William Faulkner, "Hair"; "Nympholepsy"
November 28, 2012 § Leave a comment
This week’s two stories, “Hair” (1931) and “Nympholepsy” (posthumously published in 1973), illustrate the breadth and depth of his range as a writer. The former is, on the surface at least, a study of a mysterious character while the latter is an exploration of character and life as seen through an intense magnification of a moment of struggle and despair. Yet both, in their own particular way reference and reinforce several themes that Faulkner liked to explore in his fictions, novels and short fiction alike.
“Hair,” like most of his fictions, is set in the fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi. Hawkshaw, a mysterious barber who appeared in town some years ago, appears to have at best an odd and at worst a disturbing relationship with a young orphaned teenaged girl, Susan Reed. Their relationship is frequently the talk of the town, as the narrator, a traveling salesman, notes. Yet there is much, much more to Hawkshaw than what is first revealed and it is in that slowly-revealed backstory that “Hair” develops into something much more poignant.
Faulkner never has Hawkshaw tell his own story. Instead, we see his entire life through the eyes of observers, the salesman being the one who fills in the gaps over a thirteen-year period in which his traveling circuit across Mississippi and Alabama has allowed him to intersect with Hawkshaw and to discover just why the barber asks for two weeks off in early April every year. Here is an example of how this salesman describes Hawkshaw:
A little, sandy-complected man with a face you would not remember and would not recognize again ten minutes later, in a blue serge suit and a black bow tie, the kind that snaps together in the back, that you buy already tied in the store. Maxey told me he was still wearing that serge suit and tie when he got off the south-bound train in Jefferson a year later, carrying one of these imitation leather suitcases. And when I saw him again in Jefferson in the next year, behind a chair in Maxey’s shop, if it had not been for the chair I wouldn’t have recognized him at all. Same face, same tie; be damned if it wasn’t like they had picked him up, chair, customer and all, and set him down sixty miles away without him missing a lick. I had to look back out the window at the square to be sure I wasn’t in Porterfield myself any time a year ago. And that was the first time I realized that when I had made Porterfield about six weeks back, he had not been there.
Faulkner contrasts this staid, everyman look with the mystery behind his travels through Alabama, Tennessee, and finally Mississippi. Why would a barber, generally one of the more rooted members in pre-World War II Southern society, be seen for a year or two at a time in at least eight different towns before asking for leave in early April for two weeks, only to skip town for good except for his final stop at Jefferson? What is so important about a closed house in a flyspeck town on the Alabama/Mississippi border where the villagers would tell the salesman about this same barber? By using anecdotes to flesh out this mystery, Faulkner sucks in the reader, inviting them to try and puzzle out why the house is so important, what is symbolic about a missing portrait and lock of hair, and just what might be the connection with young Susan Reed?
“Hair” works as a story because there is very little exposition that occurs outside of the salesman’s recollections and even that is doled out in accordance with the unfolding narrative surrounding Hawkshaw and the young girl. Although by the time the final reveal many readers may have already puzzled out most of the mysteries, there is also a short, sharp finale that leaves the story hanging in such a way that the reader may find herself dwelling upon what had just occurred over the past eighteen pages of text. Within that brief space, Faulkner explores loss, determination, honoring debts, and the viciousness of town gossip not through declamatory protest or acclaim, but instead through a subtle juxtaposition of character comments and actions. There is a surprising amount of depth to this little story, one that is belied by its length (with the exception of “A Rose for Emily,” this is the shortest Faulkner short fiction, other than the second one featured in this commentary, to be reviewed to date here).
“Nympholepsy” differs significantly from “Hair” in that it focuses on a key, decisive moment in a farmer’s life. The opening paragraph sets the tone for the climatic moment to a story about which the reader will know so little:
Soon the sharp line of the hill-crest had cut off his shadow’s head; and pushing it like a snake before him, he saw it gradually become nothing. And at last he had no shadow at all. his heavy shapeless shoes were gray in the dusty road, his overalls were gray with dust: dust was like a benediction upon him and upon the day of labor behind him. He did not recall the falling of slain wheat and his muscles had forgotten the heave and thrust of fork and grain, his hands had forgotten the feel of a wooden handle worn smooth and sweet as silk to the touch; he had forgotten a yawning loft and spinning chaff in the sunlight like an immortal dance.
It is a day like and unlike any other: another day of toil and sweat complete, the desire for something compassionate in a seemingly harsh and unforgiving life dependent upon the whims of God/nature. This farmer feels he is going to die, or rather, perhaps intends to die in order to leave this dreadful state of uncertainty:
The rotten bark slipped under his feet, scaling off and falling upon the dark whispering stream. It was as though he stood upon the bank and cursed his blundering body as it slipped and fought for balance. You are going to die, he told his body, feeling that imminent Presence again about him, now that his mental concentration had been vanquished by gravity. For an arrested fragment of time he felt, through vision without intellect, the waiting dark water, the treacherous log, the tree trunks pulsing and breathing and the branches like an invocation to a dark and unseen god; then trees and the star-flown sky slowly arced across his eyes. In his fall was death, and a bleak derisive laughter. He died time and again, but his body refused to die. Then the water took him.
Here the edges between reality and dream become blurred. As the night deepens, the farmer seems to be drawn through water and death toward a woman in the distance, whom he seeks to hold in his hands. There is a disappearance, followed by a long, slow return to the patterns of before. The very title, “Nympholepsy,” hints at just what sort of woman the farmer found himself beholden to; the final part the type of encounter. It is a direct, raw, hallucinatory story, very different in form from most of Faulkner’s fiction. In it can be seen most clearly the elements of the magic within the purportedly realist milieu. Faulkner is often cited as an influence on the great Latin American writers of the “Boom Generation,” and “Nympholepsy” certainly contains that ethereal, haunting quality found in the best of their works. It is not as much a story as a moment of magic on earth, serving not to provide an escape route for the farmer, but instead a confirmation of what he has lived.
Originally posted in March 2012 on Gogol’s Overcoat as part of a weekly “Faulkner Friday.” Novels reviewed from January-April will be reposted here on Fridays, while the short stories will appear on Wednesdays.