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William Faulkner’s Magical “Maybe”

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While Jennifer Burg, Anne Boyle, and Sheau-Dong Lang claim that William Faulkner’s stories can leave unseasoned readers with a “jumble” of incidents related through the ramblings of memory, this “jumble” is not a flaw in his writing, but rather the way he constructs his characters’ identities. In his short stories, “A Rose for Emily,” “Race at Morning,” “Mountain Victory,” and “That Evening Sun,” the protagonists are characterized by their recognition of irreconcilable oppositions in their identities.

While most authors will resolve their characters’ conflict in the interest of the reader’s comfort, Faulkner highlights their ability to recognize that a choice between opposing adjectives is a linguistic fiction not an ontological revelation. Because no real human being is ever absolutely one thing or the other, he is able to write characters who inhabit the space between conflicting perspectives, and are therefore so realistic that their confusion can be felt through the pages.

Faulkner’s characters appear authentic because, like real people, they inhabit neither presence nor absence, but the flickering place in between. He creates his characters with the knowledge that every representation bears the mark of what it is not. It appears that Faulkner’s quest is to keep the world of ideas safe from any pronouncements that would limit possibility for his characters. He positions his created people not in what they are or what they are not, but in a third space, the “maybe” that leaves all possibilities open.

In his characterization, Faulkner seems to be inspired by the concept of “negative capability” created by a poet he greatly admired, John Keats. Keats defined the term as a writer’s capacity to inhabit “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.” In Faulkner’s story, “Race at Morning,” soon after telling the young protagonist that the gun was not loaded during the hunt around which the story centers, Mister Ernest deems “maybe” “the best word in our language.” He revels in the power of perhaps because he recognizes that there’s a certain imaginative thrill to inhabiting uncertainty.

In “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner explores even more incomprehensible outposts of human conflict. When the townspeople finally gain access to Miss Emily’s home after her death, they find a corpse, but more horrifying still, a pillow that holds a strand of gray hair and the indentation of a human head. Through Faulkner’s nuanced depiction, a wrinkled pillow and a single hair reveals the story of a woman who killed her lover only to lie next to his corpse over the years. Faulkner himself attributes this impulse to Emily’s inner conflict, that “she knew that you do not murder people… she was expiating her crime.” “A Rose for Emily” is an allegory of divided humanity. Miss Emily is aware of the moral boundaries she transgresses, and her way of seeking forgiveness, according to her author, is to cradle the life she has taken.

Faulkner imbues his characters with an awareness of language’s complicated role in identity formation. In “Mountain Victory,” the protagonist Saucier Weddel says, “Our lives are summed up in sounds and made significant…especially if you are unfortunate enough to be victorious.” Weddel cleverly understands that his life is constituted through language. He theorizes that it is the winner who gets to construct the world in words, and that, if this is the case, he would rather be the loser (he is referring to the Civil War, yet also to life itself, it seems).

As in the case of Wedell, Faulkner’s characters’ dilemmas remain irreparable because he refuses to superimpose false solutions that reconcile conflict. Instead, he lets their contradictions be their defining characteristics. They not only bear the aftermath of a resolved fixation, but also the ongoing clash of its internal divide. Even when they try to solve their problems by defining themselves by one side of the split, instead of choosing between one space or the other, they only succeed in positioning themselves once again in the third space of indeterminacy. Remarkably, it is this very spirit of ambiguity that gives Faulkner’s characters their lifelike essence because it echoes the conflict through which actual human identity is constituted.

In “That Evening Sun,” the Compson family’s African American laundress, Nancy, is terrified that her absentee husband will return to punish her for her infidelity. This terror manifests itself in a sound that is “not singing and not unsinging.” What makes Nancy a character of such eerie depths because Faulkner positions her neither as a singer nor as a non-singer, but in a third space, as though she had begun to sing before the book came to be and was suspended mid-action by the fact of being written. This strange circumstance leaves her in a partial state-of-being that resembles not fiction, but truth.

Like the citizens of the nonfictional world, Faulkner’s characters continue to search for an ultimate truth; but their author demonstrates that, regardless of efforts to pin them down, people (real or created) are creatures of contradiction. Despite Faulkner’s characters’ quest for clarity, in the end, it is the “maybe” to which they cling for a sense of identity. Perhaps this is because Faulkner realizes that, although language often forces choice, no human ever truly chooses, but rather floats back-and-forth between extremes. Although language is Faulkner’s tool, he does not accept its reductive tendency. Instead, it is as though he believes so wholeheartedly in the reality of his characters that he introduces two opposing possibilities and lets them navigate the metaphysical terrain themselves without forcing them to choose between the flickering moments of presence and absence.

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About Caroline Hagood

  • Astute analyses.

  • Nancy

    I never could understand his writing…sigh.

  • Thanks, Paul.

  • Nancy, I don’t think you’re alone on that one. I wanted to write something about him because it seems like there’s a bit of Faulkner-phobia out there, both deserved and undeserved. That’s why I wanted to tell people what I do like about his writing.

  • Bluto Prosciutto

    Nancy: Faulkner has a sort of Joyce appeal. What is brilliant about his stream of consciousness approach is that what makes total sense to his characters can at first appearance look like gobbledygook to the reader. The key is not getting too distracted by the technical chicanery while trying to deduce a generally accurate profile of the particular character. Good luck.

  • I love this!! I think you’ve hit on why I disliked Faulkner in my high school days and why I feel drawn to his writing now. I especially like your statement that “no human ever truly chooses, but rather floats back-and-forth between extremes.”

  • Christy, as usual, you’re a terrific audience for any writer. I think it’s true that Faulkner is something you kind of grow into.