The Art of a Faulkner Sentence, ala Surya and Nina


Here we go again.  Me and Nina going at it on a William Faulkner sentence.  We just might be the geekiest sentence lovers....ever!

My opening salvo:

Hi Nina,

Faulkner's As I lay Dying is a trove a beautiful and interesting sentences.  His syntax confounds!  There is so much to choose from so I thought I'd go out on a limb and try to explicate this (Forgive me Mr. Faulkner):

"Cash's face is also gravely composed; he and I look at one another with long probing looks, looks that plunge unimpeded through one another's eyes and into the ultimate secret place where for an instant Cash and Darl crouch flagrant and unabashed in all the old terror and the old foreboding, alert and secret and without shame." 

What jumps out at me are the following:  Repetition, anadiplosis, polysendeton. 

The sentence begins with a subject complement.  The phrase "gravely composed," following the "to be" verb form "is" defines the possessive noun "face."  Faulkner could have switched the phrases and written, "Gravely composed is Cash's face," but doing so creates a terrible  omission of the word "also" (such a little adverb), which establishes a time relation.   I suppose he could have interjected "also" into the phrase, but doing so would create an odd construction, and strange rhythm: "Gravely composed is also Cash's face" just doesn't sound right.  So kudos to Mr. Faulkner for his sense of rhythm and melody.  anyway, such an omission would also (pun intended) defeat the sentence of its relational significance, for example, the narrator, in this section Darl, wants to show that Cash is not the picture of strength but of hidden anxiety.  So, "also" does some real work here. 

I love the anadiplosis, "...looks, looks..." because it reveals the difference between reality and appearance to Darl.  So much of this book is about seeing, looking, perceiving, being perceived, that repeating the word mid-sentence, also points to the idea that in the middle of their journey (taking Addie Bundren's dead body across the county to bury her), it is perception of truth that Darl calls into question.  The verb "plunge" resonates with me; it foreshadows the plunge into the river where the family lose their mules. 

Interesting to note how Darl, the narrator, becomes perceived as well; his very existence is thrust into the 3rd person where he views himself from outside: "Cash and Darl crouch flagrant and unabashed..."  The sentence concludes with several repetitions of the word "old" and the conjunction "and" linking abstract ideas.  The past is ever present.  One cannot escape their heritage, their genealogy, class status, etc.  Faulkner doesn't have to say this: he shows it through the word "old."  What economy!! 

I count, after that second "look," no less than six "ands."  Hooray for polysendeton, one of my favorite schemes.  What polysyndeton (and I love saying the word) does is create a sense of linked harmony between "looks, eyes, secrets, Cash, Darl ,flagrant, unabashed, old, terror, foreboding, alert, secret, shame," a seemingly incongruous list that upon closer scrutiny reveal the deep state of Darl's mind.  The sentence that follows this, a short one, "When we speak our voices are quiet, detached" has been earned by the previous one.  And I suppose that is what this long sentence does for me: it helps establish emotion, psychology, while showing theme; it earns or proves the right for Darl's and Cash's voice to be "quiet, detached." 

There is so much more to be said. 



And Nina's response:

Hi Surya,

If this is nerdy, so be it.

What I love about this sentence is how it mimics what is happening to Cash and Darl. It opens with a base clause, and then, after the semi-colon, another base clause, “he and I look…” and then Faulkner does what he does so well, he begins to nest modifiers, modifying the looks between Darl and Cash, how they plunge into the secret place, and in that place (I feel the look burrowing in) they are, together, crouched in all the old terror and foreboding, alert and secret and without shame. So the sentence burrows through modifiers just as they are burrowing into each other.

I also really like the rhythms here—listen to the hard and soft stresses: “he and I look at one another with long probing looks...” the “long probing looks” are three hard stresses (with that soft stress associated with ‘ing’). And with those stresses, especially with ‘probing’ and the long ‘o,’ I slow way down in this sentence and look with them. Cool!

The soft stresses here, “for an instant,” and the sentence picks up speed to find the two of them crouched in this ultimate secret place. You noted “plunge,” but he also uses “flagrant”—burning, fiery hot, and also flouting of a law or morality, and soon in the story the barn will burn and the body will stink. So here, we have, just like plunge, the weaving in of words that direct us to theme.

You mentioned ‘also,’ how necessary it was for rhythm and melody. “Also” is nice assonance with “composed”—that long ‘o’ sound. Using “also” sets up a pattern of rhythm— “Cash’s face,” a hard stress and a soft stress, which is echoed with “also,” which is a hard stress and a soft.  There’s also assonance with ‘face/gravely’ and ‘plunge/unimpeded/one/another.’ Why note all this? It creates rhythm and music to the ear.

At the end of the sentence, all those long ‘o’s’ at the end also slow me down- “old/old/foreboding” so I sit, finally, with  those two in the secret place feeling the foreboding and the terror, without shame. Those hard stresses at the end ‘without shame’ (out/shame), make it sound like an act of defiance, as if they are shouting they will feel no shame, don’t make them feel it, because they won’t abide.


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