Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner -- Book Review

Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner: The Modern Library 1993
Including "Barn Burning", "Two Soldiers", "A Rose for Emily", "Dry September", "That Evening Sun", "Red Leaves", "Lo!", "Turnabout", "Honor", "There Was a Queen", "Mountain Victory", "Beyond", and "Race at Morning".

The first story I ever read by him was A Rose for Emily which I'd read for a class. It was a cryptic little story, relating the necrophilic, and patricidial actions of the titular character, Emily, and I think an impossible one for me or my class to understand at that time. Much later, even as his work was recommended to me by several professors and friends and finally, I was wary of coming close to his writing because of the intensity I could sense from it, and I knew it wouldn't be an easy or even comfortable read. That said, I still feel I should have started with his novels (As I Lay Dying, or Sound and the Fury) first, but I wasn't courageous enough to. This little book (the Modern Library edition) of his short stories was the perfect path to his work--and as a book, is a pleasure to hold. The pages are thick, yet it's light and small, with neat corners. It's very portable, and his style is gripping, sensuous, and wholly absorbing. Faulkner to me seems to be the kind of writer who could direct simple movies that burn in your mind, a Clint Eastwood of the literary world, I would say.

The first story in this collection is the oft referenced Barn Burning (which I had some interest in due to Haruki Murakami's short story of the same name) set in the 1890s about a man who feels that the only way to preserve his honor in a society where he is constantly degraded is by burning things--and in his case, burning barns. Like many of the subsequent stories in this collection, the main conflicts concern honor, and the compulsion to maintain one's role and place in society with dignity. Even while the story narrates the man's conflicts, it is narrated through the son who is compelled to lie in court along with his family about his father's activities, something the son feels dishonorable about as well.
Maybe it will all add up and balance and vanish—corn, rug, fire; the terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses—gone, done with for ever and ever. --from Barn Burning
What I liked most about this story though has less to do with such grand themes. In particular I loved the way food was described--the smell of cheese, the simple meals that they ate, and little household descriptions, the sly way that fun is poked at pretensions and materialism (the way the father relished ruining the expensive imported rug of one the landowner's, and his comment that if something was that precious to someone it shouldn't be sitting in the main hall for everyone to walk all over) which lead me to feel sympathetic to even his arsonist behaviors--what's the problem, after all with burning barns, with burning the symbols of arrogance and materialism and property? In essence how much of things can we own, and doesn't it free us in a manner?

The themes of honor and dignity return in the following stories in varying shapes and forms, both in the lives of men and women. In A Rose for Emily, Emily's father refuses every suitor who asks for her hand in marriage. When she finally falls in love with one of her suitors, to her it is more difficult to defy her father and marry him than it is to kill both father and lover and exist among their decaying bodies. This recalls countless Arabian and Southeast Asian honor killings, and even the narratives that proliferate in Arabic literature, depicting flouted love stories with Romeo-and-Juliet-esque endings where to be (an individual) and united with another (individual) without a green light from society can and will cost your very life. The society and social rules always come first, like an invisible thread that trips anybody who dares live in the margins. Like Majnun Layla, the opposing forces of parental and societal constraints effectively rob her of her reasoning, in the kind of grand way seen in many ancient Middle Eastern poetry and folk tales, and later on, in Southeast Asian ghazals.  These communities share characteristics that Faulkner noted in the South, the extreme loyalty to culture and society and to notions like honor and dignity, often in the context of socially repressed women.

Perhaps the most emotionally heartrending story out of all these was Two Soldiers where a little brother runs away from home and tries to find his older brother who had enlisted for the war. He follows the brother's route the day after his brother leaves for the army, certain that even though he is young, he can help chop wood so his brother can cook during the war. He sneaks away from home one night, traveling across America and selling precious farm eggs to get ticket money for buses to reach where his brother is stationed. Once again, honor weaves its way into the narrative as the older brother insists on enlisting in the war and staying in the way, despite the hurt it causes his mother, and to his little brother, saying it's something he simply has got to do. The evokes the sheer persistence of the father in Barn Burning where burning the barns is something he simply has to do. Here Faulkner's underlying belief in fate, and his fatalistic stories that span generations, cursing generations, emerges. In the end of the story, the little boy meets his brother who gives him a piece of chewing gum to make him happy, hugs him, and tells him to leave. We know they may never meet again, and the little brother's traveling home to the reader is as poignant and painful as the older brother's travels to the war front, his grave.

Besides this, a few of the stories were difficult for me to follow, especially the ones concerning Native American tribes. Faulkner uses extremely colloquial dialogue so it can be hard to understand if you aren't versed or aware of the lingo they employ. At least three of the stories were such--I read them but sadly understood very little of them and had to simply gloss over them. The remaining stories revolved around similar themes, often ending in murder, the paranoid fear of murder, stories of infidelities, lynching, and other sordid eruptions of human emotion occurring in the middle of every day life.

In all, this was an intense collection of stories. I admired how seamlessly the stories start and finish. Often the endings are ambiguous and no judgments are made as the lines between good and bad are refreshingly fluid. However, there are many moments of confusion--and I couldn't help feeling that sometimes a little more clarity could be helpful to the reader. 


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