William Faulkner, Southern Modernist


ENG 343: The American Novel

Lesson 7: William Faulkner, Southern Modernist
Oct. 28-Nov. 4, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Summarize the life and literary contributions of William Faulkner.
  • Insightfully discuss characters, themes, and other features of The Sound and the Fury.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: Notoriously difficult, The Sound and the Fury poses numerous challenges even to experienced readers.  If you could ask William Faulkner one question about his novel, what would you ask?  How do you think he would respond? 

Presentation: “William Faulkner, Southern Modernist” (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning:

Setting: Like Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, The Sound and the Fury is firmly grounded in a particular time and place.  Discuss the ways in which some of the novel’s themes emerge out of this setting.  How does Faulkner evoke this setting?

Form: In what ways does The Sound and the Fury conform to and depart from novelistic conventions, such as those regarding plot and narration?  How do Faulkner’s departures help to shape the meaning of his novel?

Characterization: In what ways is The Sound and the Fury an exploration of characters or character types?  What does the novel have to say about human psychology and personality?

Time: Analyze the theme of time and the past in the novel.  Does Faulkner treat time as something linear or cyclical?

Allusion: Like many Modernist works, The Sound and the Fury makes use of literary allusion.  Discuss the ways in which Faulkner’s allusions, including the one in the book’s title, help to create meaning.

Presentation: Faulkner and Transcendentalism (Mike Hemminger)

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, presentations, and cooperative learning.

Think Again: Robert Penn Warren has ranked Faulkner alongside Herman Melville and Henry James, two other novelists we have studied this semester.  One can also find connections between Faulkner and Cooper, Faulkner and Stowe, and Faulkner and Wolfe.  Choose one of these other novelists and discuss the ways in which Faulkner resembles him or her in terms of style, technique, or themes.   What is the nature of this connection?

Conferences: While the rest of you are working on the “Think Again” exercise, I will meet with two of you in one-on-one conferences.  During this time, I will review some of your writing, orally quiz you on lesson objectives, and field your questions.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.

Names and Terms

Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following:

  • point of view
  • Modernism
  • stream of consciousness


Make sure you are familiar with the following key date:


1929: Faulkner publishes The Sound and the Fury


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the following source:


William Faulkner on the Web features a useful glossary, notes on Faulkner’s works, and a bibliography.

Updated October 14, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


Having completed our study of Thomas Wolfe, we turn in this unit to another great Southern novelist, William Faulkner.  As we will see, Faulkner resembles Wolfe—and other novelists we have seen this semester—in some significant ways, but he is known for achieving a level of mastery equaled by few writers of his time or any other.


William Faulkner, 1897-1962


One of the giants of literature in the American South, the United States, and indeed the world, William Faulkner wrote some of the world’s best-known novels, including The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Absalom!  Absalom! (1936), as well as notable short stories such as “Barn Burning” (1939) and “A Rose for Emily.”  Strongly associated with his native Mississippi, home of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner was the major figure of the Southern Renascence and treated many of the same themes that pervade the works of fellow Southerners such as Thomas Wolfe, Richard Wright, and Tennessee Williams: family, time, race, class, and maturation.  Along with this strong Southern strain in his writing runs a Modernist sensibility that is perhaps equally strong.  Like his contemporaries James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, he broke from conventions of form by frequently using stream-of-consciousness narration.  Furthermore, although they are set in very different locales, his works capture the same sense of alienation and emptiness found in works by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Eugene O’Neill.


Born on September 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi, Faulkner moved to Oxford, Mississippi, before he was five years old.  He did not finish high school and led a desultory youth, serving briefly in the Canadian Royal Flying Corps, attending the University of Mississippi for two years, and working as a postmaster.  In 1924, he moved to New Orleans, where he befriended Sherwood Anderson, one of the leading American writers of the time.  Over the next year or so, he contributed poetry and criticism to a magazine called The Double-Dealer, assembled poems in a collection called The Marble Faun (1924), and had his novel Soldier’s Pay (1926) accepted for publication.  After spending six months in Europe, he returned to Oxford.  In 1929, he published two novels, Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury.  The latter was the first of several important novels he would publish over the next decade.  Others include As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932), and Absalom! Absalom! (1936).  In the early 1930s, he went to Hollywood, where he worked as a screenwriter.  In the 1940s and 1950s, he published additional novels, including The Hamlet (1940), Go Down, Moses (1942), Intruder in the Dust (1948), and Requiem for a Nun (1951).  In 1950, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.


The Sound and the Fury (1929)

Like Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, which also appeared in 1929, The Sound and the Fury is set in the American South and addresses a number of themes common in Southern literature.  Benjy, Caddy, Quentin, and Jason, for instance, are members of the same family, and Quentin in particular feels the influence of his father.  The recurrent appearance of this father’s watch, furthermore, suggests the importance of time in the novel.  Both novels also explore the complexities of human psychology.  Despite these similarities in content, one is not likely to confuse one novel for the other.  The differences in form are simply too stark.  Whereas Look Homeward, Angel is in some ways quite traditional in its form, The Sound and the Fury clearly shows the Modernist willingness to experiment with features such as point of view.  Indeed, in his extensive use of stream-of-consciousness narration, Faulkner more closely resembles writers from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean—James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, in particular—than many of his fellow Southerners.  Nevertheless, we can find much in common in The Sound and the Fury and several other American novels, such as Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.


Although we must leave Faulkner behind, we will not leave his home state.  In our next lesson, we turn to the work of Richard Wright, also born in Mississippi.