The Accounts of the Compson Family, Not Sequential
The Sound and the Fury presents various parts of the history .of the Compson family in four discontinuous sections, each of which is written from a different point of view and a different point in time. These accounts are not sequential ; they run April seventh, 1928 ; June second, 1910 ; April sixth, 1928 ; and April eighth, 1928. In addition, within each of the first three sections there is a continual shuttling back and forth in time, ordered largely by the mental associations of the narrators, who are the idiot Benjy, the sensitive and romantic but neurotically obsessed Quentin, and the practical, materialistic, and self-pitying Jason. The first section is especially fragmented and difficult to understand, since its narrator cannot distinguish time and has not developed with time, and shows his inability to understand any abstract relationships by omitting all connective tissue between his sentences.
The Feeling of Tension and Disequilibrium
As suggested above, this mode of presentation prevents us from organizing our impressions about any single centre and induces a general feeling of tension and disequilibrium. Apart from this, however, we reach the end of the first three sections with certain more specific uncertainties and tensions of thought and feeling. Far one thing, we are not sure what attitude to take toward the disintegration of the family. In the first two sections, Benjy and Quentin, report events in such a way that we see and feel their pathetic rather than ludicrous or ironic side. Their “sassprilluh” drinking scene, for example, could easily have been presented with considerable comic gusto. Instead, the emphasis is upon Benjy’s discomfort and upon the unhappy effect of T.P.’s laughter on Quentin. We are somewhat aware throughout the first two sections that Benjy is sub-human and that his suffering is not of the kind that evokes the highest kind of sympathy, and Quentin’s posturing and extreme romanticism at times seem comic, but essentially we are made to see them both as suffering individuals, to feel ,considerable compassion for them, and to take their predicaments very seriously. In the third section, however, narrated by Jason, the tone is essentially comic and satiric. Not only does Jason come through as a largely comic character but his narration tends to bathe the whole Compson history in a somewhat comic light, which at least temporarily blinds us to the poignancy and pathos of it. We are much more detached than in the earlier sections, and less serious. We want to see Jason made a fool of, and we are not especially moved by the plight of his niece Quentin. Had the novel ended with this section, we would view the Compson history largely with a feeling of grim amusement, as a tale of sound and fury signifying that the human condition is essentially hopeless and not worth much thought or compassion.
Our Conflicting Feelings About Benjy
Our response is further complicated by our conflicting feelings about most of the characters. We have sympathy for Benjy but can never forget that he is an idiot who is oblivious of everyone’s needs but his own, and that efforts to please or comfort him are in a sense futile. We can recognize that he is to some extent a measure or “moral mirror” for the other characters in that we can judge them in relation to their treatment of him and his response to them, but he is hardly an adequate measure since he is apparently as comforted by fire light or golfers as he is by Dilsey or Caddy. And if we admire Benjy’s direct and uncomplicated responses to experience, his ability to perceive evil, and his loyalty, and see these as a celebration of primitivism on Faulkner’s part, we must at the same time remember that Benjy is as much incapacitated as his mother or Quentin by his utter inability to forget the past.
Our Conflicting Feelings About Caddy
We admire Caddy for her devotion to Benjy but recognize that she is at the same time wilful and domineering and does abandon Benjy. We are puzzled somewhat by her utter sense of defeat after her affair with Dalton and by her willingness to marry Herbert. This seems another example of a Faulkner character acting in precisely the way which will lead to the maximum self-torture. Nor are we ever really enlightened about her character. We learn that she is concerned about her daughter Quentin’s welfare, but not concerned enough to do anything serious about it. In the section narrated by Jason we watch her suffer, but we gain little insight into why she behaves as she does or how she feels beyond the moment.
Our Conflicting Feelings About Quentin
We are likewise puzzled and confused by Quentin. We sympathize with him but at the same time feel that he suffers as much from a pathological condition which calls for psychiatric care as from a tragic human dilemma which can claim our entire compassion. We recognize the decency and even the nobility of many of his feelings but also a certain amount of posturing, and we recognize that in his own way he is as self-centred as Benjy. Finally, we are mystified by him. It is difficult for us to understand why he commits suicide. We know a great deal about his state of mind after he has decided to die, and we know many of his feelings about Caddy and her wedding, but we never really see him moving toward or reaching the decision to take his life. In the appendix Faulkner tells us that Quentin loved death, and Mr. Compson offers various explanations of Quentin’s motivation, but these do not satisfactorily explain why two months after his sister’s wedding, without any hesitation or even strong feelings of depression, he takes his life. He has written letters to his room-mate and his father, but Faulkner does not let us see these. Our last glimpse of him brushing his teeth and then his hat leaves our questions unanswered.
Our Conflicting Feelings About Jason
Even toward Jason we have mixed feelings. In some ways he is a monster, and in many ways he is a fool ; and yet, as Faulkner says in the appendix, he is in some ways “the first sane Compson since before Culloden”. He is full of an extravagant self-pity, but it is not entirely unjustified, for even a better man than he would consider himself cursed if he had to deal with Mrs. Compson, with the girl Quentin, and with Benjy. Although he fails completely to recognize Dilsey’s worth, his estimate of the other negroes is not entirely wrong. Luster, for example, takes care of Benjy after a fashion but spends as much of his time tormenting him as comforting him. And if Jason is unjustly cynical about all human actions, this permits him to see through his mother in ways that we approve. Still further complicating our response is the fact that he does in a sense support the Compson family, that he does seem to make a more satisfactory sexual adjustment than any of the other Compson children, and that he has a sense of humour, even though it is a distorted and morbid sense of humour. Working most against any resolution of feeling toward him are his violent headaches, which compel us to feel somewhat sympathetic toward him and which suggest that he, too, is a suffering neurotic.
Our Responses to Dilsey and Mrs. Compson
We do not feel any uncertainty about our reaction to Dilsey and to Mrs. Compson. We consistently admire Dilsey’s decency, loyalty, and stoicism, and we scorn with equal consistency Mrs. Compson for her foolishness and self-pity. Yet even these responses are somewhat diluted, because Mrs. Compson is too silly to be seriously scorned, and Dilsey spends much of her time nagging, scolding, and threatening the Compson children and her own children ; and she is, furthermore, quite ineffectual.
Our Uncertainty About the Over-All Meaning of the Novel
Thus we feel troubled by these various and often conflicting feelings. Besides, we find ourselves groping at the end of the third section for some larger perspective, context, or pattern under which to view and interpret the unhappy events we have been reading about. Faulkner has suggested a number of these. The title of the novel suggests that there is no pattern and that the events have no significance ; and Mr. Compson’s nihilistic philosophy supports this view, which is supported also by the apparently chaotic order of events. At the same time, we feel a natural disinclination to accept such a view, and we are aware, too, of Faulkner’s at least partial approval of Benjy, Quentin, Caddy, Mr. Compson, and Dilsey, and his disapproval of Mrs. Compson, Jason, and Herbert. Then we also recognize several recurrent motifs which encourage us to search for a pattern and a significance within and beneath the sound and the fury. But the search sends us in different directions, none of which is clearly or conclusively marked.
The Theme of the Contrast Between an Old and a New Culture
Some of the events and emphases seem chiefly to be in accord with a socio-economic antithesis between an old and a new culture. Up to a point we can see in Mrs. Compson, Quentin, and the Blands the remnants and corruptions of a traditional society which is in contrast with a rootless, money-centred culture more or less typified by Jason, Luster, Herbert, and the carnival,’ with its performer on the musical saw and its dehumanized man with the red tie, who runs away with the girl Quentin. To some extent we cannot help making some such classification. On the other hand, we cannot feel content with such a classification. We cannot avoid the feeling that most of the problems and difficulties of Benjy, Caddy, and Quentin are clinical rather than sociological ; they seem driven more by peculiar personal needs than by larger forces. Quentin’s hatred of Herbert seems closely related to our classification, and the episode involving Dalton Ames seems partially so, but the strongly emphasized incest motif does not, nor does Caddy’s seemingly compulsive promiscuity. Jason’s materialism, financial crookedness, and generally pragmatic attitude fit in, but his persecution complex and his concern for stability and decorum do not. We can look at the girl Quentin as a deteriorated version of Caddy and thus as a measure of the two cultures but she, too, seems driven by an inner compulsion rather than by a cultural situation. Even if we do accept some such opposition between an older and a newer cultural order, we are disturbed by the impossibility of making a choice between them. Our sympathies, like Faulkner’s, are with the old order, but the best representatives of that order in this novel are a drunkard, a suicide, and a lost and lonely woman. Between what they are and what Jason is, there seems to be no middle ground offered by the author. Dilsey’s decency suggests that there can be something better, but the kind of answer her presence implies is rather special and ambiguous, and finally seems independent of a sociological classification.
Other Possible Interpretations of the Novel
We feel encouraged, also, to seek patterns in several other directions. Some of the events and emphases suggest an interpretation in terms of clinical and even specifically Freudian psychology. We are strongly encouraged, further, to interpret events in relation to Christian myth and ideology, in relation to concepts of time, and in relation to Shakespearean tragedy. As with the old-versus-new-order motif, Faulkner has emphasized each of these aspects enough to induce us to consider it as a possible frame-work of ordering the fragmented story, but he has not emphasized any one consistently or clearly enough for us to expect it as a centre. We remain undecided not only because of this shifting quality of the individual motifs but because of the number and variety of the possible interpretations.
The Validity of the Christian Motif
The final section of the novel, narrated from an omniscient and objective point of view, begins with a focus and an emphasis which seem to offer a kind of implicit interpretation and resolution in accord with the sentiments and mood of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech. The strong emphasis on Dilsey’s fortitude, decency, and Christian humility and on her comprehensive view of time provides a context for the unhappy events, a perspective from which to view them and a way to feel about them. But this episode does not so much offer a synthesis or interpretation as a general vintage-point and degree of moral affirmation. It does not help us to understand most of the particulars of the Compson story any better, or to illuminate the character and motives of Quentin and Caddy. Nor does it in any real way relate to the socio-economic context of the novel. Although it asserts the relevance of Christianity to the story, it does not really clarify the nature of that relevance nor make clear how seriously we are to take the Christian context. This happens partly because Faulkner so strongly emphasizes the peculiarly negro aspects of both the Easter service and Dilsey’s responses and partly because the crucifixion-and-resurrection motif is such a general one. This motif can serve as an ironic or moral commentary on almost any kind of evil or decadence and therefore does not especially illuminate the meaning of any particular variety. Furthermore, although there are throughout the book recurrent allusions to the crucifixion and resurrection and recurrent symbolic suggestions of them, the actual difficulties of the Compsons have not been sufficiently presented in Christian terms to enable us to see how the Christian motif is really applicable to their situation. Nor is there any clear connection in the episode between the emphasis on the crucifixion and resurrection and Dilsey’s represented choral commentary : “I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin.” Nevertheless, whatever the episode leaves unclear or unresolved, its tone and general trend do provide a general way of lcoking at and feeling about the story and a sense of resolution.
Jason’s Predicament Not Covered By the Christian Motif
But the emphasis on Dilsey and her trip to church is at the beginning of the final section and is only one of several emphases in that section. It is followed by the lengthy description of Jason’s vain and tormenting pursuit of the girl Quentin, which provides a very different perspective, mood, and set of feelings. We are back in a realm of sound and fury, even of melodrama. We do not see Jason from the large perspective we share with Dilsey, but respond to his frustration and defeat with a grim amusement and satisfaction only slightly mixed with pity. We cannot view his defeat as affirmative, for the “heroine” who has eluded him seems equally doomed. It is true that we might draw a sharp contrast between the ways Dilsey and Jason spend their Sunday and between Dilsey’s sense of Christian acceptance and Jason’s violent and impatient paranoia, and we might go on to contrast her slow and decorous walk to church with his frenzied dependence on the automobile, and these contrasts can be related to the general contrast between traditional and traditionless cultures Here again, however, we cannot quite understand the relevance of the contrast except as generalized ironic commentary. Nor do we actually feel this contrast while reading this section. Essentially Dilsey and her church recede into the landscape and seem barely relevant to Jason’s predicament.
Benjy’s Misery and Luster’s Callousness
The final part of the last section emphasizes Benjy’s misery and the callousness and syagger of Dilsey’s son. Luster, as he torments Benjy, first by taking his bottle, then by shouting “Caddy”, and finally by driving around the square in the wrong direction. We are reminded for a moment of Dilsey’s decency and faith but only to feel its ineffectualness, for neither she nor the church service has touched Luster. The book closes with the carriage-ride of Luster and Benjy, with our attention focused on a young negro whose main desire is to show off, and on an idiot who is capable of serenity or anguish but of little more than that. Faulkner emphasizes Benjy’s terrible agony as Luster throws his world into disorder by .going around the square in the wrong direction. Jason comes rushing Across the square, turns the carriage around in the right direction, .and gives a blow to both Luster and Benjy. Benjy becomes serene Again as the carriage moves in its usual direction and things flow by smoothly from left to right, “each in its ordered place”.
A Powerful Ending, But Without a Resolution
It is a powerful ending and a fitting one in its focus on Benjy and its application to the general theme of order and disorder sunning through the novel. But it is an ending which does not provide a synthesis or a resolution, and it leaves us with numerous conflicting ideas and feelings. We are momentarily relieved and pleased by the termination of Benjy’s suffering, but we feel troubled by the fact that it has been achieved by Jason who otherwise cares nothing for Benjy and is concerned only with maintaining an external and superficial decorum. We can hardly draw any real satisfaction from the serenity and order, because the serenity is the empty serenity of an idiot and the order is that demanded by an idiot. The general tenor of the episode is in accord with Mr. Compson’s pessimism rather than with Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech, for everything in it suggest the meaninglessness and futility of life.
The Dual Effect of the Final Scene
This final scene does not negate the moderate affirmation of the Dilsey episode, nor does it really qualify it. Rather it stands in suspension with it as a commentary of equal force. We feel that the events we have witnessed are at once tragic and futile, significant and meaningless. We cannot move beyond this. Nor does the final section help us to resolve whether the Compsons were defeated essentially by acts of choice or by a kind of doom, or whether the doom was chiefly a matter of fate or of psychological aberration or of socio-economic forces. It is worth repeating that if we do accept as a primary motif the opposition between an older and a newer culture we find it impossible to choose between them. In short, the ending seems designed not to interpret or to integrate but to leave the various elements of the story in much the same supension in which they were offered, and to leave us with a high degree of emotional and intellectual tension.