William Faulkner’s Novels are Intimidating

In my notes on William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936), I have written, “It’s okay to use a period once in a while!”  Obviously, I was frustrated, but this note also tells me that I had gotten over my fear of Faulkner (1897-1962).  I’ll never forget being in high school and watching my mom come home from the library with Absalom, Absalom! with determination to read it.  When we returned to the library the next week, she also returned the book, unread.  She explained how the first few pages were one entire paragraph that she couldn’t comprehend.  To me, her words made the novel sound like one of the hardest books ever written.  I silently vowed to never read it myself.

Well, years went by, and I enrolled in my first course for my Master’s degree.  Guess what was on the syllabus?  Absalom, Absalom!  I guessed that I was stuck and that I’d probably end up failing the course or at least pretending to have understood the reading for the week Faulkner’s book was scheduled.  But, to my surprise, I was able to comprehend most of the book, despite the lack of punctuation, and I even began to appreciate Faulkner.  I wouldn’t say that I enjoy his work, but I can appreciate it.

The novel is based loosely on the Biblical story found in 2 Samuel 13, in which Amnon forces his sister Tamar to sleep with him.  This theme of rape and incest is prominent in Faulkner’s novel.  Thomas Sutpen treats women like property, even comparing Millie to a horse.  As a result of his tyrannous actions and immoral conduct sexually, his son Charles almost marries his sister Judith without realizing it, but is instead killed by his brother.  As you can see, the plot is Biblical, but also akin to Greek tragedy.

The past has a lot of weight with Faulkner, especially when it comes to the Civil War as part of southern history.  Faulkner explores this terrible burden of the past on his characters, especially Quentin.  Of the south, Quentin says at the novel’s close, “I dont [sic] hate it . . . I dont hate it”  (303).  He continues to the end, thinking, “I dont.  I dont!  I dont hate it!  I dont hate it!” (303).  A famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet comes to mind at his protestations:  “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Public domain photo of William Faulkner by Carl Van Vechten, 1954

Quentin’s feelings toward his childhood home are Freudian and understandable.  Southerners fought hard for a legacy that ended up not being worth anything.  They were driven by the idea of fighting to preserve slavery and their way of life, rather than just the idea of slavery.  Their economy and labor system collapsed once the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and the war ended.  Faulkner explored these complicated feelings, and his character Sutpen seems to be an invader to the south, not necessarily a part of the south, making the south a sort of victim in the allegory.

As to the women in the novel, there are some interesting and complicated representations.  In the 2 Samuel story, David’s daughter and Absalom’s sister Tamar is raped by her brother Amnon.  Similarly, Sutpen sows his wild oats wherever he pleases, echoing that theme of rape.  The overall theme of women’s sexuality in the novel is that it equals death.  This is a common theme in literature for any sort of sexuality, but this narrative particularly equates death with women’s sexuality.  An example of this is Ellen, who is often compared to a butterfly and described as undergoing a metamorphosis.  Once this process is complete, she is just wings and show, and she has no vital organs left.  There’s no substance to her.  Rosa is also treated this way by Sutpen.  He refuses to marry her until after she gives him a baby boy.  She’s treated as an animal, only good for breeding.

I don’t remember every detail of this novel, but I do remember being enthralled.  It’s complicated and dense.  It’s hard to read.  It took all of my concentration, but I felt rewarded for the efforts.  As my graduate program continued, I found myself continuing to read Faulkner.  And the next few times I hyperventilated less and anticipated the experience more.  Of Faulkner, I’ve also read Intruder in the Dust; Go Down, Moses; As I Lay Dying; and The Sound and The Fury.  I’ve also had the pleasure of reading a few of his short stories.  A Rose for Emily is probably his most famous and most disgusting, as it deals with necrophilia.  I look forward to reading Faulkner’s novel Light in August, which is purported to be more manageable than the rest of his work and ultimately more enjoyable.

Now, the best part of this graduate class I took was the writing of the papers.  We all went home at midterm and wrote out little hearts out on any novel or short story from the semester thus far.  When we came back, we peer reviewed.  I did not touch Faulkner in my paper, but a fellow student did.  She closely traced the similarities between 2 Samuel and Absalom, Absalom!  I felt immediate admiration for her efforts, as I did not see myself capable of them.

I focused my paper instead on William Dean Howells.  I used The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), from our class reading, and did additional reading of the novels A Modern Instance (1882) and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), also written by Howells.  After we turned in our papers, we returned to class eagerly awaiting our grades.  Instead, we were told to go home and fix the papers again, with a few specific pointers from our beloved professor.  Then, when grade time finally came, the professor handed back the papers and then admonished the class that if they wanted to read a good paper, they should read mine.  I was speechless and flattered.  I admired this professor so much, and for him to praise me so gave vigor and energy to the next few years of my graduate studies.

However, this little moment of glory backfired on me a few weeks later.  I had been trying to bond with my classmates, and in conversation I told them of a time in my undergraduate days when I had written a short response paper just repeating what the professor had told us in class because I did not know what to write.  As a result, the professor loved my response so much that he forced me to read it to the entire class, all of whom were aware of how unoriginal my thoughts actually were.  That was embarrassing.

After I told that story to my fellow graduate students, one of them turned on me and said with a sneer, “Is that what you did for the midterm paper in this class?”  I turned red, denied any such ridiculousness, and made a mental note to never speak to that man again!  But I could see that what I had enjoyed as high praise from the professor only got me resentment from some of the other students.  You can’t win them all.

What Faulkner novels have you read?  Are you a fan?

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29 thoughts on “William Faulkner’s Novels are Intimidating

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  1. I am not a fan, I confess. I thought “Sanctuary” was powerful and deeply disturbing, but I was turned off when reading several of his other novels by what seemed to me to be excessive “cleverness” on the writer’s part. I think that artists of all stripes frequently get caught up in the act of doing itself and forget where they are going! But realize I am in a minority when it comes to Faulkner.

    1. You raise a valid point about any artist. I have to confess that I’m not smart enough to notice his excessive cleverness because I am just trying to understand the last sentence that I read!

  2. It is strange that this classically American Southern writer is so intimidating to so many people, even English majors. This includes me. When I was in 9th or 10th grade I read “Absalom, Absalom!” purely because I knew that Faulkner was revered and I loved the title. I went through a stage where I only read books based on their titles. That is how I discovered Joyce Carol Oats, but that is a digression. I actually made it through the book and I liked it even while being aware that I wasn’t a sophisticated enough reader to get all of him. Other than reading “A Rose for Emily” I didn’t read him again until I was in college. Then I was assigned “As I Lay Dying” and it also proved difficult. Not a lot of clarity in who is speaking so you have to really pay attention. I found it very interesting but the plot was very strange too. I think he is someone who should be read if simply to pick up on the atmosphere of post-civil war South and to challenge ourselves to read his magic with the English language. There are few writers who can manipulate language and form and be successful, Faulkner, Woolf and Joyce are among the best. Thanks for making us feel like the difficulty of Faulkner is not all in our own heads!

    1. I like what you say about manipulating language. He is fantastic at this, which is where his true talent lies and which is why I have such a hard time understanding. And the same goes for the other authors you mentioned as well. Those modernists!

  3. I read “Light in August” and enjoyed it, but I kept getting the feeling Faulkner was saying more than I was understanding. I am planning to read more of his work, but I think I’ll be steering around “Absalom, Absalom” now that you’ve described it as being very hard to understand. Which one would you say is the easiest to understand?

  4. Faulkner is very intimidating to read and worthwhile. Please do read ‘Light in August’. It is one of the best novels I’ve read. My first contact with Faulkner was as an 18 year old and it was ‘Sound and the Fury’. And I could not make head nor tail of it and I have to confess I haven’t re-visited it yet. But I put it on the pile of way too hard, alongside Joyce’s ‘Ulysses, which I have had a genuine attempt at reading. It is perhaps apart from his ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, the most difficult work of fiction I’ve ever come across, and I needed to read a lot of commentary about it, to begin to get a real grasp of it. Faulkner, by contrast is really not so intimidating. He does require a lot of concentration and I am not sure if people have the time or the inclination for that kind of writing anymore, what with our instant access appetite for information through the explosion of social media, and the various devices we use to stay almost constantly and instantly connected. But then there were the same concerns that people would abandon literature, with the advent of TV. And of course that didn’t happen.
    My main message, I highly recommend, “Light in August”. I won’t say a thing about the plot, characters etc, because I myself like to come to a reading of a book for the first time without the burden of too many other opinions.

    1. Thank you for the encouragement to read Light in August, and thanks for not hyping it too much or spoiling it. I like to open a novel without too many preconceived notions, too. As to Finnegan’s Wake, it is supposedly hard, but some say it is just a bunch of nonsense meant to confuse us all. I wouldn’t be surprise to find that an author did that just to laugh, but again, why go through that much work as a joke? I’m not sure what to think of that one.

  5. Several years ago in our book club we read ‘As I Lay Dying.’ To this day the ladies make reference to it when discussing books that are unlikable. The woman who suggested we read it in the first place hangs her head in shame. But joking aside, it was worthwhile to read.

    For a scant $345–one can order the limited colored ink edition of The Sound and the Fury from the Folio Society http://www.foliosociety.com/book/SAF

    1. That’s right! He wanted the passages in different colors! I had forgotten about that. Only $345, huh? I’ll just put that on my Christmas wish list… That’s funny about the lady in your book club. Good for her for trying something new. I am pretty sure if I picked Faulkner for my book club, nobody would show up.

  6. I wish I could read more classics – British and Amercian. Although I prefer classic American texts to British, I just think Dickens and Austen etc can be very dry.During my first year of American Studies, we covered Native American literature up until post-1900 (I think the latest one we looked at was 1970s) but didn’t do Faulkner. His stuff is on my to-read list, but I’m trying to get through Les Miserables Volume 1 at the moment – I can only deal with one heavy text at a time. Any Faulkner books you could recomend to someone who usually struggles with anything that could be classed as intimidating?

    1. I’m jealous of your Native American literature class. That sounds fascinating. As to Faulkner, his short stories are the least intimidating and actually quite wonderful. As to novels, people say Light in August is the least dense, but I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t say for certain.

      1. The Native American stuff was only a couple of seminars, mainly looking at how the langage was written down by settlers, rather than the stories themselves. But yeah, it was interesting. I chose to write about Scarlet Letter and Edgar Allan Poe for my essay though. I’ll have to check out Faulkner’s short stories before I delve into his novels then, thanks!

  7. Here is an author that I happen to know something about. You touch on the central problem, which I will try to describe as concisely as possible. His second tier novels, for lack of a better phrase, are as accessible and as entertaining as any of the Twentieth Century. As a matter of fact, I am rereading “The Hamlet” right now. Yet, when we are introduced to him in the halls of academe, we are always thrown right into the top tier, the most difficult ones. The first novel by him that I read was “The Sound and the Fury” as an undergraduate, and I had no interest in pursuing him any further after that . . . until my forties when for some reason I undertook to read nearly all of them. The second tier novels are essential preparation for the top tier novels in my view. One gets oriented in Yoknapatawpha County, and also one becomes accustomed as a reader to this author’s distinctive rhythm. Yet that is asking a lot of readers—that they read so much of a particular author’s work so that they have some hope of really enjoying him at his best.

    1. That is so interesting. I never thought of them in tiers before. And I am so impressed that you spelled Yoknapatawpha correctly! You do know your Faulkner. 🙂 And if you ask me, I think he demands too much of his readers, particularly this one. Maybe I will learn to like him as I age, rather than just appreciate him.

      1. I said “for some reason,” but the reason was a copy of Malcolm Cowley’s “The Portable Faulkner” that I bumped into and then read. William Faulkner would be the answer to a couple of trivia questions today were it not for that book, first published around the time that I was born. That book resurrected his career and eventually won him the Nobel Prize. In my own case I ended up driving to Mississippi to visit the house and the grave. The whole catastrophe.

        I do not try to sell him to anyone else though. On the other hand there is something to be said for reading most of the works of some great author, any great author. Just an opinion.

  8. I really love As I Lay Dying. There are just so many beautiful phrases and his use of language is amazing. Sometimes I just flip open a page and read. I do that with Marquez as well.

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