There has been a lot of ink spilled on the comparison’s between Toni Morrison’s novels and William Faulkner’s novels and justifiably so. Both have written stories about Americans dealing with the American problem of race relations. Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” and Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom! ” are two such novels that contain many similar elements. Both novels are about young men or relatively young men (Milkman is 31 when he begins his quest) who try to put together a family’s past.
The novels also share certain similarities between certain characters and in narrative structure, but within these similarities come differences that separate the authors from each other. The differences stem from their perspective on what the legacy of the American South should be. The most striking similarity in the two novels is the characters Clytie from “Absalom, Absalom! ” and Circe from “Song of Solomon”. Clytie is the result of Thomas Sutpen’s affair with one of his slaves and her place is the runner of the Sutpen household. Clytie, not inept, anything but inept: perverse inscrutable and paradox: free, yet incapable of freedom who had never once called herself a slave, holding fidelity to not like the indolent and solitary wolf or bear (yes, wild: half-untamed black, half Sutpen blood: and if ‘untamed’ be synonymous with ‘wild’, then ‘Sutpen’ is the silent unsleeping viciousness of the tamer’s lash)…” (AA pg 126) Circe was the midwife for the town of Dannville and she ran the household for the Butler family until they all died. “Birthed just about everybody in the county, I did.
Never lost one either. Never lost nobody but your mother. Well grandmother, I guess she was. Now I birth dogs. ”(SoS pg 243) She is described by Milkman as “…the face so old it could not be alive, but because of the toothless mouth came the strong, mellifluent voice of a twenty-year-old girl. ” (SoS pg 240) Compare this with Quentin’s physical description of Clytie, “…woman not much bigger than a monkey and who might have been any age up to ten thousand years…” (AA pg. 174) and you begin to see that Morrison intended for Circe to be her response to Faulkner’s Clytie.
Both characters on the surface are the same; the difference between them and the differences in Morrison’s and Faulkner’s perspectives comes out of their motivation for continuing to hold down the households of their dead white masters. Clytie’s life is devoted to the continuation of Thomas Sutpen’s grand design. “…for the sake of the family which no longer existed, whose here-to-fore inviolate and rotten mausoleum she still guarded…(AA pg. 280) Her devotion was so complete that she decided to sell the store for two hundred dollars to buy the headstones for the Sutpen family.
Even though she was starving and could have used the money on food live she paid the money. So complete that she decided to burn down the mansion, killing herself in one last act of devotion in order to keep Henry Sutpen from being arrested for the killing of Charles Bon. Clytie, who along with Dilsey from the “Sound and the Fury” are seen from Faulkner’s view as being blacks who know nothing but service and hospitality towards their white masters. Baldwin said it better in his essay “Faulkner and Desegregation”, “That some---not nearly as many as Faulkner would like to believe---
Southern Negroes prefer, or are afraid of changing, the status quo does not negate t he fact that it is the Southern Negro himself who, year upon year, and generation upon generation has kept the Southern waters troubled. ” (Baldwin pg 209) Circe’s life was about giving others life by being a mid-wife at all their births and when the Butlers took over the property and died one by one, her life took on another meaning. “They loved it. Stole for it, lied for it, killed for it. But I’m the one left. Me and the dogs. And I will never clean it again.
Never. Nothing. Not a speck of dust, not a grain of dirt, will I move. Everything in this world they lived for will crumble and rot. ” (SoS pg 247) I read “Absalom, Absalom! ” first and when I came to this paragraph in “Song of Solomon” I got chills. Morrison uses Circe’s voice in such a powerful way that it is startling to read. Circe had been described as dainty and having the voice of a twenty year old girl and to hear her spit fire is quite a shock. It certainly feels like Morrison is giving us Clytie’s real voice from her point of view in Circe.
There seems to be too much anger and pent up emotion for Morrison to be entirely truthful when self-critiquing herself in the following quote: “…I was so fascinated, technically. It is technically just astonishing. As a reader you have been forced to hunt for a drop of blood that means everything and nothing. The insanity of racism. So the structure is the argument. Not what this one says, or that one says. It is the structure of the book, and you are hunting this black thing that is nowhere to be found, and yet makes all the difference.
No one has done anything quite like that ever. So, when I critique, what I am saying is, I don't care if Faulkner is a racist or not; I don't personally care, but I am fascinated by what it means to write like this. ” (Toni Morrison and William Faulkner: The Necessity of a Great American Novelist, Larry Schwartz) Morrison says she doesn’t care if Faulkner was a racist or not and I believe her. I don’t think she cares what one white guy’s racial views are on the black race. But what I don’t believe is her willingness to let history be written by that white guy. Morrison rites “Perhaps this woman is Circe. But Circe is dead. This woman is alive. ” (SoS pg 240) and I think what Morrison is getting at is that Circe is her revision Clytie. Could Faulkner have observed growing-up slaves like Clytie? Sure, but it’s from his point of view and from Morrison’s point of view Clytie never truly existed. Another key difference between the two is that Morrison allows Circe to tell part of the story. Clytie is only talked about and she never gets to interpret the past from her perspective. Clytie is provided by Quentin, Miss Rosa, Quentin’s father, etc.
Clytie is described through action (burning down the house, staying on the property all those years, buying the tombstones) but we are never allowed access into her mind. And why are we not allowed into Clytie’s? To answer that question I think you have to ask another question; is her voice important to what Faulkner was trying to accomplish? Faulkner uses the Sutpen’s as an allegory for the destruction of Southern plantation life which is presented as an inevitable result stemming from “America’s greatest sin”. Faulkner is presenting history from the white perspective, which is in no way a new development.
Morrison is right when she says “Absalom, Absalom! ” is the hunt for a drop of blood that means everything and nothing. And from Faulkner’s point of view I believe he thinks the drop of blood means everything and nothing, but it means everything and nothing only to white people. Does Clytie’s thought and voice matter in “Absalom, Absalom! ”? No, but the Clytie’s in the history of America do matter and that’s why Toni Morrison wrote the character Circe. In Margaret Donovan Bauer’s book “William Faulkner’s Legacy” she also pairs “Song of Solomon” and “Absalom, Absalom! and comes to the contention that both novels deal with epistemological issues facing the two protagonists. For Quentin and Milkman the search for the past and its effect on their current selves is the driving force behind both novels. I would agree with Bauer on this contention, but she doesn’t go into detail about why both the characters go on this search for the past, which shows key differences between the authors. The way Quentin and Milkman begin each of searches for the past are quite different. Milkman has to earn the right seek the past. He must go on an odyssey in a way to be able to regain the legacy of his people.
At the start of the odyssey Milkman is still his father’s son and he is after the gold that Pilate allegedly left in the cave. There may be some interest in seeing where his father grew-up, but his primary motivation was to seek out the gold. In order to break away from his father’s “white ways” he has to reclaim his “blackness”. Quentin on the other hand is summoned by Miss Rosa to hear the story of Thomas Sutpen. The past is readily available to Quentin, his family’s past and the past of other members of Yoknapatawpha County. It’s readily available because of what he was born into.
He doesn’t have to earn the right to interpret the past as Milkman did. Quentin was born with the right and the position to seek the past. The right to seek the past seen in these two books seems to ask the question: whose history is it? Delving into my ancestors history I can trace it all the way back to Ireland, but if I were a black American that search would most likely lead me to my great-great-great grandfathers owner. Milkman’s time came when he could actually trace back to free generations of his people and even then he finds that the past is hidden from him.
He has to unearth it. Quentin is just a question away, is just an attic visit away from looking at letters his ancestors wrote, and is just a walk down the street to find out his history. History is his even if he wants it or not. “It was a day of listening too---the listening, the hearing in 1909 even yet mostly that which he already knew since he had been born in and still breathed the same air in which church bells had rung on that Sunday morning in 1833…The ladies and children and house negroes to carry the parasols and flywhisks…” (A.
A. pg. 23) The last quote is the third person narrator in “Absalom, Absalom! ” and not Quentin’s voice, but its one of the few times in the novel where Faulkner reveals Quentin without dialogue. It comes at the beginning of chapter two when Quentin is waiting to head out to Sutpen’s Hundred with Miss Rosa, before he witnesses first hand the horror and destruction of the Sutpen Dynasty, before his whole view of the South’s past comes crashing down and what ultimately helps lead to his suicide in “The Sound and the Fury”.
This is the key difference between the two main characters and the two books. Quentin’s quest leads to the destruction of himself, while Milkman’s quest leads him to rebirth. On the last page of “Absalom, Absalom! ” Shreve asks Quentin the question “Why do you hate the south? ” Quentin responds with “I don’t hate it” saying it over and over again, trying convince himself. Faulkner leaves the characters fates to be determined by the social system they live by, a system that breeds human tragedy from both sides of the racial barrier.
Faulkner admits the system was inhuman and couldn’t possibly continue. James Baldwin addresses this the moral quandary of being a white Southerner, “…the Southerner clings to two entirely antithetical doctrines, two legends, two histories…And so compelling is the image of ruin, gallantry and death thus evoked that it demands a positive effort of the imagination to remember that slaveholding Southerners were not the only people who perished in that war. ” (Baldwin, Faulkner and Desegregation) Quentin’s dilemma is the destruction of the history he had once held so high.
Once he sees “…the wasted yellow face” (AA, pg 298) of Henry Sutpen and the burning of the Sutpen house his whole world, the world he thought he was living in comes burning down. Milkman’s journey leads him to a completely opposite conclusion about the past and what it means to his life. In Shalimar Milkman unconsciously separates himself from the poor folks in Solomon’s store, “They looked with hatred at the city Negro who could buy a car as if it were a bottle of whiskey…He hadn’t bothered to say his name, nor ask theirs, had called them “them”…” (pg. 66) It takes a knife fight for Milkman to be respected enough to be asked on a hunting trip, which is where Milkman finally sees himself with a certain clairvoyance that he has lacked with his privileged upbringing: “He didn’t deserve…It sounded old. Deserve. Old and tired and beaten to death…He’d told Guitar that he didn’t ‘deserve’ his family’s dependence, hatred, or whatever…Nor did he ‘deserve’ Hagar’s vengeance. But why shouldn’t his parents tell him their personal problems? If not him, then who?
And if a stranger could try to kill him, surely Hagar, who knew him and whom he’d thrown away like a wad of chewing gum after the flavor was gone---she had a right to try to kill him too. ” (SoS pg 276-277) After the hunt Milkman finds himself at the home of a woman named Sweet and its here where we first get a glimpse of Milkman’s new self. “He washed her hair. She sprinkled talcum on his feet. He straddled her behind and massaged her back. She put witch hazel on his swollen neck. He made up the bed. ” (SoS pg 285) Milkman reciprocates with someone for the first time in the novel.
He helps someone. The fact that Milkman has a history that can be traced back is seen as a positive in and of itself. The fact that his family’s past is also a source of pride illustrates the difference between Faulkner’s viewing the past of his people as a sin and Morrison viewing the past of her people as one of perseverance and strength. When Milkman realizes what the Song of Solomon is about his reaction is this, “... he was as excited as a child confronted with boxes and boxes of presents under the skirt of a Christmas tree. ” (SOS pg. 04)The song recounts the story of Milkman’s great-grandfather who rather than be enslaved, used his gift for flight to fly away and hearing this Milkman finally understands the tradition he was born into. He was born into the tradition of “flight” or being able to overcome and persevere no matter what circumstances. The acquisition of the past for Milkman allows him to become a better person. He takes responsibility for Hagar’s death by accepting her hair from Pilate and facing death he isn’t afraid because he now has the gift of flight. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it. ” (SoS last sentence) Milkman doesn’t fear death and death is the only thing that could cure Quentin’s pain. The past killed Quentin and it set Milkman free. Baldwin writes, “He concedes the madness and moral of the South but at the same time he raises it to the level of a mystique…” (Baldwin, Faulkner and Desegregation) The level of Mystique in “Absalom, Absalom! is personified in Thomas Sutpen. Sutpen raises himself by his bootstraps and comes out of nowhere to make his dynasty. His drive and determination to achieve his grand design is seen as a virtue in the book. “…he had long since given up any hope of ever understanding it, but trying to explain to circumstance, to fate itself, the logical steps by which he had arrived at a result absolutely and forever incredible. ” (AA pg. 212) It was fated for Sutpen if he wanted it enough and he surely wanted it enough.
But as Sutpen tells Quentin’s great grandfather “Where did I make the mistake in it? ” and it all comes back to that drop of blood. Everything was perfect except for his decision to spurn Charles Bon’s mother because of her fraction of Negro blood and in spurning this woman she sent Charles to wreck the grand design. That one mistake is what sets in motion the dominoes that lead to Clytie burning it all into dust. All the other actions the Sutpen family takes that further lead to their destruction doesn’t matter because the precedent had been set by Thomas Sutpen.
Henry killing Bon is only possible because his dad decided this blood could not be included in his design. This is where the legacy of the American South is put on the line between Morrison and Faulkner. Faulkner sees something worth saving about the old South, something worth preserving. He sees the hideousness of it, but he can’t quite come to terms with letting it all go. Morrison sees the old South the way Circe does. She wants to watch it all crumble and rot. What Morrison wants to preserve is the spirit and the strength it took to for her people to persevere through those terrible times.