Faulkner's Humor and Moral Vision


Throughout most of Absalom, Absalom! Thomas Sutpen, a key figure, could hardly be called sympathetic. He seems at time little less than a monster. In the last third, or so, of the book, Faulkner spends some time telling us about Mr. Sutpen and how he came to be who he presently is. What emerges is a man who much conflicted attempts to make his own way in the world by his own constricted and convoluted sense of morality and ends up precipitating the entire action of the novel.

Throughout the book there are moments of high humor even within the tragedy, pathos, or sheer chaos of the action. One of these moments occurs in the passage sited below.

from Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner

And then the shrewdness failed him again. It broke down, it vanished into that old impotent logic and morality which had betrayed him before: and what day it might have been, what furrow might he have stopped dead in, one foot advanced, the unsentient plow handles in his instantaneous unsentient hands, what fence panel held in midair as though it had no weight by muscles which could not feel it, when he realised that there was more in his problem than just lack of time, that the problem contained some super-distillation of this lack: that he was now past sixty and that possibly he could get but one more son, had at best but one more son in his loins, as the old cannon might know when it has just one more shot in its corporeality. So he suggested what he suggested to her [Miss Rosa Coldfield], and she did what he should have known she would do and would have known probably if he had not bogged himself again in his morality which had all the parts but which refused to run, to move. Hence the proposal, the outrage and unbelief; the tide, the blast of indignation and anger upon which Miss Rosa vanished from Sutpen's Hundred, her air-ballooned skirts spread upon the flood, chip-light, her bonnet (possibly one of Ellen's which she had prowled out of the attic) clapped fast onto her head rigid and precarious with rage.

The description of Miss Rosa's departure in irate indignation (fully justified) is a marvelous limned-in portrait right down to the last phrase which, while probably modifying "head" can be seen as modifying "her bonnet," in which case we get, "her bonnet rigid and precarious with rage." Even her clothing revolts against Thomas Sutpen.

But encased here is Faulkner's statement about so many of us. And it is a statement wise and true, and most particularly true when we try to operate on our own. ". . . [I]f he had not bogged himself again in his morality which had all the parts but which refused to run, to move." The quandary of modern humanity--we have all the component parts of a morality, all of the right concerns, all of the proper foci, all of the will and the energy, and no ability to implement. The parts are all there but if they are not connected into one smooth-functioning machine, they are useless--they are but spare parts or the old washing machine on the front porch--they identify us as surely as our names or the clothes we wear, they tell something about us, but they don't even serve as window-dressing.

Faulkner makes this point time and again and the downfall of Sutpen is directly related to his inability to get his moral life in order and functioning. And this inability is directly related to the fact that the society he occupies has refused the moral norms of the world in the "peculiar institution" they cling to with such ferocity.

It's interesting--Faulkner loves the South--deeply. He is a true son of the South and yet he can have no truck with the nonsense (on either side) of the War Between the States. The South cannot be justified because it has a moral laxity and a patent offense to natural law. The North cannot because they are not fighting a war to release a people from bondage, but a war that many of them fail to understand at all and so their "bringing freedom" rains down destruction and chaos (see some of my posts related to The Unvanquished.) In a sense Faulkner gets it exactly right and encapsulates the love-hate many of us who are partisans of the South have with our native land.

But I digress--and I digress because Faulkner is one endless digression on matters of such grave importance that it is a pleasure to read and to absorb all that he has to say. Absalom, Absalom! starts out as a kind of mystery and quickly evolves into a complex tale of moral nightmare, evil, delusion, self-determination, and the destruction not only of the person who fall prey to this, but to everyone around him. Thomas Sutpen is a moral cancer in a society that hasn't a firm grasp or understanding of God and His purposes, and as such he is a nexus of destruction and endless unhappiness--perhaps even contributing to Quentin Compson's decision later in 1910 to commit suicide (only after, fortunately, he left us his part of The Sound and the Fury).

And just to seal the point, let me finish the passage quoted above:

And he, standing there with the reins over his arm, with perhaps something like smiling inside his beard and about the eyes which was no smiling but the crinkled concentration of furious thinking:--the haste, the need for it; the urgency but not fear, not concern: just the fact that he had missed that time, though luckily it was just a spotting shot with a light charge, and the old gun, the old barrel and carriage none the worse; only next time there might not be enough powder for both a spotting shot and then a full-sized load;--the fact that the thread of shrewdness and courage and will ran onto the same spool which the thread of his remaining days ran onto and that spool almost near enough for him to reach out his hand and touch it. But this was no grave concern yet, since it (the old logic, the old morality which had never yet failed to fail him) was already falling into pattern, already showing him conclusively that he had been right, just as he knew he had been, and there what had happened was just a delusion and not actually exist.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave. . .

And again, a light touch in a very serious matter: "(the old logic, the old morality which had never yet failed to fail him)."

And so it is with the man who refuses his redemption and attempts to acquire it by his own merits.

Bookmark and Share



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 17, 2008 7:38 AM.

More Bookselling Surprises was the previous entry in this blog.

Faulkner's Language of Negation is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll