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FAULKNER AND "THAT UNDYING MARK' Joan S. Korenman* Many critics hold that Faulkner's lifelong concern with the problem of time finds its greatest expression in Absalom, Absalom! Ruth M. Vande Kieft, for example, regards this novel as "a comprehensive symbol of [Faulkner's] relationship to time as an artist. It reveals not only his obsession with time but his battle against the oblivion which threatens all human achievement."1 Her remarks are sound and perceptive, but what her discussion and others on the topic overlook is that the craving for immortality in Absalom, Absalom! represents a new dimension in Faulkner's obsession with time. The struggle against time and change, the quest for permanence amid the flux of life, figures importantly all through Faulkner's work. In the books before Absalom, Absalom! this quest focuses on the attractiveness of the past and the wish to perpetuate the past by stopping time. While Absalom, too, is a book about the past, its major figure, Thomas Sutpen, looks forward rather than behind. He strives frantically to found a dynasty and thereby achieve a measure of immortality. This wish to defeat time by achieving some kind of immortality appears repeatedly in both the fiction and the non-fiction after Absalom. Beginning in the 1940s, Faulkner increasingly turns to what could be called a "general" immortality, the notion of the continuity of the species and his membership in the indestructible human race. His frequent statement that man will "endure and prevail" is related to this idea. But even as he notes that "families and clans and tribes talking of themselves as a race of men and not the race of Man, rise and pass andvanish like so much dust,"2 his writings reveal a craving for a more personal immortality, perpetuation not only as man but also as William Faulkner. Like Keats, perhaps his favorite poet, Faulkner turns to art for both the symbol and the means of man's transcendence of time. It is hard to overstate the importance of the past in Faulkner. Many of the works that precede Absalom, Absalom! (1936) deal with the pastĀ°Joan S. Korenman is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She has done work on Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Kesey, O'Neill, and McCullers and has published in American Literature, The Southern Literary Journal, and the Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual. She is currently working on Henry James. 82Joan S. Korenman and with characters' attempts to return to the past and escape from time and change.3 Faulkner's first novel, Soldiers' Pay (1926), includes two characters, Margaret Powers and the Reverend Mahon's serving girl, Emmy, who live in the past and seek to recreate vanished relationships. In Sartoris (1929), the family that gives its name to this first Yoknapatawpha novel lives in the shadow of the dead Colonel John Sartoris and his brother Bayard. Even Horace Benbow longs for "old unchanging days" removed from temporality. In The Sound and the Fury, published the same year as Sartoris, the sensitive, tormented Quentin Compson wishes fervently to restore and preserve the fixed world of his childhood with Caddy. Obsessed by time, Quentin cannot bear to think that Caddy's honor and his concern over it are only "temporary." He mutilates his watch, tries to kill his shadow, and finally drowns himself to find relief from the threat that he and his world may change. The Reverend Gail Hightower in Light in August (1932) is yet another of Faulkner's past-ridden protagonists. Born into his parents' old age, Hightower comes to dwell on the glamorous stories told about his grandfather, whose past becomes the minister's sole reality. Faulkner's portrayal of these time-obsessed characters is deeply ambivalent. He shows their inadequacies, especially their quintessentialIy Southern tendency to romanticize the past and their consequent inability to respond fully to life in the present. At the same time, he presents these characters with great sympathy and compassion; he understands and to some extent shares their longing for a vanished or vanishing past, for escape from time and change. Thomas Sutpen, die would-be dynasty-maker in Absalom, Absalom!, shares with Faulkner's past...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 81-91
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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