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As we know, a "dirge" is a funeral song, and William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is no different to a dirge in my opinion. So, is it true that there are similarities between Bob Dylan's cast-iron torch ballad, and Faulkner's prize-winning Southern gothic novel?
I heard this quite a while back, so let me tell you a short story of something quite strange that happened to me, that I still, to this day, haven't been able to make sense of. One day, I was looking for books on Bob Dylan's poetic style in the University of Birmingham library (where I did my MA). I found a book called The Wicked Messenger, and because I loved the song, I picked it up.
I didn't realise how loudly I was listening to "Dirge," on Planet Waves, and there was someone in my vicinity. They tapped me and said: "You know, I just wrote an essay about that song and The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner, I think you'd be quite surprised to see the similarities." They smiled, and then, me being my awkward self, I smiled and walked off in the opposite direction, leaving the library with the Wicked Messenger book. I had no idea until a few weeks ago, as I was looking through my diary that they were talking about Dirge and not The Wicked Messenger. This meant that they could hear my headphones, well done me (she says, sarcastically).
So I thought I'd investigate, what is it about The Sound and The Fury and "Dirge" that are similar? Well, it's the themes, of course! So, let's go through some of the themes from The Sound and the Fury, seeing how they're portrayed in Bob Dylan's "Dirge."
This is my attempt to do something I had previously never even thought of.
In Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury there is a lot to do with sin and religious values. If you've ever read Faulkner's novel Absalom, Absalom! you'll see to what extent he can use that theme (oh, and by the way, the latter one is my favourite Faulkner novel). In The Sound and the Fury sin is synonymous with adultery and sexuality, whereas in "Dirge" it is almost synonymous with the suicidal. Both of which, in the Abrahamic Religions especially, are considered capital sins.
"Dirge" expresses this in a very different way to The Sound and the Fury because it is far less explicit. The suicidal tendencies in "Dirge" are presented through the contradiction of sin:
"I went out on Lower Broadway and I felt that place within,
That hollow place where martyrs weep and angels play with sin."
The fact that there are angels playing with sin means that there is either a place of anger, or a place of immeasurable darkness, this is what is presented through the contradiction of angels and sins.
Even though it is an entirely different idea of sin in The Sound and the Fury, we still get these violent contradictions that present the way in which the sin manifests itself in the story. A lot like "Dirge," the major contradictions in The Sound and the Fury develop with the emotions of the piece. "Dirge" develops through the anger of the song, The Sound and the Fury develops through the main ideas surrounding sexuality and incest in the piece. This means that regardless of what it is about, both texts develop sin through other sins, or through other emotions and manifestations that lead to the main sin itself.
Even though in "Dirge" we have the emotions of the near-suicidal alongside the sin. In The Sound and the Fury we have the emotions of regret, and the emotions of anger and wrath surrounding the sins of sexuality, adultery, and incest:
"... because if it were just to hell; if that were all of it. Finished. If things just finished themselves. Nobody else there but her and me. If we could just have done something so dreadful that they would have fled hell except us."
The emotion here is definitely anger/wrath. At the beginning of the quotation we've got language surrounding hell. It is possibly to show the symbolised anger surrounding the sin that has been carried out. Then, by the end of the quotation, the function of "hell" in the quotation changes to the physical place. This is mainly because of the act (or sin) that is so "dreadful." In "Dirge," the physical hell of the quotation is "Lower Broadway–" functioning as the same type of place in which something has been committed as a "dreadful" act.
Guilt and Blame
In The Sound and the Fury, and in "Dirge," there seems to be the similar theme of guilt and blame. In Faulkner's novel this manifests as life is made simpler if you don't take the weight on your shoulders, but blame it on someone else instead. But, what the characters are left with is a bitter guilt. This is basically the same way "Dirge" works, but the song is slightly more extreme with it, and more explicit about it than the novel is. Though in Faulkner's novel, the guilt and blame is normally indirect and put forward through sexuality and/or gender, "Dirge," makes guilt and blame interlock as both sides seem to have done something wrong. Here's the quotation from The Sound and the Fury:
"Women are like that they don't acquire knowledge of people we are for that they are just born with a practical fertility of suspicion that makes a crop every so often and usually right they have an affinity for evil for supplying whatever the evil lacks in itself for drawing it about them instinctively as you do bed-clothing in slumber fertilising the mind for it until the evil has served its purpose whether it ever existed or no..."
This generalisation of gender is not only to make the reader believe that the women in the novel are probably not actually like this, but also to make the reader believe that there is a certain amount of blame that the male character (Mr. Compson) is placing on the woman. In the song "Dirge," gender is not really a factor of guilt and blame, though both the song and novel share the same theme. This is because in the song, there is a lacking in the speaker–he takes the guilt, whilst also simultaneously blaming someone else for something. In The Sound and the Fury, the guilt and blame are never really done simultaneously like this. Here's the corresponding quotation from Bob Dylan's "Dirge":
"I hate myself for lovin' you and the weakness that it showed
You were just a painted face on a trip down Suicide Road.
The stage was set, the lights went out all around the old hotel,
I hate myself for lovin' you and I'm glad the curtain fell."
Here we have guilt and blame, as in the Faulkner novel as well. But, unlike in the Faulkner novel, we have them both happening together. The advantage of this is to see more of the speaker in a shorter space of time; god knows that Bob Dylan didn't have a lengthy novel to tell us in progression how he was feeling in the song "Dirge."
What we get is the establishment of a conflict between guilt and blame, something that happens in the novel as well, only slower and more progressively. We have the guilt to begin with, and then how he blames the other character through his guilt. Whereas, in the Faulkner novel we have the blame to begin with, and the character involved comes back later on in the text to feel guilty about what they have said.
The Past and The Consequences
This theme is very big in both the song and in the text, it represents the reason why something happened, and the consequences of it happening. In the past we have an entire story, the difference is that in Faulkner's novel, we can see it happening–whereas, in "Dirge," we cannot. In The Sound and the Fury, the past is a very open situation–we are told about a runaway daughter, and how the consequences have impacted the lives of her brothers. Whereas, in "Dirge," we aren't actually told what the past situation is, but we understand the consequences. We can safely assume though, that it is a situation of deceit due to the symbolism of a theatre and the theatrical.
The context of The Sound and the Fury is the American Civil War, and so we get this quotation that deals with the past and the consequences:
"...because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools."
It's a beautiful line and one of my personal favourites from the novel. I have to say though it is very pessimistic about the consequences of the Civil War. Now, because Faulkner writes the "Southern Gothic" it means that this side did not win the Civil War, but what Mr. Compson states is that there was no victory in it whatsoever. That they will see things change for the worst in the future–these will be the consequences. That is exactly what happens, especially considering that the countrysides begin to be replaced with industry and lives of landowners and farmers are ruined in the process.
In "Dirge" though, consequences are presented as a direct result of a past that is only referred to through snapshots, and quite indirectly. With the amount of guilt that is present in the song, it is quite difficult to see which character (speaker or receiver) is actually in the wrong. We have that key phrase that represents the deception of the receiver from the first verse that leads us towards the consequences:
"The stage was set, the lights went out all around the old hotel,
I hate myself for lovin' you and I'm glad the curtain fell."
Again, as I have stated, we have the clear symbolism of the theatrical throughout the song. But in these lines it has the function of bringing us towards the climactic point of the piece, in which we learn what the consequences are:
"Can't recall a useful thing you ever did for me
'Cept pat me on the back one time when I was on my knees.
We stared into each other's eyes 'til one of us would break,
No use to apologize, what diff'rence would it make?"
The consequence is that all of this deception within the relationship that is exemplified as actual acts of emotional abuse are now in the past and the speaker now has to come to terms with what they've experienced as the line, "I hate myself," is repeated throughout some of the verses. We get the reason in this section, which is the emotional abuse the speaker suffered–we also get the consequences, which is the fact that this whole thing is now in the past and cannot be reconciled ("No use to apologise").
Even though we get, again, a slower progression of past and consequences in The Sound and the Fury, in "Dirge," the theme is presented in a very similar way, and has some key symbols that could be considered to be a part of the Southern Gothic resentment of change and the changing self. The past seems not only to be a big theme, but also seems to be part of he problem that is inescapable. It is something that keeps getting referred to over and over again as a point of reference, but note that this will only happen if something that had happened in the past was incredibly bad.
We've explored three key themes that make the song "Dirge" by Bob Dylan similar in ways to the text The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, and explored how the two themes create images of sin, blame, and consequence. When it comes down to it, both the text and the song represent the human condition in ways that create an almost angry depression. It is always part of the past and consequence that comes to haunt the two pieces in ways that only the speakers of the dialogue, and the speaker in the song could know. We are never given enough information, but are always hungry to know more about both situations whether it be a lengthy novel, or a five and a half minute song.