalom, Absalom! in large part because it is perplexing—to understand the past, Faulkner insinuates, one must be fully embroiled in it.
In keeping with the movement between different states of awareness undertaken by the figures of As I Lay Dying, the characters of Absalom, Absalom! exhibit a striking comprehension of their limitations. Charles Bon’s letter to Judith Sutpen, in “the dead tongue speaking after the four years and then after almost fifty more […] without date or salutation or signature,” opens with the revelation, “We captured it: a story in itself. Imagine us, an assortment of homogeneous scarecrows” (Absalom 103). Despite his position as little more than an artifact of history given the nature of the letter, which is itself a medium between Bon and Quentin, Bon’s description of himself and his fellows—really, of all characters—and his recognition that he has found a story within a greater story, that is, within the world of the novel substantiates his freedom as a character, along with his successful destruction of Sutpen’s grand design. The repeated notation that Shreve and Quentin “invented” events and scenes speaks not to the reader’s appreciation of the subjectivity of the history they consider, but to their own power over history, which is not wholly implacable. As an unknown, the past can be changed as easily as it changes. Though the parties who contemplate it must sacrifice themselves to author and revise it, they gain the ability to save themselves in the act of revision—though, clearly, Quentin is unaware of this.
The solution to the problems raised by death, time, and the fragmentation of the psyche in Faulkner’s work only fully emerges in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. The two central characters of the novels comprising that work, Wilbourne and the tall convict, each identify specific, undefeatable antagonists which eventually perpetuate their decline, and achieve a remarkable state of tranquility in the time following their losses, that is, their failed conflicts with the forces tasked with antagonizing them. The convict describes the surging power of the Mississippi River, the “Father of Waters,” as “a roiling expanse which, even if he could have seen, apparently had no boundaries. Wild and invisible, it tossed and heaved about and beneath the boat, ridged with dirty phosphorescent foam and filled with a debris of destruction” (Jerusalem 134). It is the river, an agent capable of directing and ending life in equal measure, which impels the convict forward, setting his journey in motion, forcing him to choose between freedom and the salvation of a woman and her child, and ultimately dooming him to an extended stay in prison.
Wilbourne’s opponents are nowhere near as imminent as the convict’s nemesis, partly because their power is measured in their insidious subtlety. Always identified as an anonymous, capitalized “‘They’” who “‘we can’t beat,’” who served as accomplices when humanity “eliminated” love and “worked and suffered and died shrieking and cursing in rage and impotence and terror” to perfect civilization, these agents are perhaps the most perfect internal shades of an authorial presence in Faulkner’s oeuvre, in that they exist and visibly cause changes to occur on a grand scale, yet cannot be observed, contacted, or even petitioned by the inhabitants of the fiction (Jerusalem 119, 115). They manifest in different characters and places, in the “immaculate monotony” that compels Wilbourne to move from the woods to the city for fear of entrapment either in time or in a combination of time and stasis, in the “sibilance […] leaning its weight on the door [of his final residence with Charlotte] along with his weight,” in the medical crew that operates on Charlotte before she dies (94, 236, 254). Like any element of Faulkner’s work which is partially symbolic, They have the ability to be present and act in all characters and scenarios, or to conceal Themselves entirely—to, in practice, manipulate every development of the text without even being expressly acknowledged by the author in narration.
The Wild Palms and Old Man would affirm the omnipotence of Faulkner’s primary controls if not for their conclusions. Wilbourne and the convict spend the entirety of their respective novels suffering for inevitably lost causes. The former seeks an escape not from “death or division,” but something greater, “the mausoleum of love,” while the latter is divided between wanting to be free and a desire to live up to the “Diamond Dicks and Jesse Jameses” of “the stories, the paper novels”—and some higher moral principle—by saving the woman (Jerusalem 118, 20). Both figures are left unsatisfied. Charlotte dies and Wilbourne is imprisoned, while the convict’s sentence is extended on the grounds of a fabricated “‘attempted escape from Penitentiary’” (279).
For all intents and purposes it would appear that these characters are conquered by their adversaries—yet in the final moments before their stories end, they approach their circumstances with a resolve indicative, if not of triumph, than of endurance. Of course, Wilbourne closes The Wild Palms with the thought, “Between grief and nothing I will take grief,” and so chooses even in the wake of Charlotte’s death and his sacrifice to turn away from death (Jerusalem 273). The convict, by the same turn, is at peace as he closes his account to his fellow inmates, even though he must live “‘[t]en more years to have to do without no society, no female companionship,’” as the plump convict notes (285). Against everything that has come against them, these figures retain their nobility in their decision to come to terms with their fates. It is this nobility, this willpower and distinctly human tenacity, that redeems the characters of Faulkner’s novels, and nullifies the authorities posed against them and all they represent.
The scholar Frederick J. Hoffman dedicates a chapter of his analytical text, William Faulkner, to the “eternal verities” described by Faulkner in his 1950 Nobel Prize speech: “‘love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice’” (Hoffman 105). Hoffman maintains that these values “represent a thoroughly secular assertion; that is, they do not appeal either to religious support or to theological sanction, nor do they quote religious documents” (106). Of the author’s distinction between “the heart and the glands,” the scholar notes that “he seems anxious to judge morally the difference between an organ of life and the means of excitation to pleasure and indulgence,” and goes on to connect Faulkner’s values to a “sense of the affirmative hero” that becomes “a challenge to his readers and a set of demands upon them (106, 107). This hero, Hoffman notes, takes one of three positions when met with crisis, choosing death, isolation, or action (108).
The final choice—the pragmatic choice—creates a new potential in Faulkner’s work. Hoffman’s later observations regarding war, “a situation most extremely opposed to innocence [exerting] the strongest pressure upon man’s will to endure,” and evil, the constituents of which “pervert innocence,” incline toward a reading of Faulkner as an author operating between the parallels of innocence and its lack (Hoffman 113). Faulkner follows a strict moral pattern in most of his novels, but it is far too complex to be connected to only a few absolutes. Still, Hoffman’s reading of the implementation of Faulknerian values in specific heroes, the most dignified of whom choose to make an example not only of themselves but of their humanity—of all humanity—by acting, or at least acting against their flaws, deserves attention. Without antagonists to oppose them and agents to stand for them, Faulkner’s ethics would be doomed to abstraction. Without some forum to enact his principles—in this case, the stages comprising his novels—the author would have no way of proving that hope, the most abstract idea in his books, is possible.
I return now to my early appraisal of Jason Compson as the most significant narrator in The Sound and the Fury, and to my proposal of his importance to the idea of hope in Faulkner’s work. Jason is not, in light of his actions and the revealed and unrevealed virtues of his brothers, a good man. He is a proactive man, surely, and capable of taking action, but not for the betterment of anyone but himself and, at best tangentially, his mother. Were it not for Benjy’s observations of the third speaker in their childhood and the occupation of Jason’s mind within the novel, Jason would appear, at the least, inaccessible. The question of why Faulkner would spend any time at all investigating the mind and history of an otherwise clearly antagonistic figure emerges. Its answer is the solution to all of Faulkner’s crises, and the traumas of his characters.
Jason is a villain. He is also human. He is no less human, in fact, for his villainy. What is evil in him, if evil exists in Faulkner’s work is explainable, even in its uttermost extremes. Jason is one of Faulkner’s most specific antagonists, yet he is allowed a kind of grace. The author could spare Quentin and Benjy, could restore Caddy to them and find some way to purify her in their eyes, could freeze the Compson estate in time—yet he chooses to put his art to use to absolve the one man in his entire work who truly deserves absolution, who needs grace more than anyone, even if he will never appreciate it. This man is Jason Compson.
Those who have sinned are forgiven in Faulkner’s writings. Those who wrestle not with what they have done but with what they believe the world has done to them face either destruction or torment. These characters cannot substantiate the value of humanity because they are heroes from the beginning. Characters like Jason, when portrayed in fiction not as monsters but as men, aid in the creation of a dynamic, pliable space, where anything is possible, all interpretations are valid, and all forms can change with the mere application of a new method of thought. Jason is the perfected product of the poetic imagination, a figure at once holy and unholy, blessed and cursed. His mind should not be occupied and yet it is. He should be nothing less than a nightmare for the reader, as he is for his family and the people who know him, yet Faulkner regards him from a perspective which prevents him from being regarded objectively, as any one kind of entity. There are no pure villains in Faulkner’s work, because the author understands that villainy is an illusion fashioned for the uncreative. By dispelling it, he shatters the strictures tying the mind to the world, and his art gains a life of its own.
William Faulkner represented the best in us, insofar as he refused to accept the limitations which humanity places upon itself as a creator and judge of its own merits. These limitations he sought to destroy, by creating characters who in their suffering determine the exact nature and capabilities of the oppressors of life. The imagination was his solvent and the medium of change within his works. By reworking traditional and nontraditional images and fixtures into his writing, and approaching every aspect of fiction with the novelty and invention required of an innovator seeking to reassess the purpose of his craft, Faulkner put his work to exemplary use as a reflection of human possibilities. So long as we accept the need to change, to grow and look differently upon our world as it changes, and to accept our greatest antagonists not as horrors but as truths and necessities—in essence, to turn to our imaginations when looking upon our world—then the challenges faced by the small men of literature and their legendary counterparts among the living will be surmountable.
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