November 18, 2010 5 Comments
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Old Man is part of a Faulkner work titled The Wild Palms, a collection of two stories; Old Man and If I Forget Thee Jerusalem, both of which deal with similar themes, yet are able to stand alone. Old Man is a fascinating tale, rife with allusions to biblical characters, questions of destiny and freedom, gender and sexual issues, natural and spiritual forces, social flaws and rival cultures, operating under a modernist analysis. It also uses humor to make the piece somewhat of a dark satire. Faulkner’s rich usage of symbols, and the stories’ allegorical meanings are worthy of analysis within their own context (as opposed to comparison with The Wild Palms).
Old Man takes place in Mississippi in 1927 during a flood of the Mississippi River, where two convicts are chosen to paddle down river and rescue stranded refugees. Of the two, one is described as “plump,” while the protagonist is “tall and thin.” Neither criminals are exceptionally bright, and have been engaged in manual labor on a levee at a place called “The Farm” for seven years, yet had oddly not seen the water itself in. They are thus isolated, nameless individuals who subsist at an animalistic level, as the “Farm” terminology suggests. In fact, we later learn that the anonymous tall convict had derived the idea to rob a train from reading pulp fiction novels.
His youthful reasoning was apparently that if he took the best ideas from all the novels he had read, his robbery would prove successful. This is an amusing use of irony where a completely fictional reality comes to dominate the psychological motivations for a young southern male’s decision to rob trains, ultimately for his teenage girlfriend, which lands him in jail. The male/female dynamic will be one of the main themes of the novella, and Faulkner takes a particularly negative and antagonistic view of the social norms of his day, especially that of married life and the status quo. Several examples arise in which Faulkner makes this point as the convict is swept along by the river’s fatalistic currents.
When the flood breaks loose, the tall convict is unaware of what is happening: He has never seen the river itself and asks a “Negro man” what has happened, who responds that it is “De old man.” The river, then, is a key player in this story, and is the Mississippi itself. The name suggests the ancient preternatural powers of nature that are brute, untamed, uncivilized and determining. Another theme in the story is that of the reality of man’s free will in the face of raw nature, which seems to sweep us along, with no concern for social strata or human virtue or vice. Read more of this post