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Exercises in Doom:
Yoknapatawpha County Weddings


Leslie Jean Campbell

Note: This paper originally was presented at a meeting of the Arkansas Philological Association and was published in their Publications [4:2 (1978):2-7]. It appears here with only minor editorial changes. If you want to link to this paper or to quote from it, you may do so with proper attribution, but you may not reproduce all or part of it any other form. If you have questions or comments, please get in touch with me:
Leslie Campbell Rampey

Weddings are supposed to be pleasant events symbolizing fertility and embodying a promise of new life for the nuptial couple's community. The weddings in The Sound and the Fury, The Hamlet, Absalom, Absalom! , and The Unvanquished, however, serve a contrary purpose. The weddings of Caddy Compson, Eula Varner, Ellen Coldfield, and Drusilla Hawk all are bizarre events typical of the tragedies they precipitate. In each case, Faulkner inverts the usual significance of the wedding ritual in order to seal the action of the novel in which it takes place. In no one of these four novels is an actual ceremony presented from beginning to end. In each instance, however, enough of the preliminaries and surrounding circumstances may be discerned to enable one to reconstruct the event.

The first Yoknapatawpha wedding is that of Caddy Compson, Faulkner's "heart's darling." The event is dominated by the tragedy inherent in the conflict between appearance and reality that is a major theme in The Sound and the Fury. Apparently Caddy's wedding is the most conventional of all. In reality, it is totally bizarre. All the trappings of a traditional wedding are present: the ceremony takes place in the parlor of the bride's parents' home; the bride is attired in the traditional accouterments of a veil and a train; printed announcements are sent out; and the bride's father, himself an appreciator of intoxicants, has amply provided for the refreshment of his guests by stocking his cellar with a generous supply of the traditional wedding beverage -- champagne.

It is, of course, the champagne, an effective loosener of tongues, that causes reality to intrude upon the Head-Compson wedding. The retarded younger brother of the bride is led by a Negro servant to sample too much of the "'sasprilluh'" and, while imbibing, to spy upon the ceremony through the parlor window. Subsequently, the idiot falls, or is pushed from, the box on which he has been standing. His drunken "bellowing" interrupts the ceremony to such an extent that the bride is moved to run outside the house in a last effort to comfort her youngest brother. The scene is vividly reported by both Benjy and Quentin:

Then I saw Caddy, with flowers in her hair, and a long veil like shining wind. Caddy Caddy . . . and Cad put her arms around me, and her shining veil, and I couldn't smell trees anymore and I began to cry (pp. 58-9). That quick, her train caught up over her arm she ran out of the mirror like a cloud, her veil swirling in long glints her heels brittle and fast clutching her dress onto her shoulder with the other hand, running out of the mirror . . . . She ran out of her dress, clutching her bridal, running into the bellowing where T. P. in the dew Whooey Sassprilluh Benjy under the box bellowing (pp. 100-1). For both brothers this scene is the last vision of Caddy. And it is the only reality her wedding has for them and the reader. It is the last time she will be present to help Benjy. And it is, presumably, the last time she will see Quentin alive, for Caddy's marriage speeds him toward his suicide.

Benjy's drunken scene brings into focus all of the unpleasant realities which have led up to Caddy's wedding. In short, the wedding never should have taken place. Caddy never should have been married -- at least not at the time she was not to the man she was. Caddy, in the vernacular, "had" to get married. But she does not marry the father of the expected child. Instead she marries a man who is, in her mother's eyes and Jason's eyes, a well-to-do businessman. But Head, as he reveals himself to Quentin, is in relaity a fast-talking, cigar-smoking fake. Caddy, acquiescing to convention, sells herself in marriage to him and receives in return only a very temporary name and a life of running. But the tragedy is not Caddy's alone.

The wedding is the beginning of the end for the entire Compson family. Even in a strictly financial sense, the family squanders its last assets for the event. In the Appendix Faulkner refers to "The pasture which was sold to pay for Candace's wedding and to send Quentin to Harvard" (p. 19). The giving of Caddy in marriage also bankrupts the family emotionally. The wedding underlines the theme of loss that runs throughout the novel. After the wedding, Benjy is deprived o Caddy's presence which is his most precious handle on the world. His memories of the wedding are keyed by and interspersed with his recollections of Damuddy's death. Caddy's climbing a tree to spy upon Damuddy's wake triggers Benjy's later memory of standing on a box to spy upon Caddy's wedding. Thereby, the act of parting rather than of joining is emphasized. Like Benjy, Quentin cannot cope with the fact that he no longer possesses Caddy. On the day of his suicide, his mind often drifts to the printed announcement which is the black and white proof of his loss. And Mr. Compson seems gradually to lose strength after Caddy's departure and dies, as Caddy had feared, within the year. Caddy's wedding is the last time the entire Compson family is together. In fact, it is the event that guarantees they never will be together again because they all lose too much by it -- they lose Caddy. The empty ritual, rather than solving any of the family's problems (with the questionable exception of providing a name for a bastard grandchild), eventually insures the free rein of the irrational forces of Mrs. Compson and Jason, who together work to split what is left of the family even further apart.

Eula Varner of The Hamlet finds herself in a predicament similar to Caddy's in that she also faces marriage to a man who is not the father of her unborn child. Although the Varners, like the Compsons, are something of an aristocracy within their own community, Eula's wedding is accomplished with a great deal less fuss than is Caddy's. The trappings of a veil, printed announcements, and champagne are not deemed necessary by the Varners. Nevertheless, in a way, Eula's wedding adheres to a pattern that is itself a convention, at least among people of the Varner's background: in complete view of anyone who cares to observe, as do Tull, Book wright, and Ratliff, the father of the bride, two days after he discovers her pregnancy, accompanies her, her suitcase, and her groom first into the bank and then to the courthouse, and then send the just-married couple off to Texas. Neat and quick. The ugly scene -- the antithesis of what a wedding ritual is supposed to be -- might have been fairly typical of a country shotgun-wedding but for the fact that the man at whom the shotgun should have been aimed had long since departed.

Eula's own perception of the wedding illustrates how small a part she played in the event:

And so one day they clapped her into her Sunday clothes and put the rest of her things -- the tawdry mail-order negligees and nightgowns, the big cheap flimsy shoes and what toilet things she had -- into the tremendous bag and took her to town in the surrey and married her to him (p. 148). Flem Snopes, Faulkner points out, was a person of absolutely no consequence to Eula until the day she married him. And Flem, of course, is totally the wrong husband for one such as Eula. He perfectly fulfills the vision Labove, the tormented schoolmaster, had of Eula's inevitable consort: He could almost see the husband which she would someday have. He would be a dwarf, a gnome, without glands or desire, who would be no more a physical factor in her life than the owner's name on the flyleaf of a book (p. 119). Eula embodies the promise of much life, but she is sold into marriage while she is still a child to a man physically and emotionally impotent. Therefore, the promise of life that marriage implies is negated. It is certain at the end of The Hamlet that Eula, wearing "a tailored suit" and "the unseeing and expressionless mask-face" (p. 369), leaves for no very happy life in Jefferson. The extent of Eula's personal doom is implied in The Hamlet and thoroughly explored much later in The Town.

Even though Eula's fate and her own response to it are not given full scope in The Hamlet, the non-ritual to which she submits has immediate and serious consequences for the other residents of Frenchmen's Bend and for the novel itself. Since Eula is described by many critics as a sort of resident deity, her wedding by rights should have been a great rustic festival that would have insured the future of the hamlet. But Flem is no fit candidate to be a partner in a fertility ritual. So, the wedding is done Snopes Style -- instead of rustic revelry, there is the sterile trek to town to bank to courthouse.

Flem succeeds in marrying Eula in the same way he achieves a progressive hegemony of Frenchman's Bend. These efforts structure the novel. Passion, whether it be lust, anger, or greed, motivates every incident in The Hamlet. Flem feels no compulsion to seek his identity in sexual or violent acts but accomplishes almost every instance of his extension of influence by taking advantage of the consequences of everyone else's acts. In so doing, he makes the texture of their lives the structure of his. Somehow their passion always translates into dollars and cents and position for him. Marriage to Eula is his cop de brace. The only thing Flem ever did to win Eula was to wait for her outrageous sexuality to take its inevitable course. She is powerless to save herself from him because he does not operate on a sexual level. The passion of lust which is responsible for Eula's "trouble" results in gain for Flem. During a single morning in town, at the bank and at the Courthouse, he acquires a wife whom he will need for purposes of respectability once he moves to Jefferson; he gains family ties with Will Varner, a man of some influence; he gets a sum of money outright from Varner; and he obtains possession of the ruined Old Frenchman's place that symbolizes the passing of power from Will Varner to Flem. Life degenerates to the level of a business deal -- the trademark of Snopes.

Like Flem Snopes, Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! marries for the sake of acquiring a wife who will help further his aspirations. Also, like the Snopes-Varner affair, Sutpen's wedding is arranged for the most part by him and his prospective father-in-law Mr. Coldfield. Thus, Faulkner prepares for another wedding that is devoid of any of the emotions commonly supposed to be the basis for marriage. The wedding itself is depicted in relatively great detail. Paradoxically, the only Yoknapatawpha wedding that takes place inside a church, it is the most terrifying, and, as Miss Rosa probably would have characterized it, the most demonic, of the weddings Faulkner presents. Planned by the aunt and Ellen to be a huge and conventional affair, the wedding is a social disaster. According to Mr. Compson, "'…there were just ten people in the church, including the wedding party, of the hundred who had been invited;…'" (p. 151). The townspeople boycott the wedding because of the hostility Sutpen has aroused by his success. But the people who disapprove of Sutpen do not stay away from the affair -- they simply decline to attend the ceremony.

Directly after the ceremony occur the truly bizarre events. In anticipation of trouble, Sutpen earlier beefed up his grotesque entourage of Negroes:

…he did the only thing he could do, which was to sent out to Sutpen's Hundred and bring in six or seven more of his negroes, men on who he could depend and arm them with the lighted pine knots which they were holding at the door when the carriage came up and the wedding party got out….now the banquette before the church door was a sort of arena lighted by the smoking torches which the negroes held above their heads, the light of which wavered and gleamed upon the two lines of faces between which the party would have to pass to enter the church (pp. 55-6).

Following the ceremony, Ellen, as Mr. Compson tells Quentin, "'seems to have walked out of the church and so into it without any warning whatever'" (p. 56). The "'it'" is the mob who has gathered to throw refuse rather than rice, and to insult rather than congratulate. Ellen's wedding, like Caddy's and Eula's, turns into a mockery of the ritual.

Ellen, however, is the most willing, or at least the most cooperative of Faulkner's brides. Moreover, Ellen Coldfield Sutpen bears the dubious distinction of being the only Yoknapatawpha bride to produce legitimate offspring. But in her case, neither that fact, nor the fact that she once briefly might have imagined herself to be in love with Sutpen, does not mean that her wedding is not also symbolic of sterility. That perverted ritual not only signals the personal doom of Ellen Coldfield but emphasizes the tragic destructiveness Thomas Sutpen leaves in his wake throughout the novel.

Miss Rosa observes, correctly for once, the paradox of the fact that "the demon" found her sister in the church in which they eventually were married: "'In church, mind you, as though there were a fatality and curse on our family and God Himself were seeing to it that it was performed and discharged to the last drop and dreg'" (p. 21). Thomas Sutpen's attitude toward marriage is wholly typical of his emotionless view of life, as he almost parenthetically confesses to Quentin's grandfather: "'I had a design. To accomplish it I should require money, a house, a plantation, slaves, a family -- incidentally, of course, a wife'" (p. 263). Although he and Ellen have children, this only results in prolonging the inevitable sterility for one generation. Judith and Henry, through the fatal triangle of themselves and Bon, carry out the promise of doom that is implied in that final view of their parents on their wedding night:

'…while about the wedding party the circle of faces with open mouths and torch-reflecting eyes seemed to advance and waver and shift and vanish in the smoky glare of the burning pine. He retreated to the carriage, shielding the two women with his body, ordering the negroes to follow without another word' (p. 57). The image is one of a retreat into Hell in an infernal chariot. As the lives of the Sutpens prove, nothing of good can follow.

Lighter treatment is given the wedding of Drusilla Hawk and Col. John Sartoris in The Unvanquished. In one way, Drusilla's wedding is a ritual that brings a community together: "the two sets of them, the men and the women, facing one another like they were both waiting for a bungle to sound the charge... (p. 215). If "Skirmish at Sartoris" is considered alone, the wedding of Drusilla and John may be interpreted as a ritual that unites a split community for a while. Both tradition and reality are served that day: Drusilla's marriage satisfies the women, and the men succeed in illegally disenfranchising the black Republicans in order to gain lost political initiative. Taken in the context of the novel as a whole, however, Drusilla's wedding has more in common with the other three weddings discussed above than might be thought at first. First, the idea of the wedding does not, at least overtly, originate with the two principals involved, Col. Sartoris and Drusilla. Rather, the wedding is demanded and arranged by Aunt Louisa Hawk, Mrs. Compson, and the ladies of Jefferson. Something, it is clear, is not quite right with this union from the start.

The event itself is as grotesque as the weddins of Caddy, Eula, and Ellen. It hardly is usual for a groom to stop off on the way to his wedding to kill two men. The absurdity of the complication is emphasized when Ringo and Denny Hawk beat the wedding party back to Sartoris hollering, "'They kilt um! They kilt um!'" Aunt Louisa's only reaction to the news is to holler back, "'Do you mean to tell me that Drusilla and that man are not married yet?'" (p. 236). Drusilla finally arrives, carrying, of all things, a ballot box, and stands, as Bayard tells it, "in her torn dress and the ruined veil and the twisted wreath hanging from her hair by a few pins" (p. 240). An emblem of the event, the "ruined veil" forecasts something of her marriage. Drusilla, a woman already alienated form her society, has been hopelessly corrupted by the violence of war.

Drusilla's mother and the other women were certain that marriage would redeem Drusilla. But it is not only Drusilla they want to redeem. With unerring mythical perception, the women somehow know that the archetypal ritual of a wedding should restore the structure of their devastated community. Indeed, much of "Skirmish at Sartoris" is concerned with the process of re-building -- physically, politically, and socially. The women arrange a wedding that is their special contribution to the future. Mythically speaking, they were quite correct in their actions.

What the fine ladies do not count upon, however, is that Drusilla's corruption is so thorough that no dress, veil, ceremony, husband, no house is going to bring her back to the path she was on when her genteel upbringing was hideously interrupted by the war. Drusilla is altogether unfit for the role of fertility goddess that the ladies unconsciously, but archetypically, force upon her. The unhappy results of the marriage between Drusilla and Col. John are alluded to in the final portion of the novel, "An Odor of Verbena." Drusilla, still sporting "short, jagged hair" (p. 263), seeks to renew something of the wartime excitement by attempting to seduce her stepson and then suggesting he tell his father about it. Then later she tries to goad Bayard into a revenge killing. Apparently, Drusilla cannot wait to immerse herself once more in blood and gunpowder. Neither is Col. Sartoris redeemed by marriage. By the time of "An Odor of Verbena," Sartoris, the once gallant romantic, is revealed as an aging, would-be businessman whose actions become considerably more petty and less heroic as the years wear on. Furthermore, although Drusilla is a strong young woman and John is supposedly a still-vigorous male, the Sartorises are partners in a sterile union. Their marriage hardly is one that in any sense heals a wounded community. Indeed, it should have been evident from the evens of their wedding, specifically the double manslaughter which interrupts the day, that a serious mistake was being made. Neither partner was ready to assume the mythic responsibility that was almost comically thrust upon them. It remains for the next generation -- Bayard -- to assume responsibility for pulling his society out of the chaos of violence from which it has not quite recovered. By refusing to indulge in vengeance, which was so much a part of Drusilla's and John's lives, Bayard makes a positive step in that direction.

The exception that proves the bizarre rule of Faulkner's weddings is a wedding which does not even take place within Yoknapatawpha County: the wedding of Linda Snopes Kohl in The Mansion. Most important, Gavin Stevens and V. K. Ratliff, two admirable mainstays of Yoknapatawpha County, make the long and alienating journey to New York because they care enough about Linda to want to see her married. Gavin even arranges for Hoake McCarron, Linda's real father, to be on the scene. And later that night, Linda receives the marvelous wedding present of finding out that she is not a Snopes. It is true that eventually Linda does not lead a satisfying life, but that is due to circumstances, specifically Kohl's death, rather than any doom implied in her wedding.

The difference is that Linda got out for a while -- she is an independent woman who escaped from the bonds of a provincial society which, as has been demonstrated, demands participation in ritual even when the ritual is a tragically empty one. The failure on the part of the community to acknowledge that form without content is not enough to hold life together is at the bottom of each wedding Faulkner presents. The bride in each case is sacrificed in the hope that a wedding ceremony will stem the fatal splitting process that is the essence of much Faulknerian tragedy. That that hope is vain when the ritual is divorced from human emotion is the message revealed by the Yoknapatawpha weddings.


All page references to The Sound and the Fury are from the 1946 Modern Library Edition.

All page references to The Hamlet are from the Vintage Books Edition.

All page references to Absalom, Absalom! are from the Modern Library facsimile of the First Edition.

All page references to The Unvanquished are from the Vintage Books Edition.