- Faulkner's Short Fiction
Reading James Ferguson's overview of Faulkner's short fiction reminds one of sitting in a class (let's call it "English 207: Introduction to the Short Story") listening to a popular professor introduce the students to William Faulkner's short stories. The lectures, which take a number of class periods, are discursively informal but organized in a broad and helpful way. Comments are impressionistic and evaluative more than analytical; titles are mentioned (and written on the board) but no individual stories receive intensive treatment. Themes are painted onto the canvas of the author's career in broad brush strokes as biographical information is brought to bear when useful. Connections with the famous novels are made mostly in passing, and the professor wisely reminds the class that Faulkner's best art was "not an art of compression but of expansion . . . not achieved by the writing of short stories but by the composition of novels." Our student, though, is struck by the visceral if sometimes grotesque power of these stories—of "Dry September" or "A Rose for Emily" or "Barn Burning." But the professor is clearly not overawed by this famous writer, for he expresses his opinions—that a plot is "silly," that a character is "unpalatable," or a passage "callow" with "ugly and embarrassing allusions"—in a comfortably breezy manner. [End Page 944]
The attentive student will find it easy to review for the final exam because her notes will be helpfully organized. First comes the discussion of the "career" of Faulkner's short story writing, divided into four periods: the first, the second, the third, and the fourth, a division that departs somewhat from the conventional division of Faulkner's career into three parts. Next comes a discussion of thematic patterns to be found in the stories, ranging from "children" to "the quest for justice" to "abstractions." Then follow commentaries on technique, first on "point of view", second on "form." Last comes an interesting lecture on the stories in relation to books—both collections (like These 13 and the Collected Stories) and novels constructed out of more or less revised stories (like The Unvanquished and Go Down, Moses). The student is relieved to hear that all these topics will be covered casually, for as the professor reminds the class, he does not have time for more than an overview. After all, "it will be impossible in a study of this kind to do any kind of justice to Faulkner's technical achievement in his short fiction." She and her classmates are cautioned against "the temptation of reductionism" in treating theme, but fortunately for ease in taking notes, most of the stories' themes can, it turns out, be reduced to the "theme of solipsism." Unless the professor changes tactics on the exam and asks for a detailed reading of any story, the student will find it a breeze to cite examples for the periods, the patterns, and so on.
Of scholarship on the short fiction the student will hear little except that the professor has usually "reached similar conclusions independently" from other scholars. She might wonder if technical and linguistic analysis of point of view hadn't progressed at least a little bit beyond the 1955 work by Norman Friedman, and she might be surprised, in browsing in the Faulkner section of the library stacks, to see an awful lot of interesting books not mentioned in class; but it is of no matter since few of the works cited (or the "additional works consulted") will be on the final anyway. This is, after all, only a 200-level course, an overview of the short fiction intended to introduce and summarize the topic. Maybe she'll come back and re-read some Faulkner later, for her senior thesis. Maybe not.