Burning Down the House: Racial and Architectural Deterioration of the Southern Plantation Home in Works by William Faulkner

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Mitchell, Melissa Burks
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Middle Tennessee State University
William Faulkner found it necessary to destroy his fictional plantation homes, and their destruction mirrors that of the many grand homes in the South that have come to the same fate, whether by fire or deterioration. Built with chattel slavery, these ornate plantation homes, constructed in the Palladian style after Greek architecture, do not represent democratic ideals. In Faulkner’s works, the plantation home and its master are anything but magnificent: they are dark and monstrous. The beautiful fronts are facades that mask the horrors of the South. Faulkner’s biographical connection to grand homes and their history offered him insight into the past that he resurrects in his fiction. As his own home of Rowan Oak attests, Faulkner admired southern architecture, but he used its decay and destruction to expose the absence of true grandeur behind its walls, or in its past. Through the antebellum homes of his fictional Yoknapatawpha, Faulkner captures the angst that stems from the South’s faulty ideals, its legacy of slavery, and its fear of miscegenation. In what has become his most celebrated novel, Absalom, Absalom!, Clytemnestra, the bi-racial daughter of Thomas Sutpen, sets fire to Sutpen’s Hundred, abolishing the grand home along with nostalgia for the antebellum era and its strictures against a mixed-race society. Faulkner’s most glorious example of eradicating the oppression and repression of the past is by burning down the house.
Absalom Absalom!, Architecture, Burning, Miscegenation, Plantation Home, William Faulkner, English literature, Literature