National Catholic Register


William Faulkner: Chronicler of the Southern Ethos

BY John Mcintyre, S.J.

November 10-16, 1996 Issue | Posted 11/10/96 at 2:00 PM


Contemporary literature is often hostile to moral values or, at best, flippant when it comes to religious sensibilities. Serious readers often have to look to the past for authors with whom they feel comfortable. William Faulkner is one such writer who continues to inspire. His work is discussed by Father John McIntyre, S.J., who teaches canon law at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario. He is a former professor of English and American literature.

WILLIAM FAULKNER (1897-1962), the sage of Yoknapatawpha County, has described, in encyclopedic style, the Southern experience. Delineating the Southern ethos, he reveals the motives of the human heart, its virtues and vices. Faulkner constructs his own universe, a mythic place that is home to a half dozen representative families. The nine novels concerned with Yoknapatawpha County tell the stories of the Compsons and the Satorises, the Sutpens and the Snopeses. Their stories largely involve the in-fighting that occurs between the landed aristocrats and “the new folk.”If both classes wish to work their “design”on the landscape, the curse of slavery has considerably complicated their plans.

Faulkner writes about Southern tradition and its decay. In the aftermath of the Civil War the land begins to disappear. As Ike McCaslin puts it movingly in the novella “The Bear”(1942), the land has been “deswamped and denuded and derivered in two generations.”Moderization brings about displacement of a way of life and its values, for which Southerners were quite unprepared.

The Sound and the Fury (1929), the story of the Compsons, reveals the deterioration of the family, both physically and morally. Jason Lycurgus Compson Ill, the father of Quentin, Caddy, and Jason IV—all moral failures—finishes his days by drinking whiskey and writing Latin epigrams. Faulkner's use of the classics, the “dead”languages, suggests the end of an era and the trappings of tragedy, with physical weakness mirroring moral decay.

Between the gentility of the landed aristocracy and the meanness of the new settlers stand the blacks, whom Faulkner calls the Negroes. Because they're not caught up in the code of the antebellum South nor motivated by the avarice of the newcomers, “they endure.” Faulkner here is referring to Dilsey, one of the characters in The Sound and the Fury, the one who gets the story right. He might have also included Lucas Beauchamp from Intruder in the Dust (1948). The author finds in these humble servants a nobility of character that marks them out as the true aristocracy. Other characters in Faulkner's repertoire achieve their notoriety either by excess or defect. They embody “predominant passions.”But in blacks, Faulkner finds a quiet dignity.

Faulkner discovers no essential difference between the mores practiced before and after the Civil War. Since the land had been stolen from the Indians in the first place, he discerns a residual guilt that marred any completion of the original project. Without being overtly religious, Faulkner insists that the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children. In cracking the obduracy of the human heart, Faulkner reveals a continuum of intractability. He would have us live like his characters, meditating on the consequences of our actions. In recognition of this kind of moral stance, Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in 1950.

His famous acceptance speech speaks of the “soul”and “immortality,”as well as a “spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”He insists that it is the writer's privilege and duty to persuade man of these values “by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”He concludes by asserting, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” However, Requiem for a Nun (1951), A Fable (1954), The Town (1957), The Mansion (1959), and The Rievers (1961)—all written after the Nobel Prize—do not reveal man's “immortal”essence. Consequently, his last books are rather unsatisfactory.

Style is pivotal in Faulkner. Despite a veneer of stream-of-consciousness realism, he uses a very definite technique. After a while, we realize that Faulkner's narrative style has to do with the uses of time. His multiple narrators tell their story in order to live with the past. It's a way of imposing form on otherwise intractable materials. As memory probes events and actions, the mind looks for meaning. In this way, Faulkner sets up a dialectic between art and understanding.

The narrative, in effect, becomes an exercise in reflexive consciousness, enabling the protagonists (and us) to grasp what is at best only imperfectly perceived. This is what Faulkner means, when he says: “[T]he past is never dead. It is not even past.”The author realizes that there is a gap between “the doing”and “the understanding.”He intervenes with the poet's art and shows us how we re-live the original fall, day by day, by day. He teaches us what it means to live in time.

Father John McIntyre teaches canon law at St. Paul University, Ottawa, Canada.