Faulkner and Social Change
20 November 2018
Time, Stagnation, and Evolution in Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury and Light in August
The works of William Faulkner have bewildered, amazed, and infuriated readers since the dawn of his literary fame in the 1930s, ultimately providing him the reputation as one of the most difficult writers in the English language. Nevertheless, though the layered complexity of his major efforts defies total comprehension, an understanding of his use of time acts as a key to unlocking the clarity and beauty of his prose. The nature of time permeates his writing, and lies at the heart of his boldest stylistic techniques, giving his novels their disorienting effect. Perhaps his sole interest that eclipsed time in significance, however, was his ceaseless fascination with his native American South. More often than not, these two major themes are intertwined, as Faulker uses his understanding of time as a mechanism to critique his homeland, and in turn, America at large. By examining some of the major characters in Light in August and The Sound and the Fury, it’s possible to see both Faulkner’s broad critique of The South’s cultural inertia and the ways in which a group’s relationship with time can hinder or catalyze progressive social change.
Before going directly into the works, its crucial to define and discuss time as it’s understood by Faulkner. In his article “Shapes of Time and Consciousness in As I Lay Dying”, critic Stephen M. Ross provides an excellent distillation of Faulkner’s conception of time and how it manifests itself in his narrative techniques. As pointed out by Ross, the most direct parallel of the author’s view of time is the theory proposed by fellow Nobel Prize winner Henri Bergson, which suggests that time is pure duration, rather than being mechanical and linear. When asked about it in an interview with Loic Bouvard, Faulkner himself stated, “I agree pretty much… with Bergson’s theory of the fluidity of time. There is only the present moment, in which I include both the past and the future, and that is eternity” (Faulkner, 39). Ross argues that this is the guiding idea for the chronological progression of As I Lay Dying, but his argument is clearly applicable to Faulkner’s other works from the period. Regarding time as pure duration, he writes, “Duration is the temporal dimension all experience has, but this dimension cannot always be represented as linear progression, for time is not always felt as a sequence; time, like other dimensions of our awareness, varies infinitely, and intertwines itself with all other qualities of experience—with gradations in emotional intensity, with our sense of proximity or detachment, with our sense of stasis or change” (Ross, 40).
Though such a view of time is intriguing in its own right, the way in which it is reflected in Faulkner’s narrative style, and in turn content, is what makes it a truly indispensable aspect of his work. Wher...