Why I Love Torturing My Students With William Faulkner


My wife hates Faulkner. With a passion. So when we got married, there was no problem with my raiding her book collection and appropriating the novelist’s Light in August. I still have the copy, its blue-and-white cover, inside my wife’s signature in a girl’s handwriting, and a few notes made in the margin, mostly dutiful markings of what must have been “important” passages according to her professor at the private liberal arts, Catholic university where my wife majored in art history.

Some might think what strange reading for such a school and at such a young age, freshman-level, to learn of the castration of the character Joe Christmas, initials J.C., a fact not lost on critics nor, I would think, an involved administration at an excellent, liberal arts college with a small student population.

I teach Faulkner at a public, state college several times the size of that tiny parish of sophisticated learning my wife called home before transferring to “keep it weird Austin,” and about half of my students are black, the other half white. Many of the students do not come from a background where academic preparation was a priority, given, or demanded. Many of them would have little in common with my wife if I cranked up the time machine and traveled back 32 years to put my wife in my classroom, where students every year read Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and “Barn Burning.”

I have yet to come across a student who expresses hate or dislike for either story, and it is not because I am a Faulkner “nerd,” aficionado (though that term would seem to fit the readers of Hemingway more), proselytizer, or other noun of distinctive “let’s celebrate Faulkner” classification. In fact, I tell my students, like a kind uncle, with a loving smile, how my wife hated Faulkner when she first had to read him and that she is happy that I have such passion for Faulkner. Yes, this all sounds as if some psychological dynamic worthy of a Faulkner work, and God knows Faulkner has been worked over every way, to the extent that the man should now lie completely flattened out in his grave, from all the steam-rolling by his higher education disciples throughout the years.

But my students, for the most part, really like, even love Faulkner. And as I tell them, in a kind of cleaned-up version of I’m your uncle Anthony Bourdain, we will carefully read Faulkner’s texts and provide textual evidence in our dialogue in search for motifs and meanings, and I am going to continue to torture them and generations of students to come with reading Faulkner.

Why is it that my students enjoy the torture of Faulkner so? Semester in, semester out, in advanced composition courses, the inevitable modern American lit survey, narrative techniques, chronological confusion, even that notorious assertion that Homer Barron in “A Rose for Emily” is gay. Apparently students have learned this in high school, through some “undercurrent” of criticism or had a “daring” teacher who mentioned this one facet of the story.

While I am not a firm believer that Homer Barron is gay, I find this facet to be an asset in students reading Faulkner. I tell them from the beginning, in passing, I know you will want to tell me that Homer is gay, and I get a conspiratorial look from my students, as if they are suddenly more awake and in tune to learning about literature than their Red Bull has made them.

Herein lies perhaps the secret why I am able to continue to torture students with reading Faulkner and they find this torture to be much less so than did my wife, even I experienced it, also at an exclusive liberal arts undergraduate institution. Students are ready to talk about issues and realities today that my generation were either not ready to talk about or did not know about when we sat in school benches, seemingly the only and strange, remaining common denominator we have with today’s students.

The readiness could be of course a product also of my students’ being from the Deep South, right to the left of Florida, most of them having lived their entire short lives in an unsophisticated city they wish to escape, where only minutes outside indiscernible boundaries cotton and peanuts make up the economy, along with what is strangely not promoted by a chamber of commerce that will promote the smallest thing, the large fact that Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Albany, Georgia.

Students want to talk about the black characters in Faulkner’s two stories, but not in any sensational way about the term Faulkner employs, nor in any complacent way, as might be expected from the term’s wider usage today. It is the socio-economic aspect students, unprompted, seize upon in “Barn Burning,” where they recognize economic injustice rather than as priority the “evil” of the barn-burning, white sharecropper Abner. They have turned upside down for me the value system with which I came to the story. For all the talk about looking at things from all sides–something we academics say as automatically as we brush our teeth in the morning–my economic background had not taught me to approach the story from poor vs. wealthy. And the issue of race–written about by critics, the vast majority of them white–has much more meaning for my students in the classroom and me, than articles that assign all sorts of metaphorical “blackness,” even a “white Diaspora,” the results of more “enlightened” and recent Faulkner criticism. I am sitting in a classroom with students many would call “rednecks” and blacks, who are close still to an agrarian life, not because they are necessarily farmers, but because they have family who has practiced this profession and many of them continue be in the economic underclass and can relate to Faulkner’s “Southern-ness,” even a story such as “A Rose for Emily,” first published in 1932, which means 82 years ago, a number eighteen-year-olds have no chronological feeling for whatsoever.

And for all the talk about the nuclear family being in prime non-existence, my students “get” the family values that Abner is trying to instill by “mentoring” his son Sarty. What you and I might consider child abuse, students find to be a family trying to stick together, without the judgment even the most liberal among us would find to be unacceptable. As one young woman volunteered, her boyfriend lived in a neighborhood where doing the right thing would not be to warn Major de Spain, this act would be considered snitching.

And what about all the “murder and mayhem” in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Students, brought up on a huge diet of television programming that now also includes vampires, zombies, and just about every variety of crime show, welcome the mystery aspect of this short story as generations of students before were not trained to do. Students respond to the more sensationalistic aspects of Faulkner’s nature, where “Southern Gothic” is cool, to use my generation’s word for approval.

I could, as a Faulkner aficionado (sorry, Hemingway) go on and on about the students enthusiastically being “tortured” by my repeated tours through Faulkner-land, but as the old saying goes, space does not permit me to do so. What the current time does permit me to experience, however, is a joy of teaching that would not have been possible when it comes to William Faulkner’s work even ten years ago. The planets just seem to be aligning themselves for students to be able to have in Faulkner an entry point into literature, into material many of us, and generations of students we taught, did not, could not find. But I will not be greedy and count on this phase or wave to continue for a long time. For now, like Sarty, I will just enjoy the maturation process of this appreciation of Faulkner’s work, both by my students and me, in a communion that exists in the land of Twitter and other technological prodigalities so many are fond of mentioning as if proof of students’ short attention spans and inability to relate to the “old days.”

2 thoughts on “Why I Love Torturing My Students With William Faulkner

  1. The planets aligned for me sometime in 1977, when I picked up “The Hamlet,” that novel of those Snopses. When I was done, I knew I had to go to graduate school in English, to read. To learn how to read, and read. And read.

    Faulkner can have that effect–especially when you aren’t looking for it.

    • Oooh! How I hate Faulkner! I’ve given him every chance I could. Nope.

      It’s not the intentional and pointless obscurity of his writing. I rather like that, in the same way that I like crossword puzzles or math problems.

      Nor is it the quality of his prose, the long sentences, the semicolons. I can take him in small doses. Indeed, I think he would have made a better poet than a novelist.

      No. It’s the incoherence of the plots. The characters wander through life, letting disasters happen to them. I have never found one of them with, well, with character. And nothing good ever happens. So there’s really no element of surprise.

      Not only that: they plots are disconnected. The pieces are not like planets, turning in their own orbits yet centered by the sun. They are more like shrapnel, shot at us from different angles and making no coherent whole. As I Lay Dying begins and ends with a character who hardly matters in the novel. Some people think this is great writing. I think it’s silly. And the main character (JC? No Christ figure here, no one to learn from. And more a victim than a martyr. Pity of the worst sort, but not much awe.) is killed by a deus ex machina, a character introduced in a late chapter solely to kill Joe Christmas in a grotesquely violent scene. Gratis violence. They all say it captures the South. There’s gotta be more in the South.

      I’ve read five of his novels, and only because (a) he got a Nobel prize, so he’s supposed to be great, and (b) I like piecing together the puzzle. But the picture I get when the puzzle is done is nothing I will enjoy or learn from.

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