Sunday, August 21, 2011

Optional Work: The Sound and the Fury

No, your eyes do not deceive you. Yes, the title of this blog post is correct – this book was optional. And yes, I still chose it.


William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury will fall into the Southern Gothic category (think Flannery O’Connor). It’s horrifying; at times it is violent; extremely unorthodox; and the ending of a Southern Gothic novel rarely provides the reader with a solution by the end of the novel, but instead leave everything open-ended, as if the problems and issues will continue in the story long after the reader has stopped paying attention. All of the above holds true for The Sound and the Fury.

The entire novel also has a constant sense of uncertainty, like everything will come toppling down at any moment. But while the reader is waiting for everything to fall apart, Faulkner will then explore social, political, and racial issues of his made up town and of the American South. Some stuff is kind of funny, while most of it is so not; some of it is extremely profound, while other parts are extremely benign; some characters are all that is good, while others embody everything that is evil; and overall, the mixture of the sacred with the profane is what can make the general tone of this book so disturbing. Flannery O’Connor managed to balance this so perfectly that I would start laughing and then feel bad that I was laughing. With Faulkner, there are only super-rare occasions where I even have the slightest inclination to laugh, at least with this particular book. I found I spend most of it either deeply saddened or extremely frustrated.


Throughout the novel, Faulkner goes in and out of narrative styles, the most daunting of which being stream of consciousness, a technique pioneered by European writers, such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The novel hits you right in the face from the very first section with Benjy as the first narrator – he’s the youngest of the four Compson children and has a severe autism that causes him to not differentiate between time periods, among other things. Oh yeah, and no one tells you that going in so while he is mentally going back and forth in time without any indication, the reader has to follow along as best as they can, only to realize later that not everything that just happened took place in the here and now. Awesome. His section is the least straightforward, with the most stream of conscious. His sister Caddy (the only one of the Compson children not to get a narrative section) is the only one who truly cares for him, while everyone else views and /or treats him like a burden and a source of family shame. Naturally, he adores Caddy, and also feels it when she is away from home.

The stream of conscious is less in the second section, which is narrated by Quentin, the oldest Compson child. But while it is less, it is not completely diminished as his story includes the events that lead up to his suicide. So as the section progresses, Quentin becomes more and more unhinged and the stream of conscious increases until the section ends. And the “Quentin” that Benjy talks about in the section before is sometimes referring to his brother Quentin, and sometimes referring to his niece Quentin. Unlike the other characters in the story, Benjy doesn’t differentiate between the two when he talks about them, which is yet another element of the first section that immediately puts readers in the dark searching for much needed clarification. When Benjy switches between the two Quentins, he is not only switching between people, but also time periods, since at the time Benjy tells his story, his brother Quentin has been dead for 18 years (*shudder*), which means Quentin’s section and suicide took place 18 years earlier than the first section. And something else that links the two sections is the close relationship the narrator’s have with their sister Caddy. While she is more of a caretaker for Benjy, Caddy and Quentin were best friends. But his inability to handle Caddy’s promiscuity and marriage, and also the oppressive and cynical attitudes of his father, are what is causing Quentin’s mental anguish. He is obsessed with Caddy’s virginity and purity, and the fact that Caddy no longer has either contributes to him taking his own life.

The third section is the most straightforward narration the reader receives so far, and it comes from Jason, who is arguably the least likeable of the Compson children. He is single-minded, materialistic, quick-tempered, egotistical, racist, and inherits the cynicism of his father. He is also obsessed with his sister, but in a different way, as he hates her and blames her for what has happened to his family. He now treats his niece terribly and has been stealing the money that Caddy sends to her daughter for her years. This section actually takes place the day before Benjy’s, and everything sort of culminates in the fourth section which takes place the day after Benjy’s section.

And who tells the story in the forth section? Apparently it is either Faulkner, or just an unknown third person omniscient narrator. Thankfully, this narrator can differentiate between time periods and isn’t in a state of near depression, and is able to just tell the story straight. The section actually focuses a lot on Dilsey, the matriarch of the black servant family that helps a lot with Benjy. What I seemed to get the most from this section, besides answers to a lot of questions I had for the first 264 pages, is that the mother, Caroline, is one of the most useless women in all of literature…and I have seen a lot of useless people in the many books I have read. She’s neurotic, abusive, a hypochondriac, and her favorite child seems to be Jason. Really? Really. First of all: isn’t rule number one of parenting the fact that parents aren’t supposed to have favorite children? And who would pick Jason? Seriously? Seriously. Caroline treats Dilsey terribly, and just seems incapable to doing anything for herself. Blech.

So what do we have here: shifting narrative voices, shifting time period (with and without notice), and a common obsession between the three brothers with the one sibling the reader does not get to hear from, and that’s Caddy.


I just have to start with the title, which comes from a line in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Macbeth is making his “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy and there are many other lines besides the title that fit The Sound and the Fury perfectly. In many ways, the novel is “a tale told by an idiot,” not only because of Benjy, but also because Quentin and Jason are not exactly the most competent narrators ever. Sure, Jason can tell a straightforward story, but can you trust him? Also, the “dusty death” could reference how the Compson family no longer has the prominence it did, and they could represent the decline of the traditional and wealthy Southern family after the Civil War. And of course the lines “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” almost speak for themselves. If you aren’t saying something meaningful, then it is just noise.

Faulkner was concerned with the idea of how the traditional Southern family can withhold their same ideals after the Civil War. With the Compsons, what results is that their traditions turn into modern helplessness, in which people like Quentin can’t survive, but jerks like Jason can. Now that is tragic.

And I hate to be this person, because I wince whenever I am told this by my professors, but this truly is one of those books that you should read twice. I was lucky (I think…) because I was assigned the book twice: once in high school and once as an undergrad. I hated it in high school, and then I loved it in college and still do. Just saying…

Next week I’ll move onto Americo Paredes’ George Washington Gomez, and also perhaps some Gulliver’s Travels.

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