A Work of Great Virtnosity
Faulkner once said that he had written his guts into The Sound and the Fury. Many of his admirers believe that it is his best novel, and one of the greatest novels written in the twentieth century. Without doubt it is a work, of great virtuosity, even genius, but there is some disagreement about what Faulkner was trying to say in it.
Written in the Impressionistic Tradition
The Sound and the Fury is clearly a “modern” novel. It is in the impressionistic tradition of James, Conrad, Crane, Ford Madox Ford, and Joyce––the tradition which said : “Life does not narrate but makes impressions on our brains,” and which said that the novelist allows the story to tell itself without himself intruding. To Joyce in particular Faulkner owes the interior monologue, the stream of consciousness, and portmanteau words. Occasionally, however, Faulkner does intrude, but in a special sense : he lends his own rhetorical voice, a kind of chorus, to a character. For example, Quentin, who ordinarily is shown thinking in a disordered, disturbed, even mad fashion, suddenly remembers in a quite different sort of language a train trip during which be had seen, from the window, an old negro riding a small mule : “Then the train began to move. I leaned out the window, into the cold air, looking back. He stood there beside the gaunt rabbit of a mule, the two of them shabby and motionless and unimpatient…” This passage is very similar to Sartoris in which Faulkner himself does the narrating. Faulkner’s rhetorical voice intrudes in this manner in all the books subsequent to The Sound and the Fury. But primarily the characters think and speak in their own peculiar manner. Thus Benjy, the idiot, watching a golfing match : “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I Could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting.” All of Benjy’s thoughts have to do with sensations, with smells, eating, going to bed, or tones of voice. Time past and time present merge and interflow in his mind. He never speculates, or plans ; he feels.
The Reader’s Reactions
Jason’s thoughts and speech are invariably ironic, expressing his bitter humour and frustration : “I told Mother goodnight and went, on to my room and got the box out and counted it again. I could hear the Great American Gelding snoring away like a planning mill. I read somewhere they’d fix men that way to give them women’s voices. But may be he didn’t know what they’d done to him. I don’t reckon he even knew what he had been trying to do, or why Mr. Burgess knocked him out with the fence picket.” Everywhere in this novel the reader sees, hears, and experiences, whether it is young Compson children getting ready for bed, the tone of the genteel and whining Mrs. Compson, the decency and patience of Dilsey, the magnificently rendered negro sermon, or the sound of Queenie’s hooves in the town square.
The Story of the Decline of a Family
The primary story told in this novel is the decline of a family. The family has had generals, a governor, and wealthy planters. They had owned the Compson Mile. , In a chronology of the Compsons, given by Faulkner long after the novel had been written, he traced the history of the Compson family from 1699 to 1945. But the novel proper is limited from the 2nd June, 1910 to the 8th April, 1928 ; and it tells what happens to the last generation of the Compsons. Mrs. Compson is a witty but alcoholic lawyer, and Mrs. Compson is preoccupied with her honour, faded glories, and present indignities, such a. her idiot son and ineffectual brother Maury. Candace (Caddy), Quentin, Jason, and Benjamin (Benjy) are seen as children and as adults.
Quentin is seen in, Cambridge, Massachusetts, getting ready to commit suicide : he contemplates his family but particularly Caddy’s sexual affair with Dalton Ames and her marriage to Herbert Head. His experiences during that day (2nd June, 1910) impinge in a shadowy way on his memories, more especially his frustrated desire’ .to free himself and Caddy from m time’s meaningless roar. Behind the desire to commit incest with Caddy was the hope that this would cause Jehovah to cast them into hell for eternity. But his father had told him that virginity was an ideal invented by men and that his talk of incest was merely a way of giving himself a significance which neither he nor any one else could have. Except for Caddy, Quentin also feels unloved. Once he says : “I have no. mother.”
The Characters of Jason and Dilsey
As an adult, Jason, Quentin’s brother, works in a hardware-store, plays the stock-market, and systematically steals the money Caddy sends for the board and lodging of her illegitimate daughter (whose name is also Quentin). The girl Quentin, to whom Jason is always mean and sometimes cruel, steals the money from him, and runs off with a fellow working in a carnival. Jason is unable either to find them or to recover the money ; and his frustrations are nearly unbearable. Jason is scornful of tradition, of principle, and of honour. It is Dilsey, the old negress, decent, sympathetic, and responsible, who provides the coherence and moral principles against which the Compsons are, by implication, judged. She is one of Faulkner’s most memorable characters.
Not a Conventionally Constructed Novel
The story of the novel is not related in a chronological order. The book begins on the 7th April, 1928 but in the second chapter Faulkner flashes back to the year 1910. Faulkner undoubtedly had his reasons for ignoring chronology. By rejecting the normative power of time, he gained something else-psychological depth and unique perspective. Thus the first chapter is seen from the point of view of an idiot and from the most hidden and unreachable layers of consciousness ; the last chapter from the normal point of view of a realistically thinking person. In this way Faulkner, through his arrangement of scenes, indicates the gradual succession of layers of consciousness and condemns, or accepts, the scale of values of civilization. The four sections of the book bear the following dates : 7th April, 1928 ; 2nd June, 1910 ; 6th April, 1928 ; and 8th April, 1928. We are warned, in this way, that we can look forward neither to a traditional plot nor to a conventionally composed novel.
The Tragic Fate of a Family
The book opens with Benjy, the idiot. Through his utter helplessness, he subjects the family to his service. Pity becomes its own victim. Where’ domination of and by the sick exists, even health is no longer health. In this universe of mere “sound” and of “fury”, nothing, indeed, survives. Life itself is only a dream, only a disease leading toward death. Around Benjy the tragic fate of the Compsons circles ; with Benjy it ends. In 1933, he is admitted to the State Asylum at Jackson, Mississippi, after his family as such has ceased to exist.
The Theme of Castration or Emasculation
The first scene is written from Benjy’s point of view or rather it is written in a distorted fashion because an idiot, with whom the author practically identifies himself, can have no “point” from which he may “view” the world. Thus the opening section is almost unintelligible. Only after the monologues set in italics and after a dialogue between Mother and Uncle Maury does the reader slowly become aware of the idiot’s position in the developing and highly symbolic fable. The book opens with Luster looking for a quarter he has lost, and a couple of boys looking for one of the balls on the golf-course. The significance of the ball-symbols in the face of Benjy’s sex problems becomes oppressive. To prevent him from doing any damage to the public, Benjy is castrated. Quentin’s emasculation takes the from of a decision by him to commit suicide, a decision which he takes before he is accused of the kidnapping of a little girl–a sex crime which he has in fact not committed. This accusation has a parallel in Quentin’s mind : be suffers from the notion that he has committed incest with his sister Caddy. The survivors are Jason and Benjy, the, two youngest members of the family. Jason, the pragmatist, survives indeed, but in the end he forms a relationship with a dubious person and thus he also comes to the dead end of infertility, of emasculation and to the end of the history of a family.
The Story as a Parable
Benjy is thirty-three years old on the 8th April, 1928. It is Easter. Good Friday. Holy Saturday, and. Easter Sunday conclude the tragedy. Perhaps, however, Faulkner’s novel is not a tragedy in the Greek sense of the word but a parable taken from the world of in the dating of the events is not accidental ; and beyond “fury” and “sound”, beyond death and decline, beyond disease and decay some hope at least remains. Benjy, the youngest, the mere unreasonable creature, more beastly than any beast, is castrated ; thus he is, in a sense, killed, crucified ; in his deformity ‘he takes upon himself the total suffering and misery of creation. `Faulkner took up this theme again, quite consciously and deliberately, in his late work A Fable, where Christ walks on earth in the person of a French corporal. Benjy, the idiot, the suffering, helpless, but God-created creature may, then, be regarded as the parable of Jesus reborn in the Deep South at the time of its fall.
A Psychic Penetration of Characters
Both the orthodox Christian and the orthodox literary critic will, of course, reject this meaning and the literary form that it takes with Faulkner. The neutral reader must, however, accept Faulkner and must also subject himself to monologues and stream-of-consciousness constructions and expressionistic paraphrases set in italics ; he must learn to read in the three dimensions of time, independent of the mechanical chronology. Faulkner is interested only in the psychic penetration of his characters. He throws his light from behind the person as well as from in front so that the spectator receives it full in the face or is even blinded by it For long stretches he shows only schemes, shadows of persons, as in the decaying white society in the Deep South. It is a macabre picture. Even the obscurity of certain passages in this novel is intentional.
The Portrayal of the Negroes
The negroes, however, retain their sharp features and their natural vitality. They are portrayed most naturalistically. Dilsey, the old servant, strives to keep the disintegrating house in order until she moves to her daughter in Memphis. Luster, fourteen years old, has accepted with infinite patience the heaviest burden which is to take care of the idiot. Faulkner pictures Dilsey and Luster as radically truthful and impartial : Luster, the lazy, the renitent, eager for cheap p1easure and lies; Luster, however, has a heart that the white man often does not seem to have. Dilsey, moreover, on Easter Sunday morning, takes the feeble-minded Benjy to the negro church,, although Frony, her daughter, remarks “I wish you ‘ wouldn’t keep on bringing him to church, mammy. Folks talkin.” “Whut follks ?” Dilsey asks. “I bears them”, Frony replies. “And I knows whut kind of folks, “Dilsey retorts. “Trash white folks. Days who it is. Thinks he aint good enough for white church, but nigger church aint good enough for him.” “Dey talks, jes de same,” Frony says. “Den you send urn to me,” Dilsey demands. “Tell um de good Lawd dont keer whether he smart er not. Dent nobody but white trash keen dat.” Frony’s attitude shows that even into the life of the black people the germ of arrogance and false pride has entered. Frony is quite “white” in her attitude, although quite black in her skin colour. She has lost herself. The full emancipation of the negro will not come about, according to Faulkner, by the negro slowing and constantly moving in the direction of the white, but by the negro standing on his “own place freely and independently. Frony moves into a dead end. Dilsey, however, remains true to herself and thus is already – emancipated. Luster, too, remains true to himself though he, has his weaknesses.
The Element of Humour
Although The Sound and the Fury is, on the whole, a sombre and even depressing novel, it is not completely devoid of the element of humour. A vein of humour runs throughout the monologue spoken by Jason who has a marked talent for making sarcastic and satirical remarks. Even the tragic second section of the novel. containing Quentin’s monologue, has its comic moments provided by the jokes made by Shreve and Spoade, and by the episode of the Italian girl. Quentin’s own account of the behaviour of two shoe-blacks, the conversation of the three boys out to catch, fish, and his talk with Deacon are also comic. Luster, the negro-servant, provides a comic interest both in the opening and the, final sections by the way he sometimes teases and bullies Benjy. Luster’s begging a quarter from Jason and his being thwarted in his desire are also among the sources of laughter in the novel. Finally, the way the trickster Jason is himself tricked by his niece is very amusing, and we enjoy a good laugh at his discomfiture, especially when the Sheriff refuses to go with him in pursuit of the runaways. Mrs. Compson, too, is, to some extent, a comic character, while Uncle Maury is wholly so.
A Noteworthy Comment
The following comment by an eminent literary historian ably sums up the quality of this novel : “In the skilfully executed The Sound and the Fury the old, conventional subject of an aristocratic family in decline is lifted to the level of tragedy. In the first of the four divisions of the novel, the deterioration of the Compsons is made known to the reader through the stream-of-consciousness of the idiot son Benjy, whose long interior monologue suggests Faulkner’s Shakespearean title. As Benjy’s mind, moved by apparently random associations, flashes from present to past to remoter past, his memory-flickerings recreate, like the jumbled fragments of a picture-puzzle, the lives of the Compsons and their negro servants. In the second part, the story-medium is the consciousness of Benjy’s brother Quentin, now away at Harvard, but so harried by memories, especially of his sister Caddy’s immorality, that he goes insane. In the third, the story is continued in the first person by a third brother, Jason, who has surrendered honour and even personal decency in his assumption of the vulgarity and petty meanness of the poor whites. In the fourth, it is completed by Faulkner who, as omniscient author, disposes the story so as to contrast the disintegration of the Compsons with the endurance of their servants, especially Dilsey. It is not chronologically, therefore, but with the cumulative detail of a, cunningly presented legal case, that the four divisions build toward their total effect. That effect, while sufficiently powerful, is hardly that of traditional tragedy, for it savours so much of psychological escape. To the degree that the reader identifies himself with Benjy, or Quentin, or Jason, or perhaps even Dilsey, he Bees the real world and secludes himself within the refuges of idiocy, insanity, moral obliquity, or religious hope ; so that he arrives at last not at Shakespeare’s “glooming peace”, or Milton’s “calm of mind, ail passion spent”, but rather at a, passive submission to some opiate of subtle decadence.”