Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.

These sentences form the opening of Chapter 6, as young Joe Christmas is about to sneak into the dietician’s room at the orphanage to steal more of her toothpaste. Memory—and the long shadows it casts, influencing and altering the present and the future—is one of the central concerns of Faulkner’s multifaceted inquiry into the moral fiber of his characters. Both the quotation and the passage it introduces are characteristic of Faulkner’s rambling, free-associative style. At times, his descriptions and commentaries take on the quality of a prose poem, a tumbling series of images and impressions that cumulatively enacts and approximates the fleeting, half-formed images that constitute, in this case, a five-year-old’s earliest memories and sensory impressions.

For many of Faulkner’s characters, the past represents an inheritance of struggle, pain, humiliation, and shame—a legacy that the characters spend the rest of their lives trying to outrun and deny. The history of abuses and neglect that punctuate Joe’s formative years forms a record of memory more powerful than any literal, “objective” recounting of the events that make up his life. Faulkner argues that a fleeting moment—an incident as random as a little boy stealing a squirt of toothpaste—can have implications that reach far beyond the moment. The cold and oppressive hallways of the orphanage form a psychic space that Joe carries with him, in memory, for the rest of his life. Whether the characters consciously recognize or acknowledge the events that shape their lives, they retain their memories, permanent and inalterable. Beyond recollection and wonder, beyond the rational consideration of the events that mark Joe’s life, lies the more potent and inescapable history of scars, both psychic and physical, that he bears. It is collectively these memories, and the slights and abuses they represent, that make him who he is and that conspire to drive him to his tragic end.