Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The first half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of a number of prominent Southern families such as the Compsons. These aristocratic families espoused traditional Southern values. Men were expected to act like gentlemen, displaying courage, moral strength, perseverance, and chivalry in defense of the honor of their family name. Women were expected to be models of feminine purity, grace, and virginity until it came time for them to provide children to inherit the family legacy. Faith in God and profound concern for preserving the family reputation provided the grounding for these beliefs.
The Civil War and Reconstruction devastated many of these once-great Southern families economically, socially, and psychologically. Faulkner contends that in the process, the Compsons, and other similar Southern families, lost touch with the reality of the world around them and became lost in a haze of self-absorption. This self-absorption corrupted the core values these families once held dear and left the newer generations completely unequipped to deal with the realities of the modern world.
We see this corruption running rampant in the Compson family. Mr. Compson has a vague notion of family honor—something he passes on to Quentin—but is mired in his alcoholism and maintains a fatalistic belief that he cannot control the events that befall his family. Mrs. Compson is just as self-absorbed, wallowing in hypochondria and self-pity and remaining emotionally distant from her children. Quentin’s obsession with old Southern morality renders him paralyzed and unable to move past his family’s sins. Caddy tramples on the Southern notion of feminine purity and indulges in promiscuity, as does her daughter. Jason wastes his cleverness on self-pity and greed, striving constantly for personal gain but with no higher aspirations. Benjy commits no real sins, but the Compsons’ decline is physically manifested through his retardation and his inability to differentiate between morality and immorality.
The Compsons’ corruption of Southern values results in a household that is completely devoid of love, the force that once held the family together. Both parents are distant and ineffective. Caddy, the only child who shows an ability to love, is eventually disowned. Though Quentin loves Caddy, his love is neurotic, obsessive, and overprotective. None of the men experience any true romantic love, and are thus unable to marry and carry on the family name.
At the conclusion of the novel, Dilsey is the only loving member of the household, the only character who maintains her values without the corrupting influence of self-absorption. She thus comes to represent a hope for the renewal of traditional Southern values in an uncorrupted and positive form. The novel ends with Dilsey as the torchbearer for these values, and, as such, the only hope for the preservation of the Compson legacy. Faulkner implies that the problem is not necessarily the values of the old South, but the fact that these values were corrupted by families such as the Compsons and must be recaptured for any Southern greatness to return.
Three of the novel’s four sections take place on or around Easter, 1928. Faulkner’s placement of the novel’s climax on this weekend is significant, as the weekend is associated with Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday. A number of symbolic events in the novel could be likened to the death of Christ: Quentin’s death, Mr. Compson’s death, Caddy’s loss of virginity, or the decline of the Compson family in general.
Some critics have characterized Benjy as a Christ figure, as Benjy was born on Holy Saturday and is currently thirty-three, the same age as Christ at the crucifixion. Interpreting Benjy as a Christ figure has a variety of possible implications. Benjy may represent the impotence of Christ in the modern world and the need for a new Christ figure to emerge. Alternatively, Faulkner may be implying that the modern world has failed to recognize Christ in its own midst.
Though the Easter weekend is associated with death, it also brings the hope of renewal and resurrection. Though the Compson family has fallen, Dilsey represents a source of hope. Dilsey is herself somewhat of a Christ figure. A literal parallel to the suffering servant of the Bible, Dilsey has endured Christlike hardship throughout her long life of service to the disintegrating Compson family. She has constantly tolerated Mrs. Compson’s self-pity, Jason’s cruelty, and Benjy’s frustrating incapacity. While the Compsons crumble around her, Dilsey emerges as the only character who has successfully resurrected the values that the Compsons have long abandoned—hard work, endurance, love of family, and religious faith.
Faulkner himself admitted that he could never satisfactorily convey the story of The Sound and the Fury through any single narrative voice. His decision to use four different narrators highlights the subjectivity of each narrative and casts doubt on the ability of language to convey truth or meaning absolutely.
Benjy, Quentin, and Jason have vastly different views on the Compson tragedy, but no single perspective seems more valid than the others. As each new angle emerges, more details and questions arise. Even the final section, with its omniscient third-person narrator, does not tie up all of the novel’s loose ends. In interviews, Faulkner lamented the imperfection of the final version of the novel, which he termed his “most splendid failure.” Even with four narrators providing the depth of four different perspectives, Faulkner believed that his language and narrative still fell short.
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.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Water symbolizes cleansing and purity throughout the novel, especially in relation to Caddy. Playing in the stream as a child, Caddy seems to epitomize purity and innocence. However, she muddies her underclothes, which foreshadows Caddy’s later promiscuity. Benjy gets upset when he first smells Caddy wearing perfume. Still a virgin at this point, Caddy washes the perfume off, symbolically washing away her sin. Likewise, she washes her mouth out with soap after Benjy catches her on the swing with Charlie. Once Caddy loses her virginity, she knows that no amount of water or washing can cleanse her.
Quentin’s watch is a gift from his father, who hopes that it will alleviate Quentin’s feeling that he must devote so much attention to watching time himself. Quentin is unable to escape his preoccupation with time, with or without the watch. Because the watch once belonged to Mr. Compson, it constantly reminds Quentin of the glorious heritage his family considers so important. The watch’s incessant ticking symbolizes the constant inexorable passage of time. Quentin futilely attempts to escape time by breaking the watch, but it continues to tick even without its hands, haunting him even after he leaves the watch behind in his room.