Fictions of Labor: William Faulkner and the South's
Long Revolution by Richard Godden
In this provocative study of Faulkner's novels from The Sound and
the Fury through If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, Richard Godden
claims that at the core of Faulkner's greatest novels lies what he calls
a "labor trauma." This is a radical re-reading of Faulkner, based
on the persistent examinations of the texts and the extensive historical
contextualization. However, this is not a difficult study based on some
esoteric metaphysics. On the contrary, in a sense it is very readable:
there is no portion of it in which readers might lose their way. His argument
is radical, but it is also quite logical.
Roughly speaking, Godden's strategy is to
put Faulkner in the context of the South's labor history. According to
Godden, the South in the 30s were undergoing a labor revolution, in which
the old system of bondage was rapidly replaced with the wage labor. This
process provoked a deep anxiety in the psychology of the master class,
but being an unthinkable and unspeakable trauma, it was expressed only
through some distorted or cryptic narrative. Born in a master class himself,
Faulkner shared this anxiety and his novels of the period are encrypted
expressions of this unspeakable "labor trauma."
The "labor trauma" is a prohibited recognition
of the inter-dependency between slaves and masters. In the slavery,
a master is an absolute labor lord who possesses everything slaves make.
However, it is precisely what slaves produce that provides the master what
is required to be a master. In short, a master is actually dependent upon
his slaves who are in fact entitled to his property. Daily reminded of
this subversive relationship, the Southern slaveholders had to repress
the recognition deep under consciousness and thus made it an unthinkable
and unspeakable trauma.
From these assumptions, it is quite natural
that Absalom, Absalom! is the main subject of Godden's argument.
Through persistent close readings of the text, Godden discovers various
effects of the "labor trauma" upon both Sutpen and the narrators of his
Let's take the case of Sutpen, Faulkner's
ur-planter. He managed to rise to the master class because he succeeded
in suppressing the slave revolt in the Haiti, the ur-slaverevolt for the
Southerners. Thus Sutpen is a prototype of the Southern master, who ruthlessly
subjugates slaves with his own force. However, he could raise Sutpen's
Hundred only with the help of slaves. Besides, in his labor to build a
mansion, he had to work so hard that he became almost indistinguishable
from slaves. The implication is clear. Though Sutpen has to subjugate his
slaves in order to be a planter, his status was actually dependent upon
them. The paradox of "labor trauma" is inescapable.
The significance of the trauma does not end
here. Actually it leads to a radical re-interpretation of Sutpen's story.
For example, Godden explains the real "error" in Sutpen's design as follows.
It originates from the very beginning of the design: when a "balloon-faced
nigger" bars his way to a master in a white mansion. The interpretation
of this scene is essential to Godden's reading of the novel and his analysis
is quite detailed and persuasive. In this crucial encounter with the plantation
system, Godden claims, Sutpen intuitively recognizes the inter-dependency
between master and slave. However, Sutpen immediately represses the recognition
and chooses to be a labor lord when he should know its consequence is in
turn dependency upon slaves. Thus his design is doomed to fail from the
This trauma also explains Sutpen's attitude
to Charles Bon. According to Godden, Sutpen thinks of his black son only
as "goods." Therefore Bon's appearance is for him nothing but a realization
of the threat that slaves impose upon their master: a slave comes
to claim the master's property. That is why he persists in getting rid
of his son.
These are a few specimens of Godden's radical
re-reading of Absalom, Absalom! However, his provocative reading
is not limited to the novel. There are also quite original arguments about
The Sound and the Fury, If I Forget Thee Jerusalem, or "Barn
The main method of Godden's argument is a
kind of forced close reading. He searches for the evidence of the "labor
trauma" in tiny fragments of words or little ambiguities in pronouns. The
argument seems sometimes too forcible, but generally it is persuasive enough.
In Fictions of Labor, Richard Godden
gives us a quite original interpretations of Faulkner's greatest works.
There is one careless mistake (according to Sundquist, it is not from Rosa
but Clytie that Quentin finally learns the secret of Bon's blood) and some
confusion about the account of Rosa's discourse in Chapter Five of Absalom.
However, as a whole, this is a real critical tour de force and it is a
result of his sincere re-questioning of the conventional assumptions. It
will make a great contribution to our understanding of both Faulkner's
works and his world during the 30s.
William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist by Daniel
In his previous book, The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist
Thought in the South, 1919-1945 (1982), Singal tried to analyze
the South's vast cultural shift from Victorianism to Modernism through
portraits of Southern intellectuals such as Ulrich B. Phillips and the
Fugitive poets. In the center of his discussion is William Faulkner, who,
according to the preface, gave him the first impetus to his study of Southern
cultural change between the two World Wars. Unfortunately, his treatment
of Faulkner in the book is too schematized and apparently did not satisfy
the author. Hence this second book, in which he analyzes Faulkner's whole
career in the context of the Southern cultural history.
Singal's scheme is basically the same. Setting
Faulkner in the cultural context, he finds two ever-conflicting selves
in Faulkner. One was the Modernist who put his native land under ruthless
criticism and the other was the Victorian who behaved as an old-fashioned
country gentleman and often tried to check the other self if it became
too bold. We can discern these two Faulkners in his works and in a sense
his novels are the battleground between Victorianism and Modernism which
were South's major cultural trends between the Wars.
According to this basic scheme, Singal surveys
Faulkner's whole career. His method is rather simple: to examine main characters
in each novel and explain their identity problems, which reflect their
creator's inner conflict. In the examination there are two indexes. One
is a figure of the Cavalier, the image of the Old Colonel, his great-grandfather.
The other is a portrait of a Diana-like virgin, a symbol of Victorian beauty.
By examining these indexes, that is, examining how Faulkner subverts these
prototypes, we can ascertain Faulkner's standpoint at the time of each
novels' creation. In other words, Singal claims we can know the degree
to which Faulkner was a Victorian or Modernist at a certain point of his
career by examining identity problems of characters which he was creating
at the time.
Thus Singal examines Faulkner's entire
career, beginning from the argument of The White Rose of Memphis,
a novel by the Old Colonel, through the last of Faulkner, The Reivers.
In his argument of these fictions, Singal often refers to the author's
biographical events and thus reminds us of the cultural environment of
Faulkner's creations. The result is a kind of biographical work, in which
the author's psychological problems as well as those of characters are
discussed in the historical context.
However, Singal's strategy above is
hardly original. Accordingly, his interpretations of Faulkner's works do
not give us new insights either into characters' significance or the author's
inner struggles. For example, Singal's explanation of The Sound and
the Fury is quite ordinary. For him, Mr and Mrs Compson represent the
remnants of the Victorianism, while each child is an embodiment of an aspect
of the South's predicament in the 20s. Thus The Sound and the Fury
is a ruthless indictment of the South between the Wars. This is all true,
but actually it has already been our critical cliche for a considerable
time. Or, take Light in August. Singal centers his argument almost
entirely on Joe Christmas. He analyzes Christmas' identity problem and
highly acclaims his ultimate choice of "nigger" one. Christmas becomes
a "Black Christ," which is a specimen of the author's subversive imagination.
Light in August is an apex of Modernist Faulkner, who arrived at
the revolutionary insight that the "nigger" is not a biological trait but
an invention of the Southern whites. I think few object to this argument,
but it is not an original claim to call for further discussion.
Generally speaking, Singal's argument lacks
originality because of his total neglect of Faulkner's style and rhetoric.
He hardly discusses narrative structures of the novels. Besides,
his choice of characters seems arbitrary: even Lena in Light in August
is not mentioned. Sometimes the argument is so rigidly dichotomous. The
most frustrating of all, Singal often explains away apparent problems in
Faulkner's works with some biographical accounts and never searches for
the critical solutions deep within the work.
Regrettably, Singal's second book is not a mature re-reading
but mere enlargement of the too schematized portrait of Faulkner in the
first book. After all, William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist
is just another biographical study, very readable, but without original
Copywright (C) 1999 Kanazawa Satoshi