How To Read Faulkner
Faulkner placed the emphasis in his fiction not upon technique or style or plot or theme, but upon his characters. His principal aim as a writer, he said, was "to create flesh-and-blood people that will stand up and cast a shadow." In his later years he said of his earlier work: "I remember the people, but I can't remember what story they're in nor always what they did. I have to go back and look at it to unravel what the person was doing. I remember the character, though." His response to the works of other writers was similarly based: "I think not of writers but of the characters," he said. "I remember the characters they wrote about without being able to remember always just who wrote the piece."
Since for Faulkner himself the heart of his fiction is his characters, and since no other writer, with the possible exception of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, has created such a wide range of fascinating and memorable characters, a good way to approach Faulkner's fiction is to engage his characters. Who are they? What do they do and think? Are they tragic or comic or pathetic or ridiculous, significant or insignificant? Why do they think and behave the way they do? In the language of our popular parlance, what makes them tick?
In this connection it is helpful to recall that the writers of Faulkner's generation came of age during the years psychology was being established as a serious science. During Faulkner's youth and early manhood Freud was all the rage, and numerous writers were incorporating Freudian notions of human personality and behavior into their stories. The interactions of the conscious and unconscious mind, the influence of childhood experiences upon adult actions, the relation of self to others (and our other selves), the nature and causes of health and neurosis—all of these issues were explored not only by Freud and his disciples but also by the leading fictionists of the period. And none of these writers explore these matters better than Faulkner. Think of the detailed psychiatric case studies that could be (indeed, have been) compiled on Addie or Darl or Jewel Bundren from As I Lay Dying, on Caddy or Quentin or Jason Compson in The Sound and the Fury, on Joe Christmas or Joanna Burden or Gail Hightower in Light in August —or dozens of other Faulkner characters. It's a fascinating game that any reader can play, and Faulkner invites us all to do so.