William Faulkner (1897-1962)
Contributing Editor: John Lowe
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students are resistant to texts that withhold key information, to narrative
that is obscure and/or convoluted, and to characters who don't seem to
have "common sense." All of these "sins" appear in
Faulkner's work. He also requires a knowledge of southern and American
history that many students don't possess.
Begin by emphasizing the pleasures to be gained from unraveling Faulkner's
mysteries. Especially focus on his parallels to and differences from the
popular myths of southern culture, as found in Gone With the Wind
North and South
, and popular television series set in the South.
Approach his works as though they were detective stories (some of them,
in fact, are). Do brief presentations of relevant historical materials.
Locate the text's place in Faulkner's career, drawing parallels between
the character's concerns and the way those issues touched Faulkner as well.
Explain how Faulkner explored and exploded stereotypes, of southerners,
African-Americans, and women.
Teachers should be prepared to answer typical questions: Students want
to know if he "really thought of all those things when he was writing,"
referring to the hidden references we uncover in symbolism, imagery, and
so on. They ask if his family owned slaves and how Faulkner felt about
it if they did. Some students want to know if I think Faulkner was a racist
and/or a sexist.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Highlight Faulkner's tremendous importance as an interpreter of history--and
not just southern or American history--at a critical moment when modernism
emerged as a questioning, probing tool used to redefine human nature and
our relationship to nature. Issues of sex, class, and above all, race,
should be explored using a battery of interdisciplinary techniques, including
historical, social, anthropological, economic, political, and feminist
perspectives. "Barn Burning" has been profitably analyzed by
Marxist critics as a class struggle; "A Rose for Emily" offers
a perfect laboratory for testing reader-response theory.
Gender formation operates centrally in both these stories, centering
on the masculine in "Barn Burning," and the feminine in "Emily."
Interestingly, each of these processes intersects with issues of class
and community. These conjunctions could and should be profitably explored,
and linked to the way Faulkner struggled with them in his own life. "Barn
Burning" also relates thematically to the bildungsroman
stories of rural life, while "Emily" works within the tradition
of stories and novels that deal with the possibilities and restrictions
of small-town life. Thematically, A Rose for Emily
may also be considered
a tragic love story in the naturalist mode (there are strong links to Madame
, for instance), a detective story, a "thriller," and
a typical O'Henry story with surprise endings. Both stories employ mythic/biblical
structures in the service of these various thematics; students should be
asked to identify them and demonstrate why they are effective.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Faulkner needs to be understood in both the context of southern literary
traditions and modernism. "Emily" interbraids a meandering, typically
southern mode of narration, replete with communal bias and obfuscation,
with a modernist sense of rupture, scrambled chronology, and Freudian subtext.
"Barn Burning," in its employment of Jamesian point of view as
confined to Sarty's consciousness, requires detailed analysis of its narrative
structure, its language, and the consequent effects on the reader. Both
stories attempt to present complicated psychological conditions and situations
while adhering to the firm realities of dramatic plotting.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Faulkner needs to be related to the other great modernists who so influenced
him, especially Joyce and Eliot
and his work should and could be profitably compared and contrasted to
the similar but sometimes very different literary experiments of Hemingway
, and so on.
"Barn Burning" can easily be contrasted to Huckleberry Finn
where a young boy must abandon his father's standards in favor of more
humane, just ones, or to a female bildungsroman
such as Wharton's
. The injustices of sharecropping discussed by Faulkner could
be examined alongside other treatments of rural life such as Hamlin
"Under the Lion's Paw" or Richard Wright's "Long
Black Song" and "The Man Who Was Almost a Man"; the latter
similarly focuses on a young boy's coming of age against a rural backdrop.
could be helpful
in explaining the interconnections between the bildungsroman
"Emily" needs to be read as part of the American gothic tradition,
alongside works by Brockden
. But it
also belongs with the literature of madness and psychological stunting
so prominent in the work of Charlotte
("The Yellow Wall-Paper"), many of the poems
own novel, As I Lay Dying
, and the poetry of Sylvia
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. How does one establish individual independence as a teenager? Do
you remember any crucial moment in your own life when you realized that
you had to make a choice between what your parent(s) and/or family believed
and your own values?
2. Is the destruction of another person's property ever something we
can justify? Explain.
3. Does it matter that this story is rendered through Sarty's consciousness?
What were Faulkner's options, and how would the story be different if he
had exercised them?
4. What are the key symbols in the story, and how do they serve the
thematic purposes Faulkner had in mind?
5. Do the class issues the story raises have any parallels today?
6. What is the tone of the story and how is it established?
"A Rose for Emily"
1. Discuss the ways in which Faulkner uses Miss Emily's house as an
appropriate setting and as a metaphor for both her and the themes established
by the narrative.
2. What are the different uses of the themes of "love," "honor,"
and "respectability" in the story?
3. Why does Faulkner use this particular narrator? What do you know
about him? Can you list his "values," and if so, are they shared
by the town? Is this narrator reliable? Does the fact he is male matter?
4. Many critics have read Miss Emily as a symbol of the post-Civil-War
South. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages
of adopting this
5. Those of you who have read Charles Dickens's Great Expectations
will see a resemblance. How does Faulkner's tale echo but also differ significantly
6. How does this story handle the linked themes of female oppression
and empowerment? What does it say about the various kinds of male-female
relationships in American society of this period?
I never arbitrarily assign students a particular story to write on;
instead, I urge them to choose one they particularly like. They are then
to ask themselves exactly why
they like it, which will lead them
to a topic (the humor employed, a certain character or method of characterization,
a fascination with the depiction of the historical period on display, and
Bradford, M. E. "Family and Community in Faulkner's 'Barn Burning.'"
17 (1981): 332-39.
Fowler, Virginia C. "Faulkner's 'Barn Burning': Sarty's Conflict
Reconsidered." College Language Association Journal
Franklin, Phyllis. "Sarty Snopes and 'Barn Burning.'" Mississippi
21 (1968): 189-93.
Hiles, Jane. "Kinship and Heredity in Faulkner's 'Barn Burning.'"
38, 3 (1985): 329-37.
Volpe, Edmond L. " 'Barn Burning': A Definition of Evil."
Faulkner: The Unappeased Imagination: A Collection of Critical Essays
edited by O. Carey, 75-82. Troy, NY: Whitson, 1980.
"A Rose for Emily"
Allen, Dennis W. "Horror and Perverse Delight: Faulkner's 'A Rose
for Emily.'" Modern Fiction Studies
30, 4 (1984): 685-96.
Brown, Suzanne Hunter. "Appendix A: Reframing Stories." Short
Story Theory at a Crossroad
, edited by Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Inge, M. Thomas, ed. William Faulkner: A Rose for Emily
Merrill Literary Casebook Series. Columbus: Charles E. Merrill, 1970.
Both stories are treated in Hans Skei's William Faulkner: The Short
Story Career: An Outline of Faulkner's Short Story Writing from 1919 to
. Oslo: University Forl, 1981, and James Ferguson's Faulkner's
. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. See
also Faulkner and the Short Story: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha
Ed. Ann Abadie and Doreen Fowler. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi,