From Richard Gray's History of American Literature:
During the 1920s and 1930s Dos Passos aligned himself politically with the left. He became disillusioned with communism, however, and broke completely with his left-wing friends and allies at the time of the Spanish Civil War. His later fiction, such as the trilogy District of Columbia (1939-1949) and the novel Midcentury (1961), continue his stylistic innovations but show an increasingly conservative political stance. He was always, first and last, an individualist concerned with the threat to the individual posed first, as he saw it, by capitalism and then, in his later work, by communism. To that extent, he belonged in the American Atlantic tradition, with its commitment to the primacy of the individual, the supreme importance of the single, separate self.
Consistently, Ernest Hemingway (1898-1961) belonged to that tradition too. For Hemingway, as for many earlier American writers—Thoreau, for instance, Cooper and Twain—the essential condition of life is solitary, and the interesting, the only really serious business, is the management of that solitude. In this respect, the first story, "Indian Camp," in his first book, In Our Time (1925), is exemplary. Young Nick Adams, the protagonist, witnesses a birth and a death. The birth is exceptionally agonizing, with the mother, an Indian woman, being cut open by Nick's father and being sewn up with a fishing line. And the death too is peculiarly awful, the husband in the bunk above, listening to the woman in her agony, and cutting his throat. "Why did he koll himself, Daddy?" Nick asks. "I don't know, Nick." comes the reply. "He couldn't stand things, I guess." Although this is the only significant, foreground suicide in Hemingway's fiction, the terms have been set. "Things" will remain to the last hurtful and horrible, to be stood with as much dignity and courage as possible. For the moment, though, these things of horror are too much for Nick to dewell on. He must bury them far down in his mind and rest secure in the shelter of the father. "In the early morning on the lake sittting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing," the story concludes, "he felt quite sure that he would never die."
Such are the good times of boyhood in Hemingway,; not mother and home but out in the open with father, recreating a frontier idyll. So, in the second story in In Our Time, to escape his wife's nervous chatter, Nick's father goes out for a walk. "I want to go with you," Nick declares; "all right," his father responds, "come on, then." Soon, when Nick is older, in the later stories, "The End of Something" and "The Three-Day Blow," father will be replaced as companion by his friend Bill. But only the counters have altered, not the game. As the title of his second collection of stories, Men Without Women (1927), plainly indicates, the best times of all, because the least complicated, least hurtful, and most inwardly peaceful, are had by men or boys together, preferably in some wide space of land or sea, away from the noise, pace, and excitement of cities: Jake Barnes, the hero of The Sun Also Rises (1926) fishing with his companions Bill Gorton and Harris; Thomas Hudson and his three sons in Islands in the Stream (1970); and from In Our Time, in "Cross-Country Snow," Nick and his friend George skiing in Switzerland one last time before Nick commits himself to the trap of marriage and fatherhood. "Once a man's married, he's absolutely bitched," is Bill's drunken wisdom in "The Three-Day Blow": bitched by responsibilities, by domesticity, but above all by the pain locked in with a love that, one way or another, may easily be broken or lost. And a man's world, although safe from certain kinds of anxiety or threat, is for Hemingway only relatively so. A man wil lose his wife but he will also lose his father, not just in death but in disillusionment. Near the end of In Our Time, an exemplary father dies, not Nick's but the jockey, "My Old Man," with whom, around the race-courses of France and Italy, the young narrator has had a perfect time out, with no mother or woman in sight. When his father falls in a steeplechase and is killed, the son is left to bear not only his grief but also the discovery that his father had been crooked. It is more than a life that has been lost. As he overhears the name of his father being besmirched, it seems to the boy "like when they get started, they don't leave a guy nothing."
"It was all a nothing," observes the lonely protagonist of "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" (Winner Take Nothing (1933)), "and man was a nothing too." In the face of palpable nothing, meaninglessness, there are, finally, only the imperatives of conduct and communion with one's own solitariness. "I did not care what it was all about," Jake confides in The Sun Also Rises. "All I wanted to know was how to live in it." One way to "live in it," in some of Hemingway's novels, has a political slant. To Have and Have Not (1937) is an emphatic protest against corruption, political hypocrisy, and the immorality of gross inequality. For Whom the Bell Tolls (1941) commemorates three days of a guerilla action in the Spanish Civil War and ceelbrates the Republican fight against fascism. "Is suppose I am an anarchist," Hemingway had written to Dos Passos in 1932; and the novel, like To Have and Have Not, shows a lonely individualist fighting while he can, not for a political program, but for the simple humanist principles of justice and, above all, liberty. But a more fundamental way to "live in it" is to live alone. In "Big Two-Hearted River," the story that concludes In Our Time, Nick starts out from the site of a burned-out town in Michigan. "There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country," the reader is told. "Even the surface had been burned off the ground." The disaster that has annihilated the town aptly crowns the world of violence and slaughter revealed in the vignettes that have interleaved the stories of In Our Time. For Hemingway, wounded in World War I, life was war, nasty, brutal, and arbitrary; and that is a lesson Nick has now learned. Putting this stuff of nightmares behind him, Nick heads away from the road for the woods ande the river. Far from other human sounds, he fishes, pitches a tent, builds a fire, prepares himself food and drink. "He was there, in the good place," the reader is told. "He was in his home where he had made it." It is a familiar American moment, this sealing of a solitary compact with nature. It is also a familiar concluding moment in Hemingway's work: a man alone, trying to come to terms with the stark facts of life and death—sometimes the death of a loved one, as in A Farewell to Arms (1929), other times, as in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1938), his own inevitable and imminent dying. And what seals the compact, and confirms the starkness is, always, the pellucid clarity of expression, the stark, simple economy of the terms in which Hemingway's lonely heroes are rendered to us. "A writer's job is to tell the truth," Hemingway observed. And he told that truth in a stuyle that was a verbal equivalent of the grace under pressure shown by his finest protagonists: concrete, contained, cleaving to the hard facts of life, only disclosing its deeper urgencies in its repetitions and repressions—in what its rhythms implied and what it did not say.
Hemingway called this verbal art the art of omission. "You could omit anything if you knew what you omitted," Hemingway reflected in A Movable Feast (1964), his memoir of his years in Paris after World War I; "and the omitted part would strenghten the story and make people feel something more than they undestood." He had begun to develop this art as a newspaperman: the copyroom of the Kansas City Star, where he worked before World War I, was as much his Yale and Harvard as it was for Mark Twain, or the whaling ship was for Herman Melville. "Pure objective writing is the only true form of storytelling," his closest companion on the Star told him. Hemingway never forgot that advice; and he never forgot the importance of his newspaper training to him either. "I was learning to write in those days," he recalled in Death in the Afternoon, "and I found the greatest difficulty . . . was to put down what really happened in action, what the actual things were which produced the emotions that you experienced." The "real thing," Hemingway remembered, "was something I was working very hard to try to get," first in Kansas and then in Paris, where he received encouragement in his pursuit of concrete fact, and an example of how to do it, from Ezra Pound and, even more, Gertrude Stein. The experience of war was also vital here. Like so many of his generation, Hemingway learned from that war not just a distrust but a hatred of abstraction, the high-sounding generalizations used as an excuse, or justification, for mass slaughter. "I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression, in vain," says the protagonist Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms, set, of course, in the Great War: "the things that were glorious had no glory and the stockyards were like the stockyards of Chicago." "There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity." Like Frederic Henry, Hemingway came to feel that "abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene"; the simple words, those that carried the samllest burden of stock attitudes, were the safest ones. What the individual, and the writer, had to respond to were things and experiences themselves, not ideas about them; and the closer he or she stuck to them, the less risk there would be of losing what was truly felt under a mass of evasions and abstractions. The real thing the person or writer must pursue, Hemingway felt, is the truth of the individual, immediate experience and emotion. That truth is discovered by the Hemingway hero—just as it is by Huckleberry Finn—in seeing and responding to things for himself. And it is expressed by Hemingway—just as it is for Huck's creator, Mark Twain—in describing things for oneself, things as they are, not mediated by convention or abstraction. The style, in fact, is a measure of commitment: it is the proper reaction to the world translated into words.
What Hemingway was after, in terms of words and action, is caught in perhaps his most successful novel, The Sun Also Rises, the seminal treatment of the "lost generation" and its disillusionment in the aftermath of World War I. The story is slight. The book describes a few weeks of spring in Paris, during which we watch the hero Jake Barnes living his customary life. He then goes on a fishing trip in Spain and attends a fiesta in Pamplona. Running through this small slice of life is a minimal plot, concerned largely with the relationship between Jake and an Englishwoman, Brett Ashley. Brett is the woman with whom Jake has beeen in love off and on for some time. But when the novel ends, Jake and Brett are exactly where they were at the start. The novel finishes where it began; the characters walk around in a circle, not getting anywhere but just surviving. This is a world full of people with nothing to do and no place, apparently, to go. The characters—typically, for Hemingway, and for many stories of the postwar period—are situated in another country, an alien place; and they seem cut off from all sense of purpose, communal identity, or historical direction. Their common situation is, as one of them succintly puts it, "miserable"—existentially, that is, rather than economically. Few of Hemingway's characters have to worry about where the next meal is coming from; on the contrary, they tend to eat rather well, food being one of the "real things," the basic sensory pleasures of life. They live under constant stress, the pressure of living in a world without meaning, and their challenge is to show grace under that pressure. In a sense, this is a novel of manners: each character is judged according to how clearly he or she sees the truth—and, if they see it, how well or badly they behave.
The first question asked, implicitly, of all the characters in The Sun Also Rises is, is he or she "one of us?" That is the character one of those who have learned to see what their true circumstances are, and what they truly feel. Those who have learned this seem to recognize each other and so constitute a kind of secret society. They are "aficionados" of life because they understand the perils of existence just as the good bullfighter, and the good bullfight spectator, understand the perils of the bullring. Being "one of us," however, is not enough. There is also the question of how you behave. Some behave well, like Jake; some behave badly, sometimes, like Brett Ashley. Some never get the opportunity to behave well or badly because, like the least attractive character in the book, Robert Cohn, they never see what life is really like or know what they truly feel. They never recognize what the rules of the game are, and so they never get to be a player. What the good player in life should do, how he or she should behave, is illustrated in the description of the perfect bullfight, Romero—one of Brett's several lovers—as he confronts the charging bull. "Romero never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line," Jake tells the reader; he never tries to concoct "a faked look of danger." He had "The old thing," Jake concludes, "the holding of his purity of line thorugh a maximum of exposure." Romero confronts "the real thing," the challenge of life with immediately and intuitive simplicty. He responds to things as they are, without posture or pretence, and, in responding this way, he achieves a certain nobility. It is a neat example of how, in Hemingway's work, realism assumes a heroic quality, even an aura of romance. The noblest character is invariably the one who sticks closest to the facts.
That is especially true of Jake Barnes, who holds his purity of line as both the narrator and the protagonist. As narrator, Jake tries to tell us what he truly sees and feels, in a prose that is alert to the particular. As protagonist, Jakes tries for a similar clarity, simplicity, and honesty; and, for the most part, he succeds. What Jake has to see and deal with, above all, is his own impotence. He is incapable of sexual intercourse because of a wound sustained in World War I. This impotence is not a symbol. For Hemingway, life had no meaning independent of immediate experience, so symbolism was impossible for him. It is a fact, an instance of the cruel tricks life plays and the pressures everyone must, somehow and someday, confront. For Jake and Brett, love seeks its natural expression and issue in sex, sensory fulfillment. But this is impossible. And for Jake, as for Hemingway, to the extent that love or any emotion is not felt in sensory terms, translated into concrete experience, it is incomplete, even unreal. This is the trial Jake must face, the fundamental challenge thrown down to him in life: that his love can never be a "real thing," it must remain thwarted, a loss and a waste. Sometimes Jake begins to crack under this pressure. "It is really awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime," he observes, "but at night it is another thing." He finds himself sleepless; and, his mind "jumping around," he even starts quietly to cry. But, fundamentally, Jake weathers the storm. The end of the novel shows that, despite the temptation to pity himself, to dream of what might have been, to indulge in fantasy or fakery, he can see and stand things as they really are. He can be straight and pure and natural in his response to even the worst his life has to offer. Brett invites him to indulge, to escape from truth into daydream: "Oh Jake," she tells him, "We could have had such a damned good time together." His reply is simple, and supplies the last words in The Sun Also Rises: "Yes, isn't it pretty to think so?" It is the perfect response for the Hemingway hero because it is so simple and stoical—so tersely, terribly rejecting the "pretty," the fanciful, and in doing so registering the volcanic feelings that have to be contained in order to prevent mental and moral confusion. Jake is wounded, an exile in a world without pity; but so are all men and women, Hemingway intimates. He is also a hero—just as, potentially, we all are if we have the courage to face things and ourselves. Purity of line is what Jake sticks to, in the face of nothing: he regards it as his job, his duty to tell the truth. So, of course, does Hemingway; and, at his best, he does so; he sees and calls things by their right names.
"I am telling the same story over and over," William Faulkner (1897-1962) admitted once, "which is myself and the world." That remark catches one of the major compulsions in his fiction. Faulkner was prone to interpret any writing, including his own, as a revelation of the writer's secret life, as his or her dark twin. By extension, he was inclined to see that writing as shadowed by the repressed myths, the secret stories of his culture. Repetition was rediscovery, as Faulkner saw it; his was an art, not of omission like Hemingway's, but of reinvention, circling back and circling back again, to the life that had been lived and missed, the emotions that had been felt but not yet understood. Shaped by the oral traditions of the South, which were still alive when he was young, and by the refracted techniques of modernism, to which he was introduced as a young man, Faulkner was drawn to write in a way that was as old as storytelling and, at the time, as new as the cinema and Cubism. It was as if he, and his characters, in T. S. Eliot's famous phrase, had had the experience, but missed the meaning; and telling became an almost obsessive reaction to this, a way of responding to the hope that perhaps by the indirections of the fictive impulse he could find directions out. That the hope was partial was implicit in the activity of telling the story "over and over"; Faulkner, like so many of his protagonists and narrators, kept coming back, and then coming back again, to events that seemed to resist understanding, to brim with undisclosed meaning. There would always be blockage between the commemorating writer and the commemorated experience, as Faulkner's compulsive use of the metaphor of a window indicated: the window on which a name is inscribed, for instance, in Requiem for a Nun (1951), or the window through which Quentin Compson gazes at his native South, as he travels home from Massachusetts, in The Sound and the Fury (1929). Writing, for Faulkner, was consequently described as a transparency and an obstacle, offering communication and discovery to the inquiring gaze of writer and reader but also impeding him, sealing him off from full sensory impact.
"You know," Faulkner said once in one of his typically revelatory asides, "sometimes I think there must be a sort of pollen of ideas floating in the air, which fertilizes similarly minds here and there which have not had direct contact." In his case, that "pollen of ideas" was primarily Southern in origin. He was born, brought up, and spent most of his life in Mississippi; and most of his fiction is set in his apocryphal county of Yoknapatawpha, based on his home county of Lafayette. Not only that, every exploration of identity in his fiction tends to become an exploration of family, community, and culture. "No man is himself," Faulkner insisted. "He is the sum of his past." And, while he was thinking in particular of his own self haunted by his ancestors when he said this, he was also thinking in particular of that interpenetration of past and present that is, perhaps, the dominant theme in Southern society and its cultural forms—and of his own determining conviction that any identity anywhere is indelibly stamped by history. A society, Faulkner believed and said, was "the indigenous dream of any given collection of men having something in common, be it only geography or climate." It was a material institution and also a moral, or immoral, force. "Tell about the South," asks a Canadian character, Shreve, in Absalom, Absalom! (1936). "What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all." In a sense, Faulkner never stopped "telling," since his novels constitute an imaginative recovery of the South, an attempt to know it as a region. Those novels not only tell, however, they show. Much of their power derives from the fact that, in drawing us a map of his imaginary county, Faulkner is also charting a spiritual geography that is, in the first instance, his but could be ours as well. The dreams and obsessions which so startle and fascinate Shreve—with place, with the past, with evil, with the serpentine connections between history and identity—all those are the novelist's, and not just an aspect of described behavior. And as the reader is drawn into the telling, attends to the myriad voices of every story, he or she becomes an active member of the debate. The consequence is that when, for example, Quentin Compson is described in Absalom, Absalom! as "a barracks filled with stubborn backlooking ghosts," each reader feels the description could equally well apply to the story itself, to Faulkner the master storyteller, and to us his apprentices. Each reading of the story is its meaning; each reader is caught up in the rhythm of repetition, the compulsion not only to remember but to reinterpret.
Faulkner began his creative life as a poet and artist. he published poems and drawings in student magazines in his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi; his first book, The Marble Faun (1924), was a collection of verse that showed the influence of an earlier generation of British and French poets, like Swinburne and Mallarmé. His first two novels, Soldier's Pay (1925) and Mosquitoes (1927), are conventional in many ways; the one, a tale of postwar disillusionment; the other, a satirical novel of ideas. Soldier's Pay, written in New Orleans, does, however, anticipate some familiar Faulkner trademarks; the absent center or central figure who is both there and not there (in this case, because he has been traumatized by war), the smalltown setting, the black characters, the present shadowed by the past. And Mosquitoes, set in and around New Orleans, carries traces of its author's obsession with the link, if any, between words and doing, language and experience—and with the question, issuing from that, of whether writing and speech, by their very nature, are doomed to fail. Sartoris (1929), his third novel, is the first to be set in his fictional county of Yoknapatawpha (although it was not given this name until As I Lay Dying (1930)). "Beginning with Sartoris," Faulkner later recalled, "I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about, and that by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top." Sartoris was originally written as Flags in the Dust; it was rejected and only published, under its new title, in an edited version. Any other writer migh have been discouraged by this, to the point of silence. Faulkner, on the contrary, wrote a series of major modernist novels over the next seven years: The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! These were, eventually, to secure his reputation, if not immediately his future. Although highly regarded, by other writers in particular, he was frequently in financial trouble. Selling stories to the magazines like the Saturday Evening Post helped a little; working periodically in Hollywood, where his more notable credits included To Have and Have Not (1945) and The Big Sleep (1946), helped even more. The restoration of Faulkner's reputation, and his financial health, began with the publication of The Portable Faulkner in 1946; it was consolidated by the award of the Nobel Prize in 1950. By this time, Faulkner had produced fiction reflecting his concerns about the mobility and anonymity of modern life (Pylon (1935); The Wild Palms (1939)), and his passionate interest in racial prejudice and racial injustice in the South (Go Down, Moses (1942); Intruder in the Dust (1948)). He had also written The Hamlet (1940), a deeply serious comedy focusing on social transformation in his region. This was to become the first book in a trilogy dealing with the rise to power of a poor white entrepreneur called Flem Snopes, and his eventual fall; the other two were The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959). Generally, the later work betrays an inclination toward a more open, direct address of social and political issues, and a search for some grounds for hope, for the belief that humankind would not only endure but prevail. This was true not only of the later fiction set in Yoknapatawpha, like Requiem for a Nun, but also of his monumental A Fable (1954), set in World War I, which uses the story of Christ to dramatize its message of peace. There is, certainly, a clear continuity between this later work and the earlier. Faulkner, for example, never ceased to be driven by the sense that identity is community and history, that we are who we are because of our place and past. And he never ceased, either, to forge a prose animated by the rhythms of the human voice, talking and telling things obsessively even if only to itself. But there is also change, transformation. It can be summed up by saying that Faulkner gravitated, slowly, away from the private to the public, from the intimacies of the inward vision toward the intensities of the outward. Or, to put it more simply, he turned from modernism to modernity.
"Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished," reflects Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom! Many lives are woven into one life in Faulkner, many texts into one text—a text that seems to be without circumference or closure. Repetition and revision are the norms of consciousness and narrative here. That makes it difficult, even dangerous, to separate the life of one text from the others. The inimitable texture of each individual text, and the translation of the author from modernism to modernity, prevent any one story or novel from acting properly as a mirror, reflective of Faulkner's art as a whole. But some measure of that art, at least, can be taken from the fourth and among the finest of the novels Faulkner produced, The Sound and the Fury; it was the one most intimately related to his own experience ("I am Quentin in The Sound and the Fury, he once admitted), and his personal favorite because it was, he declared, his "most splendid failure." The novel is concerned with the lives and fates of the Compson family, who seem to condense into their experience the entire history of their region. Four generations of Compsons appear; and the most important of these is the third generation, the brothers Quentin, Jason, and Benjy and their sister Candace, known in the family as Caddy. Three of the four sections into which the narration is divided are consigned to the voices of the Compson brothers; the fourth is told in the third person and circles around the activities of Dilsey Gibson, the cook and maid-of-all-work in the Compson house. The present time of The Sound and the Fury is distilled into four days: three of them occurring over the Easter weekend, 1928, the Quentin section being devoted to a day in 1910 when he chooses to commit suicide. There is, however, a constant narrative impulse to repeat and rehearse the past, to be carried back on the old ineradicable rhythms of memory. The memories are many but the determining ones for the Compson brothers are of the woman who was at the center of their childhood world, and who is now lost to them literally and emotionally: their sister, Caddy Compson.
Caddy is the source and inspiration of what became and remained the novel closest to Faulkner's own heart. The Sound and the Fury began, he explained, with the "mental picture . . . of the muddy seat of a little girl's drawers in a pear tree where she could see through a window where her grandmother's funeral was taking place"—while her three brothers gazed at her from down below. She is also the subject of a book that, as this brief explanation suggests, carries linked intimations of sex and death. "To me she was the beautiful one, she was my heart's darling," Faulkner said of Caddy later. "That's what I wrote the book about," he added, "and I used the tools which seemed to me the proper tools to try to tell, try to draw the picture of Caddy." Trying to tell of Caddy, to extract what he called "some ultimate distillation" from her story is the fundamental project of the book. And yet she seems somehow to exist apart from or beyond it, to escape from Faulkner and all the other storytellers. To some extent, this is because she is the absent presence that haunts so many of Faulkner's other novels: a figure like, say Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying or Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom!, who obsesses the other characters but very rarely speaks with his or her own voice. Even more important, though, is the fact that she is female, and so by definition someone who tends to exist for her creator outside the parameters of language: Faulkner has adopted here the archetypal male image of a woman who is at once mother, sister, daughter, and lover, Eve and Lilith, virgin and whore, to describe what Wallace Stevens once referred to as "the inconceivable idea of the sun"—that is, the other, the world outside the self. And while she is there to the extent that she is the focal point, the eventual object of each narrator's meditation, she is not there in the sense that she remains elusive, intangible—as transparent as the water, as invisible as the odors of the trees and honeysuckle, with which she is constantly associated. It is as if, just as the narrator tries to focus her in his camera lens, she slips away leaving little more than the memory of her name and image.
Not that Faulkner ever stops trying to bring her into focus—for himself, his characters, and of course for us. Each section of the book, in fact, represents a different strategy, another attempt to know her. Essentially, the difference in each section is a matter of rhetoric, in the sense that each time the tale is told another language is devised and with a different series of relationships between author, narrator, subject, and reader. When Benjy occupies our attention right at the start, for instance, we soon become aware of a radical inwardness. Profoundly autistic, Benjy lives in a closed world where the gap between self and other, being and naming cannot be bridged because it is never known or acknowledged. The realm outside himself remains as foreign to him as its currency of language does, and Faulkner is creating an impossible language here, giving voice to the voiceless. The second section, devoted to Quentin, collapses distance in another way. "I am Quentin," Faulkner said. And, as we read, we feel ourselves drawn into a world that seems almost impenetrably private. Quentin, for his part, tries to abolish the gap between Caddy and himself—although, of course, not being mentally handicapped he is less successful at this than Benjy. And he sometimes tends to confess to or address the reader, or try to address him, and sometimes to forget him. Whether addressing the reader or not, however, his language remains intensely claustrophobic and liable to disintegration. Quentin cannot quite subdue the object to the word; he seems always to be trying to place things in conventional verbal structures only to find those structures siled away or dissolve into uncontrolled stream-of-consciousness. Equally, he cannot quite construct a coherent story for himself because, in losing his sister Caddy, he has lost what Henry James would call the "germ" of his narrative—the person, that is, who made sense of all the disparate elements of life for him by providing them with an emotional center.
With Jason, in the third section of The Sound and the Fury, distance enters. Faulkner is clearly out of sympathy with this Compson brother, even if he is amused by him (he once said that Jason was the character of his that he disliked the most). Jason, in turn, while clearly obsessed with Caddy, never claims any intimacy with her. And the reader is kept at some remove by the specifically public mode of speech Jason uses, full of swagger, exaggeration, and saloon-bar prejudice. Attempting, with some desperation, to lay claim to common sense and reason—even where, as he is most of the time, he is being driven by perverse impulse and panic—Jason seems separated from just about everything, not least himself. The final section of the novel offers release, of a kind, from all this. The closed circle of the interior monologue is broken now, the sense of the concrete world is firm, the visible outline of things finely and even harshly etched, the rhtythms exact, evocative, and sure. Verbally, we are in a more open field where otherness is addressed; emotionally, we are released from a vicious pattern of repetition compulsion, in which absorption in the self leads somehow to destruction of the self. And yet, and yet . . . the language remains intricately figurative, insistently artificial. The emphasis throughout, in the closing pages, is on appearance and impression, on what seems to be the case rather than what is. We are still not being told the whole truth, the implication is; there remain limits to what we can know; despite every effort, even the last section of the novel does not entirely succeed in naming Caddy. So it is not entirely surprising that, like the three Compson brothers before her, Dilsey Gibson, who dominates this section, is eventually tempted to discard language altogether. Benjy resorted, as he had to, to a howl, Quentin to suicide, Jason to impotent, speechless rage—all to express their inarticulacy in the face of the other, their impotence as they stood in the eye of the storm, facing the sound and fury of time and change. And Dilsey, responding to a more positive yet passionate impulse, becomes part of the congregation at an Easter Day service—where, we are told, "there was not even a voice but instead their hearts were speaking to one another in changing measures beyond the need for words." In ways that are, certainly, very different all four characters place a question mark over their attempts to turn experience into speech. And they do so, not least, by turning aside from words, seeking deliverance and redress in a nonverbal world—a world of pure silence or pure, unintelligible sound.
The closing words of The Sound and the Fury appear to bring the wheel full circle. As Benjy Compson sits in a wagon watching the elements of his small world flow past him, "each in its ordered place," it is as if everything has now been settled and arranged. Until, that is, the reader recalls that this order is one founded on denial, exclusion, a howl of resistance to strangeness. The ending, it turns out, is no ending at all; it represents, at most, a continuation of the process of speech—the human project of putting things in its ordered place—and an invitation to us, the reader, to continue that process too. We are reminded, as we are at the close of so many of Faulkner's stories, that no system is ever complete or completely adequate. Something is always missed out it seems, some aspect of reality must invariably remain unseen. Since this is so, no book, not even one like this that uses a multiplicity of speech systems—a plurality of perspectives, like a Cubist painting—can ever truly be said to be finished. Language can be a necessary tool for understanding and dealing with the world, the only way we can hope to know Caddy; yet perversely, Faulkner suggests, it is as much a function of ignorance as of knowledge. It implies absence, loss, as well as fulfillment. Sometimes, Faulkner admitted, he felt that experience, life "out there," existed beyond the compass of words: a feeling that would prompt him to claim that all he really liked was "silence. Silence and horses. And trees." But at other times he seemed to believe that he should try to inscribe his own scratchings on the surface of the earth, that he should at least attempt the impossible and tell the story over again, the story of himself and the world, using all the tools, all the different voices and idioms available to him. As Faulkner himself put it once, "Sometimes I think of doing what Rimbaud did—yet I will certainly keep on writing as long as I live." So he kept on writing: his final novel, The Reivers (1962), was published only a month before he died. To the end, he produced stories that said what he suggested every artist was trying, in the last analysis, to say: "I was here." And they said it for others beside himself: others, that is, including the reader.