Humor Reveals a Road to Faulkner

In James Wood’s popular class “Postwar British and American Fiction,” the first half of a lecture is invariably devoted to Wood reading aloud his favorite excerpts from the book under discussion. “Flip to page twenty-nine where Nabokov writes, ‘The cat, as Pnin would say, cannot be hid in a bag.’” Wood grins, before eagerly pushing forward, “Ah, yes, yes! There’s a great bit four pages earlier when Pnin gets dentures and Nabokov describes his tongue as ‘a fat sleek seal, [which] used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, but now not a landmark remained.’”

“What do you think about this passage?... Why is it funny?... Is it funny at all?... Is there another phrase you liked?... What made you laugh?” Wood asks. At first the students are taken aback by this barrage of surprisingly personal questions. After a half-minute of silence one girl gathers the courage to ask Professor Wood what the passage meant. He leans back chuckling in his chair before reassuringly answering, “Oh, I don’t have much to say about that bit. I’ve just always found it a good laugh.” Looking back on the class, I now realize Wood’s response is the most genuine reaction to the passage.

The professor’s unusual approach to lecturing immediately immerses his students in the milieu of the novel through short, funny excerpts, but more importantly it gives students permission to enjoy reading a book. Many students, who often feel afraid to laugh while reading, find his method liberating. Yet, initially I was more annoyed than charmed by these recitations. I felt these comic details contributed very little to the analytical understanding of a novel; the excerpts gave a sense of a writer’s prose style, but ultimately they were nothing more than amusing diversions to give the class a few laughs before tackling the real issues of a book. I soon found I was wrong.

The ability to appreciate the comedic aspects of any great novel can expose new dimensions of a book’s complexities. An author can often reveal invaluable insights into a character’s personality through humorous details about his comic foibles or silly idiosyncrasies. Humor can be used equally well to humanize or ironize a character. But while the specific literary effects of humor vary from book to book, comedy serves as a surprisingly perceptive avenue to examine many novels.

William Faulkner’s modernist classic “The Sound and the Fury” has the reputation as one of the most formidable and tragic novels in the American canon. Surprisingly, appreciating Faulkner’s comedy has drastically changed my perception of the book. “The Sound and the Fury” concerns the disintegration of the Compson family, a declining aristocratic Southern clan living on a once-prosperous plantation. The first three sections are written from the point of view of the three Compson brothers: the mentally retarded Benjy, the suicidal Harvard student Quentin, and the cruel and domineering Jason. When I first tried to read the novel in high school, I stopped midway through the third section from spiritual exhaustion. Only after reading the entire novel did the illuminating role of comedy became apparent.

The humor in “The Sound and the Fury” articulates the roles of the three Compson brothers in the family’s decline. The comedic power of the novel is most evident in the third section, narrated in the bitterly sardonic voice of Jason. The tone abruptly changes with the first sentence of the section when Jason announces, “Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say.” The fatalistic overtones of this decree permeate Jason’s narration as he mocks almost every character he meets. Faulkner uses Jason’s cruel humor as the primary representation of Jason’s universal aggression towards life.

It can be difficult to sympathize with Jason, who embezzles from his own mother, constantly mocks kind and hard-working people, and prevents his own sister from visiting her daughter. Jason’s rage even spreads to general targets as he explains his philosophy on relationships: “I never promise a woman anything nor let her know what I’m going to give her... Always keep them guessing. If you can’t think of any other way to surprise them, give them a bust in the jaw,” revealing that the only venue for his restless energy is physical or psychological violence.

Jason is filled with the energy and ambition that Quentin lacks, but is equally self-destructive. He seems to be a different manifestation of the Compson family’s downfall—Jason’s satiric musings reveal his own frustrations and insecurities, but more importantly demonstrate that he is aware of how thoroughly dysfunctional his family is. The Compsons are trapped by their family’s history and heritage; Quentin commits suicide because, among other things, his sister Caddy has corrupted the family honor with her promiscuity. Humor is the vehicle that Jason uses to separate himself from the pressure of his family name. He is the one Compson brother who knows he must escape his family, but cannot initially muster the strength to do so.

Humor transforms Jason from a cruel antagonist into the tragic yet triumphant epicenter of the novel. In the novel’s appendix Faulkner writes that Jason “assumed the entire burden of the rotting family in the rotting house” before he “was able to free himself forever [from] the idiot brother and the house.” Faulkner reveals that Jason sells the Compson estate and puts his brother in an insane asylum—effectively dismantling his family’s history. Some might view this ending as tragic, but it is also triumphant. Towards the end of Jason’s entry in the appendix, Faulkner includes the exultations, “He was emancipated now. He was free.” The last remnants of high Southern white society crumble away as the individual enters modernity. Jason destroys one world to enter another. Though Jason’s sardonic outlook leads him to sacrifice his family’s proud history, it also allows him to find individual liberation.

—Columnist Theodore J. Gioia can be reached at tgioia@fas.harvard.edu.

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