Faulkner's Southern Reflections: The Black on the Back of the Mirror in "Ad Astra." (William Faulkner) (Section 1: Black South Culture)

By Martin, Reginald | African American Review, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Faulkner's Southern Reflections: The Black on the Back of the Mirror in "Ad Astra." (William Faulkner) (Section 1: Black South Culture)


Martin, Reginald, African American Review


Critics as diverse as Hodding Carter and Thadious M. Davis have asserted that the Southern African American characters in the Faulkner canon are his strongest characterizations - that Dilsey and Luster subvert the narrative moment from Quentin and his father in The Sound and the Fury (1929), that Charles Bon and "the 100 savage negroes" usurp the narrative throne from Quentin and Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! (1936). The focus of my inquiry here is not only to support the assertion that Faulkner's African American characters are strong - indeed, often overwhelming (consider, for example, Joe Christmas in the 1932 novel Light in August) - but also to assert two other related points: that a generative base of that strength in Faulkner's African American characters is their very Southerness, and that from the very beginning of his career - in his very first short storie - Faulkner developed his African American characters as subtextual exemplars of true strength.

At the onset of the short Story "Ad Astra" (1918), readers are introduced to four American and Irish soldiers serving as members of the British Army during World War I and an Indian officer/ companion. It is noteworthy that Faulkner immediately posits color with the black subadar from India, and Southerness with the white segregationist soldier Sartoris and, later, the M.R These two cardinal indices are integrally linked in the very first paragraph of the story.

The war is clearly in its death throes, with Germany all but defeated, and this ragtag group is simply trying to wait out the last days of official action in France without being injured. Of the four, Bland is the most eloquent, and it is he who, though drunk, sets the tone and plane of meaning of the story with this statement concerning the subadar: "|He can attend their schools for the bleachskinned ... but he cannot hold their commission, because gentility is a matter of color and not lineage or behavior'" (409).

When Bland drunkenly makes his statement as he looks at the subadar, he invokes a recurrent pattern in Faulkner's early short stories which concern the myriad strains of racial disharmony. In these stories, there is frequently a background narrator who implies that the black characters involved in the plot are at least as important and as good as the white, but because the world values color over content, the characters of color find themselves socially disadvantaged. Relatedly, Faulkner uses his narrator to foreground the racial grid of all of his later novels, including The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!: The early short stories posit in the minds of Faulkner's earned and intended audience his views on race so that, as a Southernwriter who will later write exclusively about the contemporaneous South of the United States, his views of race are posited a priori with his sincere readership. This rhetorical scheme allows the narratives in the novels to concentrate on the development of other Southern themes, such as the class conflict between the white landed-gentry minority and the white majority of the dispossessed agricultural underclass (As I Lay Dying, 1930), the myth of the Antebellum-South-as-Camelot (Absalom, Absalom!.), and the lure and exploitation of the land (Go Down, Moses, 1942).

Thus, as a proponent of Faulkner's early authoring intentions, the subadar in "Ad Astra" occupies an extremely complex position, for which there seems no solution: By his own superior efforts, he has become an officer in the very foreign army that has colonized his homeland of India, but because he is faced with color, class, and cultural discrimination, he is not allowed to give commands to whites of lesser rank in the British Army. Color is for him the great negator. Further, his enforced lack of authority is emblematic of his status in his chosen society. As is so often the case for the non-white characters in Faulknees early short fiction, the subadar suffers psychological dissolution because he does not know, or cannot find, his human place in his chosen world, where he is perpetually considered an "other"; and in his chosen world, "otherness" is equivalent to being both corporeal and invisible. …

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