From the Page to the Plantation: A Comparison of Hemingway and Faulkner
A comparison between the texts of Hemingway and Faulkner lies in the same fruitless category as comparing apples to oranges. The contrasting elements that set them apart from each other establish two immensely different reading experiences, both rewarding in their own way. However, in the case presented here, only one can be explored further in years to come. Faulkner’s writings challenge the mind with their elevated vocabulary, fascinating characterization, and controversial subject matter to create a beneficial addition to the learning process beyond the reach of Hemingway’s pieces. The unique literary elements presented in Faulkner’s work expose a different take on literature rarely encountered by young readers, one that leaves a lasting impression on how writing is to be perceived for years to come.
One such aspect unfamiliar to the majority of this generation is the elaborate language introduced in these pieces. While the vocabulary in Hemingway’s stories could be comprehended at a third grade level, Faulkner’s work proffers a slew of words that expand the mind and offer an undeniable chance to learn. A single sentence written by Faulkner is a step outside of one’s comfort zone and into a realm of fanciful descriptions abound with intricate adjectives, unexpected metaphors, and ornate imagery that furthers its plot with a thrill of flair. In his classic short story A Rose for Emily, he immediately introduces the oddity of both a home and its owner amidst their surroundings,“lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps” (Faulkner 47); without even being informed of the context, the reader knows how out of place the character and what she represents are already. Among the surreal descriptions, such as “the mild dust of the starlit road and the heavy rifeness of honeysuckle, the pale ribbon unspooling with terrific slowness under his running feet” (Faulkner 23), lie accounts of experiences so familiar one can lose themselves in them, as when the young boy in Barn Burning feels in a moment of silence “as if he had swung outward at the end of a grape vine, over a ravine, and at the top of the swing had been caught in a prolonged instant of mesmerized gravity, weightless in time” (Faulkner 3). Under the frills of these impressive literary elements copiously put to use, though, the true focal point of any Faulkner piece is his darkly enchanting characters.
Faulkner’s complex, often twisted characterization serves as much more than a mere supplement to his purposefully simplistic plotlines. Granted, Hemingway’s deliberately flat personalities serve a clear purpose in provoking a deeper thought process, yet it is all too easy for the audience to subconsciously slip these characters into their own mold. We, as readers, all too often allow our own experiences and influences to justify or invalidate a character’s actions in any given situation, without giving much thought to their personal background and the values this entails. Faulkner’s elaborate character explanations and clearly outlined thought processes guide the reader past any dangerous assumptions and straight into the dark minds of the characters. This type of writing may seem overbearing to some, but is completely necessary when the moral of each story is so heavily reliant on the audience’s understanding of the influences and cultural values that dictate each decision or action. One such instance where character development is outlined meticulously is in the short story Barn Burning. Through the young boy’s panicked and often conflicted perspective in this tale, one is able to follow the psychotic actions of the father, a characteristically mechanical man described as “flat, bloodless as though cut from tin” (Faulkner 6) with a voice “still without heat or anger” (Faulkner 7). His lack of emotions and any type of warmth whatsoever makes his penchant for setting other people’s property ablaze seem almost contradictory, until one views how he controls his family with a heavy, unyielding grip reminiscent of his own apparently metallic construction. This ultimate desire to control the uncontrollable, symbolized in the unpredictable, leaping flames of fire, translates into how he raises his own son. The son, in his part, remains for the majority of his childhood a prisoner of the iron reigns of familial responsibility; Faulkner’s expressive style provides us with a glimpse into the boy’s constant need to remind himself that his father’s latest victim is “our enemy… ourn! mine and hisn both!” (Faulkner 1). The son is, in the end, consumed by the chaotic fire that has ravaged his life for so long; although he escapes from the tangible blaze, he explodes in a panic of frantic emotion in his flight, finally settling down “small, shaking steadily in the chill darkness” (Faulkner 25) much like a fading, forgotten ember and is left to sift his new life out from among the ashes. This concentrated insight into the complicated minds and the culturally influenced actions of people living in a world truly different from our own can seem unfamiliar to many readers, but represents a step closer to understanding that the mild characters constructed by Hemingway could never guide us in the direction of. Calling upon eccentric personalities such as Miss Emily or the ignorant citizens in A Rose for Emily, Faulkner was never afraid to delve into the dark psychology of Southern culture, and was often aptly lauded as “one of the great explorers of that madness” (Sullivan 7).
As asserted in this passage of the 2012 New York Times article How William Faulkner Tackled Race, Faulkner never shied away from attacking the complexities of rural Southern society, and many of his works rapidly became a catalyst for social change in the Southern community in which he had grown up. In his classic short story, A Rose For Emily, the narrator begins with a purely unbiased perspective of the occurrences in a small Southern town concerning an aging pariah and her isolation from the rest of the population. However, as the story progresses, the narrator begins to identify more and more as a part of the scoffing masses, recalling that “when she got to be thirty and was single, we were not pleased but vindicated” (Faulkner 51) and “we said ‘Poor Emily’ from behind the jalousies as they passed on Sunday afternoon” (Faulkner 55) in contrast with his/her previously detached commentary of the “old people” whispering rumors “behind their hands” (Faulkner 53). This subtle character transition from a childishly innocent, almost mythical view of Miss Emily, such as the awestruck account of her watching intruders enter her lawn from the window, with “the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol” (Faulkner 51), to the later jaded, exclusive view of the old woman paints a picture of a child growing up in a poisonous Southern environment. Faulkner sought to expose the cancers of this society by telling the story of not only an entire town turning their back on a woman clearly struggling mentally, but an ordinary child’s increasing entanglements in the cynical superiority of its citizens. Although Hemingway’s stories are often applauded for their ability to force the reader into looking below the surface, the subtext in Faulkner’s works like this is often overlooked, but equally important to the understanding of both the specific piece and the time period overall. While A Rose For Emily hides Faulkner’s reform-minded implications under the veil of a simple, macabre story of insanity, some of the beliefs expressed in his works are far more pronounced, as illustrated in Barn Burning, the tale of a young boy trapped in an abusive, dangerous lifestyle by traditional Southern family values. In this story, the boy is only able to watch as his father scorches every opportunity their family grasps, suppressing his own urges to obey the law and save his father’s victims from the senseless destruction in a desperate attempt to stay loyal to his family. Faulkner ends the tale on a note meant to be followed by its readers, with the boy breaking free from the snares of suffocatingly unconditional loyalty, which was an act many in a position like his could barely dream of due to the steadfast values that no one dared to go against. The South during this era was trapped in the rhythm of its ways and the customs that had been in practice since the very beginning, hinted at in Faulkner’s many references to frozen time in clocks “stopped at some fourteen minutes past two o’clock of a dead and forgotten day and time” (Faulkner 4). However, Faulkner’s numerous works served as a shrill alarm to awaken a region lost in the past and tackle the issues that so many had refused to face for decades; finally it could be said that “the South escaped itself” (Sullivan 7). This lasting legacy that shaped an entirely new social climate at the very least deserves a place in future curriculum, as opposed to the Hemingway pieces that ambitiously attempt to embrace a wider spectrum of people in their ideals to little avail.
In the comparison of two renowned authors and their impacts on the literary world, the debate could run with no end. Faulkner, though, with his detailed command of language; dark, complex characters; and revelations of a flawed, disturbingly real society; takes the upper hand in this situation. The distinctive factors that make up Faulkner’s work combine to create a transformative encounter like no other.
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