Barn Burning


Author William Faulkner (1897–1962)

Classification Psychological realism

Fiction F

First Published 1939

Locale Mississippi

Time of Plot Post-Civil War

Principal characters:

COLONEL SARTORIS "SARTY" SNOPES, the protagonist, a ten-year-old boy

ABNER SNOPES, his father

LENNIE SNOPES, his mother

MAJOR DE SPAIN, a wealthy Southern landowner, Abner Snopes’s most recent employer

MRS. LULA DE SPAIN, Major de Spain’s wife

The Story

As the story opens, ten-year-old Colonel Sartoris Snopes (he is named for Colonel John Sartoris, one of the central figures in William Faulkner’s fiction) sits in a makeshift courtroom in a dry goods store and listens as his father is accused of burning a neighbor’s barn. Young Sarty is called to the stand, but because the plaintiff is ultimately unwilling to force him to testify against his own father, the case is closed, and the father, Abner Snopes, is advised to leave that part of the country. As the family—Sarty, his parents, two sisters, an older brother, and an aunt—camp out that night on their way to their next home, Snopes, for whom barn burning seems to have become a habitual means of preserving his integrity in the face of men who have more power and wealth than he does, is absolutely cold and unemotional as he strikes Sarty and accuses him of having been prepared to betray his father back in the courtroom. He warns his son, "You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you."

Moving from one run-down tenant farmer shack to another has become a way of life for Sarty: He and his family have moved at least a dozen times within his memory. When Sarty and his father first approach the home of Major de Spain, on whose land they have most recently come to labor, Sarty finally feels that here are people to whom his father can pose no threat, that their mansion exists under a spell of peace and dignity, "rendering even the barns and stable and cribs which belong to it impervious to the puny flames he might contrive." Snopes, in his pride and envy, however, immediately forces a confrontation between the landed de Spain and himself, the landless tenant. As Snopes and Sarty walk up the drive, Snopes refuses to alter his stiff stride even enough to avoid some fresh horse droppings and then refuses to wipe his feet before he walks across the pale French rug that graces Mrs. de Spain’s entrance hall. The shaken Mrs. de Spain asks the Snopeses to leave her house, and later in the day her husband brings the rug to their home, ordering that it be cleaned. In spite of his wife’s pleas that she be allowed to clean it properly, Snopes sets his lazy and inept daughters to work cleaning the rug with harsh lye and, to be sure that it is ruined, scars it himself with a piece of stone.

Major de Spain seeks reparation for the damaged rug in the form of twenty bushels of corn from Snopes’s next crop. He is amazed when Snopes, instead of accepting the fine, has him brought before a justice of the peace on the charge that the fine is too high. The justice finds against Snopes, but lowers the fine to ten bushels. Any fine at all, however, is too much of an affront to Snopes’s dignity. He goes home that night and, once more against his wife’s protestations, gathers the kerosene and oil that he will use in burning de Spain’s barn.

Sarty is faced with a decision that will shape the rest of his life. His father already knows what the decision will be. Snopes orders his wife to hold the boy so that he cannot warn de Spain. As soon as Snopes leaves, that is exactly what Sarty does. He wrenches himself free from his mother’s grasp, warning her that he will strike her if necessary to free himself, and runs to alert the Major. As Sarty runs back toward the barn, de Spain, on his horse, passes Sarty on the road. Sarty hears first one shot and then two more. When he starts to run again, this time it is away from the fire, its glare visible as he looks back over his shoulder.

At midnight, Sarty is sitting on the crest of a hill, his back toward his home of four days and his face toward the dark woods. He tries to convince himself that his father was brave, that he even served nobly in the recent war. Later he will know that his father was in the war only for the booty it had to offer. For now, though, Sarty dozes briefly and then, near dawn, as the morning birds start to call, he walks off into the woods, not looking back.

Themes and Meanings

Young Sarty Snopes describes his own inner conflict as "the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses." On one side is "the old fierce pull of blood"—family loyalty. On the other are truth and justice. The pull of family ties is strong, but Sarty is old enough to have started to realize that what his father does is wrong.

In the first courtroom scene, Sarty finds himself thinking of the plaintiff as his father’s enemy and consciously has to correct himself: "Ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father!" Leaving the courtroom, he attacks a boy half again his size who calls Snopes a barn burner. Throughout the story, a pattern is established. Sarty keeps trying to defend, through his speech and actions, the father to whom he knows he owes his life and his loyalty. His thoughts, however, and what Faulkner projects will be his future thoughts once he has reached manhood, reveal the ultimately stronger pull of truth and justice. When, after the first trial, his father strikes him and tries to convince him that the men who bring him to trial are only after revenge because they know that ultimately Snopes is in the right, Sarty says nothing, but Faulkner knows that twenty years later, Sarty will tell himself, "If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again." The de Spain mansion immediately appears to Sarty as a symbol of hope that perhaps here is a power too great—a power with which his father cannot even hope to contend. What he cannot yet comprehend, in his childish innocence, is that the greater the wealth, the greater the gulf between the landowner and the landless Snopes, and thus the greater his father’s jealous rage—a rage that Snopes keeps tightly in check until it bursts out in the flames of the fires he sets.

The battle goes on as Sarty continues outwardly to defend his father while inwardly his doubts grow stronger and stronger. When de Spain imposes the fine, Sarty protests to his father that de Spain should have told them how to clean the rug, that the fine is too high, that they will hide the corn from de Spain. When the fine is lowered, he still protests that the major will not get a single bushel. His outbursts in his father’s behalf almost cause more trouble for Snopes when Sarty loudly protests, "He ain’t done it! He ain’t burnt...." when the issue at hand this time is the damaged rug, not a burned barn.

Sarty still seems to be supporting his father when he runs to get the oil to burn de Spain’s barn. During the short trip, however, he decides that he can neither simply run away nor stand by idly as his father burns the barn. He returns with the oil to defy his father openly for the first time, and he takes his stand firmly on the side of truth and justice when he runs to warn the major. By the end, he has turned his back both literally and symbolically on his home and on what remains of his family. His turning away from his family, however, is presented as a sign of hope as he walks off into the woods as dawn breaks and morning birds’ calls replace those of the birds of night.

Style and Technique

The story is not narrated by the ten-year-old Sarty, but Faulkner calls attention to the boy’s thoughts and thus to the inner conflict they represent by italicizing them. Subtle word choices also help trace Sarty’s move toward maturity and responsibility. Hearing the shots that announce his father’s death, Sarty first cries, "Pap! Pap!" but seconds later shifts to the more mature sounding "Father! Father!"

Images of cold and heat, of stiffness and metal, help characterize Abner Snopes. Snopes walks stiffly because of a wound suffered when he was caught stealing a horse during the war. Yet stiffness describes his character as well as his walk. His voice is cold, "harsh like tin and without heat like tin." His wiry figure appears "cut ruthlessly from tin." This man who burns barns seems to save his fire for his crimes; all else he does without heat or emotion—whether it is talking, whipping a horse, or striking his son. Even the campfires he builds are niggardly. For him, fire is a means of preserving his integrity and "hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion."

A little of Snopes’s stiffness seems to have carried over to his son at the end of the story. When Sarty awakens after the night of the fire, he is described as being a little stiff. For Sarty, however, the stiffness will not last: "Walking would cure that too as it would the cold, and soon there would be the sun."

Donna B. Haisty

Author Biography


bombbanner.gif (13661 bytes)

William Faulkner
Chapter: Introduction to William Faulkner

Private Citizen, Of Oxford, Lafayette County, Mississippi

William Faulkner, eldest of four sons of Murry Falkner (sic) and Maud Butler Falkner, was born on September 25, 1897, at New Albany, Union County, about 35 miles from Oxford, Lafayette County, in the State of Mississippi. Between that date and July 6, 1962, when he died, he spent most of his life in Oxford as a very private citizen, and in Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, as a very famous writer. The long period of jealously guarded privacy was made possible when the family moved from New Albany to Oxford in 1902; the long, celebrated period as one of America's greatest novelists was made possible when Faulkner became "sole owner and proprietor" of Yoknapatawpha County through publication in 1929 of Sartoris, first of the novels in the Yoknapatawpha series.

See - William Faulkner: 1897-1962: Some critics have maintained that Faulkner, stripped of all his literary ambitions, devices, and obfuscations, is a Southern traditionalist, a conservative moralist, deriving his creative strength from an almost umbilical attachment to the Southern past.


Faulkner's Father

Murry Falkner (like his son later on) dropped out of his class at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), moved from one job to another, and at last was given a position as conductor on the family railroad, the job he had when William was born. After the family moved to Oxford, Murry ran a stable for ten years and then worked in the hardware business for eight years. In 1918, after pulling family and friendship strings, he was appointed secretary and business manager at the University of Mississippi (just outside Oxford) and remained in that post until his death.


Faulkner's Grandfather

John Wesley Thompson Falkner improved the family railroad and became president of the First National Bank of Oxford.


Faulkner's Great-Grandfather

Colonel William Cuthbert Falkner (the name was originally spelled Faulkner, but the Colonel changed it out of a strong dislike of the Missouri branch of the Faulkners, and William later changed it back to its first spelling) had been dead eight years when our author, his great-grandson and namesake, was born. He had been properly celebrated by his family, and it was therefore inconceivable that the one Faulkner who had obviously inherited the Colonel's literary talents would ignore him. In Sartoris, The Unvanquished, and other novels and stories, the Colonel appears as Colonel John Sartoris, with all of the original Colonel's actual career laid out in faithful detail - the first volunteer regiment in the Civil War, the demotion, the new regiment, the railroad, the encounters with Thurmond, etc. - "colored and modeled, naturally, in the interests of fiction and magnified to heroic proportions, so that Colonel Sartoris becomes the quintessence of his time and class."

Magnified, but not exaggerated, Colonel Falkner was not the typical or conventional Southerner. He had little in common with the plantation aristocracy, was highly skeptical of the grandiose and self-deluding myths by which many of the older Southerners struggled to live, and in his restlessness and willingness to take chances reflected more of the frontier than the delta temperament. If he defended the "Southern way of life," it was with some apparent reluctance, with little ideological conviction, and with a sense of loyalty that he was not ready to reject. "And it may not be too farfetched to suppose," says Irving Howe, "that this mixture of attitudes toward the South was partly inherited by the novelist William Faulkner, in whose work ambivalent feelings toward the homeland would become a major element."

Once the Civil War was over, Colonel Faulkner refused to return to the plantation physically, spiritually, or ideologically. In 1868 he decided to build a railroad that would link Ripley with the business of the middle South up to Middleton, Tennessee. With the help of a partner, Richard J. Thurmond, a local banker and lawyer, the Ripley Ship Island and Kentucky Railroad was finished, all sixty miles of narrow-gauge line. The Colonel was now free to concentrate on his profitable law practice and politics. He helped organize the American Party (better known as the anti-Catholic "Know Nothings") in Mississippi, and moved on to the writing of books. In 1880, he completed The White Rose of Memphis, originally serialized in the Ripley Advertiser. Although the novel was highly melodramatic and immodestly autobiographical, it became one of the great popular books of its time (160,000 copies, 35 editions, and a modern edition in 1952). The White Rose was followed in 1882 by The Little Brick Church (all about pre-Revolutionary New York), and in 1884 by Rapid Ramblings Through Europe, the Colonel's own vivid account of his impressions and adventures during a trip abroad in 1883.

But writing was merely a hobby with the Colonel; the railroad and politics held first claim on his ambitions. He was by this time a rich man, owned a 1,200-acre plantation, a saw mill, a grist mill, a cotton gin, and assorted small farms. He extended the railroad over Thurmond's objections, ran for the state legislature against Thurmond and won, and soon provoked his former partner to such an extent that Thurmond eventually took out his envy of the Colonel by shooting him. The Colonel died on November 6, 1889. Thurmond was tried for murder, pleaded self-defense, and was acquitted. So ended the saga of Colonel Falkner, a tale that was to provide raw material for many a piece of fiction by his great-grandson, William Faulkner.


Early Education And Reading

Faulkner's early formal education was spotty, his many other preoccupations (especially reading and inventing) taking up so much of his time that he failed to complete high school. After World War I, however, Faulkner was able to enter the University of Mississippi (1919) under a government-sponsored vocational training program for veterans (a sort of precursor to the more extensive G.I. Bill of Rights program following World War II). In the university, Faulkner shied away from regular courses, taking only those subjects that interested him, especially French. After two or three semesters, he was off to Europe.

It is interesting to note that Faulkner's mother decided that the magazine for him should be American Boy (mainly outdoor activities and inventions), for his brother Jack, Boys' Life, and for his other brother, John, the more literary St. Nicholas. His mother must have started William on Joseph Conrad, Dickens, and probably on Don Quixote, as well. In later years he claimed that he annually re-read Don Quixote, as well as some Dickens, Balzac, and the Old Testament. Shakespeare was not only eminently readable, but definitely portable. William must also have read a great deal of Southern history and books about the Indians. Malcolm Cowley tells us that Faulkner apparently also favored poetry written by or admired by the Symbolists, as well as fiction favored by that school.


Influence Of Stone

Probably the most serious and effective influence on Faulkner's reading tastes and later literary judgments came from Philip Stone, twenty-one-year-old lawyer with an interest in literature, especially poetry. When Stone was told that the Faulkners' eldest boy showed signs of becoming a poet (William was seventeen at the time), Stone decidedtto become better acquainted with him. Stone was impressed with the surprisingly good quality of William's poetry, and agreed to become Faulkner's guide, mentor, and arbiter in the realms of reading, literature, and Southern history and culture. The two friends talked about the antebellum South, the Civil War and Reconstruction, decline of the plantation aristocracy along with its outdated value system, Keats and the other Romantic poets. Robert Coughlan maintains that "The picture of the South that he later projected in his stories began to volve during those long country walks with Stone. Indeed, probably the whole Sartoris conception - and unquestionably the Snopes conception - grew from these conversations which took place over a period of years." The debt to Stone was repaid later when Stone appeared as Gavin Stevens (according to many critics) in several of Faulkner's stories and novels.


Faulkner Joins R.A.F.

In 1918, Faulkner lost two of his best friends, but only temporarily. Stone went to Yale, and Estelle Oldham, Faulkner's girl friend, married Cornell Franklin. (After her divorce, Faulkner did marry her; and Stone, of course, eventually did return to Oxford and remained Faulkner's lifelong friend and adviser.) The shock was too much for him (he left town before the wedding to take a job in a bookstore near Phil), and he decided to join the Army. He was turned down for being too short; the U.S. Signal Corps also Turned him down, despite his experience in flying planes, because he hadn't had two years of college. He was finally accepted by the Royal Canadian Air Force, a branch of the Royal Air Force, and was commissioned a lieutenant. He was back in Oxford before Christmas of that year, fully panoplied in his British uniform, swagger stick, and trench coat. "For the rest of his life." John Faulkner writes, "he wore trench coats. I don't know how many he bought and wore out. It must have run to half a dozen."


Faulkner In New York

After Faulkner left the University in 1920, he wandered around until, at the suggestion of Start Young, he left for New York in 1923. He stayed there with Young, picked up any odd jobs he could get, and in time was able to get one (through Young) as a clerk in the Doubleday book department in Lord and Taylor's department store. The pay was $11 a week, his room rent was $2.50 a week. But the department was managed by Elizabeth Prall (later to marry Sherwood Anderson), and merely establishing a literary connection with her was worth the drabness of the whole New York experience. After six months of vain efforts trying to impress publishers, Faulkner was happy to hear from Stone that he could have the University postmastership, if he wanted it.


Faulkner As Postmaster

Faulkner always wanted to be a "man of letters." but the postmaster's job was not exactly what he had meant. The job was dull, mail piled up, students and professors found it difficult to keep up with the vagaries of Faulkner's schedule, records were lost or ignored, and customers began complaining about other things only distantly related to the cooperation of a post office - such as Faulkner's long walks (often barefoot), his writing of poetry, and his drinking. One of the town's ministers even preached from his pulpit against Faulkner and his drinking. "Bill never did do as much drinking as he got credit for," his brother John writes. "He never tried to hide it but he did do most of it at home. . . . But people talk and their stories grow and that's the way it was about Bill's drinking."

Stone tried to cover up for Faulkner as long as he could, but finally Faulkner had to yield to popular opinion and quit (John Faulkner claims his brother was fired). Soon after his "liberation" from the post office, Faulkner began writing in earnest. His first book, a collection of poems entitled The Marble Faun, was published with money put up by Phil Stone. Of the 1,000 copies printed, about 50 were sold. The rest Phil stored in his own home.


Faulkner In New Orleans

In 1925, Stone came up with yet another idea for promoting the career of his protege. Why not go abroad and make your reputation as a poet there, as did T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and others? In January, the two friends went to New Orleans, Stone for a vacation, Faulkner to find a berth (in exchange for work) on any ship bound for Europe. The job never developed, Stone returned to Mississippi, and Faulkner remained in New Orleans completely at loose ends. One day by luck Faulkner learned that his old boss from New York days, Elizabeth Prall, was in town with her acquired husband, Sherwood Anderson. Faulkner called on her and was introduced to Anderson, a writer whom he admired. The friendship between Faulkner and Anderson grew even as a Faulkner began writing his first novel, Soldier's Pay, under the influence of the Bohemian group over which Anderson presided and of the rich, carefree life that Anderson was able to lead as a writer. If this was what a writer's life could be, then he, Faulkner, wanted to be a writer, too.


Novelist At Last

When the manuscript of Soldier's Pay was completed, Elizabeth Prall Anderson agreed to give it to her husband, but she did not promise that he would read it, and he didn't. But Sherwood Anderson did tell his publisher, Horace Liveright, on his arrival in New Orleans, of his "discovery." Liveright read the manuscript and agreed to publish it. Now Faulkner could join all the other writers, would-be writers, and artists in the French Quarter of which Sherwood Anderson might have been characterized in the (later) Faulknerian phrase as "sole owner and proprietor." With his credentials as a writer now duly certified, Faulkner contributed to the group's official journal, The Double Dealer (Hemingway joined Faulkner in the June number with a poem entitled "Ultimately"), and sold some short stories to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which thus acquired the enviable distinction of being the first publication of any kind to publish his fiction. Most of his second novel, Mosquitoes, was also written during his stay in New Orleans. On the basis of Faulkner's ultimate position in American literature, one must judge both Mosquitoes and Soldier's Pay potboilers. In any event, both novels were strongly derivative of Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Aldous Huxley, even though the subject matter was authentic and culled strictly from Faulkner's own experiences.


Farewell To Anderson

Everything was now going well with Faulkner, especially his connections with Anderson and the Anderson group. But then Faulkner decided to collaborate with William Spratling on a book called Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles. Spratling would do the drawings, Faulkner the text. So far, so good. Then Faulkner decided that it would be very appropriate if he could write the introduction to the book in Anderson's own literary style. Although no malice was intended, Anderson could not see the humor in what he construed as a cruel parody (Hemingway had also parodied him in The Torrents of Spring, a takeoff on his own Dark Laughter) and abruptly terminated their friendship.


1929: A Very Good Year

This the was year in which Faulkner saw Sartoris (the first Yoknapatawpha novel) and The Sound and The Fury (still considered the best of all his novels) published, began writing As I Lay Dying, married Estelle Oldham Franklin, and purchased Rowan Oak. Faulkner had been turned down once when Estelle Oldham, his childhood sweetheart, accepted her family's suggestion in 1918 that she marry the more reliable lawyer, Cornell Franklin, rather than the bohemian would-be writer, Faulkner. In 1927 she divorced Franklin and returned to Oxford with her two children. This time Faulkner was much more acceptable, and the marriage took place two years later. Now Faulkner laid down the first lines of the country-squire pattern he was to follow for the rest of his life. When a dilapidated colonial mansion Rowan Oak, that once belonged to an Irish planter, became available Faulkner bought it and started putting enormous sums of money into restoring it to its former baronial grandeur. The house, the only one Faulkner ever owned in Oxford, came with fourteen acres, but he added some more of the land adjacent to it, installed electricity and hot water and eventually added more rooms, a back parlor, and another bathroom or two. It was from this ante-bellum, two-storied house with columns across the center section in front that Faulkner was buried in 1962.


Faulkner In Hollywood: Phase One

With the publication of Sanctuary in 1931, Faulkner emerged as a fairly popular writer. This American Gothic tale of terror, sex, and perversion convinced Hollywood that Faulkner's novels might be the stuff of which successful "X-rated" films could be made. (There was of course no such rating at the time, but Hollywood did have a kind of "Condemned" rating which Sanctuary as a film just managed to evade.) Faulkner was called out to the Coast to held adapt the novel for the screen under the title of The Story of Temple Drake. After completing that assignment for Howard Hawks, Faulkner worked on several other literary properties, his own and others'. Hawks considered him a writer who had "inventiveness, taste, and great ability to characterize and the visual imagination to translate these qualities into the medium of the screen. He is intelligent and obliging - a master of his work who does it without fuss . . ." (as reported by Robert Coughlan). Faulkner returned to Hollywood in 1935 and again in 1942 to pick up extra money that he sorely needed in order to live in the style to which he had become accustomed. Rowan Oak alone became a visible monument to the many hours he had put into writing Hollywood scripts.


Faulkner Buys Farm

Faulkner turned down many invitations, including one from the late President John F. Kennedy, on the pretext that as a working farmer he could not spare the time away from his crops or his livestock. In 1938, he had purchased a farm and let it out to be run by three Black tenant families (a total of five working hands). They were permitted to keep the profits, if any, in accordance with Faulkner's belief that "The Negroes don't always get a square deal in Mississippi." That might be one explanation for this quixotic scheme. Another might be that this was Faulkner's way of returning to the land, a theme that recurs throughout most of his works. Still another might be that this was Faulkner's way of mitigating the "curse" that fell upon the South when the land was taken from the original Indian settlers. Whatever the explanation, the fact remained that beef produced on that farm cost Faulkner five dollars a pound.


A Major Writer Recognized

By 1939, Faulkner had produced ten novels, two volumes of poetry, and two collections of short stories. The public had refused to recognize him as a major writer except for Sanctuary. But the critics and Faulkner's peers were taking notice of his considerable body of works, and it was they who started the long list of honors which follows:

1939 - Elected to National Institute of Arts and Letters

1948 - Elected to American Academy of Arts and Letters

1950 - Received William Dean Howells Medal for Fiction/Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature

1955 - Received National Book Award/Awarded Pulitzer Prize for Literature (Fiction)


Further Recognition

Once Faulkner's credentials as a writer were established, the next step was to recognize him as an authority on writing. The latter recognition came in such forms as:

1954 - Attendance at the International Writer's Conference, Sao Paulo, Brazil

1955 - Attendance at the Writer's Seminar at Nagano, Japan

1957 - Appointment as Writer-in-Residence, University of Virginia

1958 - Reappointment as Writer-in-Residence, University of Virginia

Faulkner was now also recognized as a multifaceted celebrity. In 1955, he made two trips abroad for the U.S. State Department. In 1956, articles by him on integration appeared in Life, Harper's, and Ebony magazine. Stage productions of Requiem for a Nun were given in Paris (1956) and Greece (1957). In 1962, he was invited to the White House (along with other Nobel laureates), and turned down the invitation. Three months later, Faulkner was dead (July 6) on Oxford.


Faulkner And The Southern Myth

Myth is usually defined as a story or legend or collection of stories or legends that relate in thinly allegorical form the most basic experiences of a people. The Southern myth (or any other myth) does not attempt to report with any historical accuracy either the collective imagination or the collective will. The reader can find perhaps the simplest expression of the Southern myth in the collection of Civil War stories called The Unvanquished (Faukner insisted this work was a novel). In much more sophisticated form, it appears in Absalom, Absalom!, a novel which Irving Howe believes Faulkner wrote "out of sheer pain, in which Faulkner forced himself to see how the will to domination had corrupted the white community. Between these two extremes lies the bulk of his major fiction."

Howe goes so far as to say that Faulkner's "agony," ambivalence over the Southern myth, frequently manifests itself in his "tortured, forced, and even incoherent" language, mainly because Faulkner "worked with the decayed fragments of a myth, the soured pieties of regional memory. . . ." Faulkner could accept the present, not with equanimity or logic, but with hopelessness and despair; whatever pride he had was rooted in the past. He was fully aware of the tension (of every sort) that existed between the past and the present (Sartre maintained that for Faulkner - and for many of his characters - the future did not exist at all), and try as he would Faulkner could not accept the Southern myth in its entirety, even if it meant a kind of illusionary, inward peace. The relation between the Southern tradition, which he admired to some extent, and the bitter memory of Southern slavery, to which he felt forced to return, caused him much wonderment and confusion. From time to time he measured the present against the past, and likewise the past against the myth, and eventually the myth itself against moral absolutes. "This testing of the myth," says Howe, "though by no means the only important activity in Faulkner's work, is basic to the Yoknapatawpha novels and stories."


Faulkner As Southern Traditionalist

Some critics have maintained that Faulkner, stripped of all his literary ambitions, devices, and obfuscations, is a Southern traditionalist, a conservative moralist, deriving his creative strength from an almost umbilical attachment to the Southern past. Cowley describes Faulkner's social view as that of an "anti-slavery nationalist." George M. O'Donnell insists that Faulkner is a traditional moralist who persistently defends the "Southern socio-ecsnomic-ethical tradition." Howe finds a middle position for Faulkner: "His work contains a wide range of attitudes toward the South, from sentimentality to denunciation, from identification to rejection." Edmund Wilson sees in Faulkner a romantic morality based on the chivalry which was a valid part of the Southern heritage. From the earlier works on (at least after Pylon), Wilson detects a sort of romantic morality that "allows you the thrills of melodrama without making you ashamed, as a rule, of the values which have been invoked to produce them." Why fault Faulkner, Wilson asks, for his persistent identification with the mentality of his homeland? To Wilson, this loyalty or chivalry is Faulkner's morality, a vital part of his Southern heritage. Furthermore, this morality, Wilson contends, is a force "more humane and more positive than almost anything one can find in the work of even those writers of our more mechanized societies who have set out to defend human rights."

Be that as it may, for O'Donnell, Faulkner is a traditionalist in a modern, emerging South. "All around him the anti-traditional forces are at work, and he lives among evidences of their past activity," O'Donnell writes. "He could not fail to be aware of them. It is not strange, then, that his novels are primarily a series of related myths (or aspects of a single myth) built around the conflict between traditionalism and the antitraditional modern world in which it is immersed."


Faulkner's Vision Of Human Life

With the publication of Sanctuary in 1931, Faulkner's outlook on life became decidedly more negative. This is not to say that he was ever completely free of misanthropy and despair in the earlier novels; but Sanctuary marked a definite change from the "troubled but tender and intensely human world" of The Sound and The Fury to the perverse and the pathological. In exchanging the innocence of Benjy for the corrupt and perverted Popeye, Faulkner was in essence denying humanity. Indeed, he was still describing the world of childhood (says Maxwell Geismar), but now a very depressingly different aspect of it: "the world of human perversions whose precise nature is that they also are infantile emotions; they are the reflections of our early animal instincts which have been blocked and forced out of their formal channels of maturing." The loss of innocence so tenderly mourned in The Sound and The Fury became in his later novels the subject of repeated and strident attacks on man's understandable penchant for behaving a little worse than the angels.

And yet, wasn't Faulkner's human and artistic progression from the Compsons to the Snopes, from Benjy to Popeye, from Caddy to Temple Drake and Eula Varner a very natural and expected one? Faulkner, like Shakespeare (from the early happy comedies to the "dark and bitter" comedies later on, for example) and other significant writers, had to seek out a serious and mature vision of life, one that, says Howe, "could include both moral criticism and pleasure in sensuous experience, a vision that accepts both the power of fate, all that binds and breaks us, and the possibility of freedom, all that permits us to shape our being."


Faulkner, Honor, And Integrity

Perhaps because Faulkner was born and bred in the South, we expect him to be preoccupied with the concept of honor. It is frequently operative in his novels, especially the earlier ones, but it is a "strangely elusive concept - more a cry than a substance - and increasingly cut off from moral issues." In his later novels and stories, Faulkner came to think more about integrity than honor. Honor concerns itself with what we are in the world, with pride and dignity, status and reputation, all that is external, like a mask; integrity concerns itself with the inner man, his ease of being and his ease of conscience. For such a change in emphasis, Faulkner must be commended, because it carried him to an ever-expanding humaneness and thoughtfulness, to a depth of feeling far beyond the superficialities of human behavior. As Faulkner perceived it, integrity is accessible to every kind of human being in any social stratum and in any kind of situation. (The whites he perceived as more concerned with the preservation of their honor, the Blacks more often concerned with the preservation of their integrity.) For his artistic and moral purposes, he chose to exploit the more extreme situations, mainly because he wished to test all that was "intractable" and "indomitable" in human character under the most compelling pressures.


Faulkner's Philosophy Summarized

As Howe sees it, the artistic and moral pattern of all of Faulkner's works is made up of a series of strands or biases: his respect before suffering, his contempt for deceit, his belief in the rightness of self-trust, and his enlarging compassion for the defeated. Of all of these, the last he considered the most significant. True heroism implied exposure, taking a chance, resisting everything that comes between birth and death, plunging into the depths of experience to extend one's range of consciousness, fighting against one's predestined (by fate, theology, etc.) or conditioned (by society, circumstances, etc.) niche in life. Through resistance, Faulkner felt, came freedom.