Throughout his work Faulkner demonstrates this ability to create characters whose loneliness functions both as a dramatic fact and as a psychological theme. In The Sound and the Fury Quentin Compson’s personal despair, or sense of irrevocable isolation, is related to his puritan meddling with the lives of others. In As I Lay Dying the individual members of the Bundren family are motivated by secret and lonely desires that are in strong contrast to the apparent solidarity of the family venture.
Darl Bundren’s madness is the price he pays for a full understanding of human loneliness, of how “the clotting which is you” struggles to preserve its identity in the relentless flux of time. The moral themes of Light in August are directly related to Joe Christmas’s puritan loneliness. But his loneliness is only a product of his desperate search for moral absolution. Human isolation is implicitly identified in such novels with the search for selfhood in a dynamic and time-ridden world.
An individual’s sense of isolation is never a quality imposed upon him by circumstances; it is rooted in human nature, and circumstances only bring to light its destructive consequences. Loneliness has its particular origin at the heart of puritan self-consciousness, when man tries to create a bulwark of morality and reason against the fear that nothing in this world really matters. Only Faulkner’s nonrational characters are free of the destructive fluctuation between moral pride and amoral despair.
His primitive characters are never lonely; they never see themselves as isolated human agents. Faulkner’s success in portraying human loneliness lies in the fact that only individuals can be lonely — and the characters of his early novels are always individuals. But in Faulkner’s later novels a character’s sense of isolation is treated primarily as an abstract or universal theme. The opposition between man and his social world becomes a question of philosophy and not of dramatic organization.
Atmosphere is defined in the Dictionary of World Literature as “The particular world in which the events of a story or a play occur: time, place, conditions, and the attendant mood. ” When, as in “A Rose for Emily,” the world depicted is a confusion between the past and the present, the atmosphere is one of distortion–of unreality. This unreal world results from the suspension of a natural time order. Normality consists in a decorous progression of the human being from birth, through youth, to age and finally death. Preciosity in children is as monstrous as idiocy in the adult, because both are unnatural.
Monstrosity, however, is a sentimental subject for fiction unless it is the result of human action–the result of a willful attempt to circumvent time. When such circumvention produces acts of violence, as in “A Rose for Emily,” the atmosphere becomes one of horror. Horror, however, represents only the extreme form of maladjusted nature. It is not produced in “A Rose for Emily” until the final act of violence has been disclosed. All that has gone before has prepared us by producing a general tone of mystery, foreboding, decay, etc. so that we may say the entire series of events that have gone before are “in key”–that is, they are depicted in a mood in which the final violence does not appear too shocking or horrible.
We are inclined to say, “In such an atmosphere, anything may happen. ” Foreshadowing is often accomplished through atmosphere, and in this case the atmosphere prepares us for Emily’s unnatural act at the end of the story. Emily is portrayed as “a fallen monument,” a monument for reasons which we shall examine later, fallen because she has shown herself susceptible to death (and decay) after all.
In the mention of death, we are conditioned (as the psychologist says) for the more specific concern with it later on. The second paragraph depicts the essential ugliness of the contrast: the description of Miss Emily’s house “lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps–an eyesore among eyesores. ” (A juxtaposition of past and present. ) We recognize this scene as an emblematic presentation of Miss Emily herself, suggested as it is through the words “stubborn and coquettish. The tone–and the contrast–is preserved in a description of the note which Miss Emily sent to the mayor, “a note on paper of an archaic shape, in a thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink,” and in the description of the interior of the house when the deputation from the Board of Aldermen visit her: “They were admitted by the old Negro into a dim hall from which a stairway mounted into still more shadow. It smelled of dust and disuse–a close, dank smell. ” In the next paragraph a description of Emily discloses her similarity to the house: “She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue.
Emily had not always looked like this. When she was young and part of the world with which she was contemporary, she was, we are told, “a slender figure in white,” as contrasted with her father, who is described as “a spraddled silhouette. ” In the picture of Emily and her father together, framed by the door, she frail and apparently hungering to participate in the life of her time, we have a reversal of the contrast which has already been presented and which is to be developed later.
Even after her father’s death, Emily is not monstrous, but rather looked like a girl “with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows–sort of tragic and serene. ” The suggestion is that she had already begun her entrance into that nether-world (a world which is depicted later as “rose-tinted”), but that she might even yet have been saved, had Homer Barron been another kind of man. Just as Emily refused to acknowledge the death of her father, she now refuses to recognize the death of Colonel Sartoris. He had given his word, and according to the traditional view, “his word” knew no death.
It is the Past pitted against the Present –the Past with its social decorum, the Present with everything set down in “the books. ” Emily dwells in the Past, always a world of unreality to us of the Present. Here are the facts which set the tone of the story and which create the atmosphere of unreality which surrounds it. It is important, too, to realize that during the period of Emily’s courtship, the town became Emily’s allies in a contest between Emily and her Grierson cousins, “because the two female cousins were even more Grierson than Miss Emily had ever been. The cousins were protecting the general proprieties against which the town (and the times) was in gradual rebellion. Just as each succeeding generation rebels against its elders, so the town took sides with Emily against her relations. Had Homer Barron been the proper kind of man, it is implied, Miss Emily might have escaped both horns of the dilemma (her cousins’ traditionalism and Homer’s immorality) and become an accepted and respected member of the community.
The town’s attitude toward the Grierson cousins represents the usual ambiguous attitude of man toward the past: a mixture of veneration and rebelliousness. The unfaithfulness of Homer represents the final act in the drama of Emily’s struggle to escape from the past. From the moment that she realizes that he will desert her, tradition becomes magnified out of all proportion to life and death, and she conducts herself as though Homer really had been faithful–as though this view represented reality.
Miss Emily’s position in regard to the specific problem of time is suggested in the scene where the old soldiers appear at her funeral. There are, we are told, two views of time: (1) the world of the present, viewing time as a mechanical progression in which the past is a diminishing road, never to be encountered again; (2) the world of tradition, viewing the past as a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from (us) now by the narrow bottleneck of the most recent decade of years. The first is the view of Homer Barron and the modern generation in Jefferson.
The second is the view of the older members of the Board of Aldermen and of the confederate soldiers. Emily holds the second view, except that for her there is no bottleneck dividing her from the meadow of the past. Emily’s small room above stairs has become that timeless meadow. In it, the living Emily and the dead Homer have remained together as though not even death could separate them. It is the monstrousness of this view which creates the final atmosphere of horror, and the scene is intensified by the portrayal of the unchanged objects which have surrounded Homer in life.
Here he lay in the roseate atmosphere of Emily’s death-in-life: “What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust. ” The symbols of Homer’s life of action have become mute and silent. Contrariwise, Emily’s world, though it had been inviolate while she was alive, has been invaded after her death–the whole gruesome and unlovely tale unfolded.
In the first place, she has been frustrated by her father, prevented from participating in the life of her contemporaries. When she attempts to achieve freedom, she is betrayed by a man who represents the new morality, threatened by disclosure and humiliation. Loneliness is associated rhetorically with abstract humanity. Simultaneously it becomes a cause less for despair than for transcendental affirmation, a theme related in A Fable to the Marshal’s faith in irrevocable human evil.
The loneliest experience of all, the reader is told in this novel, is just breathing. But in its identification with the human condition, the concept of loneliness loses all personal meaning. Only by declining to state such identifications can the novelist successfully establish them. In his best work Faulkner demonstrates that loneliness is a particular, never a universal state of mind. Loneliness is not an abstract concept of human experience but the world in which each individual must live.
Chekhov in his story, “Heartache,” dealt with being old and alone in the city. In “Heartache,” an old cabby lamented the fact that his son had died before him. He was then alone with no one to take care of him and with no one to learn from him. He was completely alone, abused by people, with no one to help him bear his grief. He earned enough to feed his horse and not much else. He slept on a bench in a large room with the other cabbies. One wonders how long he would last with hunger, cold, and loneliness on his old, tired heels. (Williames 132)
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