Thursday, March 25, 2004

Vexed, Hexed Prophetess: Cassandra in Yokanapatawpha County

Below is my final paper for my Faulkner seminar. I feel like it could have more ambitious, but my professor encouraged this line of thought, so I hope the product will please her as well. I figured posting it here would give a chance for the curious and the greedy Googlers to hear what I had to say.

“Vexed, Hexed Prophetess: Cassandra in Yoknapatawpha County”
Home cursed of God! Bear witness unto me,
Ye visioned woes within —
The blood-stained hands of them that smite their kin —
The strangling noose, and, spattered o'er
With human blood, the reeking floor!

— Cassandra, from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon

The incarnation of Jefferson, Mississippi that William Faulkner offers in Absalom, Absalom! is a Greek landscape, teeming with mythical personalities and disastrous possibilities. When the actions of the Sutpen family hearken back to classical tragedies, allusion responds with an echo. In those reverberations, the gods and heroes of Greek myth materialize in the post-Civil War south, adding depth to Faulkner’s characters and, in a way, equating the ruined South with ancient Greece: as two failed yet once-great societies joined by their epic literary legacies.

The most evident of the novel’s many mythological links is the one between Miss Rosa Coldfield and Cassandra, as both figures are tragically, desperately unable to tell their stories — a sad fate of narrative deprivation that Minrose Gwin calls “so powerful and so beautiful — and so madly seductive” (Gwin 160). Rosa poses a twist on the old philosophical riddle: if a woman tells a saga in the forest and no one is around to listen, does the saga truly get told? Faulkner’s novel accentuates Rosa, the embodiment of female voice in Absalom, Absalom!, with repeated allusions to the cursed prophetess to explain the phantom-like plight of the women who survived the Civil War. Such a comparison is not entirely favorable, however; through linking Rosa and Cassandra, Absalom, Absalom! extends the hex to all survivors of the war, insinuating that, like Rosa, their prophecies and recollections are forever tainted by bitterness and anger — perhaps to the point that these stories are better off not being told.

Indeed, many of the allusions in Absalom, Absalom! refer to the darker side of Greek lore. Rosa, for example, is not immediately recognizable as the novel’s Cassandra figure. When Quentin firsts describes her as the aged woman cowering in the dark — out of sight, seemingly — one could easily identify her with the reclusive Medusa. As Walter Brylowski points out in a gathering of these references in Absalom, Absalom! — A Critical Casebook, each of the Sutpens get pigeonholed as various mythological characters: long-suffering Ellen as Niobe; mysterious Charles Bon as both the phoenix and the sphinx; and Clytie as the fearsome gatekeeper Cerberus (Brylowski 112). Such a technique is not unique to this particular Faulkner epic. Rather, Brylowski notes, “Viewed in this overall pattern, Absalom, Absalom! illustrates Faulkner’s habit of probing the moral situation of the South and projecting it on a screen of mythic references [in which] the actions find their analogues” (117).

The subset of Greek mythology that provides the most interesting way to view these Sutpens, however, is the house of Agamemnon — particularly the version portrayed in Aeschylus’ tragedy. In many ways the parallels are obvious. Agamemnon’s family inherits the curse of its forbearer, Atreus, causing much strife and bloodshed. Similarly, the Sutpens disintegrate when Thomas Sutpen’s sins manifest in the form of Charles Bon, his illegitimate son by his part-black first wife. Both stories feature powerful, active women named Clytemnestra — the murderous matriarch of Agamemnon and the half-black slave “Clytie” of Absalom, Absalom! who becomes caretaker of the family’s final generation. Most importantly, both works feature seemingly impotent women whose knowledge goes unappreciated: Cassandra and Rosa.

The elements of Greek drama are indeed present in Absalom, Absalom!; it is no coincidence that the novel repeatedly references the impenetrable, stony quality of the Sutpen visage — Rosa describes Judith as the “stone-faced daughter” and “the face without sex or age,” while Shreve imagines her face “like mask or marble” (Faulkner 151, 109, 158). Faulkner’s narrative explicitly recalls the masks worn by actors in traditional Greek tragedies just like Agamemnon — just like the tale of woe and disaster that the Sutpens seemed doomed to repeat. In classical theater, such masks indicate an actor’s mood or the temperament of his character, but they would also act as a makeshift megaphone. Actors’ voices would emerge from a cupped mouth-hole in order to reach the entire audience, a means of narrative amplification that Rosa — who tellingly does not bear the stony Sutpen face — would benefit from (“Greek”).

References to Rosa’s status as the Cassandra figure in this recycled and relocated tragedy occur almost immediately. Before any of his characters assume the novel’s narration, Faulkner’s text envisions Rosa’s childhood as toxically precocious, filled with “an air Cassandralike and humorless and profoundly and sternly prophetic out of all proportion to the actual years even of a child who had never been that young” (Faulkner 15). Mr. Compson imagines Rosa’s youth similarly. He guesses that she came to understand the Sutpen saga so well during an “aged and timeless absence of youth that consisted of a Cassandra-like listening beyond closed doors” (Faulkner 47). Even Quentin, who never verbalizes the connection, ascribes a noteworthy quality to Rosa’s unheard side of the story when he realizes that “she wants it to be told” (Faulker 6). Just as Cassandra tried in vain to get her kinsmen to heed her prophecies, Rosa wants desperately to narrate for willing listeners — “…people whom she will never see and whose names she will never hear and who have never heard her name nor seen her face will read it and know at least why God let us lose the War” (Faulkner 6). Rosa wants Quentin to remember her words, to repeat them and allow her voice to sound furiously from beyond the grave.

Admittedly, Mr. Compson tells Quentin that Clytie was mistakenly named so, and should have rightfully been named Cassandra (Faulkner 48). Like Rosa, Clytie’s version of the Sutpen saga is also silenced. And critic Dirk Kuyk argues against interpreting allusions as the driving force behind any of Faulkner’s work, seemingly contradicting the allusion-based interpretations offered by Walter Brylowski. Kuyk writes,
While many critics have pointed out the book’s many allusions, each has wisely refrained from making the allusions the book’s determining designs… [Ralph] Behrens is no doubt right in pointing out how the allusion to the story of David helps to enrich the meaning of Absalom, Absalom! Yet once the allusion becomes the design it screens out everything in the novel that has no parallel to the Bible (Kuyk 117).
So while there’s considerable evidence against locking solely Rosa into the role of Cassandra, Rosa exemplifies the would-be communicator qualities of Cassandra tidily enough to warrant focus exclusively on her Cassandra qualities. She is a communicator — a writer, a poet, and an oral storyteller. The text even alludes to a sparkle of precognition involving Rosa’s immediate knowledge of Charles Bon’s death after she hears gunfire. She explains, “And then I went back home, stayed for five years, heard an echoed gunshot, ran up a nightmare flight up stairs, and found [Clytie]” (Faulkner 120). Conversely, Clytie tidily embodies the two chief roles of Agamemnon’s Clytemnestra: as a matriarch and as an agent of decisive and destructive action. Like Clytemnestra swinging the axe into her husband’s body and felling the house of Agamemnon, Clytie burns down Sutpen’s Hundred, literally destroying the family’s home. Thus, this paper focuses on the wealth of information supporting Rosa as Cassandra and — regardless of how Mr. Compson thinks it ought to have been — Clytie as her namesake.

As nearly every quality about Rosa would indicate, Cassandra exists within her. Even the origins of Cassandra and Miss Rosa’s respective curses overlap. According to numerous versions of Cassandra’s story, those who might benefit from Cassandra’s divinations disbelieve them because she rejects Apollo as a lover (“Cassandra”). As the patron of prophecy, Apollo cruelly and ironically twists Cassandra’s talent so that while she always accurately foresees oncoming ruin, no one ever believes the predictions. As such, she in her narrative labels herself “the prophetess to Troy of all her doom” (Aeschylus).

Absalom, Absalom! eventually reveals that sexual rejections has also caused the aged Rosa’s “curse” — dark seclusion in her house, and years of burning anger and yearning for an audience to listen to her tale. After his wife Ellen dies, Thomas Sutpen seeks Rosa, Ellen’s much younger sister, as his next wife — but only if she can bear him a male heir first. Rosa is so insulted at this sexual advance that she quite possibly goes mad with anger, re-envisioning the first half of her life in fairy tale, if not epic, proportions. In Rosa’s retelling of events, she’s an innocent pawn in a cruel game controlled by the snarling “demon” Thomas Sutpen — the “ogre,” as she frequently refers to him. Gwin posits that it’s not the loss of a sexual relationship or even marriage that has “cursed” Rosa. Instead, her curse lies in the lack of a listening audience, the absence that only spinsterhood can bring. As Gwin argues, “What she struggles to do in chapter five and in her whole narrative is to restore herself to her text of desire and fullness… to recreate herself as a subject who creates language” (116). But stuck in her house, Rosa is literally and figuratively “shut up.”

Befitting a character whose entire existence is an extended allusion to Cassandra, Rosa fails to be heard. Even when Quentin goes to Rosa to hear the Sutpen saga, the text carefully notes that he “was not listening” and instead imagining the story how he wanted to see it (Faulkner 139). And when Quentin relates the story to Shreve, Rosa’s hyperbolic imagery of the fire-breathing ogre vanishes altogether. Most importantly, Quentin does not live long enough to tell many people about any side of the story — Rosa’s or his father’s — as he commits suicide on June 2, 1910 in The Sound and the Fury, which takes place during the summer after Absalom, Absalom! (Faulkner 139). As Quentin predicts early in the first chapter, Rosa’s voice “would not cease, it would just vanish” (Faulkner 4). Indeed it does just that when Quentin Compson’s life ends.
By mapping a once-great empire like ancient Greece onto the post-Civil War South, Faulkner’s narrative tries to elevate the South to the lauded level of one of history’s mightiest civilizations. But in the end, he only indicts the South of the same shortsighted ambition-without-reason that can erode a society from the inside out.

By re-imagining Cassandra as Rosa, the novel creates an icon of the ruined South — a muted muse who can inspire only one short-lived schizophrenic with her story. However, overlooking the critical ban on authorial intentionality, one could wager that Faulkner himself did not want Rosa’s story told. Rosa narrates the fifth chapter, or as some critics have dubbed it, the “Rosa chapter.” Throughout it Rosa’s disembodied voice echoes in vacuous space, not tethered to traditional dialogue with the quotations marks and “she saids” that characterize written dyadic conversation. As if this insinuation were not blatant enough, female narration subsequently vanishes, giving way to the less vitriolic second- and third-hand accounts of Mr. Compson, Quentin and Shreve (Gwin 165). And for the only living character with an eye-witness account of the Sutpens’ self-annihilation, Rosa’s narrative is rife with exaggeration and blatant bias. Most tellingly, Absalom, Absalom! ends with Quentin realizing that he loathes his homeland and the sordid lives of the his ancestors, a disgust he denies all the way until his suicide. Quentin concludes the novel arguing against himself, his self-denials too emphatic. He cries, “I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” (Faulkner 303). Just as Cassandra dies in Agamemnon, so too does Rosa’s treasured narrative: as a result of the pervasively corrupting nature of a civilization struggling to maintain its dignity in its final moments.

Jefferson, Mississippi recreates the Greece of classical mythology in a way that allows the Sutpens to slip effortlessly between personas. Throughout the novel, characters can embody Antigone and then Electra and then Persephone successively. Yet Rosa maintains her role as Cassandra steadily. She is the constantly ignored prophetess, the one who sees it all coming, the one who knows how it will all end and the one who ultimately vanishes into obscurity. And this continued presence inextricably ties the Sutpens to the curses descendants of Atreus.

Shortly before Quentin and Shreve begin their animated discussion and re-enactment of the story of the South, Quentin recalls how his classmates plague him with questions about his exotic homeland. The voices echo in Quentin’s head, “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all” (Faulkner 142). Essentially, then, Question’s explanatory response is to retell the life of Thomas Sutpen and his dependents. Absalom, Absalom! in its epic, exclamatory voice of prophecy, lumps the whole of the South in with the cast of some great tragedy — woe and anguish and cursed lucklessness — which continues to ruin those born even long after the Civil War, poisoning them with an anger that warps memories and replaces actual occurrences with gross embellishments and demonizations. Bound for suicide in The Sound and the Fury even before Absalom, Absalom! begins, Quentin has his place in this pervasive ruin; the text remarks on his fixation on his inherited curse when it compares him to a “tragedian in a college play, an academic Hamlet,” placing the same dooming mask of Greek tragedy worn by the Sutpens onto his face as well. (Faulkner 142). It is a brutal and caustic indictment, but one Faulkner clearly feels strongly about — likely one he wished he didn’t have to make and one he hoped would one day fade into the darkness as the voice of Rosa Coldfield did.
Works Cited

Aeschylus. Agamemnon. Translated by E.D.A. Morshead. E-Books @ Adelaide. 7 March 2004.

“C
assandra.” Mythography. 8 March 2004. http://www.loggia.com/myth/ cassandra.html.

Brylowski, Walter. “Faulkner’s Mythology.” Absalom, Absalom! — A Critical Casebook. Edited by Elisabeth Muhlenfeld. Garland Publishing, Inc.: New York, 1984.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage Books, 1986.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury: A Norton Critical Edition. Edited by David Minter. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994.

“Greek Theater.” Teaching Ideas. 18 March 2004. http://www.teachingideas.co. uk/history/files/greektheatre.pdf.

Gwin, Minrose. “The Silencing of Rosa Coldfield.” Absalom, Absalom! — A Casebook. Edited by Fred Hobson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Kuyk, Dirk. Sutpen’s Design: Interpreting Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

EDIT: Looking at this years later, I cannot honestly say if what appears above represents the final version of the paper. However, it is pretty close to that.

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