Updated: Nov 27, 2019
An introduction into Faulkner.
Our introduction into Southern Gothic Month.
People always talk about a Southern summer, but for me, it’s the Southern fall that’s true magic. Life seems to begin settling in again. Your hard work is paying off, and you’re enjoying the fruits of your labor as you look ahead to the holidays and the time of hibernation that proceed it.
Twinkly lights begin to brighten as the fireflies dissipate. The smell of burning leaves freshen the air. I dust off the classics that sit in my library, the ones that anxiously await this particular season to be opened.
There’s no better time to enjoy Southern literature than during the fall. Southern gothic literature, a southern genre that derives from 18th Century English gothic and 19th Century American gothic, bases its entire structure on complex character development to show the author’s thoughts on society, rather than plainly stating them. Readers pick up the narrator’s message after having endured a long journey with the character representing the message; thus, pushing us to arrive to the story’s conclusion through a complex analysis into our own selves.
In Southern Gothic literature, readers are given characters with severe issues, but presented in a humorous way that makes light of the instability and helps make sense of the world readers are experiencing.
There are some major titans in this genre, with writers like Mark Twain and Flannery O’Connor leading the charge, but none, in my opinion, are as prolific as unlikely heavyweight, William Faulkner. His body of work alone is loaded with masterpiece after masterpiece, and the complexities in his writing are so much that even he needed a system to keep the plot lines from growing too chaotic.
Faulkner is difficult to read. His novels are not for the novice and it takes an acute level of concentration to get through the roundabout stream of conscious that he takes readers through.
Many of his novels have continuity. While they don’t always connect directly, many of his stories feature characters from other novels, and some even pick up where the previous one left off.
Taking place in Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner creates a world, and each book is a tale of a different family within this world. From short stories to numerous novels, Faulkner’s world is full of family betrayals, classism, racial struggles, and consequences from past discretions.
While The Sound and the Fury is his most famous, and arguably his best work, it’s a tougher one to start with. I started it when I was in college and then again when I was in law school, but both times I was left with many questions, feeling like I missed important points because I was challenged by the sentences that constantly run together with little indication as to a change of thought.
I was blessed with the great fortune of being a student under Dr. William Moss, one of my graduate school professors during my time at Wake Forest University. In all my years of schooling, few professors were as difficult as Professor Moss. He challenged me constantly. I thought my work was great when I entered my Masters program, but when I was being taught under him, no paper was ever proper enough. No interpretation was ever deep enough. No student lecture was ever long enough. He pushed me beyond a point I knew existed, but I came out of it a better writer and an infinitely better reader, and what I learned most is the following unfailing fact:
One must be a reader in order to be a writer.
One cannot exist without the other.
It was Dr. Moss who chose to begin his William Faulkner class by making The Unvanquished our introduction. Now having read all the Faulkner books, I realize even more what a brilliant professor he was.
The Unvanquished is the best way to understand Faulkner’s style of writing and to become familiar with the methods he uses to indicate changes of thought and changes of setting.
Split into seven short stories, Faulkner’s 1938 publication spans the course of 11 years. The first story, “Ambuscade” opens with Bayard Sartoris, son of plantation owner and Confederate Colonel John Sartoris. Bayard idolizes his father and often imagines himself as one of his soldiers.
When the colonel returns from battle, Bayard believes his father to be coming back victorious when he overhears him telling Granny Millard, his grandmother that “Vicksburg has fallen.” Although he is childishly unaware, readers are very much aware of the fact that this means that the south is losing.
Vicksburg was a city in Mississippi and the last major stronghold that the Confederate army had along the Mississippi River. As a result, the colonel and Granny Millard wait until nightfall to hide their silver, knowing full well that Union infiltration is imminent.
Keep in mind that the fall of Vicksburg was what lost the south the state of Mississippi. Imagine how calm the colonel remained in front of his son, that Bayard had no idea this news, which he overheard his father telling his grandmother, was bad. Faulkner is able to give us the perspective of a child, with all his naïveté and his rose-colored view of the world. Bayard fails to see the weight of this moment, giving readers a sense of sadness as they prepare for what’s to come for the happy child.
The next few chapters take place over several years, and we watch as the powerful Sartoris family experience the declining south. Granny Millard’s views on piety and lady-like tendencies are challenged as she now has to fight to survive. Readers are delightfully surprised at what a tough cookie the elegant and polished Granny Millard turns out to be.
Readers get to experience Granny’s hustle, as she and Ringo, Bayard’s best friend and a slave, begin smuggling mules and reselling them to the Yankee troops. I never tire of watching Granny transform into a shrewd business woman because throughout the scam, she never drops her proper exterior and kind nature. She is determined to maintain order amongst Bayard and Ringo, even amidst the chaotic post-war era. She does everything she can to contribute to the war effort and the reconstruction, but she never loses the values that she holds dear.
One of my favorite scenes in the entire novel is when the boys shoot at a Yankee soldier coming onto their property and then run into the house to hide. Granny, knowing what they’ve done, hides them under her enormous skirt, and when the soldiers come to her door to question her, she sternly tells them that there are no children in her house. Granny Millard is the grandmother we dream of.
Throughout chapters “Retreat”-“An Odor of Verbena”, we are introduced to many familiar Yoknapatawpha faces, from the infamous Ab Snopes to the ever-intriguing Uncle Buck. These are characters you will encounter in some of Faulkner’s other works, and there is nothing more delightful than reading their name in one book and recalling that you know them from another one.
William Faulkner creates a world. Much like JK Rowling creates Hogwarts amidst an ordinary England life, Faulkner creates his world using an ordinary town in Mississippi, and uses this region as a backdrop to tell the true story of the south and its people.
Through Bayard, we experience the Civil War and the reconstruction through the eyes of a child. In the beginning, he views the war as a game, but by the end of the novel he has grown up. He is studying law at the University of Mississippi and is sick of war and bloodshed. Now, as a young adult, war and bloodshed are all he has ever known. The young man readers listen to in “Odor of Verbena” is a far cry from the wide-eyed and playful boy we meet in “Ambuscade”.
Now that he is a man and understands that war is not a game, he can comprehend the magnitude of not only his decisions, but of the decisions of those around him. What Faulkner does so well, and what southern literature attempts to do, is give readers a different perspective of life in the South from one who grew up in the midst of it. He then juxtaposes this by peppering in Colonel Sartoris, who grew up in the South’s antebellum heyday and was eager to fight in order to preserve his way of life. Bayard; however, was born into a tumultuous time period. He was molded by it, and by the time he is a man, he is weary of it.
By “Odor of Verbena”, Bayard is a man whose childhood was war, a man who saw the adults he respected and adored try to survive and rebuild, which he realizes must have been especially challenging for them because at one time, their lives were seemingly perfect.
The ending of the novel shows us that Bayard not only understood the mistakes of his father, but had the courage to evoke change through his actions. When Bayard chooses to avenge his father’s death through forgiving Redmond rather than killing him, Redmond, in turn, chooses not to kill Bayard. We see that Bayard is not the only one who is sick of the revenge and bloodshed that the South has wreaked. The verbena left by Drusilla at the end of the novel serves as a symbol of hope that perhaps all the atrocities that Bayard witnessed, and all the hell that he suffered, specifically the murder of his beloved grandmother, were not in vain.
There are also characters that seem to contradict themselves, but it only adds to the complexities of the South during the Civil War and reconstruction era. Bayard’s cousin, Drusilla, rebels against the traditions of antebellum women, yet she fights to preserve the confederacy. Faulkner uses characters like Drusilla to show us that there were many who didn’t believe in some of the southern traditions, but they loved their home, they loved the land they grew up on, and they loved the family they grew up with. For many, the war was about preserving the physical aspects of the south and their loved ones, not the ideology that came along with it.
Faulkner’s stories are told through a stream of conscious. Filled with run-on sentences and thoughts that blend together, it can be difficult to get a good hold on where you are in the novel. This is why The Unvanquished is the best way to start your Faulkner exploration. While the novel does contain the lengthy and complicated stream of conscious that he is famous for, it’s a bit simpler than some of his other works.
Take, for example, the scene where Bayard believes that his father smells of pride and victory. He says:
"He came toward the steps and began to mount,
the sabre heavy and flat at his side.
Then I began to smell it again, like each time he returned, like the day back in the spring
when I rode up the drive standing in one of his stirrups-
that odor in his clothes and beard and flesh too
which I believed was the smell of powder and glory,
the elected victorious
but know better now:
know now to have been only the will to endure,
a sardonic and even humorous declining of self-delusion
which is not even kin to that optimism
which believes that that which is about to happen to us
can possibly be the worst which we can suffer." (10)
The above quote is only one sentence, a sentence that is quintessential Faulkner. The difference here is that I separate it into stanzas because once you break it down, you can truly appreciate the complexities in this one, very long thought. He denotes changes in thought and introspective conclusions through his clever placement of punctuation.
In this novel, ideas are separated enough to make sense and he uses his characters to signal shifts. Because of this, I was able to break each chapter down and become familiar with his style. By the time I got to some of his more complicated work, I was already very comfortable with his voice, and prepared to tackle his challenging style of writing.
Faulkner is not a writer who plainly states a perspective. He doesn’t just give readers the message, he cultivates it from peripheries. He gives you angles and details and leaves it up to the reader to read into it what they wish. He takes away your eyes and forces you to hear and feel your way through his world. Allowing you to see it would simply be too easy. He leaves that for the Hemingways of the world.
As we enter October, we will be dedicating the majority of the month to the Southern Gothic genre. From Faulkner to Flannery O’Connor, from True Detective to North & South, this is a genre that is so rich with content and so effortlessly intriguing due to the true events that influence it. The genre sparks sociological discussions on characters and how they handle trauma, and it promotes an exploration into culture, societal norms, and the ties that bind us.
I had the privilege of being taught by one of the world’s leading scholars in Southern literature. His tutelage prompted me to attempt to become one myself. My Master’s thesis focused on this genre, and subsequently, my first publication was about Southern literature and the titans who created it. Needless to say, of all the genres that I absolutely adore, southern gothic is absolutely my favorite.
I am incredibly excited to introduce October as Southern Gothic Month. Join us on this exciting ride where we will analyze literary and visual anthologies, where we will travel to an old Southern city, and where we will be hosting our very first podcast. Stay tuned for the fun journey we are about to embark on. It’s going to be one complex, introspective, and darkly humorous ride.