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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The bystander in Faulkner's fiction MacMillan, Kenneth Douglas


In much of his fiction Faulkner used a type of character which one might call the "bystander." The bystander is important not as a participant in the action of a novel or short story, but rather as a witness to the actions of other characters, the protagonists. Frequently, however, the focus of the author's attention falls upon the perceptions and feelings of the apparently irrelevant witness instead of upon the ostensible action of the work. Faulkner analyzes closely the effects the action has upon the bystander who may become involved in events which, strictly speaking, should not concern him. Reciprocally, the protagonists very frequently are conscious of the watching eyes of the bystander (or bystanders) and adapt their actions to placate or defy the watching consciousness. There is, therefore, a complex relationship between the two types, protagonist and witness. Many critics have seen individual bystanders in Faulkner's fiction as mouthpieces of the author, but this dissertation attempts to refute this interpretation. The first four chapters of the dissertation consider the choric or collective bystanders, the problem, important to Faulkner, of perception and the subjectivity of vision, the use of irony in treatments of the bystander, and the use of the youthful bystander. Each of these topics reinforces the assertion that Faulkner views the bystander figure inevitably as limited and fallible and not as an authorial spokesman. Because Stevens appears more frequently in Faulkner's work than any other bystander figure, and because he has attracted more adverse criticism than any other character in Faulkner's fiction, the last five chapters focus upon him and- discuss in detail the works in which he appears. The dissertation shows Faulkner's portrayal of Gavin Stevens to be complex and effective, not the failure it is often claimed to be. Indeed, a discussion of the bystander casts new light upon several of Faulkner's less famous works and indicates-how those works extend the treatment of themes recognized in the major successes of the 1930's. The Influence of the town in Soldiers' Pay and Sartoris, the significance of the mysterious figure of the Reporter in Pylon, the importance of the experiments in Knight's Gambit, all appear by means of this investigation. Similarly, this dissertation shows how bystander figures play Important parts in nearly all of Faulkner's novels and in many of his short stories. The dissertation reveals Faulkner's continued interest in the passive bystander who only witnesses the actions of the protagonists "but who yet exerts a powerful influence upon their actions. Thus the treatment of this type in Faulkner's fiction indicates both the powers and limitations of perception. The bystanders are frequently sympathetic, intelligent, and morally aware, but they are, at the same time, ineffectual, passive, or escapist. Furthermore, because Faulkner's stance as an artist is often that of the non-involved witness, a study of his use of the bystander leads ultimately to a consideration of problems central to his conception of fiction.

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