William Faulkner feature image

William Faulkner

Working-Class Elements in A Middle-Class Writer

Chiara Bucaria
English 6923: Working Class Literature
Fall 2003

Introduction

Commenting on Faulkner’s death, The New York Times (July 7, 1962) stressed that "Mr. Faulkner's writings showed an obsession with murder, rape, incest, suicide, greed and general depravity that did not exist anywhere but in the author's mind." This sentence well summarizes most critics’ reception of the writer’s works when they were first published. Although both literary critics and general public have subsequently come to appreciate the importance of the author’s works and their audacity in terms of both form and content, not many have succeeded in analyzing Faulkner’s literary production in terms of the equally prominent working-class aspects that it clearly contains. Failure to appreciate Faulkner’s prominence in the working-class literature panorama is probably due in part to the writer’s family background, which could hardly be considered working-class, in terms of both economic opportunities, and of the general cultural milieu by which the author was surrounded growing up. If anything, Faulkner’s background was more middle-class than working-class.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to notice how this writer achieved literary fame thanks to his portrayals of lower- and working-class people from the rural South of the United States, and how working-class themes are evident throughout his works. Particularly in what is known as his Yoknapatawpha cycle, that includes such novels as Sartoris (1929, later reissued as Flags in the Dust), The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and Absalom! Absalom! (1936), Faulkner describes the lives of lower-class outcasts and farm laborers, which are often characterized by the general lack of economic stability and social status.

Other themes are the close but often problematic family relationships, the characters’ predisposition to be subjected to discrimination and injustice on behalf of the higher social classes, and the intersection of these aspects with other elements such as gender and sexuality. It is reasonable to hypothesize that Faulkner’s focus on these themes and on this kind of characters came, among other things, from his being directly exposed to the culture of the South at the turn of the century, and from his direct experience of economic hardship at the beginning of his literary career. The following section will address some the most evident working-class aspects in Faulkner’s production, in an attempt to show how a stress on the writer’s working-class sensitivity could contribute to a better understanding of his works.

Discussion of author's work

In the above-mentioned imaginary Southern Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, where many of Faulkner’s works are set, the author creates a microcosm of recurring characters and families (the Sutpens, the Snopes, the Bundrens, etc.) who come together to form a community that gives unity to Faulkner’s production over many years. The prominence of community and family in Faulkner’s works is probably a reflection of the importance that family relationships had for the writer when he was growing up. He came from a very united family that lived in the shadow of the great Civil War Colonel William Falkner, Faulkner’s grandfather. Both the closeness of these relationships and the inevitable tensions that almost certainly were present in the family because of the constant comparison with the beloved grandfather are reflected in the way the writer describes the interplay between the individual and community and family. In a sense, it could be argued that in some of Faulkner’s works family is actually the most important form of community. Even if Yoknapatawpha County clearly provides unity to the action of these works, the people who inhabit it differ in their socio-economic background.

Within the family, on the other hand, the lower-class characters seem to find their real dimension, some sort of common ground or homogeneity that is not available to them in the larger, small-town community. This sense of belonging makes them similar in their being different, brings them together, even though this does not mean that their family relationships are perfect. If we consider the Bundren family in As I Lay Dying, for example, we can see how far they are from being perfect, and how their jealousies and pat traumas make them dysfunctional from many points of view. Yet, they manage to go through hardship united, for example at the time of the loss of their mother and during the family’s subsequent hazardous journey to Jefferson. This duality of family relationships, which are at the same time inevitable and dramatically difficult, shows similarities with the works of other working-class authors and exemplifies the focus on smaller communities rather than on single individuals that characterizes much working-class literature.

The tensions between the individual and society, of which Faulkner certainly had direct experience, often take the form of discrimination toward the outcasts and their families, when they have one. Given their lack of social status and economic stability, many Faulknerian characters appear to be at the mercy not only of their own poverty and of external conditions, such as the forces of nature that threaten the lives of the Bundrens during their journey in As I Lay Dying, but, also, of the behavior of people belonging to higher social classes. In other words, when the outcasts go into society they almost always have to face some sort of class conflict. In the incident of the cakes, at the very beginning of As I Lay Dying, for instance, one cannot help but noticing Cora and Kate’s disappointment when the lady that was supposed to buy Cora’s cakes suddenly fails to do so, thus frustrating her attempt to earn some extra money. The incident is just one of the many instances that show how in Faulkner’s universe richer people are often allowed some sort of freedom and power over lower-class people, who, in turn, cannot but comply with what others decide for them.

As noted above, the issues of class conflict and social injustice are often intertwined with the aspects of gender and sexuality. Examples of Faulkner’s focus on issues of social disparity in connection with gender and sexuality range from simple hints to more complex situations where the interaction of these aspects is more prominent. Two examples of the latter kind involve two female figures, Dewey Dell Bundren in As I Lay Dying and Lena Grove in Light in August. They are poor, white, pregnant teenagers who are in some way abused, partly because of the way their sexuality interacts with their social status. In the first case, the Bundrens’ pregnant and unmarried daughter, Dewey Dell, is sexually abused by the pharmacist who is supposed to help her get an abortion. The pharmacist finds himself in a position of power in comparison to a young lower-class girl who desperately needs his help. Moreover, as a pregnant, unmarried teenager, her illicit sexuality contributes to lower her social status and provides grounds for the injustice, which in this case takes the form of sexual harassment.

Lena Grove, too, is a young, visibly pregnant girl who is traveling from Alabama to Jefferson, Mississippi, in an attempt to find the father of her child. In this case, too, the girl’s pregnancy, as a clear sign of her sexuality, brings her status further down in the eyes of the rural community of Jefferson. Especially the women in the community feel morally superior to Lena, who scandalously got pregnant out of wedlock. On the other hand, it is Mr. Armstid, a man, who first offers help to the girl by bringing her home to his not exactly welcoming wife. Specifically, the women’s moral judgment of Lena’s situation and the power they have over helping her or not shows how some sort of social power may be exercised not only on behalf of one sex on the other, but also among people of the same sex and even within the same social class.

Both instances show how Faulkner was particularly concerned with the way in which social and economic power interact with gender and sexuality, a recurring subject in working class literature. Also, the example from Light in August hints at the fact that the author was aware of how the interplay of these elements carries even deeper nuances than one would expect. This, in turn, shows that Faulkner’s successful portrayal of lower-class characters is rooted in his sensitivity toward these topics and his careful observation of social dynamics. It should then be clear from these and other examples made above that a more in depth analysis of Faulkner’s production in terms of working-class themes cannot but improve the readers’ understanding of his fictional universe.

Selected Works By the Author:

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Random House. 1964. Published in 1930, the novel uses the stream of consciousness technique to tell the story of the Bundrens, a family of white farm laborers from Mississippi. The narrative accompanies the members of the family through the death of their matriarch, Addie, and their journey to the town of Jefferson, where she had asked to be buried.

---------. Collected Stories of William Faulkner. Random House: New York. 1950. This is the first collection of Faulkner’s short stories. It is significant because its publication was supervised by the author himself, who also grouped the stories under the six thematic headings “The Country,” “The Village,” “The Wilderness,” “The Wasteland,” “The Middle Ground,” and “Beyond.”

---------. Light in August. New York: The Modern Library. 1950. Light in August begins with the story of Lena Grove, a young, white, pregnant girl who is traveling from Alabama to Jefferson to find the father of her unborn child. Her life will dramatically intertwine with those of other characters, such as Joe Christmas, an outcast of uncertain origin that comes to join the community of Jefferson. The novel approaches such themes as community, identity, race, and gender.

---------. Absalom! Absalom!. New York: The Modern Library. 1964. One of Faulkner’s most famous novels, Absalom! Absalom! tells the story of Thomas Sutpen, who comes from a family of poor white from West Virginia. The novel will accompany him in his travels and through his many marriages. As often happens in his fiction, Faulkner explores the interplay of race and gender, this time from a historical perspective.

---------. The Sound and the Fury. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1994. Faulkner's fourth novel narrates the decline of the once-aristocratic Compson family. Each of the novel’s four parts is told by a different narrator. This novel has been considered one of Faulkner’s masterpieces, although it was also often criticized for the intricacies of its plot and the audacity of the narrative technique.

Selected Works About the Author

Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. Vintage Books: New York. 1991. First published in two volumes in 1974, this is one of Faulkner’s first comprehensive biographies and is still considered a pillar in Faulknerian studies. The content is organized into 71 chapters, each of which covers a few significant years or months in the life of the author. The volume also includes a chronology, genealogy and numerous pictures.

Brooks, Cleanth. On the prejudices, predilections, and firm beliefs of William Faulkner. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge and London. 1987. This series of essays addresses William Faulkner’s takes on topics such as the American Dream, Christianity, and the community, and the ways the writer’s set of values are actually reflected in his works. Cleanth Brooks is one of the most important students of Faulkner’s works and has published extensively on the subject.

Cox, Leland H. William Faulkner, Biographical and Reference Guide. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Company. 1982. The book offers very important insights into the connections between Faulkner’s biography and the genesis of his most important works. After a thorough biographical note on the author, the book presents one critical section for each of the main novels, in which extensive information is given both on the context of the novels and on the way they were received by readers and critics. The volume is also very useful for further reference on the individual works.

Karl, Frederick R. William Faulkner: American Writer. Weinfeld & Nicholson: New York. 1989. As the author himself states in the foreword to the volume, this is not intended “to replace Joseph Blotner’s monumental two-volume biography of Faulkner,” but, rather, to offer a different perspective on the interaction between the writer’s biography and his works. It includes a genealogy and a detailed index for quick reference.

Lee, Robert A (Ed.). William Faulkner, The Yoknapatawpha Fiction. Vision Press: London. 1990. The volume is a collection of essays offering insight into Faulkner’s famous Yoknapatawpha fiction. After an introduction that focuses on the author’s biography as well as on the main themes of his production, the essays range from general approaches to the central aspects in Faulkner’s Southern microcosm, such as his female figures, to more in-depth analyses of specific works by the writer.

Resources

The Mississippi Writers Page
This website offers extensive information on all of Faulkner’s production and includes detailed biographical notes, analyses and synopses of the novels and stories, together with various links to other web resources.

William Faulkner on the Web
The various sections of this website offer a thorough analysis of Faulkner’s writings, including his plays and screenplays. It also provides interesting maps of the town of Oxford, Mississippi, and a glossary of people, places, and events of the Faulknerian universe.

The Faulkner Journal
Probably the most academic-oriented resource on the Web, it provides, among other things, links to back issues of the journal and a table of contents.

The William Faulkner Collection
It presents comments and information on the location and access to Faulkner’s manuscripts and personal papers at the University of Virginia Library, that he author chose as a repository at the time of his death.

The Mississippi Writers Page
This website offers extensive information on all of Faulkner’s production and includes detailed biographical notes, analyses and synopses of the novels and stories, together with various links to other web resources.