Comedy and Social Construction: Teaching Faulkner’s "Shingles for the Lord"
Stephen Hahn, William Paterson College
Faulkner’s short story "Shingles for the Lord" is not one of his most frequently anthologized stories, and therefore it is probably one of those less frequently taught. But it offers some opportunities to raise interesting questions in the classroom about genre, style, and the status of fiction as a representation of a social or "lived" world at the same time that it introduces readers to dimensions of Faulkner’s fictional world absent in more commonly anthologized stories.
The story treats the misadventures of Res Grier, a below-middling yeoman farmer, as he engages with his neighbors in roofing their church house; and it is told by one of his sons in colloquial language. The story focuses on the practicalities and materiality of labor and the social interactions of the men as they labor, as well as on the disasters Grier creates. But it also engages, in a comic vein, some typically Faulknerian themes, such as the relation of the segmenting and rigidifying power of words compared to the fluidity of life--a theme that is central to the story of the Bundrens (a family situated socially and geographically in similar circumstances to the Griers) in As I Lay Dying, where it receives more solemn treatment. Whereas the Bundrens appear as isolated and peculiarly meditative individuals, the characters of "Shingles" appear as intersubjectively involved and motivated, almost compulsively "other-directed." (In fact, the characters seem as much prone to action and as little given to solitary reflection as some critics like to assume working people are.) In addition, the story, which was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post (February 13, 1943), is on the surface a comic diversion, developing a plot similar to that of a situation comedy in which the attempt of one character to outsmart the others leads him to a kind of banishment or ostracism from which he must recuperate himself in order to reclaim his humanity, his intersubjective reality for others, and his own reality for himself.
In approaching this story in the classroom, I find it useful to address two related aspects of the story--the insistent ordinariness of the social milieu it depicts and its comedy--in order to assist students in analyzing it and in developing analytic awareness that can be applied to other fiction. First, readers of the story are immediately aware that the story is grounded in the characters’ ordinary reality, but that it is a reality distinct from that of most readers. At the beginning of the story, there is talk of feeding animals, borrowing tools, carrying lunch in a pail, and an assortment of everyday activities which have their own particular vocabulary ("froe," "maul," "thumps," "boiled shirt," and so on) and a historical and social specificity for contemporary readers, since, even in rural circumstances, few today will have split shingles. Despite the ordinariness of the happenings--what some readers might call their sub-ordinariness--the characters quickly begin to dispute their own vocabulary and mutual understanding of reality, so that their ordinary reality is rendered problematic. For example, arriving late for the beginning of the work day, Res Grier attempts to excuse himself by citing the disinterest of God in time, in familiar terms:
"We aint but two hours late," pap said. "I reckon the Lord will forgive it. He aint interested in time, nohow. He’s interested in salvation." (28)
The Reverend Whitfield interrupts this amateur excursion into the field of theology before "pap" is finished:
"He aint interested in neither! Why should he be, when he owns them both? And why He should turn around for the poor mizzling souls of men that can’t even borrow tools in time to replace the shingles on his church, I don’t know either. Maybe it’s just because He made them. Maybe He just said to Himself: ‘I made them; I don’t know why. But since I did, I Godfrey, I’ll roll up My sleeves and drag them into glory whether they will or no!" (28)
The narrator comments that "that wasn’t here nor there neither now," meaning that the objective of completing the work is a pragmatic goal and not one of ultimate reality--and yet the argument clearly functions to highlight not just the disputatious qualities of the men but the whole question of clock-time versus divine-time or any other kind of time. The subject of the dispute soon gets thematized with the introduction of the notion of the arbitrarily equal WPA "work units" which are then equated in the men’s bargaining to even more pointedly arbitrary "dog-units," and the controversy motivates Res Grier’s subsequent actions.1 Those actions bring Res and his son close to meeting a version of ultimate reality in the fire that burns down the church as Res attempts to get ahead of the temporal game in a scene that mimics biblical Gehenna ("the whole church jest blowed up into a pit of yellow jumping fire, with me and pap hanging over the edge of it on two ropes" ). The accidental conflagration leads to Res’s banishment as an "arsonist" who is forbidden by Whitfield to lay a hand to the building of "this new house until you have proved to us that you are to be trusted with powers and capacities of a man" (41). Grier’s clear intention, at the end of the story, is to return to the scene to redeem himself; and we have no reason to suspect that Reverend Whitfield and others, having left the way open for this social redemption, and believing in another kind of redemption as well, will permanently banish Grier.
That much said, "What of it?" While students may find this an interesting story of people who are--from the perspective of a presumably upwardly-mobile student--a little more backward and a little less educated than the reader is, there is no sententious theme in the story that readers will identify as equivalent to a moral. The vertiginous near-nonsense of disputes about time and interest in the ownership of a dog (the logic and illogic of which most readers need to parse carefully), and the demonstration of the manifest ineptitude of Grier as a carpenter, lead to an ambiguous ending in which Grier recommits himself to fitting in with his world--partly because he has and knows no other. What makes this story something other than a condescending slice of life story about "good country people," written by a middle class writer for a middle class audience, if it is something other than that?
Behind the apparent simplicity of the story, I would argue, there is a canny orchestration of language and narrative strategy that suggests how "reality" is socially constructed in delimited terms, problematized when these terms fail to "fit" with circumstance, and then reintegrated (if only in prospect) in a pattern that mimics the traditional progression of a comic plot. (Further, I would argue that there is an excess of signification in the story, despite the prospect of reintegration, as a result of its stopping where it does. A new and satisfactory alignment of terms with "reality" is not fully accomplished, so that the story does not complete an ideological reintegration: all terms remain tentative and therefore suspect.) But rather than argue for an interpretation, I ask students to conduct an analysis of the story employing a set of "theses" or explanatory statements about the inter-relation and understanding of people in "everyday life" and the relation of those ideas to the characteristics of Faulkner’s comic technique.
On assigning the story, I ask students simply to read it and to note any vocabulary or description that needs explaining, so that we discuss what the story is about at first with relatively little formal structuring. Subsequently, I ask if we can give a reason to another person for reading this story. Commonly, the answers have to do with "learning about how other people live," "because it is funny," and so on. Then I ask the students, individually or in groups, to conduct an exercise, which can be arranged somewhat differently given constraints of time or other arrangements. At this point I distribute copies of Berger and Luckmann’s thesis on the "social construction of reality" and Bergson’s views on "laughter" or "comedy" (see appendix). I point out that both sets of theses are sociologically oriented and intended to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. I tell the students that I do not assume that any of these theses are necessarily true, only that they attempt to be descriptions of the truth. The following text accompanies the assignment:
These "theses" have often been used by people to analyze or explain both literary and social situations. Your job in this part of the assignment is to associate as many of the "theses" with particular passages in the story as possible. Then, having paired particular theses with particular passages, to determine (a) whether or how a particular thesis is supported or contradicted by the passage and (b) whether or how a particular thesis leads us to a greater understanding of the passage.
A reporting out of the students’ findings can be shared so that those who discover less will be led by their classmates to further discoveries. Some typical initial responses include:
Obviously these characters don’t do much "theorizing," but they do "live in a world of some sort," and they do have "ideas" (however strange they are).
Grier exists in an "unproblematic sector" until he discovers the idea of "work- units" that comes from another sector--the WPA. Then everything becomes a problem for him.
The characters have "knowledge" all right--they’re just ignorant about some things they ought to know better about.
I think I understand better how "peer pressure" gets you to do something you wouldn’t do otherwise and you can look foolish doing it.
I don’t know if we laugh every time a person gives us the impression of being a thing, but there are lots of times when we do. Res Grier is sort of a thing when he gets knocked out. It probably wouldn’t be funny in real life, but it is in a story. (Equivocal nature.)
I guess the "absence of feeling" thesis is supported. I don’t feel much sympathy for Grier. But I do feel bad for his son and his wife--who he just keeps ignoring-- so there is some kind of feeling in the story.
The sharing of responses may stir productive debate leading to a further understanding of both the theses and the story. Those whose responses are relatively more egocentric than others can be led through the discussion to focus more on the text than they do initially. And some theses, such as the idea expressed by Berger and Luckmann that religious experience is an area of "circumscribed meaning," can provoke considerable debate and analysis about aspects of the story and the legitimacy of such generalizations. ("Circumscribed" for whom?)
In focusing on this last example, students may debate whether and how the story highlights the limitations of the religious sphere of understanding in the story, or whether and how the religious sphere in fact encompasses details of understanding--as, for instance, it may suggest that our understanding is always partial, human, and subject to error. The discussion can lead students to examine more closely the consciousness of the narrator, an aspect of the story not heavily fore grounded, and the imagery of the "nightshirt" Whitfield "would wear to baptize in" (40) in the flames, an image that could suggest transcendence or the lack of it.
The theses from Bergson will direct students to examine primarily the form and style of the story--the techniques that are used to distance us from the action, to analogize people to things to confer human qualities on things, to suggest a connection with "other intelligences"--and theses from Berger and Luckmann will direct them to the ways in which the characters, as characters, represent human interactions involving "knowledge" as it is based in their interactions of work, talk, and competition, and with the environment. Together, the theses can suggest how comic technique is used to reveal characterization as a component of the story, and to see how character may suggest to us that "one’s own universe is less than inevitable" (as in the expression "he’s quite a character").
Throughout the discussions students keep notes to add to their own reading notes. These along with the assigned texts help them to prepare for an extended writing assignment, such as the following:
Some people (think about those Saturday Evening Post readers who first read the story in a barber or beauty shop or doctor’s office) may say that "Shingles for the Lord" is just a funny or sentimental story about some people--old-fashioned farmers--who don’t matter very much. This would imply that the story doesn’t matter very much. Without overstating how much the story may matter, write an essay in which you explain how the themes in the theses assigned are developed in or help us to understand better Faulkner’s story, focusing on whatever elements in the story you think are important to consider. To get a sense of who your audience might be, think about yourself and your classmates a couple of weeks ago and when you first read the story: What would you want to tell yourself then about what you think you know now? To help organize your essay, ask yourself: In what order would I say what I have to say now to myself then so that I could understand it clearly?
For many students, this is an ambitious assignment because it asks them to go beyond simply identifying aspects or themes of the story (the first exercise began that process of identifying themes and elements), to synthesize the disparate and perhaps contentious aspects of the story (as we often do) in terms foreign to our own most immediate experience of reading. But for those reasons it is also one that engages them fully in the process of constructing meaning from their experience.
Theses on the "Social Construction of Reality"
[from Berger and Luckman, 1966]
Theoretical thought, "ideas," Weltanschauungen are not that important in society. Although every society contains these phenomena, they are only part of the sum of what passes for "knowledge." Only a very limited group of people in any society engages in theorizing, in the business of "ideas," and the construction of Weltanschauungen. But everyone in society participates in its "knowledge" in one way or another. Put differently, only a few are concerned with the theoretical interpretation of the world, but everybody lives in a world of some sort. (15)
The world of everyday life is not only taken for granted as reality by the ordinary members of society in the subjectively meaningful conduct of their lives. It is a world that originates in their thoughts and actions, and is maintained as real in these. (19-20)
I apprehend the reality of everyday life as an ordered reality. Its phenomena are prearranged in patterns that seem to be independent of my apprehension of them and that impose themselves upon the latter. The reality of everyday life appears already objectified, that is, constituted by an order of objects that have been constituted as objects before my appearance on the scene. The language used in everyday life continuously provides me with the necessary objectifications and posits the order within which these make sense and within which everyday life has meaning for me. I live in a place that is geographically designated; I employ tools...[etc.]. (21-22)
In this world of working my consciousness is dominated by the pragmatic motive, that is, my attention to this world is mainly determined by what I am doing, have done or plan to do in it. (22)
The world of everyday life further presents itself to me as an intersubjective world, a world that I share with others. (23)
The reality of everyday life is taken for granted as reality. It does not require additional verification over and beyond its simple presence. IT is simply there, as self-evident and compelling facticity. I know that it is real. While I am capable of engaging in doubt about its reality, I am obliged to suspend such doubt as I routinely exist in everyday life. This suspension of doubt is so firm that to abandon it, as I might want to do, say, in theoretical or religious contemplation, I have to make an extreme transition. The world of everyday life proclaims itself and, when I want to challenge the proclamation, I must engage in a deliberate, by no means easy effort. (23-24)
But even the unproblematic sector of everyday reality is so only until further notice, that is, until its continuity is interrupted by the appearance of a problem. When this happens, the reality of everyday life seeks to integrate the problematic sector into what is already unproblematic. (24)
Compared to the reality of everyday life, other realities appear as finite provinces of meaning, enclaves within the paramount reality marked by circumscribed meanings and modes of experience. The paramount reality envelops them on all sides, as it were, and consciousness always returns to the paramount reality as from an excursion...Aesthetic and religious experience is right in producing transitions of this kind, inasmuch as art and religion are endemic producers of finite provinces of meaning. (25)
The reality of everyday life always appears as a zone of lucidity behind which there is a background of darkness...I cannot know everything there is to know about reality. (44)
I encounter knowledge in everyday life as socially distributed, that is, as possessed differently by different individuals and types of individuals. (46)
The appearance of an alternative symbolic universe [to the ones we are accustomed to] poses a threat because its very existence demonstrates empirically that one’s own universe is less than inevitable. (108)
Theses on Comedy
[from Bergson 1936; trans. Sypher, 1956]
The comic dose not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human. (745-46)
The absence of feeling...usually accompanies laughter. It seems as though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect unless it fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is totally calm and unruffled. Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion. (746)
To produce the whole of its effect...the comic demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart. Its appeal is to intelligence, pure and simple.
This intelligence, however, must always remain in touch with other intelligences...You would hardly appreciate the comic if you felt yourself isolated from others. (746)
We laugh every time a person gives us the impression of being a thing. (750)
The comic is that side of a person which reveals his likeness to a thing, that aspect of human events which, through its peculiar inelasticity, conveys the impression of pure mechanism, of automatism, of movement without life...It expresses an individual or collective imperfection which calls for an immediate corrective. This corrective is laughter, a social gesture that singles out and represses a special kind of absent-mindednesss in individuals and in events. (750)
Hence the equivocal nature of the comic. It belongs neither altogether to art nor to life. On the one hand, characters in real life would never make us laugh were we not capable of watching their vagaries in the same was as we look down at a play from our seat in a box; they are only comic in our eyes because they perform a kind of comedy before us. But, on the other hand, the pleasure caused by laughter, even on the stage, is not an unadulterated enjoyment; it is not a pleasure that is exclusively esthetic or altogether disinterested. It always implies a secret or unconscious intent...an unavowed intention to humiliate, and consequently to correct our neighbor, if not in his will, at least in his deed (750).
Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Doubleday, 1966.
Bergson, Henri. "Laughter." . Trans. Wylie Sypher. Rpt. Corrigan, Robert W., ed. Comedy: A Critical Anthology. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1971: 745-750.
Faulkner, William. Collected Stories. New York: Random, 1950.