The Early Life and the Adulthood of the Compson Progeny
The primary story told in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is the decline of a Southern family. This family has had generals, a governor, and wealthy planters among its ancestors. They had owned an estate called the Compson Mile. In a chronology of the Compsons, given by Faulkner long after the novel had been written, he traced the history of this family from 1699 to 1945. But the novel proper is limited from 2nd June, 1911) to the 8th April, 1928 ; and it tells what happens to the last generation of the Compson. The Compson family with which the novel deals consists of Mr. and Mrs. Compson, their four children, and a grand-daughter. The four children-Quentin, Caddy, Jason, and Benjy are seen during their early years and then when they grow up while the granddaughter, whose name is the same as that of one of the sons, is seen only as a teenager.
The Aristocratic Failure in the South
Faulkner depicts this Southern aristocratic family as marked by reckless and violent behaviour. The Compson lineage includes both a governor and a brigadier-general, but after the Civil War in America, the family fortunes and abilities decline rapidly. In the present Mr. Compson, the son of the general, the first clear signs of decay appear. Oppressed by a tradition which he cannot uphold because of his weak character, he takes to drinking and to classical studies. His self-pitying wife is a terrifying example of the functionless Southern lady; and their four children represent different degrees of social degeneration. Benjy is an idiot. The girl Caddy is promiscuous, and her daughter afterwards takes after her. Quentin, the eldest son, drives himself, to suicide by an obsession with his sister’s dishonour and his unfulfilled incestuous desire for her. The last male Compson to survive, apart from Benjy, is Jason, villainous and childless. Faulkner thus deals here with aristocratic failure in the South, identifying its source in the self-destructive urges and impulses of the individual characters.
Emphasis Equally Distributed Over the Main Characters
The Compson family shown in this novel has traits which can be perceived as signs of a decadence resulting from a peculiar regional history and its impact upon a class within it. In the Compson parents this is a manifest decadence of a more than regional kind. The Compsons, as the author wrote in an Appendix, were that long line of men who had something in them of decency and pride, even after they had begun to fail at the integrity, and the pride had become mostly vanity and self-pity. Mrs. Compson is of less notable descent but more inclined to claim its merit. She and her brother Maury suggest the shallowness of certain presumptions which had no validity in the post-bellum South. It is to be noted that the author’s emphasis is almost equally distributed over the four Compson children, though the parents too have been portrayed in enough detail. It would be a wrong approach to say that Caddy is the central character in the novel and that the focus is chiefly upon her. Caddy’s role is certainly pivotal, but Quentin and Jason have also been portrayed on an elaborate scale, and the idiot Benjy gets a whole section to himself, besides frequent references to him in the other sections of the novel.
Deterioration as Represented By the Two Parents
One aspect of the deterioration in the Compson family is the lack of parental love in the Compson household. Both Mr. and Mrs. Compson fail to fulfil their roles as parents. Mr. Compson’s cynicism and nihilistic views have, for instance, a very disturbing: effect on the sensitive Quentin who, in his monologue, recalls many of Mr. Compson’s utterances. Mr. Compson does not, for instance, believe even in such a fundamental virtue as a woman’s virginity, saying that virginity is a myth invented by men. According to him, no battle is ever won and no battle is even fought. “The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools”, he says. Mr. Compson has a negative attitude towards time also. He wishes to escape from time, and he regards his watch as the “mausoleum of all hope and desire”. As for Mrs. Compson, she is self-centred. She is all the time complaining about her sickness and about her children. She looks upon Benjy the idiot as a punishment to her ; in fact, she is dissatisfied with all her children except Jason who is actually the worst of them all but whom she treats as her only “joy and salvation”. Besides her indulgence in self-pity, she keeps thinking of the past glory of the Bascomb family from which she comes. As a mother she is a nonentity, and we find Quentin at least twice lamenting in his monologue the fact that there was no one in his life whom he could call “Mother”. As a critic puts it, Mrs. Compson’s hypochondria inflicts suffering on the rest of the family ; and as a selfish, unloving mother she is a chief cause of the misfortunes and disasters which she laments.
Benjy, a Symbol of Degeneracy
So far as the children are concerned, Benjy is a born idiot or imbecile incapable of speaking or expressing himself in words, helpless, and most of the time moaning and slobbering. He is evidently intended as a glaring example of the decay into which the Compson family has fallen. A critic refers to Benjy as a “grotesque” character representing the degeneracy of an upper class white family. Benjy is the product of a fairly typical and socially respectable marriage, but he may be regarded as a sign that the old aristocracy of the South-inactive and incompetent -would decline and die-out.
Caddy as a Representative of the Degradation of the Compsons
Caddy, whom Faulkner adored and whorl he described as his darling, does not provide us with any cause for rejoicing or even enthusiasm. She is barely seventeen when she becomes promiscuous, soon becoming pregnant without even knowing which of her lovers is responsible for her pregnancy. She then marries in haste, in order to cover up her lapse, but her husband soon afterwards discards her and she becomes, in the words of her own mother, “a fallen woman”. She is not allowed to visit her parental home and the very mention of her name is forbidden by her mother in the Compson household. Caddy certainly has her redeeming qualities. She shows a great affection for her idiot brother Benjy and looks after his comfort and well-being as long as she remains in her parental home. She also has a certain boldness in her nature and a love of independence which we do not entirely disapprove. The fact that her brother Quentin develops an incestuous passion for her also shows that she possesses a certain rare kind of feminine charm which attracts men as different as Dalton Ames, Herbert Head, and her own brother. But these qualities cannot make up for the essential corruption of her nature and the degradation into which she falls. Faulkner himself in his Appendix shows her finally as the mistress of a Nazi general. Thus our reaction to the portrayal of Caddy cannot be one of any real admiration or even liking. She undoubtedly represents one other aspect of the degradation of the Compson family.
Quentin, Effeminate and Ineffectual
Quentin started as a very promising boy. The mother dreamed of sending him to Harvard, and the boy was surely sent there even though the family had to sell a part of its estate in order to pay for his expenses. But he proved to be a morbid kind of man who developed an incestuous passion for his sister. His unfulfilled incestuous love and his terrible sense of disappointment at Caddy’s dishonour in having become promiscuous and then pregnant by one of her boy-friends combine to give rise to a feeling of despair in him, and he commits suicide. Thus he too represents the degeneration of the Compson family. It has even been suspected that he had homosexual relations with his room-mete, Shreve. Nor did he show any sign of a heroic or manly courage as is evident from his encounter with Dalton Ames when he passed out like a girl. Besides, he receives a thrashing from. Gerald on the last day of’ his life. Surely there is something effeminate about him, and his brief existence proves futile.
Jason, a Villain
The youngest child of the family grows into a villain. Jason’s only redeeming quality is his wit and his sense of humour ; otherwise this man is a most accomplished villain. He deceives his mother, whose, darling, he has always been, by giving her fake cheques to, bun while the genuine cheques sent by Caddy he has been depositing in his own private account. He defrauds his niece Quentin of even small amounts of money which Caddy sends directly in her name. His general treatment of his niece shows his cold-heartedness and callousness. He is scornful of Benjy and is constantly suggesting that, the idiot should be sent to the mental asylum in Jackson. He is totally unappreciative of Dilsey’s loyalty and sense of duty. In short, he is a disgrace to the family which has produced him. In him the moral sense is totally extinct.
The Moral Depravity of Miss Quentin
The girl Quentin proves to be no better than her mother. In fact, she is much worse than her mother because, whereas her mother at least used to show affection towards Benjy, Miss Quentin is frankly contemptuous of him and does not even like to sit at the same dinner-table with him. Nor does Miss Quentin care much for her grandmother. Like Caddy, she becomes promiscuous at an early age. And, although her action in stealing Jason’s money (which is in fact her own money) is a punishment which Jason richly deserves, yet the whole episode (her theft of money and her flight from home with a lover) leaves a very bad taste in our mouths. We can imagine what must have been this girl’s ultimate fate. She too is a stigma on the family which has brought her up Jason rightly refers to her, as to her mother, as a whore.
The loner Chaos of Three Members of the Family
Another point worth mentioning here is that three of the members of the Compson family in this novel are protagonists of chaos. They are Mrs. Compson, Quentin, and Jason. Each of these three characters is bent upon self-pitying self-justification. All three feel certain that they have been victimized by circumstances beyond their control. All three project outward on life their own inner chaos which has its roots in a perversion of love, through self-love.
“The Emasculation of Some of the Characters
Some of the characters in this novel show their degeneracy through their emasculation, literal or figurative. Benjy is actually castrated in order to prevent him from doing any damage to young girls. Quentin’s emasculation takes the form 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 : he suffers from the notion that he has committed incest with Caddy. The survivors in the family are Jason and Benjy. Jason 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.
Sexual Perversions and Violations of the Norm
Sexual perversions and violations of conventional behaviour are numerous and significant in the story of the Compsons. Mrs. Compson’s brother, Uncle Maury, was beaten up by a neighbour for carrying on an adulterous affair with the neighbour’s wife. Jason has a mistress called Lorraine but he is averse to marriage. One critic has offered the suggestion that, in a Freudian sense, both Benjy and Jason might unconsciously be attracted sexually to Caddy. Quentin’s incestuous desire is made explicit to us and is repeatedly referred to in his monologue. All this further shows the decadence of this family.
The Degeneracy, Heightened
The degeneracy of the Compson family is heightened by the striking contrast between the members of this family and the servant Dilsey. Dilsey is sound to the core. Her fidelity to the family whom she serves, her compassion for Benjy, her concern for all the children, her devotion to duty, her powers of endurance, her religious piety elevate her to the position almost of a heroine. The decadence of the Compson family is reinforced in our minds by the spectacle of this figure who symbolizes orderliness and serenity as opposed to chaos. The decadence is also heightened by the peace and calm of Nature-the tranquil Compson grounds, the tranquil environs of Harvard, and the tranquil country along the Charles River where Quentin rehearses his journey to death.