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"As I Lay Dying": Stories out of Stories.

By Warwick Wadlington. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992. xiv, 123 pp. Index

The Conception Behind the Twayne's Masterwork Studies is a sound one: new short monographs on major works which are original readings of classics, up-to-date in critical methodology and awareness, and accessible to scholars and general readers alike. When they succeed, they are extremely useful volumes. When they don't, they aren't. Twayne-Macmillan have now published four on Faulkner works -- a study of Absalom, Absalom! by Robert Dale Parker has also been published as well as the three under review here -- and one on Go Down, Moses is in preparation, thus incorporating all the novels which Matthews and Wadlington, in their studies, consider the five major novels in Faulkner's canon. All these volumes begin with historical and critical contexts and follow with close, original readings; the volumes all include chronologies of Faulkner's life and works as keyed to the text under consideration. Yet so exciting and so different are the studies of Matthews and Wadlington -- Berland is another matter -- that there is little sense of format.

The challenge to find something new to say on The Sound and the Fury is a difficult one, but Matthews has a number of fresh, and sometimes dazzling, observations. They come in good measure because of what he initially calls "frames of reference," by which he places the novel within the cycle of boom-and-bust American economy and, more personally, during Faulkner's reunion with Estelle Oldham Franklin. Such momentous changes caused the past to press its way into the present and renew the more broadly Southern concern with lost causes generally -- from the Lost Cause of the Confederacy to the lost causes of Reconstruction and beyond. Thus loss, with which the novel begins -- the loss of Luster's quarter, the lost golf ball, the lost Caddy -- resonates throughout the novel in multiple ways. But the "Lost Cause" is for Matthews not merely an event at Appomattox or even an antebellum way of life forever vanished; it is, rather, "a phrase that Southerners made popular after the Civil War as they struggled to absorb the reality of defeat in the face of continued belief in the righteousness of their cause' (p. 18). It is, therefore, both loss and preservation, both defeat and the stubborn refusal to be defeated, a combination of authenticity and willed ignorance. Reduced sharply to the story of one family, this novel makes loss achingly personal as well as culturally crucial. Thus the novel persistently "addresses conflicts between the sense of lost innocence and the need to mature, between the privacy of grief and the urge to express sorrow, between the dream of the South's moral and spiritual ideals and the actuality of its history" (p. 17). Even Faulkner's initial image -- of a girl climbing a tree with muddy drawers -- "reinforces the strain between the unutterable vision and the perishable breath" (p. 22), as Fitzgerald puts it in The Great Gatsby. Nor was Caddy alone, or the novel, the only "heart's darling." Estelle, and what she had meant for Faulkner in his youth and what she now meant to him, was complicit: "throughout the period in which he was writing the novel, Faulkner was contemplating the recovery of the heart's darling of his youth. Surely his deep consideration of the relation between innocence and experience, between sexual |purity' and carnal knowledge, between the dreamt ideal and the possessed reality wells up in his personal emotional life during this time" (p. 22).

If Matthews' readings, then, are partly to help the uninitiated face the sections told by Benjy and Quentin, they are also transformed by such referential premises. Matthews looks at fresh passages, uses new turns of language himself. So in discussing Benjy's struggle to say and his incapacity to communicate, we turn to the operation that emasculates him and the image of his attempting, struggling, to speak through the anesthesia, through the surgical mask (p. 44). Quentin, whose mind races faster, also struggles to speak and to shape -- to shape scenes memorially -- trapped as he is in an adolescence he will not surrender, "so as to display his fierce, if futile, defense of honor and propriety. He knows he is infantile and petulant, yet he can do nothing to free himself from the prison of his pathology" (pp. 58-59). Jason is here "vindictive, resentful, all-devouring" in his malice and his insistence on revenge in every corner, at every turn: "For the deprivations, slights, and present burdens he feels, Jason wants others to pay, and pay" (p. 63). Matthews is particularly adept at showing how Jason portrays the evolution of the small-town bigot of the late 1920s, the aristocrat turned greedy merchant, the forerunner of Percy Grimm. Shegog's sermon, which for Matthews informs centrally the fourth section he calls |Faulkner,' also carries its significances past the novel's more narrow narrative perspectives. "One of the most satisfying ironies of southern history arises from the way slaves found in their masters' Christianity the promises of eventual freedom, justice, and equality that stiffened their resistance to continued brutalization and oppression. The last section takes place on 8 April, which was indeed Easter Sunday in 1928; but the next day, 9 April, marks the anniversary of Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox in 1865, the |ending' of slavery and the |beginning' of freedom" (p. 84), a notion he finds inarticulate, yet embedded in Dilsey's reply to Frony: "I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin'." This central portion of the book is given to a searching survey of streams-of-consciousness that involve close complicity on the part of careful readers as they work from the theme of loss to the sense of the Compsons' story as nearly mythic in its movement from Caddy's tree of knowledge in Benjy's section through the sense of redemption in the last portion of the novel. It also, for Matthews, buckles under the weight of its own resistances; it is, in the end, a work more modernist than mythic.

But I find Matthews at his best -- and this study at its most telling -- when he moves past the words to the implications and the silences, and to matters of class, gender, and race that force themselves onto our attention. "Caddy was not given her own section because she was, in Faulkner's words, |too beautiful ... to reduce her to telling what was going on!'" Speaking would have soiled her. But of course Caddy is soiled in the course of the novel; her muddy drawers become the badge of her defiance of family and community.... [The fact is that] The weight of the code of idealism [for the Southern gentleman] deprives women of their voices, a situation caricatured by the silent little sister of Quentin's last day, a |foreigner' whose language he cannot speak and who will not utter a word" (pp. 90-91). He traces Caddys behavior into that of Quentin IV; and he traces Caddy's silences into Mrs. Compson. "Perhaps Mrs. Compson is acting as if she remained the secluded virgin rather than the available mother; thus her behavior indicates the internal contradiction behind the virginal mother/maternal virgin ideology of the southern lady. And might not Mrs. Compson's feigned illnesses be an unconscious parody of the helplessness, immobility, and absence of desire that the patriarchy demands of its women and that we have seen Caddy rebel against more openly? Caddy's and her mother's antagonism conceals their profoundly kindred suffering" (p. 96).

As Jason embodies the reversal of class hierarchy and the women rebel to reinforce this, race also is destabilized. "The blacks' struggle for economic enfranchisement plays out across The Sound and the Fury. The black washwomen are doubtful of Luster's story and wonder if he has found the quarter |in white folks' pocket while they aint looking.' But Luster's response is disquietingly enigmatic; he has gotten that quarter, he says, |at the getting place,' where there is |plenty more.' That blacks might have access to the getting place -- in both the biological and financial senses, that is, access to both white women and white money -- causes the master race to fear that the very sources of their authority are profoundly endangered" (p. 101). And when Luster chases, and loses, his quarter, and Jason burns the tickets, it is Dilsey who pays Luster's admission, quietly subversive, quietly victorious. Matthews' study builds slowly and subtly; but each stage provides its reward.

Not nearly as much good criticism has been devoted to As I Lay Dying, but Warwick Wadlington gives us the richest, densest, most penetrating study of the novel I know. His reading, too, is initially culturally and historically informed: he sees this uniquely "horrible-humorous pageant' (p. 3), at once moving and tragic, bizarre and grotesque, as the product of that cusp of time when the Roaring Twenties with its "lost generation" that was alienated, exiled, and lonely met the Great Depression when whole families and communities learned to pull together in order simply to survive. Thus Addie's death is lonely in the extreme, for she dies with secrets we only learn, with startling suddenness, when her own voice erupts into the panorama of portraitures; and her death brings the family into a single mission during which they must act together. But for Wadlington, the Bundrens are all distinguished by their secrets, by the burden of aloneness, and by the need to pull as a bund, or unit (burden + bund, he says, is what provides their surname). There is Dewey Dell's secret pregnancy at the hands of Lafe and Jewel's secret job to earn a horse to displace Addie. "To remember such incidents is to realize that the Bundrens are full of secrets. Sometimes, like Addie's affair with the minister Whitfield, there are secrets to be taken to the grave, although the hypocritical minister is afraid that the fear of death and divine judgment will wring a confession from Addie before she dies. Or sometimes, for practical reasons, these are secrets to be pulled out as abruptly as a rabbit out of a hat, the way Jewel suddenly shows up with his horse |like he was riding on a big pinwheel' or Anse appears with Addie's |duck-shaped' replacement, springing the journey's final secret along with the book's punch line: |Meet Mrs. Bundren.' Or, for a grimmer example just prior to this punch line, the family violently springs its secret plot to commit Darl to the asylum" (p. 27). "The whole burial journey itself best dramatizes the traumatic eruption of privacy and secrecy into public view. The most secret and private of persons, Addie, is turned into a shocking public spectacle, outraging both public and private life" (p. 29). In fact, Wadlington traces the observations of a Cora Tull through the book's various dimensions, that life and the Bundrens are "a outrage." In the end, we learn, individual secrecy is the familial link; willed isolations become the collective force.

The necessity for secrecy and the impossibility of it make for tragic moments, but the angular juxtapositions of characters, incidents, and language make for "wicked" comedy as well (pp. 62ff.). Together, these forces make it evident that "We have no secure frame of narrative reference and no narrator easy to identify with" (p. 62). And this, in turn, our lack, like Addie's sense of lack in language, forces upon us the sheer fictionality of this poor-white odyssey. We search for conventions, are made aware of conventions. But in doing so we also find "that petty conventionality, though belied by Anse's feckless appearance, is the most dangerous force in the book. It is far more deadly than the fire and flood that the family has survived, more powerful even than Addie with her wild desire for life lived at maximum pitch" (p. 66). Pettiness threatens them all. "It evokes the daily minute abrasion of self-serving, inert conventions simplifying everything to blame, shame, and guilt and thus wearing away at passionate vitality until it finally grinds the more aspiring life down" (p. 66). Seeing how convention forces the various Bundrens shows us in turn how fiction affects us. We read fiction conventionally; if, like the Bundrens, we struggle to break loose, we, like the Bundrens, understand our own limitations. Their stories play off against our notion of storytelling; the conventions that wear them down are foregrounded, and, once privileged, throw us into dilemmas similar to their own. The clumsy provisionality of our readings is realized in the clumsy provisionality of the Bundrens' actions (p. 81); and our interpretations, like theirs, fumble their way from the tragic to the comic, from the heroic to the grotesque. There are apparent ways out. Wadlington introduces two Mississippi leaders whose names Faulkner clearly meant to invoke their realities -- or their stories: the racism and pettiness of James K. Vardaman; the misguided sense of women's suffrage and education sponsored by Henry L. Whitfield. But they too have their limitations. So does the economics of the novel, as it trades events and characters and values. Trades emerge as trade-offs; and they, like the larger stock market, collapse. Stories tumble out of -- may aggregate to make -- a larger story; but it too is a story. "The basic pattern is that of the culture's story of sacred economics, translated into a secular strategy: the last shall be first; or, losing means winning in the end. Or, in other words, the habit is that of being so fixated on some envisioned ultimate reward that |pays in the long run' that you are distracted from weighing the losses and attrition you are suffering in the present" (p. 106).

For us, this comes at the novel's end. What are we to make of the almost incidental burial of Addie but the painful incarceration of Darl? What of the collective family action turning into conspiratorial attempts to contain him? Or what of the new Mrs. Bundren? Is this a comic send-up, or the basis for hope that somehow the family will be renewed, or go on? "If the novel is read within the context of thirties concerns, the question, finally, is whether the symbolic action that is the book itself will contribute to further effective action of some kind. The alternative is that it will become another, secularized version of the sacred economics it critiques, a dead-end diversion of action sealed in the reader's |ultimate secret place' of imagination" (p. 112). A master narrative, for Wadlington, stresses its own narrativity. What the book means, or what it can do, is raise questions about events as stories, stories as fictions. And show us, inescapably, that "We as readers are the answerers, the novel's own future' (p. 112).

In 1962 Alwyn Berland published an essay on Calvinism in Light in August that, somewhat enlarged and matured, forms the present study of Light in August in the Twayne Masterwork Series. There may be an indication of what is to come in this cheerful confession in the Preface (p. vii), alongside his choice of the 1968 Modern Library reprint of the first edition as the text he will cite (the other authors use the up-to-date editions corrected by Noel Polk); indeed, the selective bibliography here harks back often to the 1950s and 1960s; there are eight references to books in the 1970s and two for the 1980s. The black-and-white of the title, in fact, refers only incidentally to race; for Berland, the real black and white is the depravity of sin and the goodness of the elect. This theological magnetism has its own list of what in Calvinism "shapes and conditions the world of Light in August":

1. The institutional belief that elevates righteousness above love in its conception

of the Godhead, and therefore also of human lives; a greater emphasis on Old Testament

conceptions of God as a stern giver of law, who upholds justice, demands obedience,

and is vengeful against sinners. Less emphasis on the New Testament

conception of a mediating Christ, who advocates compassion, forgiveness, and love.

2. A morality that is implacably stern and judgmental in the weighing and punishment

of human sin.

3. The belief that depravity is the natural condition of man; that the curse of original

sin, stemming from the fall of Adam and Eve, taints all human beings for all time.

4. The belief that human sexuality is the primary sign and substance of this depravity;

that the fall of Adam and Eve was the result of disobedience, whose expression is

human sexuality.

5. The fear or distrust of women, particularly as the vessels of temptation and sexuality.

6. The belief in a strong measure of fatalism or predestination in human affairs

(p. 35). While Berland finds the springboard of the novel in the orphanage and the primal scene which Joe overhears that links sex, black blood, and female lawlessness -- for Berland the controls of all that follows -- there are side glances to existentialism, instances that seem analogous in other works by Faulkner, and connections to the modern novel as defined technically by Henry James. Moreover, this tragic center of the novel, which links Berland's Joe Christmas to the varying forms of madness represented by Joanna, Doc Hines, Percy Grimm, and Hightower, and to the pursuits of McEachern, Hines, and Grimm, is framed by a lovely pastoral romance, of Lena and Byron, whose goodness and simplicity is the necessary counterpart to the depravity of the other characters.

There is for me a great sense of loss in this volume. So much has been done recently on the forces of society, of gender, and of race throughout the South in this century -- as Matthews treats so succinctly and advantageously -- that one yearns for a deeper sense of Joe's conflict and a more sensitive portrayal of Joanna. The various senses of the "lost cause" would go far to complicate and enrich an understanding of Hightower -- and of Percy Grimm, just as the tension between secrecy and collective action, the private and the public, could open up Lena and Byron in valuable ways. One cannot doubt that McEachern's presence introduces a sense of Calvinist thought and behavior into the novel, but that is early, if formative, for Joe's life. If Calvin Burden, and Nathaniel Burden, also realize a sense of Calvinist thought, though, what does that have to do with their strong abolitionist sense? Joanna's mixed legacy? Joanna's choice to help the blacks even as she suffers in their shadow? Light in August remains one of Faulkner's powerful and compelling books, but the real secrets of that power are not really explored in this critical overview.
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Author:Kinney, Arthur F.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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