- A Symbolic Center in a Conceptual Country:A Gassian Rubric for The Sound and the Fury
Generally reflecting critical trends, most recent criticism of William Faulkner's fiction shares one general characteristic. It has moved away from reconciling his works with mimetic emphases on character, plot, and theme and has moved toward formalistic analyses that seek to place his works within his modernist aesthetic milieu.1 Such criticism necessarily concerns itself not with Faulkner the regionalist, a writer primarily concerned with the South, the past, and tentative renderings of psychological realism, but with Faulkner the experimentalist, a true modernist, a writer who sought to subvert technically the conventions of realism and naturalism with their emphases on coherent plotting, mimetic characterization, and causal conceptual relationships. This criticism variously suggests that Faulkner's fiction, like most modernist fiction, displays that movement away from more realistic narrative designs and is one more example of that self-conscious experimentation that demonstrates a distrust of premodern fiction and the philosophies of Being that supported it. [End Page 623]
In this essay, I am going to widen the "formalist" inquiry sketched above by discussing how Faulkner—by making The Sound and the Fury even more subjective, performative, and self-reflexive than many other modernist fictions—has also anticipated what are now considered to be postmodern aesthetic concerns. For like much postmodern fiction (which is, for the most part, paradigmatically modernist fiction), The Sound and the Fury is self-consciously concerned with its own aesthetic processes and seems to assert figuratively what is now the postmodernist axiom that we must not pass through the language of a text in order to experience a new rendering of objective reality but that we accept the creative processes of language as a reality—that subjective system that meaningfully negotiates the transactions between the human mind and the objective world.
However, to analyze The Sound and the Fury in terms of the above axiom (that is, simply to discuss this novel's postmodern features) would elucidate neither Faulkner's own comments concerning his intent and the process of the novel's making nor the novel's unique structure. Therefore, I am going to discuss The Sound and the Fury even more specifically as metafiction, as fiction that in part seeks to be self-interpreting, examining its own narrative premises and the narrative premises of the past, or, as defined by Mas'ud Zavarzadeh in The Mythopoeic Reality, as fiction that is "conscious of its own fictivity . . . transforming the process of writing into the subject of writing" (39). William Gass created the term "metafiction" in his Fiction and the Figures of Life (25), and his own work makes him central to the following three-part discussion. In Part One, I will provide a general introduction to the aesthetic relationship between Faulkner and Gass by showing how Gass's Omensetter's Luck reveals striking similarities to The Sound and the Fury both in structure and intent. Then, drawing upon Fiction and the Figures of Life and The World within the Word (books that may be two of the most important recent collections of critical essays regarding the nature and purpose of fiction), in Part Two I will expand the context of the aesthetic relationship established in Part One to include a Gassian theoretic perspective for The Sound and the Fury. Employing this perspective in Part Three, I will discuss the metafictional aspects of Faulkner's intent, as this intent is both expressed by Faulkner and demonstrated in the structure of his novel. Thus, Gass's affinities to Faulkner and his theories regarding fiction will help us, in retrospect, to understand Faulkner's own metafictional concerns.
The most obvious affinity between Faulkner and Gass is that early in his career Faulkner, like Gass, recognized the artificiality of fiction-making [End Page 624] and wrote fiction that, in part, describes this artificiality. As I mentioned, this general affinity can be introduced by examining their two most famous works—The Sound and the Fury and Omensetter's Luck —where we discover striking similarities in structure and intent. For example, both the Faulkner novel and the later Gass novel are concerned with...