“Well, Millie, too bad you’re not a mare like Penelope. Then I could give you a decent stall in the stable.”
It's fascinating to me that Faulkner called Sutpen an almost-perfect tragic hero. I could possibly agree with that assessment of Joe Christmas, in Light in August, but for me, a tragic hero has to have a very clear good side, a nobility of character, as well as fatal flaws. I never felt that with Sutpen, and part of the reason for that is Faulkner's own way of conveying his character: at a very great distance. So great in fact, that we cannot warm to him because (like all the characters, much more real because we hear them speak, see them move and interact as they also try to figure the man out) we're never close enough to really feel him in the flesh.
I think this distancing is a further reason why we can see Sutpen and his downfall as an allegory of the South itself. Faulkner, speaking about this book, said that the South labored under a curse - the curse of slavery. Curses, in the Old Testament style, affect not only the king/patriarch but his progeny and the entire tribe or nation-state under that leader, who refuse to "turn away from their wickedness;" the curse can extend "unto many generations." Faulkner seems to carry this out as he kills off all of Sutpen's descendants except for the feeble-minded Jim Bond; his slaves; even the old spinster Rosa who once ran away from him. Our poor narrator Quentin, grandson of the Grandfather who professed Sutpen's "innocence," doesn't escape either; apparently he knows too much and came too close to the source of the curse.
Which, like your comment at the end of your letter, brings up a larger question about innocence itself. If slavery was indeed a "curse," -- or an evil -- did the entire South deserve what happened to it? What level of participation in a communal sin -- and we can think of many of these that societies have participated in and still do -- is required before an individual is guilty of complicity? Sutpen was certainly a willing participant; I doubt we could say such a thing about his West Indian slaves or his wives. Is he excused by the fact that he was born into a world where his "design" would be not only acceptable but admired, and where acquiring and exploiting slaves and women was behavior shared, to at least some extent, by all the adult males at the top? At what point does an adult, even one steeped in the prevailing culture, bear the responsibility of seeing it clearly and choosing for him or herself?
But going beyond the individual, since the book is also an allegory of a society, we have to ask what, if anything, can stop the curse and expiate the sin. If slavery was an expression of racism, we certainly can't claim that the elimination of slavery eliminated racism. Neither can we claim that the white male claim of superiority and privilege over all other groups was, or is, confined to the South; as subsequent history and even current events are proving, racism infects North American society as a whole, and has been present since white people first came to these shores.
to wonder if our continual collective "moving on" from one oppression
to another -- Native Americans, blacks, women, Japanese, Vietnamese,
gays, Muslims -- it's a long sad list -- without true self-reflection,
justice for the victims of hate crimes, trials of leaders, or
reparation for victims -- has contributed to the perpetuation of racism
as an endemic and largely acceptable trait that repeatedly bubbles
violently to the surface of American society. We have had prophets,
too, calling us to truth and repentance, but have we really listened?
It doesn't seem that way to me. Faulkner, writing this book in the
1930s, was trying to speak about the South as he saw it approximately
sixty years after the Civil War. That's the same distance we now have
from World War II; not long, but not short either. When we look at our
history since 1940, what can we say about innocence? Who are the
tragic heroes of these subsequent chapters? Who are the victims? Who
are we? And where does it end?
The image at the top is from a set of murals of biblical scenes in Harvard University's Andover Hall, painted in the mid-1950s by Laurence Scott. I'm captivated by them and hope someday to see more of them; apparently the plaster is not in good condition.