William Cuthbert Faulkner (September 25, 1897 – July 6, 1962) was a Nobel Prize-winning novelist from Mississippi who is regarded as one of America's most influential fiction writers. Some consider Faulkner to be the only truly Modernist American fiction-writer of his times, following in the experimental tradition of European writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann. His work is known for its long, winding sentences and complex allusions, and for its use of the literary devices of Modernism such as stream-of-consciousness narration, multiple unreliable narrators, and non-chronological plot construction.
Along with Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams, Faulkner is often considered one of the most important writers in the history of the American South. His ability to draw the reader into the heart of Southern culture—with all of its strife and tensions—while preserving a profound sense of American history is unrivaled, and Faulkner is frequently considered one of the greatest American authors of all time.
Faulkner was born William Falkner (without a "u") in New Albany, Mississippi. His great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, was an important figure in northern Mississippi who served as a colonel in the Confederate Army, founded a railroad, and gave his name to the town of Falkner, Mississippi. Perhaps most importantly, Colonel Falkner wrote several novels and other works, establishing a literary tradition in the family.
It is understandable that the younger Falkner was influenced by the history of his family and the region in which they lived. Mississippi marked his sense of humor, his sense of the tragic relationship between blacks and whites, his keen characterization of usual Southern characters and his timeless themes, one of which was that fiercely intelligent people dwelled behind the facades of good old boys and Southern simpletons. After being rejected by the United States Army because of his height, Falkner first joined the Canadian and then the Royal Air Force, yet he did not see combat in World War I. Faulkner began to change the spelling of his name around this time. The definitive reason for the change remains a topic of speculation. Some possibilities include that he added the "u" to appear more British when entering the Royal Air Force, or so that his name would come across as more aristocratic. He may have also simply kept a misspelling that an early editor had made.
Although Faulkner is heavily identified with Mississippi, he was living in New Orleans in 1925 when he wrote his first novel, Soldiers' Pay, after being cajoled by Sherwood Anderson into trying his hand at fiction. The small house at 624 Pirate's Alley, just around the corner from St. Louis Cathedral, is now the premises of Faulkner House Books, and also serves as the headquarters of the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society.
In an interview with The Paris Review in 1956, Faulkner had this to say on the art of writing: "Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him."
Faulkner heeded his own advice. Although deeply influenced by a number of Modernist authors such as Proust and Joyce, the "old writer" that Faulkner most sought "to beat" was none other than Joseph Conrad. Faulkner was fascinated by Conrad's ability to juggle narrative layers in his fiction, concealing a story within a story within a story (as in Heart of Darkness), or telling a story from the point-of-view of a narrator who has never met any of the protagonists (as in Victory). He drew upon the techniques pioneered in Conrad's works for his own narratives of the American South. In Faulkner's fictions, the technique of shifting and at times unreliable points-of-view is central to an understanding of the themes, because it was through the combination of a number of often conflicting narrative voices that Faulkner was able to illuminate the contradictory mysteries of human experience in ways that no single, omniscient narrator could ever accomplish.
Faulkner's most celebrated novels include The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), The Unvanquished (1938), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). In 1931, in an effort to make money, Faulkner crafted Sanctuary, a sensationalist "pulp fiction"-styled novel. Its themes of evil and corruption resonate to this day. A sequel to the book, Requiem for a Nun, is the only play that Faulkner published. It includes an introduction that is actually one sentence spanning more than a page. He received a Pulitzer Prize for A Fable, and won National Book Awards for his Collected Stories (1951) and A Fable (1955).
Faulkner set many of his short stories and novels in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, based on Lafayette County, Mississippi; Yoknapatawpha was Faulkner's very own "postage stamp," considered to be one of the most monumental fictional creations in the history of literature. Faulkner also wrote two volumes of poetry—The Marble Faun (1924) and A Green Bough (1933), neither of which was well received.
In the later years, Faulkner moved to Hollywood to be a screenwriter (producing scripts for Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not).
An interesting anecdote describes Faulkner after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949. It is said that his speech was not noted for its greatness until the next day, when it appeared in writing, because Mr. Faulkner was inebriated, had stood too far from the microphone, had mumbled, and had spoken with his usual deep Southern drawl, making it almost impossible for those in attendance to hear or understand him. Only when it appeared in print did many of the members of the Nobel Committee realize its profundity, and Faulkner's acceptance speech is now considered one of the greatest speeches delivered for the prize. In it he remarked, "I decline to accept the end of man […] I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's duty is to write about these things." Faulkner donated his Nobel winnings "to establish a fund to support and encourage new fiction writers," eventually resulting in the Faulkner Award for Fiction.
The text of the Nobel Prize speech is also available on the website of the Nobel Foundation, together with a partial audio recording.
Faulkner served as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia from 1957 until his death in 1962 of a heart attack.
Often considered Faulkner's masterpiece, The Sound And The Fury takes place in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County and focuses on the downfall of the Compson family, a once proud dynasty that has fallen into ruin after the divisiveness of the American Civil War.
The novel has achieved a great deal of critical success and has secured a prominent place among the greatest of American novels. Recently, it was selected by the Modern Library as the sixth greatest English-language novel of the twentieth century. The novel's appreciation has in large part been due to the technique of its construction, and Faulkner's uncanny ability to recreate the thought patterns of the human mind. In this sense, it was an essential development in the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique.
The four parts of the novel relate many of the same episodes, each from a different point of view and therefore with emphasis on different themes and events. This interweaving and nonlinear structure makes any true synopsis of the novel difficult, especially since the narrators are all unreliable in their own way, making their accounts not necessarily trustworthy at all times.
The general outline of the story is the decline of the Compson family, a once noble Southern family descended from U.S. Civil War hero, General Compson. The family falls victim to those vices which Faulkner believed were responsible for the problems in the reconstructed South: racism, greed, and selfishness. Over the course of the thirty years or so related in the novel, the family falls into financial ruin, loses its religious faith and the respect of the citizenry of the town of Jefferson, Mississippi.
The first section of the novel is narrated by Benjamin Compson, the youngest of the Compson boys and a source of shame to the family because of his mental retardation; the only characters who seem to show any genuine caring for him are his sister Caddy, and Dilsey. His narrative voice is characterized predominantly by an inability to understand chronology or the laws of cause and effect. His section jumps freely between the years 1898 and 1928 with few temporal markers to indicate a change. This makes the style of this section particularly challenging for the reader, but Benjy's style develops a cadence that, while not linearly coherent, provides unbiased insight into many of the characters' true motivations.
In this section Benjy's thoughts and memories principally focus on his sister Caddy, who had left the family after bearing an illegitimate child, years prior to the beginning of the novel. In the opening scene, Benjy, accompanied by Luster, a servant boy, watches golfers through the fence blocking him from what used to be his favorite meadow. When one of them calls for his golf caddie, Benjy's mind embarks on a whirlwind course of memories of his sister, Caddy, focusing on one critical scene. In 1898 when their grandmother died, the four Compson children were forced to play outside during the funeral. In order to see what was going on inside, Caddy climbed a tree in the yard, and while looking inside, her brothers—Quentin, Jason, and Benjy—looked up and noticed that her drawers were muddy.
Narrated by Quentin, the most intelligent yet most tortured of the Compson children, the second part is probably the novel's finest example of Faulkner's narrative technique. In this section we see Quentin, a freshman at Harvard University, wandering the streets of Cambridge, contemplating death and remembering the loss of his sister Caddy. Like the first section, the plot is not strictly linear, although the two interweaving story lines of Quentin at Harvard on the one hand and his memories on the other are clearly discernible.
Quentin's main focus is on Caddy, whom he loved immeasurably, and for which he felt tremendously guilty. Quentin tells his father that they have committed incest, but his father knows that he is lying ("and he did you try to make her do it and i i was afraid to i was afraid she might and then it wouldn't do any good"(112)). Quentin's idea of incest is wrapped around the idea that if they "could just have done something so dreadful that they would have fled hell except us"(51) that he could protect his sister by sending them both to hell. Shortly before Quentin left for Harvard in the fall of 1909, Caddy became pregnant with the child of Dalton Ames, who is confronted by Quentin. The two fight, with Quentin losing horribly and Caddy vowing to never speak to Dalton again for Quentin's sake.
Quentin wanders through Cambridge, reflecting on his past, and ultimately, killing himself by jumping off a bridge into the Charles River after loading his jacket with flat-irons.
The third portion is narrated by Jason, the least likable of the Compson children. Of the three brothers who narrate a section, his account is the most straightforward, reflecting Jason's single-minded and calculated desire for material wealth. By 1928, Jason is the economic foundation of the family after his father's death. He supports his mother, Benjy, and Quentin, Caddy's daughter, as well as the family of servants. This role has made him bitter and cynical, with little sign of the passionate sensitivity that defined his older brother or sister.
This is the first portion that is narrated in a linear fashion. It follows the course of Good Friday–a day in which Jason decides to leave work to search for Caddy's daughter, who has run away again, seemingly in pursuit of mischief.
This section, the only without a single first person narrator, focuses on Dilsey, the powerful matriarch of the black servant family. She, in contrast to the declining Compsons, draws a tremendous amount of strength in her person and her faith, and thus stands as a proud figure amidst a dying family.
On Easter, she takes her family and Benjy to the colored church for the Easter service. Through her we see, in a sense, the consequences of the decadence and depravity in which the Compsons have lived for decades. Dilsey is mistreated and abused, but nevertheless she remains loyal. She is the only one who cares for Benjy, as she takes him to church and tries to bring him salvation. The novel ends with a very powerful and unsettling image. On the way back from church, Dilsey allows her son Luster to drive Benjy in the family's decrepit horse and carriage to the graveyard. Luster, not caring that Benjy is so entrenched in the routine of his life that even the slightest change in route will enrage him, drives the wrong way around a monument. Benjy's hysterical sobbing and violent outburst can only be quieted by Jason, of all people, who understands best how to placate his brother. Jason turns the carriage around, and Benjy is happy once again.
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