A Psychological Interpretation of Faulkner's Novels

By Samway, Patrick | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1981 | Go to article overview

A Psychological Interpretation of Faulkner's Novels


Samway, Patrick, The Southern Literary Journal


Because of his passion for privacy, Faulkner often thwarted the attempts made by admirers and journalists to inquire about the psychological genesis of his works. In 1930, for example, he staved off one such request by telling his agent: "Don't tell the bastards anything. It can't matter to them. Tell them I was born of an alligator and a nigger slave at the Geneva peace conference two years ago." In addition, he believed that a book is the "writer's secret life, the dark twin of a man; you can't reconcile them." In a February, 1949 letter to Malcolm Cowley, Faulkner wrote that he would protest to the last that he did not want any photographs or recorded documents of a personal nature left behind after his death: "It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books." By then, he had already his epitaph in mind: "He made the books and he died." Yet Faulkner knew deep down that a writer cannot help but be autobiographical in his works; they often contain his "violent despairs and rages and frustrations ..." Thus, it is quite natural and appropriate that after the 1974 publication of Joseph Blotner's impressive biography of Faulkner there should arise an interest and legitimate desire to explore the psychological patterns hidden within Faulkner's creative imagination, especially those patterns woven, as far as informed and prudent discernment can tell, from the fabric of Faulkner's daily life.

In Faulkner: The Transfiguration of Biography, Judith Wittenberg sets out to demonstrate that one measure of Faulkner's art was his ability "to recognize his contradictory urges, to embody them in separate characters, and to show them functioning comparatively in a hierarchy of morality of psychic health or conflicting overtly for dominion and even survival." Her primary concern is to trace the events and situations in Faulkner's life in order to ferret out Faulkner's "dark twins," and then to explain the modalities and analogues of these events and situations in his fiction. Until Carvel Collins publishes the Faulkner material he has gathered over the years, Faulkner scholars will have to rely primarily on the biographical material that Blotner has written and edited as they search to discovery the man who was an author and the author who was a man. In all, Professor Wittenberg has made judicious use of the available biographical material and I feel that her work, incomplete though it is since she does not deal extensively either with Faulkner's short stories or the revisions of his manuscripts and typescripts, will be considered a pioneering effort in an area of Faulkner scholarship that is bound to grow and develop.

How much one can uncover convincingly the imaginative patterns emerging from the often unexpressed recesses of Faulkner's personal life depends on a congeries of factors: personal knowledge of Faulkner, background in psychology and psychological theory, an awareness of the breadth and depth of his works, and an ability to investigate those events in Faulkner's life that were important in determining his character, to name but a few. Yet in spite of the obstacles that Faulkner placed in front of his biographers, the psychobiographical quest needs to be undertaken, in my opinion, since an appreciation of the creative imagination of any author, given the parameters of new criticism and the caveats of Michel Foucault, depends on an in-depth analysis both of the author's life and works in order to discover literary relationships that might never have been obvious, even to the author's friends and family. By telling the "same story over and over, which is myself and the world," Faulkner encouraged his psychobiographers to begin the process; though he dealt with extremely complicated family relationships in Yoknapatawpha and beyond, there were patterns of repetition that he himself felt.

Faulkner initially saw his own family as a model for the Sartorises, and once they were established, he could go on to create the McCaslins, the Beauchamps, the Stevenses, the Sutpens, the Snopeses, the Compsons, and others.

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