William Faulkner: Sartoris
A man's future is inherited in that man . . . there is no such thing as was. That time is; and if there is no such thing as was, then there is no such thing as will be. That time is not a fixed condition, time is in a way the combined intelligences of all men who breathe at that moment.
Sartoris, published in 1929 is not one of Faulkner's major works, but it is of great significance as a source-book for Faulkner's literary development. Faulkner later referred to it as the first book which 'has the germ of my apocrypha in it' implying that this book sets the pattern for his future books and provides a key to them. Sartoris is the work in which Faulkner for the first time not only discovered and explored the imaginative world that features in nearly all his works, but also found his unique way of depicting it. Thus although it is not yet the work of a mature writer, it undoubtedly bears the mark of his growing assurance and skill. After all there is only a year between the time of its creation and the annus mirabilis when during a short period Faulkner produced his masterpieces: The Sound and the Fury, and As I Lay Dying. It is due to the dazzling novelty and complexity of these works that Sartoris has been largely overlooked by Faulkner scholars.
The present article is a study of one of the major problems that runs through all Faulkner's works: the author's intense preoccupation with time as a central theme of the novel and time as a means of narration. In Sartoris Faulkner explores the effects of time on the characters, while endeavouring to find a technique for rendering it.
'Past is never dead. It is not even past' - Faulkner wrote this frequently cited phrase, a remarkable summing up of his perception of time, a year after Sartoris, but the concept first appears in this novel where the pressure of the past affecting the psychology and morality of individuals' actions is explored and expressed in a variety of complex ways.
The novel already bears the mark of Faulkner's characteristic use of different times, such as objective time, subjective time (or even subjective times), cyclical time, and frozen time. The objective time of the novel comprises the period between the spring of 1919 and the summer of 1920, i.e. a little over a year, which is relatively short compared with the objective time of a conventional novel, although not as radically innovative as basing a plot structure on a single day, or several days, a device used in a number of modernist novels by Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner himself.
The objective time, or 'time present' of the novel is the story of young Bayard Sartoris, a lost-generation hero, whose disconnected actions are placed within the historical and genealogical framework provided by the lives and times of his immediate ancestors. Thus the past of the hero is not only his own past but turns into a timeless Sartoris legend. Later, in a speech at a university, Faulkner formulated his point of view on this question as follows:
Thus the division between the past and present seemed to Faulkner a convenient illusion in our brains. To render their co-existence Faulkner employed several techniques, such as stream-of-consciousness, snapshots, and flashbacks. But in Sartoris he does not yet go so far in experimenting with the novel form as he does just a year later in The Sound and the Fury, or in As I Lay Dying. The past in Sartoris enters mostly in reminiscences, and the novel on the whole retains a conventional, chronological order. However, these reminiscences are so abundant and the sense of the presence of the past is so palpable throughout the book that at times it tends to overwhelm the ostensible human action, or at least to cast over it a certain air of unreality. At the very beginning of the novel Will Falls brings with him the spirit of old John Sartoris. Colonel Sartoris, though dead, is 'a far more palpable presence than either of the two old men'.
Throughout the novel the reader is rarely aware of a pure present, nor is a pure past very often exclusively given. The particular time-perspective of Sartoris, the fact that the events of the Civil War are recorded not as they happened but as they are recalled after more than fifty years, makes it possible for them to be recounted endlessly until the facts are transformed into myths. Miss Jenny Sartoris Du Pre, the widowed sister of the earlier daredevils,
It is not only Miss Jenny's stories that are recounted numerous times. Throughout the novel instead of the omniscient narrator the story is told and retold as if from different points of view. For example the episode when young Bayard with his drunken friends is singing a serenade in front of Narcissa's window is told three times: first as viewed by Narcissa herself, then by an indifferent viewer and finally by Flam Snopes. A year later the omniscient narrator will altogether disappear from The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying and the whole text will break up into a mosaic, but even in Sartoris this technique arrests the progress of the plot by turning a linear time-pattern into a cyclical one.
Sartoris establishes a pattern to two important ways of reconstructing the past. One is the gradual, painstaking reconstruction of the past by narrators who are in the present (such as Miss Jenny's stories), and the other is re-living of the past by means of an involuntary memory that operates by associations. In neither case do the characters or the author see the present or the past as separate times. Real time for Faulkner is the time of experience, it is not a chronology but a continuous attempt to assess real values. And although both means of reconstructing the past seem such an attempt, the second or the involuntary memory seems to be a more effective vehicle. It is only through such a memory that the past becomes not a memory but a present reality.
Faulkner uses several devices to make the past live on in the novel. One of them is mentioning landmarks of the past, such as the brick courthouse with stone arches, the
monument of the Confederate soldier, the railroad built by Bayard's ancestors, Old Bayard's study at home, where a chest of family relics is kept, containing mementoes of the Colonel from the 1840s, such as his sword, and his cavalry sabre.
On the structural level of the novel the prevalence of the past is often realised by excluding present actions from the text. What is the actual present of the novel almost never unfolds before the reader: there is hardly any progress in the heroes' actions, no development of the plot structure as in the traditional novel. A great deal of the present action of the novel is not directly recounted but reflected in the minds and memories of witnesses after they become past, that is, they spring to existence only post factum.
As Jean-Paul Sartre put it in a brilliant essay published eight or so years after Sartoris's publication, which was the first favourable review of the novel and remains one of the best:
We understand that an Act is to become a story in order to be told and retold, as Miss Jenny does, until it becomes a myth belonging not to the past or to the present but rather to no time at all. It is noteworthy that at the end of the book Miss Jenny stops telling stories about Jeb Stuart and gallant Confederates, and the heroes of her stories become Young Bayard and his brother Johnny killed in the First World War. Their lives already belong to the past, so they will be told and retold and turn into a timeless myth.
This is one of the reasons why nearly all Sartorises seek death: a glorious death, for example in battle, in a duel, or in a speeding car, 'to glare for a moment in the sky, then die away.' [1, 358] This is why Colonel Sartoris 'had but waited for that to release him of the clumsy cluttering of bones and breath . . . to be evoked like a genie or a deity.' [1, 44]
The railroad built by him, his adventures, and mementoes such as his pipe haunt the living characters of the book. The glory and splendour of the past, or rather, the myth, turns into a burden for many of Faulkner's favourite characters and young Bayard is the first among those who
But it is not only Bayard who is characterised by the tragic perception of time; nearly all of Faulkner's characters face this dilemma in some way. Old Bayard's tragedy, for example, is the tragedy of a person born at the wrong time. He is too young to be a hero of the Civil War in which his father gloried, and too old for World War I in which his grandsons participated.
Perhaps the most interesting innovation in time/space modelling in the novel is the 'frozen moment'. The term was first used by Jean-Paul Sartre, who claimed that in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, time 'does not progress and consists of separate, motionless, frozen moments.' [2, 180] I accept the term, but with some reservations. What I argue is that time manifestation in Faulkner's novels is manifold and cannot be confined only to frozen time. In his works frozen time and cyclical time, objective time and subjective time (or even subjective times) co-exist. The frozen moment is only one aspect of this diversity. We think of it as an extreme manifestation of relativity of subjective time.
The relativity of subjective time was familiar to the traditional conventional novel, but modernism brought about an essentially different modelling of the space/time relationship. The former only stated the fact, whereas the latter tends to express an arrested motion in time in the literary text, creating an illusion of stasis and thus turning it into aesthetic phenomenon.
Faulkner creates stasis by a number of artistic devices. On the lexical level it is expressed by a cluster of related images, words and phrases repeated time and again and often gaining a symbolic value. for example motionless, arrested, frozen, immobile, or suspended.
On the structural level it is accomplished by means of a shift in the narrative structure: a linear narrative is replaced by a fragmentary, highly associative narrative, often rendered by an interior monologue, or stream-of-consciousness technique. It is noteworthy that, unlike Joyce, Faulkner never uses stream-of-consciousness throughout a whole novel. It is one of the techniques, just as the 'frozen moment' is one of the manifestations of time.
In Sartoris Faulkner successfully combined elements of both the traditional, conventional novel and of modernist literature. One example of the former is the following episode from the first chapter of the book: some Yankees looking for 'the rebel John Sartoris' approach his house and ask the first man they meet there (who is 'the rebel John Sartoris' himself) to show them where he lives. John Sartoris pretends he needs to put on his shoes and fetch a walking stick and walks to the back yard determined to slip behind the barn and escape. These few dramatic seconds, when he could feel the Yankee looking right between his shoulder blades where the bullet would hit, seem like a year to the Colonel.
In this example the relativity of time perception is only declared. It is an experience of the hero not of the reader. The reader is only informed, told about it either by the author or by the hero, or as in this case by a narrator Will Falls. The experience is psychologically just, but it does not have any aesthetic function
In contrast, in another episode towards the end of the book, Faulkner for the first time in his career attempts to express through the text arrested motion in time and give an illusion of a 'frozen moment'. Here the reader is not told that a character has lost the sense of time, rather the feeling is conveyed through the text. Faulkner remarks 'drop by drop the rain wore the night away, wore time away, but it was so long, so damn long.' [1, 274], but even without this remark it is quite obvious. The interesting blending of an interior monologue and an objective narrative used in this episode in McCallum's hut where even minor details gain symbolic significance, enables the author to create a sensation of time-freezing. A sense of detachment from time and space creates stasis, a moment of recognition of value and meaning in this world of the sound and the fury.
Fr. Hoffman associates stasis with the vision of an Edenic past [4, 24-27] and although this term doesn't seem quite appropriate to Faulkner's World, the idea he conveys is noteworthy. He views it as 'the state of innocence' which antedates or ignores or avoids experience, which is, one way or another, expressed as a point of reference for a major journey of the American personality from innocence to experience. I'd rather say that stasis does represent 'the state of innocence'; not the original nave innocence, but a higher kind which is achieved not by ignoring or avoiding experience, but through experience.
Sartoris establishes a pattern for yet another important characteristic of Faulkner's works: even in his radically experimental and innovative novels the objective time is never absent and always functions as a background to the novel, (e.g. 'Horace Benbow in his clean, wretchedly fitted khaki . . . got off the two-thirty train.') One can find a number of such examples in Faulkner's works. He seems so persistent in it that one starts to wonder whether it is perhaps yet another means of stressing the time problem, showing the difference between mechanical and subjective times. But even when time is not mentioned throughout the book we are constantly made aware of the movement of objective time, of the changing of seasons from early spring when young Bayard drives home, through summer and fall and winter when he escapes to the simplicities of life with the McCallums.
The objective time used as a background of the novel represents the inevitable movement of the seasons with their associated human activities, which possess an almost ritualistic significance, evoking a paradoxical sense of both the permanency of human life and experience and the passing of the generations.
Thus Sartoris is Faulkner's first attempt to blend the individual's past with the timeless, recurrent pattern to create a myth. While T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound stress the importance of impersonality and mythmaking, and Proust and Virginia Woolf have a deep sense of the importance of the individual, Faulkner endeavours to combine these two approaches to the time problem. By projecting individual experience onto the timeless legend he transcends a sense of past and present through symbol and myth.
Recurrent action that turns history into myth at the same time leads to an experimental change in narrative form. From Sartoris onwards technique and structure gain significant purpose in all Faulkner's novels.
Sartoris does seem fragmented and some episodes seem scattered and inadequately integrated within the whole. But in spite of its shortcomings, it still remains a much better novel than most critics allow. The lack of form, apparent incoherence, and repetitions are in fact a search for a new form, and search which was to be more fully realised in Faulkner's later works.
1. William Faulkner. Sartoris. Signet books. N.Y. 1953
2. Jean Paul Sartre. Time in Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury. In: Four Decades of Criticism. Ed. by J. Hoffman and O. W. Vickery. Michigan State College Press. 1951
3. Jean Paul Sartre. Literary and Philosophical Essays. Rider an Co. 1958
4. Fr. J. Hoffman. William Faulkner. Michigan State College Press. 1965
5. O. W. Vickery. The Novels of William Faulkner. A Critical Interpretation. Louisiana State University Press. 1959
© Manana Gelashvili, Associate Professor of the State University of Tbilisi, Georgia, December 2005