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?