Requiem for a Nun (Text Key 228)


Requiem for a Nun (1951) is the source for Faulkner's best-known aphorism: "The past is never dead," Gavin Stevens tells Temple Drake in Act I, Scene III; "It's not even past" (73). The novel's own history is two decades long, and too complicated to do more than sketch out here. It is a sequel of sorts to a pair of texts Faulkner published twenty years earlier: "That Evening Sun," where Nancy first appears, and Sanctuary, where Temple and Gowan get into the trouble that haunts them and their marriage in the dramatic portions of this novel. Faulkner came up with the title "REQUIEM FOR A NUN" - "one of my best," he said - in 1933, and started writing a novel about an African American woman under it at that time, but after a few pages put it aside to write Absalom!  In early 1950 he resurrected the title, and probably some of the earlier story, though now he conceived of it as a play. This return was prompted by two women with whom it seems he wanted to have an affair: Ruth Ford, an actress whom he first met in the 1930s and who later told him it was her dearest wish to have him write a play for her, and Joan Williams, a 21-year-old college student with literary ambitions who in 1949 had sought him out as a mentor. He told each woman separately that he was writing the play solely for her: for Ford to act in, or for Williams to collaborate on.  Faulkner pursued the idea of the collaboration throughout the novel's composition, and with Faulkner's approval Ford made revisions in the dialogue when she played Temple in several theatrical productions of Requiem later in the 1950s; in 1959 she published that acting text, but as Noel Polk has argued, there is no evidence that anyone but Faulkner was responsible for the novel that was published in 1951. Our representation of the novel is based on Polk's 1994 "corrected text," as published by Vintage International in 2011.

In May 1950, having grown uncertain about his play-writing skills, Faulkner began referring to it as "some kind of novel" and decided to write the "three introductory chapters which hold the 3 acts together." The result is the hybrid text we have, which Faulkner called "a story told in seven play scenes, inside a novel." At the same time, he wanted the novelistic passages to appear inside the play, at least conceptually, telling the publisher to print the prose sections within each of the three "Acts," because "the prose is not at all a prologue, but is an integrated part of the act itself."  The result is, to borrow another phrase from Faulkner, "an interesting experiment in form" - the last radically experimental novel of his career.

It is also, in the first and third prose sections particularly, the most detailed history of his mythical Yoknapatawpha County that he ever wrote, though both histories - Temple's experiences as told in Sanctuary and the Yoknapatawpha events described in his earlier fictions - are often revised, or more accurately re-created, in this new text. The past may never be dead, but in Faulkner, as in all the stories cultures tell or historians write about "the" past, it is always changing.

Dating the Story: The historical sweep of the three prose sections is enormous, from a quasi-Biblical "beginning" of creation (79) to "now, in 1951" (198). The seven dramatic scenes are assigned specific months and days, and even times of the day, but no years. Given all this, it has to be acknowledged immediately that many of the dates we assign to the events are editorial judgments, not even quasi-scriptural facts. The history of Jefferson and its courthouse begins "under the turn of the century" (3) - i.e. before 1800. This is unusually early, but our dating accepts that point of reference. The dramatic portions definitively occur "eight years" after the events of Sanctuary (46, etc.). Our representation of that earlier novel dates its main events in 1929, but if we adhered strictly to that, and dated Nancy's trial in 1937 and her execution in 1938, other inconsistencies would emerge. For example, Temple already knows the story that Faulkner tells in "Pantaloon in Black," which was not published until 1940 (cf. 156), and she also refers to a book by "Hemingway, wasn't it?" in which another young woman is sexually assaulted (121) - this can only be For Whom the Bell Tolls, which also came out in 1940. So to make these two references less anachronistic, we have chosen to date the dramatic scenes in 1939-1940 - "eight years" from the date of Sanctuary's publication.

SOURCES: Joseph Blotner, ed., Selected Letters of William Faulkner; Polk, Requiem for a Nun: A Critical Study.

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Random House
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New York
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Vintage International
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New York
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How to cite this resource:
Carothers, James B., and Stephen Railton. "Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun." Added to the project: 2019. Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia,