William Faulkner was a writer from the Deep South who told his stories about the people and events that surrounded him from birth in the year before the Spanish-American War and ending his observations, when he died in 1962, with a widespread and increasingly-energized movement for Negro Civil Rights. He wrote with a keen eye and sensibility, and what he saw and recorded was the immersion of Southern life in racism, touching every fiber of every being and every nuance of every event. Whether Faulkner was racist is not the topic here, but his reactions to it, through his words and images, in “The Sound and the Fury.
As with a wide brush, many critics label Faulkner as racist for his use of certain words or expressions, or for his portrayal of black characters as simpler and less complex than white characters. As Cooley (303) notes: “Faulkner’s black characters were not written purely from personal contact and observation of life in the environs of Jefferson, Mississippi. His intertextuality alludes to and perpetuates well-established myths and stereotypes pertaining to the nature of black identity and culture. ” But a problem with stereotypes is that they are often true, which is why they become stereotypes.
To say that the average black person in the Deep South throughout the first half off the 20th century (Faulkner’s childhood to late middle age) was somewhat subservient to whites and had limited educational and occupational options is merely the reporting of fact, not a smear or lazy use of characterization. Racism complicated the relationships between whites and blacks precisely because the relationships were originated and thus defined by racism, by the forceful imposition of slavery of one on another under the guise of “superiority.
As Kinney (268) states, concerning the activities of Dilsey, the servant at the center of the Compson’s life and survival: “… as she hauls in firewood, toils up the stairs with a hot water bottle, scolds her grandson and feeds the thirty-three-year-old suffering from Downs Syndrome, her every gesture remains that of the traditional mammy: her outreach is imprisoned in duties dictated by past legacy. Her glory is to serve, but she serves not the Lord in this novel but the deteriorating Compson family in their rotting house.
She evokes for us, then, a kind of fatality that seems both to sadden and to undermine any claim she may have on our sense of heroism. She invokes enormous pity but insufficient terror. The racism which Faulkner exhibits here is, I think, profoundly subtle and profoundly deep, and wholly unintended. ” The terror Kinney refers to was the basis for much of the evils so energetically imposed on blacks: the fear that they would rise up and do unto whites what had been done unto them. For whites, blacks were mysterious, separate, with the separation forced between them and maintained out of self-preservation.
That chasm could almost never be crossed or bridged, even when the need was great. In another essay, Kinney (261) says that “… (I)n every observation of dress, speech, and behavior and attitude, Dilsey is the stereotypical, mythical–Bell would say archetypal–black Mammy and how this severely restricts her function in the novel as a moral norm or as a hope for the Compson family she serves or the emerging twentieth-century South of which she is a part. ” Even when the Compson’s need Dilsey to survive, they cannot truly make her a part of themselves and thus overcome their own failures; racism dooms them.
Because racism is and will remain a touchy subject, those who bring light to it, as Faulkner did, are often misunderstood. Brumm (101) notes that: “It is interesting to discover that major critics of the fifties and sixties had no trouble to discern in Dilsey the representative of the “ethical norm” (Olga Vickery), or “The ethical norm of Christian humanism” (Robert J. Griffin). On the other hand, without reference to her race, Vickery considered her–very wrongly I think– “almost as inarticulate as Benjy” and David Minter in a strangely contradictory statement Judged “Though her understanding is small, her wisdom and love are large.
Perhaps the statements were made because at this time these were tacitly considered racial characteristics, even if no mammy-stereotype was involved. ” At the risk of repeating the point, describing what is doesn’t necessarily make the description racist or even prejudiced. When anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote about the peoples she was living with, much of her writing was straightforward description, and if the subject matter was odd, repulsive or even abhorrent to us, that was merely our reaction to the facts and not a deliberate intent by Mead to impose her judgment or bias on what she was observing.
But familiarity breeds understanding, and with understanding comes the dawning of respect and even admiration. In Dilsey Faulkner harks back to his childhood mammy, a woman who most certainly influenced him with her attentions and affections more than anyone else in his tender years. What a child’s heart understands is never lost. Returning to Kinney’s earlier quote, Faulkner may have been exhibiting an unintentional and unconscious racism in his portrayal of Dilsey, but whether he did or not, there is a simple and unarguable observation to the contrary: “But Faulkner’s admiration for Dilsey betrays him (269).
Faulkner, if he was a racist, was probably more so because he grew up and absorbed the tenor of his times and though he may have made a concerted effort to overcome it and regain his natural moral balance, it was nevertheless a chain around his mind. It is worth noting that the only character that clearly rises above his chains, self-imposed or hung upon by others, is the Reverend Sheegog, who propels himself through simplistic faith to a greater world beyond, a black man reaching personal heights others can only belittle or pray for.
To link Dilsey and Benjy as so many do because they are both “less capable” or “innocent” or in some tortured way “pure” is more racism than criticism, it is more a rejection of the “other” than an embrace of what is shared. Faulkner wrote about a mentally-challenged child who was cared for by a black woman not because he wanted to pair them up as “equals,” but because he wanted to show how both of them were trapped by external circumstances, but free from the personal ones. The white characters in Faulkner’s novel are trapped and tortured by their own fears, needs and wants; Dilsey accepts and moves on, neither rushing nor falling behind.
She cares for Benjy because only she can, for she is the only one who can love him as he is and tend to his needs. Dilsey, like the white characters, is not happy, but she is more content than they are, more in tune with herself and the world and thus more worthy of our attention and sympathy than the others. Faulkner makes her so with his words and images because she was real, she was important and she was, beyond the binds of illogic, fear and cruelty that underlie racism, the one character that Faulkner could respect and admire and make us feel naturally the same for her.