I’ve been struck by one of the recurring images of Clytie in Faulkner’s story: she stands in the way of several people who want to enter the house – a gate keeper with her hand upraised (implied with Jones, seen with Rosa). Wondering how much of Faulkner’s characterization of Clytie might derive from Greek myth, I found a short description of Clytemnestra’s story as told by Homer and the classic Greek playwrights. I’ve put the full story in a PDF. Below are some highlights:
Who was Clytemnestra? … In most versions of the myth, Agamemnon is Clytemnestra’s second husband. He married her by force after killing her first, and chosen, husband, and in some versions also killed the infant son she had with her first husband. … Years later, he tricked Clytemnestra into thinking he had arranged for their daughter, Iphigenia, to marry Achilles. But when Clytemnestra sent the girl to him, he killed her as a sacrifice in order to procure favorable winds to send his war fleet to Troy.
Versions of the Myth … Homer – In Homer’s account … Clytemnestra played a passive role in Agamemnon’s death, merely permitting her lover, Aegisthus, to murder Agamemnon… In this narrative, the driving force of Agamemnon’s death is Aegisthus’ desire to avenge his brothers and uncles, and take the throne which he believes belongs by right to his family.
Aeschylus – In the play Oresteia … Clytemnestra is the motivating force who plans to kill Agamemnon to avenge her murdered family members. She commits the killing herself, with a double-edged axe called a pelekus. Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon using the same method that would be used to sacrifice an animal to the gods: three blows, with a prayer to the gods uttered before striking the third. This is doubtless a reference to the sacrificial killing by Agamemnon of their daughter.
The Death of Clytemnestra … Aegisthus would remain as king for just seven years, for by that time Orestes was of age, and the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra returned to Mycenae to seek revenge upon the killers of his father. Aegisthus was thus killed by Orestes, as was his half-brother, Aletes, but it was also said that Orestes committed a great wrong when he killed his mother despite her pleadings and prayers. The killing of Clytemnestra would bring forth the wrath of the Erinyes upon Orestes, and indeed it was said that the very ghost of Clytemnestra cajoled the Erinyes in their persecution of her son. Eventually, Orestes was released from the hounding of the Erinyes when he was cleared of murder by Athena, and Orestes would subsequently marry his half-sister by Clytemnestra, Erigone.
Faulkner & Fitzgerald 1925 (Gatsby’s pub.)
I’ve found an MA thesis online, written in 1977, that discusses specifically what I brought up in a general way at our first meeting: that the concept of The American Dream is as important to Faulkner’s portrait of Thomas Sutpen, as it is to Fitzgerald’s description of Jay Gatsby. Sharon Shreve Strohmaier, a graduate student at Drake University, begins her thesis with an Abstract that I summarize below (using a good deal of her own language)
Strohmaier’s thesis discusses the ways that both Faulkner’s Sutpen and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby engage in “fatal pursuit[s] of the American dream,” which she defines a “goal of personal success … sought in a state of unlimited possibility.” The “dreamer” believes the success can be reached “by faithful and arduous pursuit” and that it will lead to social acceptance and even admiration.
Strohmaier draws the following parallels between the lives of Sutpen and Gatsby.
- They share insignificant beginnings and lack of family ties
- Neither has formal education and both rely on self-education
- They create their own personalities through their own efforts (self-definition instead of social prescription)
- They act with great discipline and have a clear timetable for achieving their dream
- The accumulation of wealth is a secondary but integral part of their dream
- Both use morally and legally suspect methods to obtain that wealth
- Sutpen and Gatsby achieve initial (if qualified) success after they become wealthy
- But both also wish to gain a measure of respectability in their very different societies. They never succeed and remain outsiders
- In the end, both characters fail utterly to achieve their dreams, in part because of a trait I would call naivete – but which Strohmaier describes as their “over-simplification of reality [that leads them] to ill-founded assumptions of success”
Strohmaier concludes that pursuit of the American dream is often fatal for the dreamer “who fails to recognize the difference between the ideal and the real, the spiritual and the material” and who ignores the responsibilities at the core of human relationships. Strohmaier points to the great irony of the American Dream (especially as portrayed in literature and the arts): often the most a dreamer can accomplish is “to fail magnificently.”
I would add to this commentary that in classic American literature and popular myth the impossibility of realizing the American Dream has been portrayed in heroic (or mock heroic) terms, and has long been described as “an essential” part of American history and “the American character.” Since the shattering of old norms in intellectual discourse beginning in the late 20th century, the concept of “The American Dream” has become an object of ridicule or worse. But it seems to me that a good deal of American history, literature and culture cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the old Dream’s power to stimulate the imagination of Americans with diverse histories and backgrounds. The Dream survived for many generations in spite of its inherent ambiguities and the continuing uncertainty about whether its ideals were achievable and noble … or whether they were pernicious illusions.
Strohmaier, Abstract of MA thesis (1977) (1 page)
Strohmaier’s full thesis (below) doesn’t present the most sophisticated analysis nor does she write particularly well – but I find many of her points interesting, her quotations from sources are good (if, of course, dated) … and anyone who studied American Studies, history, or literature in the 1960’s and 70’s might enjoy rediscovering some of the old ideas and interpretations – for all that later scholarship has passed them by. The thesis a fairly quick, easy read for anyone interested, but it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea.
An American Dream – The Fatal Gambit for Sutpen and Gatsby (Strohmaier MA thesis 1977) (118 [typescript] pages)
A Rose for Emily was published in 1930, four years before Faulkner completed Absalom, Absalom!. Carcassone first appeared in 1931 in a short story collection that also contained A Rose for Emily. I post these because I think they serve as a good warm up for Absalom, Absalom!, in terms of shared themes, story props, and style.