One of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, The Sound and the Fury is the tragedy of the Compson family, featuring some of the most memorable characters in American literature: beautiful, rebellious Caddy; the manchild Benjy; haunted, neurotic Quentin; Jason, the brutal cynic; and Dilsey, their black servant.
The Compson family, Benji a man of innocence has kin that posses ignorance and self-centeredness, they will have terrible awakenings in this story this family tragedy of an American household, the fall of the Compsons during the era of the 1910-1930’s.
This novel was published in a turbulent time when America was going through some changes in October 1929 the month and year of the Great Stock Market Crash.
William Faulkner uses an unconventional way to tell this tale of his that has some truth in that there was a Compson family back in the day.
He manipulates viewpoints and has a way to leave the reader pondering over the different narratives meaning and on the unresolved dilemmas and occurrences.
This can for a first-read provide an experience of being a hard read, but once you understand who the narratives are and get round the language used I have discovered now how this is now for me, after a second and third read, a work of a genius.
Four parts/chapters, four different narratives back and forth during different years all involving the Compson’s demise.
The first narrative is from the viewpoint and consciousness of the disadvantaged Benj or Benjamin his birth name that he mother insists him to be called by.
The second narrative is from the life of Quentin brother of Benj, Caddy and Jason. He’s the fortunate one to be Harvard taught but unfortunate in other ways of which I will divulge into when I dissect these chapters soon.
The third narrative is from the viewpoint of Jason brother of Caddy, Benj and Quentin. He is now a self made man in a time where the doors of commerce and investment have opened to foreigners and he’s lucky enough to be in ownership of a motor vehicle.
The last and fourth narrative comes from some important characters to the Compson family and I would say their saving grace and backbone, the home helps Luster and Dilsey. His ending of his novel with these characters and the importance they had in keeping some sanity in the Compson home in some ways disproves the fact that he was a racist.
The title name to this novel can be traced back to a scene from Macbeth
“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,
Faulkner Discussed this novel in Japan 1955 mentioning its significant beginnings..
“And then the idea struck me to see how much more I could have got out of the idea of the blind self-centeredness of innocence typified by children, if one of those children had been truly innocent, that is, an idiot. So the idiot was born, and then I became interested in the relationship of the idiot to the world that he was in but would never be able to cope with and just where could he get the tenderness, the help, to shield him in his innocence. I mean ‘innocence’ in the sense that God had stricken him blind at birth, that is, mindless at birth.”
Part 1 April seventh 1928
Benji and Caddy where the closest kin and Luster the help second. Benji felt comfort and loved her company and innocence.
Caddy is very important to Benji but as she looses her innocence and leaves the nest he feels very isolated and emotionally at unease when thinking of her.
He is disadvantaged in understanding of matters logically but on the sight and smell side of understandings he is more superior probably than any other Compson. Benji in someway is reminiscent of the character in Mice of men by Steinbeck.
Faulkner has successfully made a heartfelt connection starting this epic story with Benji and hooked us on course with the fate of Benji and those around him.
Luster is another important part of Benji’s life and safety. Benji is 33 years old but functions like that of a child of 4, Luster is a black male, a home help half his age and half his size but manages to take care of him in all ways and manners. He spoon feeds him and calms him, at times guilty of teasing him about the absence of Caddy.
Benji innocence and his wiser character is that he does not treat or regard Luster in anyway different due to race unlike the whole Compson family throughout the novel who use words that are best left unrepeated. He is no angel Benji and can be self-centered but all he did I am sure was not by a conscious choice, he was born this way unlike the rest of the kin who chose their paths and behaviors.
These two characters Benjamin and Luster are memorable and will be forever remembered from the pages of literature.
“‘Dilsey,’ Caddy said, ‘Benjy’s got a present for you.’ She stooped down and put the bottle in my hand. ‘Hold it up to Dilsey now.’ Caddy held my hand, and Dilsey took the bottle. ‘Well, I declare,’ Dilsey said. ‘If my baby ain’t give Dilsey a bottle of perfume. Just look here, Roskus.’ Caddy smelled like trees. ‘We don’t like perfume ourselves,’ Caddy said. She smelled like trees.”
“It was two now, and then one in the swing. Caddy came fast, white in the darkness. ‘Benjy,’ she said, ‘how did you slip out? Where’s Versh?’ She put her arms around me, and I hushed and held to her dress and tried to pull her away. Caddy and I ran. We ran up the kitchen steps, onto the porch, and Caddy knelt down in the dark and held me. I could hear her and feel her chest. ‘I won’t,’ she said. ‘I won’t anymore, ever. Benjy. Benjy.’ Then she was crying, and I cried, and we held each other. ‘Hush,’ she said. ‘Hush. I won’t anymore.’ So I hushed, and Caddy got up. And we went into the kitchen and turned the light on, and Caddy took the kitchen soap and washed her mouth at the sink, hard. Caddy smelled like trees.”
“I got undressed, and I looked at myself, and I began to cry. ‘Hush,’ Luster said. ‘Looking for them ain’t going to do no good. They’re gone.”
Part 2 June second 1910
This narrative was more flowing in that there was not as much dialogue as the first and easier to read. It had very dark parts and one part in a way presented some dark humor for me.
This was Quentin’s time to take us into the Compson threshold and his turbulent goings on. Here he feels jealousy and at a disadvantage even though he was the one to be lucky enough to be educated at Harvard at the expense of his mother selling of Benji’s plot of land. He feels envy over his sister’s marriage and experiences of love and sex. He feels emptiness even when he tries to do a good deed he finds himself in trouble. For instance, he tries to help a girl he meets in a bakers shop that he thinks is lost find her way home. This young girl can’t speak his language and so he has trouble in finding her house. In end his find himself accused my the girls father and the law of snatching her and it all felt quite a funny situation to me, but to him it just added to his downward spiral.
When you hear if his dissatisfaction you can’t help not remembering Gatsby from the Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald in a way this novel has maybe some strange likeness maybe to that story also, in that they are both dissatisfied and self-centered households.
“Because women so delicate so mysterious Father said. Delicate equilibrium of periodical filth between two moons balanced. Moons he said full and yellow as harvest moons her hips thighs. Outside outside of them always but. Yellow. Feet soles with walking like. Then know that some man that all those mysterious and imperious concealed. With all that inside of them shapes an outward suavity waiting for a touch to. Liquid putrefaction like drowned things floating like pale rubber flabbily filled getting the odor of honeysuckle all mixed up.”
“Caddy you hate him don’t you she move my hand up against her throat her heart was hammering there poor Quentin her face looked at the sky it was low so low that all smells and sounds of night seemed to have been crowded down like under a slack tent especially the honeysuckle it had got into my breathing it was on her face and throat like paint…. I had to pant to get any air at all out of that thick gray honeysuckle yes I hate him I would die for him I’ve already died for him I die for him over and over again every time this goes when I lifted my hand I could still feel crisscrossed twigs and grass burning into the palm poor Quentin.”
“Nonsense you look like a girl you are lots younger than Candace colour in your cheeks like a girl A face reproachful tearful and an odour of camphor and of tears a voice weeping steadily and softly beyond the twilit door the twilight-coloured smell of honeysuckle. Brining empty trunks down the attic stairs they sounded like coffins French Lick. Found not death at the salt lick.”
Part 3 April sixth 1928
This narrative is that of Jason the brother of Benji, Caddy and Quentin.
He’s a self made man but can’t help being dissatisfied at his not being liked by his father he talks of his brothers Quentin being his fathers favorite and the only one sent to Harvard and then amounting to nothing. He also can’t stand the responsibility that he now has over the Compson family as his father passed away and he has sole financial responsibility of them.
He can’t stand his nieces idleness and disregard for education and responsibility and in away hates and is envious of her freedom and love life.
He talks of his enragement over her companionship with a man with a red tie, this man works in the circus.
This niece Quentin is the daughter of the once innocent Caddy who lost it all to an unnamed father.
Jason talks of his displeasure of the foreign investors on American soil and of his business climb and possibly downfall.
This was all relevant to what was really happening during to the year of publication of this novel when there was a great economic crash.
Part 4 April eighth 1928
This narrative comes from that not of kin but the home help two very important backbones of this collapsing entity the Compsons. Faulkner choosing to have these important black people end his grand story who where not that regarded as important by many in the America of that time was very significant.
You see again the important role Luster has with Benji and taking care of him and feeding him. Luster also refers to the incident in the opening chapter where he was looking for his quarter to go to a show and this was the day after that where he was questioned about his laziness and waking up late due to being out late to the show.
Luster and Benji takes us through their outing on their horse Queenie into town that proves to be an adventure that they would probably not repeat.
Jason also has some viewpoint in here on the pursuit of something missing.
“Dilsey opened the door of the cabin and emerged, needled laterally into her flesh, precipitating not so much a moisture as a substance partaking of the quality of thin, not quite congealed oil. She wore a stiff velvet cape with a border of mangy and anonymous fur about a dress of purple silk, and she stood in the door for a while with her myriad and sunken face lifted to the weather, and one gaunt hand flac-soled as the belly of a fish.”
I can now say that this novel has proved to be a great journey and demanded my deep thought and attention and that it started from being a slightly confusing read during my first read to a memorable great read in my second and third read and audiobook re-covering of its great heartfelt and meaningful story.
A family tragedy, a plight of human endeavor, a passage of time of downfall and a dark stain in history orchestrated in wonderful prose by a grand storyteller who makes you wonder at the beauty and power of innocence and kindness and the importance of family stability.
A scholarly work on this novel
Man, Time and Eternity by Cleanth Brooks
Gives a good understanding and explanation of this story, I have included some important observations in excerpts below.
“The states of consciousness of the three brothers provide three quite different modes of interpretation. Consider them, for a moment, under the rubric of poetry. Benjy’s section is filled with a kind of primitive poetry, a poetry of the senses, rendered with great immediacy, in which the world—for Benjy a kind of confused, blooming buzz—registers with great sensory impact but with minimal intelligibility. Quentin’s section is filled with poetry too, though his is essentially decadent: sensitive but neurotic and hopeless, as it rings sadly through a series of dying falls. Entering Jason’s section, we have no poetry at all, since Jason, the “sane” man, has consciously purged himself of every trace of this perilous and impractical stuff. With the last section we again encounter poetry, but of a more usual kind, especially in those passages which Dilsey’s reaction to the Easter service; and here it is neither primitive nor decadent, but whole, complex, and mature.
We can look at the four sections in quite another way, noticing what different conceptions of love they imply. Benjy represents love in its most simple and childlike form. His love for Caddy intense and unreflective . . . . Quentin’s love for Caddy is
conscious, formal, even abstract….He is not really in love with his sister’s body, only in love with a notion of virginity that associates with her….In contrast with this incestuously Platonic lover, Jason has no love Caddy at all, and no love for anyone else…The relationship he desires is a commercial one: you know where you stand; there is no romantic nonsense about it. Jason, if he could, would reduce all relationships to commercial transactions.
Another way in which to contrast the first three sections is to observe the different notions of time held by the Compson brothers.
Benji…is locked almost completely into a timeless present. He has not much more sense of time than an animal has, and therefore he posses not much more freedom than an animal does…Quentin’s obsession with the past is in fact a repudiation of the future. T amounts to the sense of having no future…Jason, by insisting on seeing time only with regard to something to be done, is incapable of any real living…Jason is so committed to preparation for the future that he is almost enslaved as are his brothers.
…To Dilsey neither the past nor the future nor the present is oppressive, because to her they are all aspects of eternity, and her ultimate commitment is to eternity.
The downfall of the house of Compson is the kind of degeneration, which can occur, and has occurred, anywhere at any time.
The real significance of the Southern setting in The Sound and the Fury resides, as so often elsewhere in Faulkner, in the fact that the
breakdown of a family can be exhibited more poignantly and significantly in a society which is old-fashioned and in which the family is still at the center. The dissolution of the family as an institution has probably gone further in the suburban areas of the small towns of California and Connecticut than it has in the small towns of Mississippi. For that very reason, what happens to the Compsons might
make less noise and cause less comment, and even bring less pain to the individuals concerned, if the Compsons lived in a more progressive and liberal environment. Because the Compsons have been committed to old-fashioned ideals—close family loyalty, home care for defective children, and the virginity of unmarried daughters-the breakup of the family registers with greater impact.
The decay of the Compsons can be viewed, however, not merely with reference to the Southern past but to the contemporary American scene. it is tempting to read it as a parable of the disintegration of modern man. Individuals no longer sustained by familial and cultural unity are alienated and lost in private worlds. One thinks here not merely of Caddy, homeless, the sexual adventuress adrift in the world, or of Quentin, out of touch with reality and moving inevitably to his death, but also and even primarily of Jason whom the break up of the family means an active rejection of claims and responsibilities and, with it, a sense of liberation…”
Check out these videos/audio speech of
William Faulkner at the University of Virginia