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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Character structure and the traditional community in three southern novels Swanson, Gerald William


The three novels discussed in this essay avoid the abstraction of ideology without resorting to oversimplification. William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man are, among other things, the presentation of character in context. In chapters two, three, and four, I consider consecutively the character structures of the protagonists of the three novels in terms of the interaction between the individuals and the communally prescribed character structures of the traditional South which form their context. With Addie Bundren, Faulkner exemplifies the southerner's preference for stable, primary-colored individuality over the more mobile, versatile, inclusive "individuation" to which he objects because, from his traditional viewpoint, it leaves the individual isolated and alienated with no way of relating his world to the necessarily divergent worlds around him and no way of coping adequately with unforseen human events. Inheriting negation in place of tradition, Addie's death and burial leave the family in a bestially primitive state, existing without benefit of the accumulated experience of history. The traditional society, however, is not the only one that utilizes the experience of past generations. A perspective of the values and limitations of a family living according to southern traditions as it faces changes in conflict with its "individuated" members provides a literary view of the workings of a traditional milieu from the inside in Delta Wedding. Welty intimates that real life--the spontaneous action and reaction of an "individuated" being to present phenomena--is more powerful than the restraining and, because dated, erroneous traditions surrounding it. The protagonist of Ellison's Invisible Man moves from a culturally prescribed "preconsciousness" to the furthest extremes of "individuation". The acceptable ways of being black in the South offer so little possibility for the black man that his entire environment can be seen as a maze of traps placed by the culture between the individual and what twentieth-century democratic thought has come to define as basic human freedom. Falling first into the hands of racists, then paternalists, and finally--the most subtle trap of all--the complex and contradictory concepts of the nature of the black man as conceived by southern black men themselves, the Invisible Man exposes as he experiences the primary facets of southern racism. Breaking through these traditions, the Invisible Man does not attempt to become a white man with a black skin, but locates those elements of his black culture that are viable within the larger perspective of his liberated consciousness. Finally, Ellison posits the need for an "individuated" personality as prerequisite to the naming of the reality that forms its context. And, as Faulkner has shown with Addie Bundren, individuated being has insufficient scope for meeting existential exigencies if it is formed without the positive tensions of a broader than individual view--what Ellison calls "myth". As Welty shows, the southern myth is insufficiently inclusive to allow for universal survival through diversified compatibility.

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