Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Faulkner's Jewel: Logos and the Word Made Flesh

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Faulkner's Jewel: Logos and the Word Made Flesh

Article excerpt


From early in William Faulkner's career as a novelist, he wrote as a man troubled by the very medium of language itself. Even prior to the discovery of his apocryphal Yoknapatawpha County and the masterful stories that would, in rapid-fire succession, quickly follow, he was troubled by language's potential to remove human beings from the necessary dynamism of lived experience. Nevertheless, he also discerned the tremendous power of words to manifest all that marks the species as distinct. That is to say, humankind's dependence on words left it precariously balanced between, on one side, the disorder of sub-human existence and, on the other side, mere lifeless abstraction, cut off from all vitality. (1)

In his second novel, Mosquitoes, a work that predates the imaginative return to what he called his "postage stamp of native [Mississippi] soil," Faulkner explores the nature of language that is both perilous and hopeful ("Art"). The peril is illustrated when the narrator of Mosquitoes makes plain the temptation toward despair in words: "Talk, talk, talk: the utter and heartbreaking stupidity of words. It seemed endless, as though it might go on forever. Ideas, thoughts, became mere sounds to be bandied about until they were dead" (153). The sentiment is one that Faulkner harbors and which would be crucial throughout his career as a writer--that is, as a man of words: in transferring experience into speech, words are prone to rob deeds of their vitality. Within the talky narrative of Mosquitoes, (2) however, Faulkner offers his own possible answer--one easily enough discerned, but hardly achieved--in the loquacious figure of Dawson Fairchild, a character who maintains a hope that "words brought into a happy conjunction produce something that lives" (173). The early novel, then, looks toward a new kind of writing that would seek to collapse word and deed, bringing into existence through language a new being that is vital and substantial. (3)

Coinciding with this discovery of language's potential was a return to his native region, which he would later rename Yoknapatawpha County. In a brief and prolific period, from January 1929 to October 1930, Faulkner published his first three Yoknapatawpha stories, with the latter two, The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, proving to be his first true masterpieces. Arguably, it is in these two novels that Faulkner's new conception of language moved to the fore, serving as a central theme in each work. That is to say, The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying are, in many respects, novels about language and Faulkner's own struggle to produce works of art in line with his new conception of language. And weaving its way through the two stories is the metaphor of Jesus of Nazareth, who is presented in the Christian Bible--particularly the Johannine texts (4)--as the incarnate utterance of God, the divine logos, "the Word" that "was made flesh, and dwelt among" humankind (John 1.14). In Faulkner's novels, the two characters serving as thematic foils are Quentin Compson in the former and Jewel Bundren in the latter; taken together, the pair exemplifies the two novels' contrapuntal relationship, revealing opposite reactions to the necessity of human verbality. Understanding, then, each young character's response to humanity's dependence upon language is crucial, for in their attitudes toward words, Faulkner reveals a wrestling with himself, seeking to come to terms with the inescapable dependence upon speech that is the distinguishing characteristic of humankind.


When taking stock of Faulkner's imaginative reserve, one might find Flannery O'Connor's description of the American South, with slight modification, to be a strikingly appropriate description of the novelist's mind: if not centered on biblical mythology, his imagination was inescapably haunted by it. (5) Scriptural allusions are rife within his stories, occasionally even edging their way into the works' titles, and the Christian Gospels seem to be especially venerated throughout his career. …

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