- Don Quijote de Yoknapatawpha:Cervantine Comedy and the Bakhtinian Grotesque in William Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy
In the library at Rowan Oak, William Faulkner's Oxford, Mississippi, home, there stands today, as it did when the author occupied the home, a wooden bust of Miguel de Cervantes's mad hidalgo, Don Quijote. The contorted features and somewhat odd shape of the bust recall the diverse, and often comic, view of the hero throughout the novel.1 Faulkner's attraction to Cervantes's knight-errant has been well documented in both scholarship and interviews with the author himself, who admitted, "It's admiration and pity and amusement—that's what I get from him—and the reason is that he is a man trying to do the best he can in this ramshackle universe he's compelled to live in. He has ideals which by the pharisaical standards are nonsensical. His practice of trying to put them into practice is tragic and comic."2 Faulkner's multifaceted view of the Quijote becomes important when examining the author's own work, especially its comic aspects. It is the purpose of this essay to demonstrate how Faulkner's view of quixotic comedy emerges in several of his novels, the Snopes trilogy in particular, and that this conception of the comic is reminiscent of Mikhail Bakhtin's discussion of grotesque realism in Rabelais and His World. By using Bakhtin's text as a lens, moreover, the connection between Cervantes and Faulkner becomes firmly established outside of the admitted admiration and influence the Mississippi writer acknowledged. Indeed, both authors prove to be using comedy and the grotesque body as a means of masking, and hence unmasking, issues relating to personal and, more important, regional identity; thus, the comic emerges not just as an agent linking these two authors, but [End Page 482] also as a means by which these works may be examined independently as well as comparatively.
Describing how Don Quijote "degrades chivalry and [the] ceremonial" in the introduction to Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin defines his conception of "grotesque realism" when he depicts it as "a phenomenon in transformation, an as yet unfinished metamorphosis, of death and birth, growth and becoming" that utilizes the regenerative image of the grotesque body in order to bring about a state of constant metamorphosis.3 This spirit of change, furthermore, is comically enacted throughout Cervantes's and Faulkner's texts as their heroes, through the multiplicity of their roles as both pastoral lovers of letters and chivalric holders of arms, defend their ladies, who, as similarly versatile figures, also become degraded as constructions in their heroes' minds. Much like the women they defend, both Don Quijote and Gavin Stevens suffer defeat and destruction, but, as Bakhtin notes, their degradation only propels their transformation. Thus, female characters like Dorotea and Linda Snopes Kohl and the Sancho Panza figure, seen in Faulkner's V. K. Ratliff, become representative of the manner in which demeaning the hero can lead to a rebirth in moldable characters like the un-idealized lady and the noble squire.
There has been relatively substantial critical attention paid to Bakhtinian views of Don Quijote and several of Faulkner's novels, and Bakhtin himself discusses Cervantes's novel at length in Rabelais and His World. Until the last twenty years, however, the examination of Don Quijote and Faulkner's works as comic, per se, has rarely been the subject of articles, books, and conferences.4 The comparative study of Faulkner and the Quijote has rarely engaged a discussion of their humor, and the scholarship comparing the two writers ranges from the occasional mention to the book-length study, such as Montserrat Ginés's The Southern Inheritors of Don Quixote.5 What is interesting about these kinds of studies, however, is that attempts to link Cervantes and Faulkner have often leaned more toward a character-driven study and less toward a thematic or theoretical view of each author's works. Although this essay will focus on the characters as the means by which comedy functions in these novels, it is important to note that Don Quijote and Dulcinea are not cardboard cutouts from which...