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  • Exhausted Voices:The Inevitable Impoverishment of Faulkner's “Garrulous and Facile” Language
  • H. Collin Messer

"Done sold my Benjamin," the old Negress said. "Sold him in Egypt." She began to sway faintly back and forth in the chair. "I telephoned Mr. Edmonds," Stevens said. "He will have everything ready when you get there." "Roth Edmonds sold him," the old Negress said. "Sold my Benjamin."

—William Faulkner, "Go Down, Moses"

What does the dialogue of Faulkner's characters ultimately accomplish in his narratives? Yoknapatawpha County is home to a host of voices, black and white, male and female, that murmur incessantly. The town of Jefferson itself often seems to speak in a collective voice. In the midst of so much talk, however, do people ever really listen to each other? The conversations between even Faulkner's most prolific interlocutors (Mr. Compson and Quentin, for example) certainly leave us with little sense that they really understand one another any better as a result of their dialogue. We as readers may understand them better through poring over their verbal exchange (which we are given in written form), but they are not so privileged. Stephen Ross says that in Faulkner's works "voice and writing are in constant tension . . . [for] the tools of writing can be used to generate voices, and . . . the voices of fiction constantly lead us back to the written nature of literature" (3, 236). Faulkner plausibly uses dialogue to communicate meaning in his own [End Page 1] "conversation" with his readers—that is, the larger narrative of the novel—but what hope or sense is there in the dialogical world of his characters? If fathers and sons struggle to share spoken meaning in Faulkner's stories, what hope is there for dialogue in Yoknapatawpha across even wider gulfs, particularly when the characters and their roles are so powerfully circumscribed by history and culture?

In two of his later works, Go Down, Moses (1942) and Requiem for a Nun (1951), Faulkner ably faces the challenge of writing meaningful dialogue. In pursuit of what Thadious Davis describes as his larger narrative goal of "illuminating the conjoining of blacks and whites," Faulkner resists the urge to require more of his many speakers than they can believably accomplish through their conversations (242). This is not to say that Faulkner does not take risks as the characters in these stories converse, but rather that he seems always to be probing the depths of the possibilities of their dialogue. Thus he actually risks much in an effort to identify and illustrate the point at which dialogue reaches its terminus, so to speak—the point at which the voices must necessarily stop, because the characters have exhausted the limits of their ability to comprehend and convey experience through spoken language.

In Faulkner's "Negro" (1983), Davis recognizes Faulkner's determination to grapple in Go Down, Moses with the nature and meaning of dialogue among members of a community that seems forever on the verge of fragmentation. At the close of her largely positive discussion of Faulkner's treatment of race in the final chapter of the novel, which is also entitled "Go Down, Moses,"1 Davis concludes that the best he can hope for is an armistice of sorts between groups who are at once alienated from and yet inextricably bound to one another. "Conflict," Davis says, "is a pervasive condition" in Yoknapatawpha (243). Coming at the end of a novel in which Faulkner perhaps for the first time humanizes his black characters without idealizing them, "Go Down, Moses" constitutes for Davis an "uneasy truce." She deems it "a recognition that the individuals of the community cannot strip themselves of their collective guilt or interdependency but they can act according to the old verities of the human heart" (243, emphasis mine).

The characters in "Go Down, Moses" arguably do act according to Faulkner's old verities of "love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice" (Essays, Speeches and Public Letters 120). Near the beginning of the story, for example, Mollie Beauchamp, an "old Negress," acts simply out of love and necessity in walking seventeen miles to Jefferson in the July heat to tell white county...


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