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If Faulkner Ran the Banana Stand

August 7, 2013

About two weeks ago I finished watching the fourth season of Arrested Development.  Despite a rough stretch of episodes towards the beginning, I thoroughly enjoyed the layered narrative and certain episodes had me on the floor.  However, rather than discussing the relative merits of the fourth season, which the Internet has done to death already, I thought I’d make a quick note of a connection I feel the show has with one of the great works of American literature.

When I first saw Arrested Development, I found myself drawing comparisons between the Bluth family and the Compson family from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  It’s fairly easy to see the similarities on the macro-level.  Both stories concern morally rotten and once-powerful families that have fallen from grace but maintain the illusion of continued prosperity.  This particular story arc may not be all that unique, but there are enough parallels between the two that at least bear scrutiny.  Such as:

  • Sibling structure: George and Lucille Bluth have four children: three sons and a daughter.  Jason and Caroline Compson also have four children: three sons and a daughter.  In fact, each set of siblings was born in the same order: son, daughter, son, son.
  • Dependents: In both Arrested Development and The Sound and the Fury, the youngest son is dependent on the older generation.  Benjy Compson cannot verbally communicate and, from his perspective, every event in his life happens in present tense.  Buster Bluth is unusually, emotionally attached to his mother, and is the most child-like of the Bluth siblings (e.g., he gets sugar highs from fruit juice).
  • Rebellious daughters: Caddy is persona non grata in the Compson house because of her promiscuity, and her daughter, Miss Quentin, runs away from home at the end of the novel.  Lindsay married her husband, Tobias, because her father hated him, and their daughter, Maeby, has a penchant for lying and will use any chance to piss off her mother.

I could go on; there are plenty of other similarities.  And though a quick Google search didn’t turn up much, I’m not the only one who sees a link between these works.  For example, Anne Hobson of The American Spectator argues that the fourth season’s complex structure begs comparison to Faulkner’s literary style:

Reminiscent of William Faulkner’s great American novel The Sound and the Fury, Arrested Development boasts divergent yet concurrent storylines, with each episode focused on a single character.  In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s interweaving and nonlinear plot structure necessitates a close reading and re-reading.

I wish I could say it was Arrested Development’s narrative structure or characterizations that clued me into a possible connection.  However, it was more the result of confusion than insight: “Why does everyone have the same name?”

When I first read The Sound and the Fury, I remember being endlessly confused because–well, for a multitude of reasons, mostly related to the narrative voices.   But it didn’t help that members of the Compson family tend to share first names.  There are two Jasons (father and his second son), two Quentins (oldest son and his niece), and depending on the point in the narrative, two Maurys (youngest son’s birth name and his uncle).

While no two members of the Bluth family have identical names, the Bluths are fond of mixing and matching them.  Arrested Development features a George, an Oscar, a George Oscar, a Michael, and a George Michael, all within two generations of each other.  And don’t forget that there are two Lucilles in the show’s universe: George’s wife and her friend/rival who is referred to as “Lucille 2”.

Giving characters similar names is not something a professional does by accident; though Arrested Development is madness, there must be a method in it.  It turns out, there is.  In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, show creator Mitch Hurwitz acknowledged the possible influence of Faulkner’s naming conventions.  When asked why he named the main character Michael, Hurwitz said:

I started there, and I liked how prosaic that name was.  And then I liked the idea of everyone having the same name, which is kind of a Faulkner trick, you know, just to make it really complicated, to force people to pay attention…It’s just something about that enmeshment of the family that appealed to me.

Even if Hurwitz’s is merely appropriating a literary technique, that he chooses this particular Faulknerian element is significant given the story he is telling.  The enmeshed names of the Compson family are significant because they imply continuity between different generations.  Each generation will make the same mistakes as the previous generation, and moral rottenness may as well be written into the family’s DNA.

When I had finished the original three seasons of Arrested Development, I thought that the show offered a more optimistic take on the same story.  It’s true that the oldest generation is corrupt and their children are greedy and oblivious.  However, Michael’s son George Michael seems to offer hope for the future.  He’s moral and thoughtful and capable of finding the beauty in Ann Veal of all characters.  If anyone is capable of escaping the corrupting influence of being a Bluth, it’s him.

But when season four rolls around, that optimism vanishes.  Just a few years into the future and George Michael is gradually turning into his father.  The Narrator notes that George Michael has embraced the Bluth family’s penchant for elaborate lies.  He talks up a fictitious privacy/anti-piracy software just to impress women.  Even though he has seen firsthand how destructive lying was for his elders, George Michael can’t resist his true calling.  Despite violently rejecting the notion that he and his father are “just like twins”, George Michael is more like Michael than he’d care to admit.  The grand Bluth tradition will continue.

Given the possibility that Arrested Development is inspired by The Sound and the Fury, how does this affect one’s interpretation of the show?  Is it a comic take on a great American tragedy, or does the comedy conceal a greater tragedy beneath the surface?  I don’t know.  But I think that tension between comedy and tragedy will keep me coming back to the show.

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From → Film & TV, Literature

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