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THE ORIGINALITY OF WILLIAM FAULKNER’S METHOD
The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Faulkner in 1950 brought home to the American public that in Europe he was considered the foremost living American author.
Faulkner is sometimes considered an agrarian naturalist in the manner of Erskine Cauldwell. Actually he is more meaningful and profound, as well as more artistically original, than any of the American naturalists. His novels are generally laid in rural settings, but the problems they treat are psychological and moral rather than physical.
The protagonists of his novels are the decayed aristocrats of the "Sartoris" type. Whether their names are Sartoris, Compson, McCaskin, or Stevens, they are old Southern families past the peak of their prosperity and riddled with moral decay. Yet they are finer than their antagonists, the "Snopes" clan – the efficient, materialistic carpet-baggers, merchants, and entrepreneurs – who are gradually superseding them. A third class of characters are the blacks, often more heroic and admirable than either Sartoris or Snopes. The writer’s mission is to preside over the spiritual death of the old South and to study the forces that are preparing its awakening.
Faulkner is greatly concerned with erotic passions, with cruelty, and with the connection between the two. His cult of violence is twisted, melancholy, and guilty. His characters are seldom moved by normal urges: Quentin Compson (The Sound and Fury) is in love with his sister, Popeye (Sanctuary) is impotent, the idiot Ike Snopes (The Hamlet) is in love with a cow, and Joe Christmas (Light in August) becomes the paramour of a spinster a generation order than he is.
Faulkner does not relate these horrors for mere shock effect. He is interested in aberration as a symbol of Southern decline.
Many of Faulkner’s characters, though diverse, tend to fall into a set of clearly defined groups. There are moody younger sons, reckless and rebellious but proud of their family backgrounds (Quentin Compson, Banyard Sartoris); there are naive country girls, easily exploited by town slickers (Dewey Dell, Lena Grove); there are rebellious and nymphomaniacal young girls of aristocratic families (Temple Drake). Although Faulkner sometimes recreates the some characters, he seldom repeats his stories. With a tremendous inventiveness he finds a new situation, plot, or structure for each novel.
There is little overt political content in Faulkner’s work. But it is apparent that his sympathies are with the aristocratic and highly principled Sartorises, as decadent as they may be. At the beginning of his literary career he was wrongly accused of condescension toward blacks. In Intruder in the Dust he offers a positive solution to racial problems, and since then he frequently condemned racism, violence, and the activities of "White Supremacy" groups in the South. His approach to the racial problems is largely aesthetic, psychological, and physiological, although underneath, it is also moral. He describes both Sartorises and blacks as they appear to him without idealizing them for didactic purposes. His strongest condemnation of slavery is perhaps that found in the long version of The Bear, where he develops the idea that the fertile land of the South has been eternally cursed by the unnatural domination of man over land and man over man and by the sexual and psychological evils that have come out of it.
In spite of the fact that Faulkner’s works are ostensibly concerned with the South, as deeply rooted in place as Joyce is in Dublin, the problems of the South, people’s relationship to land, the moral wrong of possession, people’s relationship to people, the vulgarization of materialistic age with the loss of old courtesies and values, are the problems of the nation as a whole are the problems of the twentieth century world. Yoknapatawpha Country of Faulkner’s novels is the world’s universal image. Otherwise the early European enthusiasm for Faulkner would be incredible.
Faulkner always used a double frame of reference in his fiction (which helps to universalize it). Casual references to scriptures are meaningful to the people of his stories: Absalom, the affair of Noah’s sons used in The Bear, the nativity, the passion, as well as the dominant denominations of the South – Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians. The second frame is formed by the classical inheritance of the South – the modified Greek columns, the Grecian urn, Clytemnestra, the sense of Greek’ tragedy.
Faulkner is a highly individual author, and therefore difficult to classify. His earlier works represent naturalistic regionalism, slightly influenced by the style of Sherwood Anderson and demonstrating as well a personal lyrical quality that was to become more prominent in his later novels. Beginning with The Sound and Fury his work may be described as "symbolic naturalism", and his style a radical form of stream of consciousness utilizing difficult and highly original experiments in chronology and point of view.
The trend away from realism continued throughout his career. The beginning of Absalom,