Faulkner: Meaning through Metaphor
|"Fiction and the
Human Experience" is one of the popular literature courses our
University offers sophomores. Many of those who take this course haven't
read much, not even popular literature. (One student confessed last spring
that he had never read anything other than textbooks.) Others, especially
those who have had "college prep" courses, have read some
worthwhile works, although they often know little more than the plot of
these pieces, if that. It's a real teaching thrill, then, to introduce
them to some of the more sophisticated techniques of William Faulkner,
especially his method of conveying meaning through metaphor and imagery.*
This idea is an interesting concept to them, and they begin to look
forward to studying the Faulkner stories because their themes are
expressed subtly, and the reader is often seduced into sympathy with
questionable characters and actions.
Consider the three short stories, "Barn Burning," "Dry September," and "A Rose For Emily," for instance. In "Barn Burning" a young son "betrays" his father for abstract principles. In "Dry September" a lonely woman indirectly causes the murder of a totally innocent man.In "A Rose for Emily" the main character murders her lover. Yet, through the use of metaphor and imagery, Faulkner manages to make the reader feel that these acts are totally understandable.
In "Barn Burning" a ten-year old boy, Sarty Snopes, is cruelly caught between his yearning for peace and justice and his loyalty to his father, Abner, who relies on the retaliation of barn burning to rectify any and all "wrongs" done him, imaginary or otherwise. Anyone who has grown up in a farming community can appreciate the viciousness of barn burning; a farming family's barn is often more important than their home, in that it houses farm animals, machinery, stores of hay and next season's seeds-in short, the barn protects the family's way of making a living as well as its possessions. Abner appreciates this reality very well and exploits it to get even with a world which he perceives as unjust to him.
Still, betrayal of a father is no light matter, and the reader must be convinced that Sarty, at ten years of age, has the strength to resist becoming like his father and his older brother, Flem. (Although Flem is unnamed in this story, his despicable character is further developed in such pieces as "Spotted Horses.")
How does Faulkner accomplish the readers' sympathy for Sarty's point of view? From the beginning of the story, Abner is associated with ominous images such as a "stiff black coat" (5) and a "stiff and ruthless limp . . . where a Confederate provost's man's musket ball had taken him in the heel on a stolen horse thirty years ago" (5). He is also described as a worshipper of fire as a weapon with which to strike back at an unjust society:
. . . the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father's being, as the
element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation
of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect
and used with discretion. (7)
Through Sarty's young eyes, the reader sees Abner "without face or depth? a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat . . . [his] voice harsh like tin and without heat like tin" (8). It was "as though, [Abner] sidewise to the sun .... would cast no shadow"(10).
All of this imagery adds up to a very satanic portrayal indeed. The devil, as the old ballads remind us, casts no shadow, and the words "stiff," "black," and "bloodless" confirm the reader's impression that Abner is not merely a bad person, but may be likened to a demonic worshipper of fire and the dark forces of the earth-a sort of latter day Zoroastrian or Vulcan. When Abner takes Sarty to Major DeSpain's elegant home, Faulkner describes Abner's black hat and coat ("which had now that friction-glazed greenish cast of the bodies of old house flies") and his hand, knocking at the door as a "curled claw"(11).
In contrast to these descriptions of Abner, Faulkner dramatizes Sarty's dilemma as one of "terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses"(17). And when Abner and Sarty walk up to the DeSpain mansion, Sarty's first impression is that "Hit's big as a courthouse," and he feels "a surge of peace and joy whose reason he could not have thought into words, being too young for that"(10). The word "courthouse" is weighted with meaning. It is as if, for the first time in his life, Sarty experiences a world where there is protection from the viciousness and cold rage epitomized by his father, a place where there are "people whose lives are a part of this peace and dignity . . . beyond his [father's] touch"(10).
Though some students might sympathize with Abner's lashing out at an unjust world, most are persuaded by the imagery and metaphor in the story that Abner is an evil and destructive man, and that Sarty, though only ten, is right in his decision to side with "peace and joy" and justice. After studying "Barn Burning," the students become much more aware of the meaning of Faulkner's metaphors and imagery.
In "Dry September" Faulkner uses metaphor and imagery to both induce sympathy for and incriminate the main characters. Minnie Cooper is a "thirty-eight or thirty-nine" (173) year-old, unmarried woman who lives with an invalid mother and housekeeper aunt. Her purposeless life revolves around sitting in the porch swing until noon, taking naps, going "downtown" with the other ladies to "handle the goods and haggle over the prices in cold, immediate voices, without any intention of buying" (173), and going to the picture show where life unfolds "beautiful and passionate and sad" (181), while young men and girls enter, "their slim, quick bodies . . . divinely young" (181).
Minnie has lost her chance for a husband and family because of the town's class consciousness, jealously, and her own pride. At nearly forty, desperate for attention (The men "did not even follow her with their eyes any more" ), she allows the town to think that she has been assaulted and raped by an innocent Negro, Will Mayes. The result is that the barbershop crowd, led by the town bully, McLendon, takes the rumor for an excuse to murder the innocent Black man.
Minnie could be seen as a very unsympathetic character, except that Faulkner seems to empathize with her. In describing her first realizations that her popularity was, for some reason, on the wane, he says: "That was when her face began to wear that bright, haggard look. She still carried it to parties on shadowy porticoes and summer lawns, like a mask or a flag, with that bafflement of furious repudiation of truth in her eyes" (174); and besides social ostracism, the town finds other ways of torturing Minnie. For awhile she has enjoyed the company of a man with the first automobile in town. Of course their rides together make the town jealous, and the townspeople relegate Minnie "into adultery by public opinion" (175). When he leaves town to live in Memphis, it is clear that Minnie has "lost" her chance at marriage. After he moves, he makes it a practice to come "home" for one day at Christmas, and all her neighbors enjoy telling "her about him, about how well he looked, and how they heard that he was prospering in the city, watching with bright, secret eyes her haggard, bright face" (175).
After the supposed rape and Will Mayes' murder, when Minnie goes to the picture show with her lady friends, Faulkner describes her journey as the center of attention: "She walked slower and slower, as children eat ice cream, her head up and her eyes bright in the haggard banner of her face" (180). In these descriptions, the words "flag" and "banner" suggest a sort of heroism in the face of hopelessness and injustice.
To prejudice the reader against the barbershop hangers-on and McLendon, Faulkner uses other kinds of imagery.
One of the men getting a "frothy" shave in the barbershop, who is eager to protect white womanhood from Black rapists, is described as looking "like a desert rat in the moving pictures" (170). When McLendon is introduced into the barbershop scene, Faulkner ironically mentions that as a commander of troups in France, he had been decorated for valor. As McLendon instigates the barbershop crowd to come with him to murder Will Mayes, one barber suggests restraint-doing things the right way-getting the sheriff. Faulkner continues, "McLendon whirled upon him his furious, rigid face . . . They looked like men of difference races" (172).
After the cruel and senseless murder of Mayes, when McLendon returns home to his "birdcage" (183) small house, where he strikes his wife and flings her across a chair for waiting up, he goes "through the house, ripping off his shirt, and on the dark, screened porch at the rear," stands "with his body pressed against the dusty screen . . . panting" (183). The imagery used in this passage clearly suggests that McLendon is little more than an ape, caged in by his hatred for Blacks, women, and perhaps, ultimately for himself.
In this story, as in "A Rose for Emily," Faulkner thoroughly indicts small town meanness as a cause for individual tragedy. He describes how Minnie's friends, "eyes darkly aglitter, secret and passionate," want to know every detail of the "rape," while their hands are "smoothing her hair, examining it for gray" (182).
"A Rose for Emily" is possibly one of Faulkner's strongest criticisms of small-town meanness and the pettiness and cruelty of the small-town mind. The author creates a first-person plural narrator who speaks for the town throughout the story, a very unusual technique, and the imagery he uses to describe Emily Grierson is quite different than that used to portray the defeated Minnie Cooper. Miss Emily is described as a "fallen monument . . . a tradition, a duty, and a care" (119), "an upright torso motionless as that of an idol" (123), and "like the carven torso of an idol in a niche" (128). When Miss Emily begins seeing Homer Barron, a construction worker, and worse still, a "Yankee" (124), "she demands more than ever the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson" (125). She makes a trip to the druggist to buy poison, and Faulkner describes her "cold, haughty black eyes in a face the flesh of which was strained across the temples and about the eye-sockets as you imagine a lighthouse-keeper's face ought to look" (125). The image of the lighthouse-keeper's face effectively suggests the years of Emily's desperate loneliness and isolation. The druggist explains to her that the law requires her to say what she is going to use the arsenic for, but she simply stares him down and says nothing. Nevertheless, the druggist fetches the arsenic marked "For Rats," and both the author and reader must enjoy the irony, since the poison is, of course, for Homer.
Miss Emily triumphs over the townspeople every time they confront her and try to make her follow their rules. She lives in poverty, and, at one point, is even reduced to giving lessons in china-painting, but the town's interference in her life never seems to faze her. One example of the town's defeat is when they send for her relatives to break up her "affair" with Homer Barron; unfortunately they find that the relatives are "even more Grierson than Miss Emily had ever been" and are very relieved to see them leave (127). When the town's ladies force the Baptist minister to call on Miss Emily and remind her of noblesse oblige, he never explains what happened during the interview, but refuses to ever go back to Miss Emily's.
The shocking end of the story reveals that Miss Emily is a murderess, willing to go to any length to hold onto someone she loves. By this time, however, the readers have been so influenced by the imagery describing Miss Emily's lonely existence, frustrated youth, and unfailing dignity that they, as well as the author, wish to give Miss Emily a rose.
Once the students grasp the notion that theme and a great deal of meaning may be conveyed through imagery and metaphor in Faulkner's writing, they begin to enjoy the richness of his fiction very much.
Notes *Quotations from Faulkner's stories are taken from Collected Stories (New York: Vintage Books, 1950). My appreciation of the importance of metaphor and imagery in Faulkner's writing was considerably heightened by an analysis of "Spotted Horses" in John Gardner and Lennis Dunlap (eds.), The Forms of Fiction (New York: Random House, 1962).