Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

"Sad Generations Seeking Water": The Social Construction of Madness in O(phelia) and Q(uentin Compson)

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

"Sad Generations Seeking Water": The Social Construction of Madness in O(phelia) and Q(uentin Compson)

Article excerpt

Initiated by its title, The Sound and the Fury invites readers to recall Shakespeare and mental aberration. Despite alluding to Macbeth rather than Hamlet, Faulkner clearly intends us to read with a literal eye on his novel and his South and a figurative one on Shakespeare and his England. In fact, Faulkner remarked petulantly to a group of friends in New Orleans that "I could write a play like Hamlet if I wanted to" (qtd. in Blotner 121). While critics Diane Roberts, Timothy Kevin Conley, and Eric Sundquist validly compare Quentin Compson to Hamlet, I find equally provocative similarities between Quentin and Ophelia. Quentin and Ophelia share a madness spurred by patriarchal limitations, psychologically devastating losses, and unrequited physical love that leads both of them to suicidal drowning. What Coppélia Kahn argues of King Lear, that "we are shown only fathers and their godlike capacity to make or mar their children" (35), equally resonates for both Hamlet and The Sound and the Fury. Ophelia and Quentin suffer conflicted desires to obey their overbearing fathers and must navigate their existences with little or no maternal influence. Their common hysteria evolves from misplaced physical and emotional desire for unattainable partners. Because they are prevented from legitimate integration into their respective cultures, Quentin and Ophelia circumvent the patriarchal limitations of those cultures through suicide. By examining the social construction of their mutual madness, we can read the links between Ophelia and Quentin as cultural currency connecting Faulkner's South and Shakespeare's England. Quentin's rejection of his masculinity, his ultimate desire for the feminine, causes him to become a twentieth-century, peculiarly Southern rewriting of Ophelia in a resented masculine body.

The cultural attitude toward madness in the Renaissance and early twentieth-century America reveals salient links between Ophelia and Quentin. Ophelia suffers from hysteria, a malady often ascribed to upper class women who bide their time in their fathers' homes while awaiting fulfillment of their culturally mandated roles as wives and mothers, according to Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (202). Renaissance physician Edward Jorden defines hysteria, or the "suffocation of the mother," as marked by the movement of the womb "whereby it is sometimes drawn upwards or sidewards ..., compressing the neighboring parts and so consequently one another" (6), initiating hysterical symptoms of choking or muteness. Ophelia's symbolic choking and cultural muteness stem from her sublimated desires for social agency, somaticized by her wandering womb. A proposed cause of the wandering womb is the cessation of menstruation, due to sexual inactivity. Renaissance physicians believe menstrual fluid is a by-product of sexual intercourse and that lack of sex causes the body to retain rather than release such blood (Jorden 20). Physicians liberally prescribe marriage as one cure for hysteria since regular sexual intercourse is a privilege of the socially sanctioned marital institution and anchors "the wild uterus under the husband's control" (Neely 320), which "declares the necessity for male control of this volatile female element" (Kahn 34). Neither marriage nor its sexual by-product is an option for Ophelia because her father deems her only suitor unsuitable; thus she resorts to a violent and permanent cure for her suffering of the mother. Again, the physicians' cure for this potential violence spawned by hysteria is "speedy Marriages otherwise ... that through Madness and Impatience, [young girls] will make away themselves, either by drowning or hanging" (qtd. in Camden 255). Ophelia's drowning results directly from Polonius's prohibition of any marriage, speedy or otherwise.

This "disease called the suffocation of the mother" functions as a blanket term for several types of physical and mental distress, according to Jorden (6). Such an attack characterizes insanity, delirium, melancholy, or furor and appears behaviorally "in such as do dote, in such as are distracted through love, feare, griefe, joye, anger, hatred &c. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.