Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Fraternal Fury of the Falkners and the Bundrens

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Fraternal Fury of the Falkners and the Bundrens

Article excerpt

But we have it on high authority that a maws worst enemies shall be those of his own house and family. (1)

TODAY, MOST READERS AND CRITICS CONSIDERS Absalom, Absalom! to be William Faulkner's greatest novel. Indeed, many judge this work, which has an act of fratricide at its core, to be the most significant American novel of the twentieth century. The thematic of fraternity weaves in and out of the text, becoming a metaphor for the Civil War, black-white relations, and American concepts of identity and democracy. Why was Faulkner so drawn to the story of brothers who love and yet hate each other? On a grand level, he surely saw the story of children who come to be enemies as a metaphor for the strange realities of Southern culture, where the most intimate forms of communal life were permitted between black and white on many levels, but never in terms of formerly sanctioned matrimony and legal transmission of family name and property. In several narratives, but most especially in Go Down, Moses, Faulkner tells the story of two boys, inseparable as children, who must sleep in separate beds once they approach manhood, beds on two distinct levels that signify social position but also racial hierarchy. He would later expand this to bi-racial sets of brothers, as in the tale of Tommy's Turl in Go Down, Moses which uses the biblical myth of Joseph to underscore the horror of brothers enslaving their own brother. Fraternal conflict became a shifting, moored metaphor for many aspects of his region's tragic racial history, which so often involved sexual crossing of the color line. We now know that Faulkner knew of the black family his revered great-grandfather had sired, and that he made profound use of this in Go Down, Moses, often through the metaphor of fraternal straggle.

All of this grew out of Faulkner's own tortured relation with his own brothers. Although biographers have thus far virtually ignored the other Falkner boys, a careful reading of Faulkner's earlier work, from Soldiers' Pay up through Absalom, Absalom! reveals the thread of fraternal struggle weaving a fiery path through the center of the narratives. Faulkner began this thematic in an effort to come to grips with his resentment of his brothers, but he came to see fraternity as a crucial factor in Southern and American culture; all men come to a sense of their masculine identity not only through their relation with their fathers, women, and children, but also with each other, and for the majority of men, that means their relation with their blood brothers.

The specifics of family position shape most writers, but it was particularly the case for Faulkner. As he told Malcolm Cowley, "I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world." (2) His brother John said, "I have never known anyone who identified himself with his writings more than Bill did.... Sometimes it was hard to tell which was which" (213). Faulkner admitted that Quentin Compson was a self-portrait but had little to say about Jason, Benjy, and their models. Still, his narratives again and again ponder differences between brothers, and seem to validate Frank Sulloway's assertion that "siblings raised together are almost as different in their personalities as people from different families" (3) Siblings are also locked in a battle for family resources--key among them, parental affection. In nature in general, as Darwin demonstrated, recurring conflicts stimulate adaptations that increase the odds of coming out on top. The first mythic example of this comes with the first biblical murder--that of Abel by his elder brother, Cain. The Old Testament, in fact, is rife with stories of sibling rivalry, often focussed on the eclipse of an older son by a younger. Faulkner perhaps knew the Bible better than any other writer of his time, and employed its structures in his works repeatedly, especially those that dealt with fraternal rivalry. Although several of his early pieces explore fraternal relations, his first truly mythic and profound use of the subject came in his second masterwork, As I Lay Dying (1930). …

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