One of the best things about many twentieth century novels is that they portray life without God. As expected, these novels are filled with great amounts of despair, angst, frustration, failure, and defeat. Death is almost always certain in a Hemingway story. That death might have some existential self-fulling purpose for the moment, but it is not meaningful in a greater sense. One is still hopeful for Ishmael when he is awaiting rescue at the end of Moby Dick, but there is little to hope for Frederick Henry when he walks out into the rain after the death of Catherine. Scott Fitzgerald saw so vividly that money, prestige, glitz, and glamor are false gods, but he had no God to put in their place. Jay Gatsby was not very great after all, but his narrator, Nick Carraway, like Fitzgerald, doesn’t seem to have much going for him either. Albert Camus’ The Stranger is either incredibly depressing or incredibly honest concerning the human plight.
It is no surprise that William Faulkner is often viewed as being just as dark, just as despairing, just as depressing, and just as hopeless as his twentieth century contemporaries. His characters are twisted, violent, obsessively warped in one direction or another. Granted, a Southern community has lots of variety of weirdness and lots of depth of evil, but Faulkner presses the dark side of human nature to an extreme.
He was not a news reporter, but a creator of fiction, a teller of stories. Homer uses lots of accurate details to tell a highly inaccurate story. But stories, fictional stories, convey truth through exaggeration. Certain foibles and faults must be highlighted, extended, and pushed to an extreme for the story to work. If Ahab had suddenly decided he missed his family and turned his ship around, if Montagues and Capulets had merely let bygones be bygones, if N-word Jim had gotten his freedom before he and Huck headed down river, each story would have ended abruptly and forgettably.
Faulkner, by his own testimony, believed that man would not only endure, but would prevail. He believed in what he called “the old verities,” that is, the old truths. Faulkner’s writing epiphany occurred when he discovered that his own backyard, his own homeplace, the town, community, surroundings of his upbringing was his world. Yoknapatawpha County became a world as vivid and real as Narnia or Middle Earth, but yet earthier, more real, more physical, and more visible.
Faulkner took the world in its tangled history and fallenness and envisioned and inscripted it into a small portion of the South. For Faulkner, the South, rooted in defeated, the Lost Cause, slavery, soil, and faith, became a grand panorama of characters, plots, and soul anguish. Faulkner was (and is) long misunderstood. He was not writing Southern sociology. He was not unduly twisted or warped by a violent outlook. He was not providing a scale for Northerners to weigh and judge the South by. (As if Northerners ever needed more ammunition.) By “virtue” of defeat in the war, by the connectedness of Southern families, by the presence of a failed aristocracy, by the inescapable twists and turns of race, the South was a rich and layered world in which to craft stories.
If you are going to be a writer, look the part.
Faulkner referred to the novel The Sound and the Fury as his greatest failure. It was the defining book for me in entering the world of Faulkner. It is actually better to begin with The Unvanquished, but I got a copy of The Sound and the Fury when I was in high school. It had belonged to an incredibly good college student who made clear and helpful notes all through the text. (Most classics should be read in groups of readers with discussion and a mentor/guide. In this case, the nameless scholar and note-taker was my mentor and classmate.) After my high school reading, I read the book again in my freshman year of college and did a research paper on it. (Sad to relate, after my junior year in college, I drifted away from Faulkner readings for many years, hence many other failures in life.)
The Sound and the Fury is set in the time of Easter in 1926. The book concerns the decline and fall of the Compson family. The Compson family’s name, fame, and fortune are in a free fall throughout the book. In the midst of the overwhelming message of Easter, this family goes the way of death and destruction, rather than forgiveness, resurrection, and life. For some time, the Compson family had been selling off portions of the old estate, the plantation. The surviving male Compson heir capable of maintaining the property is a twisted, hard-hearted evil man named Jason. The family’s poverty has forced him to work as a clerk for a local merchant. He is virtually unsurpassed in literature for being hard-hearted, bitter, and selfish. The other surviving male heir is a severely retarded man named Benjamin. Benjamin’s life is a series of memories, associations, and sensory connections. He is, by far, morally superior to Jason, his mother, and other Compsons, because of his capacity for love.
The character who stands out more than any other, the character of whom I wrote my college research paper so many years ago, is Dilsey. She is the matriarch of the blacks who have long worked for and served the Compsons. Far from being degraded by her lowly estate, far from being a victim of the slave-holding South of the past, Dilsey is the strongest character in the book. Her love is overpowering. Sadly, the evil in Jason and the never-ending complaints of Mrs. Compson blind them to this love.
The last section of the book is told from a third-person point of view. Prior to this section, Faulkner brilliantly, and for many readers, confusedly, engaged in first-person stream-of-consciousness to tell the story of the family. The first section, told from the viewpoint of Benjamin, is the source of the title. This section, not an easy read, is a brilliant look at life through the mind of someone whose mind is not normal.
The title of the book is a reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth that relates to Benjamin. Macbeth, the usurper king, upon hearing of his wife’s death says
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)
Again, in contrast, Faulkner tells the story of Dilsey from a third person objective view. It is as though Faulkner, who can plunge into the mind and thoughts of so many characters, has to step back to deal with this character, this strong woman of faith.
Dilsey works to prepare breakfast and take care of other needs of the Compson family on Easter morning. But her mission is to get the chores done so that she can go to church. Of course, the Compson’s complain about their servants leaving for church. Although Mrs. Compson says that she had tried to raise her children to be good Christians, the passage drips with irony.
On the way to church, Dilsey’s daughter complains that people are talking about Dilsey because she bring Benjamin, the retarded white man to church. Dilsey lashes out with a fitting rebuke for these “trash white folks” who talk like that. She tells her daughter, concerning the gossipers, “Den you send um to to me. Tell um de good Lawd dont keer whether he smart er not. Dont nobody but white trash keer dat.”
Burdened by the continuing breakdown of the Compson family and her own labors and family, Dilsey trudges on to church where she will hear a visiting preacher named Rev’en Shegog. As one of the other church members says, in anticipation of the Easter sermon, the preacher will give Dilsey “de comfort and de unburdenin.” This small, unimpressive looking preacher delivers a powerful sermon.
Sitting in church and hearing of the preacher say, repeatedly, that he has got “de ricklickshun and de blood of de Lamb,” Dilsey begins to weep. Even after church, her crying continues.
Faulkner writes, “Dilsey made no sound, her face did not quiver as the tears took their sunken and devious courses, walking with her head up, making no effort to dry them away even.” Dilsey is weeping for the Compson family. She sees where their sins and hardened-hearts have taken them. She begins repeating a phrase, “I seed the fust and de last.” Apart from salvation, all families of the earth will go the way of the Compson family, and for this cause, Dilsey weeps.
The Sound and the Fury is not a happy story. It is a twentieth century look into the abyss. But while Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Camus could not find meaning or hope or prevailing in the abysses of which they spoke, Faulkner always had a glimpse in a fallen world of redemption. Even when the “de ricklickshun and de blood of de Lamb” was obscured or held to by the lowliest of characters, there is hope in Yonapatawpha County. There is hope in a fallen world.
Callie Barr, the woman who was the Faulkner family maid and the likely model for Dilsey. Faulkner dedicated GO DOWN, MOSES to her.