About the Author
William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897. His family was rooted in local history: his great-grandfather, a Confederate colonel and state politician, was assassinated by a former partner in 1889, and his grandfather was a wealth lawyer who owned a railroad. When Faulkner was five his parents moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where he received a desultory education in local schools, dropping out of high school in 1915. Rejected for pilot training
in the U.S. Army, he passed himself off as British and joined the Canadian Royal Air Force in 1918, but the war ended before he saw any service. After the war, he took some classes at the University of Mississippi and worked for a time at the university post office. Mostly, however, he educated himself by reading promiscuously.
Faulkner had begun writing poems when he was a schoolboy, and in 1924 he published a poetry collection, The Marble Faun, at his own expense. His literary aspirations were fueled by his close friendship with Sherwood Anderson, whom he met during a stay in New Orleans. Faulkner's first novel, Soldier's Pay, was published in 1926, followed a year later by Mosquitoes, a literary satire. His next book, Flags in the Dust, was heavily cut and rearranged at the publisher's insistence and appeared finally as Sartoris in 1929. In the meantime he had completed The Sound and the Fury, and when it appeared at the end of 1929 he had finished Sanctuary and was ready to begin writing As I Lay Dying. That same year he married Estelle Oldham, whom he had courted a decade earlier.
Although Faulkner gained literary acclaim from these and subsequent novels—Light in August (1932), Pylon (1935), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), The Unvanquished (1938), The Wild Palms (1939), The Hamlet (1940), and Go Down, Moses (1942)—and continued to publish stories regularly in magazines, he was unable to support himself solely by writing fiction. he worked as a screenwriter for MGM, Twentieth Century-Fox, and Warner Brothers, forming a close relationship with director Howard Hawks, with whom he worked on To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Land of the Pharaohs, among other films. In 1944 all but one of Faulkner's novels were out of print, and his personal life was at low ebb due in part to his chronic heavy drinking. During the war he had been discovered by Sartre and Camus and others in the French literary world. In the postwar period his reputation rebounded, as Malcolm Cowley's anthology The Portable Faulkner brought him fresh attention in America, and the immense esteem in which he was held in Europe consolidated his worldwide stature.
Faulkner wrote seventeen books set in the mythical Yoknapatawpha County, home of the Compson family in The Sound and the Fury. "No land in all fiction lives more vividly in its physical presence than this county of Faulkner's imagination," Robert Penn Warren wrote in an essay on Cowley's anthology. "The descendants of the old families, the descendants of bushwhackers and carpetbaggers, the swamp rats, the Negro cooks and farm hands, the bootleggers and gangsters, tenant farmers, college boys, county-seat lawyers, country storekeepers, peddlers—all are here in their fullness of life and their complicated interrelations." In 1950, Faulkner traveled to Sweden to accept the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature. In later books—Intruder in the Dust (1948), Requiem for a Nun (1951), A Fable (1954), The Town (1957), The Mansion (1959), and The Reivers (1962)—he continued to explore what he had called "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself," but did so in the context of Yoknapatawpha's increasing connection with the modern world. He died of a heart attack on July 6, 1962.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of three of William Faulkner's greatest novels: The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom! We hope that they will provide you with new ways of thinking and talking about three works that stand as major landmarks in the history of modern American literature, works that exemplify Faulkner's bold stylistic and formal innovations, his creation of unforgettably powerful voices and characters, and his brilliant insight into the psychological, economic, and social realities of life in the South in the transition from the Civil War to the modern era. In their intellectual and aesthetic richness, these novels raise nearly endless possibilities for discussion. The questions below will necessarily be limited and are meant to open several, but certainly not all, areas of inquiry for your reading group.
1. Which are the most intelligent and sympathetic voices in the novel? With whom do you most and least identify? Is Faulkner controlling your closeness to some characters and not others? How is this done, given the seemingly equal mode of presentation for all voices?
2. Even the reader of such an unusual book may be surprised to come upon Addie Bundren's narrative on page 169, if only because Addie has been dead since page 48. Why is Addie's narrative placed where it is, and what is the effect of hearing Addie's voice at this point in the book? Is this one of the ways in which Faulkner shows Addie's continued "life" in the minds and hearts of her family? How do the issues raised by Addie here relate to the book as a whole?
3. Faulkner allows certain characters--especially Darl and Vardaman--to express themselves in language and imagery that would be impossible, given their lack of education and experience in the world. Why does he break with the realistic representation of character in this way?
4. What makes Darl different from the other characters? Why is he able to describe Addie's death [p. 48] when he is not present? How is he able to intuit the fact of Dewey Dell's pregnancy? What does this uncanny visionary power mean, particularly in the context of what happens to Darl at the end of the novel? Darl has fought in World War I; why do you think Faulkner has chosen to include this information about him? What are the sources and meaning of his madness?
5. Anse Bundren is surely one of the most feckless characters in literature, yet he alone thrives in the midst of disaster. How does he manage to command the obedience and cooperation of his children? Why are other people so generous with him? He gets his new teeth at the end of the novel and he also gets a new wife. What is the secret of Anse's charm? How did he manage to make Addie marry him, when she is clearly more intelligent than he is?
6. Some critics have spoken of Cash as the novel's most gentle character, while others have felt that he is too rigid, too narrow-minded, to be
sympathetic. What does Cash's list of the thirteen reasons for beveling the edges of the coffin tell us about him? What does it tell us about his feeling for his mother? Does Cash's carefully reasoned response to Darl's imprisonment seem fair to you, or is it a betrayal of his brother?
7. Jewel is the result of Addie's affair with the evangelical preacher Whitfield (an aspect of the plot that bears comparison with Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter). When we read Whitfield's section, we realize that Addie has again allied herself with a man who is not her equal. How would you characterize the preacher? What is the meaning of this passionate alliance, now repudiated by Whitfield? Does Jewel know who his father is?
8. What is your response to the section spoken by Vardaman, which states simply, "My mother is a fish"? What sort of psychological state or process does this declaration indicate? What are some of the ways in which Vardaman insists on keeping his mother alive, even as he struggles to understand that she is dead? In what other ways does the novel show characters wrestling with ideas of identity and embodiment?
9. This is a novel full of acts of love, not the least of which is the prolonged search in the river for Cash's tools. Consider some of the other
ways that love is expressed among the members of the family. What compels loyalty in this family? What are the ways in which that loyalty is betrayed? Which characters are most self-interested?
10. The saga of the Bundren family is participated in, and reflected upon, by many other characters. What does the involvement of Doctor Peabody, of Armstid, and of Cora and Vernon Tull say about the importance of community in country life? Are the characters in the town meant to provide a contrast with country people?
11. Does Faulkner deliberately make humor and the grotesque interdependent in this novel? What is the effect of such horrific details as Vardaman's accidental drilling of holes in his dead mother's face? Of Darl and Vardaman listening to the decaying body of Addie "speaking"? Of Vardaman's anxiety about the growing number of buzzards trying to get at the coffin? Of Cash's bloody broken leg, set in concrete and suppurating in the heat? Of Jewel's burnt flesh? Of the "cure" that Dewey Dell is tricked into?
12. In one of the novel's central passages, Addie meditates upon the distance between words and actions: "I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words" [pp. 173-74]. What light does this passage shed upon the meaning of the novel? Aren't words necessary in order to give form to the story of the Bundrens? Or is Faulkner saying that words--his own chosen medium--are inadequate?
13. What does the novel reveal about the ways in which human beings deal with death, grieving, and letting go of our loved ones?