Decaying Spaces: Faulkner’s Gothic and the Construction of the National Real

Talk Delivered at the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference July 19, 2011


by Lisa Klarr

As Teresa Goddu argues, the ‘American’ gothic is usually a ‘regional term,’ referring quite specifically to the South. In the 19th Century, the region functions as a ‘repository’ for a variety of cultural anxieties having mostly to do with the moral degeneration of the nation. But amidst the industrialist fervor of the early 20th Century, Northern anxieties regarding the South begin to coalesce around the non-functional: All of the dilapidated barns, rusting tools, and slacking workers that would come to be associated with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Whereas Fredric Jameson, writing on Joyce, argues that “[t]he great modernist literature…is a city literature: its object is therefore the anti-natural, the humanized, par excellence, a landscape which is everywhere the result of human labor, in which everything—including the formerly natural, grass, trees, our own bodies, is finally produced by human beings,” we recognize that Faulkner’s modernist “landscape” is not the humanized techno-space of modernity.[i] Instead, it is a textual universe littered with decay. Faulkner’s spaces are not “anti-natural” or “humanized,” they are sites of human labor being reclaimed by nature: the ruined house, the rusty scythe, the decaying body. The ‘terror’ of Faulkner’s gothic is therefore not in his depiction of vengeful feudal lords or malevolent spirits but rather in his representation of a world in which everything (including the human body) is obsolete.

Drawing on the work of Italian literary theorist Francesco Orlando, this paper will explore how the representation of decay affects the generic classification of Faulkner’s works. Literary critics quite easily identify the majority of his fiction as being ‘gothic’ without necessarily elucidating the logic behind this classification. I will argue that since the categorization of literature often defaults to realism-mimesis as the originary mode from which all other genres deviate, many critical accounts of Faulkner tend to simply approximate how far his narration strays from “accurately” describing the real. The paradox here is that Faulkner’s narration of the “actual” decay present in his cultural landscape is often not “real” enough to be considered “realism”; it is in ‘excess’ of the real, which suggests that the real is an ideal referent containing only minimal traces of degradation. Too much decay in narrative inspires accusations of the gothic. I will therefore explore the tension in the first half of the 20th century between realism and Gothicism where, increasingly, the national ‘real’ comes to be articulated around that which is new, modern, and efficient. What we find in Faulkner, then, is a refusal of realism, or, more accurately, the impossibility of realism given his task of narration.

From the cover of Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner, 1936

Caught between a feudal past and a modern, industrial future, the decay of the South acts as a visual cipher for the geo-political status of the region during this historical era. The South is ‘post-structural’ in that where there was once structure, a closed system, a kind of perceptible totality, there is now fragmentation: the vestiges of a past still intruding upon the present. For Faulkner, the force of decay is felt most palpably through encounters with ruinous plantation houses—large grandiose buildings, the beacons of prosperity for their time—in utter disrepair. Since built space materializes the binary oppositions that give a culture its structure, the ‘decay’ of this space likewise hybridizes those cultural contradictions. Previously, the South enforced the slave system through a series of spatial codes. The Big House ordered plantation life, setting up inclusive and exclusive domains: the inside/outside of the house determining house/field status; the front/back door a site of intense socialization, as we witness in the primal scene of Absalom when Sutpen is denied entry into the front door. Thus to say that a “culture” is in decay is to indicate that all of its physical-conceptual aspects: its spatial components (house, farm, plantation), its relational systems (slavery, feudalism, patriarchy), its collective imaginaries (myth, story, narrative) are losing cohesion. They are being divested of their structuring power. 

Like many of Faulkner’s works, Flags in the Dust is replete with spaces in decay. In an otherwise unremarkable moment, Young Bayard Sartoris passes in front of a barn, the doors of which “sagged drunkenly from broken hinges, held to the posts with twists of rusty wire.”[ii] There is no indication as to why this building is in disrepair; it could simply be that the ravages of nature have compromised its structure. But “decay” is hardly ever neutral for Faulkner; instead, it tends to signify the inscription of a historical event coded as “natural.” Later we learn that the Sartorises are one of many families being supplanted by mechanization: “[t]here was a hitching-post there, which old Bayard retained with a testy disregard of industrial progress.”[iii] Like Steinbeck, the threat is close—mechanical tractors already raze the land. In this text, the movement between obsolescence and decay is historical to natural; modernity judges the traditional farmer to be obsolete, and, without maintenance, the farm rapidly decays. Since many of the sites of ruin in Faulkner have historical antecedents—the barn reflects the shift to industrialized farming; Sutpen’s Hundred is the result of numerous historical lapses (the most significant occurring during the Civil War)—the servant Simon’s lament over the “gent’mun’s proper equipage” going to “rack and ruin in de barn” illustrates how the process of mourning becomes intellectual, a recognition that the shifting of productive energies away from Southern materialities causes these spaces to lapse.[iv]

As the ‘spatial codes’ of the culture give way to the natural forces of rust and decay, they open up new sites of occupation and trespass. Sanctuary, for example, is set in the Old Frenchman Place. The ruinous house becomes the scene of a brutal rape, an act of “unnatural” sexual transgression with a corncob. In the first description we receive of the house, before we know the source of the narration, Faulkner gives us a sense of historical passage: “The house was a gutted ruin rising gaunt and stark out of a grove of unpruned cedar trees. It was a landmark, known as the Old Frenchman place, built before the Civil War.”[v] The house is a “landmark,” a monument to the antebellum South. It is possible that it is in decay because of the Civil War, but unlike the decaying railroad tracks in The Unvanquished, this is less a reflection on the glories of the past and more of a mediation on the sterile nature of the present, a sterility underscored by Popeye’s own impotence. In Temple’s first description, “It was set in a ruined lawn, surrounded by abandoned grounds and fallen outbuildings. But no where was any sign of husbandry—plow or tool; in no direction was a planted field in sight—only a gaunt weatherstained ruin in a somber grove through which the breeze drew with a sad, murmurous sound,” Faulkner highlights the lack of labor being infused into the dwelling.[vi] The inhabitants are bootleggers during Southern prohibition. There is no upkeep; it is solely a space of transgression. In the cracks of the rotting house, beneath loose floorboards and in the barn, they hide their stash.

In the complex cartography of Faulkner’s South, these spaces of trespass forcefully destabilize earlier socio-spatial relations. The Old Frenchman Place is the site of Popeye’s rape of Temple with the corncob. The Burden Place is the locus of illicit sexual encounters between the Northern white Joanna Burden and the bi-racial, or at least racially ambiguous, Joe Christmas. Sutpen’s Hundred is the setting for any number of heinous crimes ranging from murder to kidnap. The townspeople neither visit the Burden home nor the Old Frenchman Place nor Sutpen’s Hundred. These are the “repressed spaces” of the post-Reconstruction landscape, the “haunted” sites into which the average inhabitant does not venture. What was taboo in the earlier system finds expression in these liminal zones, a liminality again borne out of the loosening of a once-rigid socio-economic structure. In Absalom! Absalom, this ‘loosening’ proves to have metaphysical consequences as well. When Quentin and Miss Rosa go to Sutpen’s Hundred at the end of the novel, Faulkner gives us the following description of the decaying manse: “It loomed, bulked, square and enormous, with jagged half-toppled chimneys, its roofline sagging a little…Quentin saw completely through it a ragged segment of sky with three hot stars in it as if the house were of one dimension, painted on a canvas curtain in which there was a tear.”[vii] This passage suggests that the ruin produces a tear in the fabric of reality; that physical ‘decay’ of the South likewise results in the ‘decay’ of Southern realist ontology.

Map of Yoknapatawpha County, drawn by William Faulkner, for The Portable Faulkner, 1946

While Faulkner never explicitly calls himself a Gothic writer—the only time I’ve ever come across his use of the term is to describe the architectural style of Sutpen’s Hundred—the presence of decay in his textual landscape seems to motivate the assigning of his texts to this generic category. In the early criticism of his work, Henry Nash Smith (1932) calls Faulkner a “lyrical novelist” because the “opulence of his descriptions” and his obsession with “decay and insanity” outstrip the bounds of realism.[viii] Edwin Muir, writing on As I Lay Dying, notes the “presence of a very-deep seated obsession” in Faulkner, citing as evidence the fact that the “character in which he shows the most interest is the corpse.”[ix] The literary effect of this obsession is “not horror but disgust,” a label that positions Faulkner closer to the gothic than the real.[x] It is exactly because of the author’s “obsessional preoccupation with corpses and decay” that Bernard De Voto (1936) places Faulkner firmly in the gothic canon. Faulkner’s popularizer Malcolm Cowley (1936) likewise argues that “[a]mong all the empty and witless tags attached to living American authors, perhaps the most misleading is that of Southern Realist as applied to William Faulkner.”[xi] Instead, Cowley assigns him to the gothic, highlighting as proof Faulkner’s “violence…[as] an expression of a whole society which the author sincerely loves and hates and which he perceives to be in a state of catastrophic decay.”[xii] 

Some of these literary-critical designations rely upon more sensational markers of the gothic (violence, corpses, insanity), but I’m trying to argue that at this historical moment critics assign Faulkner’s texts to the gothic as a symptom of cultural anxiety over the status of the real.[xiii] Francesco Orlando flags this shift in his Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination, marking the industrial revolution as a moment at which images of obsolescence begin to proliferate in literary works.[xiv] His thesis is Freudian: the presence of non-functional objects in literature is a compromise-formation, an inverse relation where the more new commodities in actuality, the more non-functional objects (and spaces) in the textual work.[xv] His method, however, is structuralist: he seeks to build a classificatory system that explains how the presence of obsolete objects in literary texts produces generic categories. To apply Orlando’s thesis to Faulkner, it would seem that the new functional objects penetrating his landscape are decidedly Northern: the gramophone, the automobile, the plane. But this does not mean that the non-functional objects in Faulkner’s oeuvre have, in actuality, ceased to exist. Rather, in dealing with the presence of decay in his physical environment, Faulkner seems to incorporate these spaces into his textual landscape as a formal exorcism of ruin. Regardless, Orlando’s most salient discovery is that the very presence of these objects in the content of literature affects the work’s formal properties. This is the hidden link between decay and genre, between literary form and the objects it articulates.

For the purposes of this paper, I’m primarily interested in how Orlando’s system differentiates the ‘gothic’ from the ‘real.’ For what he calls the ‘worn-realistic,’ his taxonomy requires the recognition of history, making the decaying space the textual place at which the realistic work encodes the passage of time. For the ‘sterile-noxious’ (the gothic), the story provides scant reference to the historical, economic, or natural forces that may have shaped the area.[xvi] When Young Bayard Sartoris returns to his home after the First World War, all he sees is ruination: “Beyond the bordering weeds a fence straggled in limp dilapidation, and from the weeds beside it the handles of a plow stood at a gaunt angle while its implements rusted half-concealed there—skeletons of labor healed over by the earth they were to have violated, kinder than they” (130).[xvii] Cut off from a ‘redemptive’ historical narrative, the Young Sartoris is a presentist character. The black servant Simon is not; he bears witness to a past aristocratic legacy and is thus living in the ‘worn-realistic.’ The difference in perception between these two characters is perhaps what accounts for the multi-generic feel of Faulkner’s texts, as it is the focalization and not simply the narration of decay that determines a work’s genre. While at the end of Flags in the Dust, Simon looks forward to the glorious return of the Southern aristocracy (which, strangely enough, would herald the return of slavery), Bayard kills himself in an airplane. For the WWI vet, the decaying estate forecloses the possibility of futurity, a point that links this text to Sartre’s observation that “Faulkner’s despair seems…to precede his metaphysics. For him…the future is closed…suffocation and a world dying of age.’”[xviii]

In the 19th Century, authors like Dickens and Balzac depicted the decaying and the obsolete as a means by which to index literary reality. Orlando notes how in these novels “[t]he time it has taken the plant life to grow, the building to become run down, and the clothing to wear out is of an average length that the reader’s sense of reality easily grasps; it is indeterminable precisely inasmuch as it is verisimilar.’[xix] But in the early 20th Century there is an inversion of this aesthetic principle as the gothic begins to signify the dated while realism begins to signify the new. The visual culture of the 1930s replicates this logic in magazines like Fortune and Life, whose juxtapositions of images of Southern agrarian culture next to new commodities posit an overt narrative of progress. The economist Bernard London makes this narrative quite explicit, complaining in 1932 how: “‘People everywhere are today disobeying the law of obsolescence. They are using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected.’”[xx] In positing Planned Obsolescence as a solution to the Depression, he suggests having a ‘mandated’ or ‘legislated’ ‘death’ of the decaying objects that littered the US (and, in particular, the Southern) landscape: “ ‘these things would be legally ‘dead’ and would be controlled by the duly appointed governmental agency and destroyed if there was widespread unemployment.’”[xxi] This example illustrates the industrialist desire to fashion a national landscape entirely out of the new, but more than this, it underscores the need to reread genre in terms of the cultural work it does within a larger economy of spaces.[xxii]

That the gothic functions not just as an aesthetic category but as a social-political one as well is evident in a progressive reading of Faulkner’s work by the Marxist critic V.F. Calvert (1938), who writes that Faulkner “is dealing with a people who are inferior to all other Americans, who are living in a state of intellectual barbarism which is infra-medieval.”[xxiii] He asserts that all of the characters are “nothing more than the sick, stinking backwash of a dead but still rotting civilization.”[xxiv] Interestingly, Calvert bases his assessment of the South directly on Faulkner’s own textual representations as they offer him the perfect example of the need to “progress” symbolically and materially away from an agrarian (and by implication) Southern past. Faulkner responds to this type of criticism (although not to Calvert directly) in his “Letter to a Northern Editor” (1956), writing “[t]he rest of the United States knows next to nothing about the South. The present idea and picture which they hold of a people decadent and even obsolete through inbreeding and illiteracy…is as baseless and illusory as that one a generation ago of (oh yes we ascribed to it to) columned porticoes and magnolias.”[xxv] Historically, the ‘gothic’ has been a site of literary ‘quarantine,’ a critical category into which the repressed topoi of the imagination have flowed.[xxvi] From the assessment WJV Hoffmann gives of Southern writers in 1935: “The literary editor is capsized by the thought that someone can put words together in such a place,” we recognize that it is a spatial quarantine as well.[xxvii]


[i]  Jameson, Fredric. “Ulysses in History.” James Joyce and Modern Literature. Eds. W.J. McCormack and Alistair Stead. London: Routledge, 1982. 130.

[ii] Faulkner, William. Flags in the Dust. New York: Random House, 1973. 123

[iii] Ibid. 7

[iv] Ibid. 103

[v] Faulkner, William. Sanctuary. New York, Vintage, 1993: 8.

[vi] Ibid. 41

[vii] Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage, 1990: 293.

[viii]  Basset, John. William Faulkner: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1975.

[ix]  Ibid. 99-100

[x] Ibid. 100. I would argue that both ‘horror’ and ‘disgust’ are markers of the gothic since they elicit similar visceral reactions, i.e. recoil.

[xi] Ibid. 202

[xii] Basset, John. William Faulkner: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1975: 205 and 207.

[xiii]  Wright, Timothy. “Faulkner.” Email to the Author. July 25, 2011.

[xiv] Orlando, Francesco. Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

[xv] Orlando’s thesis also supports the “inverse” reading I am forwarding. In particular, he takes Marx’s proposition: “ ‘The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself [at first sight] as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’” and replaces two words to reach this counter-formulation: “The literature of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself at first sight as ‘an immense accumulation of anticommodities.

[xvi] Orlando’s category of the “sinister-terrifying” also approximates the gothic but inclusion into it requires a story to unfold in a supernatural order.

[xvii] Faulkner, William. Flags in the Dust. New York: Random House, 1973. 122-123.

[xviii] Sartre, Jean Paul. “On The Sound and the Fury.” Literary and Philosophical Essays. New York: Criterion Books, 1955. 87.

[xix] Orlando, Francesco. Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006: 111.

[xx] Slade, Giles. Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006: 74.

[xxi] Ibid. 74

[xxii] Wright, Timothy. “Faulkner.” Email to the Author. July 25, 2011.

[xxiii] Basset, John. William Faulkner: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1975: 224.

[xxiv]  Ibid. 224-225

[xxv] Faulkner, William and James B. Meriwether. Essays, Speeches & Public Letters. New York: Random House, 2004: 88.

[xxvi] Goddu, Teresa. Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997:

[xxvii] Basset, John. William Faulkner: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1975: 174.

About the Author:

Lisa Klarr received her Bachelor of Arts in English and French from the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Master of Arts in English from Georgetown University. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in the Program in Literature at Duke University where she is an advanced graduate student. Her research interests include 20th Century American Literature and Culture with particular emphasis on how the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial society affects the aesthetic, social, and political imaginary of the US. Her dissertation “Useless: The Aesthetics of Obsolescence in 20th Century U.S. Culture” seeks to interrogate how ‘obsolescence’ is one of the dominant cultural logics of the 20th Century; in particular, the project explores how the presence of ‘obsolete objects’ in literary and artistic works produce aesthetic ‘effects’ like the ‘gothic’ and the ‘science fictional’. Klarr is also Co-Editor of Polygraph: An International Journal of Culture and Politics, Issue 22: Ecology and Ideology (Fall 2010) and a HASTAC scholar, where she blogs about digital materialism.