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The Sound and the Fury
William Faulkner


THE NOVEL

THE PLOT

In one sense, The Sound and the Fury takes place during Easter weekend, 1928. A carnival comes to Jefferson, Mississippi, where the Compson family lives. Mrs. Compson, a selfish, complaining woman, lies in bed all day while the black housekeeper, Dilsey, cooks and cleans. Mrs. Compson is a widow with two sons. Jason, who works in a hardware store, supports the family. The younger son, Benjamin, usually called Benjy, is an idiot. At thirty-three, he still has the mind of a child. Benjy is looked after by Luster, Dilsey's teenaged grandson. The household has one other member- Quentin, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Jason's older sister Candace, nicknamed Caddy. Caddy's husband left her when he realized that the infant she had just given birth to couldn't possibly be his. So Caddy sent the baby home for her mother and Dilsey to raise. Quentin is named for the Compson family's oldest son, who killed himself eighteen years earlier while he was a student at Harvard.

Not much occurs from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. The most important event is that a show comes to town. Luster takes Benjy to the golf course to look for lost quarters so that he can buy a ticket. Jason has extra tickets but burns them in the stove in front of Luster rather than give them to him. Jason is constantly criticizing Quentin. On Saturday night, Quentin slides down the drainpipe and runs away with a man from the show. Before she leaves, she steals Jason's savings. When Jason realizes on Sunday that both his niece and his money are gone, he chases futilely after them. What makes Jason angriest of all is that he can't tell anyone, not even the police, how much money Quentin actually took. The $3000 that Jason does report was his life's savings. But he'd also had $4000 that he'd stolen from Quentin. All along, when Caddy had sent money for Quentin's support, Jason had pretended that his mother tore up the checks, whereas, in reality, he had only given her forged ones to destroy. Secretly, he had cashed the real checks and hidden the money in his room, where Quentin found it. Since he wasn't supposed to have this $4000, he couldn't let on that it was gone. On his return home, Jason runs into Luster and Benjy. Luster has taken Benjy for a carriage ride but is driving around the square the wrong way. That makes Benjy uncomfortable and he is screaming. Jason turns the surrey around so it travels in the direction Benjy is used to.

That isn't much of a story. But The Sound and the Fury is about much more than that weekend in 1928. The Compsons' present is totally shaped by the past. Faulkner brings the past into the novel both through its structure- separate sections for each of the three Compson brothers, and one for the author- and through his style. Quentin's section is set entirely in the past. It takes place on the day before his suicide, June 2, 1910. As he prepares to die Quentin broods over what has gone on in his family. And although Benjy's section is set in the novel's present, 1928, the past is just like the present for Benjy. He can't tell the difference between the fire in the kitchen in 1928 and the fire in his mother's bedroom in 1900 when he was five. Benjy's section is filled with glimpses of the Compson children while growing up. Jason is able to cope with the present better than the other Compsons, but his section, too, contains many old resentments against his sister that he transfers to his niece.

Benjy's and Quentin's sections reveal the past as a backdrop against which the events of the present take place. The children's grandmother, whom they called Damuddy, died in 1898. In 1900, when Benjy was five, the family realized how severely retarded he was. He had originally been named Maury, for Mrs. Compson's brother. Now, because his mental retardation might reflect on the Bascombs, she wanted to change his name. Caddy's growing interest in boys in 1906-1908 upset both Quentin and Benjy, who in their different ways depended on her love. In 1909, Caddy slept with her boyfriend, Dalton Ames. Later she became pregnant and was forced to marry Herbert Head, a man she didn't love. At Caddy's wedding in April 1910, Benjy got drunk on champagne. After she left home, Benjy, waiting by the gate, ran after and grabbed a neighborhood girl who was walking home from school. Probably he confused her with Caddy, whom he used to wait for. In any case, in order to keep him from sexually attacking girls, the family had him castrated. Quentin dealt with his own distress about Caddy in a different way- a month later, he killed himself. Two years later, Mr. Compson, the children's father, died.

The brief summary of events at the end of this section may be useful to you as you read the novel's first two sections. But they aren't the whole story either. In an appendix that Faulkner wrote about fifteen years after The Sound and the Fury was published, he filled in more of the Compson's past and also brought their story forward to the 1940s. His history of the Compson family begins with the Indian chief who originally owned the land that became the town of Jefferson. The Appendix also reveals that, after Mrs. Compson died in 1933, Jason sold the family home and put Benjy in a state asylum. The old Compson place was turned into a boardinghouse and later was sold to a real estate developer. Caddy, according to the Appendix, married and divorced a Hollywood executive. In the 1940s the town librarian found a picture of a woman like Caddy with a Nazi general.

The Appendix links the novel to larger events in the country and the world. It also lets you see the story of the Compson family as a part of the history of the South. That history starts with the Indians and goes on through the era of slavery and the Civil War. Eventually the great old families like the Compsons die out. They are replaced by people Faulkner in other novels called the Snopeses- characters who share Jason's meanness and money-grubbing nature. The tract houses that eventually cover the Compson land are a symbol of what becomes of the South.

IMPORTANT EVENTS IN THE SOUND AND THE FURY

The following list will help you understand the order of events in the story.

    Damuddy's death- 1898
    Benjy's name change- 1900
    Christmas / Benjy and Caddy bring letter to Mrs. Patterson- sometime between 1900 and 1904
    Caddy reaches puberty- 1905-1909
      Caddy use perfume- about 1905
      Benjy must sleep alone- 1908
      Quentin kisses Natalie- unknown, probably around 1906 or 1907
      Caddy kisses a boy (the swing)- sometime between 1906 and 1909
      Caddy has sex with Dalton Ames, Quentin fights with Dalton Ames- late summer 1909
    Caddy's wedding- April 24, 1910
      Wedding announcement
      Quentin meets Herbert- April 22
      Wedding eve- April 23
    Benjy's castration- May or June 1910
    Quentin's suicide- June 2, 1910
    Breakup of Caddy's marriage / Mr. Compson brings baby Quentin back to Jefferson- 1911
    Mr. Compson death- 1912
    Roskus's death- unknown, but after 1912
    The present- 1928
      Benjy's 33rd birthday / the show / the girl Quentin runs away- April 7
      Easter Sunday / theft discovered / Luster drives around monument- April 8

    Death of Mrs. Compson / Jason fires Dilsey / Benjy institutionalized- 1933
    Librarian finds photograph of Caddy- 1943

[The Sound and the Fury Contents]


THE CHARACTERS

                         THE COMPSON FAMILY TREE                               
                                                                           
                         Quentin MacLachan Compson                          
                                (1699-1783)                                 
                                     |                                      
                                     |                                      
                           Charles Stuart Compson                           
                                     |                                      
                                     |                                      
                           Jason Lycurgus Compson                           
                                     |                                      
                                     |                                      
                        Quentin MacLachan Compson II                        
                          (governor of Mississippi)                         
                                     |                                      
                                     |                                      
                          Jason Lycurgus Compson II                         
                       (Confederate brigadier general)                      
      "Damuddy"                   (d. 1900)                                 
   and (?) Bascomb                   |                                      
     (d. 1898)                       |                                      
    ______|______                  Jason                                    
   |             |              Compson III                                 
  Maury      Caroline M.         (d. 1912)                                  
              (d. 1933)              |                                      
                          ___________|______________________                
                         |           |            |         |               
  Sydney     m.      Candace    Quentin III   Jason IV    Benjy             
  Herbert  (1910)   ("Caddy")   (1890-1910)   (b. 1894)  (at first          
   Head             (b. 1892)                            named Maury)       
                         |                               (b. 1895)          
                     Quentin                                                
                    (b. 1911)                                    

MAJOR CHARACTERS

  • JASON COMPSON III
    Jason Compson III is the father of Quentin, Caddy, Jason, and Benjy. The grandson of a governor and the son of a general, Compson is not living up to the family's distinguished past. All day he sits in a dusty law office, drinking whiskey, reading Latin, and writing nasty poems about the townspeople of Jefferson. But Compson is kind to the children. He is closest to Quentin and talks to him the most. The words "Father said" appear frequently in Quentin's recollections. But what he says to his son doesn't help Quentin very much. The day before he kills himself, Quentin remembers his father telling him that life is meaningless.

    Is Mr. Compson a good father? Because he feels so defeated by life, he cannot draw close to his children or help them with their problems. He can send Quentin to Harvard and pay for Caddy's wedding, but he can't give his children real love and understanding.

  • CAROLINE BASCOMB COMPSON
    Like Faulkner's mother, Caroline Compson is never allowed to forget that her family wasn't as good as her husband's. But the resemblance ends there. Faulkner's mother was strong and energetic. Mrs. Compson is lazy and self-pitying. Time and again, you see her exaggerating minor problems and feeling sorry for herself. She shifts her responsibilities onto the black housekeeper Dilsey and then complains that Dilsey doesn't do things quickly enough.

    Mrs. Compson cares more for appearances than for reality. She is furious when Caddy begins to become involved with boys, because it doesn't appear right. Later, when Caddy's daughter Quentin cuts school, Mrs. Compson worries that the principal will think she can't control her granddaughter. (It doesn't bother her that she really can't!) She has no real feeling for her children. She yells at Versh, Dilsey's son, for taking Benjy out into the cold without dressing him warmly. She is afraid that Benjy will get sick, she says. But what really distresses her is that Benjy's sickness would create problems when she entertained Christmas guests.

  • QUENTIN COMPSON III
    Named for his great-grandfather, the governor, Quentin is the brightest of the Compson children.

    Sending him to Harvard is his mother's dream. But Quentin is too troubled to hail his parents' hopes. At the end of his first year at Harvard, he drowns himself.

    Sex and love are the sources of Quentin's problems. He is frightened and disgusted by sex, and yearns for the time when he and his sister Caddy were children. He is obsessed with Caddy in two ways. He overemphasizes her virginity, which he equates with family honor. He feels that if Caddy is dishonored, the whole family will be destroyed. Quentin, therefore, is horribly upset when Caddy begins to sleep with boys. He hates the man she eventually marries. But at the same time that Quentin wants Caddy to remain a virgin, he has incestuous feelings toward her. He also imagines a mutual death pack for the two of them.

    The past weighs heavily on Quentin. Present occurrences typically remind him of the past. He tries hard to understand what has happened to his family, and to find a meaning for life. But in the end, he cannot. Mr. Compson, unable to cope with the world, withdrew to his books and his bourbon. Quentin also withdraws, but his withdrawal- death- is much more extreme.

    Readers react very differently to Quentin. Some sympathize with him. With a cold mother and a cynical father, they say, Quentin must have turned to his sister as the only source of love in the family. He then crumbled when she became less involved with him. Other readers, though, find Quentin as cold and self-involved as his parents. They say that he doesn't love Caddy, or Benjy- that he isn't capable of loving anyone. As you get deeper into the book, you will be able to make your own judgment.

    Many readers find Quentin the least successful character in the book, because his concerns- honor, truth, virginity- seem so abstract. The fuss Quentin makes about Caddy's virginity is especially difficult to understand today. Even thirty and forty years ago, readers found it rather unbelievable that a young man would become so upset when his sister lost her virginity. Is Quentin just trying to find a way to live morally in a corrupt world, or is he a bit crazy? Is he a sensitive hero, or is he too weak and passive to be admired? At some point in your reading, you should come to grips with these questions.

  • CANDACE COMPSON (CADDY)
    Faulkner once told an interviewer that The Sound and the Fury is "a tragedy of two lost women: Caddy and her daughter." He called Caddy "the beautiful one," "my heart's darling."

    Faulkner was not the only one who loved Caddy. She was like a mother to her brothers. She sympathized with and encouraged Quentin. She took care of Benjy and explained his needs to others. Benjy describes her the way an infant might talk about its mother, if it could speak. He lets you know all the things she does to make him comfortable and happy. "Caddy smelled like trees," he often thinks.

    Caddy is central to The Sound and the Fury in every way. She is the one active figure, climbing a tree, in Faulkner's image of the four children playing in the stream that inspired the novel. And her muddy underpants, in that image, symbolize her later promiscuity. As two of her brothers see it, Caddy's sexual looseness disgraced the Compson family. Her disappearance was a loss that her other brother, Benjy, continued to mourn seventeen years later. She drove Quentin to suicide and Jason to bitterness. And she ruined her daughter's life by leaving her with uncaring people.

    Was Caddy really as bad as all that? Readers usually find her sympathetic. And many readers, especially women, may wonder whether Caddy actually did anything so awful. Social codes have changed since the 1950s, and women are no longer disgraced when they do what has always been acceptable for men to do. Today, a girl like Caddy might look to sex with boys for the love she can't get from her parents, but now she wouldn't be made to suffer so much for it. If she became pregnant, she would have other choices than tricking a man into marrying her, and then giving up her baby.

    In The Sound and the Fury you never see Caddy directly, only as she is seen by her brothers. Why is this so, when Faulkner claimed that the image of her in the tree was the beginning of the novel? When a student asked him, Faulkner explained that "Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on... it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else's eyes, I thought." Some readers point out that Faulkner- even more than other American novelists of his generation- was not very good at creating female characters. Most of the women in Faulkner's other novels were either sexual and not very bright or sexless.

  • JASON COMPSON IV
    The Appendix calls Jason Compson IV the "first sane Compson" since the original Quentin Compson left Scotland for America. Certainly Jason seems more "normal" than either of his brothers. But that doesn't make Jason a sympathetic character. His values are the common ones of his society- making money and getting ahead. Unlike Quentin, who is lost in the past, Jason has no respect for the past at all. He makes fun of his famous ancestors, and he sells the family home as soon as his mother dies.

    The section of the novel that Jason narrates is much easier to read than Benjy's or Quentin's. Events in the present do not send him into the past as consistently as they do his brothers. Whereas Benjy's language is simple and poetic and Quentin's is rhetorical and romantic, Jason's language is coarse. Jason blames other people for his troubles. We can see, though, that he brings many of them on himself. Jason also usually has something nasty to say about others.

    Jason's section is largely taken up with his battle with his niece Quentin. Quentin eventually defeats him by running away and taking all his money with her. But we see Jason throughout the novel, as Quentin and especially Benjy think of the scenes of their childhood. Even as a boy, Jason was mean, spiteful, and a liar. Yet he is the only one of the Compson children who is able to function in the modern world with any degree of success. What does that say about Faulkner's opinion of his society?

  • BENJAMIN COMPSON
    The Compsons named their third child Maury, after Mrs. Compson's ne'er-do-well brother. But when they realized something was wrong with him, they decided to change his name. Quentin suggested the biblical name Benjamin, which is usually shortened to Benjy or Ben.

    In the novel's present time, April 1928, Benjy is celebrating his thirty-third birthday. He still has the mind of a child, however, and does not understand the connection between cause and effect. For example, he thinks, "The hand went away," not realizing that a person withdrew it. There is no evidence that Benjy can talk, since neither he nor any other character ever reports a word he says. What we know of Benjy comes mostly from his thoughts. He loves bright things, firelight and mirrors. He also loves the smell of rain (which reminds him of Quentin and of his father) and the smell of trees (which reminds him of Caddy). He likes things to be in familiar order, as you see at the end of the novel when Luster drives him the wrong way around the town square. Caddy is what he loves best, and he loses her. In fact, the overpowering feeling of Benjy's section of the novel is loss.

    People's reactions to him reveal a great deal about what they are really like. Caddy understands him perfectly, and he loves her best. Mrs. Compson, although she talks about "my poor baby," doesn't observe what he needs. Dilsey, the black housekeeper, is also good to Benjy, as are her sons Versh and T. P. (Her grandson, Luster, likes to tease him.) To a lesser extent, Benjy likes his father and Quentin. But Jason is mean to Benjy and constantly makes fun of him. So does Caddy's daughter, Quentin. Ben has an instinctive sense of what's happening. He knows when Caddy's been with a boy, for example; and the other children say that he can smell Damuddy's death.

    Only in the book's final section do you get a description of Benjy. There the narrator tells you that he is a big man with fine pale hair and corn-flower blue eyes. He walks "with a shambling gait, like a trained bear," and he drools. In the course of the other sections, you learn various facts about Benjy's life. Shortly after Caddy's wedding, he chases after a little girl in the street. His parents, fearing that Benjy has developed sexual urges, have him castrated. You also learn that in 1933, Jason commits him to the state asylum in Jackson. You can imagine what kind of life he will have there.

    Readers have various reactions to Benjy. Some readers have identified Benjy with Christ, pointing out that in the novel he is thirty-three, the age of Christ at his death. The action in the book takes place during the days between Good Friday, the day of the Crucifixion, and Easter Sunday. And in order to quiet Benjy at the novel's end, Luster gives him a narcissus, a traditional symbol of Christ. Is Benjy a Christ figure, and is his suffering meant to redeem the members of his family or humankind? Or is he a failed Christ, appropriate for a modern, meaningless world? It's hard to say. Another reader has advanced a psychological interpretation based on theories of Sigmund Freud. He thinks that Jason represents the ego, Quentin the superego, and Benjy the id- the most fundamental level of the personality, according to Freudians.

  • DILSEY GIBSON
    Dilsey, the Compson's black housekeeper, is working in the kitchen when the clock, which is not adjusted correctly, strikes five times. "Eight o'clock," Dilsey thinks to herself, automatically correcting the hour. That is a reflection of Dilsey's most important characteristic. Of all the people in the Compson household, Dilsey is the only one certain about the boundaries between past and present. She is also the only one who can live in the real world without abandoning her values. Dilsey keeps the family going from day to day. Of course, she is not really a Compson, although she tells her sons that they are part of the family.

    Dilsey, like Caddy, is an enormous source of warmth in the novel. Caddy, however, was destroyed by her sexuality while Dilsey is seen as asexual, and her warmth is safely maternal. She takes good care of the Compson children, and her generous heart goes out to the two most vulnerable. She knows what pleases Benjy. She protects the girl Quentin, keeping Jason from beating her. Dilsey knows how to work around the whiny Mrs. Compson, flattering her but not doing everything she wants.

    In addition, Dilsey has a life of her own. She is a good mother to her three children and encourages them to work hard and behave properly. At the same time, she teaches them how to survive in a world run by whites. She loves the good people around her. "De good Lawd dont keer whether he smart or not," she tells her daughter Frony when Frony wonders whether they should bring Benjy to their church. On Easter Sunday, Dilsey is deeply moved by a black preacher's powerful sermon. Christ's Resurrection is alive for Dilsey as for no other character in the book.

    Faulkner's comment on Dilsey in the Appendix consists of two words: "They endured." And indeed, the Compson's black servants survived the family's ruin. Dilsey becomes a sort of commentator on the entire novel when she says, after the Easter service, "I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin." To some extent, Dilsey shares some of the family's original values. She fights against Jason's betrayal of those values for as long as she can.

    Some readers view Dilsey as the most heroic figure in The Sound and the Fury. They see Dilsey's endurance as strength. Others point out that the endurance is only passive. Dilsey can't affect events. She can only comfort their innocent victims. In deciding what you think of Dilsey, you'll want to pay close attention to the Easter service. It is a good guide to what she believes.

  • QUENTIN (CADDY'S DAUGHTER)
    You don't really know much about Caddy's daughter Quentin. Caddy sends the girl home to Jefferson after her divorce from Herbert Head. Jason steals the checks Caddy sends for Quentin's support, and won't let Caddy see the girl when she comes to town.

    Quentin is a hard, angry girl. She wears too much makeup, cuts school, and becomes involved with men. Jason continually picks on her, but she gives back as good as she gets. Quentin blames Jason for her behavior. She's bad, she says, but Jason made her that way. Do you agree?

    Quentin eventually runs off with a man who came to Jefferson with a traveling show. Before she leaves, she takes all Jason's money- both his savings and the money Caddy had meant for her. It is difficult to predict what will become of Quentin, and Faulkner's Appendix doesn't help. She is not likely to have a very happy life, however.

    In some ways, Quentin's story turns out to be something like Caddy's. She turns to men to escape from her family. But where Caddy was loving and warm, Quentin is cold and bitter. She is mean to Dilsey, the only person who treats her with any affection. Quentin often says that she wishes she had never been born.

  • VERSH, T. P., FRONY
    Versh, T. P., and Frony are Dilsey's children. The boys, Versh and T. P., look after Benjy in the early portions of the book. Frony helps out in the kitchen. In the Appendix, Faulkner pictures T. P. as grown, a sharp dude in cheap clothes on Beale Street in Memphis. The Appendix also tells you that Frony married a Pullman porter and made a home for Dilsey in Memphis after Mrs. Compson died.

  • LUSTER
    Luster, Frony's son, is probably about seventeen in 1928, although the Appendix says that he is fourteen. Luster's job is to look after Benjy. He's not as good at it as his uncles were, and he likes to tease Benjy more. As the book ends, he drives Benjy the wrong way around the town square.

  • ROSKUS GIBSON
    Roskus, Dilsey's husband, also works for the Compsons. He dies some time after Mr. Compson.

MINOR CHARACTERS

  • DALTON AMES
    Dalton is the first man Caddy sleeps with. Quentin fights him in an attempt to avenge what he considers the family honor, but Dalton wins easily.

  • HERBERT HEAD
    A banker from Indianapolis, Head marries Caddy Compson. When he realizes that she was pregnant by another man at the time of their wedding, he leaves her. Jason Compson never gets the job that Herbert promised him at his bank.

  • EARL AND UNCLE JOB
    Earl is the owner of the hardware store where Jason works. Uncle Job is an old black who works there too. You see both of these men through their interactions with Jason. Jason continually starts fights with Earl and often picks on Uncle Job. Uncle Job takes care of himself, however.

  • MAURY BASCOMB
    Maury Bascomb, Mrs. Compson's no-good brother, is always borrowing money from her. Benjy was originally named for him. Once, several days before Christmas, Uncle Maury uses the Compson children to deliver a note to his mistress, Mrs. Patterson.

  • LORRAINE
    Lorraine is Jason Compson's mistress in Memphis. The only way that Jason can relate to a woman is by paying her.

  • DEACON
    Deacon is an old black who does errands for Harvard students. Quentin gives him his suicide notes. Quentin's relationship with Deacon shows that he misses the South.

  • SHREVE MACKENZIE
    Shreve, a Canadian, is Quentin's roommate at Harvard. The Appendix tells us that Shreve eventually became a surgeon and returned to Canada. He also is a character in Faulkner's later novel Absalom, Absalom!

  • GERALD BLAND AND MRS. BLAND
    Gerald Bland is a Harvard student whose attitude toward women reminds Quentin of Dalton Ames. Mrs. Bland is proud of her son's success with women.

  • JULIO
    Julio is the brother of the little Italian girl who follows Quentin around on his last day in Cambridge. The presence of Julio in the novel shows that other brothers care about their sisters.

[The Sound and the Fury Contents ]


OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

Most of The Sound and the Fury takes place in and around the Compson family home in Jefferson, Mississippi. This was the second novel that Faulkner set in Jefferson. (Sartoris, 1929, was the first.) As the years went on, he continued to tell stories about the town and the surrounding countryside. He gave it the Indian name Yoknapatawpha County to emphasize that the area was settled by Indians. Yoknapatawpha was based on Lafayette County, Mississippi, whose capital was Oxford (where Faulkner spent most of his life).

In creating Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner did more than describe a landscape. He also populated it with people, most of whom knew or had some connection with each other. Several times a minor character in a novel appeared as a major character in a later novel. For example, Quentin Compson is the conarrator of Absalom, Absalom!, which was published six years after The Sound and the Fury. For Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner drew a map of Yoknapatawpha County, showing where characters in his various novels lived and where events took place. He signed the map "William Faulkner, Sole Owner and Proprietor," making the point that the county was his invention. Because so many of his novels are set in the same place and so many of the characters appear more than once, it almost seems as if Faulkner wrote only one enormous novel.

In The Sound and the Fury, you see something of what Jefferson looks like. Because the novel is mainly concerned with the minds of the characters, however, physical setting is not important.

Faulkner once told an interviewer that he had discovered that "my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it...." Some readers believe that his focus on Yoknapatawpha showed he was only concerned with Southern themes. Others say Faulkner's frequent use of Yoknapatawpha and its people lent it an almost mythical status. There he could explore the universal issues of human life. Either way, few American writers have returned to the same setting as often as Faulkner.

THEMES

William Faulkner gives you two hints about the major themes of The Sound and the Fury. One is its title, which is taken from William Shakespeare's play Macbeth. In Act V, as he is about to be defeated and killed, Macbeth hears that his wife is dead. He responds:
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,
Signifying nothing.
Like Macbeth's view of life, The Sound and the Fury is a tale told (in part) by an idiot, Benjy Compson. Macbeth believed that life was without meaning, and that time brought only defeat. Some readers say Faulkner felt the same way, while others disagree.

The second hint about the themes of The Sound and the Fury is Faulkner's frequent claim that the novel was an attempt to tell the story of a little girl with muddy drawers who was watching her grandmother's funeral from a tree while her brothers waited below. This alerts you to the novel's stress on point of view and to the importance of the relationship between the Compson children as it changes over time.

  1. THE PASSING OF TIME
    As you can tell from the frequent mention of watches and clocks in The Sound and the Fury, its characters are as concerned about the passage of time as Macbeth. Each of them has a special relationship to time.

    Benjy, whose section opens the book, lives outside of time. For him, the past is as real as the present. In 1928 he stands at the gate, still expecting Caddy, who left home in 1910. Time does not exist for Benjy because he lives only in his senses.

    Quentin, for his part, wants to step out of time. His section contains many references to time and timepieces. Quentin imagines himself and Caddy burning together in a pure timeless flame. But the only way he can remove himself from time is to kill himself. For Quentin, like Benjy, the past constantly intrudes in the present. Quentin cannot leave the past because he is obsessed by his problems and memories.

    Time is also important to Jason. He is always finding out what time it is, always hurrying to do something or yelling at other people for being late. Jason is constantly measuring time, the same way he's always counting his money. Jason lives only in the present, without a past.

    Dilsey, however, is aware of both past and present. When she hears the clock (which is not set correctly) in the Compson house strike five, she knows that it is eight o'clock. Of all the characters in the novel, only she knows what time it really is. She can both respect the values of the past and function in the present.

  2. THE FALL OF THE FAMILY
    The Compsons are a family on the decline. Quentin Compson II governed the state, and Jason II was a general (although not especially successful). But Jason III is drinking his life away. And his children are even worse. One commits suicide, another disgraces herself, the third is a thief, and the fourth is an idiot. The only grandchild is bitter and angry, with little likelihood of leading a productive life.

    What has gone wrong with the Compson family? Some readers point to the lack of love. Mrs. Compson is self-absorbed and doesn't care about her children. Mr. Compson is not able to express his feeling for them. He fills his son Quentin's head with cynical, life-denying ideas. These readers say that Quentin, Caddy, and Jason- and later the girl Quentin- all react- in different ways- to the lack of parental love.

  3. THE FALL OF THE SOUTH
    Some readers say the fall of the Compsons is not only the story of an individual family. They see it as a story about the South as a region. For these readers, the major explanation for the fate of the Compsons is found in the society of which they're part, not in the psychology of the family members.

    You can find evidence for this approach in the Appendix. The Appendix was written more than fifteen years after The Sound and the Fury was published and may represent Faulkner's rethinking of the book. During the intervening years, he had written several novels. Two in particular- Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses- deal with the history of the South. In the Appendix, Faulkner may have added his interpretation of Southern history to the Compson family saga. In Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses, Faulkner pictures taking land from Indians and enslaving blacks as twin curses on white Southerners. Slavery is not examined in the Appendix to The Sound and the Fury. However, when a student once asked Faulkner, "What is the trouble with the Compsons?" the novelist answered, "They are still living in the attitudes of 1859 or '60"- that is, before the Civil War.

    The only Compson who can cope with the twentieth century is Jason. He allows first a boarding house and then a housing development to be built on the old family land. Such enterprises are typical of the modern South, and Faulkner hated them. He told another student that "there are too many Jasons in the South who can be successful, just as there are too many Quentins in the South who are too sensitive to face its reality."

    Thus, there is some evidence that the decline of the Compson family parallels the decline of the old South. You'll have to decide whether evidence for this interpretation is limited to the Appendix. Is this theme an afterthought, or an integral part of the novel?

  4. THE MODERN WORLD
    Faulkner doesn't have much good to say about the modern world. Jason, the character most fully a part of it, is the least appealing character for most readers. Jason is not the only Compson child who adopts modern values that repel most readers. Caddy marries a Hollywood executive, divorces him, and seems to wind up, in the 1940s, with a Nazi general. The girl Quentin, too, is spiritually empty.

    Some readers suggest that the fate of Quentin and of Benjy indicates the impossibility of living in the commercial world with either idealism (like Quentin) or innocence (like Benjy).

    The bleakness of the novel's present (and the projection of the future in the Appendix) contrasts sharply with the view of the past. The past appears either as calm and serene (as in Quentin's recollection, at the end of his section, of his grandfather) or as warm and secure (as in Benjy's memories of the family around the fireplace in 1900). All the Compson children, except Jason, long for the past.

    The emptiness of modern life was a frequent topic for writers in the first decades of the twentieth century. Writers whom Faulkner knew in New Orleans and in Paris fluently dealt with this theme. T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land," published seven years before The Sound and the Fury, is one example. Another is a collection of essays by Southern writers, called I'll Take My Stand, published only one year earlier. These writers rejected the values of modern urban civilization, as did Faulkner.

  5. SHADOW AND SUBSTANCE
    Macbeth calls life "a walking shadow," and The Sound and the Fury contains numerous references to shadows- one reader counted 53! Most of the shadows are in Quentin's section. Quentin is always seeing the shadows of things- curtains, bridges, trees, himself. He is unable to look straight at things. He feels the presence of the past like a shadow over his life and also feels like the shadow of his ancestors. Quentin never really accomplishes what he dreams about. In the end he is unable to sleep with Caddy, to cut her throat, or to shoot Dalton Ames. When T. S. Eliot wrote in his poem "The Hollow Men," "Between the motion / And the act. Falls the Shadow," he could have been talking about Quentin.

  6. LEARNING THE TRUTH
    Related to the theme of shadow and substance is the theme of how truth is discovered. The Sound and the Fury is a story told from four points of view. You find out what really happened as stories are told and retold.

    Because the structure of The Sound and the Fury is so unusual and so difficult, figuring out what is going on absorbs the reader. It is impossible to understand the Benjy section until you have finished the entire novel. You become a detective, looking for clues, weighing one character's version against another's, filling in the gaps in people's stories.

  7. THE MEANING OF LIFE
    Does life have meaning? Or is it, as Macbeth says, "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing"?

    Some characters in the novel feel life is meaningless. Mr. Compson is one such character. Quentin struggles to find meaning in life but eventually cannot and kills himself. For Jason, the only meaning in life is money.

    Dilsey is the only character in the novel with a clear sense of purpose to life. She derives this in part from her religious convictions. Listening to a sermon on Christ's Resurrection, she is able to make sense out of the story of the Compsons. Her life also takes on meaning from her warm relationships with the people around her.

    Benjy has no sense of life's meaning, because he cannot really think. But he has a feeling for order, and he is furious when- as at the novel's end- that order is violated.

    As you read The Sound and the Fury, ask yourself whether the novel's message is that life is meaningless. Do you think that Faulkner identifies most with Quentin's yearning to escape into the past or with Dilsey's Christian faith? Or does he sympathize with both?

  8. THE WAR BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL
    The war between good and evil- between integrity and irresponsibility- is a major theme in many of Faulkner's novels. In The Sound and the Fury, integrity is represented by innocent Benjy, idealistic Quentin, and good-hearted Dilsey. Irresponsibility rests with Mr. and Mrs. Compson, who don't care enough about their children; with hypocritical, alcoholic Uncle Maury Bascomb; with promiscuous Caddy (although her love for her brothers reveals the goodness in her); with angry and dishonest Jason; and with dishonest Quentin, Caddy's daughter. At the end of The Sound and the Fury, is good ahead, or does evil carry the day? There is evidence for both views.

STYLE

The style of The Sound and the Fury is extremely complicated. The book has four narrators, each of whom talks and thinks differently, as well as has different concerns. The fourth section of the book, narrated by the author, contains clear, descriptive writing. Although marked by long sentences and some unusual words ("Two tears slid down her fallen cheeks, in and out of the myriad coruscations of immolation and abnegation and time"), it is straightforward.

In the first three sections, however, Faulkner uses writing techniques that were just beginning to be used in the early decades of the twentieth century. These are stream-of-consciousness and interior monologue. Stream-of-consciousness is an attempt to reproduce the character's thought pattern. The writer tries to put the thoughts down on the page just as they would have passed through the character's mind. Because one thought may lead to a rather unrelated thought, stream-of-consciousness prose moves in an apparently random way from one subject to another. Usually the character "free associates"- one object reminds him or her of another.

Although Benjy's and Quentin's sections both employ stream-of-consciousness, they have very different styles. Benjy thinks in simple sentences and has a limited vocabulary. Quentin, on the other hand, thinks either in extremely long sentences or in sentence fragments. He likes words that refer to abstract ideas, and he piles adjectives one atop another. Where Benjy's memory rarely returns to the same story twice (sometimes he finishes a story, sometimes not), Quentin comes back again and again. Quentin also repeats names and phrases.

The book as a whole is rich in imagery and symbolism, which are used to the fullest in Quentin's section. He frequently refers to water, shadows, watches, sisters, and the smell of honeysuckle, which reminds him of sex. Faulkner uses italics to mark time shifts within Benjy's and Quentin's sections. However, some time shifts are not italicized. Faulkner felt the book should be printed in different-colored inks to make it easier for the reader. Jason's section is stylistically different from Benjy's or Quentin's. It is an interior monologue, consisting entirely of his thoughts. But these thoughts are presented rationally, not in the poetic free association of stream-of-consciousness. Jason's monologue sounds like something a person would say. Jason thinks in short, hurried sentences. His language is often vulgar, slangy, and sarcastic.

Faulkner accurately reproduces the speech of the black characters. For instance, you can watch as the black minister switches from educated black speech to a more folksy language in the course of a sermon.

POINT OF VIEW

The Sound and the Fury is told from four points of view. Each of the first three sections is narrated in the first person by a Compson brother, and the fourth section is narrated in the third person by the author.

All of the Compson brothers are limited as narrators in some way. You shouldn't completely trust any of their versions of events.

Because he is mentally retarded, Benjy can't interpret what's happening. He tells you what things smelled like, and whether they made him cry, but he can't tell you why things happened or what someone else was feeling. However, he does remember conversations. Sometimes you can figure things out that Benjy himself can't; for example, you can see that the children in the "Damuddy's funeral" scene have the same personality traits they will have as adults.

Although Quentin is very intelligent, he also has limitations as a narrator. He is so obsessed by Caddy's loss of virginity and by his father's philosophy that he can think of little else. Quentin remembers some incidents that you recognize from the Benjy section, but most of what he focuses on is new. Still, because of his compulsive interest in time, shadows, and sisters, Quentin doesn't notice much about other people or about what is going on around him.

Jason, too, is a limited narrator, because he sees things only from his own point of view. Jason, as he sees it, is always right, and the world is always wrong. Like his brother Quentin, he isn't very good at observing other people. But Jason does report conversations, and they tell you a lot about what other people think of Jason.

The fourth narrator generally describes events objectively. He makes some judgments, however. The narrator expresses great sympathy for Benjy, likening his wailing to "all time and injustice and sorrow become vocal for an instant." The narrator, on the other hand, has little sympathy for Quentin. The description of her room after she has left is downright nasty.

FORM AND STRUCTURE

The Sound and the Fury is divided into four sections. The first and third are approximately equal in length. The second is about thirty pages longer, and the fourth, about thirty pages shorter. Each section is distinctly marked by a date on its first page; three sections are dated in the novel's present and one in the past. Each section is marked by a change of narrator.

The narration does not move chronologically- that is, it does not begin at the beginning and proceed toward the end. But you can't say that it is told in flashbacks, because that implies you are standing firmly in the present and looking back at the past. In The Sound and the Fury, the present and past are so mixed together that the reader often can't tell the difference between them any better than the characters.

Because the first section, Benjy's, concentrates on what happened when the Compson children were young, the story almost does begin at the beginning. (The Appendix, which Faulkner suggested be placed at the beginning of the book, begins the story with the Indian chief who sold the first Compson the land and carries the story beyond the end of the novel proper.)

Some readers object to the order of the sections. In particular, they wonder why Faulkner put the Benjy section first, because it is difficult and cannot be fully understood until you have finished the novel. Some readers suggest that the Jason or Dilsey sections, both of which are easier to understand, should have preceded Benjy's.

However, there are reasons for the order Faulkner chose. One follows from the book's title. Macbeth called life "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing." It makes sense, therefore, to open The Sound and the Fury with a tale told by an idiot. More important is that, as noted just before, Benjy's childhood memories form the chronological beginnings of the novel proper. Quentin continues the story in the years just before 1910 and focuses on the events of that year. Jason's main interest begins in 1911, the year he didn't get the job in Herbert's bank and Caddy sent baby Quentin home. Jason and the narrator in the fourth section concentrate on 1928.

Faulkner the storyteller may have had some tricks up his sleeve in starting with the Benjy section. When you read the Quentin section, you understand some things that were unclear in Benjy's. When you read the Jason and fourth sections, you understand even more. So Faulkner starts you out with something that is hard to make sense of, and then gives you more and more clues so that in the end you have the information to understand the first part. The Sound and the Fury is a novel you should not only read, but reread.

THE STORY

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES


ECC [The Sound and the Fury Contents] [Surf and Study Home Page]

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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