Revised Essay: Circularity of Time in Faulkner’s Was

At the core of “Was” by William Faulkner, is the sense that time is not an unbounded line composed of external moments, but rather a series of internal impressions which flow and infuse into one another. Faulkner believes that human experiences are not set against the backdrop of objective linear time, but are part of subjective circular time, as demonstrated by his use of parallel structure that causes the events in “Was” to move in overlapping circles, rather than chronological narration. For Faulkner, the pattern of history is cyclical—the past manifests itself into the present so that they are essentially the same, but with slight differences. The parallel structure in “Was” demonstrates the circularity of time, allowing us to sense the past, present, and future as one form.

Faulkner emphasizes the indivisibility of present and past by making part one of “Was” a fragment by itself, but an introduction to Ike’s listening of his cousin’s story from the “old time” (4). This is seen by the fact that Ike is not listening to McCaslin’s tale in the present, but remembering a memory of it:

“not something he had participated in or even remembered except from the hearing, the listening, come to him through from his cousin McCaslin” (4).

Ike, “past seventy and nearer eighty” (3), is our best glimpse of the present in “Was,” yet this present is largely dominated by past events. For Faulkner, the past is unavoidable—it’s something for the present to continuously redefine and contemplate, and in “Was,” this can be seen through the re-narration of the story by Cass to Ike, and through Ike to us. These characters reconstruct a past during the present, thus their past, present and future are all intertwined. Memories, then, are not really memories, but part of the present because they affect what a character does in the present. With the past constantly shaping the present, the two are the same, but with a difference—a testament to Faulkner’s circular time.

This subtle difference in parallel structure can be seen in the hunt motifs of Uncle Buck’s chase of Tomey’s Turl, Sophonsiba’s desire for Uncle Buck, and the fox races at the beginning and end of the story. The chase between Uncle Buck and his slave, Tomey’s Turl, is multi-layered not only because the slave is a “half-white McCaslin” (5), but because Buck too is the object of a hunt by Miss Sophonsiba, who hopes to trap him into marriage.  When Buck and Cass hear the fox horn blow, signifying that they are near Mr. Hubert’s house, they plan to catch Tomey’s Turl “before he can den” (17). The use of the word “den” indicates that Tomey’s Turl is being likened to a hunted animal, as “denning” is a hunting technique where an animal is driven and trapped inside its home. Although Buck does not manage to catch Tomey’s Turl, he does manage to enter the “den” of Sophonsiba, humorously referred to as a bear.

“All right; you were a grown man and you knew it was bear-country and you knew the way back out like you knew the way in and you had your chance to take it But no. You had to crawl into the den and lay down by the bear” (21).

While Sophonsiba is technically referred to as the animal, it is really Uncle Buck who is viewed as trapped game. Once Buck is caught in Sophonsiba’s room, he must gamble for his freedom and for the slaves, according to the bet made between him and Mr. Hubert. After having “won” Sophonsiba through losing the card game, Buck must send for his brother Uncle Buddy to help him escape from the threat of marriage. Meanwhile, Buck starts to act like a slave himself, telling Cass that “if they pushed him too close…he would climb down the gutter too and hide in the woods until Uncle Buddy arrived” (24). The same way Tomey’s Turl hid in the woods from Uncle Buck (14), Uncle Buck is threatening to hide from Sophonsiba. With slight differences, we see the events in “Was” circling and metamorphosizing into each other.

Continuing this idea of circularity is the foreshadowing at the end of “Was.” Although Uncle Buddy does win his brother’s freedom, the ending suggests that in the future, Buck will be caught by Sophonsiba. When they return home, the dog “Old Moses” is found with the fox’s crate around his neck (28)—perhaps a symbolic prediction of Sophonsiba eventually placing the yoke of marriage on the other old dog, “old Buck” (12), as Tomey’s Turl calls him. But if Faulkner’s view of circular time holds true, this also forecasts that once again Uncle Buddy will come to Uncle Buck’s rescue, as “old Moses was still wearing most of the crate…until Uncle Buddy kicked [the crate] off of him” (28). Even though “Was” is a story of the past, we can see bits of the future, which is all still in the past if we take the “past seventy” Uncle Ike to be in the present. Thus the past, present, and future can be seen as one entity.

To complete the circle of time, the story ends and begins with the same fox race (4, 28), albeit with a subtle difference. Faulkner cleverly uses the word “treed” (5) to demonstrate how the fox uses the mantle to escape.  “Treed” refers to a hunted animal being forced to take refuge in a tree, thus the mantle serves as a metaphorical tree. Later, Faulkner brings this metaphor back when he describes the fox as “scrabbling up the lean-pole, onto the roof.” This time the race refers to the fox and the pole, and the pole is referred to as a tree “…the tree was too quick” (28). In both descriptions of the fox race, Faulkner uses a tree metaphor to tie them together.  The use of parallel structure in the events of the various chases, as well as inside the narratives, demonstrates the circularity of time in “Was.”

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