Faulkner spent much of his career attempting to disrupt normative forms of narration and history -- particularly the individual, “true,” and authoritative narrative. In the works of Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner explores the collective potential within narrative forms. While these two novels seemingly stand apart, as Light in August is commonly understood as a warning against the unthinking capabilities of the collected masses and Absalom, Absalom! portrays southern protagonists attempting to, as Richard Forrer says, “climb the unscalable grave of the past” (Forrer, 38), Faulkner is consistent in his portrayal of the potential as well as the hazards of collectivity in narration. Faulkner is careful to distance himself from certain forms of collective narration by expelling the conservative and skewed moral violence of the town in Light in August, and, through the frustrations of Quentin and Shreve, exposes the limitations of collectivity in Absalom, Absalom!. Through an exploration of the non-mimetic yet individualized narration within As I Lay Dying, Faulkner can be read to be embracing the potential of collectivity in narration as a subversive, liberatory act over-and-above individualized traditional narrative structures, only if the inner essences of the players are understood.

Faulkner’s use of collectivity manifests itself in different forms from novel to novel. For example, in Light in August collectivity most often appears within the apparatus of town gossip, while in Absalom, Absalom! it reappears as characters entertaining a compilation of different scenarios, and further still in As I Lay Dying it becomes a collection of chapters that the readers must salvage for meaning. Each different mode of collectivity in narration offers different pitfalls for Faulkner, yet can also illuminate the liberatory aspects inherent in these attempts.
Faulkner’s tendency towards veiling clear-cut understanding makes Light in August a deceptive novel. It initially appears to be written with a fairly normative plot structure and narration. However, the obstruction to understanding happens elsewhere, namely in the centrality of digression and multiplicity of plot lines. Carolyn Porter makes an important distinction about this obscuring, arguing that Faulkner critiques plot not by eschewing it, as in other works, but "by piling plot upon plot" (Lives and Legacies, 87). With multiple plots arises a necessity to ascribe authenticity to one over others (this problem is also of particular importance in Absalom, Absalom!). In Light in August, Faulkner holds up a collective town narration to more individualized, outcast narratives of Byron Bunch, Lena Grove, Gail Hightower, and Joe Christmas. In juxtaposing these two narrative structures, Faulkner exposes the existence of motive behind each supposedly factual mode of telling.

Before discussing gossip as a mode of collective narration, the structure of Light in August needs to be understood. B. R. McElderry Jr. argues, somewhat redundantly, that the novel’s value is found within its narrative structure, much more, at least, than in any symbolic meaning within the text. McElderry looks to “the contrast of major and minor action; the intertwining of present, immediate past, and remote past” (McElderry, 201) in order to examine the value of the novel and eventually locates it within the structure itself, concluding, “if the structure of the novel is firmly grasped, we may find that the story itself is more interesting than paraphrases of its supposed symbolic meaning” (McElderry, 206). Indeed the “digression” of the Joe Christmas exposition ends up making up the weightiest portion of the book, and this structure cannot be ignored. Yet, while McElderry is content claiming that this merely makes the novel “more interesting,” in fact Faulkner is realigning where he wants his criticism to fall -- namely the tension between the interiority of the characters and the exteriority of the town.

Light in August deals with the tension between the outcasts of Jefferson and the town as an acting moral body. These outcast characters become shaped and fated based on the the town's most powerful implementation of its own morality: gossip. Ellen Goellner recognizes that “gossip is the main mode of communication and storytelling in Light in August” (Goellner, 106). Goellner, examining gossip alongside Faulkner’s layered and circular narration, argues the ills of this type of narration as well as the promises, claiming that Faulkner, “rather than drawing attention to narrational variety as an expression of the radical distinction of characters – a series of virtuoso solo acts, not least the author's – Faulkner now presents this amalgamated talking as the agency and nature of a social world” (Goellner, 107). Dorothy Hale recognizes this departure from the “solo acts” as well and, as will be discussed later in As I Lay Dying, argues that in publishing Light in August and Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner “becomes less interested in representing private interiority than in revising his notion of the social…he no longer tries to find a heterogeneous discourse to represent the self, at the same time he rejects his earlier conception of the social -- the homogeneity that the private self resists…In works like Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936) Faulkner redefines conformity, in other words, as hegemony” (Hale, 21). John Duvall seconds this redefinition by examining how Light in August heralds a restructuring of the concept of community within Faulkner's world (Duvall, 105).

If understood in this way, it is important to understand the trajectory of the social narrative, gossip. Byron Bunch, perhaps the outcast protagonist with the closest affiliations to the town, is exposed to a fair amount of gossip by working at the mill, though he rarely, if never, participates in the functions of the other workers. The gossip he attains is disseminated to Reverend Gail Hightower an extremely isolated and expelled community member. Other protagonists, Lena Grove, Joe Christmas and Mrs. Burden are all left severed from knowledge of the town's gossip, yet are often the subjects of it. In a meditation on Hightower's expulsion from town, Byron offers his take on the insider-outsider dynamic of a small town, thinking of "how people everywhere are about the same, but that it did seem that in a small town, where evil is harder to accomplish, where opportunities for privacy are scarcer, that people can invent more of it in people's names. Because that was all it required: that idea, that single idle word blown from mind to mind" (LIA, 71). The pronoun "it" in the second sentence is curiously unqualified, but can be taken to refer to the spread of gossip, which only requires a word or name. The town employs many of these single words within the production of gossip. The word connected to Christmas, whether we hear them or not, develops from "foreigner," to "nigger," to "murderer" and "rapist." Faulkner exposes the malleability of morality by making it clear that gossip and these words need not be grounded in fact for the town, but remain the most important aspect to the creation of its reality.

The scene in which Mrs. Burden's house burns down contextualizes this view through Faulkner's use of collective narration -- or, effectively, the live production of gossip. Many people from town congregate to watch the house burn. They vacillate between looking at the fire and Mrs. Burden’s body, or the space where her body was. Once the sheriff arrives the town's attention focuses on his proceedings and Faulkner begins, through the italicized sections, to narrate a collective consciousness of the town. As no stranger to pot-boilers, Faulkner was well versed in creating and manipulating cathartic plot arcs that readers could easily recognize. Faulkner creates the lynch mob scenes which follow the destruction of the Burden house as a semi-normalized detective or mystery plot line, yet he fuels it completely by gossip. The town immediately begins to ask "Who did it? Who did it?" and "Is he still free? Ah. Is he? Is he?" when the sheriff is interrogating a black resident to find out who lived in the shacks, the town begins to weave together their own reality "Is that him? Is that the one that did it? Sheriff's got him. Sheriff has already caught him ... By God, if that's him, what are we doing, standing around here? Murdering a white woman the black son of a". Faulkner points out here the glibness of the town's morality shift by explaining that no one had ever entered Mrs. Burden's house, wives had been forbidden to call on her, and the children had shouted "Nigger lover! Nigger lover!" to her (LIA, 290-2).

It is precisely within this scene that Faulkner disavows the use of gossip as a acting moral body. In the height of the town's creation of gossip and morality throughout the fire scene, Faulkner offers an explanation of their need for gossip. The town assumes the sheriff is leaving with the solution to the mystery, "that which moved and evoked them as with a promise of something beyond the sluttishness of stuffed entrails and monotonous days" (LIA, 294). This promise necessitates the production of gossip to move the town to this "beyond." For this reason, truth and a steady morality are left out of the equation and decay and boredom become the impetus for the expulsion and murder of several of the town's residents. If viewed in this way, it is not the use of collective narration that Faulkner abandons as unthinking and violently conservative, but rather collectivity that arises out of boredom.

If in Light in August, the reason for collective narration -- brought about by the creation of gossip -- is boredom, then in the case of Quentin and Shreve within Absalom, Absalom!, it can be seen to be two college students attempting to expand their understandings of the world and, by extension, the past. Shreve, coming from Canada is entranced by the Grecian epic quality of the South while Quentin is seemingly, as the last lines show, trying to convince himself of or scavenge up some positive qualities of the Southern past. However, Quentin’s attempts are only frustrated, as is seen when Shreve asks him why he hates the South, “I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” (AA!, 303).

In Absalom, Absalom!, as well as in As I Lay Dying, Faulkner offers a type of collective narration that is not rooted in boredom, giving it a much more nuanced morality. Primarily, Absalom, Absalom! takes to task the idea of the validity of “narrative” rather than competing collective and individual narratives. Faulkner’s characters in Absalom, Absalom! try out different scenarios to order and understand the past. Just as Lothar Hönninhausen sees role-playing as “an essential aspect in all human behavior, particularly, in any artistic transformation of life” (Hönninhausen, 208-9) and uses this idea to try and rescue Faulkner from various disastrous interviews, this concept can be applied to his characters as well.

In this vein Richard Forrer posits the question “are there such things as pure “facts” -- unconditioned by imaginative interpretation -- which “speak for themselves” to thereby disclose the reality of the past, or is the reality of the past ultimately the imaginative creation of our present concerns?” (Forrer, 22). This question is paramount in Absalom, Absalom!, as Quentin and Shreve begin to piece together a narrative with the scarce amount of artifacts that were passed down to them from others with similar objectives. The past, for Forrer becomes a “series of often conflicting imaginative constructs which the narrators themselves accept as truthful visions of reality … Hence it is difficult -- if not impossible at many points -- for either the narrators or reader to distinguish the past as it actually was from the past that is an imaginative creation… it points further to the fundamental problem … do these imaginative constructs provide them with any means at all for transcending their paralyzing obsession with the failures of the past?” (Forrer, 24). Forrer finds that each narrator’s ability to describe each character is dependant on their own experience. For example, Mr. Compson is able to describe Etienne Bon memorably as he sees him as a (basically) white man fallen into slavery on Sutpen’s Hundred, just as Mr. Compson feels he himself has fallen from aristocracy because of the Civil War (Forrer, 35). Ultimately, Forrer finds that “self-transcendence becomes possible -- is in fact realized -- when the narrator imaginatively repossesses the values of others as expressions of his own deepest self” (Forrer, 44). Forrer pushes this creation of the past to a useful extent. However, by focusing on the individual need and desire for each character he ignores the amount of effort and time Faulkner throws into the creation of collective narratives. Even in Forrer’s reading of Quentin and Shreve’s recreation of the past, he ignores that it is built upon the previous narratives and it is only because the previous versions have been presented that Quentin and Shreve are able to weave together an ambitious, yet compelling narrative of the Suten saga. In fact, even Quentin and Shreve become a fused collective narrator with Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen, “they were both in Carolina and the time was fourty-six years ago, and it was not even four now but compounded still further, since now both of them were Henry Sutpen and both of them were Bon, compounded each of both yet either neither” (AA!, 280).

While, as Forrer argues, the characters in Absalom, Absalom! attempt to understand the past and thereby transcend the past, this aim is not sufficient for Faulkner. Wade Newhouse argues that Faulkner centrally rejects the idea of an authoritative individual narrative. Newhouse argues that so much of Faulkner’s work tries to locate an “identifiable moment in history such as the Civil War: a physical connection with the remembered and misremembered past that legitimizes the act of modern utterance and demands more” (Newhouse, 145). For Absalom, Absalom! Newhouse argues Henry Sutpen is that object or moment, yet he is unable to contain all of the ideology and is only wasting away. This is seen as a rejection of the idea that a single human is able to sustainably contain all of the ideological and practical implications of the past. “In fact, this … does less to legitimize their identity through narrative than to frustrate such a search for authority, since the reality that they discover is not material enough (it is merely “wasted”) to carry the ideological and cultural weight of the stories in which they have invested themselves” (Newhouse, 145). Together Forrer and Newhouse expose that Faulkner rejects narrative authority in two realms: first, Forrer shows that an individual is unable to act as an authority on events as they will merely be projecting their own subjectivity unto events of the past; secondly, Newhouse exposes that a person or event cannot exist as an authoritative moment for history in which all truth and explanation can be mined. Rather, an individual “transcendence” is insufficient and this “deeper understanding” Forrer mentions must function through a collective and not through a single event or person.

Moving from Light in August and Absalom, Absalom! into As I Lay Dying may seem counterintuitive since the latter provides a radically different and individualized narrative than the former two, which both deal with the narrative of a collective past/present. However, looking at As I Lay Dying through the failures of what Stephen Ross calls "mimetic narration," Faulkner can be seen to be tugging at the same strain of narrative of the individual against the community. Dorothy Hale asks of this problem “what then, do we make of As I Lay Dying, a work that appears to be “non-narrated” but includes passages that could not possibly be the direct quotation of the characters’ minds?” (Hale, 6). Hale cites scholars such as R. W. Franklin who have abandoned the novel as a piece of fiction written in too much haste as apparent in the novel’s mimetic failures. Both Hale and Stephen Ross also acknowledge that a mimetic narrative fails because of sections that contain either non-verbal sections -- Cash’s written list (AILD, 82-3) -- or inappropriate diction --Vardmon’s elevated poetics (56) -- yet unlike Franklin, they do not take this to be a failure of the novel. Hale discusses closely Ross’ understanding that it is this very failure of mimetic passages that makes the novel “a triumph” (Hale, 8). For Ross “Faulkner’s mixed voice makes us cease to regard language as a transparent medium by which agents communicate and instead forces us to recognize language itself as a determining agent” (Hale, 8). While Hale agrees with both Franklin and Ross that As I Lay Dying is unsustainable as a mimetic narrative, she pushes the idea further claiming that Faulkner abandons the idea of mimetic narration and instead uses language that, despite its inconsistencies, narrates the “inner self” which is only betrayed by socialized language (Hale, 12).

In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner gives the readers the true deeper essences of the characters and some sort of a collective narrative must emerge, yet by destroying any ability for mimetic narration Faulkner dispels the idea that gossip, or collective understandings, can be successfully built on anything but a deeper understanding, “inner selves,” of the individuals involved. For example, Anse’s strong Southern patriarchy is betrayed by his deeper conniving spirit, Vernon Tull’s weak juxtaposition to Anse Bundren is developed by his impotency in producing a male heir, and the traumas of the Bundren children illuminate their idiosyncrasies. Yet, as Hale shows, merely locating these inner selves is short-sided, as it ignores the violence in putting these inner selves in conversation with a wider collective, “Faulkner further demonstrates the triumph of the public over the private self by showing that the children who do survive the conflict are those who, like Anse, can contentedly surrender their private language for public language” (Hale, 17).

In As I Lay Dying the collectivity of narration can be seen much more experimentally. Instead of holding the failures of collectivity up through the characters in the novel, Faulkner is putting gossip in the hands of the readers. Readers are abstractly the ones to weave together a consolidated narrative. This is also why As I Lay Dying stands alone as a novel purely dedicated to these “solo acts” and has little to do with a narratorly or socially framed narrative. Readers are the ones who must create their own collective understanding of the novel through the artifacts of each character’s inner self. Stephen Ross acknowledges this absence that readers must fill by saying that if As I Lay Dying is forced to be mimetic, then readers and critics alike will be stuck “chasing after a forever receding presence” (Ross, 303).

The failures of the town in Light in August as well as Quentin’s dangling non-conclusion in Absalom, Absalom!, arise precisely from being unable to understand the inner selves of their subjects. Rather than trying to deeply understand the inner selves of Christmas, Joanna, or Hightower, the town is eager, out of boredom, to weave together a cathartic false plot which allows them to calm-consciously lynch and expel members of their community. Likewise in Absalom, Absalom!, the narratives of the Sutpen saga gain flesh through Quentin and Shreve’s narrative over and against Mr. Compson’s and Rosa Coldfield’s because they are able to go more deeply in the essence of Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen. However they still end in frustration as they are unable, by no fault of their own and only because of a lack of artifacts, to collectively understand the “inner self” of all the players in the Sutpen saga.

As I Lay Dying, provides a narrative model, namely that characters’ inner selves are provided and readers will act like Quentin and Shreve in an attempt to weave together a compelling narrative. Light in August warns of the danger in creating collectivity in narration if the narrative players are not fully understood, while Absalom, Absalom! highlights the impossibility of ever fully completing a narrative, showing that a comprehensive narrative can only be approached.


Work Cited

Duvall, John. "Murder and the Communities: Ideology in and around “Light in August”." NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Winter 20.2 (1987): 101-22. Print.

Forrer, Richard. "“Absalom, Absalom!”: Story-Telling as a Mode of Transcendence." The Southern Literary Journal 9.1 (1976): 22-46. Print.

Goellner, Ellen. "By Word of Mouth: Narrative Dynamics of Gossip in Faulkner’s “Light in August”." The Ohio State Press - Narrative May 1.2 (1993): 105-23. Print.

Hale, Dorothy J. "“As I Lay Dying’s” Heterogeneous Discourse." NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction Autumn 23.1 (1989): 5-23. Print.

Hönninhauser, Lothar. "Faulkner's Southern Masks." Universitätsverlag WINTER Heidlberg - Amerikastudien Winter 42.2 (1997): 207-15. Print.

McElderry, B. R., Jr. "The Narrative Structure of Light in August." College English Feb 19.5 (1958): 200-07. Print.

Newhouse, Wade. "Aghast and Uplifted: William Faulkner and the Absence of History." The Faulkner Journal Fall 2005/Spring 2006 (n.d.): 145-65. Print.

Porter, Carolyn. William Faulkner: Lives and Legacies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Ross, Stephen. ""Voice" in Narrative Texts: The Example of As I Lay Dying." PMLA March 94.2 (1979): 300-10. Print.