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Gwin's feminist, poststructuralist, and language-based readings of The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, and The Wild Palms may well be as important a contribution to Faulkner studies as was John Irwin's Doubling and Incest fifteen years ago. To approach key Faulkner novels in ways that use legitimate reading strategies, and thereby give readers valuable fresh insights, is no small accomplishment in 1990, when essays and books on Faulkner's works number into the thousands. [End Page 559] Much of the value of Gwin's reading is that her strategies can be applied to texts other than these three, so the reader continues to benefit with each novel studied independently.
Gwin's aim is, partly, to explain why Faulkner's texts are so satisfying for women readers. Labeled a misogynist as well as a racist at some points in his career, Faulkner still created a number of white women, black men and women, and androgynous white male characters who spoke for the interests and issues of the marginalized. By focusing on the way Faulkner's fictions work, and particularly the way the author uses silences, metaphor, and textual gaps to undermine what appears to be his ostensible "story," Gwin gives the reader new information about key characters and narrative developments. Her focus in The Sound and the Fury is on Caddy Compson; in Absalom, Absalom! on Rosa Coldfield; and in The Wild Palms on Charlotte Rittenmeyer, the woman giving birth in "Old Man," and the river itself, expressed through the metaphor of flooding.
Such new readings would not be possible without Gwin's methodology. French feminism provides many of her terms, and she gives ample (and sometimes cumbersome) introduction to her critical scaffolding in the first chapter, "Beginnings." This section is valuable because after reading it, no one can pretend that Gwin's text is inaccessible. Concepts from the writing of Cixous, Irigaray, Kristeva, Jardine, Derrida, Culler, Chodorow, and others aid Gwin in presenting her remarkably persuasive discussions. One of her most important points is that Faulkner was interested in "play," "the plasticity of experience," "the power of the human mind to break down rigidity and boundary." Yet, critics of Faulkner have long treated his works from moral points of view, seeing his characters as binary, either negative or positive. Faulkner's women, particularly, have great ability to play, to rearrange reality, to use language as play—even if their activities lead to morally negative results. Gwin's readings allow the reader to see the value, the jouissance, in many of Faulkner's women characters, and to connect language play with freedom of sexual expression.
Caddy Compson is read as being a possible voice that is ultimately silenced by the patriarchal powers surrounding her, but Gwin shows that in her narrative, Faulkner has created a story that speaks against the novel's binary "story" of nihilism versus endurance. Similarly, the voices of Addic Bundren, Rosa Coldfield, and Charlotte Rittenmeyer create "bisexual spaces in Faulkner's texts. These are spaces of alterity and mystery. They are that indefinable something more, that excess which generates narrative production and makes stories flood over their own boundaries." Gwin's reading of the metaphor of the flood—applied to Charlotte's gruesome death as well as to the river's flooding—makes her chapter on The Wild Palms the most adventurous, and perhaps the most helpful of the book.
The reader wishes Gwin's study (subtitled a conversation with the texts) were longer. The Morrisses' interesting study, Reading Faulkner, prompts the opposite reaction. It could be shorter by half, because the first section is redundant for anyone who already knows existing criticism. In the first part of their work, the Morrises take to task a number of Faulkner critics, those they seem to think have been influential through the...