In society, there exists a perpetual conflict between what individuals desire and what is required for maintaining homogeneity and order within the group. William Faulkner examines this phenomenon in his literary works, focusing on its influence on motherhood. In the novels ‘The Sound and the Fury’, ‘Absalom, Absalom!’, and ‘Light in August’, Faulkner depicts motherhood as a burden due to the often conflicting interests of personal goals and societal expectations. Through his portrayal of ineffectual women, Faulkner asserts that it is detrimental for women to either reject or conform out of obligation to the societal expectations of motherhood. In ‘The Sound and the Fury’, Mrs. Compson’s lack of affection for her children, stemming from her apathetic view on motherhood, results in the complete breakdown of her family. In ‘Absalom, Absalom!’, Rosa Coldfield rejects Thomas Sutpen’s hand in marriage after she discovers that she must bear him a son, casting away the idea of motherhood and spending the rest of her existence as a bitter spinster. In ‘Light in August’, Lena Grove, outcasted and abandoned after giving birth, is condemned both for having a child out of wedlock and for attempting to find the father. With these unconventional women, Faulkner contends that the dissonance between personal and societal ideologies prevents the healthy development of relationships and fosters self-destructive behavior. Moreover, he demonstrates that societal expectations are ultimately a burden, as the rigidity causes transgressions to be inevitable, leading to a more unstable and tumultuous society rather than a more regulated one.
Mrs. Compson personifies this dissonance in ‘The Sound and the Fury’, as she views motherhood as a mere societal expectation needed to maintain her family’s reputation, resulting in a lack of affection towards her children and the ultimate disintegration of her family. Mrs. Compson describes her mentally challenged son, Benjy, stating that he “was punishment enough for any sins I have committed… for putting aside my pride and marrying a man who held himself above me”. However, she still “loved him above all of them because of it because it was [her] duty” (Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, 87). Although Mrs. Compson claims to “love” Benjy, there is no evidence to suggest that she exhibits it in any way. To her, loving her children is merely a “duty”: a way to maintain the Compson family’s reputation as a traditional Southern aristocratic family. Of course, the disintegration of a family does not stem from the failure to love a single child, Benjy. It stems from her failure in loving all of her children. Phyllis Ann Bunnell, at the University of North Texas, recognizes Mrs. Compson’s role in the disintegration of the Compson family and lays the majority of the blame on her.
The basic cause of the breakup of the Compson family is the cold and self-centered mother who is sensitive about the social status of her own family, the Bascombs, who feels the birth of an idiot son as a kind of personal affront, who spoils and corrupts her favorite son, and who withholds any real love and affection from her other children and her husband (118).
Mrs. Compson gives birth to four children, Jason, Quentin, Benjy, and Caddy. While she idolizes Jason for having traits of a “Bascomb”, her maiden family, she seems indifferent towards Quentin, unaffectionate towards Benjy, and hostile towards Caddy for her promiscuity and running away from home. Throughout his whole life, Jason neither wants nor returns Mrs. Compson’s affection, merely exploiting her for her power of attorney as he cheats her out of large amounts of money. He delights in beating his niece, Miss Quentin; continually ostracizes his sister, Caddy; and passes time by thinking of ways to agonize the family cook, Dilsey. Jason is the most self absorbed, amoral, and materialistic person in the novel, a man who takes pleasure in perversity for its own sake. Through “spoiling” and “corrupting” her most despicable child, Mrs. Compson not only encourages perverseness and immoral behavior, but inadvertently exacerbates the breakdown of her family. Aggravated by Jason’s continuous abuse, Miss Quentin runs off with a carnival entertainer: a final act which shatters the already dysfunctional Compson family.
Miss Quentin’s departure, nevertheless, cannot be attributed to Jason’s abusive nature alone. Her complications ultimately stemmed from the actions of Mrs. Compson, who attempts to prevent her granddaughter, from “growing up never knowing that she had a mother” (Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, 190). Due to her promiscuity and her birth of an illegitimate daughter, Caddy was shunned by her family, especially her mother. By having a child out of wedlock, Caddy fails to fulfill the societal expectation of becoming a mother only after marriage. However, this nonconformity is not beneficial. It develops from years of apathetic parenting from Mrs. Compson and ultimately forces Caddy to relinquish custody of her daughter back into the grasp of her mother: continuing the cycle of ineffectual mothers. In essence, motherhood and affection come hand in hand. Thus, if Mrs. Compson views affection as an inescapable obligation, it is highly probable that these feelings are mutual with motherhood, highlighting her lack of conviction for becoming a mother in the first place.
Moreover, due to the maternal expectations set by religion, Mrs. Compson feels the need to conform and become a mother. A self-proclaimed “troublesome old woman”, she believes that motherhood, as well as other social norms intrinsic to the South, is mandated by a higher being, which “people cannot flout… with impunity” (Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, 132). After the Civil War, Reconstruction devastated the once-great Southern aristocracy as well as its morals and traditions. Mrs. Compson clings to these societal ideologies in an apparent effort to maintain a sense of greatness that is now long gone. She becomes self-absorbed in her beliefs, taking on motherhood as an obligation instead of a desire, thus lacking the affection needed to rear upstanding children. At the end of the day, her attempts to maintain her own status through motherhood results in her offspring becoming completely unprepared for the realities of the modern world: a key factor in the downfall of the Compson dynasty. The rigidity of maternal expectations compels Mrs. Compson to start a family even though she doesn’t want to, which is characterized by her apathetic parenting. Her inadequacy as a mother, which stems from her conforming out of obligation, ultimately leads to the suicide of Quentin, the ostracization of Caddy and her daughter, and the perverseness of Jason. The Compson family disintegrates due to the lack of a strong, affectionate mother figure motivated by personal desire rather than societal expectations.
In ‘Absalom, Absalom!’, Rosa Coldfield, who is briefly engaged to Thomas Sutpen, resists traditional maternal expectations through reneging on her engagement and living the rest of her life as a bitter spinster. After the death of his wife, Sutpen proposes to Rosa, who grudgingly accepts, claiming that “I hold no brief, ask no pity” (Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, 135). Coming from a low class family, Rosa found this engagement to be a way for her to finally conform to traditional gender expectations and have a place in society. However, this did not happen. After being engaged for two months, Sutpen implies that they can marry only if she gives birth to a son. Infuriated that he treats her as if she is “a bitch dog or a cow or mare”, Rosa “came back home” (Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, 136). Back in her own house, Rosa lives in poverty, surviving by stealing and scavenging. After rejecting society’s expectations to become a mother, Rosa’s life becomes set on a track downhill. She lives the rest of her life simmering over “the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration” (Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, 1). Giving up on motherhood due to a misalignment of societal expectations and her personal goals, Rosa ultimately experiences the negative effects of her actions for the rest of her life as a destitute spinster.
Never having experienced a mother’s sheltering comfort, Rosa is hurt by these expectations and finally decides to reject the societal expectations for women to be wives and mothers. Linda Wagner-Martin, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The University of North Carolina, characterizes Rosa’s lifelong misery as “The pain of being asked to care for everyone else, in lieu of having been cared for herself” (4). Her mother died while giving birth to her, so Rosa has never experienced maternal care. Not knowing what affection feels like makes it significantly more difficult, even painful, for Rosa to take on the role of a mother. Therefore, as a defense mechanism, she instinctively rejects Sutpen’s offer of starting a family but spends the rest of her life wanting to fulfill marital and maternal expectations. For instance, Olivia Carr Edenfield of Georgia Southern University describes Rosa as ‘a woman who has been excluded from the normal female role of marriage and motherhood. As a result she becomes in her middle years a character enshrouded by the signs of death’ who is “dominated by unrealities and by a furious rage at man, who had denied her the normal fulfillment of her femininity” (58). Although there are no opportunities for Rosa to fit into the “normal female role of marriage and motherhood,” she spends her life pursuing a way into society.
Yet what compounds Rosa’s pain is her inability to fit into any of the roles that she should have been able to take for granted. Much of the criticism about Rosa Coldfield’s lack of place in her southern town centers around the fact that Rosa never marries, that she spends her life wanting to fit into the prescribed role of wife and mother, earning her right to exist.
For example, Olivia Carr Edenfield of Georgia Southern University describes Rosa as ‘a woman who has been excluded from the normal female role of marriage and motherhood. As a result she becomes in her middle years a character enshrouded by the signs of death’ who is ‘dominated by unrealities and by a furious rage at man, who had denied her the normal fulfillment of her femininity’ (102-103). Though there is no opening for Rosa, she spends her life searching for a way into the patriarchy, not just as wife and mother but also as daughter, niece, sister; in fact, Rosa tells Quentin herstory so that he will help her in her final attempt to create a role for herself as aunt. Elisabeth S. Muhlenfeld agrees with Page that ‘Rosa’s life cannot be attributed entirely to her own fantasies, but at least equally to her environment’ which has deemed her a ghost (291). Muhlenfeld sees this as a ‘tragic waste’: ‘In reality’ she was ‘always the potential, useful adult’ (291), but her inability to be those things that women are supposed to be marginalizes her to the point of vanishing. Robert Dale Parker sees Rosa Coldfield as ‘frozen emotionally on the man she agreed to marry,’ her life locked ‘on the marriage she almost but never made’. Her situation forced her to transgress societal expectations of getting married and having children: since these expectations exist and are rigid transgression is inevitable, hurting the individual, Rosa, as well as the rest of society which has to deal with her stealing and delinquency.
Lena Grove’s plight in ‘Light in August’ demonstrates the rigidity of maternal expectations in the postbellum South as well as the harsh consequences women face if they go against these norms. Lena, pregnant and abandoned by her child’s father, Lucas, “would not admit it, though the man had departed six months ago”; as a result, her brother McKinley shuns her, calling her “whore” (Faulkner, Light in August, 4). Lena’s abandonment by both her brother and her child’s father demonstrates the cruelness of punishments inflicted upon women who transgress society’s maternal expectations. In the post-Civil War South, it is shameful for a woman to have a child alone: even when the father abandons the mother. Due to these strict societal codes, any dissonance warrants the use of degrading terms such as “whore”. In the same vein, Armistad expresses the reasoning behind this prejudice when he argues that if a woman is allowed to have children out of wedlock then “right then and there is where she secedes from the woman race and species and spends the balance of her life trying to get joined up with the man race: ‘the reason why they “dip snuff and smoke and want to vote” (Faulkner, Light in August,16). Here, Armistad’s line of reasoning concerning gender expectations briefly encapsulates Southern patriarchy’s fear of a paradigm shift. After the Civil War, a shift in cultural conditions subverted the traditional Southern way of life, making it difficult to readopt Southern society’s twisted gender expectations and strict codes of honor. Thus, as more women fail to follow these dogmas by having children out of wedlock, “dip snuff”, and “wanting to vote”, Southerners lash out and punish these nonconformists in an effort to preserve their traditional culture. The judgment in which women are subjected to is further demonstrated when Reverend Hightower tells Byron Bunch that “it is not fair that you should sacrifice yourself to a woman who has chosen once and now wishes to renege that choice” (Faulkner, Light in August, 298). Hightower’s words highlight the harsh condemnation experienced by the women in the novel due to unreasonable gender expectations. However, it is not clear that Lena wishes to renege her rejection of Byron’s proposal, which makes it seem as if Hightower is feeding him false information solely based on the rampant misogyny of the time.
Ralph Watkins, professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, points out “that her abnormal appearance and the danger emanating from the unborn child can cause the mother to be placed in near or complete isolation” (15).
Throughout his literary works, most notably in ‘The Sound and the Fury’, ‘Absalom, Absalom!’, and ‘Light in August’ Faulkner asserts that the dissonance between personal and societal ideologies prevents the healthy development of relationships and fosters self-destructive behavior, which he demonstrates using motherhood. In ‘The Sound and the Fury’, Mrs. Compson’s lack of affection for her children results in the complete breakdown of her family. Rosa Coldfield rejects the maternal expectations of women and lives the rest of her life destitute. Finally, in ‘Light in August’, Lena Grove, outcasted and abandoned after giving birth, is condemned both for having a child out of wedlock and for attempting to find the father.