Interior Monologues and Stream of Consciousness in the novel "Sound and Fury"

Dramatic Action as Well as Subjective Experience
In The Sound and the Fury (and in As I Lay Dying) Faulkner employs the stream-of-consciousness technique of writing, but it is doubtful whether these books can be put in the category of works produced by James Joyce and Dorothy Richardson. For one thing, Faulkner’s use of first-person narration automatically rules out methods involving indirect discourse. The result is a lack of the flexibility required for a full-scale exploration of mental reality. Faulkner makes up for this limitation by emphasizing dramatic action where Joyce or Virginia Woolf would stress subjective experience.

Faulkner’s monologuists are also narrators of the physical events taking place around them. In many cases Faulkner creates characters who are themselves detached witnesses of the main action and whose monologues are interior in form only. Even in genuine stream-of-consciousness passages there are many shifts to ordinary discourse and conventional flash-back description.

Faulkner’s Method Different From Joyce’s
There is nothing in Faulkner’s work suggesting even remotely the uncontrolled thought-processes of the Molly Bloom episode of Ulysses. Nor does Faulkner often try to indicate indirectly the nature of a character’s unconscious mind. In The Sound and the Fury (and in As I Lay Dying), Faulkner follows closely the experiences and points of view of his narrating characters. The distinctions in technique are not between the near and far reaches of the mind, as in Ulysses, but between degrees or intensities of coot, oiled rational thought. Consequently the stream-of-consciousness passages are usually associated with the more self-conscious and intellectual members of a family. Faulkner often crosses the barriers of time and space, but he seldom tries to eliminate them. The confusions of time and space in his work are deliberately unrealistic and are usually associated in some way with the personalities of the narrating characters, as in the Benjy section of The Sound and the Fury. Although his work is deeply influenced by Freudian ideas, Faulkner is mainly concerned with the dramatic realities, and he does not need the hypothesis of the unconscious mind. The past comes fully alive to Faulkner’s rational characters ; it almost never works in secret. We might call Faulkner’s use of monologue technique a deliberate misunderstanding of Freudian theory and Joycean practice.
Dramatic Exposition in the Opening Monologue
In the opening monologue of The Sound and the Fury Faulkner gives the impression that an idiot’s unconscious mind is somehow responsible for the narration. But the function of the monologue is to provide dramatic exposition while creating the misleading atmosphere of psychological chaos. A major portion of the monologue is devoted to actions which the idiot cannot understand and to conversations which do not involve him. Instead of trying to explore an idiot’s mind, which would be an absurd task, Faulkner adopts a narrative point of view which follows Benjy’s actions but reports in a detached and impersonal manner what the idiot sees and experiences. The events which are narrated occur in several contrasted layers of time. Each layer or chronological grouping is divided into fragments, which are re-arranged to give the impression of a primitive chain of associations. These disorganized episodes are later recognized by the reader as introducing key-scenes or symbol-patterns which recur in more intelligible contexts.
Two Sets of Episodes Dominating Benjy’s Monologue
Two sets of related episodes dominate Benjy’s monologue. In the present world of “April seventh, 1928”, a man-sized idiot celebrates his birthday by following Luster, the negro boy-servant, searching for a missing coin (a quarter). The corresponding day in the past is that of the grandmother’s death and funeral, when the Compson children spent the afternoon playing by a small stream in the pasture and were later sent to the servant-cabins in the back. Both actions provide points of transition in which Benjy switches from one scene to the other, or to other scenes, such as Caddy’s wedding or to the rainy day in which Benjy is given a new name. These transitions are made possible by similar locations, similar actions, or phrases common to more than one level of time. Faulkner is often able to define the idiot’s thoughts by the nature of these shifts. When Benjy hears a golfer shout “caddie”, the narration immediately changes to a time when his sister Caddy and not a negro boy is holding him by the hand. Benjy’s ability to “smell” death in the family is also indicated by his time-shifts from one scene of death to another. Through this obsession with death, Faulkner is able to load Benjy’s narration with references to important scenes which are described in greater detail in other sections of the novel.
Benjy’s Love For Caddy, Not Directly Described
By these devices, Faulkner avoids any direct statement by Benjy of his one clearly defined emotion which is his love for Caddy. The idiot never describes this emotion except through, ambiguous and impersonal phrases such as “she smelled like trees”. His attitude is revealed almost solely by the focus of the narration upon her behaviour, as viewed by the idiot, or upon scenes in which she comforts him.
The Bewildering Time-Shifts in Benjy’s Monologue
Occasionally Benjy makes a gesture or begins to cry, but these actions are usually described as if they were an impersonal feature of the physical scene. The narration stops just short of his consciousness and indicates unknown thought-processes by a restrained factual narration. There is no interior world at all in, Benjy’s monologue ; everything is externalized. This explains the bewildering time-shifts : it cannot reasonably be argued that an idiot is capable of re-living the past, but neither can it be said that he “lives” the present as ordinary individuals do. Faulkner assumes that, if an idiot could remember the past at all, he could not: distinguish it from the present. The confusions of past and present are in their way realistic, as long as the reader accepts an idiot as the narrator.
The Difference Between the Techniques of the First Two Monologues
Quentin’s monologue, which follows Benjy’s is much closer to the Ulysses model. Faulkner continues his use of a detached voice which reports everything it sees or hears, including Quentin’s thoughts, in the first person. This voice is also capable of crossing, the barriers of time and describing events in the past as if they were taking place in the present. The principal difference between the two flashback-techniques is that Quentin appears to remember events in their entirety and only occasionally does he seem to re-live them as Benjy does. The past underlies Quentin’s Harvard world and seems to intrude upon his consciousness at every possible opportunity. These intrusions are facilitated by a series of parallels between Harvard acquaintances and members of Quentin’s family. The presence of Gerald Bland causes the boy to remember scenes involving both Dalton Ames who first seduced Caddy, and Herbert Head who married her. Quentin’s lengthy speculations concerning Gerald’s moral character clearly reflect his obsessed interest in the two background figures. In a similar way his analysis of Mrs. Bland reveals indirectly his feelings toward his own mother. Through a strange flirtation with a small Italian girl, whom he calls “sister”, Quentin both expresses and recalls his past life with Caddy.
The Stream-of-Consciousness Effect
Toward the end of his monologue, Quentin is listening to Gerald Bland’s boasting. Without warning, the narration shifts from the Harvard picnic scene to past events which involve Quentin, (the Caddy, and Dalton Ames. Only typographical punctuation marks are removed) indicate that the traumatic events are remembered and not actually taking place. Faulkner achieves a stream-of-consciousness effect simply by shifting from present to past reality and making it seem that the earlier scene is passing through Quentin’s memory. When Quentin is knocked out by Dalton Ames, the narration shifts back to the picnic scene. It is then revealed indirectly that, while remembering the past and perhaps confusing it with the present, Quentin tried to hit Gerald Bland and was knocked out by him.
Different Modes of Narration in Quentin’s Monologue
In telling Quentin’s story, Faulkner uses essentially three points of views or modes of narration. The first and most common mode is Quentin’s description in the past tense of his actions upon the day of his suicide. The second mode is a direct recording of Quentin’s thought-processes during this final day. The narration often shifts back and forth from one point of view to the other, from Quentin describing a past action to Quentin’s thought describing a present action as he experiences the action. This shifting back and forth does not disturb the reader because of the constant focus of Quentin’s Harvard thoughts upon events occurring in his Mississippi past. Very cleverly, Faulkner makes the past-tense narration deal with the narrative present and the present-tense recording of the narrative present concentrate upon Quentin’s recollection of events prior to his life at Harvard. This makes an easy transition possible because both modes of narration make use of past tense verbs. For example, Quentin describes in the past tense his act of boarding a Harvard streetcar then he begins to quote or paraphrase his own recollections which are also expressed in the past tense. “The only vacant seat was beside a nigger. He wore a derby and shined shoes and he was holding a dead cigar stub. I used to think that a Southerner had to be always conscious of niggers. I thought that Northerners would expect him to. When I first came East I kept thinking……”; and so on for about three pages of summarized thoughts and recollections concerning Quentin’s experiences with negroes, told with the immediacy of Quentin’s presence on the streetcar. These recollections end only when his seat-mate leaves the car. The past-tense voice of the narrator Quentin is blended with a paraphrase of the thoughts of the streetcar Quentin who, speculating in the present about the past, also uses the past tense. The distinction is dissolved between a narrative of Quentin’s actions as he thinks and a summary of the thoughts themselves. Quentin moves from one exterior point into his own mind ; he becomes simultaneously himself and his own detached historian.
Impersonal Reporting in the Past Tense
A third mode of narration occurs when the reader is projected directly into Quentin’s Mississippi past. The narrator is now a Quentin who experiences the past events directly but does little more than report impersonally what he sees or hears, again in the past tense. The result, as in Beny’s monologue, is basically a conventional third-person account which generates an atmosphere of intense stream of consciousness. Since the reported events consist almost entirely of dialogue, there are few past-tense verbs, and the narration has the effect of remembered words passing through the character’s mind. The impersonality of the narration and the emphasis upon dialogue suggest that Quentin, in his agitated condition, is temporarily reliving past events or at least hearing past words.
Difficulty in Establishing Smooth Transitions
Occasionally Faulkner has great difficulty in controlling these various types of discourse and in establishing smooth transitions from one to another. He begins Quentin’s monologue as if the point of view would remain in the past tense. “When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight o’clock and then I was in tine again, hearing the watch.” A discussion of the history and meaning of Quentin’s watch is then given from what appears to be the same point of view (“when Father gave it to me, he said……”). This is followed by more action and by Quentin’s thoughts upon awakening-thoughts framed in indirect discourse from a later point in time : “As soon as I knew I couldn’t see it, I began to wonder what time it was.” And : “If it had been cloudy I could have looked at the window, thinking what he said about idle habits.” At this point the first major shift occurs. The narrator ceases to be a Quentin looking back upon his last day of life and becomes the Quentin actually lying in bed and thinking about his sister’s marriage:
Thinking it would be nice for them down at New London if the weather held up like this. Why shouldn’t it ? The month of brides, the voice that breathed She ran right out of the mirror, out of the banked scent. Roses. Roses. Mr. and Mrs. Jason Richmond Compson announce the marriage of. Roses. Not virgins like dogwood, milkweed. I said I have committed incest, Father, I said. Roses. Cunning and serene. If you attend Harvard one year, but don’t see the boat-race, there should be are fund. Let Jason have it. Give Jason a year at Harvard.
The progression is by a natural chain of association, but the past-tense point of view indicated by the word “thinking” is quickly given up, and the reader is confronted with the words actually passing through Quentin’s mind. In later passages Faulkner makes no effort to establish a grammatical transition, as he does here, but moves easily from the narrator speaking in the past tense to the present-tense “thinking” Quentin. Another feature of this passage is the transition from the youth’s active speculation to remembered words that flow through his consciousness. “The month of brides” is Quentin’s bitter comment on the present June morning, but “the voice that breathed” is from the title of a song associated with Caddy’s wedding. “Not virgins like dogwood, milkweed” (a comment on roses) is again a fresh thought ; whereas “I have committed incest, Father” is remembered dialogue. Other fragments of past conversations complete the passage.
Quentin’s Active Thinking and His Passive Memory
This distinction between Quentin’s active thinking and his passive memory anticipates the later and much sharper distinctions between the narration of past and of present action. In the early part of the monologue, the inserted dialogue is carefully integrated with Quentin’s conscious speculations. But, as the monologue continues, such remembered fragments become longer and more unified until they go beyond the framework of the monologue form, as in the, passage leading up to Quentin’s fight with Dalton Ames. The long flash-back accounts accumulate toward the end of the monologue, when the reader has recognized the force of Quentin’s fascination with past events. Many but not all of the extreme shifts from present to remembered reality are indicated by italics, elimination of punctuation, or some other typographical aid. Faulkner is deliberately inconsistent in the use of such devices. If he were consistent, the effect of psychological realism might not be very strong.
The Advantage of the First-Person Narration
Faulkner is almost unique in his use of first-person interior monologues. In creating stream-of-consciousness narration most novelists employ a third-person observer whose point of view is almost identical with that of the character in question. But by using the first-person narration Faulkner gains an advantage which lies in the opportunity to show the contrast between a strong dramatic action and the mental reactions through which the action is filtered, without a corresponding difference of tone.
The Revelation of Character
In this novel (as also in Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying), the thoughts of the characters, though often abstract, are focused upon clearly defined physical situations. Both these novels are crowded with scenes in which character is revealed solely through dramatic action objectively narrated. If Faulkner had employed a third-person narrator only, the amount of genuine interior-monologue narration would necessarily have been very small. Faulkner maintains an emphasis upon psychological reactions by the simple device of having character-narrators report action and their own thoughts interchangeably. But this creates a problem. A third-person narrator who mirrors the point of view of a single character can still move freely from objective to subjective narration, as the Joycean narrator does. But if such a narrator is given a personality, he must always be inside his own mind looking out and thus unable to report his thoughts except by quoting them. Like any other narrator, he can be expected to have a realistic position in space and time. This realistic point of view is precisely what Faulkner’s narrators are not given.
Faulkner’s Typical Procedure
Faulkner’s typical procedure is to write a semi-omniscient account in which the first-person detached voice is arbitrarily replaced by the first person “I”. The narrator retains his freedom, but the pretence is still established that the character is telling his own story. This device works splendidly in Benjy’s section where the idiot-narrator is given no interior consciousness. The first-person point of view remains consistently detached and is thus almost the equivalent of a third-person point of view, in spite of the devices by which Benjy’s love for Caddy and his lack of rational sophistication are revealed. The very absurdity of an idiot-narrator distracts the reader from the problem of an impersonal narrator posing as an “I” voice.
Difficulties in This Procedure
Difficulties occur when the first-person narrator is an important actor in the scene being described. Although Quentin’s monologue is more realistic than Benjy’s in other respects, there are more potentially disturbing transitions from detached narration to psychological revelation. Similar transitions are found throughout Jason’s monologue. For example, a paragraph begins thus : “I opened her letter first and took the cheque out. Just like a woman. Six days late. Yet they try to make men believe that they’re capable of conducting a business.” If the first sentence is modified to read “He opened her letter……”, the unrealistic shift from description to immediate statement by the same voice is eliminated.
The Vital Role of the Human Consciousness
In The Sound and the Fury, as also in As I Lay Dying, the reader sees the dramatic situation only through the minds of several narrating characters. Even though physical events are reported with apparent objectivity, as in the various flash-back scenes they are still made to seem mental creations. Faulkner’s use of the interior-monologue form emphasizes the vital role which human consciousness plays in the stabilization of everyday experience. In addition, Faulkner creates characters whose obsessions or mental limitations determine the very nature of the world in which they live. The reader is able to compare these private’ worlds and evaluate each character accordingly ; but unless the reader creates it, there is never, an objective reality standing apart from the various private visions.
Physical Details as Psychological Revelation
The obsessions of Quentin and Jason are integral parts of the experiences which they nitrate. Both live in worlds which simultaneously reflect and aggravate their inward rage. Their brother Benjy is a primitive character without rational awareness, but Benjy’s unsophisticated love for Caddy is revealed by means of the narrative details that his impersonal monologue contains. Faulkner generally pays less narrative attention to what characters think than to the actions and situations they think about. Yet the sympathetic reader is encouraged to interpret the physical details as tantamount to psychological revelation. In many cases the impression of stream of consciousness is supported by the reader’s willingness to attach psychological importance to whatever seems deliberately obscure as in the case of Benjy’s monologue.
The Surface Complexities
Most of the vagaries and complexities of Faulkner’s style result from this basic strategy of forcing the reader to supply much of the psychological revelation. The surface complexities which make any first reading of this novel very slow, and perhaps laborious, are not efforts on Faulkner’s part to capture the surge of intuitive consciousness. They represent technical devices which slow the reader down and control his awareness of what is going on. The reader must grope to a simultaneous understanding of the action and its moral and psychological meaning.
An Example of Obscuration
An extreme example of unnecessary distortion is the passage toward the end of Quentin’s monologue in which the boy explains to his father his intention to commit suicide. In this passage, the speeches run together, all punctuation being eliminated ; and there is no typographical indication of a change of speaker. This obscuration may seem perverse, but the result is a successful shift of emphasis from the details of Quentin’s argument to the general significance of its presence. By giving the dialogue as an implied rush of memory, Faulkner minimizes its effect as logical argument and yet conveys the boy’s tendency to reduce everything to logical terms. The apparent obscurity of this passage contributes to an atmosphere of stream-of-consciousness narration, and yet the details of Quentin’s argument are available to the reader who wishes to analyze the boy’s self-defeating sophistry.
A Double Vision Forced Upon the Reader
The success of such passages depends upon a kind of double vision forced upon the reader. On one hand, Benjy’s and Quentin’s monologues should be read as if they were genuine streams of consciousness. On the other hand, the reader must envision the dramatic scenes which are carefully, invoked and objectively described. Neither The Sound and the Fury nor As I Lay Dying can be effectively understood until the reader has explored deeper than the stream-of-consciousness surface.
Pragmatic Use of Stream of Consciousness
Faulkner’s pragmatic use of stream-of-consciousness narration indicates his knowledge that the interior-monologue form is a literary device no closer to “reality” than any other mode of prose narrative. The use of witness narrators in Faulkner’s later novels performs much the same function as that performed by the experimental techniques of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. Both methods have the effect of uniting dramatic action to psychological awareness and endowing even brute violence with the sharp but unreal quality of a mental projection.

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