William Faulkner’s Mosquitoes is a roman à clef featuring some of the people and locations Faulkner encountered while staying in New Orleans as a young writer. This paper will examine the relationship between the upper class and the artists and the relationship between the upper class and the workers. In particular this paper will examine the actions and character of the two main characters: Mr. Gordon and Patricia Robyn, as well as a most interesting character Ernest Talliaferro.
Faulkner stages much of his novel aboard a yacht so that they won’t have contact with other members of society. In literature the use of isolating the characters from society is not uncommon for example Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians and The Mousetrap. By separating characters from society, the author is able to focus his or her attention on the people as themselves, almost as if he or she were isolated for a laboratory experiment. Mosquitoes provides Faulkner a forum to examine the artistic life in contrast to the life of the members of the beautiful people and the workers. In particular Faulkner examines the creative growth of the artists and the lack of growth of the part of the others on the cruise (Atkinson, 8).
Faulkner stocks his novel with characters representing three groups or perhaps communities of society. He represents the artists with of Dawson Fairchild, a novelist, Mr. Gordon, a sculptor, Mark Moore, a poet trying to “nurture a reputation for cleverness,” Dorothy Jameson, a painter and Eva Wiseman, a lesbian poet (Fitzgerald 39). Also included with this group is Julius Kauffman who at times serves as a narrator such as when he relates the life story of Mrs. Maurier, hostess of the cruise or as the philosophic pathfinder for the artists’ discussion throughout the book.
Among the social elite are Mrs. Maurier a social dilettante who is quite wealthy and a hanger-on of artists, her twin niece and nephew Patricia, who is the catalyst for much of the book’s action, and Josh Robyn who are visiting from Chicago, and Ernest Talliaferro who is the conduit between three classes. He is a member of the working class as a buyer of women’s clothes for a local department store, he is friends or is at least known by some the artists who don’t really seem to care too much about him, and visits with Mrs. Maurier who also appears to not care about him except for his ability to provide access to the artistic community.
The novel is written in six major sections days 1, 2, 3, 4, a prologue where Faulkner gathers up his characters and an epilogue where he returns them to their individual places in society. The sections, Day One through Day Four take place largely Mrs. Maurier’s yacht the Nausikaa. In Homer’s Odyssey Nausikaa was a young woman, daughter of the king, who found Odysseus and brought him into her city to care for him. In Mosquitoes Mr. Gordon represents Odysseus and Patricia Robyn is the analogue of Nausikaa.
Mr. Gordon is a sculptor. When the novel begins, Gordon has just finished a sculpture. It represents his ideal woman. It is of a young woman with small breasts who has no head, arms, or legs. Mr. Gordon has sculpted the piece from his imagination rather than using a model. At this time he has little interaction with others, artistic or otherwise.
Shortly after the novel begins, Mrs. Maurier, Patricia Robyn, and Ernest Talliaferro visit Gordon’s studio and see the new sculpture. The reactions of both Patricia and Gordon are plot points in the novel. When she first sees Gordon’s sculpture Patricia believes she recognizes the statue as being of herself, “[i]t’s like me” (Faulkner 28). Mr. Talliaferro describes it more eloquently “[d]o you see what he has caught? . . . The spirit of youth, of something fine and hard and clean in the world” (26-27). Mr. Gordon is very interested in Patricia in relationship to his sculpture. He examines “her with growing interest her flat breast and belly, her boy’s body. . . . Sexless, yet somehow vaguely troubling. Perhaps just young, like a calf or a colt” (Faulkner, p. 26).
Throughout the book there is a sexual tension between Gordon and Patricia. When they are swimming he twirls her around and throws her into the water. She is thrilled, “for an instant she stopped in midflight, . . . high above the deck while water dripping from her turned to gold . . . the last of the sun slid upon her and over her with joy” (Faulkner 72).
Ultimately it is Patricia and to a less extent, Mrs. Maurier who provide the artistic growth for Mr. Gordon. Just as Nausikaa rescued Odysseus from the sea, Patricia rescues Gordon from his previous tendency to work without a model, working from his mind using ideal types that don’t exist in reality. When Mr. Gordon sees her in her young, self-centered state, he realizes he must work from real life. He makes a mask of Mrs. Maurier. This is significant because it is the first time, as far as the reader knows, that Mr. Gordon had sculpted based on a live person rather than his personal artistic ideal.
His growth and change of artistic inspiration to the real world are punctuated in the Epilogue where he walks the busy night streets of New Orleans with Fairchild and Kauffman drinking and celebrating their epiphany of working within society. Gordon leaves the book when he decides to visit a bordello looking for a real woman instead of a fantasy woman (Hepburn, 21-22).
Throughout the play Patricia has an androgynous quality about her. Despite her sexual appeal to Gordon and later to David West the ship steward, Patricia is always described as “hard and firm and sexless” (Faulkner 140). In many ways she seems androgynous, neither male nor female. Although she will flirt with men, kiss them and even run away with them, whenever she feels she is not in control she brings the interaction to an immediate halt. She is the female part of the person she and her brother make together.
At times they will call each other “Gus” as if Gus were the real person and Patricia and Josh were just partial personae of Gus. She lies next to her brother for part of the night of day four because she wants to be near him. He will be leaving for Yale the next day where she not be nearer to him than living in an apartment in New Haven. While lying together she asks him “[d]idn’t you do something to that boat” (Faulkner, p. 261.
The yacht had gone to ground and was unable to move for three days, making certain they were uninterrupted by outsiders. This was caused when Josh removed a rod in the steering mechanism, but Josh denies it, “I never hurt—I never was down there except the morning when you came tagging down there (Faulkner, p. 261). Yet he quickly tacitly admits his guilt when he asks if Patricia has told their aunt.
By the second day Patricia is bored with being a living ideal and looks for diversion. She decides to go swimming and coaxes David West, the steward to go with her. While swimming he is aroused by her, he “looked up at her with an utter longing, like that of a dog.” On day three they leave the ship and try to cross the swamp and get married in Mandeville. Their excursion into the swamp, struggle to find the road and the way to Mandeville with David West seems to foreshadow for Patricia what her life might be if she were to give up her place in high society and marry into the working class.
She wouldn’t be able to bear it. She would use up her working class husband, working him until he collapsed from exhaustion. It isn’t long before Patricia treats West like an animal. She is done slumming with the working class and decides to take charge just as her social position permits. She demands, in the face of reason, that they take the direction she chooses when they arrive at the road. This seems to indicate that she realizes she has chosen the wrong way by leaving the boat, representing wealth and high society.
She literally rides him into the ground as he carries her when she is too tired to walk. When they discover they have been walking the wrong direction, West collapses. Ultimately they find someone to give them a ride back to the Nausikaa, but she insists on paying with her own money. As a consequence of what David and Patricia went through together David quits his job and is gone the next morning.
A curious thing is that Patricia seems to the only one troubled by mosquitoes. Almost exclusively she is the one who “angled her knee upward and outward from the knee, scratching her ankle” (Faulkner 23). It is she that “suddenly slap[s] her leg when she and West are planning to enter the swamp. It is Patricia is so badly bitten by mosquitoes that West puts his shirt over her to protect her (Faulkner 150). Of all of passengers, she is the one that is most irritated by the pesky “mosquitoes” of life.
One last point about Patricia that should be made has to do with the evening when she first met Mr. Talliaferro. As Mr. Talliaferro prepares to leave Mrs. Maurier and Patricia for the evening Patricia calls him “Mr. Tavers.” This is apparently his real name and the incident shocks him. His entrails feel cold because of her statement (Faulkner 31). This writer tried on numerous occasions to find a resolution to this puzzle but was unable to do so. The nearest indication that might solve this puzzle appears in the description of Talliaferro (Faulkner 32) “[t]hey never did know what became of Mr. Talliaferro’s sister.” This might indicate that Faulkner had initially intended to make some previous connection between Patricia and Talliaferro through his missing sister, but failed to do so in the final version.
This event provides a segue to a most interesting character: Ernest Talliaferro. Mr. Talliaferro is a tiny man, eager to please, unwilling to make waves, but eager to spend time with artists, particularly Dawson Fairchild. He is a buyer for the women’s clothes department at a local department store. He married young, was widowed young and set about making himself over. He “did” Europe in forty-one days and cultivated friendship with artists and members of society, such as Mrs. Maurier. He lacks confidence, often apologizing and knocking into things. He is eager to date women but finds himself unable to get up the nerve.
Frequently he seeks Fairchild’s advice. On the second day of the cruise Fairchild tells Talliaferro that he isn’t “bold enough with women . . . I don’t mean with words. . . . They ain’t interested in what you’re going to say: they are interested in what you’re going to do” (Fitzgerald 96). Sadly, but a bit amusing, Talliaferro takes this advice to heart and tries to implement it with Jenny the attractive young woman whom Patricia invited to attend. On the second day Talliaferro finds Jenny sleeping on the deck.
He tries to wake her “[w]ake princess with kiss” (Faulkner 109) this causes her to awaken but she is terribly frightened. However she does dance with him later that afternoon and things go smoothly until day four when the guests are trying to free the boat and Talliaferro is overcome with desire and grabs her and pulls her with him into the water. Naturally, Fairchild thinks this it is funny that Talliaferro has implemented his advice in such a boisterous fashion and laughs about it. Unfortunately, Talliaferro has not learned his lesson and repeats his efforts in the “Epilogue” only to be disappointed again. By the end of novel Talliaferro has retreated further into himself and seems to have no interest in a relationship with a woman.
Although Faulkner never uses the “M” word in this book, it is clear by the scratching and slapping that there are both literal and figurative mosquitoes. As mentioned above, Patricia suffers from bites from mosquitoes. Most of characters suffer from pesky, annoying irritations throughout the book. The artists are irritated by the way in which the non-artists want to parade them around on the cruise like some sort of show pony. Talliaferro is irritated due to his inability to successfully seduce women, Josh Robyn is irritated that Major Ayers does not believe that he is making the pipe for fun. Naturally Ayers is upset because he wants to market the pipe, and Robyn will not help him do so.
It is in part due to the irritations that Gordon, Fairchild, and Kauffman grow. Prior to the cruise, they had lived their lives working when they could and trying to avoid the pesky little mosquitoes fostered by the non-artists. By the time the cruise has ended they have realized that these pests provide much of the motivation and interest in life. In essence, they have changed their philosophy of art from “an aesthetic ideology of formalism as part of a larger expression of cultural conservatism (Atkinson, 6)
Unhappily, no one else appears to have changed much other than these three. Mrs. Maurier is still the social matron, though she is quite angry with the artists. Patricia Robyn has returned to the self-centered, sexless, hard person she was when she first appeared in the novel. When she says good-bye to the poet Mark Frost, she is just as cold to him as she was to Gordon when she first met his him. Mr. Talliaferro, the wonderful, Chaplinesque man, is still frustrated. He has had no success trying to seduce a woman. However Faulkner tells the reader that Talliaferro was to be married soon. Sadly, he does not appear to tell Ernest.
The conclusion that Faulkner draws with this book appears to be that artists need to explore life, down and dirty. However, his apparent conclusion that non-artists will not grow is parochial and hopefully false. This smacks of the self-centered arrogance a young, gifted writer might have before he and his craft mature.
Summary of “Faulkner’s Mosquitoes: A Poetic Turning Point”
By Kenneth Wm. Hepburn
Hepburn’s thesis in this article is that there was a turning point in Faulkner’s writing that occurred not with Satoris as many scholars have alleged by with Mosquitoes published two years earlier. The author tries to establish that “the poetic which finally involves from the structural considerations of various artistic strategies is both necessarily prior . . . and central to the development of” the open-ended poetic of Faulkner’s more famous novels (Hepburn 19). To prove his thesis, Hepburn focuses his study on Sections Nine and Ten of the “Epilogue” (Faulkner 277-288).
In the first of these sections Hepburn contends that three of the artist, Gordon, Fairchild, and Kauffman undergo the greatest change. They are walking the streets at night through the “seedier streets” of New Orleans (Hepburn 20). In this section each of the artists, Gordon, Fitzgerald, and Kauffman make the transformation from artists that were polarized from each other to artist are more in congruence. In this section there is a parable of three groups, priests, revelers, and rats encounter a dead begger [sic] clutching a piece of stolen bread.
The priests in their “thin celibate despair” (Faulkner 277) and the revelers engage in an orgy-parade cannot be bothered with the dead begger [sic]. Only the rats can appreciate him by “dragging their hot bellies over him, exploring unreproved his private parts” (Faulkner 281). According to Hepburn the parable indicates that these three artists have changed and recognize “[o]nly the artist who is willing to wade into life will ever be able to confront it with any intimacy and accuracy” (Hepburn 23).
It is evident that Hepburn has interpreted these sections correctly. What is not evident is why Hepburn views Mosquitoes as a poetic turning point. What he appears to prove is that Mosquitoes provides a needed prerequisite to his later writing. This need not signify a turning point but rather may be just one more step along the path toward becoming the writer Faulkner would become in subsequent years.
Atkinson, Ted. “Aesthetic Ideology in Faulkner’s Mosquitoes: A Cultural History. The Faulkner Journal 17, 1(2001: 3-18.
Faulkner, William. Mosquitoes. London: Chatto & Windus, 1964.
Hepburn, Kenneth Wm. “Faulkner’s Mosquitoes: A Poetic Turning Point.” Twentieth Century Literature 17, 1 (Jan. 1971): 19-28.