Like Benjy, Quentin has memories of the past that intrude on his narrative constantly and without warning. Quentin’s memory is complicated because it is largely intertwined with his fantasies. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which of his memories are based on events that actually occurred and which are based on fantasy or wishful thinking. Quentin’s mind is far more complex than Benjy’s, and, unlike Benjy, he is clearly aware that his flashbacks are just memories. Quentin, however, is just as likely as Benjy to associate past events with people or objects from the present.
Faulkner emphasizes the importance of time and memory in Quentin’s world through the frequent appearance of clocks and watches. Quentin is effectively trapped in time, obsessed with his past and memories. He always notices the bells of the Harvard clock tower. The ticking of his watch haunts him even after he breaks the watch against his dresser. Quentin asks the owner of the clock shop whether any of the clocks is correct, but does not want to know what time it is. Additionally, Quentin repeatedly mentions walking into and out of shadows, which are constant reminders of time as gauged by the position of the sun throughout the course of a day. Unlike Benjy, who is oblivious to time, Quentin is so obsessed and haunted by it that he sees suicide as his only escape.
Clearly, the main thrust of Quentin’s section is his struggle with Caddy’s promiscuity. Quentin is horrified by Caddy’s conduct, and he is obsessed by the stain it has left on the family’s honor. Quentin, like Benjy, has a strong sense of order and chaos. However, while Benjy’s order is based on patterns of experience in his mind, Quentin’s order is based on a traditional, idealized Southern code of honor and conduct. This code is a legacy of the old South, a highly paternalistic society in which men were expected to act as gentlemen and women as ladies. Quentin believes very strongly in the ideals espoused under this traditional code: family honor; gentlemanly virtue, strength, and decency; and especially feminine purity, modesty, and virginity.
Caddy’s promiscuity deeply hurts Quentin because he views it as dirty and shameful, a blatant violation of the ideal of femininity found in his Southern code. Quentin takes his code very seriously, as it forms the basis of order in his world. When Caddy’s promiscuity breaks the code, Quentin attempts to maintain his sense of order by responding in a manner he considers honorable. Thinking that suicide is the only way to salvage the family name, Quentin tells Caddy that he will kill himself if she does the same. When she is uninterested, Quentin’s next idea is to falsely accept the responsibility for fathering Caddy’s child—a lie, but one he considers honorable and gentlemanly.
Quentin’s anguish is compounded when he learns that his father really could not care less about Caddy’s promiscuity. Mr. Compson is an articulate but cynical man. Recognizing the source of Quentin’s torment, he discourages his son from taking himself so seriously. Mr. Compson argues that the concepts of virginity and purity—cornerstones of Quentin’s paternalistic sense of Southern morality—are hogwash. Mr. Compson claims that virginity is a flimsy, unnatural idea that men have constructed. He believes that the concept is meaningless to women and should not be idealized. Quentin, on the other hand, finds his father’s indifference completely dishonorable to the Compson name. Though Quentin never actually had sexual relations with his sister, he brings the story up again in front of his father. For Quentin, the false confession is a desperate attempt to assume Caddy’s guilt and atone for it himself. However, Mr. Compson, like Caddy, dismisses Quentin’s concerns. When Quentin sees that no one else in his family shares his code and his convictions, he reverts to suicide as the only remaining option, a means of exit while preserving his ordered universe.
Quentin’s struggle to reconcile Caddy’s actions with his own traditional Southern value system reflects Faulkner’s broader concern with the clash between the old South and the modern world. Like a medieval code of chivalry, the old South’s ideals are based on a society that has largely disappeared. Men and women like Quentin, who attempt to cling to these increasingly outdated Southern ideals, sense that their grasp is slipping and their sense of order disappearing. Their reliance on a set of outdated myths and ideals leaves them unequipped to deal with the realities of the modern world. Several characters in The Sound and the Fury embody this changing of the guard from old ideals to modern realities. Damuddy, the lone representative of the old South left in the Compson family, dies before any of the other action in the novel takes place. Miss Quentin, the lone member of the Compsons’ new generation, is not only a bastard child, but has continued in Caddy’s promiscuous ways without displaying any of the guilt Caddy feels about doing something wrong.
Quentin’s obsession with his moral code is just one indication of his overall tendency toward thought rather than action. Quentin is clearly very bright, but his fixation on abstractions paralyzes him. He spends all his time thinking about nebulous concepts—time, honor, virginity, and so on—that have no physical presence. Existing only as words, these abstractions are difficult to act upon tangibly. Indeed, we see that Quentin is largely incapable of effective action: he frequently comes up with ideas, but never carries them out successfully. Quentin devises the double suicide pact with Caddy as a means of escape, but Caddy rejects the idea and escapes the Compson family without him. Likewise, Quentin talks frequently about confronting Dalton Ames and Gerald Bland, but his words win him nothing but two embarrassing beatings. The only actions we see Quentin take are meaningless and impotent, conforming to his Southern code but having no real outcome.
Though Quentin’s moral code plays a large part in his anguish over Caddy’s promiscuity, we get the sense that there is something more going on beneath the surface of this brother-sister relationship. When Quentin encounters the Italian girl in the bakery, he refers to her as a “little dirty child,” which evokes a memory of Caddy. After Quentin’s first encounter with a girl, Caddy disapproved of the girl and called her dirty. Just as Quentin seems jealous of the men Caddy encounters, we sense that Caddy is jealous not only of this first girl but of any girl Quentin might pursue. Faulkner implies that there is an unconscious sexual frustration between Quentin and Caddy, and that each of them might use his or her lovers to make the other jealous. Since Quentin is still a virgin, it seems likely that Caddy has made him far more jealous than he ever made her. While the shame of Caddy’s promiscuity is clearly upsetting to Quentin, his despair may also contain elements of jealous rage.