The Fictional Record of Southern History in William Faulkner's Work

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During the 19th century of America, certain novels were capable of serving as complete embodiments of the tragic form. During a time in which America’s optimism was booming and in which tragedy was not exactly popular in theatre, this seems surprising. When we take a look at the novel The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850), we see a story about adultery set in colonial New England, the main character has an incomplete sense of sin as she insists that what she and lover did had a consecration of its own. She lives out the rest of her life in tragic isolation as the conflict in her that results out of this conviction is never resolved. Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville explores a similar tragedy. Melville actually said that he was inspired by Hawthorne’s novel to explore similar themes in Moby Dick (source). The character Captain Ahab can be seen as a tragic hero in this story; he is a noble figure and receives admiration for his achievements but he is also the one who causes the story to reach its tragic conclusion due to his relentless pursuit of the white whale, Moby Dick, which leads to death of both himself and his crew (Rice, 1970).

Some American novelists carried on this tradition of tragedy into the 20th century. The novels by Henry James, which span a period from 1876 to 1904, are all concerned with moral drama. The society portrayed by James is subtle and sophisticated but sinister; the innocent and good do not survive. The victim being this usually inadequate and insignificant character, destroyed by hugely unequal forces, became a trend that continued on. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) Gatsby is a larger-than-life hero whose pursuit of an impossible dream leads to his violent end. In A Farewell to Arms (1929) by Ernest Hemingway, the ordinary character Henry is used to show the views of someone who has loved and lost. Grief, in the end, ends up turning the hero away from examining life more deeply instead of turning him towards it (source).

But William Faulkner’s novels recall the values of the tragic tradition without mistake. His novels (Sartoris, 1929; The Sound and the Fury, 1929; As I Lay Dying, 1930; Sanctuary, 1931; Light in August, 1932; Absalom, Absalom! 1936; Intruder in the Dust, 1948; Requiem for a Nun, 1951) incorporate around 300 years of Southern history. According to Faulkner, the subject of art is the human heart in conflict with itself. He insists guilt is the evidence of man’s fate just as the possibility of atonement is the assertion of human freedom. This is why endurance, compassion and the capacity to learn seem to be very present in his characters. As a writer, Faulkner declines to accept the end of man.

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