Evolutionary Ideas in Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun

By Wainwright, Michael | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer-Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Evolutionary Ideas in Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun


Wainwright, Michael, The Mississippi Quarterly


"MIDDLEMARCH," IN HENRY JAMES'S ESTIMATION FROM 1873, "IS TOO OFTEN an echo of Messrs. Darwin and Huxley" (428). Moreover, as the critic Gillian Beer confirms, "George Eliot was often taken to task by contemporary reviewers for the persistent scientific allusions in her work." Many present-day readers will find such remarks surprising. It is difficult to appreciate the extent to which Eliot's language has lost its epistemological bearing. However, as Beer asserts, certain reading communities have never taken such scientifically endowed literature "as flat generality" (139). American critics would continue to express similar objections to the infiltration by science of literature. Lionel Trilling, for example, analyses the ideational essence in the work of John Dos Passos (1896-1970), Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953), and Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938). In his estimation, their writing is formulaic and thereby shallow, because "they feel that they feel that they have said the last word" (297). In their stead, Trilling champions Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and William Faulkner (1897-1962), novelists capable of penetrating the essence of existence to a significant depth, novelists who "have insisted on their indifference to the conscious intellectual tradition of our time and have acquired the reputation of achieving their effects by means that have the least possible connection with any sort of intellectuality or even with intelligence" (296). Unlike their contemporaries, concludes Trilling, Hemingway and Faulkner seldom give the impression that they "have misrepresented to themselves the nature and the difficulty of the matter they work on" (297).

Trilling's compatriot Cleanth Brooks agrees with his judgment but takes issue with his reasoning. Brooks concedes that Hemingway and Faulkner are "writers who do not clearly and easily make the case for the importance of ideas" (56), but argues that their "[l]iterature is not inimical to ideas. It thrives upon ideas, but it does not present ideas patly and neatly. It involves them with the 'recalcitrant stuff of life,'" and it is "[t]he literary critic's job," he maintains, "to deal with that involvement" (57). Sensibility to contemporary movements in science, I contend, is a literary prerequisite and Faulkner, in particular, understood the need for interdisciplinarity, which he fulfilled with his notions of evolution.

Much of Faulkner's fiction evinces a Darwinian ethos, but, as geneticist Richard Dawkins argues, an acceptance of evolution does not mean that everyone "has, graven in his brain, an identical copy of the exact words of Charles Darwin" (Selfish Gene 195). Learning is often a circuitous process and Faulkner's route toward Darwinism was greatly determined by his upbringing in the South: for, as historian Lester D. Stephens affirms, half a century elapsed following the Civil War "before the South as a whole began to enter the mainstream of scientific research and another half passed before it began to become an equal in such research" (267). Thus, much of Faulkner's Darwinian knowledge came to him in an indirect manner over several decades. His approach to evolution therefore evinces a personal ideational change, an intellectual maturation that bears witness to the emergence of modern America. Just as "Darwinism challenged older ways of thinking," writes Bert Loewenberg in his seminal study of America's response to evolutionary theory, so

   the transformed physical environment challenged older ways of
   living and doing. The conflict mirrored a larger struggle of
   orientation to the facts of urban-industrial change. In retrospect,
   both reflected the perennial clash between an old and a new order,
   but while the physical revolutions jarred attitudes and
   institutions, Darwinism attacked the whole American
   Weltanschauung. (339)

Encountering the English naturalist's philosophical effect upon epistemology from a number of sources, Faulkner remained amenable to their consequences.

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