Signifying, Ordering, And Containing the Chaos: Whiteness, Ideology, And Language in Intruder in the Dust (Critical Essay‪)‬

The Faulkner Journal 2006, Fall, 22, 1-2

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Coming out of Faulkner's "dark years," after his period of "authentic originality and greatness" (Minter 192-93), Intruder in the Dust has attracted relatively little critical attention since its publication. When critics do discuss the novel at length, their approach has often drawn upon the general conception that "Faulkner failed to give it the intensity and resonance we associate with his finest work" such as The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! (Minter 212). Accordingly, most of this scholarship has treated Intruder in the Dust as a kind of political novel and thus focused on Faulkner's personal attitude toward contemporary Southern race relations and how this attitude manifests in his narrative. Unlike the "work of authentic originality and greatness" from his prolific years, the novel's philosophical investigation of race itself has suffered critical disregard. With its major attention to the author's explicit or implicit self-expression, the prevailing political approach to the novel predicates itself upon a rather simplistic question of whether, and to what degree, the character of Gavin Stevens represents Faulkner. Observing that "Stevens clearly echoes many of the author's recorded sentiments," Carl Dimitri identifies one with the other and attributes Stevens's inconsistency on racial equality to Faulkner's own inconsistency: "It is a testimony to the confused nature of Faulkner's stance on civil rights, as well as to the confused nature of Intruder in the Dust itself, that Stevens contradicts [himself on] these sentiments" (21). In contrast, while admitting their shared moderate conservatism, Noel Polk emphasizes there is "plenty of distance between Gavin Stevens and William Faulkner" (143), between the hypocritical character "so completely wedded, even if he does not know it, to the status quo" and the author whose "concern was consistently with the individual Negro" (141). Pointing to a middle ground, John E. Bassett describes Faulkner's attitude toward Stevens as "identification mixed with self-irony" (212). However, resorting to the same framework which reduces their relationship to identification, opposition, or in-between and, in so doing, presupposes a "politicizably" unproblematical, monolithic notion of race, Bassett misses Faulkner's socioepistemological inquiry into race itself--an inquiry made through his characters' ideologically charged practices. Thus, for Bassett, Intruder in the Dust conveys the novelist's message more explicitly than his preceding "great works": "In one sense the message had been implicit ever since Faulkner first considered the modes of knowing and communicating [racial blackness] in Light in August. Now in the last novel in which he confronts the issue directly, it is more explicit" (216).

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22 September
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