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William Faulkner: Requiem for a Nun

Though a Yoknapatawpha novel, this one is different from the others in several respects. Firstly, much of it is written as a play (with three acts and dialogue as in a play). Secondly, much of the novel that is not a play, is a historical account of the town of Jefferson, going back to its beginnings and focusing on the courthouse and jail. Thirdly, not a great deal happens. The story follows on from Sanctuary. Temple Drake is now married to Gowan Stevens (though not very happily). They have had two children. At the start of the novel, their maid, Nancy, is being sentenced to death for the murder of one of the children. Much of the novel or, rather play, focuses on Temple’s attempt to have Nancy’s sentence commuted, though, initially, it is not clear why except that Temple seems to think that Nancy was crazy when she killed the child.

A large part of the novel is a dialogue between Temple and Gavin Stevens, Gowan’s uncle and Nancy’s lawyer. Stevens is convinced that Temple is hiding something (she is) and that it may be relevant to the case (it is) and may save Nancy from execution. The pair even go to the Governor on the night before the execution to get a stay. But the whole story is murky. The behavior of Temple and Gowan has been, as in Sanctuary, questionable and clearly they have not been good parents or good employers. Nancy’s motives are also unclear. All together it does not really work. The book may be best remembered for its (and Faulkner’s) most famous line – The past isn’t ever dead. It isn’t even past – but the rest shows an indication of Faulkner’s waning powers.

Publishing history

First published 1951 by Random House