As I Lay Trying: How to read William Faulkner

William Faulkner
William Faulkner's classic, "The Sound and the Fury," was published in 1929. It has perplexed readers ever since.
Faulkner: Hulton Archive / Getty Images | Cover: Courtesy of Vintage

Baffling. Brilliant. Confusing. Complex.

Those words are often tossed around (or screamed in frustration) when discussing William Faulkner, the influential Southern writer with a dense style all his own. Novels like "Absalom, Absalom!" and "The Sound and the Fury," have entranced and befuddled readers for decades.

So what's the key to cracking the mystery of Faulkner?

This year, MPR News host Kerri Miller resolved to read — and finish — a Faulkner novel, after giving up on "The Sound and the Fury" back in college. Christopher Rieger, director of the Center for Faulkner Studies at Southeast Missouri State University, offered some tips for processing the complex prose.

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"Most Faulkner readers, even those of us who have made a career of studying, teaching and writing about Faulkner, can still recall our initial experiences of anxiety, bafflement and downright frustration upon first reading a Faulkner text," Rieger writes. "Believe me, when it comes to finding Faulkner difficult, we've all been there."

Advice for reading William Faulkner, from Christopher Rieger

Advice for reading William Faulkner
Pencil in some time on your reading calendar: Faulkner is a full commitment.
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Be patient

Think of a Faulkner text as a suspense or mystery story — but with you the reader, instead of a character, as the detective. Or think of the text as the slow unfolding of a jury trial with yourself as a juror, sitting in court listening to and sifting through the varying and sometimes contradictory testimonies of a parade of witnesses, knowing that finally you'll have to make up your own mind about what actually happened and who is and is not telling the truth. Be willing to suspend the need for instant gratification: Learn to appreciate and enjoy delayed revelations and a gradual unfolding of plot, characterization and theme.

Or, better yet, think of Faulkner's novels as symphonic in structure. And just as a symphony moves from section to section, presenting varying moods and impressions, altering speeds and rhythms, at times introducing leitmotifs — melodic phrases that are associated with an idea, person or situation — and themes that will be developed more fully later on, at other times looping backward to recapitulate earlier themes, but always advancing toward a final resolution, so too does the Faulkner novel employ shifting tones and impressions, hints and foreshadowings, repetitions and recapitulations, time shifts looping backward and forward, all consciously intended to shape the story not so much on the pages of the book but in the reader's mind and imagination.

Since, in many respects, Faulkner's stories are more about impressions than events or facts ("I don't care much for facts," he said), the way to read a Faulkner novel, at least the first time, is to immerse yourself in the rich and powerful language. Lose yourself in its sounds and rhythms, delight in the detailed descriptions and the images, enjoy the voices of the characters — and wait, ignoring for the time being what happened before or what's going to happen next. Like an unfocused image on the screen, the Faulkner text typically appears all a blur for quite some time, but then Faulkner will begin gradually to turn the focus knob, bringing the story and its characters and meaning into sharper and sharper — though never absolute — focus.

Advice for reading William Faulkner
Be prepared to read, re-read and re-read again.
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Be willing to re-read

An interviewer once said to Faulkner, "Some people say they can't understand your writing, even after they've read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?"

Faulkner replied, "Read it four times." He was not altogether joking.

It is now an accepted axiom that one cannot read high modernist texts from authors like James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Faulkner: We can only re-read them. But why should that be a problem?

All great literature deserves multiple readings, and with each new reading we discover things in the text that we had not seen or properly appreciated before. Lionel Trilling once observed that everyone should read "Huckleberry Finn" at least three times — once when we are young, once when we are middle-aged and once when we are old. Most experienced readers agree with this sentiment in principle, yet many of us still persist in our desire (naive though it may be) that a literary text reveal itself clearly and completely upon a first reading.

Interestingly, and ironically, literature seems to be the only art form that we feel this way about, the only one we are reluctant to revisit, even believing that the need to do so represents some kind of failure of the author. We don't, of course, adopt this attitude toward painting or architecture or music or dance. We don't, for example, choose to look at a painting or a work of sculpture just once: Rather, we purchase it and exhibit in a convenient place and return to it time and time again, appreciating it all the more with the re-viewings. Similarly, we like to hear good music or view an outstanding dance performance over and over again, never tiring of their familiarity. So it should also be with our reading of books, especially the great ones.

Still, even accepting this point, one must concede that Faulkner remains a special case. Whereas all great writers deserve a second reading, Faulkner requires it. Nevertheless, as legions of his admirers from all around the world testify, he's worth it. Reading Faulkner is indeed a challenge, but the rewards found in re-reading him far exceed the effort.

Advice for reading William Faulkner
Decades after writing his books, Faulkner remembered his characters more fully than his plot lines.
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Focus on the characters

Faulkner placed the emphasis in his fiction not upon technique or style or plot or theme, but upon his characters. His principal aim as a writer, he said, was "to create flesh-and-blood people that will stand up and cast a shadow." In his later years, he said of his earlier work: "I remember the people, but I can't remember what story they're in nor always what they did. I have to go back and look at it to unravel what the person was doing. I remember the character, though."

His response to the works of other writers was similarly based: "I think not of writers but of the characters," he said. "I remember the characters they wrote about without being able to remember always just who wrote the piece."

Since for Faulkner himself the heart of his fiction is his characters, and since no other writer, with the possible exception of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, has created such a wide range of fascinating and memorable characters, a good way to approach Faulkner's fiction is to engage his characters. Who are they? What do they do and think? Are they tragic or comic or pathetic or ridiculous, significant or insignificant? Why do they think and behave the way they do? In the language of our popular parlance, what makes them tick?

In this connection it is helpful to recall that the writers of Faulkner's generation came of age during the years when psychology was being established as a serious science. During Faulkner's youth and early manhood, Freud was all the rage, and numerous writers were incorporating Freudian notions of human personality and behavior into their stories. The interactions of the conscious and unconscious mind, the influence of childhood experiences upon adult actions, the relation of self to others (and our other selves), the nature and causes of health and neurosis — all of these issues were explored not only by Freud and his disciples but also by the leading fictionists of the period. And none of these writers explore these matters better than Faulkner.

Think of the detailed psychiatric case studies that could be (indeed, have been) compiled on Addie or Darl or Jewel Bundren from "As I Lay Dying," on Caddy or Quentin or Jason Compson in "The Sound and the Fury," on Joe Christmas or Joanna Burden or Gail Hightower in "Light in August" or dozens of other Faulkner characters. It's a fascinating game that any reader can play, and Faulkner invites us all to do so.

Advice for reading William Faulkner
Faulkner is a product of his era — for better and worse.
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Identify the historical context of the work

Some contemporary readers find Faulkner's texts objectionable because they include expressions and characterizations that today are considered racially or gender-biased. There can be no denying that, by today's standards, Faulkner's views on race and gender — as well as government and economics and several other topics — are quite conservative; but there is equally no denying that, in his time and place as a white Southerner, he was considerably ahead of most of his contemporaries, even "liberal" — indeed, far too liberal for many of his family and close friends. It would be a shame if we declined to read Shakespeare because we find him to be antidemocratic, and it would be equally our great loss if we reject Faulkner because his books contain language and opinions that today are, rightfully, considered inappropriate.

Faulkner is among the most historical of novelists. He held true to the notion, as expressed by the character Gavin Stevens in Faulkner's "Requiem for a Nun," that "the past is never dead; it's not even past." Faulkner was keenly aware of this fact because he was born and raised in the American South, a section of our nation terribly haunted by its past, particularly the tragic events and aftereffects of slavery and the Civil War and more generally the broader issues of race, class, gender and ecology. Some of Faulkner's characters, like some Southerners, manage to break out of the tragic patterns of their region. Others do not. His books may be taken as a dialogue — frequently a debate — between the two types, as well as those caught in the middle.

Advice for reading William Faulkner
If you look, you'll find familiar storylines in William Faulkner's works.
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Look for the timeless tales

While Faulkner is in many respects a quintessential Southern writer, he is not merely a Southern writer. He's much bigger, and better, than that. As he once wrote to his publisher Malcolm Cowley, "I'm inclined to think that my material, the South, is not very important to me."

Faulkner went on to explain that his ultimate interest was in universals, in the "familiar old, old story of the human heart in conflict with itself," in "the ageless, eternal struggles, which we inherit and we go through as though they'd never happened before." Of course, in Faulkner's view, they had happened before, and would happen again.

To elevate his stories above the regional setting of the American South and into the realm of universal human experience, Faulkner, like other writers of his generation, employed a narrative strategy that T. S. Eliot identified as "the mythical method," which, as Eliot explained, establishes a parallel between a contemporary story and an old, familiar myth or narrative.

The most famous example of the technique — the one cited by Eliot in his definitive essay on the practice — is James Joyce's "Ulysses," which ironically places the actions of Leopold Bloom, in Dublin in 1904, within the framework of the heroic deeds of Ulysses, the legendary warrior in Homer's "The Odyssey." Other well-known uses of the mythical method can be found in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," which connects the westward migration of the Okies during the 1930s to the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt. That this way of telling a story has continued beyond Faulkner's generation is demonstrated, for example, by Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," a modernization of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" — itself based in part on Dante's "Inferno."

Faulkner's fondness for incorporating older myths and narratives into his stories is evident in his use and reuse of the initiation and journey motifs; biblical materials, particularly the Eden and Christ stories; and Shakespearean allusions. Like other practitioners of the mythical method, Faulkner employs all such retellings and paralleling of previous stories to imply a cyclical view of history and a commonality of human nature and experience. Like the geographical map he drew of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner's map of the human condition begins in Jefferson (the South), but it leads outward to the larger world, "the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."

Advice for reading William Faulkner
There are no easy answers with Faulkner.
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Be content with ambiguity and uncertainty

Easily deduced answers and closure are clearly not what Faulkner's novels are all about. Indeed, like other literary modernists of the early 20th century, Faulkner launched a frontal attack upon the traditional notion of a "well-made novel." Such a novel was characterized by its straightforward chronology (beginning, middle, end), its neatly plotted and unified action, its simple and often shallow characterizations, all presented by an omniscient author who not only narrated the story but interpreted it for the passive, submissive reader who had little need, or even desire, to engage the story in an active manner.

This last point provides a major key to understanding Faulkner's narrative technique and purpose. He wants (and therefore requires) the reader to become a partner with the author in the creative endeavor — not only interpreting the story for his or herself but also ordering the story by arranging and piecing together the separate strands and fragments. The technique, Faulkner said, may be compared to 13 different ways of looking at a blackbird — referring to a poem by Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" — and Faulkner added that he expected the reader to come up with his or her own "14th view."

While on the surface these Faulknerian uncertainties and ambiguities might seem just another aspect of his difficulty, in actuality they represent one of the strongest and most positive features of his work. It was noted previously that Faulkner prizes active, not passive, readers. And what a compliment Faulkner's novels pay to energetic, intelligent, enthusiastic readers! "Join me as a partner in creativity," he says. "Help me discover and order and understand the story. Think of these characters and actions what you will. Interpret the story for yourself. Write your own ending." Readers are artists, too, you know.