Maternal Community and Paternal Abandonment in Faulkner and Morrison

Posted by Ann Bradley on February 18, 2016 in Ann Bradley, Blog tagged with , , , ,

If trauma is not dealt with, recognized and communicated, then it has the potential to haunt the sufferer in the form of flashbacks. Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved go a step further than flashbacks. The individuals are haunted by living manifestations of their trauma. If those ghosts are to be exorcised however, it stands to reason that they would still need to be talked through, which requires a receptive community. The people who surround Sethe and Sutpen respectively have just as much to do with the end of the novel as the ghosts do. Their reactions to the spectres and the haunted determine the amount of hope present at the end of the novels. Like the endings themselves, the social bodies of the novels stand in stark contrast. Indeed, in Absalom, Absalom! there is no feminine South. The novel, “mockingly subvertts the possibility of a matriarchy within the existing southern culture.” Judith, Clytie, Ellen, Rosa and Milyoknapatawpha-maply all, “cross Sutpen’s threshold only by virtue of birthright […] or because they are necessary components to his design” (Hogan 178). As only objects to be used by males, these women do not hold power enough in the community to absolve the South of its sins.

In Sutpen’s design, women are incidental, so not even Rosa’s love of Bon or Judith’s attempt to memorialize him can bury the ghost. Thomas Sutpen lives in a world in which, “the ones who owned the objects not only could look down on the ones that didn’t, but could be supported in the down-looking not only by the others who owned objects too but by the very ones that were looked down on that didn’t own objects and knew they never would” (Faulkner 221). Sutpen’s South is a land in which the only thing that matters is ownership. Consequently, his home is not a communal one, as 124 is, and he has no community that would or could come to his aid. In a male-centric region all of those around him are equally concerned with themselves and blind to the fact that Charles Bon represents the very fallacy of their ideals. The male community of the

The biggest difference between the trauma described in Beloved and that depicted in Faulkner’s novel is the personal connection it holds with the communities. Sethe is not the only slave woman who has had to deal with rationing the love of her children. Baby Suggs, too, has lost most of her children in the course of her life. The thirty women who make the trek to 124 Bluestone Road to exorcise Beloved see, “not Denver sitting on the steps, but themselves” (Morrison 304). They are personally connected with the house, with the family, and with Sethe’s trauma. Morrison’s novel suggests not only the uniqueness of the plight of black women, but of their capacity to come together and to heal their sorrows through their intimate connection with one another’s stories. In contrast, the pain imbedded in Southern history is not the pain of the patriarchal community of Yoknapatawpha County, but of the women and slaves who are sacrificed to construct the white, male vision of the South. It is not what Sutpen has endured, but what others have endured for him. What the novel depicts is not a white male trauma. Because the masculine community cannot understand the root of the trauma, they are unable to heal it. Matrilineal connections, as is evident with Beloved, are able to bring about some form of resolution, while the patriarchal structure dooms the South to a prideful destruction.

The involvement of the community in Beloved means that the trauma and haunting in the text has been dealt with to some extent. The lack of intervention in Faulkner’s novel leaves the South in a limbo of denial, surrounded by ghosts. That being said, both novels end with some degree of ambiguity. Shreve asks Quentin why he hates the South and Quentin is left to vehemently deny that he does, panting in his effort to convince himself, “I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!” (Faulkner 378). When Sethe is told that she is her own “best thing” she is left to question, “Me? Me?” (Morrison 322). Toni Morrison’s ending might not bring about complete closure, but in Sethe’s question there is hope that she might realize her own self-worth. Beloved also leaves Denver more confident, out of the house and engaging with the world. Denver provides a positive image of the future. Absalom’s ending however, is far less optimistic. The fact remains that Quentin does hate the South, that he has now brought its story northward, perpetuating the trauma. The remaining Sutpen is Jim Bond, who is far from a positive figure. The future is as dim as the past because the future is the past. Time is transitory, history is now.

Gothic literature deals with history and anxieties, which are inexorably linked with trauma. Southern Gothic focuses on the particular horror of slavery, which is traumatic for the nation and for those it personally impacted. In Gothic texts, the hauntings of the past are made corporeal. Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved both navigate the paradoxes of haunting and trauma, though the differences in the ghosts and the communities involved bring the two novels to diverging conclusions. Beloved is an expression of excess maternal love. This uniquely feminine quality is what allows Beloved to mend the pain of her mother. Charles Bon on the other hand is a manifestation of paternal abandonment, of the absence of fatherly love. Bon represents a void in Southern society, and voids have no power to heal. The Southern male community does not heed Charles Bon’s presence. In contrast, the female community around Sethe comes together in their shared trauma to expel the haunting. Thus the community, and Sethe are allowed to heal. At the same time as expressing nearly uncommunicable horrors of the past, Toni Morrison offers hope for the future. The end of Faulkner’s novel provides a bleaker outlook, but without doubt both novels illustrate the powerful echoes of past horrors and the ramifications of the nation’s traumatic past.

References

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! London: Vintage, 1995. Print.

Hogan, Michael. “Built on the Ashes: The Fall of the House of Sutpen and Rise of the House of Sethe.” Unflinching Gaze: Morrison and Faulkner Re-envisioned. Ed. Carol A. Kolmerten, Stephen M. Ross, and Judith Bryant Wittenberg. Jackson: U of       Mississippi, 1997. 167-80. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. London: Vintage Classic, 2007. Print.

Yoknapatawpha County. N.d. Oxford, Mississippi. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.

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