BMCR 2023.04.06

Faulkner’s reception of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass in The Reivers

, Faulkner's reception of Apuleius' The Golden Ass in The Reivers. Bloomsbury studies in classical reception. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. Pp. 232. ISBN 9781350005983.



Faulkner’s Reception of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass in The Reivers is a notable contribution to the area of classical reception studies, but also to Faulknerian literary criticism in general. Vernon L. Provencal’s principal aim when writing this volume is precisely to compensate for “the scant scholarly attention” (1) that has been paid to Faulkner’s often overlooked last novel, The Reivers: A Reminiscence, published in 1962. Acknowledging its substantial reception of The Golden Ass is meant to highlight “their common focus on the highest aspirations of humanity as a universal theme transcendent of time and place”. Yet, it should also “rehabilitate its lacklustre literary reputation as a semi-fictional nostalgic memoir” (1). Given that The Reivers ultimately “aims at individual and societal reform”, Provencal’s conclusive argument in this monograph is that Faulkner accordingly receives The Golden Ass as a text that “indulges in the fantasy of magic and metamorphosis for the purpose of setting out a moral katabasis that proves to be a spiritual anabasis” (169).

The volume is divided into three main analytical sections. In the first one, Provencal provides a reading of The Reivers, where he carries out a thorough “structural and thematic analysis, independent of its reception” (1) in The Golden Ass. Next, he conducts a new reading of Apuleius’ novel that aims to address some issues left unresolved by the Groningen Commentaries on Apuleius (GCA), published between 1981 and 2015. While both sections can be read independently, it is in the third and final one where Provencal specifically addresses the complexities of the Metamorphoses as received in Faulkner’s novel. Firstly, by speculating on the circumstances that brought both texts together and paved the way for reception; and secondly, by studying the actual Apuleian reception in terms of “plot, storylines, specific episodes, characters and relationships” (2).

Chapter 1, “William Faulkner and The Reivers”, offers an exhaustive critical analysis of Faulkner’s  novel, starting with some introductory subsections dealing with Faulkner’s background, his fictional setting of Yoknapatawpha County, and the relevance of the myths of the “Old South”. Then, the novel’s individual narrative chapters are divided into over fifty further subsections. By constantly bringing in illustrative and explanatory references to previous titles in William Faulkner’s oeuvre, Provencal’s approach combines in-depth insight into characterisation with major themes, such as social order (12), racism (16), civil rights (6), morality (13-16), the classical  tropes of katabasis and anabasis (21-27), or the combination of metanarrative elements with ecocritical awareness (33).

In Chapter 2, “Apuleius and The Golden Ass” (53-146), Provencal carries out a substantial rereading of the Apuleian narrative in order to provide the comparative context. After a general background in which the life, beliefs and works of Apuleius of Madauros are brought to the fore, Provencal reads all eleven books of The Golden Ass by exploring editorial decisions and interpretations of the “evolving narratology of GCA” (62) according to a detailed timeline and a structural division into five parts, which is ultimately applied to the comparative context of the third and final section. Provencal’s reading presents “Lucius of Corinth as the comic hero of a comic novel authored by Apuleius” (55), and not to be identified with him. Likewise, as a counter to the same secular tendency toward erroneous identification, Provencal also reads Lucius-auctor as “the literary persona of fictive author Liber, who uses a fictive ‘Apuleius’” (55), thus leaving the “actual author” and the “actual readers” of The Golden Ass out of what he terms “this self-enclosed fictive world” (55).

In Chapter 3, “Reception of The Golden Ass in The Reivers”, the author examines thematic and structural parallels between the two novels through a slightly succinct joint scrutiny. Here the main thrust of Provencal’s argument is that, as anticipated above, there are “numerous receptions of characters, episodes and storylines” (149). He suggests that, in spite of the absence of any explicit allusion to Apuleius or The Golden Ass “in the published Faulkner”, both Sir Lucius and Lady Everbe’s baby’s name, “Lucius Priest Hogganbeck”, are modelled on “the praenomen of Apuleian Lucius of Corinth” (147). Provencal does not rule out the possibility of indirect influence through nineteenth- and twentieth-century “receptions of Cupid and Psyche”, including Keats, Sir Walter Scott, Walter Pater and Eudora Welty (148), before advancing that, despite their abundance, there is no absolute correspondence between the receptions of “characters, episodes and storylines”, although there is a rough one “between the sequence of books in G[olden] A[ss] and chapters in R[reivers], divided into five parts as follows: Part 1 (i, I-III) Comic Trials; Part 2 (ii-v, II-IV) Katabasis and metamorphosis; Part 3 (viii-xii, VII-X) Servitude; Part 4 (v-xiii, IV-VI) Cupid and Psyche; Part 5 (xiii, XI) Restoration” (149). With a view to stressing that The Golden Ass is crucial to the articulation of Faulkner’s belief in self-redemption, Provencal focuses on characterisation through a conscientious narratological examination of humour, family backgrounds, and the moral implications of all Apuleian counterparts, including the issues of segregation and racism. But he also places an emphasis on the pivotal role of the ass figure and the ambivalent significance of the automobile as a “symbol of technology’s transformation of America” (150). More specifically, the interaction of the central concepts of metamorphosis, katabasis and anabasis is made manifest, Provencal observes, in the way that Apuleian Platonic morality and Lucius’ metamorphosis into an ass are integrated into young Lucius in The Reivers. The acknowledgement of the reception here “highlights the comic aspect of his rite of passage from childhood to adulthood occurring as a metamorphosis into a driver and reiver of an automobile” (153).

Those readers looking for a theoretical foundation addressing the multilayered issues of imitation, influence, intertextuality, interdiscursivity, transtextuality, heteroglossia, appropriation, hybrid utterances, plagiarism, recontextualisation, cross-cultural studies, or even transcreation may feel discouraged by Provencal’s early acknowledgement that the articulation of “R’s reception of GA” is built upon “macro-thematic receptions” such as “paternalism”, “class and race; gender and sexuality”, or “literary genre and classical reception”, amongst others, which “come to light in the course of [his] readings” (2). While this is applied consistently, little is done to provide a critical framework for the concept of reception itself or reception theory. Provencal recognises that The Golden Ass must be approached “anew as providing a palimpsest for [The] R[eivers]” (4), but does not define the term “palimpsest” or further explore its critical implications. Similarly, when quoting “the only recognition in scholarpship” of the crucial presence of the Apuleian narrative of metamorphoses in this novel, Provencal does not criticise or expand on the terms employed to describe it: namely, Patrick Samway’s opinion that the The Golden Ass “‘might well have been one of the more important pieces of lumber that Faulkner used in crafting The Reivers’” (147). However, when it comes to intertextuality, it could be argued that Faulkner himself is the most important “piece of lumber”, or hypotext, to be more orthodox. As Provencal himself had already pointed out in his previous study of the myth of Cupid and Psyche in The Reivers, this novel “recollects characters and story-lines from Faulkner’s earliest to most recent work, preserving an unintended final comment on his entire corpus and its preoccupation with race, class, religion, gender and sexuality, especially as experienced through the modernization of the American South in the traumatic aftermath of the Civil War.”[1] Perhaps the book would have benefitted from a more ambitious theoretical foundation evaluating the weighty complexities inherent in literary reception. All the more so in a volume that includes this specific term in its title, which should be a claim to authoritativeness.

Although this and some other minor points do not necessarily detract from the main line of reasoning of the volume, they still might raise some mild objections. One of them is related to Provencal’s pertinent observation that The Reivers is also indirectly permeated by The Golden Ass through Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote: “R is a reception of GA as a novel best characterized as a picaresque comic romance, arguably by way of its (unappreciated) sixteenth-century Spanish reception in the picaresque comic masterpiece, Don Quixote” (4). Yet  Cervantes’ novel was published in the seventeenth century—part I in 1605, and part II in 1615. As to its being broadly labelled “picaresque”, despite being an undeniable constituent in a much wider intertextual and metafictional frame of reference, this is a recurrent imprecision, hastily assumed and unexaminedly accepted, that reemerges periodically with no apparent explanation. Another aspect that might not be well received is the ample use of abbreviations in some subsections. This might prevent non-specialist readers from sustaining their interest and attention. But indeed they are largely justified in the critical context of classical studies and the overwhelming interconnectedness of Faulkner’s own works, not to mention their preceptive use in scholarly journals such as The Faulkner Journal.[2]

All things considered, Vernon L. Provencal’s objectives are thoroughly and meticulously accomplished. Faulkner’s reception of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass in The Reivers is a timely and insightful clarification on the largely unexamined assumption of the centrality of The Metamorphoses of Apuleius in the American novelist’s last published novel. By painstakingly offering new readings of both works, which can be read independently, Provencal constructs a comparative context for the close scrutiny of the receptions and how they contribute to a better understading of Faulkner’s message of stoicism and hope to his readers. This triple effort will no doubt arouse the genuine interest of William Faulkner’s and Apuleius’ scholars alike, as well as those actively engaged in giving precise critical assessments in the wider field of reception studies.



[1] In Vernon L. Provencal’s “Faulkner’s reception(s) of Apuleius’ Cupid and Psyche in The Reivers.” In Cupid and Psyche: The Reception of Apuleius’ Love Story since 1600. Eds. Regine May and Stephen J. Harrison. Berlin: De Gruyter, 339-356.

[2] See “Abbreviations for Texts to be Cited in The Faulkner Journal.” The Faulkner Journal Vol. 28, No. 2 (Fall 2014), pp. 99-101.