The opening section of The Sound and the Fury is considered one of the most challenging narratives in modern American literature. What makes this section so challenging?
Benjy narrates the first section of the novel. Due to his severe mental retardation, he has no concept of time. This makes his narrative incoherent and frustrating at times because he cannot separate events in the past from those in the present. Benjy can only associate the images of his daily existence, such as the golf course and fencepost, with other occurrences of those images in the past. Benjy’s fusion of past and present explains why he still haunts the front yard waiting for Caddy to come home from school—he does not understand that Caddy has grown up, moved away, and will never return.
Benjy’s distorted perspective conveys Faulkner’s idea that the past lives on to haunt the present. Benjy’s condition allows Faulkner to introduce the Compsons’ struggle to reconcile their present with a past they cannot escape. This unique narrative voice provides an unbiased introduction to Quentin’s equally difficult section, in which Quentin struggles with his own distorted vision of a past that eventually overwhelms and destroys him.
Shortly after The Sound and the Fury was published, the noted critic Clifton Fadiman dismissed the novel, claiming that its themes were too “trivial” to deserve the elaborate craftsmanship Faulkner lavished on them. Many other critics have countered that the novel’s themes extend beyond the story of the Compson family specifically, and grapple with issues central to human life in general. In what way might the themes of the novel extend beyond the story of the Compsons’ decline?
Although the plot of The Sound and the Fury is rather vague, the novel demands a broader consideration of the history of the South and the extended aftermath of the Civil War. The novel is set in the first thirty years of the twentieth century, but many of the issues facing its characters involve old-fashioned, outdated traditions and codes of conduct that are vestiges of the days before the Civil War. To appreciate the novel’s themes, we must view the events in the Compson household as a microcosm of a succession of events resulting, more or less, from the South’s defeat in the Civil War. In many of his novels, Faulkner focuses on this ultimate decline of the Southern aristocracy since the Civil War. As the Compsons belong to this aristocracy, The Sound and the Fury portrays their inevitable demise. The members of the family—especially Mrs. Compson and Quentin—fade away because they lead their lives according to outdated Southern aristocratic traditions that are incompatible with the more modern, more integrated South of the early twentieth century. The Compsons are guilty of living in the past and, like many Southern aristocratic families, they pay the ultimate price of seeing their legacy gradually dissolved by the onset of modernity.
Faulkner has said that the character of Caddy was his “heart’s darling”—her character inspired him to write the novel. Why is Caddy driven to pitfalls like promiscuity? What do you make of Mr. Compson’s explanation that virginity is an ideal invented by men, which is utterly irrelevant to women?
Caddy is at the center of most of the problems plaguing the Compson children. Quentin is obsessed with her. Jason is vindictive toward her and jealous of her. Benjy is utterly reliant on her comforting presence. Indeed, despite her young age, Caddy serves as a central force that holds the disparate members of the family together. This loving, unifying presence becomes the root of Caddy’s and the Compsons’ demise. When Caddy’s husband discovers that she is pregnant by another man, he divorces her, setting off a chain of events that ultimately ruins the family. First, Jason loses the job Caddy’s husband had promised him. Jason resents Caddy so much that he blames Caddy and her illegitimate daughter for all of his own problems. His resentment builds into a hatred that haunts him relentlessly, undermining every other opportunity that arises.
Quentin’s obsession with Caddy drives him to suicide after she loses her virginity. Mr. Compson foresees the danger in Quentin’s obsession long before it pushes his son to suicide. He tries to calm Quentin by explaining that virginity is just a tradition and code of the old South, and that it ultimately only matters to men who take those traditions and codes too seriously. In a sense, Mr. Compson’s insight provides a refreshing alternative to the strict adherence to past traditions that the rest of the Compson family follows. Any hope, however, that Mr. Compson’s advice might lead to a turnaround in his son’s obsession vanishes with Quentin’s suicide, which devastates Mr. Compson and likely contributes to his death from alcoholism not long thereafter. The cold, selfish, compassionless Jason IV rises up to run the family, which eventually leads to the Compsons’ demise.
1. One of the most wrenching sections of the novel is Quentin’s confrontation with Caddy following the loss of her virginity. What drives Quentin to propose mutual suicide and to conceive of the idea of incest as a solution to their problems? Even in the absence of sex between them, is there something incestuous about Quentin and Caddy’s relationship?
2. Compare and contrast the three major narrators of the novel: Benjy, Quentin, and Jason. How are their sections alike? How do they differ? What are the consequences of Faulkner’s decision not to introduce an easily readable chapter until the second half of the novel?
3. Think about Benjy’s character. What purpose, if any, does he serve beyond the novel’s opening section? Is he a believable character?
4. Perhaps the single most important theme in The Sound and the Fury is the presence of time in human life. How is that relationship explored throughout the four sections of the novel?
5. Why do you think the fourth section of The Sound and the Fury, the section focusing on Dilsey, is so technically different than the other three? For example, why would Faulkner write this section in the third person while the others are all written in the first person?