Three Subjective Views of Objective Reality
The Sound and the Fury consists of four sections. The first three sections contain monologues by three different characters, namely, Benjy, Quentin, and Jason ; while the fourth section represents the objective point of view of an all-knowing speaker. Our idea of the action in this book is formed by combining the subjective views of objective reality as seen by the three different speakers in the first three sections. These subjective views are : the continual sensual present of Benjy ; the persistent theoretical or conceptual past of Quentin ; and the improvised pragmatic future of Jason. But we do not emerge from the book with just a combinative effect or a triangulation of a central truth by point of view, but with these and the results of a powerful interaction : an interaction between characters ; between characters and narrator between characters,. narrator, and reader.
No Narrative Whole on the Basis of the Four Sections
The novel lies beyond what any of the individual sections can give us. If it is the story of Caddy, then Benjy’s section is a draft, Quentin’s a revision, Jason’s a sequel, section four an anticlimax, and the 1946 appendix an anti-anti-climax. If’ it is the story, as Faulkner said, of two lost women (Caddy and her daughter), then the protagonists are always more or less in the background : Caddy is seen only as what her brothers’ affections and hatreds make of her, while Caddy’s daughter is a shadow crawling through a window, hating one brother and being annoyed by another. The four sections do not add up to a narrative whole. The parts are not enough to make the whole.
The Obscurity of Benjy’s Section
Benjy’s narrative is absolutely obscure in the beginning, but it gets easier towards the end. The chronology is deliberately jumbled (although is contains a better coverage of the time-span of the book than any other section), and the leaps between the present and the past are too simple for us to understand at first because we are too complicated in our fictional expectations. There is a great distance of empathy : Benjy’s mind is not our mind, and we cannot shift quickly enough or simply enough from perception to memory to pain. Then there are added confusions of naming and names : Caddie-Caddy, Quentin-Quentin, Jason-Jason, Maury-Benjy. The point has something to do with the end of the Compson line-name-confusions similar to a Hapsburg genealogical chart signify the last gasp of an expiring aristocracy-but beyond that Faulkner wants to emphasize the distance between Benjy’s consciousness and ours, a distance never really bridged until section three with Jason, because Quentin confuses reality and illusion as surely as Benjy confuses immediate and distant, smell and love, then and now.
The Significance of Benjy’s Section
A convenience of Benjy’s perception is that it takes in all spoken words although it understands only some names. Within the segments of his narrative, Benjy is rigidly chronological and outlines everything so that, in segments, his narrative gives something like the result of a completely objective third-person. He records as a hidden camera would. His rudimentary thoughts interrupt recording only as a rather reluctant narrative presence would interrupt his story-in Benjy’s case, some perceptions interfere with what is being said. In other words, Benjy comes first not just because he casts the reader adrift but because he gives the reader a place to stand. His narrative is more significant as a means to clarification than as a cause of greater obscurity. This section contains many germs of all the sections that follow. Benjy’s narrative has, too, a tangible power : it calls up all of Benjy’s losses : Caddy, the fire, his castration, everything except the shapes of sleep. Even in action, as the girl Quentin (who is closely parallel to Caddy in Benjy’s view in spite of her lack of affection for him) makes good her escape, the day of the present level turns out to be uncommon for the movement of the book.
The Characteristics of Quentin’s Narrative
Quentin’s way of seeing things is as difficult as Benjy’s in its own way, but where there has been a simple explanation for some of Benjy’s confusions (his automatic associational triggers for the past, the handle of the stove which burns him when he watches the Ore there), there is not always for Quentin’s. The effect of Quentin’s narrative is more an effect of the past than Benjy’s. Benjy’s structure makes the past present, while Quentin’s seems to make the present past. There is less dialogue, more internal construction, as Quentin is eager to put even the most immediate moment behind him–the blood oozing from his finger, the smell of gasoline. We find some help in the connections to Beny’s events–Caddy’s perfume, their mother’s camphor handkerchief, the night of the sassprilluh, going back on the train for Christmas–but perhaps more important than the factual connections is one similarity of mind : when Quentin moves into the past, he seems almost to take on Benjy’s way of perception. Travel into memory is not automatically triggered, but it intrudes obsessively. The past keeps interrupting Quentin in units of perfect–chronological order, units which he can suspend when the present is pressing, but which return in sequence as soon as he gets distracted. To his journey to the bridge is added the memory of Harvard and the memory of home ; upon the memory of home hangs his reconstruction of the past when, even as in “that evening sun” he is partly compelled and partly anxious (for the sake of understanding) to construct a whole out of the fragments which continually impinge themselves upon the present. Beyond this reconstruction is another level of memory, remembered within the past (the muddy drawers are here) and even beyond that an imagination formed of that memory which takes his real conversations with his father and remakes them into imaginary conversations, working on real events which he improves with invention : real love which he wants to have been incest, failure which he wants to become unforgivable sin, disappointment which he hopes to make into despair.
Quentin’s Whole Past
Quentin does not wander from one level to the next just because this is the way his mind works : he is driven from level to, level. Confusions about the Italian girl and Caddy illustrate the. distance between Benjy’s and Quentin’s dislocation., Caddy’s wedding, the perfume which so offended Benjy, kissing Natalie, Dalton Ames–all of these keep interrupting his self-obliterating day. As Dalton Ames intrudes more and more, Quentin is driven into unpunctuated prose. The memories, and memories of memories, mount up until he finally decides to have it whole, and we move into the central reconstruction of his conversation with Dalton Ames and Caddy, fully realized down to the minute, so fully realized that it makes irrelevant his life on the present level, and he moves out of his dreams into reality by striking Gerald. This is not a case of his dramatic awakening to what a fool he has been, not an awakening of embarrassment, but a clear transition out, of the pant because he has come to the climax and can now let it alone. He has made a whole past by turning upon fragments which pursue him like furies and making them into a whole. It has given him assurance over his doubts, despair out of his fragmentary regrets. He can now become a true “temporary”, go back to the room, clean up, and arrive at three quarters past the hour with the absolute purity of the absolutely arbitrary.
The Reason For Our Treating Quentin as the Centre of the Book
It is perhaps not Faulkner’s failure at each of these sections in turn, one after another, nor his failure at integrating the whole, but his inability to make Quentin’s narrative work in cooperation with the other three sections. It is a failure to prevent Quentin from dominating the whole. We tend to concentrate more upon Quentin because he offers us the most of hard-core “meaning”. We are unable to identify our thoughts with Benjy’s ; and the two later sections seem to dwindle off into the everyday : the comic, the gothic, the religious. Quentin speaks too much in the fashion, with all the commonplaces of twentieth-century anxiety, so that we are tempted to make him the centre of the, book and then we feel disappointed with the rest of the hook. With this emphasis, it becomes a conventional book that fails. But it would be more appropriate to treat it as a flawed unconventional book.
No Identification With Benjy
Benjy’s first-person narrative takes us out of our normal sympathies and fictional empathies, preoccupations upon which the effect of a first-person narrative normally depends, which it cultivates and by which it persuades. It subjects us to an entirely new mode of perception. It is not because it is a tale told by an idiot that we are jolted ; it is that the idiot’s tale so perfectly orders the perceptions, associations, and thematic relationships, makes them so inescapable, that we forget our normal stock-sympathies and participations in the fictional world and move in a different step. We do not “become” Benjy because that would betray the peculiarity of his pattern, the subtlety of the free associations which connect sections, so clearly his and his alone. We do not identify closely enough with him and his patterns to become anything like him. His section is less a realistic rendering of the author’s adoption of Benjy’s consciousness than it is an exercise in the control of limited language to a poetic end.
A Familiar Narrow World
Then comes Quentin : a theme-dominated, conventionally self-indulgent first-person narrative which calls up all of our conventional responses to the confession. Moving from Benjy to Quentin is not the same as shifting from one narrator to the next in the Japanese film Rashomon, that is, from one sensibility met in us by one kind of empathy, to another consciousness met by the same kind of empathy. Rashomon moves from one Quentin-appeal to the next Quentin-appeal, from one conventionally shared set of experiences to the next similarly shared. To come to Quentin from Benjy is to return to the narrow world familiar to us from most other first-person fiction : the intimacy and participation of a shared confessional. The world “narrow” has to be emphasized. This does not mean that Faulkner wants us to have no sympathy with Benjy or that he wants us to adopt Quentin’s assessment of reality or events as his own or our own, but it is only a comment on the kind of variety involved in the use here for several first persons.
Past and Present Not Confused in Jason’s Narrative
Jason is more complex. His narrative seems to appeal to the same sort of stock response dominated by Quentin and granted to him by us. But the subtle differences turn out to be significant. Jason’s observations come down squarely in the present, and he is never confused about what is the past and what is the present. He is telling us-and his observations have less of the power of confidential confessional ; we seem to be listening to a side of the story rather than participating in the consciousness. That his narrative is heard is emphasized by the way we hear “Once a bitch always a bitch”, by his ritual story-teller’s repetitive of “I says”. Benjy was a transparent narrator-dialogue came directly from the speaker to us without the intervention of a teller because Benjy could not understand what was said. For Quentin, dialogue was a kind of intrusion-something essential to a reconstruction of the past but not necessarily essential to his narrative-he brought it up for his own purposes, signified by the frequent omission of the notation of speakers. Jason is dependent upon public acknowledgements of his cleverness. Perhaps he is not really speaking out loud. But after Benjy’s narrative is reviewed by him and directly perceived by us, Quentin’s thought by him and felt by us. Faulkner builds upon the heard-spoken qualities of Jason’s and adds humour.
The Appeal of Jason’s Narrative
We want to see things Jason’s way because he tells it the way it is. He is amusing, tough-minded, funny, ironic. There is a part of us which likes his cynicism and is relieved by his pragmatism. The strongest shift between Quentin and Jason is between conceptual and pragmatic, as the strongest between Benjy and Quentin is between seen and felt. Pragmatism and flexibility have undeniable appeal. One of the early effects of Jason’s narrative is to attempt to dissociate himself from the isolated and join the crowd, to disown them and become us. In other words, Faulkner counts on Benjy to dislodge us from our stock fictional foundations, counts upon Quentin to make us comfortable again in a customary fictional response, then uses this established response to offer us a realistic view and a practical attitude through Jason’s narrative. It does not matter at first whether Jason is right. Jason has his eyes open ; and he is a realist. Dilsey could get on our nerves, and Benjy is an idiot who drools and who seems to have come out of a menagerie. We have come this far in the book without taking much stock of things as they are, what this family is really like ; and then Jason comes along and conducts a guided tour of the madhouse.
Our Reactions to Jason
But, in order to see things Jason’s way, we have to pay a price. Jason is a monster, and by subjecting overselves to his story, and by seeing things his way, we must become monstrous too. Jason not only gives us his version of what his family is like, but within that version also reveals himself (like Chaucer the pilgrim, and like Gulliver). Jason’s objective assumptions are not only objective but distinctively his. What we think to be true in his narrative corresponds to other evidence : it fits with what we have found out from Benjy or Quentin. What we think might be true in that narrative is news to us : we want to believe it because it is practical, sensible, and realistic. What we reject in that narrative shows just the way Jason sees it, and points to his being a paranoiac and a monster. This last impression becomes much stronger near the end of Jason’s narrative. Detailed evidence of Jason’s cruelty comes late, although evidence of his petty crookedness is spread throughout. His cruelty to Luster with the tickets and to Quentin with the threats is much worse than any of the lying, cheating, or physical violence earlier. He reveals himself in stages : first he simply conveys the other side of the story and adds humour ; then he becomes Jason the sadist, the pathetic investor, the hopeless employee, and wanders into his brief flirtation with the past somewhat in Quentin’s manner ; then we see Jason connubial, Jason the victim, Jason the cruel, downt o the final scene with his mother, and we leave him alone in his room with his illgotten gold.
The Question of Identification With the Various Speakers
Our response to Jason is the most complex of all our responses in this book. Our response to Benjy must be new with this novel-we have seen something like it, though not exactly like it, in any attempt at stream-of-consciousness. We are familiar in poetry with the dream-like qualities of pure perception divorced from cognition and intellection, but the response, called up by Benjy is not similar to any conventional fictional response. Quentin calls forth the opposite response. We know about this kind of thing, and we recognize it. Jason’s narrative seems to continue in this channel of the familiar, and we do not know that we are involved in something different until it is too late and we have become Jason or like Jason. We observe Benjy in safe abstraction. We follow Quentin all the way, and it does not really hurt us. But the final failure of identification with Jason is more significant than our stock identification and self-destruction with Quentin. In the case of Jason, we stop short after a bit because his function in the novel has been achieved only when we make the decision to quit following him in the same sense, and by then it is too late. We have become Jason in a way different from the way in which we became Benjy or Quentin. Our identification with Benjy was difficult or impossible ; our identification with Quentin was easy, and had been managed by conventional, theme-dominated means ; our identification with Jason is damning, and it achieves its purpose in the middle of things when we call a halt to the proceedings, and observe what kind of a man Jason really is.
Straightforward Narration in the Final Section
In the last section of the novel, Faulkner gives up subjective narrowness and adopts the third-person mode of narration. This third-person mode is necessary. We as readers now need absolute objectivity. We now need chronology. We need the pace of a story told in a straightforward manner. We need the kind of whole world which we had previously been denied. We came for a story and had to put up with bits, glimpses, flashes, and parts, and now we need something easily comprehensible. So we get an account of a breakfast at the Compson table ; we get the everyday, fully rendered, minute-by-minute, word-by-word narrative.
Our Response to the Narrative in the Last Section
In the last section, it would seem that Faulkner wants to deal. with Dilsey, to give us some more facts about Mrs. Compson, and in this way to round off the story. Quentin is gone. Jason’s future has. been forestalled. But the daily routine goes on. Dilsey sees the last, but it is not over yet, and will not be over for a long, sad time. The dramatic and melodramatic action is here immersed in the expected, habitual everyday happenings. The poetry of Benjy’s, perception the tragedy of Quentin’s obsession with theory, the comedy of Jason’s business-as-usual-all derived from a basis in the earthly reality, but all rise through the several consciousnesses to a realization which is the stuff of high art. Once we have been through those consciousnesses and participated in those imprisoned realizations, we have ourselves been multiplied not by identifying with any of them necessarily, but by trying and failing to identify, by identifying too easily, by identifying and discovering that we cannot go on. A new response is demanded from us in the final section. We are now given an account of the everyday reality rendered without any transcendental insights. The Compsons are tragic not because of what they are or what they have been, or even because we have been each of them and are now none of them, but because our objectivity has been made subject to each of their consciousnesses in turn, and now we are deprived of any but have possession of all.