Southeast Missouri State University

Tommy's Toes: Faulkner's Wordwork and the Student Reader by Armando Jose Prats


My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see.-- Joseph Conrad

We think in generalities, but we live in detail.--Alfred North Whitehead

All who propose to teach Faulkner may as well begin by acknowledging the obvious: Faulkner often frustrates our ideas of perfect plots or conventional characters or clearly developed themes. And he resists summary or paraphrase (so that recourse to the well-known sources, print or online, that pretend to “explain” Faulkner merely make his genius commonplace). Nonetheless, many teachers of Faulkner assume, often uncritically, that literary texts function as veils (that’s the traditional metaphor) that hide, even as they somehow simultaneously reveal, the ideas, values, principles, and so on embedded (so they assume) in Faulkner’s prose. Thus, as such critical methods would have it, if you look “behind” the veil of, say, Sanctuary, you can find a “definition,” more or less general, of evil; if you look behind the veil of The Sound and the Fury you find, for example, concepts of time that accord with contemporary ideas defined mathematically by Einstein and others, or else you find an instance of stream of consciousness, as practiced by James Joyce in Ulysses and as defined by William James in The Principles of Psychology in 1890. Hence, if you look behind the veil of The Sound and the Fury (assuming you have the energy to go at it twice), you can find therein accurate representations of Southern views of sexuality. Or how much of, for example, Quentin Compson or Horace Benbow or even Anse Bundren is there in the biographical William Faulkner? Are these characters themselves veils that hide and yet at the same time show certain aspects of the author? And so on: it’s a thriving industry, academic interpreting is.  

I do not mean to gainsay any of those methods of interpretation. I do, however, offer you, if only as complement or perhaps only as meager supplement to the more traditional methods, a few simple questions—questions that you yourselves may ask as you read Faulkner. If Faulkner wrote fiction in order first to veil and then to unveil ideas, why then did he not just write about the ideas? If, for example, he meant to come down on one side or another of the ancient problem of evil, why did he not make it clearly so? And if he wanted to write exclusively about race in the South, why did he not become a sociologist, or a human right’s activist? Why does he give us, for example, Joe Christmas instead of the abstract problem of race in the South? Why does he give us Anse Bundren instead of the abstract problem of poverty (or even of dental hygiene) in the rural South? And if he wanted to tells us what the South was like in the time of the Civil War, why did he not write it as history instead of giving us Absalom, Absalom!?      

My point, for now, is that often, in the search for the big idea or the surprise ending or the reaffirmation of our own identity, we easily forget to read for the joy of the words themselves, for the power of words to create their own reality – a reality no less felt than any reality that we care to think of as “physical” – and indeed more: for the power of  words to produce revelations of wonder and marvel, insights of a spiritual, transcendent, perhaps even mystical nature.      

Learning to read Faulkner should afford us something like that pure, transcendent joy – not because his characters or his plots give us very many “happy” moments, or because his plots exhibit a linear, breathtaking gallop toward a surprise ending, or because his characters mirror our best ideas of who we are. Reading Faulkner should afford us that joy because in the instant of reading we suddenly and as it were unawares, see. And having seen, we revel and remain, if only for a while, in the wonder of words and of their power to touch our hearts, our minds, our souls. In the presence of such moments, there is no veil to rend or raise. There is no “medium” to navigate. There is only the new and surprised and quite likely charmed entity that is you seeing, seeing that image as if for the first time, seeing afresh in the moment of wonder, perhaps even of rapture. And that moment is in itself a way of knowing; it is a wisdom and a gift for the full run of our lives. It is therefore truth. And it is beauty. And it is good. And we apologize for none of this – not out of prideful stubbornness but because our own humanity has become so intimately implicated in just that moment.      

Let me give you a simple example of what I mean by the joy of words. There’s a moment, an almost insignificant moment, early in Sanctuary, when Horace, on his way to the Old Frenchman Place, is walking behind poor innocent addled Tommy:

The road descended and flattened; Benbow’s feet whispered into sand, walking carefully. Against the pale sand he could now see Tommy, moving at a shuffling shamble like a mule walks in sand, without seeming effort, his bare feet hissing, flicking the sand back in faint spouting gusts from each inward flick of his toes.

How exactly would you summarize this? How would you paraphrase it? How would you organize an outline of it? Do we say, in summary, that Benbow saw Tommy’s bare feet in the sand? Do we paraphrase it by saying that Benbow walked carefully in the sand and saw Tommy’s bare feet ahead of him and the image reminded him of how a mule walks in the sand? What is the first point in the outline? Is Benbow Roman numeral “I” and his feet subheading “A” and Tommy is “II,” with each of his (one hopes five) toes corresponding to “A – F” in the outline? My point is that the passage that I have just now cited – if we are to feel it in its entirety and its integrity – would  seem to lie beyond summary, beyond paraphrase, beyond outline. Now, if you think back to your earliest encounters with the academic study of literature, you might just tell yourself that you were never taught to value that which you could not outline, or summarize, or paraphrase. It was not important. You read great literature to get the big ideas, and toes in the sand are not a particularly big idea.      

Yet consider: “whispered into sand”; “shuffling shamble like a mule walks in sand”; “flicking the sand back in faint spouting gusts from each inward flick of his toes”: if you can for a moment free yourself from the tyranny of reading for big ideas, the words might just make you see. If they make you see and feel and marvel and even, who knows, celebrate if only a minor and brief triumph of commonplace humanity over Sanctuary’s  often too sordid world – then it may seem that at that moment of convergence between the passage and your reading you realize that there could be no other way of saying what the narrator just now said, no other way of seeing what you have just now seen. You have just witnessed the transformative power of Faulkner’s wordwork.      

We ignore detail at great peril. There is probably a universal limit on the amount of such moments and such details and such acts that we can afford to ignore with impunity. For the world is what it is in virtue of its multifariousness – and we, like it or not, are of the world, as is Faulkner’s fiction.      

In the passage from Sanctuary, above, we marvel that an affable fool’s naked toes in the sand can charm us – not quite of themselves but because of the devotion that Faulkner invests in the description of the moment. What we see is the result of that devotion to the transformative power of words. And perhaps we are not a little humbled by the realization, more or less sudden, that we have so often ignored simple acts, simple things, because we have accounted them beneath our attention.      

In Faulkner’s wordwork, however, the common experience – the image, the moment, stands as if lifted out of time and ordinary experience. As simple as the image from Sanctuary is, indeed, perhaps because of its humility, so to call it, it nonetheless teaches us to see our own world more attentively, to learn to value it in its details. We have no right to big ideas unless we ground them in the particulars of the world.      

Let me now try another passage, this one selected almost at random from The Sound and the Fury. Here Quentin describes the fateful bridge. Though the scene is not at the end of the Quentin section, this is likely the bridge from which he shall jump to his death.

I began to feel the water before I came to the bridge. The bridge was of gray stone, lichened, dappled with slow moisture where the fungus crept. Beneath it the water was clear and still in the shadow, whispering and clucking about the stone in fading swirls of spinning sky.

It may have been enough for most writers to have stopped at “I began to feel the water before I came to the bridge.” We “get it,” as it were: it’s a bridge! And, oh, yes, I detect “foreshadowing” here as well. But in the passage, above, we see this bridge – this one bridge like no other, as Quentin sees it at that precise and irrecoverable moment – the bridge and the water, “clear and still in the shadow, . . .” The bridge becomes not so much “real” as alive: the flowing water reflects the sky, and the sky, reflected in the water, swirls and spins, together with the clouds, with the sun and the yet unseen stars – and all of it, bridge and water and stars, exist at one at the same time because Quentin so sees them, even if  bridge, water, and stars all proclaim their own fearful indifference to the doomed Quentin.      

As a teacher, then, I am trying to rescue your experience of reading Faulkner from the oblivion that almost certainly awaits every great writer when his or her genius has been filtered through and distilled by summary and paraphrase.

Years from now, in the throes of the world’s busy-ness, caught up in “the fever and the fret” (as Keats called it), when you come to be confidently aware of your success and have made a habit of “getting and spending,” as Wordsworth saw humanity in his time – years from now, who that you read today will you remember? And if you do, why will you? And if you can remember no one for any particularly good reason – if you remember Faulkner only because he is “difficult” or Hemingway because his sentences are “short” or Shakespeare because his works remind you only of a particularly bad teacher in high-school or even (bite your tongue!) in college – then you will have failed (despite your other successes) to see the fundamental purpose of the study of literary art: you will have failed to see what makes an individual author memorable and why he or she deserves to be remembered, which is to say, also, re-read. You will have failed to see that we continue to study Faulkner not because he wrote in (or of) the past but because he writes of our present. Not because he is old, but because he is always new. His is the everlasting voice of our own hearts, the deepest understanding of our mind, and the vision of hope that affirms our own humanity, though we live ever, like so many of his characters, in the throes of deepest and implacable tragedy and in the face of injustice and outrage.      

So we might say that “reading Faulkner” means that we must learn to make Faulkner memorable, must find that in him worth remembering, worth studying, worth being passed on to future generations. I remind you that I am referring here to Faulkner’s wordwork, not to Faulkner the man (the man is no more admirable or great without his work than anyone else). Nor do I mean to elevate him above ourselves – to blindly worship the work (we are not snobs at the cocktail party), or to invest the man in an aura of inviolable light (as might some who don’t even know that they have stopped being moved by what he writes). He said repeatedly that he never wrote about anything but “the conflict of the human heart with itself and with other human hearts”; but there is no conflict – indeed no heart – without that unrelenting fidelity to the life of words. What we know of the human heart we know in and by detail: and the darkness of the human heart, that too we know in detail – that, too, we also see. For what more abundant source of paradox can there be, what greater and more urgent play of light and dark can we find, than the one in the human heart itself?      

In that daring and at times even tragic adventure that purposes to transform words into living and felt detail, Faulkner delivers our own experiences from irrelevance and  isolation. He tells us that our heart’s own conflicts matter. To make Faulkner memorable, then, is to learn to read him in a way that honors his individual genius, and to learn that his individual genius lies not so much in his moral insights but in the way that he produces them – in that devotion to making every moment, every image, worth the writing. Our lives are ennobled by this devoted and gracious gift of wordwork.      

Let me share one more passage, this one from Light in August. In this moment, late in the novel, Byron Bunch has brought Mrs. Hines and Eupheus “Doc” Hines before Reverend Hightower. The Hineses are old, and their lives are marked (seared, really) by misfortune and, in the case of Eupheus, by a racism both virulent and vindictive. Although we have long since met all the characters in the scene, including the Hineses,  the narrator presents them again in terms at once recapitulant and fresh.

Beyond the desk Hightower sits, looking more than ever like an awkward beast tricked and befooled of the need for flight, brought now to bay by those who tricked and fooled it. The other three [Byron and the Hineses] sit facing him; almost like a jury. Two of them are also motionless, the woman with that stonevisaged patience of a waiting rock, the old man with a spent quality like the charred wick of a candle from which the flame has been violently blown away.

If you don’t care to see, you might dismiss the passage, above, as something else that you need to get through on your way to the ending. Why so many words to describe characters that we have already met? From that perspective, the passage, above, would seem wordy, self-indulgent, and therefore, at best, distracting. “Get on with it,” we might find ourselves saying.      

No, I am not forgetting that you’re reading under the pressure of deadlines, of other courses, perhaps of work, most likely of social life, as well as bewitch by the allure of every electronic trinket that is supposed to make you more “connected” and our lives “easier.” But neither am I forgetting that you’re at a time of your life when you need not only knowledge but wisdom. Indeed, never in human history has the need for wisdom been more urgent.      

Bluntly: it matters that these characters be so presented because to see them so is to recognize their individuality, which is to say their humanity – a humanity not so unlike your own that you can safely afford to dismiss it. So taken, Faulkner does not “imitate,” he creates. It was no boast of his, then, to say that Darl in As I Lay Dying had taken on a life of his own; no brag to declare that his characters had stood up and cast their own shadows. He affirms, and even celebrates, their humanity, the intimate particulars of their several and in some fundamental way sacred individualities. But he does not judge his characters. His many sinners (and his paltry roster of not-quite-saints) remind us not that we are better than most of them but that, given the same circumstances, we might just have acted as they have. It is in this way instructive, if not downright humbling, to remember how much context Faulkner is willing to invest in even those characters that seem to us monstrous – in Popeye, for example: so that he who early in the story has about him nothing more human or tender than the quality “of stamped tin” can credibly succumb in the end to an all too recognizable vanity, asking for his Ed Pinaud and, even now, on the scaffold, for the hangman to fix his hair. Or in Joe Christmas, whose tragedy Faulkner is willing to track back not only to Joe’s presence in the wrong place (the South) and the wrong time (the late 1920s) but to a tube of toothpaste at the wrong time and place.      

Such an investment in his characters can make us understand how, for example, Anse Bundren can at one and the same time honor his commitment to bury Addie in Jefferson and look forward to getting a new set of teeth once there. Or we see how Addie Bundren, allowed, as it were, to speak from a grave, lets us understand how it could not be otherwise that a child who is told repeatedly that the “purpose of life is to get ready to stay dead a long time” can somehow still remain fully human, not only despite hating her students, most of her own children, her husband, and even herself but because she hates them, since hating is also human. Or on Lena Grove, that Madonna of Unconcern, baby at her breast, the two together walking and riding the great land as if nimbused by holiness, however “illegitimate” the child or imperturbable the mother. For Lena, there will always be a Byron Bunch to pick up after her Lucas Burch.      

I have not even mentioned the marvel of wordwork that makes the minor characters live – Lucas Burch identified by the recurrent mention of the white scar near his mouth and by the marks of Joe’s angry hand showing red on his face through his beard stubble; or (even more minor) the “countryman” who not only rescues Joanna Burden’s corpse but takes the time to muse upon how her head should have been set on her shoulders; or the whole and ample volume of Dr. Peabody’s 200-plus pounds struggling uphill to the Bundren place when it’s already too late and death becomes more a matter “in the mind of the bereaved” than an effect on the body.      

Then, enveloped by this wordwork abuzz with living detail, we come to see about Faulkner’s characters something very much like what we see in the image of Tommy’s toes in the sand – or in the water under the fatal bridge, swirling with utter indifference to Quentin’s tortured Southern soul. We see the miraculous breadth and depth of Faulkner’s characters’ humanity – see it without judgment, and perhaps also with only mitigated despair. They are who and what they are – as we ourselves are, as each of us is. They are not examples, or symbols, or allegories but living and individual human beings. In this way, they require not our adjudication but our acknowledgement, not our condescension but our humility, not our easy “identification with” this or that about them but our full and glad embrace of what makes them at once like us and not like us, all of them human like us, yet each different, as each of us is. Only a writer who so invests his very life in his wordwork – that life of work which is his sweat and his passion and his glory and his tragedy – only such a writer can have earned the right to the big pronouncement, the universal idea.      

Consider one more passage, this one not about toes or bridges or even about “stonevisaged” women or the racist’s spent fury. This one comes during Hightower’s last meditation, following the tragic encounter between Joe Christmas and Percy Grimm in his house. Again, if only out of irresistible habit, he sits by his window at twilight, and his home itself – the last crumbling bastion of this ostracized and despised and betrayed man – has been invaded one more time by the demons of implacable racism and relentless hatred and inexorable violence – the American demons, if you will, ever in conflict with the “better angels of our nature.” And then, toward the very end of that meditation of confused tragedy and time, of chaotic and unexplainable and warring legacies, Hightower thinks, “‘I am dying, . . . I should pray. I should try to pray.’” Then the third-person narrator weaves his voice with Hightower’s own:

But he does not [pray]. He does not try. “With all air, all heaven, filled with the lost and unheeded crying of all the living who ever lived, wailing still like lost children among the cold and terrible stars. . . . I wanted so little. I asked so little. It would seem. . . . . . .”

Here is, at least upon a first encounter, a vision dismal enough to make most of us balk at any sustained reflection upon it. For we may well dread the thought of ourselves as “lost children among the cold and terrible stars.” I don’t think that Faulkner even pretends to tender a consolation for the dismalness of the world – not for Hightower, surely, and more than likely not for us, either. But in that felt and seen image of a heaven teeming ironically not with the angelic host but with “the lost and unheeded crying of all the living who ever lived” – in that heaven that abounds with and that perhaps shelters tragedies and sorrows both individual and universal – we find not only the acknowledgement of the human condition but an emergent human community, the power that honors and even (perhaps) redeems our individual lives. Though we be mites in the vast universe, our lives count, our loneliness is delivered unto the glory of the creative spirit of Faulkner’s wordwork. For these ideas and pronouncements, in Faulkner, arise out of the living world of his creation, out of the particulars of life.      

Nothing is too insignificant to merit a complete investment in the expression of it. Thus, toes in the sand and swirling water and stone-faced women all are acknowledged, celebrated, perhaps even immortalized. This, then, we learn, and it is a great deal: either everything has value or nothing  does. As Faulkner’s words become image, so his “fiction” becomes life; and our individual lives, at times so isolated and seemingly so destitute – our  regrets and our anxieties, our defeats and our hopes – acquire forever the blessing of confirmation into the great community of the undying – toes, tears, terrible stars, and all.