Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

"All That Matters Is That I Wrote the Letters": Discourse, Discipline, and Differences in Requiem for a Nun

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

"All That Matters Is That I Wrote the Letters": Discourse, Discipline, and Differences in Requiem for a Nun

Article excerpt

IN REQUIEM FOR A NUN (1951), William Faulkner undertakes what has been construed as the feminist project of many women novelists: asking how women whose lives have been made into social narratives can counteract those narratives and reclaim their own subjectivities, or, put another way, how two disempowered women can change their lives through language.1 Returning to the story of Temple Drake, whose brutal rape, abduction, and imprisonment in a Memphis brothel are the subject of Sanctuary (1931), Faulkner links Temple's story to that of Nancy Mannigoe, the African-American prostitute in "That Evening Sun" (1931). Eight years after the events of Sanctuary, Nancy is employed as a nanny by Temple and Gowan Stevens, and the dramatic portion of the novel opens with Nancy's sentencing for murdering their baby daughter. Both Temple and Nancy, renowned "whores" in the local lore, try to maintain their subjectivities despite the public narratives that constrain their identities. By situating these women in the judicial system, Faulkner makes explicit the effect of these repressive cultural narratives on their lives.2 As the women try to reclaim their stories from those with legal and cultural power, they use different strategies because of their disparate social positions. Class and racial privilege give Temple access to social power that is denied Nancy. Using her identity as Mrs. Gowan Stevens, Temple tries to manipulate the interpretations of her life story in order to control her fate and free Nancy. With far less access to power, Nancy protects her subjectivity by refusing to acknowledge others' power over her, as when she refuses to respond to the judge before he pronounces a sentence of death by hanging in the first dramatic scene. She thereby parodies the judicial system.3 Both women's strategies for counteracting the narratives of public identity fail. But their relationship, which arises out of their similar experiences of misogynist violence and which their class and racial differences would ordinarily preclude, offers a potential source of resistance that is more powerful than either woman's singular efforts. Despite their ultimate separation and failure, the novel thus suggests that women's alliance across racial and class differences empowers their resistance and is a necessary precursor to social change.

Temple's strategies for freeing Nancy literally and herself figuratively are determined by public identity narratives. The sexual transgression forced upon her has rendered her "unfit" for the role of the chaste, pedestalled wife, and public discourse has divided her identity into two separate characters, Temple Drake and Mrs. Gowan Stevens. The language and narrative surrounding sexual acts in her past have come to constitute her identity as Temple Drake, whereas her "redeemed"-through-- marriage identity as Mrs. Gowan Stevens demands that those sexual acts never be spoken. She is well aware of discourse's power to constrain women within their roles by punishing deviation with verbal or written gossip. In a mocking tone, she reveals to the Governor how rumor exacerbated the trauma of-her rape and imprisonment:

You remember Temple: the all-Mississippi debutante whose finishing school was the Memphis sporting house? About eight years ago, remember? Not that anyone, certainly not the sovereign state of Mississippi's first paid servant, need be reminded of that, provided they could read newspapers eight years ago or were kin to somebody who could read eight years ago or even had a friend who could or even just hear or even just remember or just believe the worst or even just hope for it. (551)

As a part of legend, Temple is herself already a text that is interpreted-- often, as she points out, by those who desire the most lurid story. Her story speaks to a common female experience within patriarchal society: that of the woman labeled "whore." While her experience is extreme, it reflects the psychological violence enacted upon women by a culture that defines them as virgins, wed mothers, or whores. …

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