First Faulkner Lecture

I spent the class doing something that would have been unimaginable in the nineteenth century, where novels were considered popular forms & where readers expected to be able to read & understand & enjoy a novel without much work. I spent the class going over the "story" that lies behind the text of The Sound and the Fury, so that first-time readers could orient themselves inside all the shifts & ellipses & confusions of (especially) Benjy's and Quentin's sections. I tried to make it clear, though, that you shouldn't try to separate Faulkner's novel from the experience of reading it, including the experience of disorientation & confusion, and that the intellectual act of "solving" the novel by figuring out how it all connects up, what the various parts refer to, etc., that this cerebral experience only accounts for a part of the novel's great claim on our attention. I asked the class to read it because it's such an intricately patterned, demanding, complex Modernist masterpiece. But it's also my favorite WF novel in large part because it's so emotionally moving. Modernism's aesthetic of difficulty was in some ways an attempt to exorcise or defend against what the Modernist generation perceived as the Victorian era's excess & dangerous sentimentality, but finally The Sound and the Fury is a painful, heart-rending emotional experience too.

I went through the story chronologically, starting with 1890-1895, when the four Compson children, the "lost generation" WF is writing about, were born, & ending in Easter weekend, 1928, when three of the four sections take place. You can see the chronology I put together for the class on this page. Instead of going over that here, I'll take advantage of the resources of the Web in a way I haven't all semester and just give those of you who want more help (or who missed class) a link to the synopsis of The Sound and the Fury available at the Univ. of Mississipppi's site called "William Faulkner on the Web." It's a good site; there's a link to its homepage on the Faulkner homepage off our syllabus. But by clicking here, you'll go right to the synopsis of the novel. They've done it section by section, rather than chronologically, but I think reading their account will help as least as much as my lecture did to give you a way to go back through Benjy's and Quentin's sections and see more clearly what's going on, so you can also begin to think more about what it all means. Three warnings: don't read any of these synopses before you've read the section! You don't want to deprive yourself of the experience of reading the novel. And: you shouldn't simply accept the way the U.Miss. site (like most published criticism on the novel) treats the members of Dilsey's family -- Versh, T.P, and Luster -- as simply a way to keep track of what is happening to the Compson family. We'll talk more about this later -- about the place blacks occupy, in the society WF is writing about, and in the novel he's writing -- but you should notice what is being assumed about the black characters in the way the novel is summarized. And third: to me reading the novel is a great reading experience, if you let yourself feel these characters lives. Don't be ashamed to read with your heart as well as your head.


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