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Et Ego in Atlantis: A Possible Source for Quentin Compson’s Suicide

From: The Southern Literary Journal
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2013
pp. 36-47 | 10.1353/slj.2013.0022

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William Faulkner’s famously troubled Harvard freshman Quentin Compson has fascinated readers for decades, due in large part to the simultaneous universality and singularity of his character. Most readers can identify to some extent with his late-adolescent angst, yet at the same time cringe at the suicidal extremes to which he carries it. As his friend Spoade remarks, Quentin may elicit “not only admiration, but horror” (167). Seeking out a source for the precise manifestation of this anguish, however, is a more complex and interesting proposition. One might, of course, look for some autobiographical origin (Spilka 452), with certain aspects of Quentin’s character reflecting Faulkner’s own personal interests and experiences, but aside from some similarities in geography and temperament, the actual details of Faulkner’s life offer little basis for the extremes to which Quentin’s misplaced idealism carry him. More fruitful as a possible source for sources is the literary work of other writers, where pathologically hopeless young and mostly male idealists abound. Previously suggested literary models for Faulkner’s tortured character include Hamlet’s Ophelia (Campbell 53), a character from Balzac’s “The Old Maid” (Horton 59), Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus (Spilka 454), Doestoevsky’s Raskolnikov (Weisgerber 240), and a host of others. To this long list, I’d like to add yet another compelling candidate. The German Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story “The Golden Pot” (“Der Goldne Topf ”) features a college student, Anselmus, whose obsessive idealism places him increasingly at odds with physical reality until he finally seeks permanent escape from this world through suicide—death by drowning. So very strongly does Hoffmann’s tale resemble the Quentin section of The Sound and the Fury—both in plot detail and in thematic significance—that it does not too greatly tax the bounds of plausibility to suggest that Faulkner may have had “The Golden Pot” lurking somewhere in his mind when he composed his narrative of Quentin’s final day of life.

While I have not been able to track down definitive proof that Faulkner actually read “The Golden Pot” (he read quite a bit, after all, and like many another avid reader, did not scrupulously record the title of every work that he consumed), I find it far more probable than improbable that Faulkner was familiar with Hoffmann’s work. For starters, he had a high regard for German literature in general. His personal library contained twenty-one German texts, including Goethe’s Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther, as well as Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (Blotner, William Faulkner’s Library 106–108), which he praised in 1932 as “the greatest novel of this century” (Meriwether and Millgate 49), and whose author he rated “among the greatest living writers” (Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography 787). This familiarity with, and fondness for, German literature would have made it improbable for any German writer of stature to pass beneath Faulkner’s literary radar, and among his German compatriots, Hoffmann stood out quite noticeably. During his lifetime, Hoffmann had a reading public that was “as insatiable as that of Sherlock Holmes” (Passage xvi), and after his death he cast quite a long literary shadow, influencing French writers such as Alexandre Dumas, a host of Russian writers than included Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Passage vii), and even some American writers, most notably Nathaniel Hawthorne (Passage viii) and Edgar Allan Poe (Gruener). And should Faulkner’s likely awareness of Hoffmann have piqued his interest, he would have had little difficulty getting his hands on an English translation of Hoffmann’s work. Thomas Carlyle’s English translation of some of Hoffmann’s tales, including “The Golden Pot,” first appeared in his 1827 collection German Romance: Specimens of Its Chief Authors, with Biographical and Critical Notes (Edinburgh: William Tait; London: Charles Tate), with American editions following in 1841 (Boston: James Munroe), and in 1901 (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons). Coincidentally, the J. D. Williams Library at the University of Mississippi, where Faulkner rather infamously studied and “worked” between the years 1919 and 1924, has a copy of the 1901 Scribner’s edition in its circulating catalogue, and while I am not suggesting that...



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