Alienation is a powerful thing. It can drive a man to drink himself to death or drown himself in a river. In a world where meaningful relationships equate to happiness, a man’s worse fear is alienation. The thought of losing everyone and everything one has worked so hard to obtain is enough for a man to wake up out of a dead sleep soaking in sweat. On the contrary, the more reclusive person may seek to be alienated for its comforting effects of peace and quiet. In William Faulkners novels The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, Go Down Moses, Absalom Absalom, and As I Lay Dying, he tells several tales about the horrors of the Confederate South. He introduces characters that are both victims to their setting and those that victimize others due to their powerful positions. Regardless of one’s place in this backwards society, Faulkner shows how everyone is prone to facing the often horrible outcomes of alienation.
In The Sound and the Fury all the Compson family siblings are alienated in their own way. The alienation begins with the dysfunctional nature of the heads of the household, Jason and Caroline Compson. Jason Compson III has grown up to be a bitter detached father. He speaks highly of the Compson family name but takes no action to support that honor. He blatantly ignores his children in their times of greatest need. Caroline performs no better as a parent. She casts her children off, leaving her servant Dilsey to raise them. On the rare occasion when show her children attention, she does so either in a cruel or biased way. She is mean and unaffectionate to her youngest son Benjy, while favoring her son Jason, who is so cynical he refuses to reciprocate anyone’s love. Her greatest fidelity seems to rest with her deadbeat brother Maury, whom she takes into her house despite his unscrupulous behavior. The Compson parents’ inability to express their love and attention to their children leads to a chain reaction of alienation.
The source of Quinton’s alienation, which eventually leads to his suicide, resides in his feeling of betrayal by his family members. His father’s indifference towards him and his siblings and his mother’s negligence leads Quinton on a path of depression which eventually leads to his suicide. Mrs. Compson’s favoring of her son Jason results in Jason and Caddy turning to each other for affection. As youngsters they become close, which causes Quinton to have a difficult time accepting Caddy’s promiscuity and her eventual pregnancy out of wedlock. When Caddy becomes pregnant, his father shrugs it off, blaming it on the weakness of her gender. Not only is he abandoning Caddy, but he is also oblivious to the damage that Caddy’s pregnancy is causing his oldest son Quinton. He simply tells Quinton to not take life so seriously. Obviously shaken by his sister’s fall from innocence, Quinton begins to fall into a depression. His father takes no notice, though, pretending everything is fine and continuing to push his son toward Harvard Law school which will surely, he feels, ensure a boost to the prestige of the family’s name for another generation. However, at Harvard, Quinton is not able to overcome what he perceives as his family’s betrayal. He spends his time agonizing over Cady’s promiscuity, his mother’s negligence, and his brother Benjy’s hopelessness. He separates himself from his college friends and even starts fights with some whom he feels put his moral codes in danger. Feeling betrayed by his father’s lack of concern and his sister’s indecent actions, he is pushed to a feeling of loneliness and despair. Quinton’s own stubborn, unflinching, values make him unable to forgive Caddy’s shameful yet somewhat common mistakes. Furthermore, there seems to be a sexual tension that exists between the two, as neither one ever approves of the other’s partner. Quinton’s judgmental treatment of Caddy leads to a complete breakdown in their relationship. He now has no connection to the person he once revered the most. Having nobody else to turn to, Quinton sinks to a point of hopeless alienation that results in his suicide.
Jason Compson is another alienated character; however, his alienation is due to his mean spirited demeanor. Since Jason was a child, he had a tendency to treat others wickedly, preying on the weak like his brother Benjy. These tendencies foreshadow the alienated life Jason will come to live. As an adult, Jason takes over as the head of the Compson household, but is an ignoble tyrant rather than a respectable figure like his ancestors. He refuses to let his sister Caddy back into the house, because he blames her for his job at the bank falling through. He is willing to accept her daughter, Miss Quinton, only because he sees how it can be profitable for him. As a father figure, Jason is far from loving to Miss Quinton. He is cruel and overbearing to her, which causes her to rebel and head down the same path of promiscuity her mother took. In the role of brother, Jason is a similar failure. He has no love for his brother Benjy. He sees Benjy as a disgrace and has plans to ship him off to an insane asylum shortly. Jason, though, has one luxury none of his other siblings have. He is the only child who receives love or affection from his mother. This is the main ingredient Quentin always felt he was missing in his own life, but Jason shows no appreciation for it. He rejects her love and later learns to take advantage of it rather than embrace it. He observes his mother’s weakness and proceeds to pull off schemes within the family, such as keeping for himself the financial support Caddy sends for Miss Quinton. His mother, blind with love for Jason, refuses to accept the reality of her beloved son. Through his bitterness, Jason manages to turn away and separate himself from his entire family, leaving himself alienated, cynical, and an utter failure in life.
Caddy Compson is perhaps the most isolated of all, though it is hard to write about her since her narrative is never provided. As a female in the south, she already must contend with misogynist attitudes of family and society. Although well liked by her brothers Quinton and Benjy, she has a submissive role, as her only hope of gaining status come from marriage. She almost succeeds in doing this when she marries affluent baker Herbert Head, but he soon divorces her when he learns she is pregnant with someone else’s child. This marks Caddy’s downward spiral into alienation. She becomes a disappointment to her oldest brother Quinton, a failure to brother Jason, who lost his potential dream job due to the divorce, and an outright disgrace to the family name. She is disowned from her family and stripped of her baby, who is then raised by her family. Faulkner’s decision to leave out the presence of an omniscient narrator that follows what her life becomes leaves it impossible to explore the depths of her depression, but one must conclude being separated from her family and her baby has left her more alienated than any other character in the book.
The main characters from Light in August all live complicated intertwined lives where each one’s alienation stems from a history of being spurned by society. Joe Christmas was considered an outcast from birth. Having a biracial heritage has made Joe a man without a place, unable to find acceptance. He also became an orphan in the worst of ways. His grandfather murdered his black father for impregnating his daughter, while his mother died during childbirth. He wound up in an orphanage, where his grandfather left him anonymously on Christmas Eve. Here, orphans and workers alike mistreated him for being half black. Once adopted, his foster father was no less cruel. He forced his own brand of religious values on him through merciless beatings. This treatment created an angry and violent disposition in Joe, which he would carry throughout his life and cause him much trouble in the future. It also drove him away from those who did care for him, such as his foster mother Mrs. McEachern. Joe is left to live his adult life as a roamer. Even when he enters into a romantic relationship, like the one with Joanna Burden, he remains cold and distant with her, only spending time with her to have sex or when summoned by her. Ultimately, Joe’s life ends where it began with nothing to his name and with nobody who cares about him.
Lena Grove isolates herself from society due to her poor decision to get involved with Joe Brown and become pregnant by him. Her alienation continues until she meets Byron Bunch. Lena sets out to travel by herself to find Joe Brown, who ran off and reneged on his promise to support her and the baby. Throughout her travels she turns to strangers for help and support. This behavior is a contrast from Faulkner’s usual alienated characters that push others away from them. However, Lena’s alienation stems from her position as single, pregnant, teenager. Kind strangers such as Armstid reluctantly take Lena into his house out of pity for her, but the help is only extended so far, such as when his wife offers her some money but demands her out the house in the morning. This “at an arms distance” treatment is what Lena has come to expect from outsiders until she encounters Byron Bunch. Byron is unique because his alienation is a chosen one. He opts to keep to himself and work long hours rather than get involved in anything that might cause him trouble. Despite never being a morally unscrupulous person, he tends to have a paranoid, untrusting side. He fears that any idle time would result in him complicating his life for the worse. What he subconsciously yearns for, however, is a meaningful relationship. This situation finally presents itself when Lena walks into the mill where Byron works. Byron immediately takes a liking to the girl, and for the first time, is willing to break his usual routine to help her. Although he attempts to aid Lena in reuniting her with Joe Brown, he battles moral dilemmas stemming from the uncertainty of his intentions. He knows he loves this girl, yet is undermining his personal desires by helping her find her estranged baby’s father. Ultimately, he finds a resolution to these moral dilemmas when he sees Joe Brown once again attempting to skirt his responsibilities to Lena and their baby by escaping out the window and again running away. He cuts Joe Brown off, and for once steps out of his safe but complacent role of the alienated workaholic to mix himself in a worthy cause. He fights Joe Brown only to get pummeled and allow Brown to run off and hitch a ride out of town. His defeat, though, doubles as a moral victory and in doing so wins the affection of Lena. The two remain alienated by society, as they continue to live life on the road, wandering from place to place. Their personal isolation, however, is gone for they have each other.
Byron Bunch’s only friend, Reverend Gail Hightower, represents the fourth alienated character in Faulkner’s work. His alienation is a result of his failures as minister along with his wife’s troublesome reputation. His speeches as minister missed their target with his parishioners and proved to be intangible and of no help. His wife carried on extramarital affairs, which Hightower tried to cover up for the sake of his own reputation; however, when she was found dead at a hotel with another man, it was more than the church could stand. These blemishes on his reputation forced the church to relieve him of his position within the church and caused society to view him as a pariah. Hightower, though, accepts this role and thus chooses to remain living in Jackson rather than moving away to get a fresh start. He possibly even embraces the role as the outsider, as he continues to carry out what is perceived as shady endeavors such as having relations with black women. Despite taking a beating from the Ku Klux Klan, Hightower’s resolve remains strong. He continues to live in Jackson for another twenty years alienated from the rest of society. When his only friend, Byron Bunch, comes to him for help in his situation with Lena, Hightower succeeds in advising his friend in the matter. At the end of the book, Hightower remains alienated, but he has succeeded where he once had failed as a spiritual adviser.
The collections of short stories called Go Down, Moses is the book where the alienated character is least evident. Unlike Light in August where almost every character is alienated in some degree and in some way, no one character sticks out as an alienated figure in Go Down, Moses. Instead, Faulkner shows the alienation by contrasting the two sides of the McCaslin family. The two main distinctions between the sides are the white side and the black side; however, the female lineage is also mentioned. The lineage from the offspring of the white males is the one in position to inherit the land and the wealth of the family. They feel they are better suited to represent the McCaslin name and look down upon their half-breed relatives and the white males who married into the family. The black lineage must carry around the burden of shame, for they are examples of their ancestors’ flaws. This branch began with the affair of Carothers McCaslin and his slave Tomey. As generations of this branch continue, they stand out because of their dark skin, so they are never fully accepted into the family. For example, Carothers’ son, Turl, whom he had with his slave, is raised a slave instead of being treated as a son. These indignities are quite common on the side of the black branch of the family. On the female branch, McCaslin Edwards raises Isaac McCaslin as if he were his own son, but he is still past over for the inheritance in favor of Isaac. He only receives the inheritance at an older age when Isaac reveals he is not interested in it and gives it to Edwards.
Absalom, Absalom is another Faulkner tale dealing with the discrimination, hate, and overall collapse of the south. His alienated characters face many of the same troubles mentioned in previous stories, having to do with their inability to gain acceptance because of the color of their skin. Absalom, Absalom, however, shows how the rich white land and slave owners alienate themselves through their perverse and unyielding racism far more than those they are attempting to ostracize. Thomas Supten is a perfect example of this, as he forms two families throughout his life, only to destroy them in an attempt to keep his family’s bloodline pure. With his first wife, he has a son, only to later find that she has traces of black blood in her ancestry. Rather than accept this and stay loyal to his family, he chooses to divorce his wife and abandon his child. In doing so, he denies his own happiness, and sets out to the United States with nothing but some slaves and an architect with him. One could argue that a man of such deep rooted racism, which had to have been passed down from numerous generations, would never be able to tolerate the idea of consorting with the hated race, but Supten later shows his hypocrisy by having an affair with his slave. One can only conclude that Supten’s racism most prominently results in his own alienation.
A strong parallel can also be drawn between Supten’s alienation and the South’s attempt to alienate itself from the Union. Supten, who represents the stereotype of the southern man around the time of the Civil War, succeeds in his mission to build a legacy and a family to carry on his legacy only to self-destruct it. Though alienated by the townspeople when he first arrives in Jackson, he steadfastly continues his pursuit of his legacy and ultimately wins over the town by erecting a great house and finding a respectable wife. His destiny hits a crossroads, though, when his son Henry brings home his college friend Charles, who hits it off with Henry’s sister Judith. The two are set to be married, but Supten realizes that his past has come back to haunt him, and that if he allows this marriage to happen, not only will his children marry, but more disastrously mixed blood will be introduced into the pure branch of his family’s lineage. Even though he recognizes that only he will know this secret, he refuses to let it happen and takes the proper action to make sure it doesn’t. This starts the collapse of his family and legacy. He returns from the war to find his son Henry has murdered his other son Charles and nobody knows the whereabouts of Henry. Meanwhile, the war has destroyed his plantation to the point where it is deemed irreparable. His bigotry has destroyed his legacy and reduced him to a drunken squatter. His attempts to alienate the blacks from his family have only led to his own alienation.
The South, in general, suffers from a similar self-inflicted alienation due to racism and greed. The people of the South have worked hard and made vast improvements to obtain their wealthy agricultural communities. However, when the Union asked them to share the wealth and allow Blacks some freedom, they refuse. This stubborn behavior is evidenced in the personal decision making of Thomas Supten. The South instead engages in the Civil War, symbolized by the Supten’s own civil war, which saw brother turn against brother. In the end the South is defeated and its land is destroyed. Absalom, Absalom’s ending shows the Supten legacy come to a similar end with the burning down of the Supten homestead with Henry inside it. The result of the Civil War gives hope to the Black people. Faulkner shows this hope by having the only living Supten descendent be his mixed-blooded great grandson Jim Bond. Through Thomas Supten, Faulkner shows how the South’s hatred and greed ultimately results in its own alienation.
Readers can view several alienated characters from As I Lay Dying among the Bundren family. Certain family members are both alienated from the rest of their family and others from the community. The most glaring example of alienation can be found in Darl Bundren. At the beginning, although Darl starts out as the most sensible family members, he seems to have uncanny abilities that force his siblings and neighbors to keep him at arms distance. Darl has incredible intuition, almost like a sixth sense, that enables him to perceive things he should have no way of knowing. The Bundren’s neighbor, Cora Tull, describe Darl as “strange and unsettling.” Though he never wrongs anyone he tends to be viewed as a potential pariah due to other people’s dark secrets and paranoia. Darl holds knowledge that could be dangerous to others if he feels so inclined to share it. For example, he is able to deduce the truth about Dewey Dell’s encounter with Lafe and her pregnancy. He also can sense that Jewel is not his full brother; that he is a result of his mother’s extramarital affair that nobody else knows about. Because of this, people are afraid to get close to him and would rather him not be around.
Towards the end of the book when he burns the Gillespie’s barn down, his family is quick to send him to a mental hospital for his actions. Though he does appear to be losing his mind to some degree, it is likely this is the excuse they have been waiting for to alleviate this potential threat to their personal secrets. The fact that Dewey Dell is the one leading the charge to get him sent away isn’t surprising considering she is the one who has the most vulnerable because of Darl’s knowledge of her secret pregnancy. Darl’s inexplicable knowledge causes him to be alienated from the rest. This alienation causes this otherwise rational man to go crazy, giving those who fear him the opportunity to alienate him permanently.
Though married, Addie and Anse have withdrawn themselves from each other to the point where they are not only alienated from each other but also their children. While most mother’s feel a void has been filled when they give birth to a child, Addie feels her children are a mere violation of her privacy. This shows she is a woman who prefers being alienated, yet the presence of her children results in the existence of dependence that she must tend to. Addie is an inadequate mother who shows no love for any of her children, except for her bastard child Jewel. She favors him because he does not come from or remind her of her begrudging husband. She may also focus her love on Jewel because she knows he is the one who will never return it, thus placing her in the state of alienation that she desires. It is comical how even in death Addie fails to obtain the privacy she seeks. Her children spend the vast majority of the book fumbling her coffin in an attempt to move it to Jefferson where she requested to be buried. Just as in life, her kids are a nuisance and a roadblock to her peace.
Anse is a character that seems despised by all. He has no relationship with his unfaithful wife, his kids don’t respect him, and the townspeople see him as a disgrace. He shows little care for his children, and when he does attempt to help them, his feeble efforts produce poor results. When his son Cash breaks his leg, Anse remedies the situation by making a cement splint that renders Cash crippled for life. This type of irresponsible action and his overall neglect to his family cause him to be alienated. It seems as though he, like his wife, seeks out such alienation. At the end of the book, he pulls off an act of the grossest disrespect. While the ground above his wife’s coffin is still fresh, he manages to find himself a new wife, and with a touch of pride in his voice, introduces her to his children as Mrs. Bundren. By disregarding his children’s mother in this way, he is surely seeking alienation from his family and possibly a new start. Though readers are not privy to the children’s reactions, one can imagine the little admiration they had for him is completely absolved.
Throughout his works, William Faulkner paints a dreary picture of the South around the time of the Civil War. The hatred, discrimination, and betrayal, so prevalent during the time results in many examples of alienation. Faulkner introduces several characters that can be correctly identified as alienated. The reasons for their alienation vary from being victimized by racial or sexist prejudice to basking in the peaceful feeling of being alienated. The alienation can exist within families or can even extend to an entire community. Certain characters have trouble coping with the alienation, and it eventually leads to their death, while others seem to thrive off it. Faulkner’s alienated characters represent the diverse hardships and considerable loneliness that many faced during a tragic time of an ignorant place.