Posts Tagged ‘Harold Levitt’

Choosing Isolation: Edna Pontillier and Lewis Lambert Strether

June 22, 2013

fear intimacy

At first consideration, Lewis Lambert Strether of Henry James’s The Ambassadors and Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier of The Awakening could hardly appear more dissimilar: Strether is a timid older bachelor of modest means whose every decision is tempered by social mores; Mrs. Pontellier is a bold, young married woman in a financially comfortable position who is invulnerable to societal constraints. But they both ultimately choose to turn their backs on life. Pontellier’s suicide is only slightly more drastic than Strether’s decision to flee a woman who loves him in order to return to a world where nothing awaits him. They are both running away from human contact.

Kris Kristofferson’s observation that, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” is an accurate description of the prospects facing Strether and Edna Pontellier at the conclusion of their respective novels. Edna Pontellier decides to end her life whereas Strether eschews the possibility of love in order to return to Boston where his social and professional prospects are nil. Their respective choices demonstrate that Edna Pontellier and Strether do not need anyone but themselves. Some reviewers have praised the existential courage which allows Edna to shun all human connections in her pursuit of freedom; Strether’s return to Boston has been cast by critics in a similar, heroic light. However, it is a fear of intimacy rather than a quest for freedom which epitomizes their decisions.

Edna Pontellier has no empathy. She is not concerned with how her actions will affect others. She is consumed with her appetites to the extent that she views personal and filial relations merely as barrier to her sexual liberation. She will infuriate her father and sister, disgrace her husband, break Robert’s heart, and abandon her children in pursuit of sexual gratification without a hint of regret. Edna Pontellier does not comprehend the forces which will eventually lead her to forsake earthly existence, but her inexplicable depression makes her life unbearable:

An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with anguish (574).

Edna Pontellier yearns for a type of fulfillment which was largely unachievable for a married woman of her day, and the fact that many of her contemporaries might have found her situation enviable is of no comfort to her.

Edna Pontellier’s inability to find contentment living comfortably with her beautiful children and perfect husband (“all declared that Léonce Pontellier was the best husband in the world. Mrs. Pontellier was forced to admit that she knew none better”) is the result of a spiritual malaise which leads her to seek her salvation via sexual expression (574). (In this respect, Edna Pontellier is a forerunner of Erica Jong’s Isadora Wing who unabashedly promotes female liberation by means of the so-called “zipless fuck.”) Edna Pontellier does not comprehend the nature of her longings, but she never doubts that their fulfillment is the preeminent purpose of her existence. Despite the mysterious origin of her malady, Edna Pontellier is convinced that the pursuit of sexual freedom is her highest calling, of much greater importance than any relationship with another human being:

She had all her life been accustomed to harbor thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves. They had never taken the form of struggles. They belonged to her and were her own, and she entertained the conviction that she had a right to them and they concerned no one but herself. Edna had once told Madame Ratignolle that she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for any one (605-606).

When Strether Lambert decides to return to Boston, he is motivated by a fear of intimacy no less profound than the inability to make meaningful human contact which afflicts Edna Pontellier. The difference between the two characters is that while Edna Pontellier evades meaningful contact by immersing herself in loveless sexual liaisons, Stretcher avoids both emotional and physical intimacy. Despite his extreme immediate attraction to Maria Gostrey, Strether never seriously considers pursuing a relationship with her, even after Mrs. Newsome breaks off their potential engagement.

Strether is able to acknowledge to Miss Gostrey that he is utterly smitten by her upon their first meeting, but he is constitutionally incapable of achieving a physical relationship with her. He is, however, able to admit how this attraction both frightens and astounds him. When Maria asks Strether if he trusts her, he responds:

I think I do!–but that’s exactly what I’m afraid of. I shouldn’t mind if I didn’t. It’s falling thus, in twenty minutes, so utterly into your hands. I daresay, Strether continued, it’s a sort of thing you’re thoroughly familiar with; but nothing more extraordinary has ever happened to me (14).

And later in the novel we see the intensity of his attraction to her:

He was extraordinarily glad to see her….She was the blessing that had now become his need, and what could prove it better than without her he had lost himself? (74-75)

In his fifty-five years on Earth, Strether has never known an attraction to another human being comparable to what he feels for Miss Gostrey. Yet he is unable to act upon it. His inexplicable declaration that he is returning to Boston “To be right” is perplexing even when we take his overdeveloped sense of propriety into account (375). What could possibly be right about a man leaving a city and a woman he loves in order to return to a world where no one and nothing awaits him?

Edna Pontellier and Strether Lambert both lack whatever it is which allows human beings to attempt to reach across the divide which separates us. And although their depravity manifests itself in contrasting manners—she submerges herself in loveless affairs while he shuns intimacy entirely—they are more alike than different. Ultimately, they both choose isolation over love.

Richard W. Bray

William Faulkner and the English Language

February 11, 2012

William Faulkner

(Below are notes from a presentation I gave in graduate school.)

Question: Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even when they’ve read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?

Faulkner: Read it four times.

—Interview with Jean Stein vanden Heuvel 1955 (Meriwether 250)

William Faulkner’s flamboyant use of language is a widely-discussed topic which includes a variety of subjects, including his use of part of speech, punctuation, long sentences, stream of consciousness, redundancy, visual imagery, metaphors, dialect, word clusters, coinages, paradox and poetics (particularly meter).

This presentation will cover some of these topics, particularly

1. Faulkner’s often playful use of parts of speech
2. The significance of sentence structure (in a historical perspective)
3. Word clusters (including redundancy)
4. Coinages (particularly with prefixes and suffixes)

Faulkner’s style is still controversial. Even those who acknowledge his greatness are often annoyed by it. According to Warren Beck:

No other contemporary American novelist of comparable stature has been as frequently or severely criticized for his style as William Faulkner. Yet he is a brilliantly original and versatile stylist. The condemnations of his way of writing have been in part just; all but the most idolatrous of Faulkner’s admirers must have wished he had blotted a thousand infelicities (142).

Placed in its historical context, Faulkner’s style can be seen as a stark contrast to the “muscular” or “masculine” style of prose utilized by many of his contemporaries, particularly Hemingway, Stevens and Cummings. During the fist part of the twentieth century, a lean style (labelled nominalism by Panthea Reid Broughton) was hailed for its commitment to Truth

Wallace Stevens’ dictum: Not Ideas about the Thing, but the Thing Itself

And Cummings and his entire generation seem to have developed an almost paranoid fear of the abstract phrase. (Broughton 12)

Earnest Hemingway, Faulkner’s obvious rival, argued that writing should strip the language clean, lay it bare down to the bone. (Broughton 14)

But nomalism has its limitations. According to Broughton,

Nominalism is reductionist first of all because it ignores the complexity of reality, the evasiveness of truth. It is grounded in the assumption that truth objectively knowable, that perception is entirely accurate (16).

Faulkner took the opposite approach. Because words are so inadequate to capture reality, Faulkner piles words upon words in order to depict a variety of images and ideas which might at least add up to a fragmented picture of reality.

Faulkner on Hemingway:

I thought that he found out early what he could do and he stayed inside of that. He never did try to get outside the boundary of what he really could do and risk failure. He did what he could do marvelously well, first rate, but to me that is not success but failure….failure to me is the best to try something you can’t do, because it’s too much (to hope for) but still try and fail, then try it again. That to me is success (Meriwether 88).

And, He did it fine, but he didn’t try for the impossible. (Slatoff 185)

So we can begin to understand the method in Faulkner’s madness by appreciating that he was trying for the impossible. He did this by experimenting with language and the convention of the novel in a variety of ways. One method was the use of paradox in the form of oxymoron. According to Walter J. Slatoff

The oxymoron, on the one hand, achieves a kind of order, definiteness, and coherence by virtue of the clear antithesis it involves. On the other, it moves towards disorder and incoherence by virtue of its qualities of irresolution and self-contradiction….Traditionally it has often been used to reflect desperately divided states of mind (Slatoff 177)

So Faulkner attempts to achieve clarity by means of depicting confusion. (That’s a paradox.)

Hightower’s face is at once gaunt and flabby
the church has a stern and formal fury
Singing from a church is a sound at once austere and rich, abject and proud
Joe Christmas’ feet move in a deliberate random manner
Armstid’s eye’s at once vague and intense
Abe Snopes’ homestead is a cluttered isolation
Eula Varner seems to exist in a teeming vacuum
Houston and the girl he is to marry: Up to this point their struggle, or all its deadly seriousness…had retained something of childhood, something both illogical and consistent, both reasonable and bizarre

Faulkner’s use of redundancy to clarify meaning is a practice which Edwin R. Hunter has labeled “word hunting.” This involves the author searching for the appropriate word not only in his mind, but on the page as well. Hunter has described eight different types of “word hunting” in the work of Faulkner. (130-132)

1. Questions the exactness of a word.
2. Comments openly about the rightness of a word.
3. Searches for a word only to come back to original.
4. Seeks openly for a word.
5. Records progress, step by step.
6. Corrects word on the spot.
7. Acquiesces in inexact word.
8. Sets down and repeats in.

Faulkner also uses the redundancy of adjective clusters to create a kind of depth in his depiction of reality. Hunter has painstakingly discovered 1416 examples of three-, four-, five-, six-, seven-, eight-, nine-, ten-, and even a thirteen-adjective clusters. (See chart).

Examples: (Hunter 136-139)

Three Adjectives–1009 examples
‘Pa stands over the bed, dangle-armed, humped, motionless
she advanced in identical and anonymous and deliberate wagons…
‘Houston, followed by the big, quiet regal dog’

Four-Adjectives –268 examples
the wealcolored, the strong pallid, Iowacorncolored hair
In the glare its eyes roll with soft, fleet, wild opaline fire

Five-adjective–84 (136)
the last old sapless indomitable unavanquished widow or maid had died’
the big rambling multigalleried multistoried steamboat-gothic hotel

Six-adjective–30 examples (136-7)
a lean, loose-jointed, cotton-socked, shrew, ruthless old man
with his little high hard round intractable canon-ball head

Seven-adjective–16 examples (137)
a brawling lean fierce mangy durable imperishable old lion

Eight-adjective–4 examples (137-8)
the youth fleeing, the forsaken aging yet indomitable betrothed perusing, abject, constant, undismayed, undeflectable, terrifying not in effect but in fidelity
“These may be nine or or even ten adjective clusters. One cannot be sure.”

Nine or more adjective
he approached, chop-striding, bull-chested, virile, in appearance impervious and indestructible, starred and exalted and, within this particular eye-range of Earth, supreme and omnipotent still

Faulkner also utilizes redundancy through a process which Hunter calls “Repeated Cluster Patterns” (139-40).


a bell tinkled…high and clear and small

a belltinkled…to make that clear small sound

The little bell tinkled once, faint and clear and invisible

She just looked at me, serene and secret and chewing

She looked at me, chewing, her eyes black and unwinking and friendly

She stood in the road…her eyes still and black and unwinking

She looked at me, black and secret and friendly

We see a good indication of Faulkner’s playfulness in his uncommon use of parts of speech. One example of this is what Hunter calls Adjective Clusters.

Stem Adverb Clusters (Hunter 152)

his uncle told it, rapid and condensed and succinct
He shook hands with him, Charles, quick and brief and hard too

-ly-ended Adverb Clusters (Hunter 152)

he was mentally and spiritually, and with only an occasional aberration, physically faithful to her
the group commander was listening…quietly and courteously and inattentively

Faulkner’s coinages are also often amusing and playful. One way he did this was by creating negatives by adding prefixes and suffixes to a variety of words. (Hunter 176-8)

Some examples of Faulkner’s wordplay from The Sound and The Fury

Parts of speech
Jason snuffled (68)

wind chill and raw (290)

anticked (297)

he loaded himself mountainously (268)

Coinages via prefixes and suffixes:

unimpatient (87)

peacefullest (174)

unsecret (177)

unhurriedly (288)

unmindful (297)

paintless (299)


clairvoyant yet obtuse (280)


Maybe William Faulkner was greatest American novelist of the twentieth century; maybe he was an unreadable buffoon. What cannot be argued is that he continues to exert a tremendous influence upon the conventions of modern fiction.


Beck, Warren. William Faulkner’s Style, William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism

Ed. Frederick J. Hoffman and Olga W. Vickery. Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1960.

Broughton, Panthea Reid. William Faulkner: The Abstract and the Actual. Baton Rouge:

Louisiana State UP, 1974.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury New York: Random House, 1990.

Hunter, Edwin R. William Faulkner: Narrative Practice and Prose Style. Washington,

DC: Windhover Press, 1973.

Meriwether, James B. and Michael Millgate. Lion in the Garden: Interviews with

William Faulkner, 1926-1962. New York: Random House, 1962.

Slatoff, Walter J. “The Edge of Order: The Pattern of Faulkner’s Rhetoric.” William

Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism Ed. Frederick J. Hoffman and Olga W.

Vickery. Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1960.

Richard W. Bray