Victims and Victimizers. White Mothers in Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" and "As I lay Dying"
Analysis of White Southern Mother Characters and their Bad Influence on the Sons
Essay 2015 10 Pages
Faulkner has a continuing concern with relationship of son and mother. The mothers seem always stand in the central position of the family and have a big influence on the destiny of the whole family. In this paper, I will discuss the white southern mothers’ role in the society and the family using Faulkner’s two most representative works as examples, namely The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying: On one hand, they are the evil force that traumatizes their sons and leads to the degeneration of the whole family; On the other hand, they are also the victims of the patriarchal society. They are victims and victimizers.
In order to find the connection between the mothers’ bad influence and the dysfunction of their sons, I will also analyze the sons’ psychological response because the loss of the maternal love.
These victims, mothers and sons, can help us take a look at the change and decline of the old South from social and psychological perspectives.
In Faulkner’s works, the women seem always stand in the central position of the whole family and have a decisive influence on the destiny of the whole family, or the family members, especially the sons. More precisely, Faulkner has a continuing concern with relationship of son and mother. In The Sound and the Fury, Ms. Compson’s cold-bloodedness and selfishness seems to be responsible for the tragedy of the Compson family and As I Lay Dying is the “Odyssey” of Bundren family to bury Addie, the mother.
Just like these two examples, Faulkner had created a series of this type of “evil” women and showed their destructive side, and lots of male characters in his works are more or less misogynic. For that reason, some critics consider Faulkner as a misogynist, like Guerart and Barth. The most representative and influential example is Fredler’s view about Faulkner in his work Love and Death in the American Novel. In this book, he called Faulkner a “quite serious calumniators of female”, and pointed out that Faulkner “reminds us (again and again) that men are helpless in the hands of their mothers, wives, and sisters”, women “possess neither morality nor honor; that they are capable of betrayal without qualm or quiver of guilt but also of inexplicable loyalty; ; that they use their sexuality with cold calculation to achieve their inscrutable ends.”
If he was talking about only the female characters, he might be right. But if he thought that this is Faulkner’s own attitude towards women, he was totally wrong. At first, when Faulkner shows us the decay and destructiveness of women, he never forgets to remind us, directly or indirectly, of its domestic and social root. We can see that even more obvious in the white southern mothers. They are “victimizers” for sure; the loss of maternal love has a very bad influence on her sons and even the whole family. But they weren’t born this way.
For example, Mrs. Compson always interferes when Jason tries to beat up little Quentin, and she won’t let Jason send Benjy to the nuthouse. She is not evil by nature. White mothers like her are in fact also victims of the society.
No matter in what kind of societies, the social status of women can directly reflect its deep essence. In the old South, just like in any other patriarchal society, there was a very strange phenomenon: Women’s chastity and virginity are sanctified. Why? Because in this kind of society, women are just accessories of men and this “possession” shows first at women’s chastity.
This is a toast of an Alabama fraternity ritual quoted by Cash from Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell on Alabama:
“To women, lovely woman of the Southland, as pure and chaste as this this sparking water, as cold as this gleaming ice, we lift this cup, and we pledge our hearts and our lives to the protection of her virtue and chastity.”
At first, women are so lovely and because of their “chastity”. Secondly, a “pure” woman is supposed to live without any passion and sexual desire, like the “gleaming ice”. More importantly, what those men pledged to protect were not the women’ lives, not their right as human, but only their “virtue and chastity”. It’s quite clear that women’s value as symbol and tools that used to fortify the patriarchal structure of the South is way beyond their life and dignity. The South creates the “Ladies”, or we can use another term from popular culture, “confederate white women” for different social purposes: Women’s chastity can guarantee racial purity and their bodies provide white heirs, so the white supremacy can be maintained; White women in upper-class are mythologized. They stand at the center of the plantation myth and serve an ideological symbol of the wonderful and romantic “southern life-style”, so the “Yankees” would be ashamed of their mercenary industrial and commercial society. So many white women in upper-class became victims of this “lady-making” and Mrs. Compson is definitely one of them. In a family, a mother should be the major source of love. But she is cold, hypocritical, selfish and always in self-pity. She can’t stop moaning and complaining and has absolutely zero concern and love affection to her children and husband. We can see her attitude toward her son from what she said to her husband:
I thought that Benjamin was punishment enough for any sins I have committed I thought he was my punishment for putting aside my pride and marrying a man who held himself above me I don’t complain I love him above all of them because of it because my duty(TSTF,p.154).
She thinks that Benjy’s physical handicap is somehow God’s judgment upon her because of her marriage with Mr. Compson. That means, instead of really caring about her own son’s well-being as a living individual, she thinks her son, Benjy, only as a disgrace to the honor of herself and the family. Loving her children is only her “duty”. Why a “mother” can be so cruel to her own children?
As we said before, she is not evil by nature. Maybe we can find evidence of the question above from Jason’s description about her reaction when she found out that Caddy kissed a boy: “when she happened to see one of them kissing Caddy and all next day she went around the house in a black dress and a veil[she was] crying and saying her little daughter was dead(TSTF,p.255)” Her strong reaction to Caddy reveals her real problem: she is not a women, a wife, a mother, but a “lady”. She was put onto the pedestal by the society and was alienated from others.
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