| William Faulkner writes a series of novels and short stories whose heroes are boys. The Reivers, his last novel, is typical of them. Then how can we evaluate The Reivers, as a novel of a boy, in his overall work?
When we try to estimate The Reivers, we must first of all take into account the tone of the book, which is quite different from those of most of Faulkner's works. The general impression that the reader may receive from his famous novels is that they deal with the dark side of the human existence, especially concerning such problems as race, sex and violence. On the contrary, The Reivers, whose hero is a boy, has a light, genial tone of humor accompanied with sentimentalism. The relationship between the light and dark side is difficult to understand.
Thus, the reader who is deeply moved by such serious works as The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! may be somewhat embarrassed in reading The Reivers, which has the apparent mood of humor and sentimentalism. Also confused are critics who try to evaluate the book. But, in this essay, we would like to pay attention to the comic, sentimental aspects of the novel which may perplex most of the reader.
In this respect, sentimentalism is especially interesting; for the reader may feel more perplexed at reading the sentimental descriptions in The Reivers, while it is possible to evaluate the comic elements in the tradition of the frontier humor.
Sentimentalism can be seen, for example, on the following scene in The Reivers. After the first horse-racing, Ned and Boon are arrested by the police and Lucius is left alone. Lucius, feeling lonely without his companions, gets hungry and homesick and finds himself "crying" (246-251).
First of all, such sentimental feelings are closely connected with the feminine mood of the book. In The Reivers, Lucius's homesickness directly means his wish to return to the place where his mother waits for him: Lucius says to himself, "Because what I wanted was to be back home. I wanted my mother"(155). Mother is the first person who should wait for him at home.
In The Reivers, female characters play important roles. Besides Lucius's actual mother and Miss Reba, we meet Miss Corrie (Everbe), who works as a prostitute at Miss Reba's brothel. Everbe, who washes clothes for Lucius (212), acts as a substitute for his mother. The friendship between Lucius and Everbe in the later part of the story is remarkable when we think about the relationship between the boy and the motherlike figure. In The Reivers, maternal elements are always accompanied with strong sentimental longings because, for a boy, the mother is the most important person in the world.
In depicting Lucius's sentimental feelings for the mother, Faulkner stresses the function of the sense of smell. Faulkner pays attention to the differences among the five senses, and deliberately uses each of them in order to enhance the effects upon the present scenes. The sense of smell is especially important in contrast to the sense of sight. According to Mortimer, smell (and sound) are internal, intimate and infallible, while visual experiences are often deceptive (Mortimer 37-38).
In The Reivers, the sense of smell is used to express the intimate feelings of Lucius towards the mother. When his mother leaves home to attend a funeral and kisses him, Lucius is strongly aware of her smell: "'Good-bye,' Mother said, 'good-bye,' kissing us veil and all, smelling like she always did but with something black in the smell, too . . ." (47). And on his first visit to Miss Reba's brothel, Lucius at once smells something: "the whole house smelled that way . . . I mean, as soon as I smelled it, it was like a smell I had been waiting all life to smell"(99).
Then, why does the boy love the smell of her mother? Because he has smelled it since he was a little baby and it reminds him of the past, happy days when he was always with his mother. Faulkner knows that the sense of smell evokes the past. In The Sound and the Fury, for example, Benjy's thought shifts from the present moment to the past experiences when he smells something which reminds him of the days he spent with Caddy.
In The Reivers, sentimentalism is seen in Lucius's attitude towards his grandfather [Boss] as well as towards motherlike figures. In the final chapter, when Lucius returns home from the adventurous journey, his grandfather teaches him what it is to live as a gentleman. As Lucius hears his grandfather saying, "A gentleman can live through anything. He faces anything," he finds himself "crying hard"(302). The grandfather holds Lucius's face down against his stick collar and shirt, and Lucius "could smell him--the starch and shaving lotion and chewing tobacco and benzine where Grandmother or Delphine had cleaned a spot from his coat, and always a faint smell of whisky"(302).
Such sentimental feelings towards both Mother and Grandfather makes the whole story look like a sweet dream. In The Reivers, the word "dream" does appear in the text several times. The stealing of the automobile, for example, is described as "no more than a dream from which I would wake tomorrow"(67). The whole adventure which is followed by the car theft is a dream-like experience completely detached from his routine life. Now we deal with the dream-like features of the novel for a further inquiry into its sentimentalism and humor.
First of all, dreams have a trait of "wish-fulfillment." The sentimentalism in The Reivers is closely connected with the following wishes: (1)the wish to return home(homesickness); (2)the wish to return to Mother's; (3)the wish to return to Grandfather's or ancestors's. These three wishes make Lucius want to "act like a baby"(249). Lucius's longings for Mother and his crying before Grandfather bring about the sentimental note of the novel which fulfills the wishes.
The second characteristic of dreams is "regression." Regression is closely related to wish-fulfillment: the above wishes have the regressive feature, for all of them express the desire to "return" to the past. And the novel itself is subtitled as "A Reminiscence." It is a story of a past boyhood, narrated and reflected upon by Lucius himself, who has now become an old man. The novel fulfills the wish of the old man to return to the past. And Faulkner himself, who is soon coming to the end of his life, evokes his own boyhood affectionatelly in writing The Reivers.
The regressive feature of dreams leads to the repetition of the past. In dreams, the past scenes are said to repeat themselves. In The Reivers, the repetition of the "grandfather-grandson" pattern is especially remarkable. As we have already said, the role of Lucius's grandfather is important in this novel. But we must remember that Lucius himself, as an old man, has a grandson. The opening chapter of the novel begins with the following introductory sentence: "GRANDFATHER SAID"(3). In this quotation, the word "GRANDFATHER" means Lucius himself and the author suggests the existence of his grandson who is listening to the story narrated by him. Lucius's grandfather teaches the gentleman's values to him, and Lucius as an old man, in his turn, tells his own grandson his experience of initiation. Here the inheritance of the past through the repetition of the "grandfather-grandson" pattern is seen in its idealized form.
When we further investigate the dream-like features of The Reivers, Freud's theory of dreams is especially of value for reference. Freud insists that dreams work on two levels: the manifest content and the hidden, latent content (The Interpretation of Dreams, chap.4). What we usually regard as a dream is no more than its apparent, manifest content. If we interpret the dream, we can find its latent content hidden under the surface.
Reading The Reivers, we can find that the dark side of race, sex and violence is hidden under the light side of humor and sentimentalism. Both Boon and Ned, for example, have the race problem: Boon has Indian blood in his veins, and Ned is a black. The race problem concerning blacks and Indians is thoroughly investigated in such works as Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses, and The Reivers often refers to the people in these two novels: Boon himself has already appeared in Go Down, Moses, and other main characters of Go Down, Moses are also mentioned in The Reivers1 ; and the place where Thomas Sutpen used to live is described as "a portion of old Thomas Sutpen's vast kingly dream which in the end had destroyed not only itself but Sutpen, too"(20). (In a sense, the author summarizes the whole story of Absalom, Absalom! in this short retrospective description.) The places in The Reivers are filled with memories of the past and of the works which Faulkner has written so far. These past memories constitute the novel's latent content which is hidden under the surface of the immediate story.
Now it is to be noticed that the race problem in The Reivers is treated only on the surface level. It is not thoroughly investigated on a deep level as in Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses, in which it is regarded as a form of original sin. In The Reivers, both Boon and Ned are depicted with humor, and their race problem does not disturb the overall genial mood of the novel. The serious, dark side of the problem is just "hinted" at or "alluded" to by mentioning the characters of Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses.
In The Reivers, sex and violence--human desire and impulse--are treated in the same way as race. Take the scene of Lucius's initiation to Miss Reba's brothel, for example. The whorehouse is depicted not as a dark place but as a warm, intimate and even nostalgic one, although it is generally supposed to represent the dark side of Memphis, the city which symbolizes "civilization"(93) in the book. The fact that Lucius doesn't realize what is going on in the brothel and misunderstands its nature gives a humorous tone to the scene. And, as we have already said, the smell in the house has a maternal, nostalgic feature. And Everbe, the whore, can be regarded as a substitute for Lucius's mother and Lucius deeply sympathizes with her. Here again, the dark side of sex is just hinted at or alluded to, as that of the race problem.
As Freud acutely points out, humor is closely related to "allusion" (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious 120). Allusion is an important way to bring about humorous effects, for humor is caused by alluding to an implicated meaning hidden under the surface. Especially important is allusion in the case of sexual humor. On the scene of the Memphis brothel, Boon hints to Lucius the sexual world represented by the whorehouse, but Lucius, as an innocent boy, doesn't know well about it although he feels its presence. Thus Lucius's words tend to be confused and incoherent2, which brings about humorous effects upon the scene. The double structure of the manifest and the latent--the innocent, juvenile world and the sexual world--causes that kind of humor.
The genial, humorous presentation of Miss Reba's brothel in The Reivers is in contrast to the description of the same whorehouse in Sanctuary. In Sanctuary, in which sex and violence are treated thoroughly, Miss Reba's brothel is depicted as a grotesque, black-humorous place. In The Reivers, Faulkner stresses the light side of the brothel, while, in Sanctuary, its dark side. Probably the return to maternal elements in The Reivers inverts the image of the brothel in Sanctuary. The humorous and pleasant tone of The Reivers is based on the reversal of image, or on the work of distortion as we see in dreams.3
Now we must remember that the work of distortion is common to both humor and sentimentalism which constitute the manifest mood of the novel. Both humor and sentimentalism are caused by exaggerating and distorting facts. Dickens, one of Faulkner's favorite writers, is good at expressing both humor and sentimental pathos. According to Maugham, Dickens's success depends on his habit of exaggerating everything he writes.4
We can see that the humor in The Reivers consists in exaggeration as in the case of tall talks. Lucius, for example, compares himself to Faustus: "I realized, felt suddenly that same exultant fever-flash which Faustus himself must have experienced"(73). Such exaggerated way of expression leads to the formation of the symbolic world filled with varied legends and myths: legendary "giants"(73) appeared in Ballenbaugh's place in the past; Ned talks about a mule which ran so fast that it finally became one of the "family legends"(120); the narrator introduces a Chinese fable which tells us about "a period on earth when the dominant creatures were cats"(121). And the sentimentalism in The Reivers also comes from such exaggerated feelings as we see on the scenes of "crying." Such objects of Lucius's nostalgic longings as the past boyhood, the mother and the gentleman's values are also exaggerated, for all of them are embellished and idealized.
Now we can summarize what we have said so far. First, we notice the two levels of dreams in order to consider the double structure of The Reivers. Then we deal with the relationship between the manifest content and the latent content, and point out that the hidden part is hinted at or alluded to by the surface and that the manifest content results from the distortion and inversion of the latent content. Such works of allusion and distortion do much to the humor and sentimentalism in The Reivers.
Freud calls such distortion in dreams the "dream-work." He gives us three typical examples of the dream-work: displacement, symbolization and condensation (Interpretation of Dreams chap. 6). We can take these three kinds of the dream-work as keys to the relationship between the manifest content and the latent content of The Reivers.
First, we would consider the work of displacement. In The Reivers, the dark side is disguised and displaced by the light side. Take Boon and Ned, for example. The serious aspects of their race problem are hidden from the surface by depicting both of them comically. Here we must keep in mind that hiding the problem from the surface doesn't mean erasing it completely. The dark side of the race problem is repressed into the latent level, but the author never be able to entirely forget it: it must inevitably return to the surface being disguised as a substitutive appearance of humor concerning the descriptions of Boon and Ned. We can see the author's mixed feelings towards the race problem in such changes of tone from darkness to lightness.
Secondly, The Reivers has a symbolic narrative structure. It is an initiation story of a boy who goes through various experiences and trials at varied symbolic places. (Here we call a place "symbolic" when it is given a special meaning, while homogeneous, physical space has no such meaning at all.) Take Lucius's motor-trip from Jefferson to Memphis, for example. On their way the automobile drops into a mud hole at Hell Creek bottom. It is an ordeal which may remind the reader of the flood and fire scenes of As I Lay Dying, and the place is given a symbolic meaning as "limbo"(92). Such a symbolic reference is readily accepted by the reader, for it is mentioned in the overall symbolic structure of the initiation story.
Condensation, the third feature of the dream-work, is important in creating characters both in dreams and fiction. In dreams, many persons in the actual world are often condensed into one character. What signifies plural persons on the latent level is distorted and merged into a single character on the manifest level. A half-man and half-beast in myths is created by the synthetic condensation of the human and animal images. In the case of condensation, the relation between the latent and manifest elements is many to one.
But more interesting is the work of division, the converse of condensation: here a single person in the actual world is divided into plural characters in the fictional world. Freud points out "the inclination of the modern writer to split up his ego, by self-observation, into many part-egos, and, in consequence, to personify the conflicting currents of his mental life in several heroes"("Creative Writers and Day-dreaming" 138).
In short, when producing characters, writers condense plural persons into a single character, or, on the contrary, they divide a single person into plural characters. The latter work of division is especially remarkable in Faulkner's work, for he often divides an ego into two part-egos and projects them onto a "pair" of characters.
As Irwin says about Absalom, Absalom!, "Quentin projects onto the characters of Bon and Henry opposing elements in his own personality--Bon represents Quentin's unconsciously motivated desire for his sister Cadence, while Henry represents the conscious repression or punishment of that desire"(28). Irwin also insists that the relationship between Henry and Bon is a form of doubling in which Bon plays the role of the shadow(29-30). The conflicting elements of an ego is thus projected onto two characters, who confront each other and, as a consequence, embody a pshychological dilemma inside the ego.
In The Reivers, a pair of Otis and Lucius is a typical example of such conflicting characters. Otis is the exact opposite of Lucius. "There was something wrong about him[Otis]"(141), while Lucius never forgets the gentleman's morals and manners. Otis often says "pugnuckling"(140), the slang meaning fornication, and even makes money by letting people peep at the scene of prostitution through a hole(156-157); on the contrary, Lucius is an innocent boy who doesn't know the secret language. To put it simply, Otis represents the dark, evil side of a boy, and Lucius the light, innocent side.
In "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality," Freud points out that "children can become polymorphously perverse, and can be led into all possible kinds of sexual irregularities"("Three Essays" 109). If we take into consideration the boy characters in Faulkner's work as a whole, we may notice that Faulkner depicts varied perverted boys of the Otis type as well as innocent boys of the Lucius type.
Fetishism is a notable example of the Freudian infantile perversity: Both Otis and the hero in "That Will Be Fine" make a fetish of coins; Virgil in Flags in the Dust ardently loves guns and tries in every way to get them. In Faulkner's work, fetishism is regarded as an important feature of children. In The Reivers, Boon is described as having "the mentality of a child"(19), and his childish personality is best shown in his deep attachment to the automobile of Lucius's grandfather. Besides fetishism, Faulkner depicts other kinds of infantile perversion: Otis acts as a Peeping Tom; cold-blooded Virgil has an ex-candy showcase in which he keeps "an assortment of insects that had died slowly on pins" (Flags 254).
We must keep in mind that innocent boys of the Lucius type and perverted boys of the Otis type are inseparable and that these two types should originally represent the light and dark sides of one infantile ego. Thus, when Lucius quarrels with Otis about the prostitution of Everbe and Lucius is struck by Otis with a knife and bleeds, the scene has a symbolic meaning, as the scene of the confrontation between Henry and Bon does. The infantile perversity hidden under the light, humorous surface of The Reivers is hinted at by the personality of Otis. (Here we must remember that , in the end, Otis's evil only leads to a comic event of his stealing Minnie's gold teeth. Again, in The Reivers, the evil side of a boy is not thoroughly investigated but just hinted at.)
Now we come to the conclusion by summarizing what we have said.
|1. See, for example, references to Sam Fathers and Ike McCaslin(18-22).
2. See the conversation between Boon and Lucius on pages 104-06. And we can find another typical example of Faulknerian humor on this scene: When Lucius bows to Miss Reba in the same way as "Grandfather's mother taught him and Grandmother taught Father and Mother taught us"(100), his formal manners, which are completely out of place at the brothel, give a humorous tone to the scene.
3. As it is a form of repetition with a reversal of tone, the humor seen on the brothel scene in The Reivers may be an example of the kind of jokes whose technique, as Freud puts it, "reminds us of what we already know"(Jokes 104). When Lucius misunderstands what is happening in the brothel, it reminds the reader of the previous scene in Sanctuary on which Virgil Snopes and Fonzo mistake the same whorehouse for a boarding house where "a party"(204) is held every night.
4. See Maugham 264.
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Faulkner, William. Flags in the Dust. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
---. The Reivers. New York: Vintage International, 1992.
---. Sanctuary:The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage Books,1987.
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