PARTHENIA ONASSIS GRANT, Ph.D.
aka Ruthie O. Grant, Ph.D.

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Depravity, the Past, and the Alienated Character in William Faulker's Works

By Ruthie Grant

            Faulkner’s novels have a tendency to focus on characters whose moral, spiritual, or emotional depravity act as a catalyst for alienation from self, society or family.  Quite often, the alienated characters in Faulkner are directly linked to their spiritual bankruptcy, and/or to their inability to develop healthy relationships with the past.  In its narrowest sense, the past involves a quest for racial identity (i.e., Joe Christmas in “A Light in August”); or a futile search for acceptance and recognition (i.e., Charles Bon’s dogged determination to have his father acknowledge him in “Absalom, Absalom”).  In its broadest sense, the past encompasses the rise and demise of the old South and its social structure (i.e., both the black and white sides of the McCaslin family in “Go Down, Moses” and Sutpen’s exploitation of human beings in “Absalom, Absalom”).  Novels such as “The Sound and The Fury” and “As I Lay Dying” deal more directly with social outcasts alienated from society either through ignorance and poverty (i.e., the Bundren family in “As I Lay Dying”), by birth (i.e., the idiot, Benjy, in “The Sound and the Fury”) or rejection and ostracism by family members (i.e, Caddy in “The Sound and The Fury).  

            The South built its economic and social infrastructure upon the foundation of slavery, a peculiar institution which created its own system of skewed human values and inhumane mores, allegedly based upon Christianity with African Americans as the biblical “the sons of Ham” who were the “doomed and lowly of the earth” (The Bear 249).   Within this system, the slave master enslaved his own offspring produced through miscegenation.  These mixed blood offspring of slave owners became a “third race” of people “even more alien to the people whom they resembled in pigment (i.e., whites) and in whom even the same blood ran, than to the people whom they did not” (The Bear 277).  Although in reality they were neither black nor white, they fell prey to the ruthless and self-serving demands of the One Drop Rule wherein, no matter how white these offspring appeared outwardly, they could never be socially accepted by whites, nor embraced by white family members because of their tainted blood.

            In Faulkner’s works, the closest any mixed offspring came to acknowledgment (and even that was obliquely) was in “The Bear.”  The original patriarch of the slave owning McCaslin clan, got a slave with “child” and then “dismiss[ed] her because she was of an inferior race, and then bequeath a thousand dollars to the infant son because he would be dead” (The Bear 281). Thus, McCaslin would not have to actually acknowledge his child, nor personally carry out this gesture which was given “almost contemptuously, as he might cast-off a hat” and was worth little to the slave who “would not even see it until he came of age, twenty-one years too late to begin to learn what money was.  So I reckon that was cheaper than saying My Son to a nigger, he thought” (The Bear 258).  

            In “Delta Autumn” the same situation occurred when a near white great niece of Isaac McCaslin gave birth to a son for Isaac’s white friend, Edmonds, who rejects her and the child because of the One Drop Rule.   Instead of Edmonds seeing this woman in person, he leaves an envelope for her with McCaslin.  When she opens it she is heartbroken to discover that he did not even include a note to her or to his son.  She responds with “That’s just money,” before throwing it back at McCaslin. 

            McCaslin thinks that the young lady is white until she reveals that she is his niece through an African American relative of McCaslin’s.  In true southern fashion McCaslin reacts to and reflects upon the impossibility of his niece having a future with Edmonds, thinking to himself:  “Maybe in a thousand or two thousand years in America ... but not now! Not now!” (344) even though the time period of this story is post reconstruction, most likely the 1920’s.  McCaslin’s advice to her was to go North and marry one of her kind, over looking the fact that she was in love with Edmonds. 

            There are similarities in Edmonds’ and McCaslin’s actions towards their mixed blood offspring and Thomas Sutpen, the white patriarch in “Absalom, Absalom.” Sutpen had no emotional attachment whatsoever to his first family.  Whereas, McCaslin “was still committed to [them] because they were his creations” (The Bear 273), which lead McCaslin’s grandson to the conclusion that “there must have been love.  Some sort of love. Even what he would have called love:  not just an afternoon’s or a night’s” (The Bear 258).   In fact, McCaslin even nursed them when “they were sick” (The Bear 273). One cannot rush to applaud McCaslin’s actions, however, in lieu of the fact that he “would have done too for any other of his cattle that was sick, but at least the man who hired one from a livery wouldn’t have, and still that was not enough” (The Bear 273).   Certainly an afterthought could never be enough to make up for the fact that the white male patriarchs in the five Faulker novels under discussion here refused to acknowledge their mixed blood offspring or to treat them with basic human dignity.  By the same token, Sutpen, displayed no love at all towards his mixed blood offspring, Charles Bon, refusing to offer a single gesture of acceptance or acknowledgment, which was all that Charles wanted.

            This patriarchal denial of paternity is directly connected to the acrimonious and unforgiving One Drop Rule, which condemned a new breed of children to an uncertain and ambiguous fate wherein, under no circumstances, could their fathers legitimize them through marriage, recognition or acceptance -- regardless of the devastation, chaos and suffering this caused.  This new race was forced to either pass for white, which, ironically, is what Sutpen tried to get his grandson to do (i.e., Charles Bon’s son by an octoroon, who married a full blooded African American slave) when he told his grandson to go up north and forget about his new wife.  Naturally, Sutpen would offer this type of advice to his grandson, because that’s what he did: abandoned his wife and son.  The grandson, however, opted for being a disenfranchised, second class citizen rather than deny all that he was.  

            In keeping with it’s poor treatment and disregard for African Americans and women, the south also looked down upon poor white trash, who were viewed as the dregs of society.  A prime example is Sutpen’s treatment of 15 year old Milly Jones, the poor white trash granddaughter of Wash Jones (a squatter on Sutpen’s plantation), whom Sutpen, in his old age, seduced in hopes that Milly would bear him a son. Minutes after Milly gave birth to Sutpen’s daughter (when he wanted a son) he told her: “Well, Milly; too bad you’re not a mare too.  Then I could give you a decent stall in the stable” (229).  Once Sutpen failed to get the son that he wanted from Milly, he had no further use for her --  never mind that he had taken her virginity and ruined any prospects for her finding a husband. In effect, he cast aside this young girl the same way that he set aside his first wife and son.  No doubt, Sutpen’s sister-in-law, Rosa, saved herself from a similar fate by possessing enough pride and self worth to turn down his offer of marriage pending her giving birth to a live, healthy son first.  Rosa never forgave Sutpen the insult and became his sworn enemy for life. 

            In using and discarding Milly (who did not possess the wherewithal to refuse Sutpen’s offer), Sutpen automatically took for granted Wash’s veneration of him as the image of a living God, who “if God Himself was to come down and ride the natural earth, that’s what He would aim to look like” (226).  Even though Wash literally idolized him, when he found out that Milly was pregnant by Sutpen, he issued a veiled command that was akin to a warning for Sutpen to do right by his granddaughter when he said: “whatever your hands tech, whether hit’s a regiment of men or a ignorant gal or just a hound dog, that you will make hit right” (228).  Naturally, Sutpen was not concerned with any act of retribution from Wash since he was a powerless squatter who could not afford to go up against the richest man in the county, or so Sutpen thought. 

            One would think that since Sutpen grew up as poor white trash himself that he might have surmised that his comment to Milly (which he knew Wash overheard) would not only knock him off of the pedestal Wash had placed him upon, but more importantly, would strip Wash of what little pride poor white people possess:  being better than African Americans.  Upon being confronted with indisputable evidence that Sutpen looked down upon and valued Milly less than his barnyard animals (which placed her on a lower level than Sutpen’s slaves, who were at least on the same footing as livestock), Wash was left with no recourse but to avenge his granddaughter against this outrage.  Ultimately, this affront ended up costing Sutpen his life at the hands of  poor white trash, whom Sutpen felt compelled to denigrate because Wash reminded him of who he really was and where he came from.  

            As an adolescent Sutpen became rudely and painfully aware of his lack of worth and lowly position in society by, of all people, a “housebred monkey nigger” (188) who told him, after “looking down on his patched made-over jeans clothes and no shoes, never to come to that front door again but to go around to the back door even before he could state his errand” (188).  This incident made Sutpen painfully and acutely aware that “something would have to be done about it ... in order to live with himself for the rest of his life” (189).  It was in that instant that Sutpen vowed to build a powerful dynasty that would insure his offspring would never be turned away from anyone’s front door. 

            The irony of Sutpen’s grand design is that he ended up turning away his legitimate, first born son, Charles Bon, who was literally murdered in front of his door by Sutpen’s son whom he accepts because he does not have a drop of black blood in him, whereas Charles Bon does.  In fact,  hearing rumor that his first wife’s mother (who was purported to be Spanish) had a drop of black blood in her, Sutpen found this situation “unsuitable to his purpose and so put aside [wife and son], though providing for her” (199).   Sutpen’s conscience was cleared by providing financially for his wife and son (before abandoning them and refusing to bestow his name upon his son).   After leaving Haiti, Sutpen steadfastly denied his son in the same way that he denied his past as poor white trash even when the past came knocking on his door to catch up with him.  

            The lack of distinctions and the insensitivity of the One Drop Rule ultimately caused Charles Bon to choose fratricide, after failing to force Thomas Sutpen to admit “I am your father” (261).  By the same token, it caused Joe Christmas, an orphan, in “A Light In August” to choose murder and self destruction resulting from outrage at never being able to know anything about his past.   For example, when Miss Burden asks Christmas “how do you know that” you are African American, Joe Christmas replies: “I don’t know it ... If  I’m not, damned if I haven’t wasted a lot of time” (279-180).

            For both Bon and Christmas, Faulker left a question in the mind of the reader as to whether either, in actuality, possessed that one drop of black blood, whose mere possibility ended up condemning them to become tragic characters who could neither affirm their identity by their physical appearance, which was white, nor confirm it in fact.  For instance, for Joe Christmas, all possibility of ever knowing the truth was obliterated when his grandfather murdered his father who was purported to be Mexican.  As for Bon, his maternal grandmother was in Haiti, either dead, sworn to secrecy, or too inaccessible for him to know with any degree of certainty (i.e., secrecy was essential for those passing as white).  For Joe Christmas, in particular, this inability to ever know the truth about who and what he really was condemned him to wonder and wander “the savage and lonely street which he had chosen of his own will” (283) -- this street which he entered as a teenager that was to “run for fifteen years ... the thousand streets ran as one street” (246).  This long, winding street ultimately lead him down the path of murder and self-destruction.

            Sutpen’s financial ruin after the civil war and the destruction of his family by fratricide (which condemned his only daughter to the fate of an old maid when she lost her brother/fiancee and was left with no dowry for marriage after the war) is a metaphor for the destruction of the south, which never rose up again to match it’s pre-civil war glory.  The parallel between the two is that Sutpen built his dreams upon the backs of human beings while denying his own flesh and blood, in much the same way that the South build it’s financial success on the blood, sweat and tears of slaves while stripping them of basic human rights and dignity.

              Probably the most alienated of all of Faulkner’s characters is Benjy in “The Sound and The Fury” who has been “three years old for thirty years” (19).   Unable to communicate through speech, Benjy can only express his emotions through crying and whining, which gets on the nerves of most everyone; in particular his mother, who takes to bed with her camphor crystals leaving the grandsons of her African American maid, Dilsey, to look after her retarded son, justifying her behavior by  protesting that she is “not one of those women who can stand things.  I wish for Jason’s and the children’s sakes I was stronger” (7).

            Dilsey and Caddy are the only people who are not ashamed of Benjy.  As a result, Benjy responds positively to his younger sister, Caddy, when she tells him: “You’re not a poor baby.  Are you.  You’ve got your Caddy.  Haven’t you got your Caddy” (8).  Moreover, Dilsey even takes Benjy to church knowing that he will not cry there, inspite of her daughter protesting: “I wish you wouldn’t keep on bringin him to church, mammy,” Frony said. “Folks talkin.” (362).  Dilsey, however, believes that Benjy is “de Lawd’s chile, anyway” (396).  Dilsey and Caddy love Benjy unconditionally irregardless of the fact that Benjy is alienated from the rest of his family and society, who shun him because “folks dont like to look at a loony. Taint no luck in it” (22). 

            Dilsey’s grandson, Roskus, believes that Benjy knows a “lot more than folks thinks” (37).  For example, Benjy begins to cry when he hears Caddy tell Quentin that she doesn’t “care” about getting a whipping for muddying up her panties because she will “just run away” (21).  When Caddy reassures Benjy by telling him to “hush now ... I’m not going to run away” (19-20) Benjy stops crying. 

            Even at the age of seven Caddy is a free spirit who follows her own lead, acting as a mother figure who enjoys bossing her brothers around and making them mind her, even pleading with her dad to “Let them mind me tonight, Father” (28).  Caddy’s father acquiesces even   though she is younger.  These character traits end up alienating Caddy from her family.

            Caddy’s greedy, evil and malicious brother, Jason, exacts his revenge on Caddy years later by separating Caddy from her only daughter, Quentin, who does not even know who her mother is.  Jason even keeps the money that Caddy sends every month for the care of her child.  On top of that, he thinks nothing of extorting additional money out of Caddy when she finally defies her banishment by the family and comes back to town in a desperate attempt to see her daughter.  Jason takes the money he extorts from Caddy while allowing her only a fleeting, momentary glimpse from afar of her child.  Both Jason and their mother, Mrs. Compson, blame Caddy for Jason not getting the type of job he deserves (at a bank through Caddy’s husband -- which did not materialize because her marriage fell apart early on).  They held Caddy responsible for Jason having to settle for working in a local store, which they felt was an injustice, since the family sold part of their land to send Quentin to Harvard.  

            Once her marriage fell apart, Caddy was left without a husband or any means to support her daughter, Quentin, so she brings her daughter back home for her mother and Dilsey to take care of until she can get back on her feet.  Both Jason and their mother use this opportunity to exile Caddy from her own child and from her brother Benjy, whom Caddy loves dearly.  The mother’s excuse for alienating her daughter is because she is “a lady ... you might not believe that from my offspring, but I am” (374). 

            Mrs. Compson and Jason view Caddy’s promiscuous behavior as unlady like and unbecoming of a Compson family member.  As a result, they feel justified in disowning Caddy, forbidding her to return to Jefferson, and keeping her child from knowing her mother.  Eventually, Jason and Mrs. Compson repeat the pattern of alienation and exile with Caddy’s daughter, Quentin, once she comes of age and begins to sneak out with boys.   Ms. Compson -- referring to her son Quentin who committed suicide (i.e., Caddie named Quentin after her brother who killed himself while she was pregnant) -- declares: “It’s in the blood.  Like uncle, like niece.  Or mother.  I don’t know which would be worse.  I dont seem to care .. sometimes I think she is the judgment of Caddy and Quentin upon me” (374, 325). 

            Ironically, Mrs. Compson tells Jason (who, in actuality, is stealing money from her for his investments): “You dont know what a comfort you are to me ... you have always been my pride and joy ... I thanked God it was you left me if they had to be taken” (281).  She refuses to see that with the death of her husband and the suicide of her son, she has allowed Jason to alienate her from her remaining family: Caddy, Benjy and Quentin.   In fact, Mrs. Compson turns deaf ears on Quentin’s pleas for intervention against Jason: “Why does he treat me like this, Grandmother?  I never hurt him ... He wont let me alone ... if he doesn’t want me here, why wont he let me go back to --” (323).   Of course, the reason he won’t let Quentin go to her mother is because he would lose the money Caddy sends every month (not to mention the perverse satisfaction he gets out of controlling and manipulating Caddy and his niece), which Jason keeps from Quentin as well as his mother.

            Mrs. Compson’s loyalty to her corrupt, amoral and depraved son ends up costing her her granddaughter and her son Benjy.  Quentin runs away, never to return, just like her mother, Caddy, who ends up with a rich man in Europe and is last seen in a photo in a ritzy magazine riding in an expensive convertible.   The irony is that Mrs. Compson is devoted to Jason even though he disrespects her and exploits her in the same way that he exploits money from his sister and niece.  In fact, when Jason discovers that his secret stash of money is missing, along with Quentin, dispite protests from his mother, Jason demands the key from her then begins “pawing at the pockets of the rusty black dressing sacque she wore.”  When she resists, he yells at his mother:  “Give me the key, you old fool!” (351). 

            Ultimately, it seemed fitting that the mother should end up with Jason all to herself, as if he was her only child, which is the way she treated him.  After exiling Caddy, and running Quentin off, Jason commits the final act of alienation when he sends Benjy to an institution. Since neither Jason nor Mrs. Compson cared about Benjy anyway (i.e., they view Benjy a child of a lesser God) it was no loss to either of them.  In fact, at that point, the only person who missed Benjy was Dilsey, who believed “de good Lawd dont keer whether he smart er not.  Dont nobody but white trash keer dat” (362).  Ironically, Mrs. Compson, with her pretentious airs (having married into a well-to-do southern family and having descended from one), ended up behaving like white trash towards her own son, daughter, and grandchild.

            Along those same lines, the Bundren family in “As I Lay Dying” is so socially inept, ignorant, and isolated that they are pretty much alienated from the world at large by their limited beliefs, spiritual and moral bankruptcy, and their self centeredness.  In particular, the father, Anse, and the 16 year old daughter, Dewey Dell.  Although outwardly they appear to be carrying out Addie’s last wish, in actuality, neither are in the least fazed by the death of Addie Bundren.   Their close friend and neighbor, Mrs. Tull, sees through them and does not believe that Addie actually asked to be buried 40 miles away in Jefferson with her family whom she was not close to:
“She lived, a lonely woman ... hiding the fact that they suffered her, because she was not cold in the coffin before they were carting her forty miles away to bury her, flouting the will of God to do it.  Refusing to let her lie in the same earth with those Bundrens.”
“But she wanted to go,” Mr. Tull said.  “It was her own wish to lie among her own people.”
“Then why didn’t she go alive?” I said.  “Not one of them would have stopped her, with even that little one almost old enough now to be selfish and stone-hearted like the rest of them.”
“It was her own wish,” Mr. Tull said. “I heard Anse say it was.”
“And you would believe Anse, of course.” I said. “A man like you would. Dont tell me.” (22-23)

Even the Bundrens closest neighbors, the Tulls, were alienated from them, while the Bundrens, in turn, were alienated from each other.  Cash, the son who builds the coffin for his mother, and Jewel, who trades his horse to get his mother buried, stand out in sharp contrast to the selfishness of Anse and Dewey Dell.  For example, when Dewey Dell’s brother confronts her with the truth about her selfishness, proclaiming that she wanted “her [mother] to die so [she] can get to town” Dewey Dell answers: “Are you going to tell him.  Are you going to kill him? (40).  Her brother is referring to the fact that Dewey Dell wants to get to town for an abortion before their father finds out that she is pregnant.  

            Both Dewey Dell and her father, Anse, have ulterior motives for putting the rest of the family through hell and high water to bury Addie 40 miles away during a flood that has washed away all bridges, while Addie’s body begins to decompose and stink to high heaven.  In actuality, Anse is utilizing the occasion of his wife’s death and burial to finally “get them teeth” (52) that he’s been wishing for because he has been too long “without a tooth in [his] head, hoping to get ahead enough so [he] could get [his] mouth fixed where [he] could eat God’s own victuals as a man should” (37).  He has to travel 40 miles by wagon to Jefferson to get these teeth.

            During the journey to Jefferson, allegedly to bury his wife, Anse, who is lazy and always protesting that he does not want to be beholden to anyone, is forever accepting favors from neighbors and townfolks.  Because he believes that he has been wrongly cursed inspite of the fact that he has “done no wrong to be cussed by” (38), he feels entitled to assistance from others, who offer him free food and shelter during the journey.  Moreover, Tull explains that  “like most folks around here, I done holp him so much already I cant quit now” (33).   As a result, Anse comes to expect handouts from others.   In fact, he even has no qualms about taking money from his 16 year old daughter (abortion money given to her by her boyfriend) and trading Jewel’s prize horse (which Jewel worked night and day all summer long to purchase) for a team of mules when they lose theirs in the river.  

            Common sense and decency would dictate that, under such adverse weather conditions, it would be better to go ahead and bury Addie closer to home, but both Anse and Dewey Dell need the excuse of the burial to justify their trip to town.  Moreover, their selfishness is multiplied many times over when one considers what they put other family members through to get to Jefferson.  For example, Cash breaks a leg while crossing the river with the bridge washed away.  He ends up having to ride on top of the coffin in the wagon with the smell of the rotting body of his mother, while enduring excruciating pain, not to mention his father putting concrete on his leg, which almost costs him that limb.  Moreover, Jewel who can no longer endure the indignity of his mother’s body rotting away after being exposed for over a week, as they struggle to get to town under overwhelming conditions, ends up setting fire to a neighbor’s barn where they are spending the night, in an attempt to give his mother a decent burial by cremation.  Jewel also picks a fight with a stranger on the road when the stranger comments on the foul smell.   The father allows Jewel to be taken to an insane asylum rather than pay restitution to the neighbor to restore the barn and keep his son.  And Dewey Dell is relieved to have her brother taken away because he is the only one who suspects that she is pregnant and now he cannot tell her secret.

            Anse’s selfishness is summed up beautifully by the following conversation with the doctor:
“Dont you lie there and try to tell me you rode six days on a wagon without springs, with a broken leg and it never bothered you.”
“It never bothered me much,” he said.
“You mean, it never bothered Anse much,” I said.  “No more than it bothered him to throw that poor devil down in the public street and handcuff him like a damn murderer [his son Jewel]. Dont tell me.  And dont tell me it aint going to bother you to lose sixty-odd square inches of skin to get that concrete off.  And dont tell me it aint going to bother you to have to limp around on one short leg for the balance of your life -- if you walk at all.  Concrete,” I said.  “God Almighty, why didn’t Anse carry you to the nearest sawmill and stick your leg in the saw?  That would have cured it.  Then you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole family” (240)

            To add insult to injury, while his son is finally having the doctor tend to his leg, Anse is off getting his false teeth and rounding up his new bride whom he brings to the wagon and introduces to his family without shame or guile.  In actuality, it is the Bundren’s shamelessness and spiritual bankruptcy that alienates them from their community as well as each other.

            It is interesting to note that in the five Faulker novels under discussion here, Dilsey and Mrs. Burden from “A Light in August” are the only females who exhibit true Christian charity.   Mrs. Burden, through her selfless dedication to higher education for African Americans, and Dilsey, who treats Benjy with genuine love and concern. The other characters in these works, who profess to be Christian are, in actuality, hypocrites, motivated by selfishness (i.e., Mr. Burch’s generosity towards Lena is motivated by his desire for her). 

            Along the same lines, Sam Fathers, the “son of a negro slave and a Chickasaw chief” (197) in “The Bear” is the only male character in Faulkner’s works under discussion here, who is a true partiarchial figure even though he is childless.  Sam acts as a father figure to the young boy in the story who admits that “Sam Fathers had been his mentor” (201).   In addition, Sam’s beliefs about being in harmony with nature and wildlife influences Isaac McCaslin, who refuses to take over the family estate that he has inherited because he knows the land was stolen from the Indians and he has too much respect for the land than to try and possess it. 

            Furthermore, spiritual leaders, as well as those who profess to be devout christians in Faulkers works have serious deficits in their characters.  To name a few: Reverend Whitfield had an affair with Addie Bundren in “As I Lay Dying” and presided over her funeral.  Reverend Hightower, in “A Light in August” gets ex-communicated from his own church because he cannot handle his promiscuous wife, who was driven off the deep by his obsession with the past.  Joe Christmas’ grandfather is so fanatical and self rightous about his biblical belief in white superiority that he goes into Negro churches uninvited to espouse his beliefs.  Rosa Coldfield in “Absalom, Absalom,” although a professed Christian, has no Christian charity and manages to live up to her last name by being “cold.”  And Simon McEacheren, Joe Christmas’ adoptive father, is a self rightous bible thumping hypocrite who would just as soon beat Joe as to look at him, and fails to show even an ounce of love, compassion or warmth towards his son. 

            Faulkner posesses a unique ability to present dysfunctional and alienated characters from unique and unbiased perspectives, permitting the reader to empathize with otherwise unremarkable or unappealing social outcasts -- people that the marjority of society would ordinarily feel no connection with, let alone compassion for.  By Faulkner expertly revealing the history and incidents that shaped their personalities, the reader comes to understand the psychological and sociological factors that contributed to the alienation that ultimately lead to acts of depravity.

 


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