Poe and Faulkner Despite the Gap in Essay

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Poe and Faulkner

Despite the gap in a century or more between the periods when both Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulker were writing, both Poe and Faulkner have been loosely considered representatives of the "Southern Gothic" style of fiction in America. Indeed, pioneering Faulkner critic Cleanth Brooks of Yale University has noted that the connections with Poe's style would limit the way in which Faulkner has been received critically: Brooks is at pains to demonstrate that Faulkner's stories represent "more than an attempt to outdo Edgar Allan Poe, more than the prime example of what has come to be called modern Southern Gothic" (Brooks 15). With an emphasis on grotesquerie and on the spiritual journey of its characters -- often a dark spiritual journey into consciousness of damnation, as in the heavily religious Gothic fiction of the late eighteenth century, or else some form of the supernatural -- "Southern Gothic" is considered a sort of poetic alternative to straightforward realistic fiction. I hope to demonstrate some similarities between the methods of Poe and Faulkner by examining how two representative stories by these authors ("The Tell-Tale Heart" and "Barn Burning" respectively) utilize specific metaphors, patterns of imagery, and symbolism -- along with differences in narrative style and tone -- which show that, despite surface differences, they are really offering a profound vision of the darker side of human nature.

In terms of narrative style first, it is worth noting that this is the element that is most distinctly different between the two stories. Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" is composed as a straightforward dramatic monologue -- in other words, the story is narrated by its protagonist, and the revelation of his character (which turns out to be disturbed and criminal) constitutes the dramatic suspense of the story. This becomes, of course, unbearable just before the story's ultimate denoument: having killed the old man who is his landlord, Poe's unnamed narrator then invites the police in and offers them chairs directly above the site beneath the floorboards where he has hidden the old man's body. The police have heard a "shriek" and been asked to investigate, but they know nothing more than the "suspicion of foul play":

The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search -- search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.

Of course there is an element of dramatic irony here, because the reader (and narrator) know that the body is there but the police do not -- they have no reason to suspect the narrator of anything, since he has given credible excuses for the shriek and the man's absence -- and this is Poe's real point. The story is meant to be an analysis of the narrator's psychology, and what happens is made subordinate (to some extent) to how the story is told. Faulkner's narratorial style is far more conventional in "Barn Burning": although his prose is to a large degree pleonastic and overwrought, in terms of narration and suspense it backs away from the immediacy of Poe's first-person voice. We may consider the description of young Colonel Sartoris Snopes at the story's climax to be representative:

At midnight he was sitting on the crest of a hill. He did not know it was midnight and he did not know how far he had come. But there was no glare behind him now and he sat now, his back toward what he had called home for four days anyhow, his face toward the dark woods which he would enter when breath was strong again, small, shaking steadily in the chill darkness, hugging himself into the remainder of his thin, rotten shirt, the grief and despair now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair. Father. My father, he thought. "He was brave!" he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: "He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris' cav'ry!" not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting the authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty - it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.

Faulkner allows the story to follow and shape itself around the perceptions of the Snopes boy, and will even allow us access to his psychology -- reporting the transformation of "grief and despair now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair" (which illustrates the pleonasm of Faulkner's style, like "truths and verities" in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, while also permitting his detached third-person narration to have access to the child's feelings and thoughts.

This difference in narrative style accounts for the additional differences in tone between the stories: to a certain degree, Faulkner's is detached (narrating events that occurred in the past) while Poe's is immediate (narrating events that seem to be happening in the moment). But it is within the central use of imagery that Poe and Faulkner seem most alike in their strategies. Both stories place a central object, which will play a crucial role in the plot, in the title, perhaps to signpost to the audience what to watch for. Of course it is the sound of the heart that is the central metaphor in Poe's story, a metaphor for the narrator's suppressed conscience or else just a symbol for the notion that "murder will out" -- in any case, it is, as Silverman notes, an image meant to show that "[w]hat has been hidden within the self will not stay concealed." (Silverman 208). But at the same time, Poe has been careful to establish the old man's eye as a powerful (and elusive) symbol:

He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture -- a pale blue eye with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and so by degrees, very gradually, I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever.

In giving us the old man's eye as the killer's motive, Poe is intending us to read it as symbolic. The narrator connects the eye with "a vulture" and also with his "blood [running] cold" -- in other words, a bird that feeds on carrion, and a temperature best associated with corpses. The "pale blue" of the eye's color may resemble the summer sky, but in the narrator's chain of associations it suggests only death. Faulkner's symbolism by contrast is not so stark and clear-cut. I would suggest that the central symbol of the story is fire, the same element that Ab Snopes uses to burn the barns referred to in the story's title. Faulkner makes it clear that the fire is intended to be symbolic because their interpretation is to some degree ascribed to the child Colonel Sartoris Snopes. Near the beginning he interprets the meaning of fire in the context of his father:

The nights were still cool and they had a fire against it, of a rail lifted from a nearby fence and cut into lengths - a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father's habit and custom always, even in freezing weather. Older, the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one; why should not a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, have burned everything in sight? Then he might have gone a step farther and thought that that was the reason: that niggard blaze was the living fruit of nights passed during those four years in the woods hiding from all men, blue or gray, with his strings of horses (captured horses, he called them). And older still, he might have divined the true reason: that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father's being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion. But he did not think…

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