Characters Representing Extremes
Every great novelist possesses the gift of creating characters who remain in our memories long after we have read the novels in which they figured. Faulkner too has created some unforgettable characters. As Faulkner develops most of his characters by all possible literary means, most of his characters can be described as neither flat nor round.On the one hand, almost all of them represent some kind of extreme, or exhibit extreme qualities or behaviour of some variety ; and to the extent that the characters are extremes, they often seem to contrast with one another even when there is no direct opposition of characteristics or behaviour. For example, when we visualize Rosa Coldfield and Quentin together, or Christmas and Hightower, or Charles Mallison and. Lucas Beauchamp the figures stand in almost as sharp relief as if they were directly or completely contrasting characters, such’ as Tom Jones and Blifil in Tom Jones or Becky and Amelia in Vanity Fair. On the other hand, Faulkner’s characters, although extremes, are not simply types. They escape being types partly through their very extremity which places them at or beyond the boundaries of the groups they might have represented, partly because of the intensity and fullness with which Faulkner renders their individual experiences and consciousnesses, and primarily because they face in various directions depending upon whom they are compared with. Benjy, for example, is an idiot. In contrast with the intellectual Quentin, it is the elementary and sensory aspect of Benjy’s perceptions that may seem most important. In contrast with the “practical” and callous Jason, Benjy’s innocence seems most significant. Quentin and Jason are both extremes but appear in decidedly different lights depending upon whether they are compared with each other or with Benjy or Dilsey.
Contrasts of Characters
Thus, most of Faulkner’s characters, although extreme, are not “fixed”. Their dominant characteristics are not fixed nor are their relationships with other characters. Nor are most of them fixed on a moral scale. Quentin and Benjy may be viewed along with Jason as awful illustrations of the decay of the Compson family and as standing in pitiful contrast to Dilsey. Contrasted with Jason, however, Benjy and Quentin are good. Considered in isolation, Quentin may justly be regarded as a Hamlet figure. Viewed in antithesis to Brown, Joe Christmas has the virtues of strength and will. In contrast to Byron Bunch, he is an epitome of .arrogance and malevolence. Hightower and Joanna Burden are both generous in ways that Lena Grove is not ; yet they both are in a sense murderers.
Lena is soft and gentle in contrast to Mrs. Armstid ; in contrast to. Byron or Hightower, she is hard and inflexible. Like many other elements in Faulkner’s works, when viewed in total context, his. characters seem to exist in a loose suspension reather than in fixed relationships to one another.
Dramatic Oppositions Between Characters
On the other hand, a vital part is played in Faulkner’s novels by oppositions between individuals, individuals and animals, individuals and groups, and individuals and societal and natural forces. In addition, Faulkner again and again places individuals in striking antithesis by rhetorical means. These oppositions fill and shape the novels to a very great extent. Not only are most of the novels built around one or more extended major oppositions, but their moment-to-moment progress is largely a series of briefer minor clashes. Many of the oppositions are protracted, violent, and dramatic.
Conflicts and Clashes in the Compson Household
The Sound and the Fury is about a family torn by dissensions. There are protracted general oppositions between Mrs. Compson and the rest of the family, between Jason and the Test of the family, and between Jason and the world in general. Jason’s extended struggles with Caddy, with his niece (Caddy’s daughter), and with Dilsey play an especially significant part in the novel. Among his many briefer conflicts, his verbal clash with the sheriff and his physical clashes with the circus cook, with Luster, and with Benjy deserve mention. Quentin, who sees himself at war with the world and time, clashes physically with Dalton Ames, Gerald, and Julio and, like one or more characters in every novel by Faulkner, has a conflict with the law.
Conflicts Anon the Bundrens
The Bundrens in As I Lay Dying are engaged in an extended struggle with natural forces-flood, fire, and the decomposition of flesh. Further, they come into continual conflict with various individuals, communities, and the law. The family itself is torn by the perpetual and profound antipathy between Jewel and Darl and by lesser antipathies between Darl and Dewey Dell and Jewel and Anse. Jewel, who seethes with a general hostility toward the world, clashes physically with Gillespie and Darl, and is physically restrained from a battle with a stranger in Jefferson. His extended and important relationship with his horse is one of simultaneous love and violent physical opposition. Further oppositions exist between Addie and Cora. Addie and Anse, and Vardaman and Peabody. Whitfield, in his own estimation, at any rate, wrestles with Satan.
Protracted Struggles Between Characters in “Light in August”
Life for Joe Christmas of Light in August is primarily a series of oppositions, most of which involve physical violence. We watch in considerable detail his more or less protracted struggles with the dietician, McEachern, Mrs. McEachern, Brown, Joanna Burden, the sheriff’s posse, and Grimm. He has sharp brief clashes with Bobbie, Max, Hightower, Halliday, Doc Hines, a negro priest and three members of his congregation, and various other assorted whites and negroes, males and females. Like many other characters in Faulkner’s novels, he also struggles with an animal, a horse. The friends Byron Bunch and Hightower become engaged in an important contest of wills, and Bunch struggles physically with Brown. There are further direct oppositions between McEachern and his wife, McEachern and Bobbie, Hightower and Grimm, Brown and the sheriff, Brown and the workers at the sawmill plant, the sheriff and a nameless negro, and Doc Hines and his wife, his daughter, the dietician and Christmas. Beyond these are the extended oppositions between the town and Hightower, between the town and Joanna Burden, and between black and white within both the
corporate and individual body.
Conflicts Between Characters in “Absalom, Absalom”
Absalom, Absalom is in a large measure dominated by a group of extended and relentless conflicts : between Rosa and Sutpen, Rosa and Clytie, Sutpen and Charles Bon, Henry and Charles, and Charles’s mother and Sutpen. Less-extended battles of some consequence occur between Sutpen and Henry, Sutpen and Wash Jones, Sutpen and assorted wild negroes,
and a posse, and Charles and a lawyer. All except three of the oppositions so far named involve a physical clash. Beyond these are the more general conflicts between Sutpen and the town, and between Sutpen and time. Wash
Minor Conflicts Between Characters
This same pattern continues throughout Faulkner’s works. Apart from the more or less extended major or violent clashes of the kind mentioned above, there are also countless minor clashes between individuals. Indeed, the characteristic relationship depicted between individuals in Faulkner’s world is one of opposition or conflict. In The Sound and the Fury, for example, apart from the oppositions already mentioned, there are continual minor conflicts between Luster and Benjy, Dilsey and Mrs. Compson, and Dilsey and her children; and further conflicts between Mr. and Mrs. Compson, between Mrs. Compson and Uncle Maury, and between Dilsey and Quentin. Apart from Quentin’s physical fights with Julio,
, and Gerald, there are his clashes with Caddy and with the boys at the swimming hole, his attempts to get rid of the little Italian girl, and various assorted conflicts with his classmates at Harvard. Except for his mistress. Jason comes into some kind of conflict with every one of the several dozen individuals he encounters in the novel. Dalton
More Examples of Characters in Conflict or Opposition
Continual conflict might be expected in such predatory waste-lands as those presented in Sanctuary and Pylon or when we are following such generally hostile characters as Jason, Jewel Bundren, Popeye, Joe Christmas, Doc Hines, or the groom in A Fable, or such aggressively proud ones as Colonel Sartoris, Sutpen, or Lucas Beauchamp. Even the idyllic opening and closing chapters of Light in August provide examples of opposition. In the opening chapter Armstid and Winterbottom are bargaining over a cultivator.
Lena and Mrs. Armstid for several pages engage in a verbal duel, and Faulkner repeatedly emphasizes the antithesis between them. In the final chapter the surface relationship between the furniture-dealer and his wife is one of conflict, bickering, and teasing, and Lena is calmly driving Byron into a state of desperate frustration.
Conflicts Between Husbands and Wives
Even the relationships between husbands and wives in Faulkner’s novels may. with few exceptions, be described as ones of mutual frustration or conflict Mr. and Mrs. Compson seem to have virtually separated Addie Bundren despises her husband and commits adultery. Ruby and Lee Goodwin are in perpetual conflict in the scenes when we observe them. Benbow has left his wife. Hightower’s wife is frustrated to the point where she commits adultery and finally suicide. Mr. and Mrs. McEachern are unalterably opposed in temperaments and aims. Sutpen and Ellen are grossly incompatible. Charlotte Rittenmeyer runs away from her husband with another man. Laverne’s few expressions of love for Shumann take the form of blows or curses. Between Mink Snopes and his wife the opposition is desperate and often violent. Between Flem and Eula there is no sign of affection or communication of any kind. Armstid and his wife clash violently over the spotted horses. Houston and his wife apparently lived together happily for a time, although their earlier relationship was one of violent struggle, but she is killed after six months of marriage. Lucas ‘Beauchamp and Mollie are usually engaged in a battle of wills. Even Ike McCaslin and his wife, on the one occasion we observe them, are involved is an intense conflict. Between
and Gowan Stevens there is a terrifying gulf of guilt and resentment. ‘However, we must not, in this connection, ignore the fact that cutting through or across many of these marital oppositions, there is a strong fidelity binding together the conflicting persons. Temple
It is not simply the frequency or intensity of character-conflict that is the most striking aspect of Faulkner’s portrayal of characters. Many novelists establish similar intense and prolonged conflicts. “What distinguishes Faulkner is that conflict plays a large part in almost every human relationship which he depicts, even in those in which the characters are not essentially antagonistic or are on the same side in a large conflict. In The Sound and the Fury, for example, -we expect Jason and Caddy to clash, but even Quentin and Caddy are also usually shown in some kind of conflict. Or, again, we expect opposition between Mrs. Compson and Dilsey, but the relations between Mrs. Compson and Uncle Maury, between Dilsey and her children, and between Dilsey and the Compson children also involve a good deal of conflict and bickering. Even where characters are drawn together by a deep bond of sympathy, as, for example, Gavin Stevens -and Charles Mallison, Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen, Wilbourne and Charlotte, and Byron Bunch and Hightower, much of their relationship is a matter of conflict or opposition. The same can be said about the relationships between Ike and the bear in Go Down, Moses or Jewel and his horse in As I Lay Dying.
Faulkner’s World, a Battle-Ground of Individuals
Faulkner’s world in general is to a very large extent a battle-ground of individuals struggling with one another or with some other adversary. Some of these struggles result in victory of a sort for one of the antagonists, but the greater emphasis is upon the struggles, upon the opposing forces in a prolonged balance, deadlock, or tension. The quality is often very much like that suggested by Faulkner’s images of gathered forces, as in the description of Goodwin and Ruby standing in “a mounting terrific muscular hiatus” or as in the description of Jewel and his horse “rigid, motionless, terrific, the horse back-thrust on stiffened, quivering legs, with lowered head ; Jewel with dug heels...in rigid terrific hiatus.” It is not just the quality of such dramatic single encounters as those between Rosa and Clytie in Absalom, Absalom, between Jason, and the circus cook in The Sound and the Fury, or between Hubert and Uncle Buddy over the poker table in Go Down, Moses. What is equally important is the quality of implacable opposition of such extended conflicts as those between Jason and Dilsey, Darl and Jewel, Christmas and McEachern, Christmas and Joanna Burden, Rosa and Sutpen, Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen, the tall convict and the river, Charlotte Rittenmeyer and convention, Ratliff and Flem Snopes, Mink Snopes and Houston’s dog, Frenchman’s bend and the spotted horses, Boon and the bear, Uncle Buddy and Tomey’s Turl, and Lucas Beauchamp and all men. The conflicts between Faulkner’s characters are almost never resolved except by death.