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Presented to the Graduate Council of the

University of North Texas in Partial

Fulfillment of the Requirements

For the Degree of



Phyllis Ann Bunnell, B.S., M.A.

Denton, Texas

May, 1995 37?





Presented to the Graduate Council of the University of North Texas in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements For the Degree of


By Phyllis Ann Bunnell, B.S., M.A.

Denton, Texas May, 1995 f* Bunnell, Phyllis Ann, The Elusive Mother in William Faulkner/s Maior Yoknapatawnha Families. Doctor of Philosophy (English), May, 1995, 233 pp., works cited, 60 titles.

Families in much of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha fiction are built upon traditional patriarchal structure with the father as head and provider and the mother or mother figure in charge of keeping the home and raising the children. Even though the roles appear to be clearly defined and observed, the families decline and disintegrate.

Five families illustrate the problem of family disintegration. Older and more firmly established families, the Sartorises and the Compsons, decline and practically die out. In contrast, the Sutpens and the Snopeses rise quickly to wealth and prominence in the novels, but then decline and disintegrate. Even those families who simply subsist, such as the Bundrens, begin to decline. In most cases, the families' disintegration stems more from internal causes than from external pressures. These causes are illuminated by seeing the mothers in the light of Virginia Satir's family sculpting models.

According to both traditional patriarchal family roles and Satir's model, the mother of the family or a mother substitute would take charge of family communication and lead members—not only spouses, but most especially the children—to healthful self-images, workable internal relationships, and solid relationships with the outside community. In Faulkner's fictional families, the mothers or mother figures are unable to communicate functionally themselves, or they resort to dysfunctional communication to achieve their own personal goals.

Failure to achieve functional family communication was a personal problem for Faulkner who found himself unable to meet the differing expectations his parents had for him.

His feelings of neglect and of being unloved caused him to create mother characters who represent his grandmother, aunt, or cousins, but not one who can directly compare to

–  –  –

In undertaking a study of William Faulkner's characters, the student's first tendency usually is to examine the males. Because of their dominance in the literature, Faulkner's men often seem physically large, even larger than life, at times given to violence, nearly always driven to action by their ambitions. They are the heads of households, the fathers of families, and, in their own estimation, the pillars of the community. These men establish plantations, build and run railroads, become bank presidents, have law practices; they give orders, are pretty much free, and are at times abusive to their underlings, or sometimes they simply sit and control others through their very inactivity. Sexual prowess and the desire for a male heir often occupy a great deal of their psychic and physical energy. In the pre-Civil War South, the men also had control over the female slaves and took advantage of the situation, and they sometimes satisfied their sexual desires with slaves. In the post-war South, dealing with sexual desires sometimes showed up in trips to brothels, in incestuous relations with females in the family, or in miscegenetic relationships with the black servants who remained with the families after the war. In short, the men dominate the stories or novels in nearly every area of daily life, and their very dominance can cause the women and children to get lost in literary analysis. This study of the women in the major Yoknapatawpha families who function in some capacity as mothers is intended to show that dysfunction occurs because these women do not have the skills to be functional themselves; indeed, they often resort to dysfunctional behavior in order to deal with the men and to survive in a relationship in which they lack the communication skills to respond from a functional stance.

As a consequence, they fail to develop these skills themselves and to call them forth in other family members— both spouses and children.

Of course, the novels and short stories are not so onesided that characters other than white males simply do not exist. Women, children, and blacks abound because they play complementary parts in the history of Faulkner's mythic county, but too often they seem simply to serve as supporting cast to the men, who get analyzed repeatedly.

Even at the 1985 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at which the topic was "Faulkner and Women," many of the speakers discussed the women more as reflected in the men than as separate entities standing on their own in important roles in the writings.

There are few studies of Faulkner's women other than as earth mothers or mythic figures, or as women in the Scriptural sense of the "two Eves": the first, the "temptress, sinner, and mother of men"; the second, "Virgin, sinless, and mother of the Redeemer of men" (Milliner 268).

The failure of critics to give serious study to Faulkner's women may simply be the result of the traditional southern societal structure into which Faulkner was born and about which he wrote. First of all, the southern family was truly patriarchal: the oldest male in the family was considered the head of the clan. He was responsible for all family members, particularly women and children and slaves, who were without the direct protection of another man. William Faulkner was a product of that society and found himself in a situation at least analogous to this traditional structure. At his father's death in 1932, he became the head of the clan, which meant, for example, that he immediately became responsible for his mother and Caroline Barr, or Mammy Callie as she was more familiarly known.

When his brother Dean died in a plane crash in 1935, Faulkner, as he was expected to do, added Dean's widow and soon-to-be-born daughter to his care. Both Joseph Blotner and David Minter make a point of Faulkner's being regularly responsible for varying numbers of people, depending on the circumstances within the family at the time (Blotner 783, 828, 916; Minter 141, 152).

A second reason why female characters do not function dynamically in Faulkner's works rests on the traditional southern view of family. In the South, the family was a priority: the unit of stability and the means for maintaining the blood lines, securing the inheritance of property, and handing on the tradition. Consequently, in Faulkner's portrayal of families in Yoknapatawpha County, the older and more entrenched generations protect and preserve the traditional views of the close-knit family and take care of all the family's private business and internal problems. The men would be the recognized heads of the household; the rest of the family would be subject to the husband and father's domain, and the wife and mother's responsibility would be the running of the house and the care of the children. These women, however, remained dependent on the will of the husband for what they possessed, for what they controlled, or for what power they had. Divorces were not frequent; suicides would be the exception rather than the rule. But someone as observant and as experienced as William Faulkner knew that such families were the hoped-for ideal, not the reality. So, many of the older, more established families in the major Yoknapatawpha novels present what superficially appear to be traditional family units, but which actually have within themselves the seeds of their own destruction.

Despite the apparent male dominance both in the southern reality of Faulkner's generation and in his fictional reflections of that reality, often the key to a family's survival is the mother. Folk wisdom presumes, and psychologists and sociologists agree, that it is often the mother who holds the unit together, who nurtures its members, who sees to their well-being, and who guides their development and socialization. As the care-giver charged with the welfare, growth, and survival of the children, the mother is presumably the most direct agent for developing the skills necessary for a child to assume a dynamic participative role in a family's healthful functioning.

But, as already pointed out, most critics—Michael Millgate, Cleanth Brooks, sometimes even Sally R. Page—tend to examine women only in the shadow of the men they appear with rather than as creatures functioning in an independently dynamic manner. Most accept the assumption that Faulkner did not really develop women well. Careful study of the women/mothers in Faulkner's fictional families can produce some strong comparisons to the unsatisfactory relationship he had with his own parents, particularly with his mother.

If Faulkner's women generally are hard to delineate clearly, the mothers in his Yoknapatawpha families are even harder to define. Susan Peck MacDonald, writing about mothers in Jane Austen's novels, posits that the daughter in a family could not reach adult status in society unless the mother was "absent, dead, weak, or otherwise flawed" (68);

further, MacDonald stated that "while the heroines sometimes receive help from other strong supportive women, they rarely receive help from their own mothers" (58). The conclusions that MacDonald reached about the female parent's lack of influence upon the daughters in Austen's families applies equally well to both male and female children in Faulkner's works. In the novels and short stories where families, such as the Bundrens, Sartorises, Compsons, Sutpens, and Snopeses, are found, the Yoknapatawpha County men who are the heads of these families act (or deliberately refuse to act), react, fight, marry, and die while the women grope their way ineffectually through the motions of raising and preparing children for an adult life in which to raise their own families. Where these kinds of fathers serve as role models and mothers remain inactive and ineffective as parents, children suffer in their own efforts to grow functional and often do not learn how to build healthier families for their own generation.

Mothers and mother figures in William Faulkner's major Yoknapatawpha families fail to influence their children as they grow. In As I Lav Dying. The Unvanouished and Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury. Absalom. AbsalomI. and the Snopes trilogy, the mothers are dead or dying, ineffective, or flawed; where mothers are absent, mother figures try to fill in and help children grow to maturation, oftentimes without themselves possessing or even being aware of any of the skills that go into sustaining functional family dynamics, yet sometimes with really good common sense about how children grow and learn. In spite of the presence of mothers or mother figures, the children do not develop into functional family members, and the daughters, who will become the next generation of mothers, ordinarily do not develop the skills that would allow them to build functional families.

For the purpose of this study, only five Yoknapatawpha families will be analyzed. Addie Bundren and her daughter Dewey Dell in As I Lav Dvina make up a family in which the mother is present well into the teen years of the daughter.

Mrs. Compson and Caddy in The Sound and the Furv. Ellen Coldfield Sutpen and Judith Sutpen of Absalom. Absalom!. and Eula Varner Snopes and her daughter Linda in the Snopes trilogy are families in which the mother is alive throughout all or almost all of the daughter's formative years. Granny Millard, Aunt Jenny DuPre, and Narcissa Benbow in The Unvanauished and Sartoris represent a family in which the mother is absent, thereby requiring that a woman learn to act as mother without the help of a strong parenting model.

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