With Her Myriad and Sunken Face Lifted to the Weather

Here’s Faulkner’s physical description of Dilsey Gibson from The Sound and the Fury, Dilsey, the Black caretaker of the fucked-up[1] Compson clan, as dysfunctional a collection of kin you’ll find this side of the House of Cadmus. 

She had been a big woman once but now her skeleton rose, draped loosely in unpadded skin that tightened again upon a paunch almost dropsical, as though muscle and tissue had been courage or fortitude which the days or the years had consumed until only the indomitable skeleton was left rising like a ruin or a landmark above the somnolent and impervious guts, and above that the collapsed face that gave the impression of the bones themselves being outside the flesh, lifted into the driving day with an expression at once fatalistic and of a child’s astonished disappointment, until she turned and entered the house again and closed the door.

A remarkable human being, Dilsey, transcendent in her morality. She stoically endures subjugation, poverty, and the day-to-day depredation of having to tend to the Compsons[2], all the while doing her best to raise her own grandchildren and by proxy provide damaged teen Quentin Compson some desperately needed love. Dilsey’s just passing through this vale of tears, her degradation a temporary burden before the everlasting glory commences. She’s seen the first and the last, she says.

Like the woman in Douglas Balentine’s painting Cargo II.

Cargo II

When I saw the painting for the “first time in the flesh” at Douglas’s home last Saturday night, I thought immediately of Dilsey. There she is in the center of the canvas, transplanted from Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. She’s traded her Mississippi ratty Easter Sunday purple for something more African, but the expression is hers, Dilsey’s, “with her myriad and sunken face lifted to the weather.”  She, too, has seen the first and the last.

The freighters on the right side of the canvas heading to the harbor follow the path that brought Dilsey’s ancestors to Charleston as beachcombers loll about, attempting to darken their skin. The woman lying on her stomach between the two freighters seems to be developing a sunburn. These folks remind me somewhat of Edward Hopper’s People in the Sun, though they’re much more rigid than Balentine’s more relaxed and fleshy beachgoers. 

Cargo II is truly a beautiful, thought-provoking painting. I absolutely love it.


[1] Generally I’m not one to lob f-bombs, but the phrase “the fucked up Compson clan” sounds so right you can almost dance to it, and I can’t think of a more apt word to describe their situation. . 

[2] Okay, let’s start with Benjy, the thirty-three-year-old castrato with an IQ in the teens; then there’s his banished sister Caddie and her neglected way-damaged teenaged daughter Quentin, named for the Compson son who drowned himself at Harvard. The youngest brother Jason makes Bull Connor look broadminded. And, lastly, maybe the worst mother in American literature, the matriarch Caroline Compson, lying in dark rooms huffing on camphor day and night in a wallow of self-pity.