John Bassett's collection of his previously published essays on Faulkner's novels along with a new study of Light in August display the sort of lucid common-sense [End Page 743] readings of the works that are eminently helpful. Each of the essays begins, as Michael Millgate's has done, with the composition, texts, and events that supply the early history of each work, but, coming later, Bassett is able to incorporate more of what we have learned about Faulkner. His readings are also helpful when they juxtapose Faulkner with such other American writers as Fitzgerald and Hawthorne, and his notes supply a shrewd selection of past criticism on each of the works.
What holds Bassett's collection together is his overriding understanding that Faulkner, through Absalom, Absalom!, sought ways in which to comprehend, to see, the conditions of his characters, often through binary oppositions or self-reflection and often by "ironic defenses that precluded complex explorations." His later works, in reaching out to "a much broader social and historical world," were constructed, although not always consciously, by revising and reworking earlier relationships between characters—particularly father and son and the older and younger generations—and earlier themes. Either way, "He almost always conceived his fictions as intersecting story lines or perspectives of several characters, generally in dyadic or triadic patterns."
For Bassett, the binary relationship of Soldier's Pay is a "ballet of sex and death." It set other themes too of autobiographical importance—isolation, failures of communication, self-destructive or sterile attempts to recapture a personal or cultural past, a vision of lost wholeness which are fundamental to the entire canon. Mosquitoes returns to parental betrayal, incest, frustration, and the forging of identity—continuing concerns—buried beneath discussions of aesthetics and a cloaking satire; it also begins Faulkner's later habit of adding to a relatively simple narrative a "complex texture of description, character sketch, and dialogue." Flags in the Dust begins ("furiously") Faulkner's slow exorcism of "Southern romanticism" and "self-indulgent immaturity" by turning from a character like Young Bayard to Horace. Faulkner's self-examination continues in his portrayal of maternal betrayal and paternal inadequacy in The Sound and the Fury with its concentration on family relationships, although the relationship of sex and death remains the concerns of each of the Compson children. With Shegog's sermon, however, Faulkner introduces a new subject—the "undependable fiction." Essentially the same family issues obtain in As I Lay Dying, where Faulkner concludes by burying the threatening mother and confining the tortured, betrayed son. Sanctuary also examines unfulfilled familial relationships, more figurative than actual, while exploring other myths that signal immaturity and romanticism, especially that of sexuality and virginity; while Light in August centers on communication, on the signified and the signifier, and examines the causes and consequences of misunderstanding and miscommunication. And Absalom, Absalom! shows the final ambiguity and arbitrariness of several epistemological structures—the novel ends by showing how "a synthesis, a fiction, an answer, no matter how well formulated, at best succeeds by raising another question."
Faulkner first reaches out to larger human and social issues with the matter of race in Go Down, Moses, but the focus on Ike shows the huge distance between brute facts and the myths and fictions by which man accommodates and transforms them; an even more transitional work is Intruder in the Dust which introduces a note of optimism that will remain throughout later works. Faulkner is still interested in binary oppositions, though, splitting Ike into...