Southeast Missouri State University

Dilsey, Shegog's Sermon, and the Meaning of Time

John Williams

Prior to retirement, I spent my entire career teaching in a largely secular California university which, until the final quarter of my tenure, was largely populated by middle and upper middle class Caucasians.  Teaching the fourth section of The Sound and the Fury was always challenging primarily because as the years went by my students increasingly knew less and less about the Hebraic-Christian tradition that informs the Easter Sunday service.  During the last decade of my teaching, the task was compounded because my classes had an increasing number of Pacific Rim students on the one hand and Islamic students on the other.  In a recent conversation with a young woman teaching in an Evangelical high school, I discovered how different the challenges of teaching Faulkner in general, and the fourth section of The Sound and the Fury in particular, are from those I had confronted over the years.  My students rarely resisted Faulkner; they simply had vast blind spots that inhibited their understanding. The high school teacher frequently found so much resistance from her studentsᾰto the swearing, the incest, the fornication, etc.ᾰthat they could hardly take seriously the particular type of Black Christianity characterizing Dilsey's church and the Reverend Mr. Shegog's sermon.  In short, her challenge of teaching Faulkner to born again Fundamentalists is vastly different from what mine was.

It is my contention that Faulkner had a profound understanding of the religiosity of many American churches, whether the smugness of the wealthy country club churches or the narrow nay-saying of Fundamentalism (even as Kierkegaard understood what he called Christendom over a century ago).  This is obvious when he puts in the mouth of Hightower the following words:  "That which is destroying the Church is not the outward groping of those within nor the inward groping of those without it, but the professionals who control it and who have removed the bells from its steeples. . . .He seems to see the churches of the world like a rampart, like one of those barricades of the middle ages planted with dead and sharpened stakes, against truth and against the peace in which to sin and be forgiven which is the life of man."  One of the many things Faulkner explores in Light in August is the destructiveness of this type of Christianity in the life of Joe Christmas when under the tutelage of McEachern, his stepfather.  In like manner, in the fourth section of The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner demonstrates his sensitivity to the profound emotional appeal of Black Christianity and its embodiment in the life of Dilsey, the Compson family's servant.

What follows grows out of years of teaching and attempting to goad students to reflect thoughtfully on what they encounter when reading Faulkner.  Specifically it is: first, a series of questions designed to ferret out what students know about Easter and the worship service in The Sound and the Fury while keeping an eye to how they think it may shed light on the theme of Time as played out in the first three sections of the novel; and second, my own responses to the questions I might be asking students while informing them about those aspects of the Hebraic-Christian tradition shaping the novel that they either may not know about or have interpreted from their own special perspectives. It's obvious that students, whether Fundamentalist born again Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, or atheists, are probably going to bring different kinds of understandings to their readings.             

What I certainly don't need to do is tell students what together we can collectively discover that they know through discussion, and I cannot find out what they do know without asking questions.  That's why I think it so important to begin any discussion of particular literary scenes, in this case the Easter service and Shegog's sermon, by asking students questions to find out what they know and don't know.  Students often surprise us, discovering together that they know far more than we often give them credit for if we simply tell them what we as teachers think is transpiring in the literary text.  Moreover, in sharing their individual perspectives while applying them to the novel, they usually come to respect each other even though disagreeing with one another.  As a teacher, I am then much better prepared to praise what my students know, individually and collectively, and to fill in the gaps in order to suggest ways in which the literary scene may be read or more directly how I specifically interpret the section.  In the process, while supplementing their shared insights with those of my own, I can help them to understand powerful aspects of the Hebraic-Christian tradition in particular and perhaps something specifically about the crucial scene of the Easter service in The Sound and the Fury.  To be sure, the process means that I as the teacher most likely will have to tell them some or many things that the discussion has not disclosed.  But that, after all, is part of our task as teachers: to inform, to challenge, to make complex that which our students may see as simple, and equally, sometimes to simplify what they see as complex ᾰ in short, to broaden the experiences that our students bring to us with as much sensitivity as we can bring to their diverse individualities ᾰ which is why I've always begun with specific questions to learn from my students who they are, what they know, what they value.

One way to begin a discussion of the Easter service and Shegog's sermon is to ask students what precedes it and follows it.  After a brief discussion of Jason discovering that his stash of money, money that had been sent by Caddy to her daughter, Quentin, and which has probably been stolen by his niece prior to the Sunday service, and Jason's frustrated and abortive attempts to recover it, one can point out, if a student hasn't observed it already, that the Easter service transpires exactly half way through the fourth section.  In short, everything in the fourth section builds up to and falls away from the Church service.   Structurally, it is central to that section of the novel.

Moving more specifically to the Easter service, it is probably important to find out precisely what students know about Easter in the Christian tradition, its significance, its symbols, its pageantry.  If the class consists of students that are from culturally and/or religiously diverse backgrounds, then it may be helpful to discover how various Protestant and Catholic traditions understand the Easter story, or if one has Jewish students, it can be useful to see what specific Judaic rituals and/or symbols the Christian tradition has incorporated. And if perchance one has Muslim or Buddhist students, which I frequently did, they can be included by asking if they have anything similar in their own traditions.

After a brief exploration of what students know about the various meanings of Easter, I've usually found it useful to raise a series of questions about the Reverend Mr. Shegog and his impact particularly upon Dilsey because whatever Easter may mean to her it clearly centers around worship at her church.   Here are some typical questions I might ask.  Why is it stressed that Shegog is so overshadowed in appearance by the local pastor?  Why, despite his diminutive size, does he have such a powerful, resonating voice?  What is the purpose of his initially speaking like a white man, something that embarrasses the congregation, then gradually beginning to shift to black dialect?  Again, depending on the religious backgrounds of my students, I might ask them what is the purpose of preaching in Protestantism as distinct from the ritual and the Mass in Roman Catholicism?  What does Shegog mean by "de blood en de ricklickshun of de Lamb"?  What is it that Dilsey hears in the Reverend Shegog's preaching?  What does she mean when she says to Frony, "I’ve seed de first en de last"ᾰsomething Frony clearly doesn't understand?  The point of these questions is to tease from students what they know and to help them discover as much as they can from this wonderful passage.  Shegog, after all, stands in the tradition of Protestant preaching that finds its wellspring in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament.  Almost without exception, when the various prophetsᾰIsaiah, Amos, Jeremiahᾰbegan to deliver the message God had sent them to utter to the people, they would say, "Thus sayeth the Lord," and they would then become the mouthpiece of God, the voice through whom God would speak.  When Shegog preaches, he almost disappears; he becomes a disembodied voice, diminutive, ugly, monkey-looking little man that he is.  He becomes the voice of the living Word of God!  This God doesn't need the handsome, the powerful, the wealthy, to make himself present to his people.   The humblest will do!  "The first shall be last and the last first."  And in "hearing" the Living Word, Dilsey "sees" the first and the last, the Risen Lord, the very Alpha and the Omega.  The risen Lord enters Dilsey's life, lives in Dilsey, and empowers her, humble servant that she is, to serve her Master.  If I can get any of my students to make some of these discoveries, to help them see some of the power of the Easter Service, I shall have opened them to something of the wonder and power of The Sound and the Fury, whatever their religious or lack of religious backgrounds.  If I've been an effective teacher, at least some of them will marvel that such a powerful religious vision can appear in a novel about a dysfunctional family, about incest and greed and pride and lust, in the form of fiction, which in the Christian tradition has frequently been considered as the instrument of the Devil who is the very Father of Lies.

Next I usually turn to a careful examination of Dilsey. Again I ask students to recall scenes in which they see Dilsey in action with an eye to what these scenes tell us about her that may tie in with her having "seed de first en de last," and of how the risen Lord is embodied in her life.  There are several scenes which help us understand Dilsey's character, but perhaps the scene near the beginning of the Jason section in which Jason takes his belt to Miss Quentin points as powerfully as any other to something of major significance about Dilsey's character.  I ask my students to recall all the details they can leading up to that scene.  The collective memory of a group of students is frequently amazing.  I like to conclude their collective recollections by having one or more of them read the scene.  Because it contains profanity, and depending upon the make up of the class, I am careful who I ask to read it.  In some cases, I have to decide whether it best that I read the passage or simply point out anything the discussion has failed to elicit.  Then we discuss what the passage tells us about the Dilsey who has seen the first and the last, the risen Lord who lives in and through her.  My point would be, and usually at least one of my students makes the connection for his or her classmates, that in stepping in between Jason's belt and Miss Quentin, Dilsey acts with love.  She is willing to take another's hurt, pain, suffering upon herself.   She becomes the suffering servant, the Word Incarnate in the Flesh, by imitating her Lord.  In a loveless novel, Dilsey loves to the point of taking the hurt and pain of others upon herself.   And what is the reward she receives from Miss Quentin?  After discussing or reading the passage, most of my students will be able to answer that question.

Finally, I turn to the theme of time which permeates every aspect of The Sound and the Fury.  At this point, as a result of earlier discussions, we shall have drawn some tentative conclusions about how time functions in the Benjy, Quentin, and Jason sections and possible meanings of time in the novel.  Focusing on time allows me to show something of the aesthetic coherence of the story.  This part of the class is also the most difficult to conduct, primarily in terms of discussion, because it requires that students make tight, coherent connections and hard earned generalizations in terms of more global meanings.  After continuing to probe, encouraging my students to find connections between 1) the Easter worship service and Dilsey's life and 2) how these are structurally juxtaposed to Jason's discovery of the loss of approximately $36,000 he has stolen from young Quentin over the years and his furious realization that he can never recover it, I usually have to explain to my students how I see the significance of time in the Easter section and how it relates to the rest of the novel.

It is my contention that, despite the difference in each of the first three sections, there is a common underlying exploration of time.  Benjy, Quentin, and Jason, each is trapped in his respective past, is in bondage to the past to use Martin Luther's phrase.  Consequently, whatever transpires in the present is so intimately shaped by the past that the present experience is radically diminished, and any new possibilities the future might bring are doomed to repeat, however novel they may initially appear to be, the experiences of the past.  This repetition of the past in the present is what Freud called the repetition compulsion.  Jason's (incestuous) hatred of Caddy, his sister, is destructively played out in his interactions with Quentin, her daughter.   The money he failed to receive from the job that didn't materialize from the position promised at the bank owned by Caddy's husband of a few months will be gotten from his niece even if it means stealing it.   His hatred of his sister will be repeated in his denigration of women, and his interactions with them will be reduced to monetary relations as with his whore in Memphis, his mother, and young Quentin.  His present is reduced to frustration, misery, fury, reckless actionᾰin short, to meaninglessness. Real change for Jason is a most unlikely option in any future we could conceive for him.  Similar observations could be made about Quentin, adjusting for the fact that his ties with his sister are those of (incestuous) love, or about Benjy, adjusting for the fact of his mental limitations and that his attachment to Caddy is to Caddy as his beloved mothering figure.  Each of the Compson sons is in bondage to his past, doomed to live in a present of radically diminished meaning, and bound to a future that, with whatever novelty, will inevitably repeat the patterns of the past.  But in terms of time, none of this is true of what we have seen disclosed in Dilsey, Shegog's sermon, or the Easter Sunday service.

One way of talking about the incarnation is to say that Eternity enters time.  I find it interesting that, in Faulkner's Easter Sunday service in The Sound and the Fury, Eternity enters time precisely in the presentᾰnot someplace in the distant past, not some place in the sky by and by in the distant futureᾰbut now, in the present moment.  When Dilsey hears the living Word of God in Shegog's sermon and sees "de first end de last," the risen Lord becomes incarnate in her life, empowering her to love even to the point of suffering for another.  Her daily living is vivid testimony of that empowerment.  Religiously speaking then, God as Eternal Suffering Love enters the present in Dilsey's life.  What bearing does this have in terms of the meaning of the first three sections of the novel?   In secular, psychological terms, expressing a significant meaning I think Faulkner was most profoundly concerned to explore, Dilsey, I would argue, manifests little concern with her past, she lives fully in the present, and she is open to what comes, whether it be the brutality of Jason, the ingratitude of Mrs. Compson, the rejection of Miss Quentin, or the derision of her friends at the unwelcome white idiot she brings to worship in their church.  Humble servant that she is, her life stands in sharp contrast to anything else we see in this stunningly beautiful and infinitely complex piece of fiction.  Dilsey loves, and she endures!

Notes


 1.  André Bleikasten, in his marvelous exposition in The Ink of Melancholy, gives one of the more exhaustive and satisfying explorations of the Easter service and Shegog's sermon of which I am aware, yet he mentions neither the religious fulfillment  implied in Eternity entering time in the present nor its secular, psychological meaning of living fully in the present, relatively free of the burdens of the past and open to the changes that inevitably break into the present from the novel possibilities of the future.  What I am arguing for here is an interpretation that provides for aesthetic completeness, for placing Dilsey, Shegog's sermon, and the worship service in dialectical tension with the remainder of the novel, not by reducing the novel's "intricate web of ambiguities to a single pattern of meaning," but by simply juxtaposing what is clearly implied about time in Dilsey's life and the Easter worship service in her church.  Like Bleikasten, I believe that The Sound and the Fury stubbornly resists any attempt “to dissolve its opaqueness into the reassuring clarity of ideological statement" (142).  I personally suspect that Faulkner was basically irreligious, but unlike many fellow critics, I also believe that he was capable of illuminating affirmations in the midst of negation and despair, and the life of Dilsey, as a manifestation of her profound religious belief, is just such a provocative affirmation. How to attain the freedom to live in the complexity and richness of the ambiguous present, free from the demons of the past and open to the changes which the future inevitably brings, to live that which is the life of  "the peace in which to sin and be forgiven which is the life of man," is the other side of Faulkner's burning ambition to grapple with the ghosts of the past that haunt and inhibit and frequently destroy his most powerful characters.

 

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