William Faulkner, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (The Wild Palms)
December 7, 2012 § Leave a comment
And the doctor wore a night shirt too, not pajamas, for the same reason that he smoked the pipe which he had never learned and knew that he would never learn to like, between the occasional cigar which clients gave him in the intervals of Sundays on which he smoked the three cigars which he felt he could buy for himself even though he owned the beach cottage as well as the one next door to it and the one, the residence with electricity and plastered walls, in the village four miles away. Because he was now forty-eight years old and he had been sixteen and eighteen and twenty at the time when his father could tell him (and he believe it) that cigarettes and pajamas were for dudes and women.
Once (it was in Mississippi, in May, in the flood year 1927) there were two convicts. One of them was about twenty-five, tall, lean, flat-stomached, with a sunburned face and Indian-black hair and pale, china-colored outraged eyes – an outrage directed not at the men who had foiled his crime, not even at the lawyers and judges who had sent him here, but at the writers, the uncorporeal names attached to the stories, the paper novels – the Diamond Dicks and Jesse Jameses and such – whom he believed had led him into his present predicament through their own ignorance and gullibility regarding the medium in which they dealt and took money for, in accepting information on which they placed the stamp of verisimilitude and authenticity (this so much the more criminal since there was no sworn notarised statement attached and hence so much the quicker would the information be accepted by one who expected the same unspoken good faith, demanding, asking, expecting no certification, which he extended along with the dime or fifteen cents to pay for it) and retailed for money and which on actual application proved to be impractical and (to the convict) criminally false; there would be times when he would halt his mule and plow in midfurrow (there is no walled penitentiary in Mississippi; it is a cotton plantation which the convicts work under the rifles and shotguns of guards and trusties) and muse with a kind of enraged impotence, fumbling among the rubbish left him by his one and only experience with courts and law, fumbling until the meaningless and verbose shibboleth took form at last (himself seeking justice at the same blind fount where he had met justice and been hurled back and down): using the mails to defraud: who felt that he had been defrauded by the third class mail system not of crass and stupid money which he did not particularly want anyway, but of liberty and honor and pride.
As much as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha stories are effective in creating a realistic setting with complex characters spitting into the winds of culture, family history, and fate, there is still the threat of narrative fatigue. After a few stories on the Compsons, Snopes, Sam Fathers, or Doom, the reader already has a general idea what to expect from these characters when they are confronted with certain situations. After 1929, Faulkner wrote very few non-Yoknapatawpha stories, but his 1939 novel, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (originally entitled The Wild Palms) stands out as perhaps one of his five most accomplished and moving novels. If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem features two separate narratives, each connected only thematically by how the protagonist responds to moments of crisis. Alternating chapters, “Wild Palms” and “Old Man,” tell the stories of a rich country doctor and a convict caught up in the aftermath of the 1927 Mississippi flood, as each battle against social conventions, desire, and fate.
The two quotes above underscore Faulkner’s use of parallel structure. The doctor, Harry Wilbourne (itself a telling name), is trapped. He becomes a country doctor, willy-nilly, just as he acceded to his father’s wishes and married the woman selected for him. He is slotted into his father’s old role, with little say in the matter. He doesn’t wear pajamas because his father disapproved of them. He smokes cigars because that was expected of doctors in the 1930s. His entire life is circumscribed by others’ expectations of what he, a doctor, ought to be, never mind what he himself might enjoy. It is this growing frustration with his assigned social/occupational role that leads Henry to partake in the ultimate transgression for his social milieu, that of a clandestine affair and later flight from the village where he had lived virtually his entire life.
Contrast this with the convict described in the second quote. He is younger, twenty-five at the time of the events of 1927, yet he too finds himself bound. His binding is not that of a society expecting him to occupy a prestigious position against his will, but rather he is shaped by the pulp fiction dime novels that he reads. This convict, for whom there is no name given in the “Old Man” chapters, rails against the deceptions that society has imposed upon its denizens through the dissemination of fictions that feature rogues and gentlemen thieves. Condemned to serve fifteen years at Parchman State Penitentiary (itself a vast plantation worked by convicts under the watchful eyes – and guns – of guards) for armed robbery, this convict feels deprived of liberty, honor, and pride by the very institutions that instilled such notions into his young mind.
The alternating structure of the “Wild Palms” and “Old Man” chapters allows Faulkner to explore the different (and similar) paths Harry and the convict take in dealing with their crises. For Henry, his love affair with Charlotte (herself a married woman) leads to a flight to the Gulf Coast, where both attempt to abscond not just from their spouses, but from the restrictions that their social class has imposed upon them. It is as much a confining prison as that which the convict discovers at Parchman, where the freedom to choose how to live one’s life has largely been taken away by a society that expects total conformity to its rules and conventions. Harry and Charlotte struggle to find happiness, feeling even from afar the scathing contempt born of their transgression. Fear of further loss and agony over Charlotte’s pregnancy and what that might mean to even the shredded remnants of their reputations leads to a desperate attempt by Harry to abort Charlotte’s pregnancy. Even though this ending, where the lovers cannot have full, “true” happiness due to their violation of social standards regarding the sanctity of marriage, risks having a cliched ending, Faulkner goes further and explores just how those implacable forces against we struggle can create something more than just a tragedy, something that is worth remembering even in grief and suffering because both are superior to nothingness. The very last paragraph of “Wild Palms” states this eloquently:
So it wasn’t just memory. Memory was just half of it, it wasn’t enough. But it must be somewhere he thought. There’s the waste. Not just me. At least I think I dont mean just me. Hope I dont mean just me. Let it be anyone thinking of, remembering, the body, the broad thighs and the hands that liked bitching and making things. It seemed so little, so little to want, to ask. With all the old graveward-creeping, the old wrinkled withered defeated clinging not even to the defeat but just to an old habit; accepting the defeat even to be allowed to cling to the habit – the wheezing lungs, the troublesome guts incapable of pleasure. But after all memory could live in the old wheezing entrails: and now it did stand to his hand, incontrovertible and plain, serene, the palm clashing and murmuring dry and wild and faint and it the night but he could face it, thinking, Not could. Will. I want to. So it is the old meat after all, no matter how old. Because if memory exists outside of the flesh it wont be memory because it wont know what it remembers so when she became not then half of memory became not and if I become not then all of remembering will cease to be. – Yes he thought. Between grief and nothing I will take grief.
The tall convict’s story in the “Old Man” chapters approach issues of freedom and love from a different angle. This unnamed convict, identified by his height through these chapters, finds freedom of a more literal sort when during the Mississippi flood of 1927, the inmates of Parchman are evacuated and his skiff (where he had rescued a woman from a tree) is forced apart from the rest of the crew. Whereas Harry and Charlotte’s flight is from extra-legal conventions that bind perhaps even harder than the legal restraints that the tall convict escapes, his situation becomes perilous due to the very real danger of being killed as a fugitive or bound to serve even more time if caught. He and the woman (who is pregnant) go up and down the river, trying to find Parchman, only to spend weeks separated. Traumatic events frequently bring people closer together and the tall convict and the woman do form a bond, even though he is bound and determined to return to finish his sentence.
There is a connection here between the flooded Mississippi (the “old man” of the story) and the streams of human lives that intersect it. Outside of rare tumultuous times, both flow from point to point with nary a pause. The convict’s struggles against the river, against this inexorable tide that pushes against his desire to return to his familiar penitential life, is seen in a telling passage near the end of the penultimate “Old Man” chapter:
The lake was behind him now; there was but one direction he could go. When he saw the River again he knew it at once. He should have; it was now ineradicably a part of his past, his life; it would be a part of what he would bequeath, if that were in store for him. But four weeks later it would look different from what it did now and did: he (the old man) had recovered from his debauch, back in banks again, the Old Man, rimpling placidly toward the sea, brown and rich as chocolate between levees whose inner faces were wrinkled as though in a frozen and aghast amazement…
Yet for the tall convict, as for Harry and Charlotte, fate proves to be fickle and treacherous. Although the tall convict turned himself in voluntarily, he discovers that he now has had an additional ten years added to his sentence for escaping, even despite his intent to return. While he receives this stoically, accepting it as part of fate, it is the betrayal of his female companion that angers him most, as she quickly moves on from their shared bond and forges a new one, despite her initial agreement to wait out those ten years for him to be free. Here, there is a bitterness that tinges the earlier resignation to fate, a sense that despite what the tall convict had stated throughout the narrative, that there is still a spark of resentment and perhaps even an eagerness to resist what fate has had in store for him. It is a sobering way to close If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, yet the tall convict’s “Women, shit” comment provides a sense that this tragedy is not the end of his life; he will continue to endure.
In a 1958 Paris Review interview, Faulkner made the following remark:
“No one is without Christianity, if we agree on what we mean by that word. It is every individual’s individual code of behavior by means of which he makes himself a better human being than his nature wants to be, if he followed his nature only. Whatever its symbol — cross or crescent or whatever — that symbol is man’s reminder of his duty inside the human race. Its various allegories are the charts against which he measures himself and learns to know what he is. It cannot teach a man to be good as the textbook teaches him mathematics. It shows him how to discover himself, evolve for himself a moral codes and standard within his capacities and aspirations, by giving him a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice and the promise of hope.”
This quote fits neatly with the characters of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. Harry, Charlotte, and the tall convict all try to go beyond what their natures/society have dictated them to be. Although each fails, there is something to be said for that desire to strive to do his or her duty, whether it is to love and cherish or to remember grief in honor of that lost love. It is tempting to label the two stories contained within If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem as tragedies; after all, they do hold up the ideal of humanity as greater than its quotidian actions and desires. Yet there is more to it than the inevitable failure of those goals. We see characters striving to change the equation, to rewrite the rules and conventions and to forge something different. There is a nobleness in those deeds, which Harry and the convict will likely not forget, that brings Faulkner’s original title, “If I forget thee, Jerusalem,” full circle. That reference to suffering and loss also contains the germ of hope, as this suffering and sorrow will come to bear new fruit. Like Harry, between grief and nothing we choose to take grief.
Originally posted in April 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.