1000 Books In 10 Years; Old Man, by William Faulkner

William Faulkner’s Old Man is a brilliant meditative piece that easily flows from broad themes such as man vs. nature, and delves into existentialist ideology as well as Platonic principles as they might be applied to semiotics with the back drop of what would have been contemporary America at the time of its publication (though the late 1920’s might not be seen now as contemporary), whilst employing a plethora of biblical references to drive home his ideas, that more often ask questions rather than providing answers.

The Old Man is not a man at all, but a genderless river which, following its natural course, swells up throughout a natural cycle and during this particular flood a young man who was working on a state farm whilst serving out a prison sentence for robbing bank, finds himself taken up (and down) stream and after reluctantly rescuing a woman with child, seeks to find his way back to authorities that he might turn himself in and continue serving his sentence.

One of the over riding themes of the book is the failure of language. The novel’s protagonist found himself inspired by some romantic literature to rob a train that he might buy some jewellery for his sweetheart. He of course fails miserably, but it is expressed in the novel that the protagonist is not angry at the police, or the judge or jury, or even in his own personal failure, but rather in the publications that he read, for the failed to provide him with a working blueprint for his life’s ambition. They inspire unrealistic goals, and he imitated this art and it failed him. And the omnipresent narrator is sure to note that the protagonist has aimed his frustration on that the actual names of the authors, but rather the pennames, which he doesn’t even know to be false. We see here how far removed from reality language can be, and the system of signs and the signified. Plato spoke to art being a false imitation, and art, being comprised of signs and symbols, is much like language, and when the Platonic ideas are applied to language, it seems Faulkner suggests that language will ultimately fail anyone who seeks to act upon language without consulting their pragmatic relationship with nature and the world around them. Theorist such as Derrida and Saussure, who have delved into such semiotic debates seem to, like Faulkner, note their inherit flaws, suggesting that we employ semiotics pragmatically whilst understanding their shortcomings.

Faulkner’s protagonist though, has failed initially in this respect, but learns, whilst learning under the forceful hand of nature, of the ineffectualness of language. At one point the protagonist (who is unnamed throughout the novel) and his female cohort and child find themselves among a Cajon man, who speaks French, a language neither of his guests know. But despite the language barrier the two men managed to negotiate an agreement and the Cajon man serves as mentor to the novel’s protagonist and the two even work out an agreement in terms of dividing up the profits of their work. It is without language, but rather while immersed in nature and following by example, not by word, that the protagonist learns and finds success in his learning. Much like on the state farm where he learns how to toil on the farm and finds a relative peace in that, and comfort in that he knows what his work must be, he knows when his meals are coming, and he knows when he will be able to rest. Faulkner points out, via the meditative inner ramblings of his protagonist, that a man can “only do what he has to do, with what he has to do it with, with what he has learned, to the best of his judgement’. It seems simple enough, but when one is limited to certain tools, the ability and judgment is impaired, which will leave them ineffectual.

There is also underlining themes of existentialist debate. The lawmen, who are pragmatists with little interest in the law, or at least in justice, and seem to have ideas counterintuitive to existentialist ideology. Where as an existentialist would argue that people can redefine themselves through their experiences, the lawmen seem to suggest that once in a pattern of behaviour, one cannot break out of it, as articulated when one states that the protagonist might as well remain in prison since that is where he will end up, for once they turn a prisoner “loose… he… [will be] back… by Christmas” and refers to all of them as convicts, much as Faulkner’s omnipresent narrator does, suggesting that there is no other way to define them. They are, not what they do, but rather, what they have done.

Tied in with the existentialist debate is the idea of choice. Nature gives the protagonist little choice in the narrative, and indeed it forces him into many situations, but in each situation the protagonist refuses to make his own choice and rather defers to the law, being in a hurry throughout to turn himself in that he might continue his sentence and have as little interaction with the world as possible. On the state farm he is even offered a promotion of sorts and turns down the responsibility, it seems because he is uncomfortable with having his own autonomy, and indeed, he even romanticizes and moralizes the idea or the state farm by referring to it as a monastic life. I am reminded of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV (yes, Donne just numbered the things because he was too lazy to name them), in which Donne, wanting to be loyal to god but know that his will power was lacking, seeks to rescind his autonomy and allow god to make his choices for him: “o’erthrow me and bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new”. Donne, unable to make the morally correct choices, seeks to submit his autonomy to god, much as the novel’s protagonist, who has no confidence in his ability to make choices, wishes to submit his freedom to the state. The implications of this when placed in an existentialist context are paradoxical, as the novel’s protagonist is choosing in a way, and recognizing his own personal freedom, but through that process rescind his personal autonomy, which is counterintuitive to existentialist logic, as the protagonist wishes to forfeit personal responsibility that he might do the responsible thing.

Woven into the Biblical themes of the novel, is the idea of women as a corrupting stimulus. The protagonist though doesn’t, in my reading, project blame for his crime upon his former sweetheart, but rather simply has an association of his wrong doing with women, and so is apprehensive to serve as a saviour to the pregnant woman in need, though his conscience compels him to do so. His female stowaway seems to be placed in an Eve like position, like the snake of Genius, she comes down from a tree, and there are snakes in the water which reinforce this, in actuality she says next-to-nothing throughout the novel and allows the protagonist to think and act how he chooses. The flood is an obvious biblical reference, and there are several others throughout the narrative, such as the exodus and such, but one need not be aware of each to grab a hold of the novel’s themes.

The entire novel is fantastic, and as usual, Faulkner delivers beautifully written prose, and the novel is filled with more reflective passages than one might find in a novel ten times the length, but one of the passages that I found particularity thoughtful was a passage in which the novel’s protagonist realizes (and perhaps this is his motivation for forfeiting his autonomy), how majestic the world is and how impossible it is to truly comprehend it, saying he believed he would never be “more than the water bug upon the surface of the pond, the plumbless and lurking depths of which he would never know”. Without a comprehensive understanding about the world around us, it is impossible to make a choice one can be entirely confident in. Perhaps this is why he submits, because his humility will not allow him to be mistaken again.

The are aspects of the narrative that escape me. The protagonist is paired off with a fellow ’convict’ at the beginning, who, the opening sentence of the narrative would suggest, is a partner in the narrative, an equal, yet his appearance in the narrative is minimal. He could be the man who utterly and completely refuses to recognize his own responsibility within the existentialist context, for he simple refuses to do anything without trying, where as the protagonist tries and fails, but tries nonetheless and is very much aware of the responsibility that come hand-in-hand with choice. It is a subtle relationship that I believe Faulkner meant for the reader to inhabit, to dwell with, because his intention is not clearly stated, but merely subtly suggested. Still, the work is profound and beautifully written, but written in such a way that it serves a beautiful story telling that can be enjoyed simply for the narrative, but also offers a challenging reading for the reader who wants to investigate its mysteries.

Up next… I’m not sure. I am yet waffling on the matter.

Words I thought I’d look up:

Muscadines: Grapevines unique to the south-eastern United States.

Saturnine: From the Latin for Saturn, it means melancholy, though how this is connected with the Roman god of harvest I am not sure!

Sauric: Cannot find a definition for this one. You are on your own!

Ineradicably: Impossible to remove.

Scoriae: Loose rock that is formed from lava.

Gambit: The name one of the X-men, of course, but what does it mean? It is an opening move in chess. Huh.

Amphitheatre: A circular building with seating for spectators. Well… somebody should tell the people at the Molson Amphitheatre that it is neither circular, nor does it have seats, at least not on the grassy knoll.

Fichu: A large square kerchief worn by women to fill the low neckline of a bodice! Were they really necessary?

Pleistocene: A geological epoch that happen, oh, I’d say about 1.6 million to 10 000 years ago. Give or take.

Ratiocination: To think or argue logically. Do not try this with Republicans/Conservatives. It does not work!

Cessation: A pause. You know, like the one’s King George the 6th kept making during “The King’s Speech”, a dry, dull, and over-acted production where highly rated actors are just begging for more Oscar nods, as if the quality of art is some quantifiable formula.

Crown: Yes, it’s a gold circle that kings and queens wear, but it is ALSO a high point, say of a river or mountain.

Revetment: Barricade or supporting structure.

Pirogue: A dugout canoe.

Verisimilitude: Appearance of truth.

Midfurrow: The middle of a trench.

Verbose: From the Latin for ‘word’, it means to speak with too many words. Something Faulkner didn’t often have a problem with, but Dickens! Oh yes. And Jane Austen as well. And Henry James too… and all those Victorian era ‘writers’.

Shibboleth: Common saying or belief. Like a cliché.

Dross: the scum on metal, or something that is generally worthless. Like my copy of “If I Were You” by L. Ron Hubbard.

Roil: To make or become opaque.

Paladins: You know Charlemagne? Well, apparently he referred to his friends as such.

Abrogate: To do away with something. I think I looked this one up already? Latin for “repeal a law”.

Glibly: Casual and relaxed, such as was my tone when I corrected a friend of mine on the proper use of the word waffling. Also, slick, or superficial.

Sandboil: These occur when water under pressure wells up from under a bed of sand, or so says Wikipedia.

Ahenobarbus: A name for Roman plebs. I think Faulkner was just trying to show off with this one.

Cordite: Explosive! Like me when I cut to the hoop after a pump-fake.

Demarcation: A clear division or work duties. Like this: I decide where the heavy bags should be lifted to, and you lift them. Only at work, I’m usually the guy lifting the heavy bags, and by usually I mean always!

Skiff: A small, flat-bottomed boat.

Heterogeneous: Consisting of different parts.

Bandolier: A soldiers cartridge belt, you know, like where Jesse The Body keeps the shells for his Gatling gun in predator!

Wan: Pale or faint.

Celerity: Quickness, from the Latin for swift.

Adumbrated: To foreshadow something.

Lethargic: It means tired, but it is actually from the Greek for ’forgetfulness’.

Durance: As in Erica Durance, who plays Lois Lane on Smallville, the longest running science-fiction program in the history of North American television! Well, not in this context, in this context it means to be imprisoned.

Avidity: Either, a reference to the building and binding of one’s antibodies, or greed.

Catafalque: A platform or coffin. Source from French/Italian.

Aberration: Deviation or lapse.

Niggard: A miserly person.

Attenuation: To make or become weaker.

Strake: Either, a part of a wheel, or a band of planks.

Ague: Attack of fever.

Presage: An omen, or a sense of something to come. I think I looked this one up already?

Vista: Either, a scenic view, a view through a narrow opening, or a mental picture.

Ophidian: Of or like snakes.

Festoons: A garland, aka, a wreath of flowers.

Nimbus: Either, a dark, rain-bearing cloud, or a halo…. Hmm… it seems the two options are polar opposites.

Leadsmen: Somebody on a boat who measure the water, you know, so the boat does hit rocks and shit.

Tediously: Boring, from the French meaning late. I thought it might have had an interesting root.

Recapitulate: To repeat the process of life or evolution from the embryonic period.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.


  1. Saurian means being like reptiles as in Tyrannasaurus , Brontosaurus, etc.. The noun root is used in paleontology.

Speak Your Mind