The Sound and the Fury is one of the most celebrated novels of the twentieth century, written by American author William Faulkner, which makes use of the stream of consciousness narrative technique pioneered by European authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Published in 1929, it was his fourth novel. It first received commercial success in 1931 when Faulkner's novel Sanctuary, a sensationalist story which Faulkner later admitted was originally written only for money, drew widespread attention to the author. Critical praise soon followed. The book continues to sell well, and it has become part of standard high school and university curricula around the United States.
"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
''Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Most immediately obvious is the idea of a "tale told by an idiot", in this case Benjy, whose version of the Compsons' story opens the novel. This idea can also be extended to the other two narrators, Quentin and Jason, whose narratives display their own respective varieties of idiocy. More to the point, however, the novel is recounting the death of a family, including some of its members, as well as the decline of the traditional upper-class Southern family. This is the significance of "The way to dusty death." The last line is, perhaps, the most meaningful; Faulkner later says in his speech upon being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature that people must write about things that come from the heart, or "universal truths." Otherwise, he states, the ideas published signify nothing.
The four parts of the novel relate many of the same episodes, each from a different point of view and therefore with emphasis on different themes and events. This interweaving and nonlinear structure makes any true synopsis of the novel difficult, especially since the narrators are all unreliable in their own way, making their accounts not necessarily trustworthy at all times. Also in this novel, Faulkner uses italics to indicate points in each section where the narrative is moving into a significant moment in the past. The use of these italics can be confusing, however, as time shifts are not always marked by the use of italics, and periods of different time in each section do not necessarily stay in italics for the duration of the flashback. Thus, these time shifts can often be jarring and confusing, calling for the necessity of a particularly close reading.
The general outline of the story is the decline of the Compson family, a once noble Southern family descended from U.S. Civil War hero General Compson. The family falls victim to those vices which Faulkner believed were responsible for the problems in the reconstructed South: racism, avarice, selfishness, the psychological inability of individuals to become determinants. Over the course of the thirty years or so related in the novel, the family falls into financial ruin, loses its religious faith and the respect of the town of Jefferson, and many of them die tragically.
The reader may also wish to look in The Portable Faulkner for a four-page history of the Compson family. Faulkner said afterwards that he wished he had written the history at the same time he wrote The Sound and the Fury.
The first section of the novel is narrated by Benjamin "Benjy" Compson, a source of shame to the family due to his mental retardation and/or autism (never explicitly identified as either); the only characters who evidence a genuine care for him are Caddy, his older sister; and Dilsey, a matriarchal servant. His narrative voice is characterized predominantly by its nonlinearity: spanning the period 1898-1928, Benjy's narrative is a pastiche of events presented in a seamless stream of consciousness. The presence of italics in Benjy's section is meant to indicate significant shifts in the narrative. Originally Faulkner meant to use different colored inks to signify chronological breaks. This nonlinearity makes the style of this section particularly challenging, but Benjy's style develops a cadence that, while not chronologically coherent, provides unbiased insight into many characters' true motivations. Moreover, Benjy's caretaker changes to indicate the time period: Luster in the present, T.P. in Benjy's teenage years, and Versh during Benjy's infancy and childhood.
In this section we see Benjy's three passions: fire, the golf course on land that used to belong to the Compson family, and his sister Caddy. But by 1928 Caddy has been banished from the Compson home after her husband divorced her because her child was not his, and the family has sold his favorite pasture to a local golf club in order to finance Quentin's Harvard education. In the opening scene, Benjy, accompanied by Luster, a servant boy, watches golfers on the nearby golf course as he waits to hear them call "caddie" - the name of his favorite sibling. When one of them calls for his golf caddie, Benjy's mind embarks on a whirlwind course of memories of his sister, Caddy, focusing on one critical scene. In 1898 when their grandmother died, the four Compson children were forced to play outside during the funeral. In order to see what was going on inside, Caddy climbed a tree in the yard, and while looking inside, her brothers—Quentin, Jason and Benjy—looked up and noticed that her underwear was muddy. How each of them reacts to this is the first insight the reader has into the trends that will shape the lives of these boys: Jason is disgusted, Quentin is appalled, and Benjy seems to have a "sixth-sense" in that he moans (he is unable to speak using words), as if sensing the symbolic nature of Caddy's dirtiness, which hints at her later sexual promiscuity. At the time the children were aged 9 (Quentin), 7 (Caddy), 5 (Jason) and 3 (Benjy). Other crucial memories in this section are Benjy's change of name (from Maury, after his uncle) in 1900 upon the discovery of his disability; the marriage and divorce of Caddy (1910), and Benjy's castration, resulting from an attack on a girl that is alluded to briefly within this chapter when a gate is left unlatched and Benjy is out unsupervised. Readers often report trouble understanding this portion of the novel due to its impressionistic language, necessitated by Benjamin's retardation, and its frequent shifts in time and setting.
Narrated by Quentin, the most intelligent and most tortured of the Compson children, the second part is probably the novel's finest example of Faulkner's narrative technique. In this section we see Quentin, a freshman at Harvard University, wander the streets of Cambridge, contemplating death and remembering his family's estrangement from his sister Caddy. Like the first section, the plot is not strictly linear, although the two interweaving storylines of Quentin at Harvard on the one hand and his memories on the other are clearly discernible.
Quentin's main obsession is Caddy's virginity and purity. He is obsessed with old Southern ideals of honor and therefore is extremely protective of womenfolk, especially his sister. Therefore, when Caddy engages in sexual promiscuity, Quentin is horrified. He turns to his father for help and advice, but cynical Mr. Compson tells Quentin that virginity is invented by men and therefore should not be taken seriously. He also tells Quentin that time will heal all. Quentin spends much of his day trying to prove his father wrong, but is unable to. Shortly before Quentin left for Harvard in the fall of 1909, Caddy became pregnant with the child of Dalton Ames who is confronted by Quentin. The two fight, with Quentin losing horribly and Caddy vowing to never speak to Dalton again for Quentin's sake. Quentin tells his father that they have committed incest, but his father knows that he is lying: "and he did you try to make her do it and i i was afraid to i was afraid she might and then it wouldn't do any good"(112). Quentin's idea of incest is wrapped around the idea that, if they "could just have done something so dreadful that they would have fled hell except us" (51), he could protect his sister by joining her in whatever punishment/hardship/retribution she would be forced to endure. In his mind, he felt a need to take responsibility for Caddy's sin. Pregnant and alone, Caddy then marries Herbert Head, whom Quentin finds repulsive but Caddy is resolute: she must marry before the birth of her child. Herbert however finds out that the child is not his and sends mother and daughter away in shame. Quentin's wanderings through Harvard, as he cuts class, follow the pattern of his heartbreak over losing Caddy. For instance, he meets a small Italian immigrant girl who speaks no English. He significantly calls her "sister" and spends much of the day trying to communicate with her, and to care for her by finding her home, to no avail. He thinks sadly of the downfall and squalor of the South after the American Civil War. Ultimately, Quentin, unable to cope with the amorality of the world around him, commits suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Charles River after loading his jacket with flat-irons.
While many first-time readers report Benjy's section as being difficult to understand, these same readers often find Quentin's section to be near impossible. Not only do chronological events mesh together regularly, but often (especially at the end) Faulkner completely disregards any semblance of grammar, spelling, or punctuation, instead writing in a rambling series of words, phrases, and sentences that have no separation to indicate where one thought ends and another begins. This confusion is due to Quentin's severe depression and deteriorating state of mind. The section is therefore ironic in that Quentin is an even more unreliable narrator than his brother Benjy was. Because of the staggering complexity of this section, it is often the one most extensively studied by scholars of the novel.
The third portion is narrated by Jason, the youngest and least likeable of the Compson children. This section takes place the day before Benjy's section, on Good Friday. Of the three brothers who narrate a section, Jason's account is the most straightforward, reflecting his single-minded and calculated desire for material wealth. By 1928, Jason is the economic foundation of the family after his father's death. He supports his mother, Benjy, and Miss Quentin (Caddy's daughter) as well as the family of servants. This role has made him bitter and cynical, with little sign of the passionate sensitivity that defined his older brother or sister. He goes so far as to blackmail Caddy into making him Miss Quentin's sole guardian, then uses that role to steal the support payments that Caddy sends for her daughter.
This is the first portion that is narrated in a linear fashion. It follows the course of Good Friday--a day in which Jason decides to leave work to search for Miss Quentin (Caddy's daughter), who has run away again, seemingly in pursuit of mischief. Here we see most immediately the conflict between the two predominant traits of the Compson family (which Jason's mother Caroline attributes to the difference between her and her husband's blood): on the one hand, Miss Quentin's recklessness and passion, inherited from her mother and, ultimately, the Compson side; on the other, Jason's ruthless cynicism, drawn from his Mother's side. This section also gives us the clearest image of domestic life in the Compson household, which for Jason and the servants means the care of Caroline the hypochondriac and of Benjy.
April 8, 1928, not coincidentally, was Easter Sunday. This section, the only without a single first person narrator, focuses on Dilsey, the powerful matriarch of the black servant family. She, in contrast to the declining Compsons, draws a tremendous amount of strength from herself and her faith, and thus stands as a proud figure amidst a dying family. It can be said that Dilsey gains her strength by looking outward (i.e. outside of one's self for support) while the Compsons grow weak by looking inward, thus imploding on themselves.
On Easter, she takes her family and Benjy to the 'colored' church for the Easter service. Through her we see, in a sense, the consequences of the decadence and depravity in which the Compsons have lived for decades. Dilsey is mistreated and abused, but nevertheless remains loyal. She is the only one who cares for Benjy, as she takes him to church and tries to bring him to salvation. The preacher's sermon inspires her to weep for the Compson family, reminding her that she's seen the family through its destruction, which she is now witnessing.
Meantime, the tension between Jason and Miss Quentin reaches its inevitable conclusion: the family discovers that Miss Quentin has run away in the middle of the night with a carnival worker, in the process breaking into Jason's hidden stash of cash in his closet and taking both her money (the support from Caddy, which Jason had stolen) and her money-obsessed uncle's life savings. Jason calls the police and tells them that his money has been stolen, but since it would mean admitting embezzling Quentin's money he doesn't press the issue. He therefore sets off to once again find her on his own, but loses her trail in nearby Mottson and gives her up as gone for good.
The novel ends with a very powerful and unsettling image. After church, Dilsey allows her grandson Luster to drive Benjy in the family's decrepit horse and carriage (another sign of decay) to the graveyard. Luster, not caring that Benjy is so entrenched in the routine of his life that even the slightest change in route will enrage him, drives the wrong way around a monument. Benjy's hysterical sobbing and violent outburst can only be quieted by Jason, of all people, who understands how best to placate his brother. Jason slaps Luster, turns the carriage around, and Benjy suddenly becomes silent. Luster turns around to look at Benjy and sees Benjy drop his flower. Benjy's eyes are "...empty and blue and serene again."
The novel's appreciation has in large part been due to the technique of its construction: Faulkner's uncanny ability to recreate the thought patterns of the human mind, even the disabled one. In this sense, it was an essential development in the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique.
The Sound and the Fury has also, like much of Faulkner's work, been read as a microcosm for the South as a whole. Faulkner was very much preoccupied with the question of how the ideals of the old South could be maintained or preserved in the post-Civil War era. Seen in this light, the decline of the Compson family might be interpreted as an examination of the corrosion of traditional morality only to be replaced by a modern helplessness. The most compelling characters are also the most tragic, as Caddy and Quentin both cannot survive within the context of the traditional society whose values they reject as best they can, and it is left to Jason, unappealing but competently pragmatic, to maintain the status quo, as evidenced by the novel's ending.
There are also echoes of existential themes in the novel, as Sartre argued in his famous essay on Faulkner. Many of the characters also draw upon classical, Biblical and literary sources: Some believe Quentin (like Darl from As I Lay Dying) to have been inspired by Hamlet and Caddy by Ophelia; and Benjamin received his name after the brother of Joseph in the book of Genesis.
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