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"Wash" as Faulkner's Prose Tragedy

Françoise Buisson


La critique n'a cessé de souligner les liens étroits entre les romans de Faulkner, la tragédie grecque, le théâtre baroque et les textes de Shakespeare. Dans “Wash”, nouvelle et “histoire contée sur un idiot”, le planteur Thomas Sutpen est tué par Wash, pauvre Blanc qui porte le masque du bouffon. Les fragments de monologues rapportés et narrativisés livrés par le narrateur hétérodiégétique permettent au lecteur de pénétrer l'esprit opaque de Wash. Cette “mimésis” des pensées et des paroles du personnage fonde la théâtralité de la nouvelle et la succession d'images figées ou de tableaux plonge le lecteur dans l'univers de la pantomime. Des effets théâtraux sont créés par le clair-obscur et le rôle majeur des seuils et des portes, le décor devenant ainsi le point de mire de la communauté voyeuse. Ce décor est aussi le théâtre d'un inceste symbolique, car Sutpen séduit la petite-fille de Wash. Ce dernier tue le séducteur d'un coup de faux, de façon allégorique, et commet ensuite un parricide : il tue sa petite-fille avec un couteau de boucher. Ces épisodes inspirés de la tragédie grecque ne sont pas dénués d'implications idéologiques et ce qui est théâtralisé par la désintégration de la plantation sudiste, c'est la destruction de l'ordre féodal symbolisée par l'holocauste final.

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Studied authors :

William Faulkner

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1Faulkner showed his interest in drama when he wrote The Marionettes, inspired by pantomime and commedia dell’ arte, as well as Requiem for a Nun (1951), a novel built like a play and divided into three acts. His narratives are rich in metaphors borrowed from drama and echo Shakespearean texts, most notably in the title The Sound and the Fury (1929), an explicit reference to Macbeth. Faulkner’s vision of life as drama and of human beings as players or actors is also exemplified by “Wash”. The short story, written in 1933 and published in Harper’s in 1934, is “a tale told about an idiot”, the eponymous hero, Wash Jones, who is a poor White. The plot proves quite simple: Faulkner, whose narrators are usually so digressive, seems to abide by the Aristotelian principle of unity of action. Thomas Sutpen, a Southern planter, Civil War hero and Wash’s master seduces Wash’s granddaughter, Milly, and has high hopes for a son in order to secure the survival of his lineage. Unfortunately Milly gives birth to a baby girl, which results in Sutpen’s repudiation of the child and his refusal to provide a decent bed for Milly. Wash kills the seducer with a scythe, a clearly allegorical choice, and commits infanticide, killing his granddaughter with a butcher’s knife before setting his shack on fire. The initial nativity scene contrasts with the final tableau, the Holocaust.

2Faulkner once said that the short story is “a crystallized instant, arbitrarily selected, in which character conflicts with character or environment or itself […]” (Williams 259). Faulkner’s stylistic and narrative choices also create effects for dramatization. The structure of the short story is based on the ritualistic pattern of the tragedy while Sutpen’s histrionics and Wash’s idealized vision of his master present the reader with the baroque drama of Southern illusion.

3Although Faulkner usually remains faithful to the theatrical Southern story-telling tradition by choosing homodiegetic or first-person narration, “Wash” is told by an undesignated heterodiegetic narrator who starts his narrative with a dialogue between Sutpen and the Black woman who looks after Milly, the young mother. The nativity scene, which is ironically a repudiation scene, is not focalized; yet, in the following scenes, Wash becomes the focalizer, for the short story is the theatre of an epiphany, that is his realization of Sutpen’s evil nature and his human frailty. Mimesis finds its way through diegesis as the third-person narrator gives insights into Wash’s un-transparent mind through fragments of narrated or reported monologues or soliloquies. This mimetic process reaches its climax near the end of the story, when Wash is waiting for the men who want to avenge Sutpen’s death:

He could feel them quite near now, the curious and the vengeful. He could even seem to hear what they were saying about him, the undercurrent of believing beyond the immediate fury: Old Wash Jones he come a tumble at last. He thought he had Sutpen, but Sutpen fooled him. He thought he had Kernel [Sutpen] where he would have to marry the gal or pay up. And Kernel refused. “But I never expected that, Kernel!” he cried aloud, catching himself at the sound of his own voice, glancing quickly back to find his granddaughter watching him. (548)

4Faulkner, as usual, plays with typography to report his character’s mental processes which are either framed by inverted commas and introductory tags/attributive discourse or by italics. Ironically, in a play, italics usually refer to stage directions; in Faulkner’s texts, they usually convey the character’s thoughts in a mimetic or dramatic way. In this extract, Wash is imagining the community gossip about his failure and is thinking aloud, as if he were a character delivering a monologue on stage. Furthermore, his prosaic speech, his idiolect, enables the reader to place him in his social sphere, in other words, among poor Whites. The mise en abyme or dramatization of Wash’s idiolect is all the more significant as Wash cannot bear being regarded as “white trash” by whites and even less so by black people. Wash sees himself centre stage, under the scrutiny of a voyeuristic community who rejects him ideologically. Yet, Wash is doomed to have no say and is faced with the sound and fury of his own discourse. As Anne Ubersfeld puts it, “On voit par quelles médiations l’idéologie s’investit dans un texte de théâtre, moins au niveau du contenu explicite (et même de ses connotations) qu’au niveau de ses présupposés commandant les rapports entre les personnages” (Ubersfeld, I, 213).

5The murders Wash commits are only alluded to and take place off the stage, in the wings and in the margins of the text, and such ellipses, ironically underlining “l’innommable” – the unspeakable – are quite usual in Faulkner’s texts. The curtain falls on the action but Sutpen’s friends turn the spotlight on the corpse lying on a dark stage: “The lantern itself came on; its light fell upon the quiet body in the weeds and stopped, the horses tall and shadowy” (549). This interplay of light and darkness also contributes to the theatricality of the short story, for the narrator or stage director often shifts light intensity in a symbolic way, turning the character into a mask or a shadow indicative of a life indeed “signifying nothing”. Hence, twilight is associated with hiatus and suspension, particularly when Milly is suspended between life and nothingness: “Her face was becoming indistinct again, again a sullen blur in the twilight” (548).

6The narrator plays with the reader’s visual sensations, so that the characters fade into shadows or “freeze” into masks. The setting is sketched like a drawing with Faulkner interestingly spinning out the metaphor: “the early sunlight fell in long pencil strokes”, “the splintered pencils of sunlight” (emphasis added, 535). In fact, characterization sometimes proves minimalist and close to caricature, reminding us not only of pantomime, but also of Japanese kabuki drama. More generally, the short story presents us with a tragic Punch and Judy show in which the poor players are but puppets at the mercy of blind forces. No strings seem to tie them up to any God who could redeem them, however. Nearly invisible, the rag dolls themselves look deprived of either insight or inner life. The short story writer cannot portray characters in a comprehensive way; in “Wash”, characters seem to be a flurry of “eyes”, “faces” or “shapes”, very often described as “inscrutable”: “the old Negress peered around the crazy door with her black gargoyle face of a worn gnome”; “an absolutely stonelike face” (545). The characters are given an allegorical dimension:

[…] the still shape of the mother, who lay looking up at him [Sutpen], from still, inscrutable, sullen eyes, the child at her side wrapped in a piece of dingy though clean cloth. (535)

7The portrait of the mother and her child is probably inspired by pictures or tableaux of the Virgin Mary and Sutpen’s iconoclastic behaviour appears all the more outrageous. He is palpably a Satanic or Faust-like figure. Milly’s grandfather, Wash, is definitely a prosopopeia, especially in the final tableau:

Yet still the gaunt, furious figure came on against the glare and roar of the flames. With the scythe lifted, it bore down upon him, upon the wild glaring eyes of the horses and the swinging glints of gun barrels, without any cry, any sound. (550)

  • 1 “The figure of Time with his scythe never received a more grim embodiment than it does in the grizz (...)

8The adjective “gaunt” is used repeatedly, so that Wash is visualised as a skeleton-type figure, the Allegory of Death1. Once again, the narrator plays with light and darkness, and the flames symbolize the Holocaust, the end of what René Girard would call “the sacrificial crisis”. The reader can also notice, or even hear, the alliterative effects created by the alliterations themselves or the anaphoras so that, paradoxically, the text conveys chaos and fury while the final tableau suggests petrifaction and silence. Such sentences, with their mimetic and hypnotic effect, dramatize or even overdramatize the event. “Textual theatricality” is based on orality, according to Christian Biet and Christophe Triau: “Si bien que le texte résonne tandis que le lecteur, pris dans cette résonance, raisonne à partir de l’oralité qu’il constate et ressent lors de son expérience (renouvelable, et pas nécessairement à l’identique) de lecture. L’oralité serait alors le point focal de conjonction à partir duquel une théâtralité textuelle est possible” (555). The theatricality is enhanced by the use of anaphoras and hyperboles, sometimes abstract words, and by repetitive and well-nigh incantatory rhythms. The text is rich in hyperbolic words such as “crazy”, “fury”, “wild” and even polyptotons such as “fury” and “furious” are not unusual. Such theatricality can account for Wash’s fascination with Sutpen:

[…] there broke suddenly free in mid-gallop the fine proud figure of the man on the fine proud stallion, galloping; and then that at which thinking fumbled, broke free too and quite clear, not in justification nor even explanation, but as the apotheosis, lonely, explicable, beyond all fouling by human touch. (543)

9The symmetry between the man and the stallion is underlined by the trope which is a kind of chiasmus; at the end of the sentence, Sutpen’s epic and iconic status is described in terms of hyperbolic proportions. He is thus dramatized both by his mask – the Cavalier’s mask – and by history and legend: the reader, mesmerized by the gallery of portraits, is actually attending a revenge tragedy.

10The short story is indeed built around the ritualistic pattern of the tragedy. The narrator explicitly refers to the characters as if they were actors on a stage, thus giving a metadramatic dimension to the text:

[…] the three of them, Sutpen, himself [Wash], his granddaughter, with her air of brazen and shrinking defiance as her condition became daily more and more obvious, like three actors that came and went upon a stage. (542)

11There is definitely a play within a play, which is a mise en abyme of the excesses and dangers of dramatization, characters behaving as if they were the puppets of Fate. Doom is inscribed in the setting disintegrating, disappearing among the weeds. The planter’s house is the theatre of decay and decline: “a formal stairs, now but a fading of bare boards between two strips of fading paint” (540). The disappearance of the setting can remind us of Ionesco’s play, Le Roi se meurt. Like characterization, the description of the setting proves minimalist and only a few objects stand out against the gloomy backdrop inherited from the Gothic tradition: Sutpen’s saber and whip, the symbols of his tyranny; the ribbon, which he gives to the young girl so as to seduce and entrap her; Wash’s scythe and butcher’s knife, the instruments of his revenge. The bareness of the setting, symbolic of both Sutpen’s decline and the poor white’s destitution, also reflects the economy of the short story, a genre traditionally requiring conciseness. The symbolism of doors, frames and thresholds has also both a metadramatic and an ideological function. For example, the poor White is not allowed to enter the planter’s house and Sutpen, who stems from a similar social background, was also faced with the same denial as a child.

12Faulkner is also mindful of both unity of place and unity of time and the short story is certainly a better stage than the novel to achieve this perfect symmetry. An external analepsis describes life on the plantation in the antebellum South, in the old days – ah, les beaux jours! – but only one day elapses between the first scene and the last – from birth to the Holocaust. Equally, from the very beginning, the reader is informed that the die is cast: the narrator “zooms in” on the scythe: “[…] there yet leaned rusting against the corner of the porch the scythe which Wash had borrowed from him […]” (536). This proleptic detail clearly reveals that characters’ stage life will be of short duration. Besides, Faulkner introduces a kind of chorus into the play, even if, like any stage director, he intermingles silence with sounds. The sound of galloping horses – which Wash’s mind associates with his impending punishment – is as obsessive as the humiliating sound of “black laughing” that keeps haunting Wash and partly accounts for his final gesture: “They laughed. It was not the first time they had laughed at him, calling him white trash behind his back” (536); “that black laughing, derisive, evasive, inescapable, leaving him panting and impotent and raging”(537). The black people behave like Furies in mythology and sound like prompters in a play (Wash seems to be able to hear their disparaging comments); the black voices of the chorus are in fact responsible for Wash’s frustration and are harbingers of doom. They are part of the tragic ritual.

  • 2 Sutpen can be compared to the king figure René Girard refers to in La Violence et le sacré: “Le car (...)

13Furthermore, the short story contains scenes that are not unusual in tragedies. The curtain rises to the suggestion of Sutpen’s symbolic incest with Milly (she is sixteen whereas he is sixty-two and is as old as Wash). His hubris is his Faustian will to preserve a feudal order based on racial and social injustice and to become a major historical figure in the South. Yet his tragic flaw is his evil nature, which reminds us of the weight of evil in Macbeth, the hero of which is also an overreacher2. Yet, Wash subverts the feudal order by killing Sutpen, because he has betrayed the Southern chivalric tradition, especially by showing more sympathy towards his mare than towards Milly. Wash commits both a symbolic parricide – Sutpen is his master, a model father figure – and infanticide, since he kills his granddaughter and her child. The final Holocaust is a cathartic process, implying the purification and restoration of the old order embodied by Major de Spain. This ritualistic violence is necessary to put an end to the wildness of Sutpen’s behaviour symbolized by his stallion, and Sutpen himself can be perceived as a Centaur. The adjective “crazy”, often used as a hypallage, shows that such violence is contagious, mimetic and absurd: “the crazy doorway”, “the crazy shack” (536); “the crazy door” (542); “the crazy building” (550). René Girard underlines that violence is absurd in Greek tragedy. “Dans la tragédie grecque, par exemple, il ne peut y avoir d’attitude cohérente au sujet de la vengeance […]. Chacun embrasse et condamne la vengeance avec la même fougue suivant la position qu’il occupe, de moment en moment, sur l’échiquier de la violence” (Girard 29). The Southern plantation is also a theatre of the Absurd. Wash’s hamartia or tragic flaw is his blindness, his fascination with Sutpen. His anagnorisis or recognition that Sutpen’s code is cruel and fallacious leads him to defend his own honour and to subvert “the order and the rule of the living” (547) and then to restore it by sacrificing himself. The death of the couple Wash/ Sutpen is necessary to purify the South and they are both pharmakon or scapegoats, for Sutpen is also the victim of his own social origins. Wash’s furious act can also be construed as the “idiot’s” nihilistic gesture leading nowhere, “signifying nothing”. Wash does not even try to flee from his doom and may be unconsciously aware of the ritualistic dimension of the gothic tragedy that is also the baroque drama of Southern illusion.

14The metadramatic dimension of the short story reminds the reader that dramatic illusion should not be mistaken for reality. Sutpen’s histrionics as a war hero or a Southern knight or cavalier proves Quixotic through the very theatricality of his posturing: despite his feats during the Civil War, he is defeated – he is no longer a planter, but the owner of a store, “with Wash for clerk and porter” (539) – and is finally a fake devoted to the Lost Cause and doomed to drink “ inferior whisky” with his grotesque double, Wash, a King’s Fool or a kind of Sancho Panza: “But the talk would not be quiet now, as when Sutpen lay in the hammock, delivering an arrogant monologue while Wash squatted guffawing against his post” (539). Wash is Sutpen’s audience and can also be perceived as a metonymy of Sutpen. The title of the short story could have been “Wash and Sutpen”. After the Civil War, the two characters are so symmetrical that Wash is no longer denied the right to enter the former planter’s house:

He entered the house now. He had been doing so for a long time, taking Sutpen home in whatever borrowed wagon might be, talking him into locomotion with cajoling murmurs as though he were a horse, a stallion himself. He would carry his burden through the once white formal entrance […]. (540)

15In fact, either he becomes the master himself and Sutpen is the animal he rides, or he seems to be crossing the threshold of the house with his new bride in his arms. Neither image is devoid of ironical sexual connotations. The grotesque inversion of roles exemplifies the dialectic of master and slave, which also implies that they are interdependent: during the Civil War, Wash provides food for Sutpen’s daughter, Judith, but he is repaid by Sutpen defiling Milly’s honour. The stallion-and-mare metaphor, with its sexual connotations, shows his betrayal of the genteel tradition. As John T. Matthews puts it, “More sharply than in Faulkner’s novels, his stories demonstrate the objectification and silencing of women in the theatre of male desire” (Matthews 29). Judith is silent throughout the short story, just a shadow, even more ghostly than Milly. Women are a mystery to Wash who has a growing awareness of the discrepancy between historical reality and Southern romantic drama. He is no longer passive and finally tears off the mask worn by Sutpen, one of “the bragging and evil shadows” (547). His daughter’s “delivery” and Sutpen’s outrageous response trigger off an epiphany that enables him to discover the unreality of what he thought was reality:

[…] he stood beneath a strange sky, in a strange scene, familiar only as things are familiar in dreams, like the dreams of falling to one who has never climbed. (544)
It seemed to him that he now saw for the first time, after five years, how it was that Yankees or any other living armies had managed to whip them: the gallant, the proud, the brave; the acknowledged and chosen best among them all to carry courage and honor and pride. (547)

16Wash experiences a feeling of Freudian defamiliarization, wavering between reality and dream, realizing that he was the victim of dramatic illusion. Anne Ubersfeld compares the perception of drama to the perception of dream: “De même le théâtre a le statut du rêve : une construction imaginaire dont le spectateur sait qu’elle est radicalement séparée de la sphère de l’existence quotidienne” (I, 35). Wash Jones crosses the “double space” or espace double, the space of daily life and the space of drama. No denial – no suspension of disbelief – is possible. Sutpen’s words have a Brechtian Verfremdung effect on his consciousness: the Southern epic drama becomes alien to Wash. According to Anne Ubersfeld, this feeling of alienation is the effect of the play within the play:

En revanche, aux lieux du théâtre dans le théâtre, là où s’insère, à l’intérieur de cet espace scénique affecté du signe moins quelque chose qui dit : je suis le théâtre – en ces lieux, la dénégation se renverse ; puisqu’il est bien vrai que nous sommes au théâtre. Ainsi devraient être étudiés avec précision les points capitaux où se fait ce renversement, où la théâtralité s’affirme. (I, 137)

17Wash also discovers the power of abstractions such as “courage”, “honor” and “pride”, the theatrical emptiness of words and of “a tale full of sound and fury”: Sutpen embodies the illusions of power whereas drama denounces the powers of illusion and mimesis, and Faulkner’s writing is a mise en abyme of these powers: “L’écriture faulknérienne reste prise dans l’illusionnisme de la mimésis : elle nous invite aux spectacles de son théâtre baroque, fait défiler devant nous décors et personnages” (Bleikasten, 160).

18Thus, “Wash” definitely enables William Faulkner to cross the boundaries between drama and the short story, especially because of the dramatization effects conveyed by mimetic techniques such as monologues or by stylistic devices such as hyperboles or alliterations; the short story is also built around the same rituals as tragedy, such as epiphanies or sacrifices. The short story can equally be interpreted as a metaphor of dramatic illusion. Because of the condensation and sublimation this genre usually requires, it has definite links with drama. Yet, theatricality pervades all literary genres: it constitutes both a way of perceiving the world and a way of distorting this vision of the world. “Wash” is also a cautionary tale warning the reader against the mesmerizing effects of drama; the short story will later be revised by Faulkner and integrated into a novel, Absalom, Absalom!, which denounces the powers of dramatic illusion.


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1 “The figure of Time with his scythe never received a more grim embodiment than it does in the grizzled Wash Jones raising his rusty implement to strike Sutpen down” (Brooks 308).

2 Sutpen can be compared to the king figure René Girard refers to in La Violence et le sacré: “Le caractère quasi encyclopédique des transgressions, aussi bien que la nature éclectique de la transgression incestueuse révèlent clairement quel genre de personnage le roi est appelé à incarner, celui du transgresseur par excellence, de l'être qui ne respecte rien, qui fait siennes toutes les formes, même les plus atroces, de l'hubris” (158).

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Françoise Buisson, “'Wash' as Faulkner's Prose Tragedy", Journal of the Short Story in English, 51, Autumn 2008, 100-108.

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Françoise Buisson, « "Wash" as Faulkner's Prose Tragedy », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 51 | Autumn 2008, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2010, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :


Françoise Buisson

Françoise Buisson is senior lecturer at the University of Pau. She has written a PhD thesis entitled William Faulkner as a Short Story Writer: Tradition and Modernity. She is a member of CLIMAS (Cultures et Littératures des Mondes Anglophones, Université Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux III) and her main research interests are American literature and civilization, Southern writers and the short story. She has written articles on William Faulkner, Kaye Gibbons, T.C. Boyle and Bret Easton Ellis.

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