A Mysterious Heart: ‘Passing’ and the Narrative Enigma in Faulkner’s “Light in August” and “Absalom, Absalom!”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-07-13 00:29Z by Steven

A Mysterious Heart: ‘Passing’ and the Narrative Enigma in Faulkner’s “Light in August” and “Absalom, Absalom!”

Amerikastudien / American Studies
Volume 58, Number 1, 2013
pages 51-78

Marta Puxan-Oliva
Department of Modern Language and Literatures and English Studies
University of Barcelona , Barcelona, Spain

This essay argues that William Faulkner’s Light in August and Absalom, Absalom! use the device of the narrative enigma to effectively tell stories in which the cultural practice of ‘passing for white‘ in the United States under the Jim Crow system is strongly suggested. The secret is the essential feature of the social practice of passing, which makes the construction of the plot around a narrative enigma especially suitable. By not resolving the narrative enigma, the novels not only preserve the secret of the supposed ‘passers,’ but construct a narrative that departs from the most important conventions of the so-called genre of the passing novel. The truly modernist narrative strategy of placing an unresolved mystery to drive the plot even allows Faulkner to go a step further: the narrative can portray the Southern white fear of passing with even more significance than the actual act of passing itself. It is precisely the fact that the main characters, Joe Christmas and Charles Bon, have uncertain blood origins that allows and even urges the white community of Jefferson to build a story set only upon conjecture along established racial patterns. Therefore, the effect of the narrative enigma is twofold: it retains the racialization of the story and preserves the secret of the passers, while ambiguously uncovering the false grounds upon which the fear of miscegenation constructs and maintains racial boundaries.

He passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart, forgotten. unforgiven, and excessively romantic.
Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

Sometimes literature illuminates in a striking way the emotional and historical effects that contemporary social practices—no longer operative today—had in the past, providing an understanding that an analysis from the viewpoint of our transformed, contemporary societies cannot offer. This is the case with the practice of ‘passing’ in the United States, and with the series of novels that constitute what has been labeled the passing novel genre. Joel Williamson defines ‘passing’ as “crossing the race line and winning acceptance as white in the white world” (100). Movement in the opposite direction is less common. Even though the practice survives—broadened to include gender passing, but still primarily denoting racial or ethnic mobility—the force and historical function that passing for white had during the Jim Crow period, which peaks in the late nineteenth century and the interwar period, perished with the end of segregation. Viewed as a genre, the…

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