- William Faulkner and the Seduction of the Unscene
William Faulkner’s novels are as famous for what they conceal as for what they reveal. Criticism brims with discussions of their withholding—of those critical narrative moments that, bewilderingly, remain unseen by, and inaccessible to, the reader. Many of the novels’ most significant events (Quentin Compson’s suicide, for example, or Temple Drake’s rape) pass undescribed; John Matthews claims that these “central moments . . . function more as absences in the story that surrounds them,” and that “the kernel of the story is precisely what vanishes into the words that describe it” (21). Robert Dale Parker agrees that while many of Faulkner’s novels are “told and twisted around a single event . . . that event, even as it determines nearly all we read, is defiantly withheld” (4). Thus Faulknerian interpretation demands that the reader decipher not only speeches and actions but also silences and absences—the novels’ narrative holes. Even then, Parker concludes, “the main thing we know reading Faulkner is that we don’t know the main thing”—especially, perhaps, when we can’t see the main thing (3).
But there is on one hand the unseen, and then, on the other, there is the unscene. Readers of Shakespeare (whose work, Faulkner once commented, provides “a casebook on mankind” [Conversations 65]) also wrestle with questions of the unspoken and the unknown.1 In her seminal essay “‘The Rest is Silence’: Ineffability and the ‘Unscene’ in Shakespeare’s Plays,” Marjorie Garber observes an “inexpressibility topos” in Shakespearian drama, of which “perhaps the most remarkable” features are what she calls “unscenes”: “deflected or unseen scenes that take place offstage and are reported by an observer, usually an anonymous or disinterested ‘Gentleman’” (43).2 I wish to apply the [End Page 33] idea of the “unscene,” as proposed by Garber, to several of Faulkner’s novels, in which it occurs both on the small scale (someone named Albert functions in As I Lay Dying solely to inform the druggist Mosely of the commotion the Bundrens have made in Mottson3) and on the large scale (the story of Joe Christmas’s arrest is conveyed en masse, via simultaneous unscenes):
The talk flared again, momentarily revived, to wives and families about supper tables and electrically lighted rooms and in remote hill cabins with kerosene lamps. And the next day, the slow, pleasant country Sunday, while they squatted in their clean shirts and decorated suspenders, with peaceful pipes about country churches or about the shady dooryards of houses where the visiting teams and the cars were tethered and parked along the fence and the womenfolks were in the kitchen, getting dinner, they told it again.(Light 349)
Most obviously, this passage serves to indicate the wide range of characters who are compelled by Joe Christmas’s story; both the rich, with their electricity and parked cars, and the poor, with their kerosene lamps and tethered mules, repeat it to their families, in their kitchens. But I would suggest that it is the fact that they are speaking to their families and in their kitchens that is most significant; unlike the Shakespearian unscene, the Faulknerian unscene depends upon a level of intimacy, and usually occurs in a domestic space, behind closed doors. It is removed geographically as well as temporally from the action it recounts.
The unscene that comprises the second section of “Pantaloon in Black” is, in this way, typical: it takes place in a kitchen, and passes between a husband and wife. Like the prototypical Shakespearian “Gentleman,” neither of these characters is named, and neither appears anywhere else in Go Down, Moses (or, for that matter, in the first, much longer section of “Pantaloon in Black”); and so their conversation carries a strange feeling of narrative disconnect—a key component of the Faulknerian unscene. And indeed, though it falls in the center of the collection, “Pantaloon in Black” itself seems almost entirely disconnected from the other stories in Go Down, Moses, since it centers not on the Edmonds/McCaslin family but on Rider, a black tenant of Carothers Edmonds. Despite Rider’s almost supernatural physical strength (his [End Page 34] arms are...