Conventional wisdom says to begin with an author’s best works. Among William Faulkner’s best books are The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom. But these books are not the best way to enter into Faulkner’s world and writing. First of all, there is Faulkner’s world, which in most of his books was Yoknapatawpha County. While bearing resemblance to Faulkner’s Mississippi, Yoknaptawpha has its own cast of characters and history, with much of it paralleling actual history. Faulkner walks the reader into Jefferson City and Yoknapatawpha Country with a cast of characters whose lives and families are interconnected in his novels.
Second, Faulkner’s writing style used modernist techniques that he favored. By modernist, I mean the techniques of point-of-view, description, and literary references that became popular in post-World-War-I literature in Europe first and then America. While very Southern in his own culture and with an ear to the idioms and dialect of the people of Mississippi, Faulkner heavily used a first person stream-of-consciousness style. This style was largely made known by the Irish writer James Joyce in novels like Ulysses. It entails the writer’s entering into the mind and thought of his characters. First person narratives were well known in books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick. But stream-of-consciousness is more complex and challenging. Thoughts ramble and repeat themselves and are not subject to grammar, punctuation, and logical order. The reader is not privy to an objective third person perspective or to the first person telling of the story in order; rather, it is the mind and impressions from a first person perspective.
It is not unusual for a Faulkner sentence to begin with a lower case letter and then extend to a page or more with no punctuation. To the reader, it may look like Faulkner is too lazy to follow grammar conventions or is in revolt against rules and common sense in sentence construction. Or if he knows something of Faulkner’s personal life, he may wonder if he had been guzzling too much homebrew while writing. (Generally, Faulkner abstained from drinking while writing.)
There is a method to Faulkner’s madness. This is not to excuse every long-winded, rambling, somewhat incoherent Faulknerian discourse. Faulkner can be exasperating and confusing to even his most devoted followers, and even more so to first time readers. There are those moments, and increasingly so the more one reads Faulkner, where the brilliance of his method breaks through the clouds of obfuscation. Speaking of obfuscation, Faulkner’s vocabulary was extensive and he enjoyed tossing out obscure words. In the middle of a description of some poor dirt farmer, Faulkner interjects words that send his readers to the dictionary. This propensity to throw out big words was a point of contention between Faulkner and his fellow writer Ernest Hemingway; meaning, each man made insulting remarks about the other’s use of vocabulary.
This brings us back to the point where the reader begins with a book like The Sound and the Fury. It is a great novel, and it was the second Faulkner book I ever read. The opening section is from the perspective of Benjy Compson, a mentally retarded man, who is filtering the sensations and words all around him. Certain words, like “Caddie,” and sights cause Benjy to recall, in jumbled fashion, various past events. In the example of the word “Caddie,“ we learn that Benjy’s sister is named Caddie. Her life and troubles are at the heart of the novel’s conflict. But “caddie” is often heard in the book because golfers are calling for their caddies. Slowly we realize that the Compson Plantation has been sold off, piece by piece, and that part of their land is now a golf course. The decline of the Compson family’s position and honor in the community is another main part of the story.
All the events that have brought the Compson family to the point where the novel begins are alluded to in Benjy’s mind. Because Benjy was a grown man with a child-like mind, referred to as an idiot in the language of that time, he conflates past and present with memories and images. Faulkner guides us through Benjy’s mind, emotions, partial thoughts, random connections, and confusion. The title of the book itself comes from Shakespeare’s line in Macbeth, “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
The three other sections of The Sound and the Fury pick up with other characters and points of view. Only the last section which covers Dilsey, the black woman who has given her life to caring for the Compsons, is told from a third person point-of-view.
It has been said that Faulkner is best being re-read rather than read. As Vladomir Nabokov said, “One cannot read a book; one can only reread it.” Faulkner’s books, whether those considered among the best or the lesser works, are filled with obstacles to both understanding and appreciation. This is not being said to caution readers from entering Faulkner’s world but rather to guide them.
One approach to Faulkner is to begin with some of his short stories. Characters and settings in his stories will recur in his novels. The stories introduce Yoknapatawpha County and the Jefferson City and open doors to his larger works. Also, since many of his short stories were originally published in monthly magazines, they avoid many of the style challenges of Faulkner’s longer works. And, by definition, a short story is short.
The story most often included in literature anthologies for high school and college is “Barn Burning.” It is one of Faulkner’s best. “Barn Burning” centers around a young boy called Sarty Snopes, the son of Ab Snopes. This story introduces two key families in Faulkner’s world. “Sarty” is short for the name “Colonel Sartoris,” and the old colonel is a key figure in Yoknapatawpha County, who was modeled after Faulkner’s great-grandfather, Colonel William Clark Falkner. (The younger William added the “u” to his last name.) The story also introduces the Snopes clan, an often rather despicable extended family. Sarty Snopes is experiencing the dilemma of a heart struggle. His father has been guilty of burning barns of several of his employers. Sarty knows his father is doing wrong, but he is conflicted by his blood ties to family. Literary critic John Matthews said, “Sarty is just old enough to inherit the legacy of hostility between rednecks and aristocrats.” Class struggles, racial differences, the plight of sharecroppers, frontier justice, and conflicts of the human heart all come together in this story.
Another story often anthologized is “A Rose for Emily.” This story never ends. By that, I mean a reader can return to it many times and still ponder all that it might mean or imply. Without introducing any spoilers to the story, it entails love and honor, small town values, eccentricities of people, distrust of outsiders, and a mysterious Gothic revelation at the end. While it is easy to be disgusted by the story and by the key character, Miss Emily Grierson, Faulkner honors her by the very title. The rose represents the gift of a knight to a lady. Like Antigone who stood against the whole community, Miss Emily doesn’t give in either.
It must have amused Faulkner that some non-Southerners wondered if the weirdness of the story was indicative of the South. If asked, he probably would have just grinned and let them think what they wanted. Like Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner excelled in and delighted in the use of the grotesque in fiction.
A favorite story of mine is “Mountain Victory.” Better than any other story I know of, it captures the interconnectedness and conflicts of race and class of the South both during and after the Civil War. The key characters are Major Saccier Weddel and his faithful Negro servant, Jubal, who are returning from the Civil War. Jubal says, “We been up yonder a ways, fighting dem Yankees. Done quit now. Gwine back home.”
Faulkner probes the violence in the human heart. The great conflict was not that between Yankees and Southerners but within the heart of man. There was a bond of love and loyalty between the major, whose heritage was Indian and French, and Jubal, who is still a devoted servant despite being freed from bondage. Both were seeking shelter from a poor mountain family who reacted with confusion and hostility toward the two soldiers. While Southern history, especially Civil War history, help explain Faulkner, he was not writing regional history but was seeking something far beyond the historical conflicts. Faulkner was using a localized and familiar setting for telling the story of mankind.
Faulkner’s short stories are compiled in a large volume called Collected Stories of William Faulkner. While this is the best source for Faulkner’s shorter works, it is not complete. Some of Faulkner’s works were later assembled in a volume called The Uncollected Short Stories of William Faulkner and others in a work titled Big Woods: The Hunting Stories of William Faulkner. Both of these collections include works that become incorporated in some of Faulkner’s novels, which actually helps the reader to re-read Faulkner. A good representative collection can be found in the Modern Library Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner. That collection includes thirteen of the best of Faulkner’s short stories. Another collection is Knight’s Gambit, which is a collection of mysteries. But Faulkner is always Faulkner and not Agatha Christi. In that collection, the story “Tomorrow” is unforgettable.
Expect Faulkner to astound, baffle, mislead, and entertain you. Faulkner began his literary life trying to be a poet, but concluded, “I soon found I wasn’t a poet.” He was only partially right. He did not devote himself to writing verse, but his prose is layered in poetic imagery. The reader needs to occasionally stop racing through Faulkner’s long sentences, stop, and read aloud slowly to capture the Southern feel of Faulkner. Faulkner loads a series of visual, aural, and other sense sensations to put the reader in the country store, or in the cabin, or in the fields where his stories are unfolding. Don’t hesitate to run to the critics for insights as to how they interpret and view Faulkner. But let the man speak for himself. Read, listen, re-read, and enjoy.
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