Faulkner: The Patriarchal/Feminine Narrative



     William Faulkner's strong interest in the distinguished families in his Yoknapatawpha novels produces a series of patriarchal narratives. As stated by George Steiner, the Oedipus verticality has a great significance for patriarchy.

     Between the 1790s and the start of the twentieth century, the radical lines of kinship run horizontally, as between brothers and sisters. In the Freudian construct they run vertically, as between children and parents. The Oedipus complex is one of inescapable verticality. The shift is momentous; with it Oedipus replaces Antigone. (18)

What is essential for patriarchy is the vertical succession from the father to the son. As we can see most clearly in the last scene of As I Lay Dying, Faulkner's patriarchal narrative should be marked by the Oedipus verticality. The novel ends with a sudden appearance of a new Mrs. Bundren. The patriarchal Bundren family can freely replace the dead mother with a new one. Sprengnether also points out that "Oedipus complex ... both explains and sustains patriarchy"(243).
     Now William Faulkner's patriarchal narrative, which has been frequently suggested by many critics, is strongly criticized in no uncertain terms. To try to reread the major works of Faulkner, however, I feel that the most pressing question we have to ask about them is not the political ideology of Faulkner but the whole structure of his narrative, to which many factors including the patriarchal narrative should contribute. There can be another reading of Faulkner besides the patriarchal narrative, and a possibility to find a new perspective on the intricate structure of his works.


     Reading Faulkner by Wesley Morris provides a fine example of the attempt to examine the elaborate structure of Faulkner's works from a new viewpoint. Referring to Steiner's suggestion, Morris indicates that they incorporate two kinds of narrative, the vertical Oedipus and the horizontal Antigone, as Faulkner went through "the transition from romanticism to modernism"(145). In short, Morris reveals the fact that the paternal narrative of Oedipus and the horizontal narrative of Antigone contribute together to create Faulkner's narrative. He should be marked as completely different from other critics by his indication of the dialogical narratives embedded in Faulkner.
     In Morris's reading of Faulkner, however, the emphasis still falls on the patriarchal narrative.

...the female voice of the recovered Antigone does emerge in Faulkner's narrative, often in the midst of the most firmly oedipal, paternal monologue. In these moments the potential for dialogue appears within a monologic text deeply resistant to the dialogic voice of the other. (149)

The figuration of the horizontal narrative as subversion within the paternal monologue suggested by Morris certainly leads us to a new viewpoint. In spite of the excellent reading, his suggestion poses one question whether the horizontal narrative between the brother and the sister would really bear oppression by the paternal narrative of Oedipus. It seems to be necessary to see the relationship and the structure of the narratives in Faulkner more closely.
     It must be noted here that Faulkner himself shows a strong inclination to represent the horizontal relationship between the brother and the sister. A good example is in the well-known episode in the publication of Flags in the Dust. At that time Ben Wasson made a following remark about Flags in the Dust, which Faulkner completed as a novel: " had about 6 books in here. You were trying to write them all at once"(Blotner 223). As a result, to publish this novel as Sartoris, Wasson excluded the narrative of the brother and the sister, Horace and Narcissa, including Horace's "incestuous feelings toward Narcissus"(Blotner 223). It is clear that Wasson should entertain a notion that the patriarchal narrative of the Sartoris family, not the horizontal narrative of Horace and Narcissa, plays a leading part in the novel.
     Faulkner seemed to regard the narrative of the brother and the sister as necessary to the whole structure of Flags in the Dust, though at last he followed Wasson's suggestion to cut the horizontal narrative of Antigone from the novel. It is said that at first Faulker definitely stated that Flags in the Dust did complete itself as a novel and need no change at all (Blotner222). Such is also the case with Absalom, Absalom!. This novel incorporates several narratives like Flags in the Dust, which makes the whole story difficult to understand at first. It seems that the horizontal narrative of Henry and Judith would be included with the intention of concealing the true meaning of Sutpen's narrative. In short, not only the patriarchal story of Sutpen but also his children's story attaches a considerable significance to the intricate construction of the novel. The structure of Faulkner's narrative does not attach great importance only to the paternal narrative to suppress the horizontal narrative.
     Wesley Morris points out that the narrative of Antigone in Faulkner's narrative always suffers from oppression. As is clear in Faulkner's opposition to the cutting of Flags in the Dust, however, the horizontal narrative of brothers and sisters does not bear oppression by the patriarchal narrative. The narrative of Antigone takes a dominant position, not a subordinate one, as Henry and Judith threaten Sutpen, who persists in the legitimacy and the vertical succession from the father to the son. Two kinds of narrative in Faulkner will bring a new argument about what they should represent in his narrative. To give a further examination into the question, it will probably be useful to take a look at "A Portrait of Elmer."


     "A Portrait of Elmer," one of Faulkner's short stories that were published after his death, has various factors that would be developed in his later novels. Elmer Hodge, who is considered as "self-parody" of Faulkner himself (Blotner163), is the basic type of the heroes that frequently appear in Yoknapatawpha saga, such as Bayard Sartoris in Flags in the Dust and Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury. It is in the representation of Elmer that two kinds of narrative stated above show themselves fully. In other words, "A Portrait of Elmer" clarifies what they should mean and why Faulkner's narrative should include them.
     The patriarchal narrative of Oedipus is first revealed to us in the characterization of Elmer. In the story of Elmer the narrative of patriarchy does not make an appearance clearly, though it fully shows its significance to the whole structure of Faulkner's narrative. Elmer, who has ambition to become a painter, decides: "I want it to be hard. I want it to be cruel, taking something out of me each time. I want never to be completely satisfied with any of them, so that I shall always paint again"(638). We should notice here that his decision betrays ambivalence. He tries "never to be completely satisfied" as if he were afraid to satisfy himself and achieve the object of his ambition.
     It is the father and the son that are essential to the vertical narrative of Oedipus. In a sense, the patriarchal narrative is the narrative of the father and the son, who are the subjects of the Oedipus complex. It would not be too far to say that the vertical narrative should be the male narrative. Marianne Hirsch indicates that the male narrative is "based on lack and dissatisfaction"(103).

     According to Brooks, narrative repetition, the very binding of the plot, is based on the fort/da game in which the subject learns to cope with lack, namely the lack of the mother, in an elaborate process of substitution which is basic both to language and to the process of narration. Thus the drama of father and son, authority and legitimacy, is predicated on lack, on a fundamental breech as the initiating moment of the narrative---on the mother's absence, to be specific. (53)

     The male narrative evolves from the sense of loss to restore the original condition. What should be lost is the wholeness in the pre-oedipal period, or the Imaginary, in which there are no boundaries and distinctions between the self and the other. The vertical narrative of Oedipus strives unsuccessfully to restore the loss. Ambivalence, however, shows itself in the structure of the male narrative. On the one hand, the narrative goes straight to the recovery of the original condition, but on the other hand, it seeks not to achieve the end at the same time, for the narrative comes to an end when it restores the loss. The return to the state of the pre-oedipal period also means the death of the self. As a result, sustaining the sense of loss, the narrative tries both to recover the loss and to put off achieving the end in order to continue forever.
     The end of the narrative tormented Faulkner himself, as his daughter Jill said: "He used drinking as a safety valve. It had to come out some way and almost invariably at the end of a book" (Blotner225). According to Blotner, Faulkner would drink every time he finished a novel as if he tried to kill himself (225-9). This episode reminds us of the remarks by one of the characters in As I Lay Dying:

     I notice how it takes a lazy man, a man that hates moving, to get set on moving once he does get started off , the same as he was set on staying still, like it aint the moving he hates so much as the starting and the stopping. (108)

They choose to continue their narrative as if they tried to avoid its end.      The male narrative suggested by Hirsch can explain the ambivalent decision of Elmer in "A Portrait of Elmer." Elmer, who is trying "never to be completely satisfied," represents the intricate structure of the vertical narrative. Behind the other works of Faulkner lies the ambivalent narrative of Oedipus that surfaces in "A Portrait of Elmer." For example, Doreen Fowler points out that a "conflict between Law and Desire, between Oedipus and Narcissus" runs through all the novels by Faulker (15-6).


     Hirsch also indicates that in contrast with the male narrative, the female narrative can exist in the myth of Persephone, who oscillates between above and below the earth. Persephone's narrative could reverse the vertical, patriarchal narrative of Oedipus (36). It is true we can see a new possibility in the narrative of Persephone, but the definition of the female narrative illustrated by Hirsch cannot offer an effective explanation of the horizontal narrative of Antigone in Faulkner. The narrative of the brother and the sister, such as Henry and Judith in Absalom, Absalom!, should assume a significance that transcends Hirsch's definition.
     An episode in "A Portrait of Elmer" may be quoted to suggest the meaning of the horizontal narrative in Faulkner. Elmer gets serious wounds when he serves in the army. While he is learning about arms, he "had become reconciled to the rifle, which a man aimed and pulled trigger with immediate results," though he is afraid of hand grenades "to which a man did something infinitesimal and then held it in his hand, counting three in the waiting of silence before throwing it"(627). When they tell him to throw a hand grenade,

...he watched his hands, those familiar hands which he could no longer control, toying with the bomb, nursing it. Then his apish hands did something infinitesimal and became immobile in bland satisfaction and Elmer stared in an utterly blank and utterly timeless interval at the object in his palm. (627)

In the next moment, Elmer comes to his senses to hear a man beside him shout, and tries to throw the bomb. But he cannot drop it well, and has to be in the hospital for a while.
     This episode shows us how painful it is for Elmer to be in the state of anticipation. It must be noted here that his pain is fundamentally equivalent to the unbearable agony of Quentin in The Sound and the Fury. According to the appendix by Faulkner himself, Quentin "lived in a deliberate and almost perverted anticipation of death" and finally he "can no longer bear not the refraining but the restraint and so flings, hurls himself, relinquishing, drowning"(335-6; my italics). In other words, a struggle between contradictory impulses in anticipation of death, which is inherent in the paternal narrative, would torment him to death. He chooses not the agony of anticipation but the end of everything, that is, his own death. He is reconciled to the object from which he can expect immediate results, and is afraid of the object that should require from him "the waiting of silence." The ambivalence of the male narrative emerges as the pain of anticipation in Faulkner's narrative.
     What we should note here is that in the episode of Elmer it is the dull oval bomb "almost sensuous to the palm ... growing to monstrous size like an obscene coconut" that makes him anticipate (627-8). The "sensuous" hand grenade, which looks as if it would seduce him, is explicitly represented as the feminine. The femininity in the grenade appears at the moment of the painful agony of anticipation. In the oval hand grenade lies the narrative of "utterly timeless interval," that is to say, the horizontal narrative which has no relation to time running vertically. The growing hand grenade would remind us of the pregnant woman, Lena Grove, in Light in August. She never fails to have the endurance to anticipate the end of her journey.

...she advanced in identical and anonymous and deliberate wagons as though through a succession of creakwheeled and limpeared avatars, like something moving forever and without progress across an urn. (7)

She enjoys spending the eternal time just the same as she does eating "the cheese and crackers and the sardines"(29). Her "timeless interval" is far from the contradictory impulses of Elmer and Quentin. As is fully shown in the portrait of Lena, the feminine, horizontal narrative of Faulkner's novels is in the ability to endure the anticipation, the eternal time, and to be free from the ambivalent time of the paternal narrative. In contrast with Joe Christmas, who pursues his own identity without success until his death, Lena seems to travel forever and forever without pain.


     Gender and sexuality in Faulkner's texts have received careful studies from different viewpoints. Some critics tend to attack his representation of a woman as the other, and others such as Gwin and Clarke are inclined to evaluate the possibility of the subversive femininity in his texts. John N. Duvall indicates the ambiguity of sexual difference as well as the destructive femininity. They could explore new implications of Faulkner's works, but at the same time they would define the feminine strictly as the object of male desire or the loss itself that the male pursues. The episode of the hand grenade in "A Portrait of Elmer" reveals the subversive femininity suggested by Gwin and Clarke if the main emphasis falls on the relationship between Elmer and the grenade: he throws the grenade, while he is seriously wounded by the "sensuous" grenade. Another explanation, however, should apply to the episode if we analyze the psychology of Elmer first.
     Those who evaluate the subversive feminine in Faulkner's novels pursue their arguments to the discussion of the mother. For example, Carolyn Porter regards As I Lay Dying as the drama of the loss and substitution of the mother (95). As stated above, this argument can be applied to almost all of Faulkner's texts. The discussion of the mother, however, cannot fully grasp the main point of the vertical, feminine narrative of "timeless interval." The narrative of Oedipus gives a particular significance to the beginning and the end, that is to say, when the narrative starts and stops. According to Fowler, the beginning and the end are equivalent to the pre-oedipal period or the Imaginary in which there exist no boundaries between the self and the other (6-13). In short, it is the maternal body that occupies a high position in the patriarchal narrative. This argument is based on the proposition that in the pre-oedipal period the self has the completeness of being as it does not differentiate itself from the other. The differentiation, however, begins in the maternal body as Sprengnether explains (220-3). The privilege of the maternal body could introduce not so much the deconstruction of the patriarchal narrative as the contradiction in the "l'ecriture feminine," for the privileged mother herself both creates and destroys the differentiation.
     We should shift the emphasis from the mother to the narrative of Antigone against the paternal narrative. Lena never feels the agony of the contradictory narrative of Oedipus. The horizontal "timeless" narrative represented by Lena cannot be fully explained by the maternal body, and cannot be reduced to the structure of the vertical narrative. The implication of the horizontal narrative of the feminine illustrated in "A Portrait of Elmer" is more explicit in As I Lay Dying. Two different narratives are also incorporated in this novel: the paternal narrative of Anse and Darl, and the horizontal narrative of Addie Bundren.
     Anse Bundren steadily pursues the object of burying his wife in Jefferson and finding a substitute for her. Darl Bundren as well as Quentin embodies the ambivalence of the vertical narrative. He sets fire to the burn where his mother's coffin is placed to bring their exhausting journey to an end. In spite of his desperate decision, his act only produces much delay in their arrival in Jefferson. Their journey to the end of burying their mother, the end of the narrative, is prolonged. For both of them the last wish of Addie to bury her in Jefferson only means the end which they must achieve, while Addie herself attaches a different meaning to her will. She refuses to be the member of the patriarchal Bundren family, in which she participates as the wife and mother, to the extent of expressing her wish not to lie with the Bundrens.
     Addie's wish to be buried in Jefferson, far from the house of the Bundrens, should make it necessary to postpone the burial of her own body. While they believe that "the best way to respect her [Addie] is to get her into the ground as quick as you can," Addie defers being buried in the earth of her own will (110). The return to the earth can bring about rebirth. The rebirth in the spring after the death in the winter is embodied in the narrative of Persephone. The cycle of death and rebirth would secure the privilege of the beginning and the end. In other words, the return to the maternal body, which leads to rebirth, should offer privilege to the beginning, or the womb. As stated above, the privilege of the beginning and the end characterizes the vertical narrative. On the contrary, Addie repudiates the return to the earth, that is to say, the patriarchal narrative. The narrative of Antigone different from the paternal narrative is explicit in her figure lying horizontally in the coffin in refusal to return to the earth: "...over in the sense of beginning and ending, because to me [Addie] there was no beginning nor ending to anything then"(167).
     Addie Bundren says that "My aloneness had been violated and then made whole again by the violation: time, Anse, love, what you will, outside the circle"(164). Her remarks imply that her narrative is outside of the cycle of death and rebirth, the verticality of the paternal narrative. Her narrative distinguishes itself from the cyclic narrative of Persephone. The horizontal narrative of Addie, which does not reflect the influence of the end of the narrative, could provide space in which the patriarchal narrative of Oedipus will not establish authority. The feminine narrative of Antigone is completely different from that of Persephone, free from the power of the beginning and the end. It has completely dissimilar structure from patriarchal verticality. As Addie in As I Lay Dying affords a glimpse into the horizontal narrative of Antigone, a new narrative of the feminine will be revealed more explicitly in Faulkner's texts, and will provide a new reading of Faulkner.


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