40 William Faulkner (1897–1962)
William Faulkner is the most important writer of the Southern Renaissance. Flannery O’Connor once compared the overpowering force of his influence to a thundering train, remarking that “nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” Faulkner was born in Mississippi and raised on tales of his legendary great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, the “Old Colonel” who led a group of raiders in the Civil War, built his own railroad, and was murdered by his former business partner, Richard Jackson Thurmond, the day after he was elected to the Mississippi legislature.
Dropping out of high school, Faulkner left Mississippi to pursue his interests in drawing and poetry. During the First World War, Faulkner pretended to be English in order to get around the height restriction in the U.S. Army and enlisted in the reserves of the British Army, although he never saw combat. He picked up his poetic career after the war, ultimately publishing his first book in 1924, a collection of poetry called The Marble Faun.
Turning his attention to fiction writing, Faulkner then wrote two timely novels. His first novel, Soldier’s Pay (1926), explores the states of mind of those who did and did not fight in the First World War. His second novel, Mosquitoes (1927), exposes the triviality of the New Orleans art community, of which Faulkner was briefly a part. However, it was with his third novel, Sartoris (1929), that Faulkner made what he called his “great discovery”: the fictional possibilities contained within his home state of Mississippi. Returning to Oxford, Mississippi, with his new wife, Faulkner moved into an antebellum mansion and began turning the tales he heard growing up about his hometown and surrounding area into one of the greatest inventions in American literary history: Yoknapatawpha County.
Faulkner eventually wrote thirteen novels, many of which were set in Yoknapatawpha County. Beginning with his fourth novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929), Faulkner began to incorporate modernist literary techniques such as stream-of-consciousness narration and non-linear plotting into his already lofty style. The Sound and the Fury describes the fall of the Compson family through four distinct psychological points of view, one of which is that of a young man who commits suicide, and another belonging to an illiterate who is severely mentally handicapped. As I Lay Dying (1930) describes the death and burial of a matriarch from the perspective of fifteen different characters in fifty-seven sections of often stream-of-consciousness prose.
In Absalom, Absalom! (1936), four narrators relate the same story yet also change it to arrive at four very different meanings. Modernist techniques such as these enabled Faulkner to dramatize how the particulars of everyday life in the rural American South show what he saw as the universal truths of humanity as a whole.
While stylistically modernist, Faulkner’s collective epic of Yoknapatawpha County ultimately explores not so much the future of narrative as the human condition itself as viewed through generation-spanning histories of great and low families.
One of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha stories is included here: “A Rose for Emily,” one of his many tales about the decline of formerly great Southern families. This short story is a good representative of both the range of Faulkner’s style and his ambition as a storyteller. In a deeply regional tale that is at once grotesque, tragic, brilliant, profound, loving, and hilarious, Faulkner leads us to the source, as he once put it, from which drama flows: “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.”
You can read the full text here: A Rose for Emily [Full Text]
You can read the full text here: Barn Burning [Full Text]
- At what point does the story start? What information is the reader given about Miss Emily in the beginning?
- A symbol is something that stands for or represents something else: the servant and china-painting represent a certain lifestyle. Notice the detailed description of the Grierson house. What might the house and its furnishings symbolize?
- Why did Colonel Sartoris remit Miss Emily’s taxes? Why was an attempt made later to collect the taxes again?
- Describe Miss Emily’s appearance. How is it related to her personality and behaviour? When does her hair turn iron grey? What is her attitude to time and change?
- Who is the narrator? Describe him. What is his attitude to Miss Emily?
- What is important about Miss Emily’s reaction to her father’s death? What is meant at the end of Part II: “She would have to cling to that which robbed her. . . “?
- What is the significance of the odour? When does this incident occur?
- Describe as fully as you can Miss Emily’s personality. What kind person is she? Why does she act the way she does? How important is her personality to this story?
- What is Homer Barron like? Why do the townspeople gossip about his relationship with Miss Emily?
- Why does Homer Barron leave town the first time? What happens between the time he leaves and the time he comes back? What happens after he comes back?
- In the final scene, what is the effect of the order in which the details are given? Who placed the clothes carefully on the chair? What is the significance of the strand of iron grey hair? What happened in this room?
- What is “noblesse oblige“?
- What is the meaning of the title?
- What do the dust images suggest?
- Define necrophilia. Try to guess: “-philia, suggests “the love of” (A philologist is a lover of words).
- Cite two examples of humour in the story.
- Look at the image beginning on Part V “… the very old men … [to] narrow bottleneck of the most recent decade of years.” Clarify this complex metaphor. How do the old tend to view time?
- What did Abner Snopes do during the Civil War?
- Explain why Sarty feels peace and joy when he first sees Major de Spain’s house.
- Why does Sarty’s mother beg Abner to let her clean Major de Spain’s rug?
- Explain why Abner Snopes burns down barns.
- Do you find Abner wholly despicable or do you think he has some good qualities?
- Give some examples of how Faulkner’s style differs from Hemingway’s, especially in “Hills Like White Elephants.” Pay attention to sentence structure and sentence length in each; to Faulkner’s use of italics, and to the narrative point of view. Which author seems to get more deeply into the mind of the main character?
- How does the first trial at the store foreshadow the later barn burning? Are there any other foreshadowings in the story?
- What is the main conflict within Sarty? Does he change during the course of the story? In other words, if Abner is a static character, is Sarty dynamic, able to change?
- Identify the story’s protagonist and antagonist.
View the two-part film adaptation of “Barn Burning” from the 1977 American Short Story series on the Internet Archive, and then discuss how the ending differs from that of the print version of the story. Which ending do you think is the more effective?
- Biography: “William Faulkner” by University System of Georgia © Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence
- William Faulkner © Carl Van Vechten is licensed under a Public Domain license