William Faulkner was born in Mississippi in 1897, just thirty-two years after the conclusion of the Civil War. White Southerners, though defeated, resisted modernization because of their contempt for Northern progressivism. Not only was their means of free labor (slavery) taken from them but also miscegenation became a corruption to their established hierarchical structure where “pure” white men stood at the top. Faulkner grew up in the thick of this controversy and it’s clearly expressed in his work. A certain literary motif has appeared in almost every work by contributors of the Western canon: the figurative and non-figurative use of incest. Faulkner continued this tradition and employed the incest trope in his stories, often for satirical and metaphorical purpose. Faulkner expresses themes of isolation and preservation of purity through an incest trope in his fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, specifically in two of his novels, The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner responds to the hysteria of miscegenation in the South by justifying incest through his character, Quentin, and his love for his sister, Caddy, as a means of preserving “racial” purity. Through Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon’s incestuous desire for their sister in Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner indicates that incest conveys the priority of strict racial segregation and the suppression of racial admixture in the South. Faulkner utilizes the incest trope to express the backwards-thinking of the South as a resistance to Northern progressivism. The influence of Sigmund Freud’s contemporary psychoanalytical theories of innate incestuous desire had also influenced Faulkner and he built his character’s relationships with a Freudian structure.

The terrible state of the South after the Civil War led to a dysfunctional sense of morality in the South and led to difficulty for Southerners to break out of the sphere of their families (Zender 739). Southern resistance to modernism is partially due to the region's isolation. Plantation owners with large families would often live at a distance from the closest town, which is analogous with the South’s distance from the North; not only a physical distance, but also a distance in values. Quentin Compson, in The Sound and the Fury, grew up on the large Compson estate, which was somewhat isolated from the town of Jefferson. He falls in love with his sister, Caddy, the only active female in his life besides the Compson’s servant Dilsey. Caroline Compson, Quentin’s mother, is an invalid who participates very little in any of her children’s lives. To understand Faulkner’s purpose of creating the Compsons in this way, one must have knowledge of the Freudian Oedipal Complex: a male infant falls in love with their mother, an incestuous desire, but then grows out of it at a certain age. Faulkner creates Caroline as an invalid to express a lack of Mother in Quentin’s life, a lack that is filled by Caddy, and her constant presence. According to John T. Irwin, “brother-sister incest is a substitute for child-parent incest” and Quentin’s incestuous desire for his sister, Caddy, is really a desire for his mother (Zender 740). By establishing the root of Quentin’s desire through the most modern theories of psychoanalysis, Faulkner rationalizes Quentin’s incestuous desire, but then he uses that platform to employ the incest trope as a political metaphor of the South’s resistance to difference.
Faulkner refused to portray incest in his novels as it was most commonly believed to exist in the South. However, he consciously applied the use of incest as an integral part of his literary work, which indicates the importance for a larger purpose than historical accuracy (Zender 745). Just after the Civil War ended the border between North and South separated two very different cultures. Many in the North criticized the South in reference to their belief in Southern decadence, which included the idea of incestuous relations. Whether the North’s criticism was right or wrong makes no difference. Faulkner was a Southerner and, at the very least, expresses his pride for the South by rejecting the pitied or repulsive use of Southern incest (Zender 745). Although, in a way he does use the incest trope metaphorically to develop and display the arrested state of the South and it’s resistance to change, but never to indicate examples of decadence as exclusive to the South. Some critics believe that he used incest in his first novel, The Sound and the Fury, to challenge progressivist sexual views that reject the use of incest in literature, a prominent trope used in poetry of the romantic period (Zender 745).
The romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his poem, "Laon and Cythna," “depicts brother-sister incest as a metaphor for human perfectibility” (Zender 742). Faulkner uses the same metaphor in The Sound and the Fury. Quentin decides that an incestuous relationship with Caddy would give him enough authority to protect her, and together in their indulgence of the taboo, they could become a “clean flame” (TSAF 116). Quentin uses a cleansing flame as a metaphor for the reversion to a time before Caddy had become tainted, where they could become a perfect being. Quentin’s incest fantasy and the idea of reverting back to a time of virginal purity is a political metaphor for the South’s “yearning for an (imaginary) pre-Cival War state of racial purity” (Zender 752). The incest that Quentin fantasizes about isn’t sexual; the goal isn’t to indulge in sexual pleasure, the goal is to stop time at a point before there was any change.


Quentin represents the resistance of the South to change and difference. Quentin in a furious state yells at Caddy, “Why must you do like a nigger women do in the pasture the ditches the dark woods hot hidden furious in the dark woods (TSAF 92).” In this scene Quentin is associating Caddy’s promiscuity with that of a “nigger woman,” which represents the different, the imperfect, contaminated state, which he wants to protect her from becoming. Once Quentin realizes that Caddy is already impure he turns desperate and in an attempt to produce a full arrest of time suggests double suicide (TSAF 152). The “double-suicide” scene is the only sexually charged scene between the two characters, “youll have to push it harder…yes push it touch your hand to it…,” (TSAF 152). On the verge of death their incest became the purity that Quentin imagined. Quentin, at that point, realizes that only death can produce a full arrest of time, and that the incestuous relationship between him and his sister could only ever be, in death. However, he can’t take the life of his sister so he must suffer the passage of time and the affliction of his impotence. Through Quentin’s impotence, in his failing to avenge or preserve Caddy’s virginal purity, Faulkner has created an analogy of the South’s impotence, in their failing to avenge or preserve racial purity. Mr. Compson, Quentin’s father, suggests that there is no such thing as virginity because it implies the possibility of originality from which authority springs, so Quentin’s obsession with the loss of Caddy’s virginity is really an obsession with his own impotence (Irwin 59). If Caddy’s virginity in Faulkner’s analogy runs parallel with racial purity then he is commenting on the South’s obsession with the loss of racial purity as really an obsession with their own impotence, in not being able to resist miscegenation or gain an earlier state of purity.

Faulkner recycles Quentin in Absalam, Absalom!, this time as a narrator of the Sutpen tragedy. After reading The Sound and the Fury, there are obvious parallels between Quentin and Caddy, and the historical character’s Quentin examines, Judith Sutpen, Henry Sutpen, and Charles Bon. The most obvious incest parallel is suggested by the religious connotation of the title. “In the Old Testament (2 Sam. 13), Absalom, one of David’s sons, kills his brother Amnon for raping their sister Tamar…We know that Quentin is in love with his own sister Candace and that he is tormented by his inability to play the role of the avenging brother and kill her seducers" (Irwin 47). In Absalom, Absalom!, Quentin, while listening to Ms. Rosa’s historical speeches, stops paying attention at a particular point, when Henry kills Bon, and becomes obsessed with it (AA 139). His own impotence, his failing to protect Caddy from her seducers, reflects in his admiration for Henry Sutpen’s action in successfully killing Judith’s seducer, Charles Bon, before they were to marry. Henry, through Quentin’s interpretation, is a champion of racial purity which is the Southern goal in it’s resistance to difference. The vulnerability of marriage in the South during Faulkner’s time contributed to the hysteria of miscegenation, which is expressed through Thomas Sutpen’s first marriage to the octoroon woman, Eulalia Bon. The inability to distinguish, indefinitely, the racial purity of a person destabilizes the foundation of white superiority because even a fraction of black blood must be posited below full white. The fact that a fraction of black blood can be hiding within anyone and without any evidence to suggest so, makes it all the more difficult to resist miscegenation. Thomas Sutpen discovers that Eulalia is part black so he leaves her and their child, Charles Bon. The sin he commits, as a member of the Southern hierarchical system, is the corruption of racial purity, contributing to the threatening admixture of white-nonwhite. “Incest taboo (broadly understood) patrols the fictitious in-group versus out-group border (Seery 23).” If the border is well defined or clear then patrolling the border becomes confusing. The “out-group,” all non-white races, bleeds over, unnoticed, into the “in-group,” thus contaminating the once pure-white superior class. It’s in the ability of the South to discern the racial purity or impurity of another that gives them the power to resist miscegenation, but Faulkner is commenting on the folly of the South’s endeavor to preserve racial purity, by exposing the sins of the father, corruption at the root, and it’s in Charles Bon’s and Judith’s relationship that Faulkner establishes incest and racial corruption, the taboo and the political metaphor for the resistance of the taboo.

Zender argues that "only because [Charles Bon] is unacknowledged both as son and as mulatto can he very nearly enter into an incestuous and miscegenational relationship with Judith Sutpen” (752). Through Charles Bon, Faulkner’s political metaphor of incest runs along side a non-figurative incestuous desire. Quentin associates with both Henry, as the successful protector of his sisters purity, and Charles Bon, as the seducer of his sister. Faulkner introduces an inconsistency in Quentin’s association with both, Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen, because the completion of Bon’s seduction of Judith, a marriage, would taint her purity, which conflicts with his moral conviction as a protector of virginal purity. As Irwin suggests, “Bon represents Quentin’s unconsciously motivated desires for his sister Candace, while Henry represents the conscious repression or punishment of that desire” (48-49). If Henry represents his repression and self-punishment of his unconscious incestuous desire then the killing of Bon should represent the death of that desire, but it doesn't. Instead, the death of Bon represents the extremity of the South’s resistance to difference. It’s in Quentin’s acknowledgment of his association with Bon that we see a hint of modernism in Quentin. His incestuous desire began as an emotional response to the threat of his sisters purity, but because he relates to Bon, the threat of Judith’s purity, he is associated with both sides of the conflict. In Freud’s essay Totem and Taboo, “he [Freud] attests to an ever-present “swirl of emotions” and an ongoing “medley of feelings,” a possible “tumult” of conflicting and confused affections, aversions, and motives,” in reference to incestuous desire (Seery 18). Through Quentin’s “swirl of emotions” and “confused motives,” Faulkner evolves Quentin by suggesting a birth of progressive maturation in his conflicting association with Henry, the protector, and Bon, the contaminant. Karl F. Zender implies that Quentin’s development “from nostalgic incest fantasies to acceptance of sibling incest to the possibility of acceptance of miscegenation, can be seen to entail a struggle against the entire weight of Southern history” (752). If Faulkner is implying that because Quentin associates himself with Bon that he is somehow accepting miscegenation then Faulkner evolved the political metaphor that Quentin’s incest represented in The Sound and the Fury.

We know that Quentin commits suicide in The Sound and the Fury, so the overall message that Faulkner tries to make in Quentin’s maturation is complex. “Faulkner's purpose in Absalom, Absalom! then is not to state an opinion on the possibility (or impossibility) of maturation but to expand our awareness of the tragic consequences of its absence” (Zender 754). The tragedy in Absalom, Absalom! has a purpose, which when deciphered with Faulkner’s reasoning for the inclusion of incest, as a political metaphor of the South’s preservation of racial purity, it does provide a conclusive message. The death of Quentin represents the tragic consequence of Southern chauvinism; to guide the South away from conservatism toward liberalism, or moral maturity (Zender 745). Faulkner, in the entirety of The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, is building Quentin’s relationships and developing his understanding of the South as a political metaphor that expresses his progressive view of race. Quentin is absorbing history and discovering conflicting moral ideals, which only adds to his confusion of the flimsy hierarchical state of the South. “Shreve is measurably closer to skepticism and detachment that allow modern man to dismiss the irrational claims from which Quentin cannot free himself and which he honors to his own cost” (Brooks 318). Shreve accepts modernism and doesn't have to surrender to it. Quentin resists and instead of surrendering he commits suicide.

Faulkner, by structuring Absalom, Absalom! with multiple narrators, is creating a mixture of interpretations. The given narrator at any point in the story has authority to “create” history. The second half of the novel is narrated by Quentin and Shreve. Shreve is Canadian, which makes him the only foreign contributor to the Sutpen historical narrative. Quentin allows Shreve to contribute, so he is figuratively accepting a foreign agent into the once pure, American constructed, story of the Sutpen tragedy. What Faulkner successfully reveals in this acceptance of admixture is a belief in coexistence. He parallels this same relationship through Henry and Bon’s relationship. Faulkner refers to Quentin and Shreve as “"not two of them but four,” which conveys a mixture of race and country (237). Henry gives permission to Bon to marry, even after knowing of Bon’s mixed blood, which “Quentin sees in Henry's allegiance to Bon a model for the integration of the censoring and desiring halves of his own personality” (Zender 751). Quentin learns from Henry’s approval, a progressive action of tolerance, but can’t break from an obsession with suicide, an arrest of time, because of his inability to fully surrender to modernism. Faulkner metaphorically implies that the conclusion of the South’s obsession with the preservation of racial purity and the resistance to modernism is death. In a sense, tolerance of miscegenation and an acceptance of their Civil War defeat by respecting the progressive ideals of the Northern victors is life, and the rejection of that mentality is futile.

Faulkner, throughout his literary achievements, gained a better understanding of his character’s motivations and further developed the use of the incest trope . What we see is an evolution of ideas; an improvement of the overall meaning of the metaphorical use of the incest trope. Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury with brother-sister incest to express the South’s resistance to change. In Absalom, Absalom! it becomes much more apparent of his purpose in employing the incest trope as expressive of the resistance to miscegenation. In order to imagine a theory of this magnitude one would need to know the background of Quentin’s incest with Caddy and his suicide in The Sound and the Fury in order to come to a conclusion with the ideas presented in Absalom, Absalom!, especially Quentin’s association with Charles Bon. It isn't a surprise that he associates himself with Henry, since he was in a very similar position in The Sound and the Fury, but Bon represents the contaminate, the Dalton Ames. In his jealousy of Bon’s ability to seduce Judith he betrays his former moral conviction and turns to a progressive, though not sustaining, view of race and miscegenation. The purpose for Faulkner’s development of the incest trope is to express the South’s arrested state and the folly of backwards-thinking, backwards-wishing of a time that’s gone and makes gone every moment. The resistance to miscegenation is a losing battle and Southern chauvinism and Southern conservatism isn't going to change the result of the Civil War.

Works Cited

Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. Baton Rouge, La: Louisiana
State University Press, 1990. Print.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom!: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Irwin, T. John. William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!: A Casebook. Hobson Fred C, ed.
Oxford University Press, 2003. pp. 48-62. Web. 1 December 2013.

Seery, John. "Stumbling toward a Democratic Theory of Incest" Political Theory , Vol. 41, No. 1
Sage Publication Inc. Print. 26 Nov. 2013.

Zender, Karl F. "Faulkner And The Politics Of Incest." American Literature 70.4 (1998): 739.
Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.