William Faulkner (1897-1962)
Contributing Editor: John Lowe
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students are resistant to texts that withhold key information, to narrative that is obscure and/or convoluted, and to characters who don't seem to have "common sense." All of these "sins" appear in Faulkner's work. He also requires a knowledge of southern and American history that many students don't possess.
Begin by emphasizing the pleasures to be gained from unraveling Faulkner's mysteries. Especially focus on his parallels to and differences from the popular myths of southern culture, as found in Gone With the Wind, North and South, and popular television series set in the South. Approach his works as though they were detective stories (some of them, in fact, are). Do brief presentations of relevant historical materials. Locate the text's place in Faulkner's career, drawing parallels between the character's concerns and the way those issues touched Faulkner as well. Explain how Faulkner explored and exploded stereotypes, of southerners, African-Americans, and women.
Teachers should be prepared to answer typical questions: Students want to know if he "really thought of all those things when he was writing," referring to the hidden references we uncover in symbolism, imagery, and so on. They ask if his family owned slaves and how Faulkner felt about it if they did. Some students want to know if I think Faulkner was a racist and/or a sexist.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Highlight Faulkner's tremendous importance as an interpreter of history--and not just southern or American history--at a critical moment when modernism emerged as a questioning, probing tool used to redefine human nature and our relationship to nature. Issues of sex, class, and above all, race, should be explored using a battery of interdisciplinary techniques, including historical, social, anthropological, economic, political, and feminist perspectives. "Barn Burning" has been profitably analyzed by Marxist critics as a class struggle; "A Rose for Emily" offers a perfect laboratory for testing reader-response theory.
Gender formation operates centrally in both these stories, centering on the masculine in "Barn Burning," and the feminine in "Emily." Interestingly, each of these processes intersects with issues of class and community. These conjunctions could and should be profitably explored, and linked to the way Faulkner struggled with them in his own life. "Barn Burning" also relates thematically to the bildungsroman, and stories of rural life, while "Emily" works within the tradition of stories and novels that deal with the possibilities and restrictions of small-town life. Thematically, A Rose for Emily may also be considered a tragic love story in the naturalist mode (there are strong links to Madame Bovary, for instance), a detective story, a "thriller," and a typical O'Henry story with surprise endings. Both stories employ mythic/biblical structures in the service of these various thematics; students should be asked to identify them and demonstrate why they are effective.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Faulkner needs to be understood in both the context of southern literary traditions and modernism. "Emily" interbraids a meandering, typically southern mode of narration, replete with communal bias and obfuscation, with a modernist sense of rupture, scrambled chronology, and Freudian subtext. "Barn Burning," in its employment of Jamesian point of view as confined to Sarty's consciousness, requires detailed analysis of its narrative structure, its language, and the consequent effects on the reader. Both stories attempt to present complicated psychological conditions and situations while adhering to the firm realities of dramatic plotting.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Faulkner needs to be related to the other great modernists who so influenced him, especially Joyce and Eliot, and his work should and could be profitably compared and contrasted to the similar but sometimes very different literary experiments of Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Wright, and so on. "Barn Burning" can easily be contrasted to Huckleberry Finn, where a young boy must abandon his father's standards in favor of more humane, just ones, or to a female bildungsroman such as Wharton's Summer. The injustices of sharecropping discussed by Faulkner could be examined alongside other treatments of rural life such as Hamlin Garland's "Under the Lion's Paw" or Richard Wright's "Long Black Song" and "The Man Who Was Almost a Man"; the latter similarly focuses on a young boy's coming of age against a rural backdrop. Twain, Morrison, and Oates could be helpful in explaining the interconnections between the bildungsroman and psychological fiction.
"Emily" needs to be read as part of the American gothic tradition, alongside works by Brockden Brown, Poe, Hawthorne, and O'Connor. But it also belongs with the literature of madness and psychological stunting so prominent in the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman ("The Yellow Wall-Paper"), many of the poems of Dickinson, Faulkner's own novel, As I Lay Dying, and the poetry of Sylvia Plath.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. How does one establish individual independence as a teenager? Do you remember any crucial moment in your own life when you realized that you had to make a choice between what your parent(s) and/or family believed and your own values?
2. Is the destruction of another person's property ever something we can justify? Explain.
3. Does it matter that this story is rendered through Sarty's consciousness? What were Faulkner's options, and how would the story be different if he had exercised them?
4. What are the key symbols in the story, and how do they serve the thematic purposes Faulkner had in mind?
5. Do the class issues the story raises have any parallels today?
6. What is the tone of the story and how is it established?
"A Rose for Emily"
1. Discuss the ways in which Faulkner uses Miss Emily's house as an appropriate setting and as a metaphor for both her and the themes established by the narrative.
2. What are the different uses of the themes of "love," "honor," and "respectability" in the story?
3. Why does Faulkner use this particular narrator? What do you know about him? Can you list his "values," and if so, are they shared by the town? Is this narrator reliable? Does the fact he is male matter?
4. Many critics have read Miss Emily as a symbol of the post-Civil-War South. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of adopting this stance.
5. Those of you who have read Charles Dickens's Great Expectations will see a resemblance. How does Faulkner's tale echo but also differ significantly from Dickens's?
6. How does this story handle the linked themes of female oppression and empowerment? What does it say about the various kinds of male-female relationships in American society of this period?
I never arbitrarily assign students a particular story to write on; instead, I urge them to choose one they particularly like. They are then to ask themselves exactly why they like it, which will lead them to a topic (the humor employed, a certain character or method of characterization, a fascination with the depiction of the historical period on display, and so on).
Bradford, M. E. "Family and Community in Faulkner's 'Barn Burning.'" Southern Review 17 (1981): 332-39.
Fowler, Virginia C. "Faulkner's 'Barn Burning': Sarty's Conflict Reconsidered." College Language Association Journal 24 (1981): 513-21.
Franklin, Phyllis. "Sarty Snopes and 'Barn Burning.'" Mississippi Quarterly 21 (1968): 189-93.
Hiles, Jane. "Kinship and Heredity in Faulkner's 'Barn Burning.'" Mississippi Quarterly 38, 3 (1985): 329-37.
Volpe, Edmond L. " 'Barn Burning': A Definition of Evil." Faulkner: The Unappeased Imagination: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by O. Carey, 75-82. Troy, NY: Whitson, 1980.
"A Rose for Emily"
Allen, Dennis W. "Horror and Perverse Delight: Faulkner's 'A Rose for Emily.'" Modern Fiction Studies 30, 4 (1984): 685-96.
Brown, Suzanne Hunter. "Appendix A: Reframing Stories." Short Story Theory at a Crossroad, edited by Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Inge, M. Thomas, ed. William Faulkner: A Rose for Emily. The Merrill Literary Casebook Series. Columbus: Charles E. Merrill, 1970.
Both stories are treated in Hans Skei's William Faulkner: The Short Story Career: An Outline of Faulkner's Short Story Writing from 1919 to 1962. Oslo: University Forl, 1981, and James Ferguson's Faulkner's Short Fiction. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. See also Faulkner and the Short Story: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1990. Ed. Ann Abadie and Doreen Fowler. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.