05 August 2009

Faulkner's Homeric epics?

A literary question/observation. . .

My American literature class finished up reading and discussing Wm. Faulkner's As I Lay Dying this afternoon.

I argued that the novel could be read as a sort of Homeric epic. I doubt this is original to me given the libraries stuffed full of Faulkner scholarship, but the idea struck me as worthy of mention to my students. We found a few Homeric moments along the way, including the whole notion of the misadventurous quest to Jefferson to bury Addie, the mother.

One scene in particularly got my Homeric attention. Addie Bundren's coffin is inside a barn. Her allegedly mentally unstable son, Darl, sets the barn on fire. Jewel, her son by Preacher Whitfield, races inside the barn to save his horse. He returns to rescue Addie in her coffin. Faulkner describes Jewel coming out of the barn "riding" the coffin like a horse. The scene is filled with heroics, swirling masses of sparks, and our hero is set alight in his nightshirt. The whole scene reminds me of the funeral games in Homer's epics. . .heroes, funeral pyres, horses, etc.



  1. Reminds me more of Aeneas escaping the city of Troy with his father and his son.

  2. Anonymous7:58 PM

    Louise Cowan has included Faulkner as part of the Epic tradition for at least two decades.

    She is the best thing to have ever happened to UD. Too bad so few people know her these days. Her lectures were the best. Bar none.

    I mean: staggeringly, mind-changing, miraculous and transfigurative. Ask around. People will back me up.


  3. Anonymous10:12 PM

    The very notion of carrying ashes is akin to the notion of carrying one's patrimony, one's tradition [Anchises] on one's back. To the founding of the new place.

    Yes, Faulkner is epic. Homer and otherwise.

  4. Anne,

    Dr Cowan is as close as we are going to get to a Pope in Literature! I've never had the privilege of taking a class with her...most definitely my loss. I've had dinner with her and chatted with her many times. She is a champion of a way of reading literature that pomo junk theory killed in the 1980's.

  5. Anonymous3:18 PM

    I know. Criticism was reduced to "isms." Marxism. Feminism. Etc.

    She's the best I've ever witnessed. Changed my life and that is what teaching at it's best does.

    I hope she is well and still active.

  6. Perhaps it's because I read As I Lay Dying in a public high school, before having the UD Core, but I never saw anything particularly epic about the novel. Even now, with the connections provided above, I can't help but think that these themes have undergone a major change in Faulkner's hands, which may be the point.

    Homer's heroes, for all their (many) shortcomings, are of heroic dimensions: these men are warriors, living legends, even in their own day. Jewel and the other characters of As I Lay Dying are pretty minuscule in comparison. They are legendary only in the sense that the neighbors in small-town America no doubt gossiped about them (and wagged their fingers).

    It seems to me Faulkner could be doing one of two things here. Either he is (a) pointing out how much the heroic has degenerated in the modern age, that we have a Jewel instead of an Achilles or Aeneas or (b) he's democratizing the heroic, pointing out that this sort of thing is accessible to anyone.

    Does that make sense, or am I totally barking up the wrong tree?

    (Hmm... This may merit a post on the Guild Review at some point...)