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Dr Alistair Brown
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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Pioneer Opportunities in Cather and Faulkner

'I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it' (Willa Cather).

Abstract

Willa Cather's My Antonia and William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury are contrasted. Both texts offer different temporal perspectives on the myth of free-land. Cather's novel is prospective, occluding the actual political and commercial fragmentation of the future from which she is writing in order to portray the uncertainty in transition felt by the American pioneer; Faulkner's novel is retrospective, highlighting through the collapse of language and time the historical failure of democratic possibility.

Essay

Whitman's concept of America as a "teeming nation of nations" ('Preface' to Leaves of Grass, Norton, p.2081) implies that the country is a ferment of international identities. It possesses no unified domestically based culture but is constructed from those brought to it from abroad. This tension between the domestic and the foreign is revealed in some American writers in their treatment of prospect and retrospect. Willa Cather writes of a liminal period of American history, when America possesses only a tentative past and only the prospect of a positive future. Physical space stands as a metaphor for the establishment of a coherent American nation, in which there is not yet a 'Country' but merely country, "the material out of which countries are made" (My 聲tonia, p.7). Her narrative concerns itself with both the geographical and historical frontier and the abstract frontier, the point of balance between America as constructed from outside, by a melting-pot of foreigners whose identity and sense of self derives from other lands, and America as possessing its own sense of selfhood.1 The Sound and the Fury stands on the far side of this line. Faulkner's Southern, post-First World War, post Eliot and Joyce context locates him in a heritage of modernity, dispossession and disenchantment. In The Sound and the Fury retrospect is all that exists. Every important event has already happened by the time we read the novel such that even things which appear to look forward, such as Quentin going to commit suicide, are relegated to the past. The Sound and the Fury closes securely grounded in the present, "window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place" (The Sound and the Fury, p.199). By contrast, My 聲tonia projects forward even as it looks back.

This difference in optimism between the two novels is evident in their treatment of the land and its potential. Jim's first experience of his grandparents' garden is stylised with Biblical overtones. Jim's affinity with the "warm earth" in this new country where naturally "a body feels friendly to the animals" (My 聲tonia, p.17) is overshadowed by the threat of the snakes. This metaphor of the land as a pre-lapsarian Eden with the possible threat of the serpent is reiterated later when Jim defeats the huge rattler, "the ancient, oldest evil" (p.49), in the Christmas tree, which is reminiscent of the Tree of Knowledge (p.83) and at the end of the novel as Jim and 聲tonia walk through the apple orchard. The description of the latter scene stands as a metaphor for the relationship of the rural to the urban in the novel as a whole:

There was the deepest peace in that orchard. It was surrounded by a triple enclosure; the wire fence, then the hedge of thorny locusts, then the mulberry hedge...(p.341)

My 聲tonia, like O Pioneers, contains the story of Man (and especially Woman) successfully harnessing nature and working with the land. The urban, and the negatives associated with it, lie always outside the centre of the text, threatening but never encroaching on the main narratives. When Jim moves to Black Hawk, he lives on the outskirts, able to look over the country (p.145). In Lincoln, Jim lives in "a country part" surrounded by trees and blossoms (p.277). Cather avoids writing directly about the culture of the city such that the problems associated with it are brought to the country from elsewhere. Wick Cutter comes to Black Hawk from Iowa and is one of the "fast set" of businessmen and the tragic conclusion to his story (an apt warning for Jason Compson) is relegated to an incidental place in the narrative at the end. Jim Burden's ultimate history, his sterile job as a worker for the railways, that mediating force between urban and rural lanscapes, is placed outside the main frame of the novel, as a preface. Cather, writing the novel in 1918, must have been well-aware of the problems of the capitalist world but by refusing to fully elucidate the urban state she heightens the novel's sense of hanging on the edge. From the introverted and rural perspective of the novel and its characters the future seems optomistic, fashioned with the tropes of the idyllic pastoral. For the reader, objective, detached and with historical awareness, this is a parochial vision, one consistent with the perspective of those who stand on boundaries uncertain as to where they are moving next.

With significant contrast, The Sound and the Fury places the lack of fulfilment of the New World's democratic prospects at its forefront. The landscape is predominated by urban motifs, even though Jefferson is supposedly a small country town. Jefferson is populated by 'town squirts', immigrants, petty criminals and aggressive capitalists. Moneymaking relies on "sucking" people in (p.146) rather than offering the opportunity for expanding the land. Jason's saving of money is yet another means of possessing the past, his attempt to mark how far he has come from having nothing. For Alexandra in O Pioneers, saving and spending are congruent with realising opportunity in the future. Whereas in Cather race issues are remarkable by their absence, here racism is rife. Luster's desperation to find a quarter to go to the show (unlike the theatre in My Antonia, this show is not culturally expansive) epitomises the problems of capitalism and the coloured divide:

"Nigger's money good as white folks, I reckon." "White folks gives nigger money because know first white man comes along with a band going to get it all back, so nigger can go to work for some more." (p.10)

In terms of the land as a metaphor for the possibility of America, Quentin's sense of enclosure on his train-ride home from Harvard is far from the expansiveness experienced by Jim on his outward journey, and his sense of a transition to a new land.2 Ironically too, Quentin's return is an indictment of a system which requires the rural, Benjy's pasture, to be exchanged for an education which ultimately results in further disillusionment rather than opportunity.

Along with the dichotomy between urban and rural, the trope of childhood and adulthood is one fitted to the American context.5 Cather's presentation of the pioneer experience as a progression from the old and other to the new and domestic fits with a sense of America moving through its adolescence. The time-scale of My 聲tonia is that of a human life, young Jim and young Antonia growing to maturity and the child is the embodiement of expectation and possibility. Cuzak's boys, vibrant, intelligent, affectionate (p.352) represent the future. 聲tonia and Jim are the transitional generation, both symbolically of America and literally of which the novel is concerned. 聲tonia is the earth-mother, fecund and domesticated and, "it was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races" (p.353). By contrast, the older generation, those who bring with them the expectations and attitudes of the lands from which they originate, find it difficult to settle. Mr. Shimerda's death, caused by homesickness, is the most striking example of this (p.101) though Norwegian Anna also expresses it:

A new country's hard on the old ones, sometimes. My grandmother's getting feeble now, and her mind wanders. She's forgot about this country, and thinks she's at home in Norway. (p.239)

In contrast to the stabilised relationship between past, present and future as embodied by the three generations here, family relationships in Faulkner are disrupted and the move to adulthood marks a loss of innocence. Benjy - physically an adult, mentally a child, sexually neutral - possesses language only in so far as it is a marker of concrete objects; he cannot use it in the abstract sense. For example, he can only register his mother's illness in terms of the concrete feature associated with it, the cloth on her head (The Sound and the Fury, p.26). He has no notion of illness as a concept. Benjy lacks language and is therefore innocent of the consequences of his own actions so that if he cannot understand the inference of sexuality (The Sound and the Fury, p.30), he cannot be blamed for his touching of a schoolgirl.3 Entrance into language represents a loss of innocence because by being able to use abstract concepts we are able to realise the gap between our hopes and their realisations or failures. By associating the idea of Eden, or more specifically the passage relating to the Fall itself, with sexuality Quentin discovers a gap between expectation and experience. He imagines himself and Caddy as Adam and Eve figures, the ancestors of the human race. But when she loses her virginity, thereby admitting her womanhood and fallen state, Quentin too experiences a loss, a deprivation of his desires. Benjy, feeling for Caddy with only a primitive attachment urge (she 'smells of trees') and being without the concept of time or language, is saved from realising this gap. Quentin, obsessed by time and language, cannot cope with it. Whilst it is going to far to see an explicit correlative between Quentin's disillusionment and that of a modern America that has fallen short of realising its potential, the negative comparison of child and adult in Faulkner might be seen as an indicator of his position in modern history and as a Southern writer. The essentially negative outlook of the novel is mediated by the presence of Dilsey. Whereas the three other sections of the novel are retrospective and the fact that characters are unable to grasp the future is essential to their plight, Dilsey, following the easter sermon, is able to look forward, although to a point beyond empirical and physical time. As she explains, "I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin" (p.185). By ending on Easter Sunday the novel is framed by the life and death of Jesus, the predominant child image of Western culture. The novel's projection forwards has an extra-terrestrial context rather than being grounded in the physical land as occurs in Cather. In her texts there is continuation of the family line (unlike in The Sound and the Fury) and the diagram of progression is natural rather than spiritual. Most explicitly in O Pioneers, Mr. and Mrs. Bergson must die and be buried on the land before the land yields its fruits to their children. In Faulkner, any progression is spiritual rather than physical and as such is beyond human control.

The concept of the circle of life, part of the ancient lore of mother-earth, is just one element of the constant myth making that occurs in Cather's fiction. The culture of My 聲tonia is predominantly oral. Stories and myths are passed on such that even the new generation of 聲tonia's children delight in storytelling, demanding that Jim relate his snake killing adventure (p.351).4 The novel partakes in this heritage, not only in its references to Eden but also in Jim's classical interest. His Latin dictum, "Primus ego in patriam mecum...deducam Musas", is central to understanding America's sense of unity. Patriam means a small rural neighbourhood rather than a country and this idea relates to the theme of the novel in taking a collection of identities who bring their own stories and forming them into a coherent new myth, specifically American. The pioneering spirit extends culturally as well as physically, although it is an interesting to note that Cather attempts to construct a new narrative in relation to the old modes of pastoral, Biblical and epic. Once again highlighting her sense of transition, her narrative of prospect is founded on the past. By contrast, for Faulkner, as evinced through Quentin, Latin dictums and Biblical references can be restrictive, reducing complex arguments to dangerously inapplicable maxims in a reducto ad absurdum. Quentin's retrospect, placing Caddy's lovemaking in a tradition of lust from Greek mythology to Othello (p.93), implies the consistency of man in being driven by primal passions. Even in the new America, there is no escaping from such powerful, uncivilised forces.

Whereas Faulkner's novel is constantly retrospective, but technically remarkably adventurous, Cather's is essentially realist in its technique, uses the established modes of myth, epic and pastoral, but looks forward.5 Embodied in the personal experience of Jim, the passing of old friends and his reminiscences at the end is actually forward looking. Because Jim himself has now become the stuff of stories, rather than stories deriving from other lands, he himself is part of a new, American myth. His stumbling across the first bit of road to cross the land represents the discovery of a piece of specifically American archaeology. By having a past to possess, the implication is that America and its inhabitants have moved forward. His writing down of his memories of his 聲tonia likewise moves us to the future. Although the narrative still ends with foreignness and orality (聲tonia tells her stories in her native Bohemian) the act of writing the narrative, the physical book itself, stands as a testament to the entry into concrete language. Even as the subject matter of the novel hovers on boundaries, the fact of the novel suggests the line from fluid, alien orality to permanent, native narrative, has been crossed.6 By contrast the disruption of conventional narrative in The Sound and the Fury represents a protest about the tradition which precedes it and the culture in which it is being written. Just as all the characters are out of synchronisation with their expected positions in the social hierarchy (Dilsey is too dominant for a black servant, the Compsons are landowners who have sold all their land, the teenage Quentin is a rebellious free-spirit) so the book's deliberate failure to occupy an expected generic space implies an uncertainty about the cultural state of modern America. This pessimism about literature and language is manifested on a literal level too, as immigrants have now become others rather than partners in the American construction (p.83) and dialects slightly different from the normal are rejected as alien rather than accommodated (p.76).

In Cather the negative is under-written; Faulkner writes the negative. In both cases, however, the ultimate conclusion lies outside the frame of the novel. In Cather, the historical fact of the prevalance of urban and commercial culture over the rural and natural does not predominate in the fictional, pre-lapsarian world of the plain. In Faulkner the failure of aspirations, the gap between expectation and realisation, can only be answered in a spiritual world. Both, therefore, are novels located on boundaries. For The Sound and the Fury, its technical novelty locates it at an extreme of modernity, whilst its contents and characters are constantly retrospective, "facing backwards even as the car carries them along" (Sartre, p.269). Cather writes of a frontier - geographical, temporal, and metaphorical - in American history and her novel is both retrospective and projective. Her suppression of the awkward aspects of American history is the result of her attempt to finely balance the novel on the edge between old and new. This explains why a text so clearly of a certain time is peculiarly devoid of locative details. The Civil War receives just one explicit reference in My 聲tonia (the coroner who attends to Mr. Shimerda is a veteran) and one implicit (the play Jim and Lena go to see is a war play, 'Shenandoh'). To ground it in actual history, rather than in an epic and Biblical heritage, would be to demand that readers apply a context and consequently ignore just how finely poised the potential for American success actually was. By contrast, for Faulkner, there can be no denying the problems both of the present and the past and the uncertainty of the future.

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Notes

  1. The frontispiece to the first edition of Cather's Song of the Lark visually demonstrates this concept of liminality. The picture shows a woman walking out from an expanse of plain, the setting sun behind, and looking forward into somewhere unknown and, to the observer of the picture, unseen. [Back to text]
  2. From The Sound and the Fury:
    And all that day, while the train wound through rushing gaps and along ledges where movement was only a laboring sound of the exhaust and groaning wheels and the eternal mountains stood fading into the thick sky, I thought of home, of the bleak station and the mud and the niggers and country folks thronging slowly about the square, with toy monkeys and wagons and candy in sacks and roman candles sticking out, and my insides would move like they used to do in school when the bell rang. (The Sound and the Fury, p.56)
    From My 聲tonia:
    There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land - slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. (My 聲tonia, p.7)

    The adjectives of speed, effort and oppressiveness in the first passage contrast with those of absence and uncertainty in the second. [Back to text]

  3. Benjy's possession/dispossession of language is a difficult issue to explain. If signifier (the cloth on the head) and signified (the illness) have to be present at the same time in order for Benjy to register the existence of illness or other such abstractions, how does he have any stable memory? Following this, if objects only exist simultaneous with their perception, how can Benjy relate his story in the past tense, suggesting that the objects he describes occupy a different spatial and temporal place to himself? How, indeed, can someone mute narrate a story at all? For one explanation, see Polk, pp.139-173. [Back to text]
  4. Other examples of myths and stories include: the two Russians and the wolves (p.56); Anton and the priest (p.106); Crazy Mary (p.166); the dead tramp (p.178); blind d'Arnault (p.186); the murder of Mrs. Cutter (p.362). [Back to text]
  5. The same is true of O Pioneers, the title of which interestingly derives from a Whitman poem which signals his own epic vision of the New World. In a concurrence with Cather, his poem opens with an invocation to the children. His fluid style, inspired by the versification of the Bible, also represents a return to ancient techniques in order to present the modern. [Back to text]
  6. This idea encapsulates another problematic ignorance of the novel, the fact that there is only one language of writing. All characters are forced to adopt English as the standard, both in the fiction and as the language in which the novel is written. This can be explained in positive terms - symbolically, one of the first words Jim teaches Antonia is the word for sky, a natural phenomenon they both share; Mr. Shimerda gives Jim a dictionary with both English and Bohemian alphabets - but there is still the problem of immigrant alienation, an alienation which ultimately causes Mr. Shimerda's death. [Back to text]

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This page was published on October 2003 | Keywords: Willa Cather, William Faulkner, My Antonia, The Sound and the Fury

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