Tag Archives: William Faulkner

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.”

A Comparison Between Coover’s The Babysitter and Faulkner’s Was

“The babysitter sighs, lifts the girl out of the tub and onto the toilet, getting her skirt and blouse all wet in the process…Before she knows it the girl is off the seat and out of the bathroom. ‘Bitsy! Come back here!’…”

(next stanza)“Okay, that’s enough!” Her skirt is ripped and she’s flushed and crying. “Who says?” “I do, man”.

“Uncle Buck flung his arm out and back, reigning in, crouched on the big horse, his little round head and his gnarled neck thrust forward like a cooter’s. You stay back where he wont see you and flush. I’ll circle him through the woods and we will bay him at the creek ford.” He waited until Uncle Buck vanished into the woods. Then he went on. But Tomey’s Turl saw him. He closed in too fast; maybe he was afraid he wouldn’t be there in time to see him when he treed. It was the best race he had ever seen.

 

Ambiguity in the subject being referred is a fundamental characteristic of both Robert Coover’s The Babysitter and William Faulkner’s Was, and thus serves in creating ties of similarity between the two works. In both these works there is a large amount of confusion regarding who or what is being referred to due to the continuous switching of characters without utilization of clearly defining who or what that pronoun is referring to. The confusion in Faulkner’s work stems much from the continuous, rapid-fire use of “he” to refer to different characters in the stream of consciousness-based story. This use of the same “he” pronoun to refer to various different characters in very close succession serves to create ambiguity in terms of who the “he” being referred to is. There is confusion as to whether the different “he’[s]” are referring to Uncle Buck, Uncle Buddy, Tomey’s Turl, or Ike. This same confusion is created in The Babysitter through the illustration of parallel stories between different stanzas such as the one in the passage above. In the first stanza, the passage centers around Bitsy, the little girl. Bitsy is being difficult about taking her bath and demands that she get out of the bath, thus “getting her skirt and blouse all wet”. The babysitter gets frustrated and yells “Bitsy! Come back here!” The next stanza begins immediately with “‘Okay, that’s enough!’ Her skirt is ripped and she’s flushed and crying”. The reader assumes the “her” here is Bitsy, as she was the last character discussed, until reading further to find that the “her” here is the babysitter and situation being talked about is a completely different one from the previous. This is a perfect example of how in The Babysitter, there is rarely straightforward clarity regarding who is being referred to, which is much invoked by the use of ambiguous pronouns from stanza to stanza. The reader is left much to their own devices and must decipher on their own what is happening to whom.

Further, the confusion and ambiguity makes the reader question what the reality of the situation is. Is Uncle Buddy the one following Uncle Buck’s instructions here? Or is it Ike? Is Bitsy the one with “her skirt ripped”, “flushed” and “crying”, or is it the babysitter? The questioning of reality that comes about through the confusion created in the ambiguity is a central characteristic of both works.

On the 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 that they experience in the present, and their present and future are consequently shaped by this comingling. 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.

Although his brother does win Uncle Buck’s freedom, the ending of “Was” 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 foreshadowing 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.”

“Five hundred dollars,” Mr. Hubert said. “Done.” “Done,” Uncle Buck said. “Done,” Mr. Hubert said. “Done,” Uncle Buck said. (Faulkner, belated Blog Post 3)

Throughout his short story “Was,” William Faulkner captures the dialogue of the American South in a way that reveals to the reader several points about the characters and some of the story’s central themes. This exchange between Mr. Hubert and Uncle Buck provides a perfect example of Faulkner’s talent. The two men are discussing a bet that they have just made, and Mr. Hubert begins by summing up what is at stake and declaring that he will participate. Uncle Buck, however, determined to have the last word, reiterates, “Done,” in a stubborn and definitive way. Mr. Hubert follows suit and Uncle Buck does so again. The style of this passage was uniquely created to fit the personalities of the characters. The word, “Done” has a certain authoritative, precise sound. With one syllable and beginning with a hard consonant, “done” suits the passage better than a more submissive “okay.” The repetition of this word shows the assertive nature of the two men, each trying to have the final say in the settling of the bet. Furthermore, the repetition of the men’s names suggests the importance of their identification. “Mr. Hubert” contrasts with “Uncle Buck” in that the former is a proper title for a plantation owner, identified by his last name, whereas the latter is much more familiar. The exchange seems to follow a cyclical pattern, with power shifting from Mr. Hubert to Uncle Buck and back again. This mimics the cyclical nature of several aspects of the story itself: the chase for Tomey’s Turl, the ownership of Sibby, the mixing of the past and present. In this sense, the shifting of power of the conversation highlighted by the repetition of the word “Done,” follows suit with the style and content of the story in general. This exchange is indicative of Faulkner’s grasp of conversational Southern dialogue, and his ability to represent a stylistic aspect of the entire story in one simple conversation.

Comparing Ellison’s “Battle Royal” to Faulkner’s “Was”

“”Wins Sibbey, damn it!” Mr. Hubert said. “Wins Sibbey! What the hell else are we setting up till midnight arguing about? The lowest hand wins Sibbey and buys the niggers,”” (Faulkner 23).

“They caught her just as she reached a door, raised her from the floor, and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys,” (Ellison 1214).

Scenes of intense subjugation often permeate literature, particularly literature focused on the plight of the twentieth century African American. Often, these scenes of African Americans mirror those of women; both Ellison’s “Battle Royal” and Faulkner’s “Was” examine the mistreatment of African Americans, but they also acknowledge the suppression of women. Just as Sophonsiba Beauchamp’s future is ultimately determined by a poker game conducted by white men, so white men also control the blond woman in “Battle Royal”. Initially, both women are portrayed as possessing command over their actions. Sophonsiba is likened to a bear, seducing men into her den (Faulkner 21). The blond woman dances sensuously, hypnotizing the men who encircle her. Despite these initial impressions, both authors eventual lead the reader to understand that the women are not as free as they first appear. In both cases, the women are reduced to animals, just as there their African American counterparts often are. Sophonsiba is traded back and forth for money, bringing to mind prostitution. Similarly, the blond woman’s features are described as “the hair” and “the face” and “the eyes”, rather than “her hair” and “her face” and “her eyes” (Ellison 1213). The deliberate switch from “her” to “the” dehumanizes the blond women. Her features are not her own, but, rather, her features belong to those who view her. The sensual display she enacts is not by her own free will, but for the pleasure of the white men who surround her. Though money is not directly involved with the blond woman, the nudity does bring to mind prostitution-like scenarios, just as Faulkner’s “Was”.

One interesting difference between the portrayal of Sophonsiba and the blond woman is that Ellison allows the reader to glimpse the blond woman’s potential emotions. Though the reader is limited to the view of the narrator, the narrator perceptively notices that the blond woman’s eyes possess “terror and disgust” (Ellison 1214). The narrator’s acknowledgement of the blond woman’s potential feelings conflicts with his initial observations, which used the word “the” rather than “her”. In addition to serving as a device to compare the blond woman’s subjectivity to his own, perhaps the narrator’s initial observations contrast to his later observations to highlight the difference between early perceptions and later improved understanding and possible formation of empathy. This possible evolution in the narrator’s attitude might thus be present to suggest a method for white men to similarly learn to the view African American men with more awareness and understanding.

… any man who ever played poker once with Uncle Buddy would never mistake him again for Uncle Buck or anybody else. (Faulkner p.7)

Throughout this story, Faulkner keeps a constant theme of, and toys with, the concept of people playing chance with life or the decisions they make. Most of the time however, the chances don’t always seem as logical as other chances we make might seem. For instance, one of the main focuses of the story is to recapture the slave “Tomey Turl” at the cost of $500 through the bet made by Uncle Buck and Mr. Hubert. What is interesting is that this particular slave always returns anyway AND that $500 is a lot of money, especially during the early/mid 1900’s. Logically speaking, why risk $500 on a bet to recapture someone that will return anyway? This bet sets off a variety of other chance related bets between the characters. Some of those following bets/chances we see not only being grouped together in the final game of poker (truly a game of chance), but the game itself was an illogical game of chance. By this I mean everyone knew that Uncle Buddy was indeed a great poker player, yet Mr. Hubert still risked what he had already gained to try to “win” everything he wanted to in the whole situation by accepting Uncle Buddy’s challenge.

What is ironic about how Faulkner uses chance in this story is that even if a decision may not seem like the smartest decision to make when playing chance, many people make them. Faulkner uses these scenarios possibly as an author’s commentary to the fact that your average person takes both good and bad chances in their life, and while it may not make much sense, it is just something people do. This makes the characters much more relatable (in a sense) than if they simply did the logical thing.

“At last, even Uncle Buck gave up and they started back toward the house…dark cabins toward the one where the fyce had treed”

Though this passage is lengthy, it effectively capture Faulkner’s usage of sentence structure to manipulate the pace of the story. The sentences preceding the passage are similar to the first sentence: they are of relatively normal structure, and in terms of the story, Uncle Buck has just about given up on searching for the escaped slave. The wild chase has slowed as the sentence structure also reflects. However, when the fyce spots the slave, the structure shifts to a lengthy, stream of consciousness-style format. When I read the portions stylized in this manner, the pace of the story felt accelerated, as the characters again pick up speed in their chase.

In addition to the syntax helping to pace the story, this particular passage captures the inhumanity and its normalcy of the southern attitude towards slaves in this era. In the beginning of the story, I found the identity of Turl to be extremely ambiguous from the conversations of the characters (whether he was human or an animal). Also, though it was common practice, it is unsettling to consider the usage of dogs to hunt down and chase escaped slaves as if though they were animals-the word “treed” is often reserved for trapped game.

“It was a good race.” (Faulkner 4)

I found this sentence to be important because this idea of a race is brought up several times in the text and it seems to reflect not only the plot but also the style and form of Faulkner’s writing in “Was.”  The story itself is about a number of different “races” or competitions: Uncle Buck and McCaslin Edmonds are racing to get to Tomey Turl, Tomey Turl is racing to get to his love, Tennie, Miss Sophonsiba is racing to get Uncle Buck for her husband, Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy gamble with Mr. Hubert, and the dogs and foxes are racing around the house.  The story is separated into four different parts that, to me, seemed almost like separate heats or rounds in a race, each focused on different aspects of the competition to capture Tomey Turl and each developing a new level of competition to add to the story.  The structure of the sentences in the story also struck me as possibly reflecting this same race idea.  They tended to be really long (especially in the beginning and end) dragging on until the main point was made, until the finish line was finally met and the real “winning” idea or purpose was discovered.  Some of the few sentences that were especially succinct and direct were comments on different “races” on pages 4, 8, 13, 14, 22, and 28.  These sentences dispersed through out the story seem to separate different stages of the grand race to get Tomey Turl back but also describe the various minor competitions within the plot.  Even though the race to get Tomey Turl back was “a fine race while it lasted” (28), some of the other races continue still.  The fact that the “race” that started the story, the fox and dogs, is the same never-ending race that concludes the story, shows the continuous struggle of racing through life, facing both new and old battles.

“…they could hear the fox’s claws when he went scrabbling up the lean-pole, onto the roof–a fine race while it lasted, but the tree was too quick” p28

Reading “Was” reminds me of the memory of a lazy summer day—everything carefree and more importantly, suspended in time. Time suspension can be seen in “Was” through the use of parallel structure throughout the story, but especially in the fox scenes that serve as its beginning and ending.

Instead of viewing the events in “Was” as a time line, where the events in the past leads smoothly into the present, I find it more conducive to imagine them like a circle of time, where the “was” is neatly bundled up within itself and thus completely separated from the present. We can view the past as essentially a memory, which it is in the story, as Cass is retelling the story to Ike, whom was born after these events and has no knowledge of them. Our memories then are like circles, loops of film in which we can chronologically order the events that happen within the film, but can’t definitively say when the memory begins or ends, and how it links seamlessly with another memory. Likewise, Faulkner’s “Was” reads like a looped tape—we’re not sure how it transitions from the present to the past and vice versa.

The story ends and begins with the same fox chase, thus completing the circle of time (4, 28). Faulkner cleverly uses the word “treed” (p 5) to demonstrate how the fox uses the mantle to escape.  “Treed” usually refers to a hunted animal being forced to take refuge in a tree, thus the mantle serves as a metaphorical tree. Later, he brings this metaphor back when he describes the fox as “scrabbling up the lean-pole, onto the roof—a fine race…” 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.  This use of parallel structure in the narratives of the fox chase, and of the narratives, demonstrates the suspension of past time as well as its circulatory nature.