William Faulkner & Failure
“All of us have failed to match our dream of perfection. I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. If I could write all my work again, I'm convinced I could do it better. This is the healthiest condition for an artist. That's why he keeps working, trying again: he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won't.” – William Faulkner
Failure is one of the recurring themes within William Faulkner’s work, often a lot of it stems from his own personal failures. Faulkner suffered many rejections in his early career. He continued to fail even when his work sold. Most of his books went out of print after only a short while of being in circulation. According to Phillip Weinstein, author of "The Art and Life of WIlliam Faulkner", failure formed the basis for his success as an author. “Throughout his career, he remained haunted by his inability to master a series of personal and professional challenges: his less-than-heroic military career; the loss of his brother in an airplane crash; a disappointing stint as a Hollywood screenwriter; and a destructive bout with alcoholism” (Weinstein). Faulkner was always surrounded by failure, and he ingrains this failure in his characters as well.
The publishers Boni & Liveright rejected his first novel, set in Yoknapatawpha County, “Flags in the Dust”. It wasn’t until the publication of “The Sound and the Fury” did Faulkner begun to gain some success in his career. In most of Faulkner’s works of literature, his characters face a challenge and eventually fail either in the long run or go through a series of failures. While there are many examples of said failures, my primary focus will be on the cumulative failures the characters face in “As I Lay Dying” in comparison to a few of Faulkner’s other novels.
In The Sound and the Fury is a novel based on failure. It was Faulkner’s first successful novel, however his characters continually fail until their down fall. Quentin Compson is a prime example of this failure. He’s the oldest of the Compson children and bears this heavy responsibility of taking care of others. Time and time again, he tries to save Caddy but fails to do so. Eventually when his failures catch up to him, and he can’t bear the weight of them anymore, he commits suicide. Readers of the novel are left with this heavy burden of Quentin’s failures. Caddy Compson, who brings forth so much trouble for pretty much every other character in “The Sound and the Fury” is never given a voice. Caddy is the prime subject of obsession with every male character in the novel, especially her brothers, and is their eventual downfall. She near drives Quentin crazy and his eventual suicide. Benjy’s entire train of thought and his idea of time revolves around Caddy. Due to the fact that the novel doesn’t follow a typical linear pattern, Benjy’s memories are distorted and triggered by a physical memory of Caddy. Indirectly so, but Caddy is also the cause for Jason’s failures. When Caddy marries Herbert Head, Jason is promised a job at a bank in Jefferson. However, soon into their marriage, Herbert realizes that Caddy is pregnant with another man’s child and leaves her, and at the same time terminating any hope for Jason’s job. Jason never forgives Caddy for this, because of her, he failed in his career before it even began.
In Light in August we’re faced with the failures of Joe Christmas. He spends his entire life trying to figure out his identity and where he belongs. From a very young age Christmas is plagued with being both black and white, because he fails to fit in with either race. His failure to assimilate with either race began at a very young age and followed him throughout his life. His first subtle sexual encounter, when he hides out to eat toothpaste but bears witness to the dietician having sex, and is eventually caught, is plagued with violence. During this scene there are slight traces of dialogue that suggest the sex isn’t consensual. Every sexual experience Christmas takes a part in afterwards has to either end in physical or emotional violence. After every time he has sex he has to let he woman know he’s partially black, just to get some sort of reaction from her, that is up until Joanna Burden comes along. She frankly doesn’t care, and in this way this is a failure for him. He’s spent his entire life teetering back on forth on his racial identity, and along comes this woman who frankly doesn’t care about his race, which in turn throws him off balance.
“As I Lay Dying,” is built on the premise of a somewhat failed family. As it turns out, Jewel is Addie’s illegitimate child, which builds this false foundation for her family life. When Addie is finally given a voice, she talks about how she kept trying to give Anse another child to replace the absence of Jewel being his child, but fails to do so. Many of the characters in the novel go through their own failures. Addie’s dying wish is to be buried in Jefferson, which a ways away from their home in Yoknapatawpha County.
So the family sets out to Jefferson, however they each have their own ulterior motive, save for Jewel and Darl. Anse Burden’s motive to go to Jefferson is to get a new set of teeth. His whole life, his biggest regret and failure has been not having nice teeth, and because of Addie’s death, he’s able to do that now. However he goes through a whole slew of failures. “If it’s a judgment, it aint right. Because the Lord’s got more to do than that. Because the only burden Anse Bundren’s ever had is himself. And when folks talk him low, I think to myself he aint that less if a man or he couldn’t a bore himself that long” (AILD 73). For Anse, not having that perfect set of teeth was his life long failure, and he wasn’t a content man until he bought his new set of teeth. He only achieved this after putting his farm tools on mortgage and taking the help of others.
Vardaman on the other hands wants to go to Jefferson to buy a toy train. However he settles for just a bunch of bananas instead. He fails to pursue his dream in this instance. Cash wants a gramophone but instead he ends up breaking his leg. Even though he gets his gramophone towards the end of the novel when Anse’ new bride brings one.
Dewey Dell wants to go for an abortion so her family doesn’t find out about her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Now, the ideas of pregnancy and childbirth are prevalent throughout Faulkners’ work. Faulkner himself went through the loss of a child, his first born daughter Alabama who passed away nine days after her birth on January 20th, 1931. Although Faulkner did have children later on in life, the pain and anguish of losing a child never left him, and that is evident in his novels. A few years after losing Alabama, his childhood best friend went through a similar loss. Faulkner fully understood what it meant to lose a child. Perhaps this is why the idea of having children, mostly out of wedlock is such a persistent theme. For Faulkner his failure was to losing his child, but in the lives of his characters it's the failure of them being forced to keep their children. In As I lay Dying, when Addie finally speaks after her death, she talks about how she tried to give Anse another child, to make up for Jewel but that in turn is impossible. Here lies the subtle hints from Faulkner’s own life, no matter how hard he would try, he couldn’t make up for Alabama’s loss.
Although Faulkner himself knew that he was a failure, he sought it out like a virtue. "When asked to name the best American writers of his day, he would say that they had all failed, but that Thomas Wolfe had been the finest failure and William Faulkner the second finest failure. He often repeated this over the years, but it is as well to remember that Thomas Wolfe had been dead since 1938, that is, during nearly all the years the Faulkner used to give this answer, the years during which he himself remained alive” (Marías). It’s strange to see how someone who was once considered a failure is now a revered author today.

//Quest for Failure; a Study of William Faulkner// by Walter J. Slatoff
Review by: Hyatt H. Waggoner
//Modern Language Notes//

Vol. 76, No. 7 (Nov., 1961), pp. 667-669
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3040057


Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Marías, Javier. "Threepenny: Marías, Faulkner." Threepenny: Marías, Faulkner. Threepenny, n.d. Web. 10 Dec.
2013. <http://www.threepennyreview.com/samples/marias_sp04.html>.

Weinstein, Philip M. Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.