William Faulkner – Southerner in a Disappearing World

To some extent, William Faulkner’s works exhibit a penchant for melancholy through characters whose worlds slowly disappear as time and circumstance chip away at the edges of tradition. Faulkner indirectly touches upon the loss of tradition in the wake of modernity and time. Rather, he leads the reader through an exposition of the old world and engages the audience into accepting and appreciating all worlds. We see elements of Faulkner’s methods in “The Bear”, a novella whose central characters experience the slow approach of modernity as their world disappears, swallowed by progress and change. In “Light in August”, identity and tradition once more confront the reader by engaging them to investigate their relationships with the past. There, the characters not only struggle with both past and present but also struggle within the context of the novel’s dual polarity. Consequently, an analysis of Faulkner’s works reveals that the author favors a technique where he gets to immerse his readers in the lives of his characters through narrative discontinuity while at the same time engaging the subject of polarity through the ambiguity of the characters in his works.

Narrative continuity, within the limits of this project, refers to the technique an author employs in engaging the histories of their characters for development by allowing one character’s life-story to develop in its entirety. By extension, narrative discontinuity refers to how an author refuses to engage a single character completely but instead shifts from one to another throughout the novel. Furthermore, it also applies to the technique where various literary techniques such as flashbacks [or memory as seen in the excerpts used for exposition] break from a standard organization of a plot to shift in perspective. Part of the success in this approach is that it allows the author to explore the motivations and histories of the personalities involved more deeply. At the same time, it allows an author to immerse the reader into the lives of his characters without creating an attachment to any single individual. Hence, the approach allows the creation of ambiguous personalities who have dual or multifaceted natures difficult to define as villain, hero or anti-hero. As a result, the author allows his audience to objectively investigate and experience the thematic development within the story without subjective bias.

There is an element of discontinuity when Faulkner introduces both Ike and Old Ben in the first three paragraphs. The author approaches then casts away histories by engaging in the central struggles within the plot. He introduces Ike as both ten years of age as well as in the light of a much older person when we read, “…he seemed to see it entire with a child’s complete divination…” (Faulkner). Ike sees the wilderness in its pristine nature in two perspectives: as young and old. Old Ben assumes a greater presence in Ike’s mind for it represents the very nature of the wilderness around him. It is untouched, ruling in majesty: “…crooked print, shaggy, huge, red-eyed, not malevolent but just big—too big…” (Faulkner). At the same time, however, the bear faces the threat of human civilization and its sterilizing influences. The wilderness about him is under siege, ‘doomed’ and ‘gnawed’ at by men wielding axes and plows. Ike’s mind thus splits between enjoying the pleasure of seeing the wilderness in its glorious majesty while at the same time, like Old Ben, experiences melancholy at the encroaching mechanics of civilization.

Considering this exposition and the introduction of some of the central characters in the plot, one wonders why the author opted to explore said discontinuity. For one, the author explores some of the histories behind both Old Ben and Ike without an overt expenditure of literature. The bear’s interactions with men left imprints within both their minds and the wilderness around them. More prominently, it is instructive to note that the forces of modernity, technological progress, and advance are left ‘myriad and nameless’. The successes of the technique on discontinuous narratives are thus apparent for the reader both receives an exposition of the underlying struggles yet never forms an attachment with either Ike or Old Ben. Consequently, though the author does not begin with a clean slate, he nevertheless paints a canvas full of detail.

The introduction of Doc Hines in chapter 15, as well as something of the history between Hines and his grandson, reveal in the few lines describing Hines. We can tell that the man is poor, coming from the past with some wealth, station or respect as seen from the small house they live in as well as speculations over his role in Memphis. Furthermore, we can tell the man bore some relationship with Negro people within the area as seen from their interaction with him. In addition, there seems little attachment between people of different races since it is only later after Hines loses his job in Memphis and they learn of his ‘work’ in Negro churches. This apparent lack of communication between white and black people explains some of the hatred towards Christmas later on as well as serves to establish the feelings of the people within Hines’ county. “They are crazy; crazy on the subject of negroes. Maybe they are Yankees.” (Faulkner, Light in August, 138) ‘Yankees’, attached to northerners and their history in abolition and anti-slavery, would, in this case apply as a pseudo-derogatory term used to explain ‘Negro-lovers’. Faulkner employs the term several times in the novel. We see some characters bearing overt interest in the subject of Yankees. In this case, in light of Hines interactions with Negro churches as well as their lack of knowledge over his activities, it would be safe to assume that white people within the county lacked an appreciation of colored people. Finally, the fact that the Negroes within the churches ‘welcomed’ Hines’ approbations and sermons indicate some sort of social stratification (138 – 140). Hines would tell Negroes they occupied a lower station than whites, and they would accept it. That they would offer his food indicates they ‘accepted’ their social status.

Coupled with the narrative discontinuity and shift in perspective, we see the introduction of Doc Hines as an episode that defines Christmas. Christmas, much like Ike, is not blameless. The man killed his adoptive father as well as ‘killed’ his birth mother. Faulkner neither vindicates nor vilifies ‘Doc’ Hines and Christmas by casting either in a favorable light. Instead, he alludes to a greater history between the two characters. Hines apparently hates Christmas because of his daughter’s demise, and while he moves about Negro churches insulting worshippers, the author bars the reader from exploring the interactions. Rather, the history between the two reads louder than any underlying themes. Hines practically foams at his mouth shouting, “Kill the bastard! Kill him. Kill him.” ‘Bastard’ here might allude to his act of infamy in killing Joanna Burden, but in truth serves to explain the view that the child is illegitimate (140).

Admittedly, Faulkner’s use of narrative discontinuity, in this case, seems thin. Hines’ introduction seems to offer a secondary front to the tale that explains something of the hatred towards Christmas upon learning of his probable ancestry. On the other hand, it is exactly this reason that offers credibility to the technique. Everyday interactions between people persist with a little history and instead people assume each other at face value. It is only later when conflicts arise that said histories come into play and biases arise to complicate matters. In this regard, Faulkner’s interruption of the narrative allows us a deeper insight into the nature of white-Negro relations as well as offering a tepid explanation for the depth of emotions within the plot.

To put it in another way, Faulkner’s engagement with narrative technique through discontinuity is to allow the reader appreciate the fact that a great deal of history always lies untouched when a story is told. In Faulkner’s biography, we learn that he hails from a formerly wealthy family with roots in plantation owning. This introduces the idea of ambiguity in that plantation owners invariably proved slave-owners hence automatically assumed the trapping of the villain in any story. It seems apparent that Faulkner struggles with this heritage hence sought to reveal the deeper webs of history within the tangled knots of history. As a result, Faulkner disallows the reader from immediately form an attachment with either the nameless lumberjacks representing the forces of modernity, Ike in his representation of traditional trappers and hunters seeking to preserve the old ways, or Old Ben as the epitome of nature. None of the parties involved is blameless or culpable in any crime: Ike appreciates nature even as he wishes to make a living. The bear revels in its dominant position in the wilderness. The Lumberjacks despoil the forests around them yet desire to make a living as well.

Similarly, we see a play on Faulkner’s history in effect. Hines represents old Southern families with their broken and oft-times embarrassing histories because of the slave-era. At the same time, the legacies are powerful enough they fuel emotions in times of crisis. Hines seems fearful of his attachment to a child of mixed race and uses the opportunity of the murder to sever all ties with his grandson. At the same time, there is ambiguity in the relationship between the two as we see something deeper and more personal exists between the two. In a manner similar to “The Bear”, Faulkner disallows the reader from forming attachments but instead forces them to engage the deeper relations among his subjects. ‘Doc’ Hines desires Christmas’ death because he blames the man for his daughter’s death. The situation becomes murky because while we ‘know’ Hines hates negroes, we also ‘know’ he blames Christmas for the death of his daughter. Consequently, in the midst of attempting to sort out the ambiguity of emotion, the reader is forced to engage each subject in isolation hence in effect engages the mind of the author. Thus, while we know Hines is hateful and a bigot, the reader understands the nature of his hatred as personal.

A great part of the strength of using narrative discontinuity as a technique in storytelling that promotes its validity is using polarity for thematic exposition. A modern adage goes thus, ‘there are two sides to every story’. Polarity is a play on the themes of light and dark, good and evil, past and present. Authors such as Faulkner saddle their characters with dual natures that render it almost impossible to identify with any single character or group of characters. Part of the strength in this is, like the use of narrative discontinuity, it forces the reader to engage each character thus absorb the author’s intention in its entirety. Another strength is that it offers depth and breadth in covering the personalities involved.

In the short excerpt from “The Bear”, we gain a sense of dual relationship and interaction among the characters involved. The narrator professes that the presence of Old Ben assumed a great status within his mind long before the two ever met (Faulkner, The Bear). Later, we read how hunters left bullets within its coat and that its environment slowly narrowed as tree cutting advanced. For one, the duality of Ike’s vision expresses in how he appreciates the bear both before seeing it and after experiencing the bear later on. It assumes a surreal nature as both present and past: big and domineering, wounded and hunted. The men with axes are numerous and nameless, confronting an animal seethed in lore and nature. However, they nevertheless manage to doom the wilderness with their advance.

Faulkner explores the same technique in “Light in August”. Hines’ neighbors harbor an un-revealed hatred towards ‘Doc’ Hines, and we see this in snide remarks about his role in Memphis. However, they tolerate the existence of the ‘Yankee’ among them, despite his interactions with Negroes, because they deem him ‘harmless’. Is it that they do not see him as dangerous to their way of life? Or is it that because of his reduced circumstances and age they do not deem him destructive? As we read, the couple is described in drab colors. They are considered smaller in physique than the rest of the white community and some even think they belong to a different race altogether. This is enlightening as we can see elements of the gothic genre in the writing. The drab colors, worn and faded away, reference the idea of old Southern mansions and homes long past their day. The play on racial differences heights both the racial conflicts percieved in the novel as well as the idea that the Hines are considered different from the rest of the community (Faulkner, Light in August, 138).

Conversely, Faulkner does not immediately explain the play on the Hines being different, and before it becomes an issue, we already see lines established with ‘Doc’ Hines assuming a leading role in the lynching of Christmas. However, the duality of Hines’ character establishes from the outset. We read that something in hines’ glance seems “coldly and violently fanatical” (138). The old man assumes an aura difficult to question or gainsay. Hines, representative of former Southern plantation owners in their fallen grace and social station, is ‘fanatic’ and un-approachable. One cannot question his motives or movements and instead the rest of society slides beside him as they carry forth with their lives.

Granted that Faulkner aims to explore the ravages of time and modernity on traditional ways, it is apparent that the author’s technique favors expositions and portrayals that reject the creation of bias. By mixing the narrative expositions, Faulkner not only introduces new characters but also allows their growth in depth and development as multi-faceted characters full of life and history. However, the same histories of the characters are subject to ambiguity through the polarization of their natures. No single character assumes a role in the novels or story that allows the reader to connect with an individual. Instead, the reader connects with the story as a whole. While possible that several over works of the author employ different strategies and techniques, it is evident that narrative discontinuity and polarity are favored approaches the author uses as seen in both examples used here as well as other works such as “A Rose for Emily” and “As I lay Dying”. Ultimately, memory, flashback, and discontinuity help propel the stories involved while allowing the reader the opportunity to engage the author rather than the characters.

Conclusively, Faulkner’s strength as a writer issues from his use of familiar environs and experiences. As one coming from a Southern background where people at times seemingly remain fixated on the past, playing on the theme of tradition in gothic genres seems to serve the author’s writing. However, Faulkner assumes a greater role than defendant does. His work serves to remind people of what differences exist as well as the probable reasons for their existence. Consequently, while some characters might assume villainous casts, their interactions with others serve to define them as human in the face of changing circumstances.


Works Cited

Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” Kennedy, X J and Dana Gioia. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing, 12th Edition. Boston: Longman, 2012. 28 – 34. Print.

—. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage International, 2011. Print.

—. Light in August. New York: Vintage , 2011. Print.

Faulkner, William. “The Bear.” Faulkner, William. Go Down, Moses. New York: Vintage, 1991. 181 – 317. Print.

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