By THEODORE BAAS, Michigan, the USA
This article will follow William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and so for all those who have not read the book I will give a brief synopsis. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury follows the Compsons, a once prominent ‘well to do’ Southern family whose fortunes are dissolved with the coming of a post-Civil war America. Faulkner’s breaks the narrative up into four sections: one narrated by the idiot Benjy Compson; one by the neurotic, intelligent Quentin Compson, one by the cynical Jason Compson and the final section by a third person. The novel, in a most fundamental sense, is about the three brothers-Benjy, Quentin, and Jason-and their obsession with their sister Caddy. Each of the brothers has his own type of obsession which he expresses in his own way. Benjy is obsessed with an almost infant-like attraction to Caddy as a mother-figure, Quentin has a strange love for his sister loving not only her but also the idea of her, and how she existed once as a virgin, pure and untouched. The last brother, Jason, is obsessed with her as he see’s her as the very reason for the Compson family decline.
In this way, The Sound and the Fury follows a structure of recursive narration. It is not only recursive because of the similarity between the characters but because without any one of the Compson brothers the plot is not complete. The pivotal moment of the novel, Caddy’s betrayal of her family by marriage to Dalton Ames, never actually happens, or we never actually see it happen, rather we hear of it in fragmented pieces of memory from Quentin and Benjy’s narration. Faulkner’s recursive narrative structure is necessary for a coherent plot, his first narrator, Benjy Compson is a severely retarded thirty-three year old who has no conception of time and so narrates all memories as if they are occurring in the present. Quentin Compson’s narration is perhaps just as bad. He is quite the opposite of Benjy, intelligent and ambitious, and yet quite ironically he feels the same feelings Benjy does. He writes in a similar manner, starting out with a more formal conventional narrative style which quickly breaks into fragments of perceptions and memories bouncing back between Quentin’s present life in Massachusetts as a Harvard student and his home in Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. In this way, there is a grand unification between the idiot and the intelligent, that they both feel the same core feelings and each struggle to find a way to express these feelings. In a way, Benjy, Quentin and Jason are each the same person. They each have the same struggles: their inability to cope with the actions of others and their logical slavery of being trapped in the abyss of time. They are each the same person (at least symbolically) in the case of this narration as they are each telling the same story from the same course of events. They have different reactions to the tragedy they face but I would argue that these emotions they display-- Benjy’s sadness, Quentin’s depression, and Jason’s anger-- are in a sense only a reaction to a more primal emotion. They each share the emotion of hopelessness, which is the absolute core of their beings. Sadness, depression, and anger, are just ways people deal with their hopelessness and in this case sadness, depression, and anger are the three ways each of the characters must deal with their hopelessness.
Each of the characters is in a prolonged war with themselves, clinging on to their last threads of endurance as they watch their lives crumble before their eyes and, face the utmost tragedy of their being. One of Faulkner’s most potent devices for leading us into the depths of melancholy is the narration of an idiot named Benjy Compson. The reader is thrown upon Benjy’s narration, immediately caught within the unpunctuated, unabridged thoughts of a man who cannot understand the world around him. He is in some sense not even alive. Benjy finds himself in a world where he cannot find linearity or chronology, rather his subconscious controls the entirety of his perception. His life is like a perpetual nightmare from which he shall not be awoken until death. He receives sense-perceptions: the hitting of golf balls, the parading of footsteps, the smell of water and of the trees, but he cannot do anything with these sense perceptions. He cannot interpret them or understand them, he can only see them, and this blank sight, this clockless world of experience and perception, lets the reader see and perhaps understand his complete impotence. He cannot change anything, he cannot examine his emotions, he can only feel; feel and experience all that occurs around him. Benjy, quite literally, gets to stare and watch as the things he loves most in this life- his older sister Caddy and the wild flicker of an open flame- get torn away from him while all he can do is stare and cry at the foul turnings of the world.
It is quite obvious that Benjy has no choice or idea what is happening in the world around him but, as Faulkner shows us, the second narrator and Harvard student Quentin Compson cannot control his circumstances any more than Benjy can control his. He is loving and protecting of his sister Caddy, to the point where he has incestuous feelings towards her largely so he can protect her from any other men.
Faulkner wrote of Quentin in his 1946 appendix to the book:
“Quentin, who loved not the idea of incest which he would not commit, but some presbyterian concept of its eternal punishment: he, not God, could by that means cast himself and his sister both into hell, where he could guard her forever and keep her forevermore intact amidst the eternal flame.” (Faulkner, 1946)
This is the essence of Quentin Compson, his love of his sister to the point where her decisions affect his well-being. It is this primordial almost parental connection that causes Quentin to claim incest after Caddy gets pregnant from Dalton Ames. In this way we see a profound connection between Quentin Compson and Benjy Compson. Benjy an idiot; Quentin an intelligent student at Harvard, but each of their souls belong to someone else, Caddy, and their very hearts lie unhinged and unaltered, ravaged and decayed at the feet of Caddy’s promiscuity. Quentin cannot prevent his eventual suicide when Caddy marries Dalton Ames any more than Benjy can prevent crying when Caddy walks away from him to go to school. They are each predestined to lose all that they love and this is a brutally frightful thought in application. Faulkner shows us, quite subtly, that we don’t have a choice any more than an idiot does. We are each puppets on strings attached to all that we love and it is the fact that we care about things beyond our control, rather than our own decisions, that dooms us to fall.
We also get signs that Caddy herself has no control over what she is doing. To quote Faulkner in his appendix:
“Doomed and knew it. Accepted the doom without either seeking it or fleeing it.”
At first glance Caddy almost seems immoral. She loves her family, taking care of Benjy when no one else will, yet acts promiscuously, disappearing and leaving Quentin and Benjy to rot in the wake of the love she had taken and given to someone else. Yet Caddy is not portrayed as an immoral character by Faulkner. On the contrary, Faulkner calls her his “heart’s darling” and despite the fact that we see very little of Caddy throughout the novel we can kind of come to accept that she is the main character and in many ways her struggle to find happiness makes her as much a protagonist as Quentin or Benjy. Though she eventually destroys the lives of her two brothers, who themselves lack free will, she herself doesn’t have free will. It is a little like a roll of the dice depending on another a roll of the dice where each dice represents the happiness of a person through the lens of cold indifference. Caddy is unable to stop her sexual desires and her anticipation of new experiences. To illustrate to Quentin her love for Dalton Ames we see Caddy show Quentin her pulse as she says the "name ‘Dalton Ames.’
"She took my hand and held it flat against her throat now say his name Dalton Ames I felt the first surge of blood there it surged in strong accelerating beats" (II, p. 134)
Caddy has a physiognomical reaction to Dalton Ames. She is just as much an unknowing animal parading without volition as Quentin or Benjy. And look at how Caddy describes her own sexual desires in words:
"There was something terrible in me sometimes at night I could see it grinning at me I could see it through them grinning at me through their faces it’s gone now and I’m sick." (II, p. 112)
Notice the use of the word ‘sick’ and ‘it grinning at me.’ Even Caddy herself associates her sexual desires as something beyond her control, a sickness. Nobody chooses to get sick or to get will, it simply comes when it wants. Even Caddy’s reputation is not given to her. She is never allowed to defend herself to anyone in the family and when given the opportunity she doesn’t. Rather it is Quentin who tells the rest of the family that he has committed incest so that they will not know that Caddy was sleeping with Dalton Ames. We never even get to see things from Caddy’s perspective, everything we hear about Caddy is processed through the exterior and perhaps unreliable mouths of her family members. This is the epitome of no free will. No control over yourself, no control over your emotions, no control over your image, no control over those around you. Caddy is no more free than an idiot.
As others before me have noted, Faulkner plays almost perpetually with time, even if you deny that time is a major theme in The Sound and the Fury and a major theme in Faulkner’s own personal philosophy, you cannot deny its almost relativistic presence throughout the novel. It pervades the very soul of the novel because Faulkner’s prose style, not to mention his characters, falls dimly flat when divorced from their
wisted Einsteinian temporality. Temporality gives life to Faulkner’s writings. It is the ubiquitous force which Faulkner uses to unite the Compson family, and through this everything- space, memory, existence, definition- all are seen through the mangled lense of Faulknerian time. He manages to create such an interesting depiction of time by simply getting rid of it. Faulkner pushes time to the front row by
eliminating past, present, and future. By rendering all experience existing in the present to be meaningless, Faulkner denies the existence of present or temporality at all for that individual. Quentin cannot live in the present, nor can he live at Harvard because his consciousness never actually leaves his family. Because he lives his present focusing completely on the past, projecting failures and regrets of the past onto his life in the present, he is denied the reality of a complete temporal existence. Benjy is obviously denied a complete temporal existence because he is lost within his own incomprehension. He has not the intelligence to understand time and so everything, from his memories of castration to experiences he had twenty years ago, appear as if they are in the present. Perhaps just as tragically, Jason is lost in time because he is lost in the present.
Faulkner shows us more completely his views on temporality at the end of the novel, an ending which has important implications for the meaning of the text itself. The ending itself is so profound because there is no ending. During the ostensible ending (that is, when the proverbial curtain drops) we watch as Benjy screams because the black servant Luster has taken him counterclockwise instead of clockwise during their ride around the downtown circle. In the final paragraph, we see Benjy taking a comfort that they are once again going the correct way and that everything is in its correct order. Faulkner does not offer us anything else. There is no resolution to the Compson’s problems, no great reveal, we don’t even get the satisfaction of a tragic ending but rather are left with things continuing on just as they have been.
Faulkner does not offer us an ending not because the ending comes later but because there is not and never will be an ending. For the Compsons things will not change, things will keep going on just as they have been, eternally. This is much more tragic than any death, suicide, or tragedy could be, for rather than suffering and then escaping through death or through redemption, they are to live for eternity in the reality of their vices. They are caught in hell, an unchanging and eternal prison of reconciliation not with God or anyone else but with themselves, and this is the deepest and most uncomfortable form of pathos or melancholy we can experience- an immutable confrontation with our sins and with our failures. In short: a prison, a nightmare, an eternity, an unconquerable reverberation of impotence- tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
(1) Cowan, Michael H. Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Sound and the Fury: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Print.
(2) Brodhead, Richard H. Faulkner, New Perspectives. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1983. Print. Faulkner, William. “The Sound and the Fury.” New York: Vintage International, October 1990.
(3) Sartre, Jean-Paul. “On the Sound and the Fury: Time in the Work of Faulkner.” Literary and Philosophical Essays, trans. Annette Michelson (London: Rider, 1955): 79-87.
(4) Wadlington, Warwick. “The Sound and the Fury: A Logic of Tragedy.” American Literature, Vol. 53, No. 3. Duke University Press, Nov. 1981 (p 409-423).
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