Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Douglas Messerli | "Rereading Faulkner" (on Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury)
by Douglas Messerli
William Faulkner The Sound and the Fury (New York: Vintage Press, 1956).
In Fall 2008, Paul Vangelisti asked if I would be willing to teach a course at in the Otis College of Art + Design’s MFA Program on the works of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to reread the major works of Faulkner and Welty that I had not had time to reread since my Master’s Thesis on Welty in the early 1970s and a seminar at the University of Maryland with Lewis Lawson on Faulkner in 1973. In that seminar I wrote an essay on The Sound and the Fury which became my first published critical article, appearing in The Southern Literary Journal in Spring of 1974.
I finished rereading The Sound and the Fury on the evening of September 25, 2008, on what, I realized later, was Faulkner’s 111th birthday.
Knowing of my course, and, interested as always on how time affects the way we perceive experience, friend David Antin asked had I noticed any “differences” in The Sound and the Fury this time round.” Indeed I had!” I responded. “Did it change any of your interpretations of the book from those of your first reading,” he probed.
“No,” I firmly stated. The subject I had chosen for that long ago essay, “The Problem of Time in The Sound and the Fury” was still the major concern of the book as far as I was concerned, although I might not have expressed it as a “problem.” Dozens of critics of the day—all dutifully quoted in my original essay—had noted similar issues at the center of Faulkner’s masterwork. I will spare the reader from having to endure the entire essay, in which a young scholar feels it necessary to reiterate all preceding critical theory, and reproduce only the ending paragraphs below:
I see Caddy as motivator of the action in the novel, but more importantly, I see her as
dynamism itself. As Faulkner stresses time and again, The Sound and the Fury “began with
the picture of the little girl’s muddy drawers, climbing that tree to look in the parlor
window with her brothers that didn’t have the courage to climb the tree waiting to see
what she saw” (see Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, eds., Faulkner in the
University, p. 1); “It is a tragedy of two lost women: Caddy and her daughter” (see James
B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate, eds., Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William
Faulkner, 1926-1962, p. 244); “I was just trying to tell a story of Caddy, the little girl who
had muddied her drawers and was climbing up to look in the window where her
grandmother lay dead” (Faulkner in the University, p. 17).
What Caddy sees in the tree, obviously, is death, and she recognizes through it that
evil exists in the world. But, the important thing here is not just that she recognizes the
evil, but that she reacts to it. As Faulkner says of her in the appendix [no longer
published in the Vintage editions of The Sound and the Fury], she was “doomed and knew
it, accepted the doom without either seeking it or fleeing.” I believe that what Faulkner
means by doom is suggested in the etymology of Ikketumbe’s name: l’Homme, de
l’homme, The Man, doom. In other words, doom is everyman’s doom, death. As the
philosopher phenomenologist Eugène Minkowski says, “It is not in being born but in
dying that one becomes a whole, a man” (Lived Time, p. 133).
What I am suggesting is that Caddy, in seeing death, recognized her doom; as in the
Garden of Eden she gained the knowledge of herself, perceived that if that grandmother
lying rigid on the bed was death, and that she who was still living was doomed to die, to
become rigid, then life was not rigid, living was dynamic as opposed to this stasis of
The tragedy of the novel lies in the fact that her three brothers who did not have the
courage to see what she saw, cannot understand Caddy’s dynamism, her drive to live and
love which inevitably separates them. It is not Dilsey who can stop Benjy’s tears, but
only Caddy’s slipper which is for him the same as Caddy, which is the same as love.
Quentin tries to stop time in order to get back his childhood with Caddy before her
sexual maturity. It is not that Quentin is a Calvinist, but that Caddy’s sexual maturing
caused a rupture between him and his sister; he can no longer be a child with her as the
child-mother, loving him with what Faulkner implies, again in the appendix, is an
unconditional mother-type of love. Jason, moreover, can no more free himself with
Caddy than Quentin and Benjy. Jason’s ties with his “real” mother, who is incapable of
giving love, put him in opposition to Caddy, the only on who possibly loved him. Jason,
accordingly has grown up without love, and, as a result, he can only hate; he is jealous of
Quentin even in death, in a sense jealous of Benjy who cannot even understand love. His
jealous and hatred are vented most strong upon Quentin, Candance’s daughter. His
meaningless chase after his niece is really a quest for love which can only be expressed in
hatred. And since he does not really believe in love and has never know it, the
search for it always ends with that with which he has replaced love, a search for money.
These motifs are inextricably combined when Quentin steals his money, and Jason’s
hatred is accordingly vindicated.
In short, Caddy is the real force of the Compson decline. As critic Michel Gresset per-
ceives, “Caddy works evil within the family because she objectively starts a process that
will eventually prevent all members from living together on good terms every again”
(“Psychological Aspects of Evil in The Sound and the Fury,” Mississippi Quarterly, XIX
(Summer, 1966), 145). The evil, however, is not in Caddy alone, but in the world; it exists
in change, in the fact that being alive is opposed to being dead. It is because of her
brothers’ inability to recognize or accept this that chaos is loosed upon them.
I am not at all concerned with viewing Caddy’s later sexual exploits as a moral decline.
In fact, one’s condemnation of her relationships may only reinforce Faulkner’s point. In
pure dynamism, in becoming there is no morality. Only with the idea of death as
perceived in the future can a morality exist, can ethical action have meaning. Caddy is
without a future; she is total becoming moving further and further from its source. To
demonstrate more clearly Faulkner has Quentin repeat Caddy’s action; the becoming is
But how does this relate to Dilsey? In the appendix* Faulkner relates a later incident
concerning Caddy. Melissa Meek, the town librarian, discovers a picture in a magazine of
of Caddy, “ageless and beautiful, cold, serene and damned,” standing beside a German
staff general (p. 415). She takes the picture to Memphis to show Dilsey. Dilsey claims that
her eyes are not good anymore, but Melissa believes, “…she didn’t want to see it know
whether it was Caddy or not because she knows Caddy doesn’t want to be saved hasn’t
anything anymore worth being saved for nothing worth being lost that she can lose[.]”
One can interpret this event in two ways: either one can disbelieve Melissa’s opinion
and see Dilsey as a nearly blind old woman, her closed to live because they are upon
death; or, one can accept Melissa’s statement and see in Dilsey’s refusal to see Caddy a
recognition of the tragedy of the human condition. What I am suggesting in the second
interpretation is that Dilsey recognizes Caddy as a force of life, forever changing and
flowing toward doom which is the individual’s death. For Dilsey it is painful as is all
expectation. Dilsey’s life has been a life of work to make that becoming, that raw and
dynamic force, into something meaningful. The need for this she has recognized in the
lived future. But upon the force of life itself her ethical acts can have no meaning; they
are important only as they make life stable, make life able to be endured; but they cannot
stop becoming. To pure becoming is an almost Satanic force, a force she has recognized
in Caddy from the night Caddy climbed into the tree. It is because of that force and its
effects upon Caddy’s brothers that Dilsey’s love and sacrifice have had no visible effect.
This is not to say that ethical actions, however, have no effect on other men. All actions,
ethical or not, affect. To Faulkner’s way of thinking, every act has ramifications
throughout the world because is fused with humanity whether he comes to recognize it
But no act can stop life—except, as in Quentin’s case, suicide. Man can transcend it
through lived experience, through what I have been describing as the “lived future”; he
even carry within him the idea of “after death,” but becoming and its inevitable end,
death, cannot be stayed. Essentially, that fact is what Caddy perceived that night of
her grandmother’s death. And seeing it she gave herself totally up to a life which
ends with death.
Caddy has nothing “worth being saved…nothing she can lose” because becoming
can have no possessive quality; it only persists. It is only in the lived future that the
idea of being saved can have any meaning. Caddy is not good; Dilsey is good. But
Caddy is beautiful, as terrifyingly beautiful as life itself.
Dilsey’s life does have meaning: she is Faulkner’s moral order, representative of
all the potentialities of man, of man’s capacity to endure and prevail (see Faulkner’s
comment on Dilsey in Gwynn and Blotner, p. 5). Caddy, in her pure dynamism, in
the intensity of becoming is life without human order, and as such, she is the link
between all of the characters who struggle in all of their various attempts to bring
order into their lives. The Sound and the Fury is, then, a novel about time and the way
four people experience it.
“No,” I repeated to David and Diana Daves, who asked a similar question, “I think I understood the book’s major themes even as a twenty-six year-old. What I didn’t remember from the first reading of the book, or, at least, what did not register upon my first reading was just how darkly comic Faulkner’s vision was.
For example, in the Quentin section of the book I had completely forgotten, it appears, the long scene in which, while walking throughout Cambridge and contemplating his past with Caddy while planning for his suicide, Quentin ends up in a nearby small town, where he encounters a young Italian girl in a bakery. The child has been sent to the bakery with a 5¢ coin for bread. Quentin buys her a bun, while the woman who runs the shop, despite her dismissal of the girl being one of “them foreigners,” awards the girl a small cake. As Quentin leaves the shop, the girl remains with him, slowly eating the cake and then the bun, and proceeding to follow Quentin until he forced to seek out where she lives. He searches the Italian neighborhood of the village, but she will not respond to any possible location he shows her. Ultimately, has no choice but to run for it, but soon after she shows up again and continues to walk alongside him.
Were this any ordinary walk, the appearance of the girl whom he calls “Little sister” would be but a small annoyance. But this is the day Quentin has chosen to commit suicide, and his internal thoughts are concerned with own sister, Caddy and their imagined incestual relationship. One can hardly imagine a darker irony, that even in suicide, Quentin is caught up with another human being whom he has no choice but to endure as a result of his kindness. Faulkner takes this series of events into even more absurd territory when the girl’s brother finally hears of travels together and attempts to kill him (one of the most ironic actions in all of fiction) for what he imagines is a kidnapping or even child abuse. The town policeman, whom earlier Quentin has sought to find the girl’s parents, arrests him, and, were he not saved by the appearance of a car filled with his fellow students Shreve, Gerald and Spoade—the latter of whom tries to save the day by saying of Quentin, “Children and dogs are always taking up with him like that”—he might have been sent of to jail, his life temporarily saved. But with the help of his friends, Quentin is returned to society, wherein he can be safe, later that evening, after changing clothes, brushing his hair, and returning to brush his teeth, to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Charles River.
A similar event occurs in the last section of the novel, when Jason, who is refused help from the local policeman, goes rushing off to the neighboring town Mottson to retrieve his stolen money from Quentin, his niece, and the young carney worker with whom she has absconded. About half way in his rushed journey, Jason is overcome by one of his dreadful headaches, and almost returns to Jefferson for a camphor salve, before soldiering forward. In Mottson, he blunders into one of the train cars of the carnival workers, demanding to know where the couple is hidden.
Like Quentin, he is attacked by a worker, a battle which escalates into an attempt upon Jason’s life when the man jumps him, hatchet in hand. Jason, like Quentin, is saved by the sudden appearance of an authority (the carnival boss), who sends Jason on his way. In some respects, Jason even repeats Quentin’s self-destructive actions, sensing danger even before arriving in town. Now recognizing that his niece and her boyfriend have already moved on, he is given no choice but to return home, hiring a Black man to drive him. While Quentin takes out his anger for the afternoon’s intrusions on another student, Gerald, a trained boxer who bloodies Quentin’s face, Jason chooses Benjy’s young Black caretaker, Luster, to vent his rage:
With a backhanded blow he hurled Luster aside and caught the
reigns and sawed Queenie about and doubled the reins back and
slashed her across the hips. …Then he struck Luster over the
head with this fist.
What does it mean that at a time when I could comprehend the philosophical aspects of Faulkner’s majestic work, the darker psychological elements of his tale seem to have alluded me? In fact, I was struck in my new reading by just how selfish and mean were nearly all the characters other than the enduring/prevailing Dilsey, truly the one saint in four acts. Perhaps it merely reiterates the fact that in youth we are more interested in ideas than in the dark corners of the human mind. It may be difficult for a young thinker to even imagine societies, such as those of Quentin and Jason, so insistently perverse. As experience intrudes, the absurdity of human behavior becomes increasingly shocking and stands out in our perception of events.
Los Angeles, September 26, 2008
Portions reprinted from The Southern Literary Journal, VI, No. 2 (Spring 1974).
Copyright (c) 2008 by Douglas Messerli.