“Because there is something in the touch of flesh with flesh which abrogates, cuts sharp and straight across the devious intricate channels of decorous ordering, which enemies as well as lovers know because it makes them both: –touch and touch of that which is the citadel of the central I-Am’s private own: not spirit, soul; the liquorish and ungirdled mind is anyone’s to take in any darkened hallway of this earthly tenement. But let flesh touch flesh, and watch the fall of all the eggshell shibboleth of caste and color too” (AA 112).



Faulkner uses skin color, nudity, and touch in TSAF, LIA, and AA in order to situate and upset the role of race in these respective novels, to evoke racial and sexual tensions, and to build on the theme of recognition throughout Yoknapatawpha.

Skin color is the first means of recognition and social identity for the residents of Yoknapatawpha County. As such, the way that Faulkner describes the skin tones of various characters reflects the meaning ascribed to skin color that influences the Yoknapatawpha community’s perception of certain residents and visitors. In addition to often revealing the black characters’ race when introducing them to the novels, Faulkner often characterizes their skin colors using comparisons with consumable commodities, reflecting the way that dark-skinned individuals are exploited and used by the white-dominated society. Charles Bon (whose name actually translates to “good” in French) and Clytie of AA have “coffee-colored” skin (110, 158), Jim Bond of AA has “olive” skin (161), and Dilsey of TSAF is coated with “not so much moisture as a substance partaking the quality of thin, not quite congealed oil” (265). Coffee, olives, and oil are all goods that serve an economic purpose, sold and purchased for eventual consumption. In the same pun-intended vein, Faulkner describes Thomas Sutpen’s flesh as having “the appearance of pottery, of having been colored by that oven’s fever either of soul or environment, deeper than the sun alone beneath a dead impervious surface as of glazed clay” (AA 24). This description parallels Sutpen’s hardened disposition, his self-made status, and his impenetrable outer shell that no one (not Eulalia, not Ellen, not his own children) can break through. But perhaps the most striking adjective that Faulkner uses to describe skin color is that of “parchment paper,” the skin color of Joe Christmas and Eulalia Bon, both of whom originally pass for white.

Using Christmas and Eulalia, Faulkner plays with the notion of skin color as a faulty indicator of one’s bloodline. Parchment paper is a particularly loaded metaphor as the off-white material is used for inscribing messages, and only takes on meaning when written on by a second party. Based on their skin color, society ascribes Joe Christmas and Eulalia Bon white identities that allow the white community to accept what they have to offer. Owen Robinson eloquently addresses the white identity projected onto Christmas with the following concept: “to consider the identity of Joe Christmas is to engage with a network of voices each trying to ‘write’ him, and each consciously and unconsciously ‘reading’ him simultaneously, receiving the influence of other elements of his dialogic presence” (LIA 121). Faulkner begins this “writing and “reading” of Joe Christmas with the metaphor of his parchment paper skin. For instance, Christmas’s skin is white enough to ward off the planing mill workers’ misgivings, which are vocalized in observations of his unique appearance and “savage” work ethic, as well as questions such as “did you ever hear of a white man named Christmas?” (LIA 33). They even refer to Christmas’s job at the mill (an occupation they all share) as “a negro’s job” (LIA 36). That said, so long as Christmas appears white and demonstrates a strong work ethic, there is no reason for anyone to dismiss him – in fact, it would be his coworkers’ own loss not to accept the service he provides. The superintendent at the mill ironically points out that he did not “hire [Christmas’s] clothes” (LIA 33), but he actually did hire Christmas under the equally superficial belief that he was a white man. Christmas’s parchment paper skin eventually betrays him in Jefferson when Joanna Burden is murdered and the town needs a scapegoat. With Joe Brown’s assertion that Christmas is a black man, the parchment paper skin suddenly appears black enough to fill that role: “‘A nigger,’ the marshal said. ‘I always thought there was something funny about that fellow’” (LIA 99). Eulalia Bon experiences a similar racial trajectory in AA. Charles Sutpen assumes she is a white Hispanic; he marries her, impregnates her, and then abandons her upon learning that she is actually of Haitian descent. The issue of skin as a faulty reflection of one’s genetic history is the basis for the short-lived Sutpen family saga.

In AA, Faulkner centers the theme of racism as a social construct around the changing perception of skin color based on one’s social landscape. Rosa Coldfield harbors a racism that reflects her lifetime in the antebellum to the postbellum south. She claims that the “pigmentation of [Clytie’s] flesh represented that debacle which had brought Judith and [her] to what [they] were” during the economic strife of the civil war (AA 126). Rosa separately recalls the fact that she “would not even play with the same objects which [Clytie] and Judith played with” as though her “childhood had taught [her] not only to instinctively fear [Clytie] and what she was, but also to shun the very objects which she had touched” (AA 112). The touch of Clytie’s coffee-colored skin was enough to contaminate toys in the mind of town-bred Rosa, while country-bred Judith not only played with Clytie, but actually chose to share a bed with her at Sutpen’s Hundred, 12 miles away from town (AA 112). Still, despite Rosa’s deep-seated racism, she remembers that when she, Judith, and Clytie were living alone and fending for themselves at Sutpen’s Hundred during wartime, there was “ no distinction among the three of us of age or color but just as to who could build this fire or stir this pot or weed this bed or carry this apron full of corn to the mill for meal with least cost to the general good in time or expense of other duties. It was as though we were one being, interchangeable and indiscriminate” (AA 125) Living independently from society in an economic situation that eliminated the potential for social hierarchy, the issue of skin color was so muted by the circumstances that Rosa actually considered herself “interchangeable” with a dark-skinned woman.

In addition to illuminating the construction of race, Faulkner references skin at times in order to infiltrate certain moments and sequences with sexual undertones that would otherwise not be present. With an increased attention to flesh, Faulkner shapes some of his most prevalent themes tied to sexuality including the southern cult of virginity, incestuous desires for racial homogeny, and the disrupted coming-of-age process that many of his characters experience. This technique is particularly prevalent during scenes with Quentin. In TSAF, Quentin is driven mad by Caddy’s uncontained sexuality, as it disgraces her reputation and emasculates Quentin for his own lack of sex drive. Faulkner exaggerates the sense of Caddy’s sexuality by attending closely to Caddy’s physical form with passages such as: “she held my head against her damp hard breast I could hear heart going firm and slow now not hammering… her muscles gathered…” (TSAF 152). In the blurred sequence between pages 150 and 152, Quentin references Caddy’s chest three times, her throat twice, her knees twice, and her face, arms, and hands several times. He specifically references “touching” Caddy and “feeling” her heartbeat five times in this two-page stream of consciousness. Attention to physicality and flesh is very important to the development of Caddy’s character as the narrators interact with her.

Quentin’s preoccupation with Caddy’s body is continued during the sequence when he meets the little Italian girl. In addition to calling her “sister,” the parallel Quentin makes between the little girl and Caddy is clarified through Quentin’s physical language: “But she just looked at me with her black, secret, friendly gaze, the half-naked loaf clutched to her breast” (TSAF 138). While the terms “half-naked” and “breast” literally refer to the loaf of bread and the little girl’s un-matured upper-body, the language of flesh and nudity mirrors the language he uses during scenes with Caddy. This diction adds a sexual tension to their interaction, and it feeds into Quentin’s schizophrenic split attention as he blurs the present and past, the Italian girl and Caddy.

Faulkner uses the same intense focus on skin in AA to create a sexual tension between Quentin and Shreve as they develop and analyze the Sutpen-Bon story. Chapter 7 begins with an odd attention to Shreve’s body that sets the physical tone for the dorm room sequence: "There was no snow on Shreve's arm now, no sleeve on his arm at all now: only the smooth cupid-fleshed forearm and hand coming back into the lamp and taking a pipe from the empty coffee can where he kept them, filling it and lighting it..." (AA 176). This image is followed by a description of Shreve "naked to the waist down… (from the waist down the table concealed him; anyone entering the room would have taken him to be stark naked)" (AA 176-177). There is no indication that the young men are physically close to one another at this moment, nor is there any noteworthy flirtation in their dialogue, but the mention of the “cupid-fleshed forearm” and upper-body nudity inject a sense of sexuality into the scene. This sexual element enhances the concept of their narrative “marriage,” and also intensifies the overlapping problems of sexuality and race for Quentin, specifically in reference to incest and miscegenation. Richard H. King suggests that “the historically specific taboo underlying the Southern family romance is the taboo against miscegenation, the inverse of the incest taboo” (126). King argues that Quentin relies on this concept of incest to keep Caddy (and the Compson bloodline) pure in TSAF, but this binary opposition between incest and miscegenation is disrupted by the manufactured possibility of Bon and Judith’s betrothal. In this situation, incest no longer functions to repudiate otherness, because Bon’s partially Haitian blood designates him as an “other” figure. As such, their reproduction would be contaminated regardless of the incestuous sameness. Quentin’s attraction to Shreve’s white body is equally problematic. While it is a white-to-white attraction, it is also male-to-male; therefore, they are too much the “same” to produce children at all. Quentin’s effort to protect the old southern concept of pure, white blood is foiled in every relationship: Quentin’s attraction to Shreve’s fellow white body will not produce white children, Judith and Bon’s incest will not produce white children, and despite her whiteness, Quentin’s niece is made impure by Caddy’s abandonment of southern norms regarding the cult of virginity. These failed attempts at producing pure white legacies in the south, which are illuminated by Faulkner’s acute attention to skin and physicality, support Shreve’s premonition of the “Jim Bonds” conquering the western hemisphere (AA 302).

Like Quentin, Rosa Coldfield’s issues with race and sexuality overlap when Faulkner uses sexual language to describe the critical moment when Clytie’s “black arresting and untimorous hand” touches “her white woman’s flesh” (AA 111). The language Rosa uses to describe this brief physical contact evokes a loss of virginity and the potential of childbirth. Before their encounter, Rosa states: “I knew that from that instant I had entered that door, to her of all who knew me I was no child” (AA 111). Clytie’s recognition of Rosa as woman foregrounds their moment of intimacy, and links their touch with Rosa’s transition from childhood to womanhood: a moment that is culturally associated with one’s first sexual encounter. This moment is further sexualized through Rosa’s language of reproduction: “The two of us joined by that hand and arm which held us, like a fierce rigid umbilical cord, twin sistered to the fell darkness which had produced her” (AA 112). Comparing Clytie’s arm to an umbilical cord ascribes a sexual nature to their touch in that it produces the image of a body part only visible during childbirth (and thus, after intercourse). Furthermore, the diction used to describe physical contact with Clytie has both miscegenetic and incestuous undertones, as Rosa refers to her and Clytie as “twin sistered to the fell darkness which had produced her” (my italics, AA 112); “twin sistered” reminding the reader that they are of a distant family relation, and as such, their sexual encounter evokes the same miscegenetic touch that produced Clytie. Rosa is arrested by her connection with Clytie at this moment, and stunned at their physical contact’s ability to expose the fragility of the racial and hierarchical social norms upon which the Old South is constructed: “but let flesh touch flesh, and watch the fall of all the eggshell shibboleth of caste and color too” (AA 112).

But all of these innuendos considered, the reason that Rosa spends so much time dwelling on Clytie’s touch is not purely due to its sexual or racial implications. This moment is crucial because it is the one time in Rosa Coldfield’s life that she feels as if she were truly acknowledged and thus validated as an independent agent. Touch as a means of recognition is yet another way that skin and flesh play a central role in Faulkner’s novels. AA explores the identity crisis of the postbellum south as the culture of the region is absorbed and overshadowed by the north. At this time, the South must negotiate what it means to compromise its traditional ideals without completely losing its identity and forgetting the noble Confederate effort. This search for recognition and identity is metaphorically reflected in many of Faulkner’s characters including Rosa Coldfield, Quentin Compson, and Joe Christmas, and the recognition that these individuals seek is closely tied to physical contact.

Carolyn Porter suggests that “recognition is a central issue [in AA]... restricted (or legitimized) by class, race, and gender, generating a cultural system that denies the physical connections on which any human community depends” (AA 132). This restriction is certainly demonstrated by Rosa and Clytie. Rosa describes their relationship as one of “honorable enemies” (AA 126) due to Clytie’s half-black race, and she maintains a hostile distance from Clytie when possible, despite her desperation for recognition and human connection. The moment that Clytie does acknowledge Rosa is the most important moment in Rosa’s life, indicated by her statement: “[Clytie] did me more grace and respect than anyone else I knew; I knew that from the instant I had entered that door, to her of all who knew me I was no child. ‘Rosa’ I cried. ‘To me? To my face?’ Then she touched me, and then I did stop dead” (AA 111). While being addressed by name is moving to Rosa, it is Clytie’s unexpected, out-of-line touch that truly indicates her recognition of Rosa as “a force to be contended with” (Porter 131). Rosa’s outward response to this touch reflects her traditional southern upbringing, as she shouts “Take your hand off me, nigger!” (AA 112), but that does not come without a private acknowledgement of the “grace and respect” Clytie has just shown her.

Porter’s assessment that recognition is a central issue in AA can also be applied to TSAF and LIA, and this sacred recognition is consistently manifested through the physical act of touch. In TSAF, Caddy introduces the importance of touch during the sequence in which she has Quentin place his hand on her throat to relate her feelings for Dalton Ames, rather than using words:
put your hand against my throat
she took my hand and held it flat against her throat
now say his name
Dalton Ames
I felt the first surge of blood there it surged in strong accelerating beats
say it again
her face looked off into the trees where the sun slanted and where the bird
say it again
Dalton Ames
her blood surged steadily beating and beating against my hand (TSAF 164)
Feeling Caddy’s blood surge with excitement at the sound of Dalton Ames’ name forces Quentin to recognize her feelings for him; when they share in the physicality of her assertion, it gives her emotions an undeniable reality. Quentin tries to replicate this sense of recognition and confirmation when he learns that Caddy is pregnant. Caddy repeats the words “don’t touch me” four times between pages 112 and 115, indicating that Quentin is trying to touch her pregnant body upon realizing she has a baby. His touch brings a greater sense of reality to the issue, and Caddy’s resistance to this recognition matches her unwillingness to acknowledge her pregnancy with spoken words.

Quentin maintains this notion of physical contact as the most meaningful form of recognition, demonstrated when he and Shreve construct Bon’s character as a boy yearning for physical recognition from his father: "Because he knew exactly what he wanted; it was just the saying of it – the physical touch even though in secret, hidden – the living touch of that flesh warmed before he was born by the same blood which it had bequeathed him to warm his own flesh with, to be bequeathed by him in turn to run hot and loud in veins and limbs after that first flesh and then his own were dead" (AA 255). Quentin and Shreve pursue the importance of recognition to such an extent that their fabrication of Bon’s desire to touch and be touched by his father becomes his primary objective; Bon requires no other sense of recognition: “He will not even have to ask me; I will just touch flesh with him and I will say it myself: ‘You will not need to worry; she will never see me again’” (AA 278). When it becomes clear that Sutpen will not acknowledge his partially black son, not even through the sending of “a lock of hair or a pairing from his finger nail” (AA 261) to symbolically indicate his paternity, Bon has no reason to go on living. He identifies himself to Henry as “the nigger that’s going to sleep with your sister” (AA 286) in order to promote his own murder before he can take the ultimate revenge on his negligent father: sleeping with Judith, and further disgracing the Sutpen bloodline by incestuously impregnating her with a black-blooded child.

In LIA, the character of Joe Christmas suffers the same mixed-race fate as Bon, which is similarly complicated by his off-white skin color. Christmas’s true identity is lost to his unknown parentage and ambiguous race, but Mary Joanne Dondlinger asserts that Christmas “clearly self-identifies as black [and] his dilemma is that he loathes this identification. The product of a white supremacist society, he sees his own blackness as repulsive, especially since that blackness is associated with sin, illegitimacy, and criminality” (104). In support of Dondlinger’s argument, there are a handful of developmental moments in which Christmas recognizes his own identity, and each of these moments involve physical contact that either damages his white flesh or affirms his black identity as a sinful, illegitimate criminal. The first identifying moment, which Christmas references as the day he “became a man” (LIA 146), is when McEachern whips his naked legs after he refuses to memorize the catechisms (LIA 149). Christmas first enacts sin by denying the catechisms, and then is punished with the lashing of his white flesh, thus reinforcing his blackness. The next identifying moment in Christmas’s life is when he refuses to have sex with the “womanshenegro” in the barn. While Christmas does not “become a man” by way of the traditional loss of virginity at this moment, he affirms his autonomous decision not to have sex by physically attacking this woman instead: “He was moving because his foot touched her. Then it touched her again because he kicked her. He kicked her hard, kicking into and through a choked wail of surprise and fear” (LIA 156). Christmas’s angry response at seeing his own blackness mirrored by the girl in the barn invites his white company to attack him, and later earns him another whipping by McEachern. Once again, his white flesh is damaged when he fulfills his black identity. Faulkner ends this sequence with a simile that speaks to the difficulty of Christmas’s black identity in a white body/world: “He felt like an eagle: hard, sufficient potent, remorseless, strong. But that passed, though he did not then know that, like the eagle, his own flesh as well as all space was still in a cage” (LIA 160). Comparing Christmas to a black and white bird in a cage suggests that the sense of accomplishment Christmas feels having just asserted his identity is only a temporary contentment; Christmas will not be truly liberated until he escapes from the double-cage of his own white skin in a white-supremacist society.

In addition to physical violence, Christmas asserts his racial identity through his sexuality, vocalizing his blackness when he does not have the money to pay his prostitutes: “he bedded with women and paid them when he had the money, and when he did not have it he bedded anyway and then told them he was a negro” (LIA 224). In these situations, Christmas is enjoying a crime that he perceives as stereotypical of poor, black men, and ultimately accepting (if not relishing in) the physical beatings and jail time that follow. When one white prostitute is unaffected by his “negro” news, Christmas is so shaken by her lack of hatred that he is sickened. In this case, he reverts to physical violence in order to destroy the force that challenges his self-recognition, and reportedly “stay[s] sick for two years” upon learning that “there were white women who would take a man with black skin” (LIA 225). Christmas’s final identity-shaping agent is his sexual relationship with Joanna Burden. Burden’s alternative form of moral (rather than political) racism – a concept explored on the Calvin Burden yoknapedia page– appreciates Christmas’s conception of himself as a sinful black man, but also allows for the possibility of redemption. While Burden helps Christmas reach the tragic conclusion that his self-identification has no solid foundation – “If I’m not [black], damned if I haven’t wasted a lot of time” (254) – he still chooses Joanna’s death over the opportunity to reform his black soul.

The mixed-race characters in Faulkner’s novels are a particularly strong tribute to the relationship between one’s skin and one’s identity. Race and sex are both rooted in skin, and Faulkner dedicates much of his writing to deconstructing the evolving cultural approach to racial and sexual relationships in the south before and after the civil war. Faulkner’s image of Sutpen's Hundred at the end of AA is represents the strong tie between flesh and the collapse of the Old Southern society: “now, almost beneath it, the dead furnace-breath of air in which they moved seemed to reek in slow and protracted violence with a smell of desolation and decay as if the wood of which it was built were flesh” (AA 293). A popular interpretation of Sutpen's design among Faulkner critics including Carolyn Porter and Ralph Behrens, is that both the man and his design are “representative, in a microcosmic way, of those principles upon which the Old South built its social system” (Behrens 26). This perspective indicates that the incineration of Sutpen’s plantation house – made “of flesh”, by flesh, and on the concept of flesh as an anchor for the Sutpen social hierarchy – represents the incineration of the Old South’s relationship with flesh.

–Katherine Grau


Works Cited
Behrens, Ralph. “Collapse of Dynasty: The Thematic Center of Absalom, Absalom!.” PMLA 86.1 l (1974): 24-33. JSTOR.

Dondlinger, Mary Joanne. “Getting around the Body: The Matter of Race and Gender in Light in August.” Faulkner and the Natural World: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Series. Ed. Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. 98-125. Print.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom!. New York: Vintage Books, 1986. Print.

---. Light in August. New York: Vintage Books, 1985. Print.

---. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. Print.

King, Richard H. A Southern Renaissance The Cultural Awakening of the American South 1930-1955. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. Print.


Porter, Carolyn. William Faulkner: Lives and Legacies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Robinson, Owen. “‘Liable to be anything’: The Creation of Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s ‘Light in August’” Journal of American Studies 37.1 (2003): 119-133. JSTOR.