Counterpoints in Freedom: A Critical Review of Faulkner’s Wild Palms

Originally titled, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, William Faulkner’s novel, The Wild Palms, is best understood in light of the psalm, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy” (King James, Ps. 137.5-6). Like the characters in The Wild Palms, the Jewish people exiled in Babylon must come to terms with their freedom, or lack thereof. Just as the Jewish people’s one source of unhindered freedom comes in the form of memories of Jerusalem, so too the only true source of freedom in The Wild Palms is in memory. Though the two stories in the novel, “Wild Palms” and “The Old Man,” seem disparate, read in the context of the psalm, a pattern of counterpoints emerges that subtly illuminates each story and draws them together into one inseparable narrative.  Faulkner uses counterpoints to explore the nature of freedom, showing that most forms of freedom often hold the power to imprison the seeker in a new way, and demonstrating that the only freedom that can’t be taken away is the freedom of memory.

The largest counterpoint of the novel comes in the interplay and contrast between “Wild Palms” and “The Old Man.” Faulkner structures The Wild Palms so that each chapter, each switch between the two stories, provides a lens through which the reader can begin to understand the previous chapter. At times the counterpoint is a direct contrast. For example, at the start of the story, the captivity of the tall convict and the plump convict seems to highlight the freedom of Charlotte and Harry.  More often, however, Faulkner’s counterpoints operate in line with the musical definition of the word: as a layering of melodies, of voices that are interdependent yet distinct (Laitz, 2008, p. 96). When the reader reflects back on the juxtaposition of Charlotte, Harry, and the convicts at the start of the novel, he or she begins to realize that the beach Harry and Charlotte find themselves on is as much of a prison as that which the convicts inhabit. Harry is trapped by the inevitability of Charlotte’s impending death and his guilt surrounding it while Charlotte is imprisoned by the “furious despair” she feels toward their situation (1939, p. 22). The pair’s mental anguish forms a holding cell no less tangible than the guards bearing shotguns in “The Old Man.” All of the counterpoints between the stories work in a similar manner to this example, first juxtaposing seemingly disparate situations and then layering them together to highlight the truth about the elusiveness of freedom.

In addition to using the narratives of “Wild Palms” and “The Old Man,” Faulkner also uses characters as counterpoints. The first example of this is the contrast between the doctor in chapters one and nine and Harry. The will and expectations of the doctor’s father imprison him. His profession, his wife, even his house and his practice were either ordained by or created by his father. In reference to the doctor, the speaker says, “Because he was now forty-eight years old and he had been sixteen and eighteen and twenty at the time when his father could tell him (and he believe it) that cigarettes and pajamas were for dudes and women” (1939, p. 3). Even the way the man dresses and his vices are dictated by his father. In contrast to this, Harry lives not in the shadow of his father’s will, but free of it, having been set free by Charlotte.  He starts out similar to the doctor, following in the footsteps of his deceased father who left him two thousand dollars to pay for medical school. When Harry reflects on that period of his life, he refers to it as “the twenty-seven barren years” before he found the freedom of his own will (p. 103). The doctor serves as a counterpoint to Harry’s autonomy and as a symbol of imprisonment. Harry would have lived the barren life of the doctor had he not had the will to take the freedom that Charlotte offered.

Another example of using characters as counterpoints for each other is that of Charlotte and Harry. In many ways, Charlotte is a counterpoint to Harry and his relative freedom. Though Harry has found his will, the freedom it offers encounters many obstacles that don’t affect Charlotte in the same manner. Throughout the story, Charlotte retains her freedom better than Harry. When Harry finds himself trapped by a fear that they will run out of money or food, Charlotte remains impervious. She often reminds him that it is not hunger that she fears, but monotony.  Charlotte illustrates this key difference between her and Harry when she says, “Listen: it’s got to be all honeymoon, always. Forever and ever, until one of us dies. It cant [sic] be anything else. Either heaven, or hell: no comfortable safe peaceful purgatory between for you and me to wait in until good behavior or forbearance or shame or repentance overtakes us” (1939, p. 83). While Harry works his way through several prisons, Charlotte is only caged by Harry’s unwillingness to rid her of a pregnancy they cannot afford and, later, by the fact that Harry will be held responsible for her death. By using Charlotte as a counterpoint to Harry, Faulkner demonstrates the relativity of Harry’s freedom and defines the various walls of his jail.

Finally, Faulkner counterpoints the situations of the characters to define what it means to be free. Each new situation contrasts with the previous situation, usually revealing a newfound liberty for the characters. Eventually, the counterpoint demonstrates that the characters’ liberty is actually a redefinition of their old prison instead of true freedom. For instance, when the tall convict finds himself alone in his skiff with a paddle in hand, the moment seems borne of freedom, yet he becomes a slave to the swollen and flooding Mississippi River. Once he learns how to navigate the river, he is then subject to a pregnant woman whose labor is imminent. Knowledge provides a temporary granting of independence, but stagnation leads to new limitations.  The very things that grant each of the characters freedom also hold the potential to confine them.

With each chapter, character and situation, Faulkner layers on the counterpoints, building a clearer image of imprisonment and the quest for freedom. The full weight of the counterpoints occurs only at the conclusion of the narratives. Both “Wild Palms” and “The Old Man” reveal a constant and unceasing quest for freedom which is threatened by stagnation, the absence of will, and a lack of reflection or critical thought. The stories end with both Harry and the tall convict incarcerated and remembering their moments of freedom. At one point, Harry tells a friend, “Nothing can take what I have already had away from me” (1939, p. 102). This one sentence contains the truth about freedom that the Faulkner sought to reveal with the novel: that ultimate freedom remains so long as a person can remember. The doctor lived a barren life, and he is the most imprisoned character in the novel, for there is nothing to relieve his incarceration, not even memories. Psalm 137 warns the Jewish people against forgetting Jerusalem because to forget would mean surrendering to the captivity of their exile. Even once he is back at the encampment, the tall convict can close his eyes and free his spirit with the memories of being able to work for a living. Harry, sitting in jail for murdering Charlotte, concludes, “between grief and nothing I will take grief” (p. 324). The quest for liberty is ceaseless, but, even if it is impossible to remain free all the time, as long as a person can remember those moments of freedom, they are never truly imprisoned.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. The wild palms. New York: Random House, 1939. Print.
King James Bible. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1973. Print.
Laitz, Steven G. The complete musician: an integrated approach to tonal theory, analysis, and listening. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford U Press, 2008. Print.