Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Faulkner’s treatment and representation of time in this novel was hailed as revolutionary. Faulkner suggests that time is not a constant or objectively understandable entity, and that humans can interact with it in a variety of ways. Benjy has no concept of time and cannot distinguish between past and present. His disability enables him to draw connections between the past and present that others might not see, and it allows him to escape the other Compsons’ obsessions with the past greatness of their name. Quentin, in contrast, is trapped by time, unable and unwilling to move beyond his memories of the past. He attempts to escape time’s grasp by breaking his watch, but its ticking continues to haunt him afterward, and he sees no solution but suicide. Unlike his brother Quentin, Jason has no use for the past. He focuses completely on the present and the immediate future. To Jason, time exists only for personal gain and cannot be wasted. Dilsey is perhaps the only character at peace with time. Unlike the Compsons, who try to escape time or manipulate it to their advantage, Dilsey understands that her life is a small sliver in the boundless range of time and history.
Each of the Compson brothers understands order and chaos in a different way. Benjy constructs order around the pattern of familiar memories in his mind and becomes upset when he experiences something that does not fit. Quentin relies on his idealized Southern code to provide order. Jason orders everything in his world based on potential personal gain, attempting to twist all circumstances to his own advantage. All three of these systems fail as the Compson family plunges into chaos. Only Dilsey has a strong sense of order. She maintains her values, endures the Compsons’ tumultuous downfall, and is the only one left unbroken at the end.
Seen primarily in Benjy’s and Quentin’s sections, shadows imply that the present state of the Compson family is merely a shadow of its past greatness. Shadows serve as a subtle reminder of the passage of time, as they slowly shift with the sun through the course of a day. Quentin is particularly sensitive to shadows, a suggestion of his acute awareness that the Compson name is merely a shadow of what it once was.