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The Marvelous “Maybe” in Faulkner’s Short Stories

While Jennifer Burg, Anne Boyle, and Sheau-Dong Lang claim that “Faulkner’s stories can leave unseasoned readers with a jumble of ‘incidents’ related through the ramblings of memory,” this jumble is not a flaw resulting from the difficulty of William Faulkner’s writing, but rather the way he constructs his characters’ identities. In his short stories, “A Rose for Emily,” “Race at Morning,” “Mountain Victory,” “That Evening Sun,” and “Beyond,” the protagonists are characterized by their recognition of irreconcilable oppositions in their identities.

While some authors will have their characters resolve conflict in the interest of the reader’s comfort, Faulkner highlights his characters’ ability to recognize that a choice between opposing adjectives is a linguistic fiction not an ontological revelation. Because no real human being is ever absolutely one thing or the other, Faulkner is able to write characters who inhabit the space between conflicting perspectives, and are therefore so realistic their confusion can be felt through the pages.

Faulkner’s characters appear authentic because, like real people, they inhabit neither presence nor absence, but the flickering space between. Faulkner creates his characters with the knowledge that every linguistic representation bears the mark of what it is not. It appears that Faulkner’s quest is to keep the world of ideas safe from any pronouncements that would limit possibility for his characters.  He also recognizes that the space between two poles is a fertile one for the imagination.  Therefore, he positions his characters not in what they are or what they are not, but in a third, in-between space, the “maybe” that leaves all possibilities open.

In Faulkner’s story, “Race at Morning,” soon after telling the young protagonist that the gun was not loaded during the hunt around which the story centers, Mister Ernest says:

“Maybe…The best word in our language, the best of all.  That’s what mankind keeps going on: Maybe. The best days of his life ain’t the ones when he said ‘Yes’ beforehand: they’re the ones when all he knew to say was ‘Maybe.’ He can’t say ‘Yes’ until afterward because he not only don’t know it until then, he don’t want to know ‘Yes’ until then.”

Mister Ernest revels in the power of perhaps because he knows that not only are human beings unable to see a definite answer in the future, but also that “yes” or “no” closes off possibility, and there’s a certain thrill to inhabiting that middle ground of uncertainty.

In “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner reveals the most incomprehensible reaches of human conflict. When the townspeople finally gain access to Miss Emily’s private room after her death, they find a corpse, but more horrifying still, “In the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.” A single gray hair reveals the story of a woman who killed her lover only to lie with his corpse.

Faulkner himself attributes this impulse to Emily’s inner conflict: “The conflict was in Miss Emily, that she knew that you do not murder people. She had been trained that you do not take a lover…Instead of murdering one lover, and then to go on and take another and when she used him up to murder him, she was expiating her crime.” In this way, Faulkner reveals “A Rose for Emily” to be a story of divided humanity. Miss Emily knows the moral boundaries she transgresses as determined by her society, and her way of seeking forgiveness, according to her author, is to cradle the life she has taken.

Faulkner imbues his characters with an awareness of language’s complicated role in identity formulation. In “Mountain Victory,” Saucier Weddel says, “Our lives are summed up in sounds and made significant.  Victory. Defeat.  Peace. Home.  That’s why we must do so much to invent meanings for the sounds, so damned much.  Especially if you are unfortunate enough to be victorious: so damned much.”

Weddel cleverly comprehends that language constitutes his life. He theorizes that it’s the winner who gets to construct the world in words, and that he’d rather be the loser (he’s referring to the Civil War, yet also to the life surrounding it). This is presumably because words like “victory” and “defeat” imply transcendental significance that’s but an invention of the speaker. As Wedell observes, these words are mere sounds with meaning superimposed upon them by the winners of wars who control society.

As in the case of Wedell, Faulkner’s characters’ dilemmas remain irreparable because he refuses to superimpose a false solution to reconcile conflict. Instead he lets their contradictions be their defining characteristics. Faulkner’s characters do not merely bear the aftermath of a resigned fixation, but rather the ongoing clash of its internal divide. Even when they try to solve their dilemmas by defining themselves by one side of the split, instead of succeeding in choosing between one space or the other, they only succeed in positioning themselves once again in the third space of ontological indeterminacy.

Remarkably, it’s this very spirit of ambiguity that gives Faulkner’s characters their lifelike essence because it echoes the conflict through which actual human identity’s constituted.  In “That Evening Sun,” Nancy’s terrified her absentee husband will return to punish her for her infidelity. This terror manifests itself in a sound that is “not singing and not unsinging.”

What makes Nancy a character of such eerie depths is that the quality that defines her, her sound of desperation and fear, is not singing or not singing, it’s the space between singing and unsinging. It’s not merely that she’s not not singing, which would mean she was singing; it’s that she’s neither singing nor undoing what it means to sing. Instead, Faulkner positions Nancy neither as a singer nor as a non-singer, but in a third space, as though she had begun to sing before the book was written and was suspended mid-action by the fact of being written. Oddly enough, Nancy’s strange state-of-being feels more like reality than fiction because none of us are ever truly “finished” or “perfected” as characters.

Faulkner’s characters do search for truth, but it doesn’t seem like they truly want to find it—and, either way, they never do. In “Beyond,” the judge who has yet to realize he’s dead demands of his deceased hero: “There is hope, or there is nothing…Give me your word now. Say either of these to me. I will believe.” Earlier, another fellow dead man tells the judge, “You don’t seem to want to know as much as you want something new to be uncertain about.” Faulkner’s characters may say they want some unchanging answer, but even these claims seem ambivalent.

When arguing that “There is a certain integral consistency which, whether it be right or wrong, a man must cherish because it alone will permit him to die,” the judge concludes by saying, “Non fuis. Sum. Fui. Non sum,” which means, “I wasn’t. I am. I was. I’m not.” The judge may be saying there’s something solid and predictable to the human soul, but he follows this shaky claim by saying it’s what allows him to die, as though to choose one personal truth is to become static and cease to be. He then adds a complex commentary on the fact that he did not exist, but he does, but he did, but he doesn’t. But how should we read such confusing statements?

Ultimately Faulkner uses the judge to demonstrate that, regardless of efforts to pin them down, people (real or created) are creatures of contradiction. The judge finally grasps the fact that there are some things in life that simply cannot be accounted for: “He spoke now firmly, quietly, with a kind of triumph: ‘who is he who will affirm that there must be a web of flesh and bone to hold the shape of love?’” Despite what the judge has argued earlier, here he abandons the search for a signifying system and acknowledges there are human qualities, such as love, that transcend any such framework.

Despite the fact that Faulkner’s characters are constantly seeking the definitive truth, in the end, it’s uncertainty and their positioning in the in-between spaces that defines them, and to which they desperately cling for a sense of identity. Perhaps this is because Faulkner realizes that, although language often forces choice, no human ever truly chooses, but rather floats back-and-forth between extremes. The moment that an author tries to describe something, he or she is forced to choose words to express character or mood. Yet, although Faulkner works with language, he does not accept its reductive tendency. Instead, it’s as though he believes so much in the reality of his characters that he introduces two opposing linguistic possibilities and lets them navigate the metaphysical terrain themselves without forcing them to choose between the flickering moments of presence and absence.