| How does an author's reading experience influence
his or her own writing? In one of her interviews in 1993, Louise Erdrich
says: "Faulkner is probably an influence on any writer, but yes, I do love
his work and I read it over and over, especially The Hamlet and
Absalom, Absalom! It probably points toward an interesting academic
question---that is, how white Southerners and Native American writers might
partake of a similar (contained, defeated, proud, undefeated) sense of
history, and of place. Strange bedfellows." (Chavkin, 220). This paper
will trace the legacy of Faulkner's work for Toni Morrison and Kenzaburo
Oe--two figures among the generation of writers who followed him--as well
as explore the means by which the reader traces the echoes and overlapping
features among these writers. First, we will consider the dominant images
in their novels, then pursue the myths of blood and family which form the
forcible dynamics of their stories. Further, we will examine how the narrators
of these works become embroiled in the difficult issue of "how to tell
the truth," as a reflection of the turmoil which writers feel when telling
their stories. Without doubt these three questions are meticulously intertwined.
As is well known, Toni Morrison wrote her master's
thesis at Cornell University on suicide in Faulkner and Virginia Woolf,
but she is not always happy about admitting Faulkner's influences on her
novels.1 Whether she likes it or
not, many scholars have found that reading Faulkner and Morrison collaterally
reveals new meanings and sheds light on the outstanding structures of both
of these authors' works. So far, two comparative studies2
of Faulkner and Morrison have been published; in addition, some reviews
of Paradise, Morrison's new novel, mention its connection with Faulkner's
novels.3 As I have written previously4,
in writing the character Sethe in Beloved, Morrison responded to
the pains and sufferings of Faulkner's female slave Eunice in "The Bear."
I'll not repeat this argument here. My point is that Morrison, either consciously
or unconsciously, replenished the work of her predecessor by filling up
a certain void or lack in his stories.
|If it could just be a hell beyond that: the clean flame the two of us more than dead. Then you will have only me then only me then the two of us amid the pointing and the horror beyond the clean flame...(SF 133, also see 90 and 134)|
| While Quentin's incest is "real" only in his
confession of this act to his father--"I have committed incest I said
Father it was I it was not Dalton Ames"(SF 90)--Taka actually rapes
his sister in The Silent Cry. The mentally impaired sister needs
protection from somebody: she does not even know how to reject her brother's
violent sex. Taka inculcates his weak sister with the belief that "they
are a specially chosen couple...neither of them will and should be interested
in other people for love"(390). But out of fear that his sister may possibly
tell their uncle or aunt about their secret relationship, Taka threatens
his sister by showing her a print of "medieval punishment of burning at
the stake." He emphasizes that "if somebody knew about their incestuous
relationship, both of them would have to undergo painful suffering...and
if they are cautious not to let anyone know about their secret, they as
brother and sister can live together for the rest of their lives without
getting married to anyone else"(392).
Quentin's fantasy of the forbidden crime of incest and subsequent punishment by the clean flame reveals not only the horrified pictures of his imagination; it also reveals a romantic dream in which he and Caddy will be alone in hell, isolated from the interfering world and purified by the clean flame. However, in Taka's case, the print of burning at the stake symbolizes not only his utmost fear of punishment, but also the fact that he himself is an instrument of torture who threatens his mentally impaired sister. In The Silent Cry, Taka is always terrified when he sees the picture of hell in the village temple which his great-grandfather designed for his own brother, while Mitsusaburo (hereafter referred to as "Mitsu"),Taka's elder brother, finds "comfort"(444) in the red color of "the river of flames" and "the woods of flames in hell"(119,434-35). Therefore, Quentin's romanticism for the hellish flame is close to the comfort which Mitsu takes from the hellish red. In fact, Quentin is closer to Mitsu than to Taka in that both of them take action through words rather than deeds: Mitsu simply observes and contemplates what his brother or his suicidal friend do, and Quentin can make his fantasy of incestuous desire a reality only by desperately confessing to his father.
Next, we find a salient shared image in the scenes of storytelling in Morrison and Faulkner. In Morrison's Beloved, Denver and Beloved retell Sethe's story.
|Denver was seeing it now and feeling it---through Beloved. Feeling how it must have felt to her mother. Seeing how it must have looked. And the more fine points she made, the more detail she provided, the more Beloved liked it.... The monologue became, in fact, a duet as they lay down together, Denver nursing Beloved's interest like a lover whose pleasure was to overfeed the loved.... Denver spoke, Beloved listened, and the two did the best they could to create what really happened, how it really was... (78)|
|The way Beloved and Denver work together in reproducing Sethe's experiences reminds us of the scene in Absalom, Absalom!, in which Quentin and Shreve endeavor to reproduce Sutpen's story.|
|...both thinking as one, the voice which happened to be speaking the
thought only the thinking become audible, vocal; the two of them creating
between them, out of the rag-tag and bob-ends of old tales and talking...
...it did not matter to either of them which one did the talking, since it was not the talking alone which did it...but some happy marriage of speaking and hearing... (253)
| In both novels, the speaker and the listener
are described as a lover and the loved, and their act of telling is compared
to "a duet" or "a marriage." Furthermore, the narrators of both scenes
are trying to "create" what really happened out of the fragments of what
they have heard. Eventually these scenes overlap each other in the reader's
mind, though Morrison instantly denied the possibility of any influence
from this scene in Absalom, Absalom!, when I asked about it in my
interview with her.6
The shared images and the metaphors I have mentioned--incestuous relationships between brother and sister, horror of hellish flames as a result of sin, and the tableau of narrators presented as lover and loved--leads us to the myth of the family inherent in the works of Faulkner, Morrison, and Oe. Absalom, Absalom!, Beloved, and The Silent Cry have important historical events in their respective backgrounds; namely, the Civil War and the collapse of the South, slavery, and the peasants' revolt, which coincidentally occurred in Japan around 1860. All three are deeply involved in historical fact; but at the same time, each novel descends into the stories of individuals and individual families. If we add The Sound and the Fury and Morrison's Paradise, this group of novels appears to envisage the collapse of families caused by an excessive persistence of blood relations and family ties, which is sometimes followed by a vision of their regeneration.
Moreover, the dead family's ghosts come back
from the past to the present time in each of these novels. In Absalom,
Absalom!, Thomas Sutpen's family and Charles Bon are summoned from
the Civil War time into Mississippi in 1909 and a dormitory room at Harvard
University in 1910. In addition, Quentin Compson, one of the principal
narrators of the Sutpen stories, is indisputably a ghost of the man who
committed suicide in The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929.
Quentin, "still too young to deserve yet to be a ghost but nevertheless
having to be one for all that," has to listen to Rosa Coldfield, "one of
the ghosts which had refused to lie still...telling him about old ghost-times,"
in her musty closed "office" in "the deep South dead since 1865 and peopled
with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts"(AA 4).
Walter Benn Michaels, at the beginning of his
illuminating book, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism,
points out Faulkner's strong focus on family ties, specifically on the
bondage of blood, and proceeds to develop the concept of nativism which
can be defined in John Higham's words as: "intense opposition to an internal
minority on the grounds of its foreign (i.e. 'un American') connections"(Michaels,
2). At the inception of the book, Michaels points out that "(T)he Reverend
Shegog's Easter sermon in the fourth chapter of William Faulkner's The
Sound and the Fury (1929) repeats and interlaces that novel's twinned
fantasies about language and family" (Michaels, 1). Inspired by Michaels'
association with the theory of nativism, we could refer to The Silent
Cry's villagers' exclusion of others and worship of pure Japanese blood
as the reason why the villagers' persistent hatred and prejudice against
the Koreans inspires the modern age rebellion of looting the super-market
owned by a Korean.
|I have committed incest I said father it was I it was not Dalton
Ames ... (SF 90)
...you wanted to sublimate a piece of natural human folly into a horror and then exorcise it with truth...(SF 203)
|Quentin's love for Caddy is restricted to his desire for incest, and
he has to create a fictional truth in order to salvage the predicament
of his sister's pregnancy. Quentin is desperate in his endeavor to transform
his words into truth; this will occur only if his confession is believed--authorized--by
With a special focus on Quentin's strategy--his recourse to the power of words--in his efforts to repair the breakdown of his family, we will compare Taka's false confession in The Silent Cry that he "raped and murdered the village girl" to Quentin's desire to change fantasy into truth through the words: "I have committed incest." Taka tells his brother Mitsu that he has raped and murdered the village girl, and through the act of telling he seeks to transform his false confession into truth, and identify himself with his violent and heroic great-grandfather. However, Mitsu makes a keen-sighted analysis of Taka's intention.
|"---you're hoping to punish yourself for the incest and the death of an innocent person that it brought about; and you're hoping that the people here will install you among the valley 'spirits,' so that you're remembered as a man of violence." (The Silent Cry, 240)|
|Both Quentin and Taka attempt to realize violent acts and self-punishment
through their "true" confessions but they inevitably reveal thereby the
reverse side of our efforts to "tell the truth." As an epitome of their
continual efforts to find possible ways of telling the truth, Faulkner,
Morrison and Oe respectively assign the narrators of their novels a proposition
of how to tell the truth, which is the fundamental issue underlying the
narrative act. As a consequence, their novels naturally take the form of
meta-narrative, with the essential theme of the writer's struggle of how
to tell the truth woven into their novels. Hereafter we will examine the
structure of meta-narrative in the novels of Morrison, Oe, and Faulkner.
In the scene of narration by Beloved and Denver
quoted above, the narrators are retelling the story of Denver's birth based
upon the previously told stories of her mother Sethe; we may therefore
regard their act of narration as "creation" in words. However, Denver knows
that "[S]he never told me all of it"(76, and "You never told me all what
happened") and that what Sethe told her daughter was pieces and fragments,
because Sethe and "Baby Suggs had agreed without saying so that it was
unspeakable; to Denver's inquiries Sethe gave short replies or rambling,
|Sethe knew that the circle she was making around the room, him, the subject, would remain one. That she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask. If they didn't get it right off---she could never explain. (163)|
|Thus Sethe admits that the truth can never be explained in words, "[B]ecause
the truth was simple.... Simple...it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple"(163).
Therefore Paul D "caught only pieces of what she said"(161), and her decisive
words: "I took and put my babies where they'd be safe"(164). Naturally
we notice instantly the many holes, lacks, and omissions in her narrative:
the true story is beyond explanation and is never explicitly described
beyond the simple, but emphasized repetition of "No."
Paul D cannot understand Sethe's violent response to the slavecatchers and leaves 124, but he in turn becomes obsessed with the untold dark memories "in that tobacco tin buried in his chest"(72): the offensive pain of the "iron bit" (69, 70, 71) in his mouth, and the inhuman sexual torture practiced every morning by the prison-guards in Georgia (107-08). Thus for most of the former-slaves in Beloved, the story is concluded with "unspeakable thoughts, unspoken"(199). It is a story of revealing the "impossibility of telling" in which they, like Sethe, either tell their stories only out of fragmentary memory, or entirely give up relating their experiences because they simply cannot explain them in words.
Neither mother nor daughter can share their memories or desires, after Sethe recognizes Beloved as her daughter who comes back from the other side. Now Sethe, Beloved, and Denver respectively declare that each "owns" their beloved daughter, or mother, or sister.
|Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. See. She come back to me of her own free will and I don't have to explain a thing. (200)|
|Sethe is filled with joy to have her daughter back home and is relieved
to know that she doesn't have to "explain a thing" any longer. Beloved
says: "I am Beloved and she is mine"(210, 214), and Denver makes sure that
"Beloved is my sister"(205) by likewise insisting: "[S]he's mine, Beloved.
She's mine"(209). These declarations of ownership should be a powerful
prologue to the restoration of lost family members. However, Toni Morrison
makes it clear in a video interview that the mother and the daughters are
not professing their love for each other; rather they are expressing nothing
but "unspeakable thoughts, unspoken, done as soliloquies".7
In her soliloquy Beloved recalls Sethe's earnest inquiry: "Tell me the
truth. Didn't you come from the other side?" (215). Here Sethe implores
her daughter to "tell the truth," though she well knows the difficulty
or impossibility of telling the truth. The reason why Beloved comes
back to this world is to find her family and join her mother: "I am looking
for the join... I am alone… I want to be the two of us... I want the join...
I wanted to join. I tried to join.... I wanted to join her in the sea..."(213-14).
Beloved is the story of the repressed desires of both mother and
daughter; the mother wants to tell why she had to kill her daughter but
cannot, and the daughter wants to hear from her mother why she had to be
killed but cannot.
Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury is deprived of language from the moment of his birth, but he makes futile efforts to say something to the Burgess girl he will subsequently assault: "I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say, and she screamed and I was trying to say and trying..."(SF 60). We find Taka's similarly futile effort to "try to say" in The Silent Cry. Chapter 8 of the novel is entitled: "Shall I tell you the truth?", a phrase quoted from "Toba," Tanigawa Shuntaro's poem.
|"I was thinking about the absolute truth which, if a man tells it, leaves him no alternative but to be killed by others, or kill himself, or go mad and turn into a monster. The kind of truth that once uttered leaves you clutching a bomb with the fuse irretrievably lit. What do you think, Mitsu---is the courage to tell others that kind of truth possible for ordinary flesh and blood?" (The Silent Cry 156-57)|
|In the English translation, the title of the chapter is "Truth Unspeakable"
(141), which might easily lead us to associate it with the "unspeakable
thoughts, unspoken" in Beloved. Taka's truth is about the suicide
of their sister, as Mitsu was afraid to imagine. Taka, who has barely
survived through lies, false memories, and escape into dreams, seems to
abandon his life by telling the truth about his sister's death.
In fact we readily notice the mysterious enigmas
at the center of all three novels: Beloved, The Silent Cry,
and Absalom, all of which have their principal narratives coincidentally
set around the 1860's, as already mentioned. Why did the slave mother kill
her own baby daughter? What is the desire of the daughter's ghost who came
back from the other side after eighteen years? What was the fate of the
leader of the 1860 peasants' revolt? What compelled Taka and Mitsu's sister
to commit suicide? Why does Thomas Sutpen forbid the marriage of Judith
to Charles Bon? The narrative structures of these novels circle around
these mysterious questions, leaving them for the narrators and readers
to grapple with.
|Yes, Judith, Bon, Henry, Sutpen: all of them. They are there, yet something is missing.... (80)|
|The narration of Quentin and Shreve, like a "happy marriage of speaking and hearing"(253) as quoted above, appears to enthusiastically pursue the truth of the tragedy, but in the process their narration gradually retreats back into where language, the medium of narration, does not function at all. For their narration goes far beyond a "happy marriage" of the narrator and the listener, and they come to identify themselves with the characters they are talking about. When Henry is panting, Quentin is "panting himself"(275). Not only that, Shreve becomes identified with Charles Bon: "They both bore it as though in deliberate flagellant exaltation of physical misery transmogrified into the spirits' travail of the two young men during that time fifty years ago"(275). Thus Quentin and Shreve travel with Henry and Bon, and think with them:|
|So that now it was not two but four of them riding the two horses through the dark over the frozen December ruts of Christmas eve: four of them and then just two---Charles-Shreve and Quentin-Henry, the two of them both believing that Henry was thinking He (meaning his father) has destroyed us all... (267)|
|These four people are now interchangeable with each other beyond time and space: "Four of them there, in that room in New Orleans in 1860, just as in a sense there were four of them here in this tomblike room in Massachusetts in 1910"(268). Furthermore, when it comes time for the narrators to conjecture about this most unfathomable mystery, their difficulties are compounded:|
|They were both in Carolina and the time was forty-six years ago, and it was not even four now but compounded still further, since now both of them were Henry Sutpen and both of them were Bon, compounded each of both yet either neither... (280)|
|It seems obvious that the narrating voice will vanish into nothing
as long as the narrating subjects and the narrated objects become identified
with and compound each other. The ghosts appearing from the past
will directly speak and act without the medium of the voice of the narrators.
This aspect of narration, described as a "happy marriage," eventually exposes
the paradox of narrative by revealing the ultimate impossibility of the
narrative act when the narrators are excessively buried in the enthusiasm
As shown above, Faulkner, Morrison, and Oe never fail to fix with their unflinching gaze the tragic situation of human beings thrown into a historical trap, and seem to put forth the difficulty or impossibility of "telling the truth" of the human experience as the principal theme of their fiction. Morrison explains her deep interest in Faulkner's novels in relation to her "desire to find out something about this country and that artistic articulation of its past that was not available in history," and she is impressed by "what art and fiction can do but sometimes history refuses to do" ("Faulkner and Women," 296). Morrison also admires Faulkner because he has a special "gaze" towards reality.
|"And there was something else about Faulkner which I can only call 'gaze.' He had a gaze that was different. It appeared, at that time, to be similar to a look, even a sort of staring, a refusal-to-look-away approach in his writing that I found admirable." ("Faulkner and Women," 297)|
|Morrison, as a writer, follows Faulkner in her efforts to "tell the
truth" without looking away from "the unspeakable thoughts" of her anguished
characters, who can never fully express that truth. Morrison is destined
to write with a strong emphasis on the difficulty and impossibility of
telling the truth, thus repeating the dilemma at the end of Beloved:
represented by the phrases: "It was not a story to pass on"(274, 275) and
"This is not a story to pass on"(275), which can be interpreted to mean
either that the story cannot be passed on to others, or that the story
should not be forgotten.8
When Mitsu, the narrator of The Silent Cry, compares himself with his brother Taka, who bravely chose death by telling the truth, he is overcome by a sense of defeat. He says to himself: "I suddenly realized in terror that I still hadn't grasped the 'truth' which, as I hanged myself, I would cry aloud to those who went on living"(269). Quentin Compson in Absalom overlaps himself with Henry Sutpen by the medium of his incestuous desire with his sister Caddy, and eventually propels himself straight into an enigma through his passionate efforts to solve the mysteries of Sutpen's tragedy by projecting it onto the issues of blood relations and family ties, and the inescapable racial issue of blood. However, compared with Quentin, who in his childhood was dropped into "the dungeon"(SF 198) by his parents and felt lost and destroyed, and descends into the "caverns and the grottoes of the sea"(200) as if it were his fate, Mitsu seems to end up happier by far when he finally decides to work as interpreter for a party of big game hunters in the African veldt, and gives up the ceremonial act of "contemplation" of the square hole dug for the septic tank (The Silent Cry, 1-3).
In an interview with Hertha D. Wong, Louise Erdrich eloquently comments on Faulkner's talent as storyteller and his distinct American character as a writer: "As for Faulkner, I guess I can't really pin down what his influence is. I think one absorbs him through the skin. He is just such a wonderful storyteller. He is so much of an American writer" (Chavkin, 38). In addition to Faulkner, Erdrich cites among her favorite writers Gabriel García Márquez, and Toni Morrison (Chavkin, 232-33) who also found Faulkner an admirable aid to the process of building a successful writing career. It's not too much to say that the chains of "American" themes and paradoxical narrative originating in Faulkner's novels have found new expression in a worldwide network of writers, working beyond the differences of ethnicity, time, and gender, who endeavor to give a voice to the silent cries of those dropped into the lightless dungeon of history.
|1. See Toni Morrison, "Faulkner
and Women," 296.
2. These two books are: Philip Weinstein, What Else But Love? New York: Columbia UP, 1996, and Carol A. Kolmerten, Stephen M. Ross, and Judith Wittenburg, eds., Unflinching Gaze. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1997.
3. Above all, Louis Menard cites Faulkner's novels in his review of Paradise in The New Yorker. See The New Yorker, Jan. 12, 1998, 80.
4. See my paper: "Let the Yellowed Pages Tell Their 'Grief'," Eureka, Vol. 29, No. 15. Tokyo: Seidosha. 98-105.
5. See Oe Kenzaburo and Tsushima Yuko, "A Dialogue: Imagination and What is Feminine." The World, No. 478, 1985. Tokyo: Iwanami Publishing House. 136-52.
6. Fujihira, Ikuko. "The Muse of Memory--Toni Morrison as Artist." Gunzo, Vol. 49, No. 1. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1994. 407.
7. "Profile of a Writer: Toni Morrison," RM Arts, 1987.
8. See my book: The Patchwork Quilt in Carnival Colors: Toni Morrison's Novels. Tokyo: Gakugei Shorin Publishing House, 1996, 243-47.
|Chavkin, Allan, and Nancy Feyl Chavkin, eds. Conversations with
Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Jackson: U of Mississippi P,
Christian, Barbara. "Fixing Methodologies: Beloved." female subjects in black and white. Ed. Elizabeth Abel, Barbara Christian, and Helene Moglen. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: U of California P, 1997.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
---. The Sound and the Fury. The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
Michaels, Walter Benn. Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1995.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.
---. "Faulkner and Women." Faulkner and Women. Ed. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1986.
---. Paradise. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Oe, Kenzaburo. The Silent Cry. Trans. John Bester. Tokyo, New York, and London: Kodansha International, 1974.
---. Humans as Fragile and Collapsible: The Darkness Beyond Printed Words. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1993. Available only in Japanese.
Zamora, Lois Parkinson, and Wendy B. Faris, eds. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1995.
Copywright (C) 1999 Fujihira Ikuko