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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Two Faulkner stories and a common thread: Rose for Emily and Dry September

Two of William Faulkner's stories - A Rose for Emily and Dry September - make an informative pairing - stories superficially so different yet both so obviously Faulknerian and with a theme in common. It seems clear that on the few occasions that F specifically set out to write a short story - there was a huge and lucrative market for short fiction back in the 1930s - as opposed to breaking a piece out of a novel to publish as a short story - he simplified and honed his style as much as he was capable of doing - he's never exactly Hemingway, but in these two fairly typical pieces the language is less florid and baroque than in most of the great F novels (and longer, later stories such as The Bear). But we still recognize the common landscape in both: small Southern heat-soaked city in which everyone knows not only everyone else's business but everyone else's complete complete family history. F wrote Rose with the narrative voice that I will call: first-person communal. It's a use of "we" that isn't a clearly defined small group, nor is it the royal we - but it's the voice of all in the community speaking as one - a fairly rare narrative strategy, but one I know J Eugenides used in The Virgin Suicides, to good effect, and old friend Jean McGarry used well in her early stories in Airs of Providence: the community speaking as one. In Rose everyone wonders about the fate of this reclusive woman in the shabby mansion who had not been seen in public for many years, the public finally admitted to her house to tend to her body when she dies, at which time "we" make a startling discovery (and, no, she's not a tranny, as she might have been in a narrative today). Dry is a much more dramatic and harrowing story, about a black man accused of raping a white woman (same Southern city of Jefferson time roughly in 1920), and the racist thugs who hunt him down and kill him, with the acquiescence of just about everyone except for one brave man, a barber - it's about the horrors of racism, of group insanity, and pressure to conform to the horrid norms of the time and place - the same hysteria that would later produce Nazism and the Killing Fields and many other atrocities big and small. The narrative is very fast-paced and dialog driven, at least for Faulkner. And it's worth noting that these two very different stories share a thread of a common theme: the repressed sexuality of an older, lonesome woman and who the town - the white men in the town, primarily - judge these women, with such contempt, condescension, and false pity. Each of these is really a story about a woman - but as seen and told very much from the outside, from distant observation and rumor - there is nothing at all intimate about either narrative.

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