| Reading Faulkner: Introductions to the First Thirteen Novels is a collection of lectures Richard Marius gave to Harvard University
students (chiefly intended for English-major undergraduates) for an introductory
course on Faulkner in 1996 and 1997. These lectures were compiled and edited
into the present volume by Nancy Grisham Anderson, an associate professor
of English at Auburn University and a long time friend of Marius. Marius
published four novels set in his native South (east Tennessee) while serving
as a professor at Harvard, and is also noted as a biographer. According
to his academic background, he received a Bachelor of Divinity, and later
a MA and a PhD in Renaissance and Reformation history. He also seems to
have known much about Shakespeare, which gave him an opportunity to teach
Shakespeare for some time at Harvard. Such breadth of scholarship and such
a wide range of knowledge contribute effectively to the writing of this
The compiler Anderson states that it was not until his graduate years at Yale that Marius read Faulkner and that he read his novels intensively and repeatedly from “the early 1970s through the late 1990s” (“Preface” xii). Further, she refers to a close relationship between his own fiction and Faulkner’s work. That is, she argues, he was not only born and bred in a Southern small town, but he sublimates the native, small area of the South into his fictional world, which means that his deep attachment to the native area is, on some level, identical to Faulkner’s. Still more noteworthy is her remark that the central motifs in Marius’s novels are ‘race,’ ‘fate,’ and ‘tragedy’ which are nothing other than the ones Marius points out as Faulkner’s important themes in his course description (“Preface” xii).
Following “Introduction” entitled “Introduction: ‘A Rose for Emily,’” Reading Faulkner comprises fifteen chapters that are arranged to discuss Faulkner’s novels roughly chronologically, although the two chapters, “Faulkner and Blacks” and “Faulkner and the Mythological World,” deviate from the arrangement. First, in “Introduction” Marius comments on the general characteristics of Faulkner (universally regarded as a difficult writer), being well aware of the fact that his audience is students. For example, trying to illustrate how to read the subtleties in The Sound and the Fury by quoting one passage from it, he stresses Faulkner’s fundamental unwillingness to tell stories in simple narrative form and order. And as an example of his techniques related to that unwillingness, he emphasizes his inclination to withhold important information necessary for the reader to understand the story. This seems to be presented to illustrate that “A Rose for Emily” (used as the subtitle of “Introduction”) is ideal for showing Faulkner’s technique of withholding information.
In “Introduction,” Faulkner’s basic characteristics are thus expounded with appropriate citations from his works, but that is not all. Here, important, useful observations on Faulkner, based on Marius’s broad knowledge of theology, Western culture and literature, are occasionally found. For example, the influences on Faulkner of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and T. S. Eliot’s poetry are pointed out (the chapter “Faulkner and the Mythological World” discusses the former case) (9). In addition, the comment on the influential role of Freud (8) and the remark on the importance of Faulkner’s style describing characters’ consciousness (16) deserve our attention.
The first chapter dealing with Soldiers’ Pay also directs our attention to Marius’s reference to Eliot’s influence. He discovers a reflection of “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in the scene of returning soldiers on a train to Cincinnati, and argues that a passage from The Waste Land suggests Donald’s plight of being a living corpse (24). Marius thus tries to discern some allusions to Eliot’s poetry through the text, which inevitably leads him to conclude that Soldiers’ Pay is “a novel of loss” (29). Naturally, this view makes him put a negative interpretation on the ending scene where Gilligan and the rector are listening to the singing from a black church, thereby abandoning a positive interpretation that the scene also implies.
Marius’s discussion of Flags in the Dust (the third chapter) interests us in that “dust” included in its title is defined as a metaphor for death, it being drawn from the Bible (“Genesis”), and that the image of death is associated with a Greek tragedy-like sense of destiny. Here, two of Faulkner’s central motifs of ‘race,’ ‘fate,’ and ‘tragedy’ that Marius points out are at the same time taken up as topics. Moreover, this chapter argues that Faulkner creates many of his characters with animal imagery because he comes under influences of Freud and Darwin (41-42).
One of the marked characteristics of the book is that Faulkner’s works are not analyzed from a single, definite point of view throughout all the chapters. The discussion of The Sound and the Fury shows that it is not viewed as an exception. It is concluded with the view that the work is after all a manifestation of the author’s pessimism, just like Soldiers’ Pay. Such a view of Marius’s is shown in his remark that Dalton Ames and Caddy both use sex for recreation (55). Particularly for Caddy, he insists that she addicts herself in promiscuity to get out of her family (59), but she should be deemed a victim of that family rather than a willful epicurean. To judge that to her sex is a tool means that we do not acknowledge her intrinsic love and passion. Such an attitude of denying her inherent moral values underlies a Darwinistic view of human beings, who are basically just animals. Marius’s similar view of Caddy brings about his interpretation that the scene of Benjy’s bawling on the carriage, the climax of the work, only suggests that there is no ultimate moral value in life, which is nothing less than Faulkner’s moral position. In addition, his discussion of Quentin in the chapter is not very original but still interesting when he says that Quentin inherited his ideas about sex from Mrs. Compson.
As for As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary too, the influences of Darwinism and Eliot take a significant place in Marius’s readings. In As I Lay Dying, Darwinistic concepts are associated with the helplessness of religion against death (64), and with Anse’s survival instinct (70). In Sanctuary too, a Darwinistic way of thinking is discerned in Ruby’s view of the real man and her attitudes about life as a woman (80). In regard to Eliot, we are led to see his work echoed in the vanity hanging over the whole of As I Lay Dying (65), and in Temple’s sense of lassitude and ennui described in the ending of Sanctuary (84).
The motif of ‘fate’ that Marius defines as one of Faulkner’s central motifs is referred to when he deals with As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary. In the chapter discussing Light in August too, ‘fate’ is seen as a keyword to reading the novel. The irresistible power of fate, a “chance” of Joe Christmas’s witnessing the dietitian having sex, changes the course of his life. He is all through his life afflicted with the chance (that has also to do with the curse of his “black blood”) with which he himself cannot be concerned. From now on, Marius continues to explore the novel with the theory of fatalism associating it with the theory of tragedy. Citing Richard Sewall’s The Vision of Tragedy, he contends that he sees “some evidence of real tragedy” in the destiny in which Christmas is involved (95). With regard to Christmas’s relations with Joanna, he says that she only uses him to compensate for her feeling of guilt, regarding him as a Black, and that his involvement with her results in his own ruin. The chapter is rather thin in the argument related to the problem of ‘race,’ only impressing us with the comment that “Christmas is tragic in that as part black he has bought the white stereotype of the black as inferior” (98). Incidentally, here Marius does not give adequate consideration to Lena and Hightower, and conclusively says that Christmas cannot help being defeated in the battle against fate. His conclusion, however, implies that the defeat signifies not only Christmas’s own but also the human race’s against the reality of the world.
Marius devotes the largest space to the discussion of Absalom, Absalom! First, Sutpen is identified as one of the characters in the work best adapted to a Darwinistic way of living with an intense survival instinct (120). And pointing out some similarities between Sutpen and the dictators of the 1920s and 30s, he states that all such dictators are doomed not only to their own failure but to the destruction of those who participate in their projects (this is again Marius’s theory of fatalism) (121).
Then, tragedies that befall Sutpen’s children become the center of consideration, in the course of which the complex relationship between Sutpen and Bon and Henry is taken up. While Marius talks about the relationship, he shows us how gradually the secret of Bon’s “black blood” is disclosed. In the process, he cites one passage from the conversation between Quentin and Shreve in Chapter seven of the work (Vintage International  214), in which Shreve asks Quentin how Mr. Compson got the information that Bon was Sutpen’s son (which Mr. Compson ought not to have got) and Quentin answers that it was he who told it to his father. Marius then refers to the possibility that Quentin got the information (including more details of Sutpen and his sons) from Henry himself (130), but he does not tell us clearly when and where Quentin acquired it. If he insists that the source of information is Henry, he should suggest to us the possibility that Quentin heard it when he visited the Sutpen residence at night in September, 1909. Marius’s account of the secret of Bon’s blood at this point does not come across very well.
Concerning the impact of the story of Sutpen on Quentin, it is stressed that Quentin has realized that the South is cursed because “it will accept incest before it will accept miscegenation” (132). Marius emphasizes near the end of the chapter that Sutpen is brought to destruction by the forces of destiny, as in Greek tragedies, and that after that, higher values emerge in the order of the universe.
The book closes with the discussion of Go Down, Moses, which Marius judges to be the last of Faulkner’s great novels. First, “Pantaloon in Black” is treated in that it reveals the essence of Faulkner’s thoughts on race. Marius states that the story makes us feel the fundamental gap in understanding between whites and blacks and that if Faulkner sets Rider in a position to arouse our sympathy, he never forces us to do so. After that, some affinities between Isaac McCaslin and the biblical character Isaac (“Genesis” in the Old Testament) are pointed out when “Was,” the first story in the work, is taken up. Ike McCaslin is then portrayed as one who has come to distrust his grandfather Carothers McCaslin, the patriarch of the McCaslin family, like the biblical Isaac, which foretells his discovery of Carothers McCaslin’s sin in “The Bear.” After “Was” is discussed, “The Fire and the Hearth” is dealt with, and “The Bear” that Marius views
as “[having] the controlling metaphor in the book itself” (183) is treated intensively.
Noting the almost mad state of Boon Hogganbeck at the ending of “The Bear,” who desperately tries to repair his broken gun under the gum tree in order to shoot all the squirrels in the tree, Marius identifies Boon’s attitude of claiming the squirrels as the ultimate metaphor of Go Down, Moses. That is, the squirrels in the tree symbolize the wilderness chased down into destruction, so the man claiming the wilderness in this way is viewed as being parallel to the way the people of today seek to possess the wilderness so they can destroy it. Marius contends that what the whole of Go Down, Moses suggests is the inevitable reality that the wilderness is constantly being destroyed. From this point of view, he tries to explore the meaning of the role of Ike who intends to confront the evil of civilization and segregation with his wisdom acquired through discipline in the wilderness. However, Ike’s attitude of escape with which he only attempts to solve the problem by renouncing his inheritance is conventionally criticized, the argument being left unfinished. Marius closes the chapter by saying that “the wilderness” is a representation of the author’s dreams, the dreams being identical to ideals that he perpetually seeks to attain in his creation (186-87). The discussion of Go Down, Moses tries to make us believe that Faulkner wants us to realize that the wilderness cannot survive in today’s world, but Marius does not delve more deeply into the meaning of the confrontation of Ike’s morals with the reality through a careful consideration of his ultimate failure, the argument remaining unfinished (this is true of the whole of the book).
The excellence of the book is that Marius offers his own views of Faulkner born out of his sensibilities as an actual novelist. That sensibilities sometimes produce very interesting comments, these being frequently combined with his broad knowledge of the Bible and Western culture and literature. We find one such case when he dwells on Flags in the Dust. Talking on Horace’s conversation with Narcissa, he states that Horace “seems to be having a kind of verbal sex with his sister” when he talks and she listens (40-41). Or, dealing with The Sound and the Fury, he points out Faulkner’s technique of doubling characters. These doublings—for example, Caddy and a young Italian girl, Benjy and Quentin in their relation to Caddy—invite patterns of repetition which bring about repetitions in style (55). And as the biblical interpretation of the “dust” imagery in Flags in the Dust, mentioned above, is interesting, so Marius’s several readings of characters’ names are suggestive indeed. (To cite an instance, the “Drake” in Temple Drake is regarded as being related to “mandrake” which is an aphrodisiac .)
The most serious problem in the book, however, is that Marius lays too much stress on Faulkner as a pessimist. Indeed, Faulkner’s early works abound in a pessimistic color. It is also true, however, that there are signs of “hope” or “affirmation” even in his early works—note the scene of the Negro church in Soldiers’ Pay, the scene of Reverend Shegog’ sermon and the existence of Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury. Joseph Blotner remarks that the pessimistic traits clearly seen in Faulkner’s early works are nothing more than “the other side of a coin,” a reversed expression of his deep-seated hidden idealism.1 It is evident that even in this early period, Faulkner’s works have a structure in which there is a tense relationship between the overwhelming negation and a certain affirmative element. Marius’s argument lacks concern for this structure, and his consideration of ‘race,’ ‘fate,’ and ‘tragedy’ all contribute to forming Faulkner as a pessimist. Since the book was intended for students, in fact, especially because the book was intended for students, he should have conveyed all the richness and multilayered breadth Faulkner has. His comic, lighthearted features should have been discussed along with his marked tragic traits. Reading Faulkner discusses Faulkner with a passionate love and deep sympathy for him, and it is undeniable that it is a useful introduction to Faulkner, but I regret, for that reason, the blemish of the book stated above.
1 Joseph Blotner, “Continuity and Change in Faulkner’s Life and Art,” Faulkner and Idealism: Perspectives from Paris, eds. Michel Gresset and Patrick Samway, S. J. (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1983) 20.
Copyright (c)2008 HASEGAWA Yoshio