William Faulkner

William Faulkner is viewed by many as America's greatest writer of prose fiction. He was born in New Albany, Mississippi, where he lived a life filled with good times as well as bad. However, despite bad times he would become known as a poet, a short story writer, and finally one of the greatest contemporary novelists of his time. William Faulkner's accomplishments resulted not only from his love and devotion to writing, but also from family, friends, and certain uncontrollable events. William Faulkner's life is an astonishing accomplishment; however, it is crucial to explore his life prior to his fixated writing career (Mack 1794-1798). In 1905, Faulkner entered the first grade at the tender age of eight, and immediately showed signs of talent. He not only drew an explicitly detailed drawing of a locomotive, but he soon became an honor-roll student. Throughout his early education, he would work conscientiously at reading, spelling, writing, and arithmetic. However, he especially enjoyed drawing. When Faulkner got promoted to the third grade, skipping the second grade, he was asked by his teacher what he wanted to be when he grew up. He replied, "I want to be a writer just like my great granddaddy"(Minter 18). Faulkner took interest in poetry around 1910, but no one in Oxford, Mississippi, could tell him hat to do with his poems. Faulkner, who was very talkative, would always entertain Estelle Oldham by telling her vividly imaginary stories. Eventually, Faulkner grew very fond of Estelle. She became the sole inspirer and recipient of Faulkner's earlier poems. Not long after Faulkner began seeing Estelle regularly, he met a man named Phil Stone who was dating one of Estelle's friends, Katrina. Katrina had told Stone about Faulkner and his poetry. So one afternoon, Stone went to Faulkner's house to get to know him better, and during his visit he received several written verses from Faulkner's poetry. Stone not only became a very close friend of Faulkner's, but also a mentor to the young writer at the beginning of his career. Stone immediately gave the potential poet encouragement, advice, and models for his study of literature (Minter 29). As Faulkner grew older he began to lose interest in his schoolwork and turned his attention to athletics, such as football and baseball, which caused his grades to start to fall. Eventually, he quit both athletics and school altogether. In 1919, his first literary work was acknowledged and published. The poem is a forty-line verse with a French title that acknowledges the influence of the French Symbolists. "From Mallarme he took the title of his first published poem; from Verlaine's 'Le Faune' he took the central device of The Marble Faun"(Minter 36). "The Marble Faun brings Pastoral art and modern aestheticism into a conjunction that not only exposes the weaknesses of pastoral poetry, particularly its artificiality, but also establishes the pertinence of those weaknesses to our understanding of modern aestheticism"(Minter 36). Faulkner enrolled at the University of Mississippi, and did not let his academic years distract him from writing more poems. The Mississippian, the student paper, published "Landing in Luck." The short story, nine pages in length were created directly from his direct experience in the Royal Air Force flight training in 1916. After awhile he began to get tired of school once again. He started cutting classes and finally stopped going. In the summer of 1921, Faulkner decided to take a trip to New York to receive some professional instruction from editors and critics, because Stone was busy with his academic studies. Faulkner stayed in New York and shared an incredibly small apartment with a man named Stark Young (Minter 35-40). During Faulkner's stay in New York, Stone became worried about him and his financial troubles. So Stone immediately went to work on behalf of his friend and became the Assistant District Attorney. "Within a few months, his restlessness had taken him back to Oxford and the most improbable job he would ever hold"(Minter 42). Stone pulled some strings and got Faulkner appointed to the job of postmaster at the university post office. Even as postmaster, Faulkner still found time to write. When Faulkner finished the typescript for Soldier's Pay, he it sent to a publisher who gave him two hundred dollars in advanced pay. He used the money to pay for his trip to Europe. While in Paris, Faulkner began to work on the novel Elmer. Unfortunately, it was never completed, but it still exists today in several versions. After spending some time in France Faulkner decided to return home (Minter 46-50). Upon returning to New York, he immediately began his next novel Mosquitoes, which was published a year later. In September of 1927, Faulkner finished yet another novel entitled Flags in the Dust. Once this novel was sent to the publisher, it was cut down to 110,000 words and the title was replaced as Sartoris. Within the same month, Faulkner began The Sound and The Fury, which would later become his greatest novel (Minter 72). He completed the final edition of the novel while in New York in October 1928 (Millgate 26). "In the summer of 1929 Faulkner was married. Estelle Oldham Franklin had divorced her husband and returned to Oxford with the two children of the marriage, Malcolm and Victoria (known as Cho Cho)" (Millgate 28). Faulkner got a job working at the university power plant. "In October 1930, about four months after Faulkner and his wife had moved into Rowanoak, As I Lay Dying was published"(Millgate 29). None of his novels where bringing in very much income, and he had a new family to think about. He had to write something that would bring some income. Sanctuary, his sixth novel, was published in 1931. This novel brought him "financial success"(Volpe 11). "Faulkner's first major purchase was an old mansion, one of the finest in Oxford"(Volpe 11). Faulkner settled down in Oxford, while he raised his family. He would only go to Hollywood and work on different scripts whenever he was in need of some money. "The Faulkners lost their first child soon after its birth; their second child, also a girl, they named Jill"(Volpe 12). From the early 1930's to the early 1940's Faulkner spent a lot of his time writing. Before the end of 1942, he published seven novels, two collections of short stories, and a book of poems (Volpe 12). Light in August and Absalom, Absalom! were written in this time period. These two novels rank among the greatest novels in contemporary literature. Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950 (Volpe 12). As Faulkner was coming to the end of his life, he spoke to the cadets at West Point. In his speech he read from his last novel called "The Reivers, which became, with in a few days of publication, a national best seller"(Volpe 13). Shortly there after, on July 6, 1962, the great author died of a heart attack. Faulkner was known for his realistic novels and true-to-life short stores. From 1926 to 1962, Faulkner published nineteen novels and more than seventy- five short stories. Most of the novels and a good many of the short stories are about the people living in a fictional county in the northern regions of Mississippi called Yoknapatawpha County. The main town in the county is a small town called Jefferson (Volpe 13). "Yoknapatawpha County covers an area of 2,400 square acres and contains, according to Faulkner's count, 6,298 whites and 9,313 Negroes"(Volpe 15). In all of Faulkner's works about the people of this county, he actually identifies around six hundred of them by name. Faulkner uses character and character personalities multiple times in several novels and short stories. For example, "the Negro companion of the aristocratic white boy is named Ringo in The Unvanquished and Alex Sanders in Intruder in the Dust, but their characters are almost identical"(Volpe 16-17). "Faulkner is too complex a writer to explain in terms of a single idea, much of his work can be understood by recognizing that at the center of the fiction is one crucial experience: the transition of a boy to manhood"(Volpe 17). Faulkner often unified his stories by writing about the same families (Volpe 30). His novels and short stories are supposed to not only tell a story, but also convey messages about the society of that time period (Volpe 31-32). Faulkner's greatness as an artist is due to a great extent to what might be called his stereoscopic vision, his ability to deal with the specific and the universal simultaneously, to make the real symbolic without sacrificing reality. He is unquestionably the greatest of the American regional writers. His fiction is as Southern as bourbon whiskey (Volpe 28). Faulkner used the people of Yoknapatawpha County to play roles in several of his writings. His southern upbringing also played a major role in his work. Faulkner's short story "Barn Burning" is a sad story because it very clearly shows the classical struggle between the privileged and the underprivileged classes in the southern culture. Time after time emotions of despair resurface from the characters in the story. The main characters have a poor economic status, and very little hope of improving their condition. Being a sharecropper, Ab Snopes and his family have to share half or two-thirds of the harvest with the landowner, and also out of their share they have to pay for the necessities of life. As a result of this status, Ab and his family know from the start what the future will hold. They will continue to work hard for the landlord, while barely surviving themselves. There is no hope for advancement throughout the story. Sarty, his brother and the twin sisters have no access to education, and they must spend their time working in the fields or at home performing family duties. The Snopes family manages to survive and find work. However, the work offers little benefit other than the chance for survival. They are always moving from place to place due to seasons and crop rotation. In order to secure work, they have to reserve land with different landowners. Ab's emotional instability is a predominant factor that contributes to his weird behavior throughout the story (Mack 1798-1812) The family has moved a dozen times from farm to farm, and at times they are forced to leave their agreement with the landlord due to Ab's unacceptable behavior. His irrational behavior is transformed into a rebellion. Ab smears the landowner's carpet with horse manure and then sues the landowner for charging him too much for the damage. These acts symbolize frustration with the system and a radical approach to rebel against it. Knowing that punishment could not be avoided when committing such acts, Ab's actions take on a more dramatic meaning. It is as if he is trying to convey a message. He is aware of the economic injustice and he feels must respond. He chooses to respond even at the risk of him and his family being prosecuted. Ab's constant rebellion is displayed by a rough, sour character and is brought out when he burns down his landlord's barn. He feels despair and loss, and inflicts damage to whomever he happens to be working for at the time. Although the story centers on the feelings and thoughts of Ab's youngest son Sarty, the economic situation of Sarty's entire family plays a vital role in justifying his father's behavior (Mack 1798-1812) Sarty's main problem is his loyalty to his family. This directly collides with his disappointment and suppressed dislike of his own father. He tends to hide his feelings by denying the facts. The story's emotional turns are clearly defined by Sarty's thoughts and Ab's actions. Sarty's dilemma and Ab's frustrations continually grab the reader, serving up a series of emotions. Given the circumstances of the story, is Ab's barn burning justified? Should Sarty tell the landlord that Ab was responsible for burning down the barn? Burning a barn or any other act of vandalism is definitely not condoned (Mack 1798-1812). Faulkner's use of the townspeople in Yoknapatawpha County is also emphasized in A Rose for Emily. This is another short story of Faulkner's in which the death of Miss Emily brings together the entire population of Jefferson. Jefferson is the main town in Faulkner's fictional county. Faulkner uses a great deal of symbolism in this story. Miss Emily was raised in the period before the Civil War in the south. An unnamed narrator, who seems to be the voice of the whole town, calls attention to key moments in her life, including the death of her father and her brief relationship with a man from the north named Homer Barron. The story basically addresses the symbolic changes in the south after the Civil War. Miss Emily's house symbolizes neglect in the new times in the town of Jefferson. Beginning with Miss Emily Grierson's funeral, throughout the story Faulkner foreshadows the ending and suspenseful events in Miss Emily's life. The continuing symbolism and Faulkner's descriptions of the decaying house coincide with Miss Emily's physical and emotional decay. As an example, the house is in an area of town that was once a prominent neighborhood that has now deteriorated. Originally the house was a big white house with large balconies, and the yard was decorated with beautiful flowers. But now the people of the town think that the house has become an embarrassment to the town. This happened through a lack of attention. The house has deteriorated from a beautiful estate to an ugly shack. Similarly, Miss Emily has also become an eyesore in various ways. She is described as a "fallen monument" to suggest her former beauty and her later ugliness (Faulkner 119-130). Her lover for a brief time, Homer, described himself as a man who cannot be tied down and is always on the move. This leaves Miss Emily in a terrible position. As the story comes to a close, Emily seems to prove Homer wrong. Miss Emily poisons poor old Homer. After killing him she puts him in one of the upstairs bedrooms. When Miss Emily dies the townspeople, who were anxious to see what was in miss Emily's house found a real nice surprise when they went snooping around in her house. They found the dead body of poor Homer lying on the bed in one of the bedrooms. The town ladies continue to show sympathy towards Emily, although she never hears of it verbally. She is well aware of the distant whispers that begin when her presence is near. Some of the major contributing factors to Emily's behavior are gossip and whisper. These may have been the causes for her behavior. The theme of Faulkner's story is simple. Miss Emily cannot accept the fact that times are changing and society is growing and changing with the times. As times change, she isolates herself from the rest of the town, using her butler to run her errands so she does not have to talk much. The setting of the story is very important because it defines Miss Emily's tight grasp on the old southern ways and unchanging behavior. Just as the house seems to reject progress and updating, so does Miss Emily, until both of them become decaying symbols of their dying generation. Through descriptions of the house and the resemblance of the descriptions of Miss Emily, "A Rose for Emily" emphasizes that beauty and elegance can become distorted through negligence and a lack of love and affection. As the house deteriorates for forty years until it becomes ugly and unappealing, Miss Emily's physical appearance and emotional well-being decays in the same way (Faulkner 119-130). The southern culture in all of Faulkner's works bring out a comedic aspect in the stories, and the continuous usage of the same characters in various stories allows for Faulkner to enter twine his stories to where they are all dealing with the people of Yoknapatawpha County in the northern regions of Mississippi. "In Faulkner's world men and women are measured by the breadth of their compassion or the quality of their endurance. Although there are villains, few wholly negative characters appear, and the Heroes tend to be larger than life" (Mack 1796).


  • Broods, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Fiction. New York: F.S. Crofts, 1943. Pages 409-414.
  • Faulkner, William. Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Random House, 1950.
  • Mack, Mayrard. Ed. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. 6th Edition. Vol.2. New York: W.W. Norton + Company, Inc, 1992
  • Millgate, Michael. The Achievement of William Faulkner. New York: Random House, 1966.
  • Minter, David. William Faulkner: His Life and Work. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.
  • Volpe, Edmond L. A Reader's Guide to William Faulkner. New York: Octagon Books, 1974