Printer Friendly


I wish publishing was advanced enough" William Faulkner wrote to his friend Ben Wasson in the summer of 1929, "to use colored ink" in the publication of The Sound and the Fury, "as I argued with you and Hal in the speak-easy that day" ("To Ben Wasson" 44). Faulkner wanted the opening section of the novel printed as "a continuous whole" so that "the reader's eye" would see the "unbroken-surfaced confusion" of Benjy's thoughts, yet he also wanted to mark the "subjective" transitions "in Ben's mind" from one topic to another (44). While italics and line breaks could be used to indicate these shifts, Faulkner argued that this "presents a most dull and poorly articulated picture to my eye" (44). Given the cost of color typesetting at that time, however, Faulkner wrote that he would "just have to save the idea until publishing grows up to it," and the novel was published by Cape and Smith using only black ink (45). Faulkner later hoped to issue a special edition of the novel "using different color inks," and he "underlined [a] copy" of the novel "in different color crayons" for the publisher to use as a guide ("To Malcolm Cowley" 207). The project, however, never came to fruition, and his marked copy was lost. (1)

Over the past decade, some of the most exciting work in literary studies has dealt with the materials of writing. As Bill Brown argues, such attention to the materiality of representation "expand[s] the ways of locating physical detail in a sign system, which is how we make matter mean" ("Introduction" 25). Rather than submit to what Leah Price calls "a commonsense Cartesianism [that] teaches us to filter out the look, the feel, [and] the smell of the printed page" (12), Brown challenges us to engage with the "dialectical drama of opacity and transparency, physical support and cognitive transport, representation as object and as act" ("Introduction" 26). (2) In certain situations, the material text itself can be the basis of this transport and even rapture. "The wearing of sacred or magical texts," writes Rowan Watson, "has a long history" (483). During the Renaissance, "an individual might carry ... a series of pieces of parchment ... round the neck" in the hope of finding "love" even if the wearer "could not read the writing"; "[t]he opening words of St. John's Gospel" were also "especially popular" (Rowan Watson 483-84). In this instance, the logos becomes transposed from word or mind to material script. To one degree or another, all writers must concern themselves with the physical aspect of the text. From clay tablets to vellum, paper to computer screens, texts are presented in an inescapably material manner. Even the flattest of flat screens has some depth. While images can be projected onto a wall, or into a room in the manner of a hologram, the realization of these images always takes a spatial form. To put it somewhat differently, a novel, for example, may be available online, but the ones and zeros of its code must be stored somewhere--often saved and backed up in the network of energy-intensive server farms that constitute the cloud. Even the word text, so often used in opposition to book, scroll, or other material form, "derives ... from the Latin texere, 'to weave'" and is likely connected "with the Vedic 'tasti,' to 'fashion by carpentry'" (McKenzie 13-14).

Faulkner was particularly attuned to the physicality of the text. Over and against the idea of himself as "a literary man," he presented himself "as a craftsman" (Faulkner in the University 23, 12). In the many speeches, interviews, and lectures he gave after winning the Nobel Prize in literature, Faulkner talked about his writing in terms of carpentry. "[T]he writer has three sources," he said at the University of Virginia, "imagination, observation, and experience.... [H]e uses his material from the three sources as the carpenter reaches into his lumber room and finds a board" (Faulkner in the University 103). In her essay "The Elizabethan Lumber Room," Virginia Woolf presents Hakluyt's Early Voyages as "an emporium, a lumber room strewn with ancient sacks, obsolete nautical instruments, huge bales of wool, and little bags of rubies and emeralds" (61). For Woolf, this style of writing gives Renaissance prose the quality of pastiche. Faulkner, though, describes refining rough wood into well-crafted prose "like a carpenter uses his tools" (Lion in the Garden 220). (3) While working on A Fable, Faulkner exteriorized this imaginative lumber by writing an outline of the story on the wall of his study. Joseph Urgo maintains that A Fable as "intellectual labor" becomes "indistinguishable from ... carpentry"; even today, visitors to Rowan Oak, Faulkner's home in Mississippi and now a museum, "confront with immediacy" this physical text (xiii). Faulkner did much of the work on Rowan Oak himself, adding rooms to the house over the years he owned the property. Rather than separating physical labor from his writing, Faulkner brought them together both in terms of how he explained his writing process and in his enactment of it.

Faulkner's interest in the materials of writing specifically with regard to the publication of The Sound and the Fury can be seen as a theme within the novel. As Quentin Compson organizes his belongings before he takes his own life, he "pack[s] [his] trunk" and "carrie[s]... books into [his] sitting-room" (4) (81). Through an indirect narration, Quentin differentiates between two sets of books: "the ones I had brought from home and the ones Father said it used to be a gentleman was known by his books; nowadays he is known by the ones he has not returned" (81). Quentin transposes Mr Compson's cynical observation into his internal monologue. Southern gentlemen, Mr Compson suggests, once proudly owned books, but now that this social class is in decline, they borrow things like everyone else, including their books. Quentin's recollection of his father's words presents the materials of writing as a potentially sturdy marker of the Southern gentleman. Quentin, though, takes his father's words to heart and sees himself as part of a doomed enterprise. Rather than the book making the man, Quentin's unreturned books register the non-person he will soon become; these books metaphorize the temporary period that he has a body, which he will return. Quentin is living, in other words, on what is colloquially referred to as borrowed time. These volumes concretize this state of affairs through the transient quality of borrowed books.

Faulkner makes many substitutions of material texts for people in The Sound and the Fury. Letters, envelopes, road signs, newspaper comics, and immigration papers all come to stand in for a corporeality Quentin refuses to accept for himself. Quentin's brother Jason, however, manipulates the materials of writing in an attempt to control others by burning checks, letters, and tickets to a traveling show. Indeed, the distinction between these brothers becomes figured in terms of writing materials, Quentin's hyper-reflective rejection of his own personhood over and against Jason's brutal treatment of those around him. What the brothers share, though, in terms of their relationship to paper and other surfaces of inscription may be more important than the valence of that relationship. Faulkner saw writing not simply as a transparent process but one in which markings on the page matter. Recent critics have demonstrated the way in which the materiality of texts alters their meaning. But Faulkner takes this a step further. Not only is he interested in the materials of his texts, but he makes this part of his narrative. Inscription serves as the locus through which both internal, psychological conflicts and intersubjective rivalries are enacted in the novel.

Scholars have productively identified the processes through which the subject is constructed both linguistically and via immersion in material life. These critical projects have been crucial in dislodging the normative, often Cartesian, conception of the self in modernity. Consideration of the hybrid territory of words attached to things not only more accurately identifies the way that texts are presented in the world but also produces a revised account of subject formation. To the extent that people are formed by the contexts in which they live--material, textual, cultural--interaction with material texts forms quilting points of synaptic connection at both conscious and unconscious levels. To take a current example, how much have smartphones changed the way we live and think and behave? We might thus understand Faulkner's interest in textual materials as a primary example of an author who at an earlier historical moment recognized the significance of this interplay of people and material texts. The Sound and the Fury could thus be read as a product of Faulkner's material imagination, a creativity that plays in and through this web of people, things, and texts. Such an analysis may begin to help us understand better the way in which the subject is constructed not simply within a matrix of words but within that confluence of words and things that make up the object life of modernity.

The letters Quentin mails before his death exemplify the manner in which a physical text comes to stand in for a body, which he only temporarily possesses. As he begins his meandering journey through the Cambridge area, Quentin says he "could feel the letters" he has written "crackle through [his] coat" (92). Many things can crackle: the OED provides examples of fires, leaves, bones, and--yes--paper in an 1833 reference to Harriet Martineau's Manchester Strike, "[t]he occasional crackle when Allen folded his paper" ("Crackle"). Letters as such cannot talk. They can communicate messages but cannot articulate words; the sound that gets emitted is indeterminate. Quentin moves his body, and the letters make this noise. The paper crackles, highlighting its status as a physical, three-dimensional object. Because this reminds him of its presence, the letter can be said to speak through its own materiality. The content of the letters is never revealed to the reader; their only presence in the narrative is as materials of writing. (5) In a sense, the letters cry out when Quentin cannot. Unable to take action to communicate his despair beyond the silent speech of writing, the paper serves as a displacement of Quentin's vocalization. Because he wears the letters close to his body, they also serve as a metonymic proxy with language and substance greater than he perceives for himself. Like a borrowed book, the letters are only temporarily in his possession. Though objects in and of themselves, they signal transfer rather than ownership.

While Quentin registers his own perceived insubstantiality through the metaphor of borrowed books, he imagines other characters transposed as writing materials in a far more substantial manner. On his earlier journey north from Jefferson to Cambridge, his train comes to a stop in such a way that his particular "car was blocking a road crossing" (86). Out of his window, he sees an African American man "on a mule ... waiting for the train to move" (86). Man and animal, Quentin says, looked "as if they had been built there with the fence and the road, or with the hill, carved out of the hill itself, like a sign put there saying You are home again" (86-87). Quentin naturalizes the man as part of the landscape, his presence reassurance of a stable Southern past. As Quentin's sentimental object of fantasy, the man becomes a signifier, transcribed as a physical sign that creates for Quentin a sense of home. On the one hand, this home exists only as a mental state; Quentin's imagined home bears little resemblance to the material facts of his family's life in Jefferson. Indeed, no small part of Faulkner's project as a novelist consists in unmasking this kind of Southern sentimentality. On the other hand, however, Faulkner can be said to show more explicitly the construction of this sentimental world. If we see this figure as a crucial point of contact for Quentin's imagination, the man's materialization as a sign puts the workings of his imagination back into the world in a manner that reflects the process of symbolization. The man performs a racialized ritual such that we see him as only the mask of an individual. "Yes, suh," he says, when Quentin tosses him a quarter from the train window, "[t]hanky, young marster" (87). This performance reinforces his presence in the text as a sign. Other African American characters in the novel--the matriarchal Dilsey, for example--are far more fully realized; the particulars of their lives are described beyond that of a racialized mask. Through his performance, the man comes to function for Quentin as an object of fantasy in the form of a material text, the imagined substantiality of the road sign inversely proportional to its reflection of the man's subjecthood. The textual nature of race was always material, always lived, brought into being through what Frantz Fanon calls "epidermalization" (xv). This scene makes the underlying logic plain: insofar as the man puts himself through the motions of a racialized cipher, he becomes legible as more of a pure sign than a complex human being. Faulkner simply literalizes this transformation, as if to say his bones in this performance become not quite his own but rather letters on a signboard painted to produce a particular meaning.

This pattern of recognizing a person as a material text can be seen with regard to the letter Quentin receives from Mrs Bland, his roommate Gerald's mother. Mrs Bland sends Quentin a formal invitation to accompany her, her son, and several other young people on a motoring expedition. Quentin describes the letter as a "command orchid scented colored" (107). The letter is not simply text but has color and smell; the missing commas blend action, object, smell, and image. This physicality puts into material form the imperative Quentin infers from the document. When Quentin returns to his dorm suite and notices the letter, it is described as "propped against a book on the table so [he] would see it" (171). Standing in this vertical manner, the letter takes on a kind of personhood. The materiality of this book as a support for the letter stands in contrast to the borrowed books Quentin has yet to return. In one sense, Mrs Bland can be understood as stronger than Quentin. She presents him with directions he feels he must follow. Yet it must be borne in mind that Quentin allows her to have this power over him. The letter is propped against a book, which betrays the textual nature of her control. The book is what makes her letter take on life. She for Quentin is a text that he has internalized, and she stands not in her personhood for Quentin but as a sign. The physicality of the letter operates as a substitution for the person, and the letter takes on a quality more powerful than the woman herself.

Not only is Mrs Bland registered in terms of the materiality of her letter but so too is Quentin's reaction: "If she knew I had passed almost beneath the window knowing it there without" (107). Quentin leaves the thought unfinished, but the omitted word at the end of the sentence would seem to be replying. Faulkner leaves this out of the narration, which fits with the way in which Quentin ostensibly fails to take an assertive action. Instead, Quentin imagines himself replying, "My dear Madam I have not yet had an opportunity of receiving your communication but I beg in advance to be excused" (107). Quentin finishes the sentence, though, with "today or yesterday and tomorrow or when" (107). He does not want to join the motoring party but feels a deep obligation to be polite, which fits with his notions about Southern gentility, and it is his perceived Southern gentility that Mrs Bland finds so appealing in Quentin that she recruits him to be part of her social circle. This politeness is expressed through these notes, yet not simply through the text but their physical exchange and status as objects. In a sense, Quentin engages in a slaying of the letter: he "took Mrs Bland's letter and tore it across and dropped the pieces into the waste basket" (172). Quentin tears the letter in a single gesture, a sign of clarity he never registers in his relationships with people. Moreover, it would seem uncharacteristic for Quentin to leave the letter in such a conspicuous place where it could be found. This reinforces the sense that the letter serves as a proxy for his feelings about Mrs Bland. While he cannot bring himself to confront her in person, he leaves a marker of his symbolic rejection of her control.

While Mrs Bland takes on a substitute form for Quentin as a letter, she herself is portrayed as emerging from a text. After Quentin is picked up by the motoring party, he interjects his own thought into his narration of her speech: "what book did you read that in," he muses (149). The conversation here is about proper behavior of "young gentlemen" (147). Mrs Bland says they "should drink wine" (147). Quentin seems to think her behavior pretentious, coming out of a book. His assumption indeed fits with her name but so too does her creation in Quentin's thoughts from writing materials. Whether in her formation from the book or from the letter, a form of behavior or the thing she comes to be to Quentin, there is a formality here of writing and bookishness as opposed to knowing from life and experience. She represents a kind of mimicry of the text. Mrs Bland is presented as created from a text, and then the text is figured in Quentin's mind as a person, which he tears in what amounts to a symbolic gesture. We thus have a complex interchange of person and text. Mrs Bland becomes the person she is from a book; the letter gives rise to a persona that intimidates Quentin. Born from a book, she is born to Quentin from a letter.

This circular relationship of identity to a book can be seen in Benjy's renaming from Maury to Benjamin and the inversion of this process suggested by Dilsey: "Benjamin came out of the bible," Quentin's sister Caddy explains, so "Mother says it is" a better name for him (58). Benjy's renaming is given a material component, as Dilsey says that he has not "wore out the name he was born with yet" (58). Choosing a name from the Bible is commonplace, yet the sense of "came out" of the text to replace a name that has not yet been "wore out" makes his naming into a material process, a physical transposition from a book onto a person. (6) In discussing her own name, however, Dilsey inverts this materiality. After she dies, she says, her name will "be in the Book.... [w]rit out" (58). Benjy's name comes out of the Bible; Dilsey suggests that her name will be written into the Book of Life. When Caddy says Dilsey's illiteracy will prevent her from reading her name in that book, Dilsey says she will not have to read it: "All I got to do is say Ise here" (58). The inscription of the name becomes more important than the meaning of the given letters. She becomes inscribed in the Book, given a material connection with heaven. In this sense, the metaphysical becomes concretized. Instead of a sacred name coming out of the Bible, a nontraditional name becomes written in a sacred context. While Mrs Compson hopes to put the Bible into her son Maury by renaming him Benjamin, Dilsey creates a new name in heaven's book. Mrs Compson attempts to borrow a sense of the sacred from the text in an act of sentimental piety; the strength of Dilsey's belief is highlighted by the way in which she adds a new text to the sacred.

While Dilsey offers a way to imagine the materializing of the divine through the process of writing, Quentin presents the materials of writing as giving rise to the features of the world. Walking through Cambridge, Quentin comments that "[t]he shadows on the road were as still as if they had been put there with a stencil, with slanting pencils of sunlight" (120). A stencil is produced by cutting holes in paper or another medium so that an instrument of marking such as a pencil or a paintbrush can be passed over the stencil to create an image underneath. The effect is that there are stark lines between the image and the surface of inscription once the stencil has been lifted. This creates the effect of clarity, outlining the shadow without traces of movement. Do the lines of sunlight themselves resemble pencils? Do they appear as though they are created with a pencil? A pencil of light can simply imply a thinness, but because the phrase is used in the same sentence as the stenciled shadow, the emphasis becomes placed on the materials of inscription. As a writer, Faulkner describes the scene in words--one kind of marking with a pencil. The irony here is that he uses words to mark out a visual scene created through drawing. Quentin later describes the way in which "pencils of sun slanted in the trees" (135). (7) Nature is described in terms of the materials of writing. The sunlight can be produced with a pencil, but the pencil can also be used to indicate shadow with the sunlight as the blank space on the paper, as the negative shadow of the stencil produces an image. The repetition of this motif suggests not only a concern with the mixture of drawing and writing but with the creation of the words on the page. Just as the pencil of the illustrator marks a page, the pencil of a writer marks the page with lines that form words. The words can produce an image in the reader's brain, but that image is translated through the medium of writing. Slanting pencils of sunlight as a phrase must be filtered through language to make sense. Because Faulkner invokes the materials of writing in this description, he foregrounds how the usage of those materials becomes the scene from which the words of the text come into physical being.

Faulkner points up the way in which the materials of writing are used to create a scene of nature, but he also highlights the inverse of this situation where the materials of writing can be said to block natural processes. Further on his journey through the Boston suburbs, Quentin buys "two buns" at a bakery, and the woman in the shop wraps these for him in "a square cut from a newspaper" (125). The Italian girl Quentin meets in the shop can only afford "a five cent loaf," which the woman wraps for her in a second "square cut from a newspaper sheet" (126). As she and Quentin walk through the streets, the paper around the girl's loaf becomes increasingly "fray[ed]," "wearing slowly out of the paper" (134). The paper in this sense holds back the phallic loaf. Yet as the scene continues, the paper becomes more like a part of the body. When "half the paper hung limp," Quentin "tore it off and dropped it beside the road" (136). Suggesting a partial castration or at least violent circumcision, the sense of the paper blocking the body becomes distorted and instead there emerges an interplay of bodies and paper. While this crossing of positions has violent overtones, a sense of play is evoked near the end of this episode. Quentin later sees "a piece of torn newspaper lying beside the road and ... began to laugh" (147). The possibility here is introduced of a play of bodies and writing materials. For all of its overtones, Quentin's actual interaction with the girl turns out to be quite innocent. Their interaction, Quentin's laughter seems to suggest, need not be taken as tragic. Yet Quentin refuses to read the scene in this manner. Confronted by a local magistrate, Quentin describes how the man "opened a huge dusty book ... and dipped a foul pen into an inkwell filled with what looked like coal dust" (142). Quentin thus textualizes his supposed indiscretion. In contrast to Dilsey, Quentin sees his own name inscribed in a book of sin. The ink becomes coal, evoking both the industrial aspect of the section of the community into which he has passed as well as a sense of burning and his own imagined damnation. The pen itself, an instrument often connoting desire, becomes a degraded object. As the innuendo suggested by the scene becomes more clear to Quentin, he transposes the thoughts of those who confront him into an ever more sinister drama of bodies and writing materials.

A maternal version of this substitution can be seen through the Italian girl's brother Julio's--and Quentin's roommate Shreve's--interaction with the material text. In response to the policeman's disparagement of "furriners," Julio insists "I American.... I gotta da pape'" (143). Through his use of dialect, Faulkner suggests a connection between Julio's immigration papers and a breast. Similarly, Shreve is described as "nursing a book" when he tells Quentin about the letter from Mrs Bland (101). Although he mocks Quentin's receipt of the invitation--"God, I'm glad I'm not a gentleman"--his disappointment is reflected in the substitute satisfaction of the book as breast (101). In the case of Julio, the marker of citizenship provides a kind of sustenance. He demands respect from the policeman and the magistrate not simply as a citizen but one with papers. Julio speaks in accented English, yet so does the policeman whose remarks suggest he is native-born. The papers are linked to a breast, which implies the idea of America as a place of material plenty and haven for immigrants. Shreve, however, is partly ostracized by Mrs Bland because he is Canadian and of Scottish descent. The book he reads is unnamed, and need not be, to emphasize the idea of a substitute. Indeed, Shreve is no scholar and is always late for class or chapel. It is less the content of the text that matters here than the presence of the book as an object. Julio's papers provide him with the breast of citizenship; Shreve's book provides him a breast to compensate for his lack of connection to a social group.

Quentin substitutes a material text for his sister Caddy that registers his obsession with her sexuality. While at Harvard, Quentin receives an invitation to her wedding. He imagines "a candle burning at each corner upon the envelope tied in a soiled pink garter two artificial flowers" (94). Quentin views Caddy as sullied by her sexual encounters, and his moral judgment takes the displaced form of the stained garter. For Diane Roberts, Caddy's promiscuity in the novel renders her as "no longer a 'lady' with all the talismanic power that absolute state ... implies" (113). We might thus understand the garter as a material inversion of this normative womanhood. Quentin burns not the invitation itself but the envelope in which it is delivered. Quentin reads the invitation but after the phrase "the first of August," he trails into "Something Something Avenue South Bend Indiana" (93). The text has the formalities of a wedding invitation, but like Shreve's book the text begins to matter less than what it represents as an object. In Quentin's reading of the invitation, the text itself trails into meaninglessness. The writing materials take on a quality of greater importance than the content of the invitation. Because four candles are invoked, one at every corner, the burning can be read as a kind of ritual. It would be virtually impossible to actually burn an envelope in this manner; instead, the envelope seems to levitate over the candles. The ceremony enacted here can be read as an attempt to project onto Caddy what Dawn Trouard calls "the unified idealism demanded by patriarchal culture" (26). Indeed, the single envelope becomes invested with a condensation of Quentin's ideas about his sister: her own and her lovers' desires, a moral burning with Christian overtones, and his incestuous thoughts. The two artificial flowers suggest that Quentin's view of the relationship between his sister and her fiance Herbert comes not from affection but necessity. The artificial flowers signal a tawdriness to the scene but perhaps also Quentin's recognition of his own artificial conjuring.

Herbert offers a ludic alternative to Quentin's injured sense of propriety through a reference to newspaper comics. Herbert tries unsuccessfully to persuade Quentin that he should accept his sister's marriage and sexuality. Quentin, though, does not back down from his impossible notions of decorum. As Herbert leaves their meeting, he says to Quentin, "ta-ta see you in the funnypaper" (111). (8) Although a common expression during this time, its context within a narrative cluttered with so many different kinds of paper makes the phrase significant. (9) If Quentin were able to see himself as part of the comedy of life, he might be able to come to terms with the workings of the world. In a literal sense, Herbert transposes himself and Quentin into a newspaper as characters. While Quentin cannot accept the physical interaction of texts and bodies, Faulkner's narration suggests this possibility. Quentin and Herbert can have their quarrel within the context of the newspaper funnies; as comic strip characters they take flight into newspaper. The paper in this sense becomes a displaced venue of confrontation where Quentin's chivalry and Herbert's aggression take on a farcical quality. Entering the world of the physical sign is a survival tactic for the man on the mule. Herbert offers structurally the same way out for Quentin. The valence of course is different. The man on the mule has a way of interacting with the world that may be necessary for him based on structures of racism; Quentin's comes from a structure of imagined Southern values, which, at least in theory, he can escape with a change in perspective. Yet adopting a way of being where his bones are not his own, where he takes to a textual mimicry, is an option Quentin refuses. The intersection of bodies and writing materials remains for him a kind of tragedy.

Perhaps the most violent aspect of the play of bodies and material texts can be seen in the way Quentin imagines himself blotted out of existence. Observing his "shadow leaning flat upon the water," Quentin wishes he "had something to blot it into the water, holding it until it was drowned" (90). The connection between blotting and writing goes to the early usage of the term. According to the OED, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century examples include a "[b]lotte vpon a boke" and "a blotte made with ynke"; yet a figurative sense of the term is used at least as early: "But lat no blotte be bihynde, lat no synne been vntoold" ("Blot"). The literal and figurative meanings here converge in that Quentin imagines death in terms of a process of the cancellation of inscription. Moreover, he imagines the blotting occurring not to himself but his shadow. In one sense, the shadow prefigures his entry into the water. He wants to blot the shadow just as he will blot himself. But the shadow itself has the sense of inky blackness already in it. There is thus a double blotting here. The shadow turns a body into a kind of blot, and then Quentin imagines drowning this shadow. The connection to writing materials comes even more into play when one considers the way in which blotting was a technique used to give finality to a text. Quentin imagines his life as a material text that can be blotted out. Shadows form an extension of the body, which here can proleptically be drowned.

In contrast to Quentin, Jason attempts to master the materials of writing to exploit other people. When the monthly checks arrive from his sister Caddy to help the family support her daughter, Jason forges dummy checks, which he gives to his mother to burn, while he deposits the actual checks in his own account. Indeed, Jason's brutality in the novel can be seen in terms of his relationship to paper. Jason has his mother burn these falsified copies of Caddy's checks; he burns letters from his girlfriend Lorraine; and he burns tickets to the traveling show to spite Luster, one of the family's servants. Narrating one of the episodes in which he helps his mother burn Caddy's checks, Jason says he "went and got the shovel from the corner and gave her a match" (218). His mother takes "the match" but does not "strike it" and instead "sat there, looking at the check" (218). Finally, "[s]he struck the match and lit the check and put it in the shovel" (220). After "[t]he paper burned out," Jason "carrie[s] it to the grate and put[s] it in" (220). The checks from Caddy are deposited in the bank; the checks Jason forges are burned in a shovel and then deposited in a fireplace. They are empty of value and their ritualized burning an act of deceit. By bringing his mother the shovel, Jason provides a place for the ashes. She burns them, but he deposits them in a manner that redoubles his deposit in the bank. His mother pauses before burning the check, regretting the waste of money, but Jason pressures her by saying that she will "be crying in a minute" and so "[g]et it over with" (218). This pause opens a space in the ritual. The checks are not simply burned, but Caddy's relationship to the family is discussed within this process. Jason and his mother thus enact a kind of ceremony, a ritual burning of the checks but also a renouncement of Caddy and her actions. Yet this renunciation is not actually of her but a substitute at two removes from her. What burns not only is an effigy of Caddy but Jason's masquerade of his sister. By having his mother burn these forged checks, Jason completes a cycle of memory enacted in terms of textual materials. His forged version of Caddy is presented to Mother. Mother reconsiders her treatment of her daughter. Jason pressures her to destroy this figure that he has concocted.

Faulkner presents Jason's attempt to control his girlfriend Lorraine through a similar trope of burning paper. After "read[ing] Lorraine's letter" Jason "tore it up and burned it over the spittoon" (193). Quentin tears Mrs Bland's letter once and throws it away. Jason tears Lorraine's letter repeatedly and burns it. While the letter from Mrs Bland can be found and Quentin's gesture of refusal recognized, Jason wants to ensure that Lorraine's letter is completely destroyed. What for Quentin is a final act of defiance seems to be Jason's regular mode of behavior. In order to "manage" women, Jason says it is often advisable to "give them a bust in the jaw" (193). The connection between his destruction of Lorraine's letter and his use of physical violence is emphasized by his "rule never to keep a scrap of paper bearing a woman's hand" (193). Handwriting suggests a physicality to the letter. It is not simply a note but one that has the trace of her hand. Her hand writes to him; his hand not only tears up the letter but is raised in violence against her. Jason burns the letter over a spittoon in a final act of displaced cruelty. Others will come and spit over the ashes of the letter. Those from his sister at least go to the fireplace; those from Lorraine are further subject to degradation.

Though he does so with a great deal of malice, there are productive reasons for Jason to destroy these documents. His mother must see what she believes to be Caddy's checks destroyed in order for Jason to safely make use of the real checks himself. He wishes to keep his relationship with Lorraine a secret, so burning her letters is a way to ensure that no one knows about her. Jason's aggression, however, becomes warrantless when he burns the two tickets to the traveling show that Luster wants to see. "I wouldn't go to it for ten dollars," Jason says, and offers to "sell" Luster one of the tickets (254). Luster replies that he "aint got no money," but Jason continues to belittle him, saying he would sell Luster a ticket "for a nickel" (254, 255). Knowing he does not have it, Jason drops the tickets in the stove one by one, repeating his sale price of a nickel before dropping in the second ticket. Luster's desire to go to the show has been a part of the narration of the novel since the beginning when he hunts with Benjy for a quarter to see the show. Indeed, his name itself signifies a connection to the shining object for which he searches. Jason's action, then, would seem to be placed in the novel in such a manner as to draw extra significance to the act. While Jason burns the tickets to show his power, the irony is that this power is expressed indirectly through paper.

Jason's cruelty is primarily exercised through documents. He talks about physical violence, but generally acts with violence toward the letter. Jason's interaction with his niece Quentin (named for her deceased uncle), however, complicates the separation of physical violence and violence expressed in terms of the materials of writing. Anxious to open a letter from her mother, which she rightly believes contains "some money in it," Quentin grabs the letter from Jason's desk when he stops their conversation to wait on a customer in the store where he works (212). "I ran around the desk," Jason says, "and caught her as she jerked her hand out of the drawer. I took the letter away from her, beating her knuckles on the desk until she let go" (212). Although he brutally threatens to "take a hame string to" her, this is the only physical violence he exerts (212). This violence, though, is used so that she will release a letter. Jason periodically asks his mother for permission to discipline Quentin. Yet the physical action here involves preventing her from reading her mother's letter, not as an attempt to change her behavior. Moreover, he hit her hand as it is holding the letter. He hits her hand in order to release the letter. The action here is less about violence for the sake of control and more about Jason's control over the materials of writing. Indeed, this is Jason's primary concern. He cares far less about Quentin than he does about money. In burning the check and the letter, he uses the documents as a proxy. Here the violence is metonymic, her hand an extension of the letter. Indeed, their hands touch as they each try to exert control over the letter. While physical violence remains connected for Jason to the materials of writing, the body becomes literally inserted into this dynamic.

Jason's use of writing materials can be juxtaposed directly to Quentin's in the different ways they use the term blot. After he forces Quentin to sign the money order from her mother, Jason "took the order and blotted it and put it in [his] pocket" (215). His brother at Harvard writes of being effaced, blotted out; Jason describes blotting his niece Quentin's signature to dry the ink. Writing materials are at a remove from Jason. He keeps them at a distance from his body, whether burning checks, tickets, or a letter. Jason treats paper as an object while Quentin treats it as a subject, a substitution for his sister or Mrs Bland or as a marker of his own identity. Jason wrestles the paper from Quentin, forces her to sign, and dries her signature with another piece of paper. Instead of blotting her out, he blots her signed name. This is far more useful to him, enabling him to embezzle even more of the money sent to him by his sister. As he fulfills his own vision of self-erasure, Quentin moves away from a functional relationship to the text and immerses himself in the river, which he had earlier figured as ink. Jason never makes this immersion, always holding himself removed.

I have been arguing that characters in The Sound and the Fury become defined by their relationship to the material text as a proxy for the body. Just as Quentin sees himself as a borrowed book, so too are other characters, such as Mrs Bland and Caddy, presented as letters and forged checks. Quentin loses himself in writing materials, while Jason exercises his control over the bodies of others through paper. Although Faulkner introduces the possibility of a playful relationship between bodies and writing materials through his use of newspaper comics, the crossover between the two remains tragic for those involved save Dilsey and her inscription in a divine book. In the end, writing materials as objects often signify more than the text of the documents. From letters and envelopes to books, immigration papers, and wedding invitations, the physical aspect of these texts rather than the meaning of the particular words they contain becomes the locus of the objects' performative significance. The sound and the fury of language may at times signify nothing, but the physical text becomes the ground upon which signification erupts as a material process.


"Blot, n.1." OED Online. Oxford UP, Mar. 2018,

Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. One-vol. ed., Vintage, 1991.

Brown, Bill. "Introduction: Textual Materialism." PMLA, vol. 125, no. 1, Jan. 2010, pp. 24-28.

--. The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economies of Play. Harvard UP, 1996.

"Crackle, n." OED Online. Oxford UP, Mar. 2018,

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox, Grove, 2008.

Faulkner, William. Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia 1957-1958. Edited by Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, U of Virginia P, 1959.

--. Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962. Edited by James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate, Random House, 1968.

--. Selected Letters of William Faulkner. Edited by Joseph Blotner, Random House, 1977.

--. The Sound and the Fury. London, Folio Society, 2016.

--. The Sound and the Fury. Vintage International, 1990.

--. "To Ben Wasson." Early Summer 1929. Selected Letters of William Faulkner, edited by Joseph Blotner, Random House, 1977, pp. 44-45.

--. "To Malcolm Cowley." 27 Oct. 1945. Selected Letters of William Faulkner, edited by Joseph Blotner, Random House, 1977, pp. 206-07.

Genette, Gerard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Translated by Jane E. Lewin, Cambridge UP, 1997.

Gordon, Ian. Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Hagood, Taylor. Faulkner, Writer of Disability. Louisiana State UP, 2014.

Hall, Alice. Disability and Modern Fiction: Faulkner, Morrison, Coetzee and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Palgrave, 2012.

Howsam, Leslie. "The Study of Book History." The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, edited by Leslie Howsam, Cambridge UP, 2015, pp. 1-13.

Kartiganer, Donald M. "'Now I Can Write': Faulkner's Novel of Invention." Polk, pp. 71-97.

Kreiswirth, Martin. William Faulkner: The Making of a Novelist. U of Georgia P, 1983.

"Lumber, n.1." OED Online. Oxford UP, Mar. 2018,

McKenzie, D. F. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. Cambridge UP, 1999.

Murphet, Julian. "New Media Ecology." The New Cambridge Companion to William Faulkner, edited by John T. Matthews, Cambridge UP, 2015, pp. 14-28.

Partridge, Eric. A Dictionary of Catch Phrases: American and British, from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day. Revised and edited by Paul Beale, Scarborough House, 1992.

Pearson, David. Books as History: The Importance of Books Beyond Their Texts. Revised ed., The British Library, 2012.

Polk, Noel, editor. New Essays on The Sound and the Fury. Cambridge UP, 1993.

Polk, Noel, and Stephen M. Ross. "Introduction to the Folio Society Edition." The Sound and the Fury, London, Folio Society, 2016, pp. vii-xii.

Price, Leah. "Introduction: Reading Matter." PMLA, vol. 121, no. 1, Jan. 2006, pp. 9-16.

Roberts, Diane. Faulkner and Southern Womanhood. U of Georgia P, 1994.

Trouard, Dawn. "Faulkner's Text Which Is Not One" Polk, pp. 23-69.

Truchan-Tataryn, Maria. "Textual Abuse: Faulkner's Benjy" Journal of Medical Humanities, vol. 26, no. 2/3, 2005, pp. 159-72.

Urgo, Joseph R. Introduction. Faulkner and Material Culture: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 2004, edited by Joseph R. Urgo and Ann J. Abadie, UP of Mississippi, 2007, pp. ix-xix.

Waid, Candace. The Signifying Eye: Seeing Faulkner's Art. U of Georgia P, 2013.

Wasson, Ben. Count No 'Count: Flashbacks to Faulkner. UP of Mississippi, 1983.

Watson, James G. William Faulkner: Letters and Fictions. U of Texas P, 1987.

Watson, Rowan. "Some Non-textual Uses of Books." A Companion to the History of the Book, edited by Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose, Blackwell, 2007, pp. 480-92.

Woolf, Virginia. "The Elizabethan Lumber Room." The Common Reader, Harcourt, 1948, pp. 61-72.

(1) See Polk and Ross vii-ix; Blotner 241, 243-44; Wasson 89-97; and Faulkner, Selected Letters 207n2. In 2016, the Folio Society published a new edition of The Sound and the Fury, which uses fourteen different colors in the Benjy section of the novel. On the editorial decisions involved in producing this version of the text, see Polk and Ross.

(2) Recent scholars have employed a variety of terms to describe the role of the material text. Leslie Howsam calls the materials of writing a "base, or substrate, to carry texts across the limits of time and space" (2). David Pearson uses the term "mediators" in his discussion of the way in which "books" join "texts" and "objects" (25). Particularly influential has been Gerard Genette's account of what he calls "the paratext" of materials and practices, which "enables a text to become a book" and "ensure[s] the text's presence in the world" (1).

(3) The contents of Faulkner's "lumber room," writes Donald Kartiganer, include "the literary modes and movements" of his time (78). For a discussion of the way in which Faulkner reworked his own early writings, see Martin Kreiswirth. It should be noted that lumber has a different meaning in North America--"[t]imber sawn into rough planks or otherwise roughly prepared for the market"--than it has in Great Britain, where the term refers to "[d]isused articles of furniture and the like, ... useless odds and ends" ("Lumber").

(4) This and all further page references to The Sound and the Fury are to the 1990 edition of the novel.

(5) As James G. Watson writes, Faulkner "integrates twenty-one separate letters and telegrams [in The Sound and the Fury] that are variously mailed, telegraphed, and hand-delivered"; not all of these, Watson notes, are actually "read" (xii).

(6) This renaming might also be understood as an effort to "normate upon a nonnormate body" and foreclose a more nuanced view of Benjy's disability (Hagood 98). See also Maria Truchan-Tataryn and Alice Hall.

(7) See Candace Waid for a discussion of "Faulkner's fiction as ... visually rendered ... both through and in the physicality of the word as image" (18).

(8) By the 1890s, "the use of continuing characters and their appearance in mass-circulated newspapers" brought "comic strips" into their modern form as a feature of American newspapers (Gordon 9). Their mention in The Sound and the Fury exemplifies an instance of Faulkner's engagement with what Julian Murphet calls the "new media ecology" of the period, including "radio, cinema, [and] phonographs" (15-16). Indeed, The Memphis Commercial Appeal, which Faulkner read throughout his life, began incorporating "color comic supplements]" as early as 1902 (Gordon 39). For a further discussion of the way in which mass culture becomes recorded in literary texts, see Bill Brown's The Material Unconscious.

(9) "[S]ee you in the funny papers" dates from the 1920s as a "jocular farewell" that "suggests ... the person addressed is rather laughable" (Partridge 265).
COPYRIGHT 2016 The Faulkner Journal
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Berliner, Jonathan
Publication:The Faulkner Journal
Date:Sep 22, 2016
Previous Article:WHO AROSE FOR EMILY?

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters