Tuesday, May 20, 1997Tuesday, May 13, 1997
William Cuthbert Faulkner (1897-1962) wrote over a hundred short stories and twenty novels. Within his writings, Faulkner often seems "really, really, really boring and ... doesn't have a plot" (Discussion Cynder Comment #1). The Nobel Prize recipient in 1950, Faulkner often creates some subtleties which create several tenuous connections with modern life. As one reads further these nuances and recurrent motifs become more prevalent.
The themes, a continuous thread, which interests any modern, sophisticated, and intelligent reader, touches on an issue dear to everyone: the stereotypes of men and women. Faulkner reinforced the women's movement by portraying strong women, yet kept traditional male interactions and hierarchy.
Faulkner recreates Victorian morale when discussing the roles of men and women. The conflicting ideas of the sexes produce a struggle between "traditional female roles" with the "new" feminism occurring in his era. Tracing an idea of honor, Faulkner emphasizes freedom and liberty despite the Victorian calls for restraint which is an integral in the concepts of honor and peaceful coexistence. His stories lead to the examination of honor, exploration, companionship, and persistence in conjunction with the roles between men and women.
Harking back to the days of chivalry and knighthood, the concept of honor has not escaped our society. In the South, honor still plays a crucial role in social structure and class hierarchy. In "Adolescence," Juliet's Grandmother states rather plainly, "Spiled yer chances for gittin' a decent, well-to-do husband" (465). Juliet, a young teenage girl, had been caught "stark nekked" with Lee, a young man (465). This incident describes southerners' desires to stay in or ascend the hierarchical ladder. By being caught and earning this reputation Juliet, as seen by her grandmother, will not be able to fulfill this unsaid need. "A Rose for Emily" also contains references to chivalric society. The townspeople debated Emily's actions; some turning to the concept of "noblesse oblige" (493), the idea that the noble class has an obligation to be better than lay people. Both Juliet and Emily reject the restrictive Southern concept of honor; thus reflecting Faulkner's attitude that chivalric restrictions interfere with the self-determination and fundamental freedoms. He finds that unwritten codes, such as noblesse oblige, hinder us. In "The Bear," one perceives an underlying connection, the hunter-prey relationship, between the bear and the young boy. Honor for the young hunter meant to be a part of the hunt and the live like other hunters. One reward of this accomplishment was the "brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank..." (655). The narrator first saw the bear appear quietly and "[sink] back into the wilderness..." (652); later getting close enough to smell it wondering why he "didn't shoot when [he] had the gun" (654). Here, the protagonist obviously had two opportunities to accomplish a life long goal; however, he chooses to let the bear go free. Thus we see that Faulkner creates a clear distinction between women, who must escape from traditional ideas of honor, and men, who strive to prosper in traditional principles of honor.
Reflecting traditional American ideas of exploration, Faulkner strengthens the conservation movement and by appreciating nature. In "Nympholepsy" the protagonist chases a mystical and swift forest nymph which guides him on an exploration of nature and the forest. Trees became majestic. "Hardwood ... were twin strips of red gold and lavender.... Pines were half iron and half bronze ... dripping gold" (332). Faulkner equates women and nature to be precious and intangible. His choice of a male narrator implies that men seek nature an women implying that they wish to conquer them. In "Once Aboard the Lugger (I)," men, again, brave the wilderness seeking a treasure. "Back and forth we went, carrying those endless awkward sacks" (357). To accomplish their goal, acquiring riches, they had to face biting mosquitoes and wild cattle. This freedom and desire to conquer is common to both the men and women. Similar explorations occur in "Adolescence." "Hunting berries when hungry, swimming in the bright hot noon, and scuffing the dew-heavy grass homeward in twilight" Juliet explores nature (462). It should be noted that Emily and Juliet's grandmother do not reflect this spirit of exploration and appreciation for nature. Again we find Faulkner creating distinctions between the sexes especially referring to their roles as explorers and pursuers of nature. Also, he rejects the idea of females exploring the world by just describing the traditional exploration by males.
Faulkner's focus on men and women are not balanced, seeming to stress the relations of men with each other. The "Once Aboard the Lugger" series and "The Bear" both focus heavily on the trails and tribulations endured by men at the mercy of each other. "Once Aboard the Lugger" contains only male characters. The central protagonists, Joe, narrator, Pete, the captain, and the "nigger," go after buried objects on an uninhabited island and subsequently get hijacked by a "big half-decker" (359). "The Bear" does not mention women and focuses on the pursuit of the legendary bear and the skyrocketing hunting career of the narrator. His use of female characters are placed more in the background or as antagonists. "Adolescence" gives Juliet's grandmother a harsh attitude toward the protagonist, Juliet, a tomboyish yet feminine character. His account of "A Rose for Emily" continues to distance himself from women. In this case, he uses a narrator who sympathizes with the townspeople, rather than the female. Other stories tend to focus on men and their feelings as they face some antagonist, reestablishing Faulkner's lack of focus on women. He points to a more traditional era where the males were completely superior to females.
Persistence is admirable in the characters in William Faulkner's stories. For instance, Emily absolutely detests taxes and refuses to see anyone. Her successful isolationist personality only comes about from her will to remain "alone" in her life. Often, "she just stood in the door and listened quietly until the spokesman came to a stumbling halt" (490). Despite the yearly tax notice and a visit from the city authorities, she maintains, "I have not taxes in Jefferson" (490). Likewise there is a will, among men, to pursue, as in "The Bear." The young hunter just acts on his will to see the majestic bear. "So I must see him, he thought. I must look at him" (650). He would have his chance again next year, but for now "he ranged the summer woods... "(651). In this sense, Faulkner's ideas of men and women are the same. On persistence, Faulkner leaves the conventional mold of passive women, and allows a stronger character to be displayed.
William Faulkner discusses the need for freedom and companionship in his short stories. "Nympholepsy" deals with the sexual desires of a man running in a forest in pursuit of a mythical girl. "Companionship ... he wanted" (333). Similarly, men also pursue camaraderie in "The Bear" with the extensive conversations between the narrator and other hunters. "Major de Span would be there and sometimes old General Compson and Walter Ewell and Boon Hoggenbeck and Sam Fathers and Tennie's Jim, too, because they, too, were hunters, knew the woods and what ran them" (654). These hunters are united by what they do and their freedom during their hunts. Likewise, "Adolescence" deals with the yearnings for freedom of a young adolescent female escaping the iron hands of her step mother and grandmother. During her grandmother's attempt at beating her, Juliet "wrested the stick from her grandmother's hand and broke it across her knee" (469). The breaking of a stick or staff symbolizes the breaking down of authority and a pursuit of independence. For Juliet, this independence also included Lee, her companion. His treatment of Juliet's grandmother seems to point to a rejection of the concept of freedom and an adoption of the concept of control in its place. Her claims to power are blatant. "Her grandmother ... controlled Juliet so subtly..." (460). It should also be noted that in "A Rose for Emily" a similar rejection of freedom is presented. Emily refuses to allow her lover, Homer Barron to leave her. She asked for arsenic and subsequently a foul odor came from her house. Only after her death would it be revealed that she had poisoned Homer Barron. She took a man's freedom so that she could control her isolated world. Faulkner underscores the need for freedom and camaraderie among men but among women he portrays a struggle for control. Within his male sphere, he remains a traditional writer, examining various situations through fiction, however, he assumes an almost misogynistic attitude when writing about "traditional Southern" women.
Faulkner makes it clear that he finds men and women different and likewise their roles are not the same. Honor, interpersonal relations, the drive to explore, persistence, the need for companionship and freedom all are aspects of Faulkner's conception of men and women. He maintains a conventional attitude for men in those regards. He rejects the "Old Southern" attitude regarding women and he supports natural exploration of youth. Caught between eras of decadence, war, and conformity, Faulkner struggles with the issue roles of men and women. He tries to take a middle ground, not emphasizing the old Victorian ways, but at the same time, he wishes to keep the concepts of honor and freedom.
Faulkner, William, "Adolescence." Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner. ed. Joseph Blotner. New York: Random House, 1979.Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner. ed. Joseph Blotner. New York: Random House, 1979. 460-473.
---, "The Bear." Prentice Hall Literature: The American Experience. Prentice Hall, 1991. 646-656.
---, "Nympholepsy." Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner. ed. Joseph Blotner. New York: Random House, 1979. 331-337.
---, "Once Aboard the Lugger (I)." Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner. ed. Joseph Blotner. New York: Random House, 1979.Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner. ed. Joseph Blotner. New York: Random House, 1979. 352-358.
---, "Once Aboard the Lugger (II)." Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner. ed. Joseph Blotner. New York: Random House, 1979.Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner. ed. Joseph Blotner. New York: Random House, 1979. 359-367.
---. "A Rose for Emily." The Faulkner Reader. Random House, 1932. 489-498.
Padgett, John B. William Faulkner on the Web. [http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~egjbp/faulkner] 1997.