Summary: April Seventh, 1928
Caddy smells like trees.
Note: Benjy, the narrator of the difficult first section of the novel, has no concept of time. He portrays all events in the present—April Seventh, 1928 —regardless of when they actually occurred in his life. The events that actually take place on April Seventh are rather insignificant. Far more important are the memories evoked by Benjy’s experiences on that day. The summary below therefore includes not only the events that take place on April Seventh, but the past events that these cues from the present cause Benjy to recall.
On the day before Easter in 1928, a Black teenager named Luster is looking after a man named Benjy. Benjy, who has severe intellectual disabilities, is the youngest son of the aristocratic Compson family of Jefferson, Mississippi. It is Benjy’s thirty-third birthday, and Dilsey, the Compsons’ cook and Luster’s grandmother, has baked him a cake. Luster takes Benjy around the Compson property to search for a quarter he has lost. Luster had intended to use the quarter to buy a ticket to the minstrel show in Jefferson that weekend.
Luster leads Benjy to a nearby golf course, hoping to earn back his lost quarter by fetching lost golf balls from the rough. The golf course lies on a stretch of what used to be the Compson pasture, which Mr. Compson sold to developers to pay for his son Quentin’s education at Harvard. When Benjy hears one of the golfers calling out to his caddie, he moans because the sound of the word “caddie” reminds him of his sister, Candace (whom he calls Caddy).
Luster helps Benjy climb through a fence. Benjy catches his clothes on a nail, which brings back a memory of a time when Caddy helped Benjy free himself from that same nail twenty-six years before. This event occurred around Christmas,
Luster leads Benjy through the Compsons’ barn. The barn swings Benjy’s memory back to a time in
Back in the present, Benjy and Luster walk down toward the “branch,” or stream, that runs through the Compson property. The branch causes Benjy to recall the day his grandmother, Damuddy, was buried in
In this memory, Benjy and T.P., one of the Compsons’ Black servants, have gotten their hands on some champagne from the wedding, though T.P. thinks the beverage is merely “sassprilluh.” The two boys are drunk and keep falling down as they watch some cows cross the yard. T.P. and Quentin get into a fight because T.P. has been teasing Quentin about Caddy. The fighting and the alcohol throw Benjy’s world into chaos, and he begins to cry. Versh carries Benjy up the hill to the wedding party.
Benjy’s memory of Versh carrying him returns his memory to
The memory of Versh’s cabin reminds Benjy of several occurrences from
We return briefly to the present,
Benjy recalls the death of the Compsons’ horse, Nancy, and the buzzards that circled over the carcass afterward. He thinks briefly of Mr. Compson’s death in
Benjy’s memory briefly skips back to his drunken episode with T.P. at Caddy’s wedding in
Back in the present, Luster is still standing with Benjy as he plays in the stream. Luster tells Benjy not to approach the nearby swing because Miss Quentin is there with her boyfriend, the man with the red tie. This makes Benjy recall a time years ago when he saw Caddy and Charlie, her first suitor, kissing on the swing. In this memory, Benjy begins to cry very loudly when Caddy’s suitor approaches. Charlie grows angry at Benjy’s intrusion, which upsets Benjy even more. Caddy takes Benjy up to the house and cries, as she knows Benjy is upset with her for kissing Charlie. Caddy apologizes to Benjy and washes her mouth out with soap.
Benjy’s consciousness then returns to the present day,
The gate and schoolgirls remind Benjy of a day in
The narrative returns to the present. Luster tries to sell his golf ball to one of the golfers on the course, but the golfer takes the ball away from Luster. When the golfer calls for his caddie, Benjy starts moaning again because the word reminds him of Caddy. Luster gives Benjy a flower to try to calm him, and he tells Benjy that when Mrs. Compson dies, Jason is probably going to send Benjy off to an insane asylum in Jackson.
Luster and Benjy finally reach the Compson house. Dilsey yells at Luster, thinking Benjy is crying because Luster has been teasing him. Benjy sits down in front of the fire, which briefly reminds him of a time when he and Caddy sat near the fire just after his parents changed his name from Maury to Benjy. Back in the present, Dilsey lights the candles on Benjy’s birthday cake, and Luster and Benjy eat some of the cake. Benjy reaches into the fire, burns his hand, and bursts into tears. Mrs. Compson enters the room, exasperated at her son’s wailing. She goes on a tirade of self-pity, complaining that she is ill and cannot get any rest with Benjy making so much noise. Luster takes Benjy to the library to quiet him.
The library causes Benjy to remember another time he was in the library with Caddy. This was in
Returning to the present, Benjy continues to fuss while he and Luster sit in the library. Jason enters the room, clearly exasperated with Benjy. Luster asks Jason if he can borrow a quarter to go to the minstrel show, but Jason disdainfully refuses. Miss Quentin comes in and is still furious at Luster for allowing Benjy to sneak up on her when she was with the man with the red tie. Dilsey calls the family to supper. Benjy then recalls the evening in approximately
Back in the present, the family is seated at dinner. Miss Quentin complains that she does not like living in the Compson house. Jason rebukes her, and she threatens to run away. The argument between Jason and Miss Quentin escalates, and Dilsey tries unsuccessfully to mediate. Benjy’s mind remains stuck in the past throughout this section, but the argument going on around him in the present keeps intruding. Miss Quentin curses Jason and storms off. Benjy runs off to an empty room and gets undressed. He and Luster see Miss Quentin sneak out of her bedroom window and run away.
Benjy’s memory returns a final time to the night in
Analysis: April Seventh, 1928
This first section of
The greatest barrier to Benjy’s ability to narrate is the fact that he has no concept of time. Benjy lives in an endless present tense. He interprets all events and memories as taking place in the present—April Seventh,
Faulkner uses Benjy’s limitations to introduce one of the novel’s key motifs, the human experience of time. Most humans rely on time to create a system of order out of the chaos of sensation, memory, and experience. For Benjy, however, time is a constant, not a flow, and is almost meaningless. The struggle we endure in reading Benjy’s narrative forces us to confront what life would be like without the solidifying presence of time. Benjy offers us a few shattered pieces of truth, but they are difficult to discern.
Indeed, reading the chapter can be very disorienting. Benjy’s flashbacks occur frequently and without warning, sometimes even mid-sentence. Faulkner sometimes marks these leaps in time with italicized text, but not always. The easiest way to tell when we are in the present is if we sense the presence of Luster: he plays a role only in the scenes from
One of Faulkner’s primary reasons for using Benjy as the narrator of this first section is to hint at the tragic events and circumstances of the Compson family history through a completely objective voice that offers no commentary. Benjy’s objectivity is based on his powerful, innate sense of order and chaos. He interprets the world by comparing his perceptions and experiences to the pattern of order and familiarity that exists in his mind. Benjy immediately notices if something—especially something involving Caddy—seems wrong or out of place. Any such deviation from Benjy’s pattern of familiarity creates chaos in his mind and upsets him, making him cry or moan. Benjy’s first whiff of Caddy’s perfume, for instance, shocks his sense of order—he detects something awry and it disturbs him greatly.
Benjy’s almost inhuman objectivity contrasts sharply with the perspectives of Quentin and Jason, who, as we will see in the next two sections, are both so skewed by their obsessions with Caddy that neither can narrate without significant embellishment or prejudice. Benjy’s objectivity, on the other hand, allows us to gather clues on our own. His narrative gradually gives us an understanding of the relationships that govern the Compson household.
Mr. Compson is a distant figure, lost in his own cynicism and alcoholism. Likewise, Mrs. Compson is clearly ineffectual as a mother to her children, and her understanding of Benjy’s needs is astonishingly feeble. She is constantly absorbed in self-pity and is neurotically insecure about her Bascomb family name. For whatever reason, Mrs. Compson favors Jason, the most wicked of her children. The only true role model and parent to the Compson children is Dilsey, who is the only real source of stability in the household. Though illiterate, Dilsey is faithful, devoted, and competent. She treats the children firmly but kindly, with clear concern for their welfare and character.
The Compson children’s vastly differing personalities are apparent from a very young age. Caddy acts as a mother figure to Benjy and is his only real source of affection. However, Caddy seems somewhat headstrong, as we see when she insists that the other children “mind” her instead of minding Dilsey. Additionally, Caddy’s muddying of her underwear in the stream as a young child foreshadows her later promiscuity. Caddy literally dirties herself, and the fact that Dilsey is unable to wipe the mud off suggests that Caddy’s indiscretions will irreparably taint the family name.
Quentin is quiet and extremely close to and dependent upon Caddy. He is inordinately concerned with Caddy’s welfare and neurotically protective of her. Jason, on the other hand, is distant from the other children. We see that he is cruel even as a young child, when he maliciously cuts up Benjy’s paper dolls and tells on Caddy and Quentin for playing in the stream. Also, the fact that Jason constantly has his hands in his pockets hints at his future stinginess. Indeed, we see an example of this stinginess in Jason’s refusal to lend Luster a quarter for the minstrel show.
The key events of the Compson family’s history gradually begin to fall into place as well. We can construct a rough timeline of the events in Benjy’s section based on a number of context clues embedded in the text. Since Benjy is turning thirty-three on April Seventh,
These events reveal a pattern of moral decay within the Compson family. We see the first examples of this decay in Uncle Maury’s affair with Mrs. Patterson and his use of the unwitting Caddy and Benjy as accomplices in his adultery. Uncle Maury is a member of the Bascomb family; his immorality is partly responsible for Mrs. Compson’s obsession about her old family name and her decision to rename her son Benjamin. However, Mrs. Compson’s symbolic attempts to distance herself from her brother’s immorality are not effective, as we soon see Caddy exhibiting similar indiscretions.
The mud on Caddy’s underwear prefigures her later promiscuity. We see that Caddy begins experimenting with boys at a young age, wearing perfume and having amorous encounters on the swing near the stream. Benjy senses that something is amiss or out of place, which disrupts the familiar patterns in his mind. He can sense Caddy’s promiscuity, which in his mind is linked to the smell of her perfume. Indeed, Benjy becomes upset and cries every time he smells Caddy’s perfume.
The first time he smells the perfume, in
Some critics argue that the moment the three Compson boys look up into the tree and see Caddy’s muddy underwear represents one of the climactic moments in the novel’s theme of moral decay. Whether or not they know it at the time, all three boys are made aware of the curse on the Compson name at this moment. The promiscuity heralded by Caddy’s dirty pants eventually unravels each brother’s emotional or mental stability.
Quentin commits suicide due to his despair over Caddy’s lost purity. Jason lives a life of resentment and hatred after Caddy’s promiscuity ruins his chances of getting the job that Caddy’s husband had promised him. Caddy’s banishment from the Compson household destroys the order in Benjy’s world, leaving him confused, haunted, and longing futilely for her return.
The parallels we see between Caddy and her daughter, Miss Quentin, indicate that this moral decay in the Compson family will not end with Caddy’s generation. Like Caddy, Miss Quentin discovers illicit sexuality on the swing near the stream. Additionally, just as he interrupted Caddy and Charlie kissing, Benjy interrupts Miss Quentin and the man with the red tie doing the same. It is notable, however, that Miss Quentin feels no guilt or need to wash away her sin as Caddy does. Because her mother has set a precedent of indiscretion, Miss Quentin does not feel that she has committed any wrong.
The events Benjy recalls reveal not only this pattern of moral decay within the Compson family, but also a pattern of death. Chronologically, the earliest past event that Benjy recalls is Damuddy’s death. Damuddy never appears in the novel herself while alive. As a member of the older generation, she represents the old South of the nineteenth century, and her death can be seen as a marker of the end of that world. Importantly, the first event in the Compsons’ spiral of tragedy is this symbolic death of the old generation. Benjy’s castration can be seen as an extension of this specter of death to the next generation, as castration is a powerful symbol of the death of a family line.
Benjy also recalls the deaths and funerals of Mr. Compson, Quentin, and Roskus. The deaths are linked in his mind by the image of buzzards circling over the carcass of the Compsons’ horse Nancy, and by the sound of the Compsons’ Black servants’ ritual moaning over the dead. It is significant that Benjy recalls Roskus’s death alongside Quentin’s and Mr. Compson’s, since this juxtaposition allows us to contrast Dilsey’s suffering and mourning with the Compsons’. While the Compsons—especially Mrs. Compson—are shattered and unable to recover from the deaths in their family, Dilsey demonstrates considerable strength of spirit in her recovery from her husband’s death. In this regard, Dilsey is the foundation of the hopes for resurrection and regeneration within the Compson family, which are hinted at later in the novel.
Ironically, the only people in the Compson household who seem aware of the family’s decay and impending downfall are those who are least able to do anything in response: Benjy and the Compsons’ Black servants. Benjy’s acute sense of order and chaos enables him to sense Damuddy’s death, Caddy’s promiscuity, Quentin’s death, and other signals of the Compsons’ decline. However, Benjy’s intellectual disability prevents him from responding to these signals in any other way but moaning and wailing. Likewise, on the day of Mr. Compson’s death, Roskus notes that the household is unlucky—“Taint no luck on this place.” Though the Black servants seem to have a sense for the Compsons’ curse and anticipate the family’s downfall, their position as servants makes it unlikely that their warnings will ever be heard or taken seriously.
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