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The Sound and the Fury.

Type of work: Novel

Author: William Faulkner (1897-1962)

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of plot: 1910-1928

Locale: Mississippi

First published: 1929

The Sound and the Fury, an extremely complex yet rewarding novel, traces from 1910 to 1928 the decline of a once-aristocratic but now degenerated Southern family. Faulkner's method of narration, involving the consciousness of different members and servants of the Compson family, provides four distinct psychological points of view.

Principal Characters

Jason Lycurgus Compson (III), grandson of a Mississippi governor, son of a Confederate general, and father to the last of the Compsons. Like his illustrious ancestors, his name suggested his passion, the classics. Unlike his forebears, he is unable to make a living or to fulfill his deepest ambition, the study of the Greek and Latin epigrammatists, but his stoic philosophy, culled from his reading, stands him in good stead. He speaks wisely, does little, drinks much, and is weary of his complaining wife, his wayward daughter, and his bickering sons.

Caroline Bascomb Compson, his wife, who resents the Compson lineage and feels that hers is more glorious. A neurotic woman with psychosomatic symptoms, she complains constantly of her grievances and ills. Reluctant to face reality and rejoicing that she was not born a Compson, she indulges her fancies and pretends to be an antebellum Southern gentlewoman. Her fortitude in tragedy is even more remarkable for all her complaining, but she victimizes her children and devoted servants to maintain her resentment and illnesses.

Candace Compson, their only daughter, affectionate, loyal, libido-driven. Called Caddy, a name which results in great confusion for her idiot brother whose playground is the pasture sold to a golf course where he hears her name, she herself is doomed, though devoted to her dead brother, her weak-minded brother, her own illegitimate daughter, her loving father. She is at odds with her mother, her vengeful brother Jason, and several husbands. So promiscuous is she, even urging her sensitive brother Quentin to abortive intercourse, that she does not really know the father of her child. As an adventuress she travels widely, and in the postlude to the novel appears as the consort of a Nazi officer in Paris.

Quentin Compson, her beloved brother for whom she names her child even before the baby's birth. Obsessed by a sense of guilt, doom, and death, he commits suicide by drowning in June, 1910, two months after his sister's marriage to a man he calls a blackguard. Because he is deeply disturbed by family affairs--the selling of a pasture to pay for his year at Harvard, the loss of his sister's honor, the morbid despair he feels for his idiot brother, his hatred of the family vices of pride and snobbishness--his death is predictable, unalterable.

Jason Compson (IV), the only son to stay on in the old Compson place, loyal to his weak, querulous mother, determined to gain his full share of his patrimony, bitter over his deep failures. His tale is one of petty annoyances, nursed grievances, and egotistic aggressiveness in his ungenerous and self-assertive mastery of his niece and the black servants. This descendant of aristocrats is a small-town redneck, wily, canny, cunning, and deceitful. Not without reasons for his bitterness, he finally rids himself of his enervating responsibilities for a dying line by himself remaining a bachelor and having his idiot brother castrated.

Quentin, the daughter of Candace and her mother's own child. Reared by Dilsey, the black cook, Quentin is the last of anything resembling life in the old Compson house. As self-assertive as her uncle, she steals money he calls his (but which is rightfully hers) and elopes with a carnival pitchman. Beautiful in the wild way of her mother, she has never had affection from anyone except her morbid old grandmother and a brokenhearted servant. Her father may have been a young man named Dalton Ames.

Dilsey Gibson, the bullying but beloved black family retainer, cook, financier (in petty extravagances), and benefactress, who maintains family standards that no longer concern the Compsons. Deeply concerned for them, she babies the thirty-year-old Benjamin, the unfortunate Quentin, and the querulous old "Miss Cahline," though she resists the egocentric Jason. A woman whose wise, understanding nature is beyond limits of race or color, she endures for others and prolongs the lives of those dependent on her shrewdness and strength.

Benjamin Compson, called Benjy, at first named Maury after his mother's brother. He is an idiot who observes everything, smells tragedy, loves the old pasture, his sister Caddy, and firelight, but cannot compose his disordered thoughts into any coherent pattern of life or speech. Gelded by his brother Jason, he moans out his pitiful existence and is finally sent to the state asylum in Jackson.

Maury L. Bascomb, Mrs. Compson's brother. A bachelor, a drunkard, and a philanderer, he is supported by the Compsons. Benjy Compson was christened Maury, after his uncle.

Roskus, the Compsons' black coachman when the children were small.

T.P., a black servant who helps to look after Benjy Compson. He later goes to Memphis to live.

Luster, a fourteen-year-old black boy who is thirty-three-year-old Benjy Compson's caretaker and playmate.

Frony, Dilsey's daughter.

Sydney Herbert Head, a young banker, Caddy Compson's first husband. He divorces her after he realizes that her daughter Quentin is not his child. The divorce ends young Jason Compson's hope of getting a position in Head's bank.

Shreve McCannon, Quentin Compson's Canadian roommate at Harvard.

The Story

The Compson family had once been a good one, but the present generation had done everything possible to ruin the name of Compson for all time. In the little Mississippi town in which they lived, everyone laughed and made slighting remarks when the name Compson was mentioned.

Mrs. Compson had come from what she considered good stock, but she thought she must have sinned terribly in marrying a Compson and now she was paying for her sins. For eighteen years she had been saying that she did not have long to live and would no longer be a burden to her family. Benjy was her greatest cross. He was an idiot who moaned, cried, and slobbered all day long. The only person who could quiet Benjy was Candace, his sister. When they were small, Candace loved Benjy very much and made herself his protector. She saw to it that the other children of the family and the black servants did not tease him. As Candace grew up, she continued to love Benjy, but she also loved every man she met, giving herself freely to any man who would have her. Mrs. Compson thought Candace was another cross she had to bear and did very little to force her daughter to have better morals.

Quentin, another son, was a moody, morose boy whose only passion was his sister Candace. He loved her not as a sister but as a woman, and she returned his love. Quentin was sent to school at Harvard. Although she loved Quentin in the spirit, Candace could not keep away from other men. Sydney Herbert Head was the one serious lover she had. He wanted to marry her. Head, a banker, promised to give her brother Jason a job in his bank after they were married. When Quentin learned that Candace was in a condition that made her marriage necessary, he was wild. He lied to his father and told him that he had had incestuous relations with Candace and that she must not be allowed to marry. His father did not believe him, and the family went along with their plans for the wedding. At last Quentin could stand no more. Two months after his sister's wedding, he drowned himself in the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mrs. Compson resigned herself to one more cross.

When Candace had a baby too soon, Head threw her out of his house with her child. Her mother and father and her brother Jason would not let her come home, but they adopted the baby girl, Quentin. Jason believed that Quentin was the child of his brother Quentin and Candace, but the rest of the family refused to face such a possibility and accept it. They preferred to believe, and rightly, that Quentin was the child of some other lover who had deserted Candace. Candace stayed away from the little town for many years.

Quentin was as wild as her mother as she grew up. She, too, gave herself to any man in town and was talked about as her mother had been. Every month, Candace sent money to Mrs. Compson for Quentin's care. At first Mrs. Compson burned the checks, for she would have none of Candace's ill-gotten money. When Mr. Compson died, Jason became the head of the family. He blamed Quentin for his not getting the job in the bank, for if the child had not been born too soon, Head would not have left Candace and would have given Jason the job. Hating his sister, he wrote checks on another bank and gave those to his mother in place of the checks Candace had sent. The old lady was almost blind and could not see what she burned. Jason then forged her signature on the real checks and cashed them, using the money to gamble on the cotton market.

Quentin hated her Uncle Jason as much as he hated her, and the two were always quarreling. He tried to make her go to school and keep away from the men, but Mrs. Compson thought he was too cruel to Quentin and took the girl's side.

A show troupe came to town, and Quentin took up with one of the performers. Her grandmother locked her in her room each night, but she climbed out of the window to meet her lover. One morning, she did not answer when old Dilsey, the black woman who had cared for the family for years, called her to breakfast. Jason went to her room and found that all her clothes were gone. He also found that the three thousand dollars he had hidden in his room had been stolen. He tried to get the sheriff to follow the girl and the showman, but the sheriff wanted no part of the Compson family affairs. Jason set out to find the fugitives, but he had to give up his search when a severe headache forced him to return home for medicine.

Jason felt more than cheated. His money was gone, and he could not find Quentin so that he could punish her for stealing it. He forgot that the money really belonged to Quentin, for he had saved it from the money Candace had sent for the girl's care. There was nothing left for Jason but blind rage and hatred for everyone. He believed that everyone laughed at him because of his horrible family--because Benjy was an idiot, Candace a lost woman, Quentin a suicide, and the girl Quentin a village harlot and a thief. He forgot that he, too, was a thief and that he had a mistress. He felt cursed by his family as his mother was cursed.

When he saw Benjy riding through town in a carriage driven by one of the black boys, he knocked the black boy down and struck Benjy with all his force, for there was no other way to show his rage. Benjy let out a loud moan and then settled back in the carriage. He very gently petted a wilted flower, and his face assumed a calm, quiet blankness, as if all the strife in the world were over and things were once more serene. It was as if he had understood what old Dilsey meant when she said she had seen the beginning and the end of life. Benjy had seen it all, too, in the pictures he could never understand but which flowed endlessly through his disordered mind.

Critical Evaluation

After early undistinguished efforts in verse (The Marble Faun, 1924) and fiction (Soldier's Pay, 1926; Mosquitoes, 1927), William Faulkner moved suddenly into the forefront of American literature in 1929 with the appearance of Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury, the first installments in the artistically complex and subtly satirical saga of Yoknapatawpha County that would be spun out further in As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Go Down, Moses (1942), The Unvanquished (1938), Intruder in the Dust (1948), the Hamlet-Town-Mansion trilogy (1940, 1957, 1959), and Requiem for a Nun (1951)--the last an extension of materials in Sanctuary (1931). Chiefly in recognition of the monumental literary importance of the Yoknapatawpha saga, Faulker was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1949.

The Sound and the Fury marked the beginning of the most fertile period of Faulkner's creativity, when he was in his early thirties. Both for its form and for its thematic significance this novel may well be considered Faulkner's masterpiece. Never again would his work demonstrate such tight, precise structure, combined with the complexities of syntax and punctuation that became his most characteristic stylistic trait. Furthermore, the themes recorded in his simple but not elegant Nobel Prize speech--"love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice"--are already present in this novel with a forcefulness of characterization that could hardly be improved upon. It was in this novel that Faulkner found a way of embodying his peculiar view of time in an appropriate style, a style much influenced by Joycean stream of consciousness and by Faulkner's own stated desire ultimately to "put all of human experience between one Cap and one period." That concept of time, most emphatic in Quentin's section, can be summarized by Faulkner's statement that "there is no such thing as was; if was existed there would be no grief or sorrow." The continuation of the past into the present, as a shaping influence that cannot be avoided, is the larger theme of Faulkner's life work.

In this novel, that theme is embodied specifically in the history of the decline of the aristocratic Compson family. Nearly twenty years after the original publication of the novel, at the instigation of his publisher Malcolm Cowley, Faulkner wrote the background history of the Compsons as an "appendix" that appears at the front of the book. The appendix records the noble origins of the Compson land, once the possession of a Chickasaw king named Ikkemotubbe, or "the man." After proceeding through the Compson succession--beginning with Quentin Maclachan Compson, who immigrated from Glasgow, and proceeding to Jason III, the "dipsomaniac" lawyer who could not tear himself away from the Roman classics long enough to preserve the vestiges of his family's good name, Faulkner presents terse but invaluable insights into the chief characters of The Sound and the Fury. Candace knew she was doomed and regarded her virginity as no more than a "hangnail," and her promiscuity represents the moral sterility of the family. Quentin III, who "identified family with his sister's membrane," convinced himself he had committed incest with her, but really loved only death--in his sublimation of emotions into a kind of latter-day courtly love mystique--and found his love in June, 1910, by committing the physical suicide that the destruction of his grandfather's watch symbolized. Benjy, the "idiot" whose "tale" forms the remarkable first section of the novel, "loved three things: the pasture ... his sister Candace (who `smelled like trees'), and firelight" and symbolizes both the mental deterioration of the family and, through his castration, its physical sterility. Jason IV, "the first sane Compson since before Culloden and (a childless bachelor) hence the last," commits Benjy to an asylum, sells the house, and displays the pathetically mediocre intelligence that alone is able to cope with the incursions of the modern world as symbolized by the Snopes family. Quentin IV, the child of Candace, "already doomed to be unwed from the instant the dividing egg determined its sex," is the last Compson and the final burden destined for Mrs. Compson, the personification, to Jason, of all the evil and insanity of his decaying, decadent family.

Benjy's section takes place on April 7, 1928, the day before Quentin IV steals her uncle's money. It is written with incredibly delicate perception, revealing the lucidity of a simpleminded innocence that can yet be accompanied by a terrible sharpness and consistency of memory. In its confusion of his father's funeral with Candace's wedding, in its constant painful reactivation--the sound of the golfers' cry of "caddie" causes him to bellow out his hollow sense of his sister's loss--Benjy's mind becomes the focus of more cruelty, compassion, and love than anyone but Dilsey imagines. Quentin III's section, taking place eighteen years earlier on the day of his suicide at Harvard, is one of the most sustained lyrical passages of twentieth century prose. The concentration of Quentin's stream of consciousness around the broken, handless watch is one of Faulkner's greatest achievements. Just as the leitmotif of Benjy's section was the smell of trees associated with Caddy's loss, the recurring refrain of Quentin's is the desperate rhetorical question, "Did you ever have a sister?" Jason's theme is hate, a hate as pitiful as is the diminution of Compson pride into pathetic vanity; and this third section of the novel may be the greatest for its evocation of deep, moving passions from even the most mediocre. The last section is focused on Dilsey, who "seed de first en de last" and who represents, to Faulkner, the only humanity that survives the fall of the house of Compson--the only humanity to endure.
COPYRIGHT 1989 COPYRIGHT 1989 Frank N. Magill
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Masterpieces of World Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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