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Innervating developments are afoot in Faulkner criticism. Heralded by a variety of papers at the recent Faulkner and Gender Conference and two new book-length feminist studies by Deborah Clarke and Diane Roberts, as well as a dozen or so recent essays by seasoned Faulkner scholars and newcomers alike, the questions driving Faulkner studies are being radically reconfigured by contemporary gender studies. Although dissimilar in their theoretical underpinnings and reading methods, both Clarke’s Robbing the Mother: Women in Faulkner and Roberts’ Faulkner and Southern Womanhood can lay claim to the art of enlarging our understanding of gender in Faulkner, as well as offering inventive and challenging forays into the always tricky business of doing feminist criticism with canonical male texts. Faulkner, of course, continues to astonish, dazzle, and mystify as his texts are sifted and resifted through the filters of contemporary theory.
Clarke’s contribution is her application of contemporary psychoanalytic, feminist, and language-based theories to Faulkner’s texts, while keeping the emphasis on close textual readings. Robbing the Mother offers dexterous and prudent feminist analyses of the ways in which Faulkner’s texts break down gender as a stable construct. Feminist theory, Clarke maintains, “provides alternative approaches which can open up new avenues into Faulkner’s work, revealing his recognition that gender is not necessarily fixed, and does not always conform to expected patriarchal norms.” At the same time Clarke shows how some of those texts reify paternal authority by “robbing the mother” and ultimately silencing the mother’s voice. Clarke is interested in the tensions, the interplays, between binaries; she argues that it is the tensions between maternal and paternal authority in the texts which test and challenge concepts of gender, and to a lesser degree, race. Like earlier work of this decade, Clarke’s study points to the ways in which Faulkner’s greatest novels rely on the presence of disruptive femininity and shows how, even when configured as other, “women become uncannily and paradoxically [End Page 838] the emblems of his fictional vision.” Even though many of Faulkner’s female characters appear “shallow, mindless, and even perverted” and often have little to say for themselves, Clarke believes that “beneath that silence lurks a kind of language different from that of standard symbolic discourse” (for example, “the text” of Clytie Sutpen’s “interracial body”).
More specifically, Clarke argues that “mothers” (meaning mother-figures) in Faulkner’s work “bear the origins of language and identity.” Faulkner’s stance vis-à-vis the mother’s power is transgressive and appropriative, and his propensity to rob the mother “may help to account for the violence and distrust so often associated with the feminine in his work.” Though she makes forays into Lacan, Kristeva, and Chodorow to discuss the relation between language and the maternal in her introduction, Clarke is correct in saying that her study is less theoretical than applied. At the end of the introduction, I enter the book confused on a number of the points. What is the relation between mothers/mother-figures in Faulkner’s text and “the maternal”? How do the dichotomies Clarke sets up between literal and figurative language relate to the maternal? To Faulkner’s mother-figures? Lacan, Kristeva, Chodorow and others have quite different, sometimes diametrically opposed perspectives; yet their theories are discussed side by side without any effort to come to terms with these contradictions.
Robbing the Mother gathers momentum and insight as it progresses. Of the four chapters which follow, two texts are paired in all but the last chapter on Absalom, Absalom!. The first of these, “Erasing and Inventing Motherhood: The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying,” in my view the least successful, investigates the mother as absent center and describes male efforts to reconstruct her linguistically and, at the same time, bury her (figuratively and literally). Often Clarke’s most stimulating insights come not so much in relation to the theme of...