This semester, I took two English classes both focused on the South, but each concentrated on two seemingly different versions. The first being the Jim Crow, early twentieth-century South in Major American Authors: William Faulkner with Dr. McKelly, and the second being the modern-day South, specifically works created in the last eight years, in Southern Contemporary with Dr. Nunn. A great deal of history separates these two courses (e.g. the Civil Rights Movement, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Children’s March in Birmingham), yet I noticed similar fundamental themes. Day to day, I observed parallelisms of topics appearing in both discussions, such as budding female sexuality and its repression, southern identity and race, masculinity and homosexuality, and detached, estranged families in the South. Although it can be argued the similarities are mere coincidences and can be easily attributed to being popular topics in literature, the specificity led me to dig further. Considering what we deem as great American novels, we do not see these themes as richly or prominently in other works outside of the South. For instance, Of Mice and Men, The Catcher in the Rye, and Moby-Dick, to name a few, could perhaps give a nod towards the themes listed above, but certainly not as the central subject, unlike the stories I read for Southern Contemporary and Major American Authors. This semester has lead me to believe the Southern Gothic genre is still alive and well, portraying similar themes, in the same way it was in the nineteenth and twentieth-century.
The past is never dead. It’s not even past. Taking a class on William Faulkner simultaneously with a Southern Contemporary class has bettered my understanding of Southern literature as a genre and Faulkner’s present day influence. While there are several influential Southern Gothic authors, Faulkner debatably looms the biggest; he experimented with narrative structures, nontraditional frameworks, symbols, and fictional towns throughout his writing. Faulkner created a literary template for contemporary writers, representing different experiences of different people, in fictional and real places. For example, Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi was home to several of his novels, featuring the voices of poor whites and blacks alike, wealthy, aristocratic families, Native Americans, and interracial couples. Relevant American history largely drove these stories, with his characters’ lives representing the social, racial, and economic ruptures that followed the South’s humiliating loss in the Civil War.
More specifically, one distinguishable characteristic of Faulkner’s storytelling template stands out the most, the way he plays with time. This template utilizes a series of flashbacks combined with present time to narrate events, often not in chronological order. We see this done remarkably in The Sound and the Fury (1929), with Faulkner separating the novel into four sections each told by a different point-of-view on a different day, Holy Saturday, a June date eighteen years prior, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. We see this similarly applied in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), which is told by fifteen different narrators within fifty-two sections, although it is told in chronological order. Moreover, in his novel Absalom, Absalom! (1936) the reader follows two narratives of both the past and the present intertwined through the point-of-view of Quentin. I noticed similar storytelling techniques used in works of the contemporary South, more specifically, the novels Bitter in the Mouth (2010), Salvage the Bones (2011), and the film Moonlight (2016).
To begin, Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth (2010) is a beautifully written, complex coming-of-age novel based on the narrator, Linda Hammerick, and her experiences growing up in the small town of Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and her life after leaving the South. Like Absalom, Absalom!, Bitter in the Mouth relies on an intertwined narrative to tell the story of Linda. Told from present day Linda’s perspective of her thirties, she tells the story of never quite fitting in during her childhood: Linda is Vietnamese, adopted by a southern, white family at age seven after losing her parents to a fire, and can taste words. Her form of synesthesia causes words to evoke specific tastes, dubbed “incomings,” which she keeps to herself for most of her life. There is an attempt at age eleven to tell her mother during a car ride, but her response to Linda only created a lifelong resentment:
“Lindamint. Stopcannedcorn it! I can handleFruitStripegum a lot of thingstomato. God walnut knowsgrapejelly I have had to do with youcannedbeans. But I won’t handleFruitStripegum crazyheavycream. I won’t have it in my familycannedbeets. Do yougreenbeans understandeggnoodles me?” (Truong, 107)
After this moment, Linda stopped referring to her as “Mom” and instead used her first name, DeAnne, and then they stopped talking completely after the death of Linda’s father. Only Linda’s best friend, Kelly, knows of and understands Linda’s condition. Kelly helps her find ways to defuse the language-induced taste sensation, including listening to Dolly Parton, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol. Following high school, Linda goes on to study law at Yale, distancing herself from her family and friends back South.
Both Faulkner and Truong use synesthesia to convey themes within their stories. In The Sound and the Fury, the youngest of the Compson children, Benjy, is mentally handicapped and has a synesthetic relationship with his world. For example, he can “smell the clothes flapping” and “see the slipper” with his hands (Faulkner, 9). Through synesthesia, Faulkner conveys the confusion that permeates Benjy’s consciousness. Like Faulkner, Ward experiments with synesthesia to convey Linda’s difference from society. Although Linda is not mentally handicapped like Benjy, her condition was often an overwhelming distraction in her primary school classroom, hampering her performance. Instead of thinking, “Where did the English first settle in North Carolina?” when asked, she would first taste the maraschino cherry of English, the Pepto-Bismol in first, and the mustard in settle: “My response, when I could finally say it, I experienced as ‘Roanoke Islandbacon’” (Truong, 21). Though done in different ways, both authors successfully use synesthesia to express confusion. Truong does this by italicizing the specific taste of a word following the word itself, which is distracting to the reader, just like it is distracting to Linda. Faulkner does this similarly in Benjy’s section, whose narration seamlessly floats between the past and present in short snippets, only giving the reader italics to differentiate them. Reading Benjy’s unorganized thoughts that are a result of his handicapped mind lets the reader personally see the world through his eyes, as well as setting up a theme of confusion for the rest of the book.
Despite Linda’s frequent references to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Truong’s novel seems reminiscent of Faulkner’s deeply misunderstood character, Quentin Compson, from both The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Like Linda, the middle Compson brother Quentin leaves the South for an Ivy League school, Harvard. It is true that the Jim Crow-era Mississippi differs from 1970s North Carolina, but they do share a few unlikely similarities. Neither characters seem to dislike the South itself, just the family members, guilt, and memories that live within it. Although Linda does not say it as explicitly as Quentin’s famed final thoughts in Absalom, Absalom! (I don’t. I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!), she is unashamed of her Southern upbringing:
“Since leaving Boiling Springs, I was often asked by complete strangers what it was like to grow up being Asian in the South. You mean what was it like to grow up looking Asian in the South, I would say back to them with the southern accent that had revealed to them the particulars of my biography.” (Truong, 169)
Racism is alive and rampant in both stories, despite their difference in time and location. Linda faces it firsthand, like her grandmother nicknaming Linda as a little canary, or children chanting racist rhymes to her on the school playground. Additionally, Linda and Quentin both left behind dysfunctional families in the South. Both of their mothers are unaffectionate towards them, causing them to fill the empty motherhood role with other people. Linda does this with her uncle Harper, and Quentin does this with his sister Caddy.
Although incest does not occur in either story, both authors use sexual language to describe relationships between these specific family members. In the very first sentence of Bitter in the Mouth, Linda narrates that at age seven, “I fell in love with my great-uncle Harper because he taught me how to dance.” The rest of that paragraph includes more sentences with sexual undertones, such as, “He told me to close my eyes and forget the rest of my body…He liked me because I was a quiet child…We twisted, mashed-potatoed, and winked at each other whenever we opened our eyes. My great-uncle Harper was my first love” (Truong, 3). In the same way I was not sure if this was an appropriate relationship or not until further reading, I felt similarly while reading The Sound and the Fury for the first time. Linda shares a true, deep love for Baby Harper like Quentin shares a deep love for Caddy. However, Quentin does take it a step further than Linda and Baby Harper, by lying to his father that he committed incest with Caddy: “I have committed incest I said Father it was I” (Faulkner, 79). Because Quentin cannot find love from his mother, Quentin turns to Caddy for the love and understanding for which he yearns. There is implied sexual tension between Quentin and his sister, and he is very possessive of her sexuality and “honor.” His obsession with Caddy’s virginity symbolizes his longing to have something pure and unspoiled to believe in.
Moonlight, the recipient of the 2017 Academy Award for Best Picture directed by Barry Jenkins, is another contemporary southern coming-of-age story following the life of main character, Chiron. The film is separated in three parts for each era of his life, “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black.” They portray his childhood, teenage years, and adulthood respectively, each with large gaps of time not shown or explained between each part. This technique reminded me of the gaps readers must fill in Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury. These gaps often do not get explicitly answered, leaving it up to the reader.
In “Little,” the film begins in Miami, with child-aged Chiron running from bullies, only to find shelter in a boarded up crack den. The bullies eventually give up and Juan, a drug dealer who happens to sell to Chiron’s mother, finds him hiding. He takes Chiron out to eat and brings him to the home of his girlfriend, Teresa. After spending the night, Juan takes Chiron home to his mother. She later angrily calls her son a faggot, causing Chiron to ask Juan and Teresa the next day what a faggot is and if he himself is one.
Chiron grows into an introverted teenage high schooler in part two and the climax of the film, “Chiron,” who struggling with his sexuality identity, is still facing harassment from bullies. His father-figure Juan is now absent, but Chiron continues to visit Teresa occasionally for food, money, and a place to sleep. His first sexual encounter occurs in this part as well, with his friend Kevin on the beach. Later at school, Chiron’s bully, Terrel, reminds Kevin of an old childhood “game” they placed called “Knocked Down, Stay Down,” and challenges Kevin to knock Chiron down. He does, and the two fight until Chiron “stays down.” The next day, Chiron calmly walks into class, picks up a chair, and smashes it over Terrel’s back, knocking him to the ground. Consequently, Chiron is arrested in the last scene of part two.
In the third and final part of Moonlight, the story jumps to around ten years later and Chiron introduces the audience to Black, his new, present-day persona. Unlike his timid, insecure school days when he was nicknamed “Little,” Black is now a burly, masculine drug-dealer now residing in Atlanta. In this part of the film, Black drives home to Miami to meet Kevin, his former crush. The film ends with Black beginning to emotionally open up to Kevin, and then flashes to a scene of a young Chiron beside the ocean.
Chiron’s struggle with his identity can be related to Henry Sutpen of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! of 1936. Henry and Chiron were both born into the socials binds of the South and struggle with their identity. To begin, Henry is not a true Sutpen; he is more like the Coldfield family due to his romanticism and delicate sensibility. Similarly, Chiron is raised and cared for more by Juan and Teresa than by his own blood-related mother. Henry lives a deprived life, suppressing his sexuality and love for his biracial stepbrother Charles Bon, which eventually reaches a boiling point and leads him to murder Charles. Although Chiron does not go as far as killing a man, he does reach a similar life-altering boiling point in Moonlight when he hits Terrel with a chair.
Michael Bibler’s Cotton Queer Relations (2009) dissects the relationship between Henry and Charles, which can be related to the relationship between Kevin and Chiron. Referring to the scene when Henry kills Bon, Bibler writes, “Bon’s nonreciprocation of Henry’s desire also helps explain why Henry killed him…The murder is also a response to Bon’s queer betrayal—to his refusal to embrace Henry as a partner,” (Bibler, 83). Kevin accepting Terrel’s dare to knock Chiron down was of the utmost betrayal of their friendship, representing Kevin’s nonreciprocation of Chiron’s desires. Like Chiron, “Henry’s love can produce only sorrow and tragedy because the taboos against same-sex love forbid any physical fulfillment of that desire” (Bibler, 75).
Bibler additionally offers an explanation of the violence in Absalom, Absalom! which can be related to the “Knock Down, Stay Down” scene of Moonlight: “Bon’s masculine difference produces a feeling of otherness… and Mr. Compson imagines that they would naturally turn to violence to eliminate the source of that feeling, denying the threat of masculine difference in themselves” (Bibler, 76). The “they” Bibler refers to can be correlated to Terrel and his friends wanting to see Kevin knock Chiron down, because of his differentness.
Another contemporary southern coming-of-age novel, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (2011) tells the story of Esch, a fifteen-year-old girl living in fictional Bois Sauvage, Mississippi with her dad and three brothers, Skeetah, Randall, and Junior. The story begins twelve days before Hurricane Katrina, with China, a prize fighting pit-bull owned by Skeetah giving birth. Esch later becomes pregnant by her brother Randall’s friend, Manny, and narrates her struggle with hiding her pregnancy while coping with it, all without a mother’s guidance. Reading Salvage the Bones and As I Lay Dying at the same time has brought its undeniable similarities to the surface. Other than the obvious, such as both having a flood and a pregnant young woman, the manner of which Ward tells the story can relate to Faulkner. Although Ward speaks only through Esch, the twelve days separated by chapter told in Salvage the Bones are packed with as many twists and turns as the days told by the narrators in As I Lay Dying; each one bringing its own arc—a crisis, a violent episode, an adventure or a revelation. Furthermore, even both titles of the novels portray a connection to death.
We learn at the start Esch’s mother died giving birth to her youngest son, Junior. When Esch references As I Lay Dying in the beginning of the novel, she explains she got an A on a test by answering the hardest question correctly: “Why does the young boy think his mother is a fish?” (Ward, 7). This passing detail, told before Esch even knew of her pregnancy, prompts the reader to read Esch’s situation of growing up without a mother in the similar context of Vardaman’s. Although Esch only briefly mentions reading As I Lay Dying, Esch’s narration strikingly mirrors Dewey Dell’s situation. Dewey Dell, like Esch, is a motherless, pregnant, young woman living in the South, grappling with her impending motherhood.
After Ward’s nod to Vardaman, it becomes evident that Skeetah closely resembles the rigid, secluded brother, Jewel, in As I Lay Dying. Whereas Jewel seems to care more about his horse than his family members, it is Skeetah’s pit bull China he loves with endless devotion. Both brothers buy their respective animal with their own money and pride themselves in what good caretakers they are. Jewel is adamant that his horse will never eat any of his father’s hay, just as Skeetah spends the money for hurricane supplies on expensive, name-brand dog food for China. Both animals symbolize motherhood in multiple ways. Jewel’s love for his horse mirrors the way he feels about his mother, Addie. Both unspoken, emotional bonds are ill-understood by outsiders. For example, the Bundren’s family doctor, Peabody, believes Jewel treats his mother as nothing but a “pack-horse.” Ironically, Jewel intensely loves both beings. Skeetah’s dog, China, becomes a mother herself, unfortunately becoming the only mother in Esch’s life. In the middle of the novel, China kills one of her puppies and Esch wonders, “If she could speak, this is what I would ask her: Is this what motherhood is?” (Ward, 130). China is all Esch has to look to in terms of motherhood.
Both Dewey Dell and Esch consider abortion as well, although they do not truly understand it, most likely because of their young age and lack of sexual education. While Esch does not go as far as Dewey Dell, the two share a similar desperation and longing to rid their problem. Esch considers what she’s heard the girls at school talk, taking a month’s worth of birth control pills, drinking bleach, hitting herself really hard in the stomach, and throwing herself on the metal edge of a car: “Say that this is what you do when you can’t afford an abortion, when you can’t have a baby, when nobody wants what’s inside you” (Ward, 102). She debates her options and decides she has none—no one would take her to the hospital if she got severely injured. Unlike Esch, Dewey Dell actually finds a solution. She pays a pharmacist disguised as a doctor ten dollars for a faux-abortion-inducing liquid concoction “that smells like turpentine,” and he tells her to come back later that night for the second part of her treatment, having sex with him. He explains, “Ever hear about the hair of the dog?” (Faulkner, 247). Unfortunately for Dewey Dell, she falls for the pharmacist’s trap and becomes a victim, and still pregnant. If Esch had been in Dewey Dell’s position, I believe she would have done the same out of desperation. Although these stories are told in different centuries, Faulkner and Ward both show the problem with ill-informed, young women not understanding their bodies, both lacking appropriate resources in the South.
To conclude, taking a class on William Faulkner simultaneously with a Southern Contemporary class has bettered my understanding of Southern literature as a genre and Faulkner’s present day influence. It has also lead me to believe the Southern Gothic genre is still alive and well, portraying similar themes, in the same way it was in the nineteenth and twentieth-century. Keeping the context of themes and writing styles in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, As I Lay Dying, and The Sound and the Fury, while paying attention to contemporary southern works Bitter in the Mouth, Moonlight, and Salvage the Bones further emphasizes my comparison; both classes discussed budding female sexuality and its repression, southern identity and race, masculinity and homosexuality, and detached, estranged families in the South. Additionally, Faulkner’s storytelling techniques, such as the way he played with time and experimented with nontraditional structures are also reminiscent in southern contemporary works. Although a great deal of history separates these two courses, the parallelisms of topics appearing in both discussions are remarkable.
Bibler, Michael. Cotton’s Queer Relations. University of Virginia Press, 2009.
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. First Vintage International Edition, 1990.
Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. First Vintage International Edition, 1990.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! First Vintage International Edition, 1990
Jenkins, Barry, director. Moonlight. Plan B Entertainment, 2016.
Truong, Monique. Bitter in the Mouth. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2011.
Ward, Jesmyn. Salvage the Bones. Bloomsbury, 2011.