The Art of Faulkner's Narrative Technique

Johannes Burgers


In the 1920s, Russian formalist scholars made what would be one of the most influential distinctions in the study of narrative: story vs. plot. The distinction presumed that authors took the basic materials of a story, and shaped them into a plot. In this framing, the story or "fabula" is the sequence of events as they occurred, their chronological order, while the plot or "syuzhet" is the order of events in which they are conveyed to the reader.1 Based on this distinction, an elaborate vocabulary for describing narrative structures became available. Nearly a century old, the vital distinction between story and plot has not remained unchallenged.2 A particularly trenchant criticism is that the existence of a "story" implies the existence of an underlying, total order outside of the text. These critiques raise a broader set of questions about the feasibility of ever being able to separate a story from the way it is told.3

These criticisms notwithstanding, the Digital Yoknapatawpha project has undertaken the task of encoding the order in which events appear in the text, their chronological order, and how they are conveyed to the reader (narrative status). Individually, these three data points, help readers contextualize events within the larger context of the narrative. Taken together, these three data points can be used to perform comparative analysis of how Faulkner structures narrative in his text. The Narrative Structure Analysis Dashboard is merely one such tool, and undoubtedly this data can be represented in different ways to elucidate Faulkner's writing from a multiplicity of angles.

Creating the Chronologies

The process for encoding any literary narrative is not unproblematic, and Faulkner is certainly no exception. For example, in The Sound and the Fury it is easy to order the sequence of the chapters because Faulkner gives their dates: "April Seventh, 1928," "June Second, 1910," "April Sixth, 1928," and "April Eighth, 1928." Clearly, the chronological sequence of chapters is chapter 2, 3, 1, and 4. Yet, anyone who has read the Sound and the Fury knows that ordering the chronology of events within chapters is part of the challenge of the work, and, indeed, also its art.

For this reason, Faulkner's chronologies have become somewhat of a bailiwick for scholars, and many have tried to establish the chronology of either Yoknapatawpha County in general, or specific stories.4 The DY editors have relied on many previous studies to establish the chronological order for all of Faulkner's texts. Still, even with the help of this robust corpus, sequencing the events of a story is a very involved process, and there are many interpretive decisions that the DY collaborators had to make in order to establish these chronologies. While it makes no sense to enumerate each specific issue, suffice it to say that these were broadly related to the use of relative time. In Faulkner, and in most other narratives, time is not always specified by date, but can be relational. Concepts like "before," "after," "a couple of years ago," and "around the same time," all indicate the relative sequence of an event, but do not indicate its specific position on a timeline. For instance, is the event that happened "a couple of years ago" "before" or "after" the event that happened "around the same time"? In some cases, deciding the order came down to what would be the most logically consistent sequence of events, something which, by the way, did not always trouble Faulkner.5

Interpreting the Charts


In the charts, the time structure of the text has been mapped with the plot (syuzhet) on the x-axis (horizontal) and the story (fabula) on the y-axis (vertical). From left to right on the x-axis is the sequence of events as they appear in the text by page number. Moving farther right means moving farther along in the text. Meanwhile, the chronology is ordered from earliest to latest on the y-axis, and events that are lower down occur before events that are higher up. In a chart where events are in chronological order, the slope should be around 45o. In the chart below, "Raid," most of the events occur in the order they are conveyed to the reader. There are a couple of moments where there are "dips." These are moments when the text refers to an earlier event. This is commonly known as a flashback or analepsis. On the whole though, the chart for "Raid" suggests a relatively linear sequence of events.

Part of Faulkner's signature writing style are his experiments with time, and these are very visible in the charts from his more canonical works. In The Sound and the Fury, the chapters are "out of order," but so are many of the events within the chapters. The low-high split of points on this chart indicates a constant jump back and forth in time, especially the first two hundred pages of the novel. These are roughly the "Benjy" and "Quentin" chapters. Viewed from this perspective, it is possible to contrast "Raid" and The Sound and the Fury, and observe that the latter has far more radical and innovative temporal structures. The past is always making itself felt through the memory of the characters.

Narrative Status

Along with the sequencing of events in chronological order, the DY collaborators also relied on some principles of narratology for indicating how that event is conveyed to the reader. In some cases, there is a third person narrator, in other cases an event is remembered, as when Benjy and Quentin go about their respective days. At other times, events are told by characters in a text, something quite different yet again. A full overview of the differences can be found here. Narrative status thereby provides another window into understanding how Faulkner structures his narratives. In Go Down, Moses events are conveyed to the reader through a multiplicity of perspectives, adding to the ambiguity of the narrative and the richness of its interpretation.

Rank Order and Date Order

The most natural way to think of chronology is date order. It is one of the most common descriptors of someone's life, a born date and a death date. The sequence of dates between those rather definitive book-ends is somewhat more ambiguous. People might remember the year or even month of an important life event, but they may not remember the day, or they may remember the day but are hazy on the details of the sequence of events leading up to it. With the help of external sources, these personal experiences of time can sometimes be reconstructed. Much the same, the sequencing of historical events too relies on cross-referencing sources to establish a timeline, though such timelines also suffer from lacunae.

These problems are compounded when establishing a timeline for fictional narratives, since there are usually no external sources to reference. There is no way to pull up Quentin's class schedule at Harvard to establish where he should have been on June 2nd and at what time! Thus, the DY collaborators have inferred dates based on the sequence of events. Needless to say, it is not always possible to pin down one singular date for an event, and this is why an "earliest possible start date" and "latest possible end date" for an event were entered. Hence, an event that takes place during a year is given a range of one year, unless any more information about the possible date is known. Ideally, all date ranges would be as narrow as possible; in reality this is not the case.

As date ranges are necessarily ambiguous, the rank order of events is also available for selection. The rank order sequences events as represented in the chronology, but does not take into consideration the narrative distance between them. In The Sound and the Fury the earliest event is the birth of Jesus, an event that happens well before the narrative present of the text. On the rank order chart this is a small green dot on the x-axis, right around page 300. On the date order chart this event is more apparent, and represents one dot that re-scales the sense of time for the entire novel.

By default, charts are graphed by rank order, though undoubtedly the date order graphs provide equally interesting insights. In particular, they tend to highlight how the historical past is in tension with the narrative present. In some cases, the date range of a chart is very narrow, such as in "The Hound" where the narrative sequence is almost entirely in the narrative present, with one event in the past whose possible date range is less clear.

In other cases, the narrative jumps around in time in leaps and bounds, suggesting a positioning within a larger historical time scale. For instance, the narrative present of Absalom, Absalom! stretches from the fall of 1909 into the winter of 1910, but its history plumbs as far down as the first settlement of Yoknapatawpha.

The chart very nicely underscores how the novel's present precariously sediments over its dark past. As the story unfolds, Quentin excavates the different historical strata of his native South through the enigmatic story of Thomas Sutpen. Towards the end of the narrative, all the way on the right of the graph, the past and the present converge, and become inseparable from one another.

Utilizing the Charts

The graphing library used to create these charts, Plotly.js, has some built in functionality that lets users play around with the charts. For example, clicking the small camera icon will download the image of the chart in PNG format. Hovering over the data points will reveal the specific page number and sequence within the page when that event is taking place, along with the first 8-10 words of the event. The legend is clickable as well, and data series (called traces) can be shown and hidden for a more scoped view of the texts.

In all cases, the charts are visual representations of data that has been assiduously collected, peer-reviewed, and revised over the course of many years guided by a large body of scholarship on Faulkner. The power of the dashboard resides not so much in its ability to represent a text in isolation, but rather through its ability to offer a comparative view of Faulkner's writing. There is no "standard" Faulkner story, and, therefore, it is useful to compare multiple charts at the same time to gain an understanding how one individual story compares to other works.

Citing This Source

Burgers, Johannes. "The Art of Faulkner's Technique." Added to Project: 2019. Digital Yoknapatawpha. University of Virginia.

1. Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990), 170.
2. Baroni, Raphaël. "The Many Ways of Dealing with Sequence in Contemporary Narratology." In Narrative Sequence in Contemporary Narratology, edited by Raphaël Baroni and Françoise Revaz, 1-10. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2016.
3. Phelan, James. Somebody Telling Somebody Else: A Rhetorical Poetics of Narrative. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2017.
4. Traditional works on this include: George R. Stewart and Joseph M. Backus, "'Each in Its Ordered Place': Structure and Narrative in 'Benjy's Section' of The Sound and the Fury," American Literature 29, no. 4 (1958); Edmond Loris Volpe, A Reader's Guide to William Faulkner: The Novels (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003); Richard Reed, "The Role of Chronology in Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha Fiction," The Southern Literary Journal 7, no. 1 (1974).
Faulkner's chronologies have also inspired digital projects including: Kathleen Murphy, "Sequential Display of Narrative Time in Benjy's Section," ed. Muri Stoicheff, Deshaye, et al. (The Sound and the Fury: A Hypertext Edition: U of Saskatchewan, 2003); Jennifer Burg, Anne Boyle, and Sheau-Dong Lang, "Using Constraint Logic Programming to Analyze the Chronology in 'A Rose for Emily'," Computers and the Humanities 34, no. 4 (2000); Stephen Railton and Will Rourk, "Absalom, Absalom! Chronology"

5. Stephen Railton, ""Manuscripts &C: The Mansion"

Last Update: 2020-03-28