Harvard University (Location Key)


Two of Faulkner's most prominent characters are among the four who attend Harvard, the oldest and among the most prestigious American colleges: Quentin Compson and Gavin Stevens. Quentin spends most of his section in The Sound and the Fury wandering in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard is located, but the section begins and ends in his dorm room somewhere on the campus. That space is actually the setting for about half of Absalom, Absalom! as he and his roommate Shreve try to reconstruct the story of Thomas Sutpen. In both novels Quentin is too preoccupied with his own and the Southern past to interact much as a student with college life, but the academic setting is characterized in Absalom! in several Faulknernian phrases: "this strange room, across this strange iron New England snow" (141); a "warm and rosy orifice above the iron quad" (176); "this dreamy and heatless alcove of what we call the best of thought" (208), an environment "dedicated to the best of ratiocination" (225). Readers have to decide for themselves how much irony might lurk in those assertions, but as Mr. Compson reminds Quentin in The Sound and the Fury: "for you to go to harvard has been your mothers dream since you were born" (178). Quentin never finishes his freshman year, but Gavin Stevens' Harvard B.A. is mentioned almost every time his character is introduced in the various texts. The last text to mention Harvard is The Mansion, and there Faulkner adds a perplexing twist to the role Harvard plays in the story of Yoknapatawpha. Gavin's nephew Charles Mallison attends the college in his turn, and while he's there he becomes friends with a young man named Spoade, whose "father had been at Harvard back in 1909 with Uncle Gavin" (229). Spoade is a character in The Sound and the Fury; 1909 is when Quentin enrolls at Harvard. The Mansion mentions Quentin as the Compson who "committed suicide at the end of his freshman year" at Harvard (354); it does not explain how Gavin and Quentin could have been there at the same time and yet apparently never met. The other Faulkner character who attends Harvard is the enigmatic Paul de Montigny in "Elly." According to Elly's racist grandmother, Paul is black - in the Jim Crow definition of that term, by which any Negro ancestor makes one a Negro. The story suggests she's right, but Elly pushes back against the label by telling her grandmother that Paul "went to" Harvard and Virginia. The grandmother rejects the possibility of his having been to the University of Virginia (which was strictly segregated until the 1950s), but says she "can understand Harvard" (218). She may simply mean it's a 'Yankee' school, but in fact historically Harvard began admitting black students, in small numbers at first, shortly after the Civil War.

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