Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version
Some people over the years have found it surprising and even objectionable that Faulkner would begin his novel with a monologue written in the voice of a mentally retarded child/man. Critics have claimed such an opening makes the novel more confusing and less accessible for the average reader. Such statements, while true, do not take into account the literary genius of a man able to write the random and disconnected thoughts and images of a challenged mind. Benjy's voice is complicated but it is also entirely credible. It encapsulates the story of the Compson family perfectly: confusing, disconnected, tragic.
Benjy is the youngest of the four Compson children. He is named Maury after birth, but when the family discovers his retardation, they rename him Benjamin for its Christian value. His mother thinks a more Christian name might bring him better luck. His mother blames herself for his mental impairments, thinking he is a judgement from God on her. Much of what is known about Benjy is pieced together not just from his monologue, but from the other chapters. It is impossible to get a clear picture simply from one of the chapters.
At the start of the novel, it is Benjy's 33rd birthday, April 7, 1928. The date is specific and correct; Faulkner was careful to verify that this date occurred the Saturday before Easter. The symbolism of this day is not lost on the reader: Benjy is the same age as Christ when he was crucified. Conventional belief has held that the Saturday between crucifixion and resurrection is the most unhappy of days. Thus Benjy's birthday falls on the darkest possible day. Though the chapter begins with a specific date, earmarking the chronological start of the novel, Faulkner does not observe any chronological order in presenting Benjy's thoughts. There is a mingling of the present and the past only discernible from piecing together bits and pieces from all over to figure out what happened when, what happened first.
In many respects, it takes a second or even third reading of the novel to fully appreciate the beauty of Benjy's section. The reader may feel as though he or she needs to know all the events of the novel in order to follow Benjy's stream. There is a method to the madness, however. Benjy, with his synaptic jumps from one time and place to another, presents the novel in miniature. All the characters, significant events, and relationships are established in his monologue and fleshed out later in the novel.
The present story that binds Benjy's monologue is simple. It is his birthday and he and his black attendant Luster have gone to town for a birthday cake. Luster has been given a quarter to go to the show that evening and he has lost it. As the two return home, Luster searches for his quarter. The route they travel takes them across a large field that used to belong to Benjy's father. Now it is a golf course. As they walk, Benjy is reminded of various events and people in his past, including his brother Quentin, who is dead, and his sister Caddy, who is gone. He does not speak, so Luster has no idea what he is thinking. The thoughts and memories make Benjy moan and cry. They reach home, where Luster's mother Dilsey is a cook for the Compson household. Mrs. Compson is sick in bed, as usual. Jason, Benjy's brother and the patriarchal figure of the family, is authoritative and mean. Benjy'' niece, Miss Quentin, cannot stand to be in the same room as Benjy. Only Dilsey is kind to Benjy. Luster complains about having lost his quarter and is mean to Benjy. Miss Quentin, Benjy's niece, gives Luster a quarter. Luster puts Benjy to bed so he can go to the show.
Interspersed between these events are several disjointed memories of the past thirty years. Since Faulkner does not intrude on Benjy's monologue, the switches in time are unannounced and abrupt. However, to aid the reader in following the jumps, Faulkner does use different fonts at the start of each new memory, alternating between italics and normal type.