By William Faulkner (1897-1962)
A Study Guide
Notes and Plot Summary by Michael J. Cummings...© 2007
Introduction: Faulkner’s Jigsaw Puzzle
.......In The Sound and the Fury, the past frequently intrudes upon the present in the minds of three central characters who each narrate part of the novel. This intrusion is not unusual; it happens to every man and woman from time to time. For example, when you listen to a sermon in a church
or a lecture in a classroom–or when you are jogging or making a bed–a memory from yesterday, a year ago, or 20 years ago may suddenly seize your attention. A sound, a sight, a taste, or a smell may have triggered that memory. Or the memory may simply have sprung up, unbidden.
.......The events in the novel occur according to relevance and significance, not time sequence. The novel consists of four chapters. The first is entitled “April Seventh, 1928"; the second, “June Second, 1910"; the third, “April Sixth, 1928"; and the fourth, “April Eighth, 1928.” Male members of a declining and dysfunctional southern family, the Compsons, narrate the first three chapters in first-person point of view, and the author presents the fourth chapter in omniscient, third-person point of view.
Chapter 1 Narration
.......Chapter 1 takes place on Saturday, April 7, 1928, the day before Easter, but flashes back frequently to previous years. The narrator of this chapter is Benjy Compson, who was born in 1895. He is feeble-minded. He cannot speak, read, or write. His retardation is so severe that he even confuses the past with the present. A memory from long ago may occur to him as a present experience. For example, in response to a triggering sensation–a sound, a sight, or a smell–he might wait by the gate in front of his house for his sister to come home from school even though his sister long ago moved away from his house. In presenting Benjy’s narration, Faulkner uses phrases that attempt to express the surreal and irrational workings of Benjy’s mind. In one passage, Benjy says, “I could smell the clothes flapping.” In others, Benjy hears the grass “rattling” or sees the wind “shining.” One problem Benjy’s narration poses–besides the confusing rat-a-tat of disjointed thoughts–is that it taxes plausibility and verisimilitude. A character incapable of speaking or writing cannot tell a story–unless, of course, the author invades the mind of this character and tells what he sees. Faulkner does so. Consequently, Chapter 1 is really a narrative oddity: a kind of ventriloquism in which the author speaks for the narrator.
Chapter 2 Narration
.......Chapter 2 takes place on June 2, 1910. It also flashes back to previous years. The narrator is Quentin, the oldest Compson child, who was born in 1891. He is intelligent and articulate. However, because he is severely distraught, he frequently narrates in fitful, spasmodic bursts, jumping from one thought to another. Some paragraphs in this chapter contain no periods, commas, or capitalization.
Chapter 3 Narration
.......Chapter 3 takes place on Good Friday, April 6, 1928. The narrator is Jason Lycurgus Compson IV, who was born in 1894. This chapter is straightforward and easy to understand.
Chapter 4 Narration
.......Chapter 4 takes place on Easter Sunday, April 8, 1928. The narrator is the author. This chapter is relatively easy to understand.
.......In Chapters 1, 3, and 4, the settings are in northern Mississippi in the fictional locales of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, and the nearby town of Mottson. The main characters, the Compsons, live on a rundown Jefferson estate that includes the ancestral home, stables, a kitchen garden, and a cabin to house a family of black servants. At one time, the estate was considerably larger, but the Compsons sold a large parcel of land to meet financial obligations. Over the years, the Compsons have kept horses and milking cows. In Chapter 2, the setting is in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, site of Harvard University. The action takes place on the following days: April 7, 1928 (Chapter 1); June 2, 1910 (Chapter 2); April 6, 1928 (Chapter 3); April 8, 1928 (Chapter 4). There are frequent flashbacks to years in the first two decades of the 20th Century and one flashback to a scene in 1898.
.......In fictional Yoknapatawpha County, blacks outnumber whites by approximately three to two. In the first three decades of the 20th Century, Mississippi whites–as well as whites elsewhere in the United States–treated blacks almost as sub-humans. The word "nigger" or "niggers" occurs more than 70 times in The Sound and the Fury to reflect the attitude of whites toward blacks in the early part of the century.
Protagonist: There is no clearly defined protagonist in the novel, although the family itself at least partly fits the classical definition of tragic protagonist: a person of exalted status (the Compsons descended from moneyed aristocrats) with a character flaw (the Compsons have many flaws) that causes him or her to err and fall to ruin. However, the typical tragic protagonist–such as Oedipus in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex–experiences a moment when he recognizes and acknowledges his mistakes. The Compsons do not experience such a moment–unless, in Quentin's case, one maintains that his decision to commit suicide is an acknowledgment that something has gone wrong with his life. Some critics identify Benjy, a mute imbecile, as the main character because he witnesses and objectively reports on key episodes in the novel and because the title refers specifically to him. However, in terms of which character most affects the other characters, Caddy Compson could be regarded as the main character. Benjy and Quentin Compson love her and think constantly about her. Jason Compson despises her and blames her for his failure to get a job he coveted. Caddy's illegitimate daughter takes after her in some ways and plays a major role in events in the second half of the novel. Oddly, though, Caddy appears only in flashback scenes.
Antagonists: The changing times, the influence of the past, the characters' own shortcomings and frailties.
Jason Richmond Lycurgus Compson III: An attorney and native of Jefferson, Mississippi. He is the father of the four Compson children and husband of Caroline Bascomb Compson. He espouses the ideals of the Old South aristocrats but in practice is a cynic who believes in nothing. An alcoholic, he spends most of his time with a decanter of
whiskey rather than law books. His home, once a fine mansion with expansive grounds, is in disrepair. He sold most of his land to a golf club in order to pay for a year of his son, Quentin's, education at Harvard and for his daughter, Caddy's, wedding. Much of his money also goes for whiskey and everyday bills. He exhibits little real love for his children. However, his views on Old South
traditions greatly influence Quentin, who takes them seriously. At the same time, his deep cynicism about the world also influences Quentin. Jason Compson III dies in 1912.
.......The Sound and the Fury is a psychological novel about the dissolution of a family with roots in the aristocratic Old South. It was published in New York on October 7, 1929, by Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith.
.......It is Saturday, April 7, 1928–Benjy Compson’s birthday. Benjy is a retarded 33-year-old who cannot speak and has no sense of time. He requires constant supervision whether he is in the house or on the grounds of his family's property. It has always been that way.
.......From time to time, Benjy recalls moments when he and Caddy carry letters from their Uncle Maury Bascomb (Mrs. Compson's brother) to a neighbor, Mrs. Patterson, with whom Uncle Maury is having an affair. (Uncle Maury lives with the Compsons, taking advantage of their money and his sister's goodwill.) One day, Mr. Patterson intercepts a letter when Benjy alone arrives at the fence of the Patterson property with the letter. Here is the scene:
.......Benjy also relives a time when Caddy is seven and gets her dress wet in a creek (referred to in the novel as the branch) while she, Benjy, then about 3 or 4, and their brothers Jason, 5, and Quentin, 8, are playing. Here is the scene:
.......With the children is Versh, Dilsey’s son. After they are called for supper, Versh says Mrs. Compson will whip Caddy for soiling her dress. Caddy orders Versh to unbutton the dress in the back so she can take it off and let it dry. Quentin, dismayed, orders Versh not to do her bidding. (Quentin, the reader learns later in the novel, is extremely protective of Caddy’s virtue; for her to remove her dress is to unduly expose herself to the world.) Caddy ignores Quentin and again tells Versh to undo the buttons or she will “tell Dilsey what you did yesterday.” Versh unbuttons the dress. After Caddy takes it off, revealing muddied underwear, Quentin slaps her, and she splashes water on him. A water battle ensues.
.......Both Benjy and Quentin, though very young, sense that the wet dress and underwear, as well as Caddy’s exposure of herself, signal the beginning of reckless behavior in her life. (Quentin later on becomes preoccupied with the image of her muddy underwear, turning it into a symbol of the promiscuity that would result in her pregnancy.) Moreover, both boys, as well as Caddy, well know that Mrs. Compson–concerned about untoward behavior in so proper a family–will likely react harshly, as Versh observed. As for Jason? He is off by himself, seemingly unconcerned. (His isolation from other family members at this time foreshadows his isolation from them later on. Jason dislikes his siblings. In fact, he finds fault with everyone. In his eyes, only he is an acceptable human being.)As Benjy continues to shift back and forth between present and past, he recalls Caddy's wedding, when he and T.P. get tipsy on champagne after T.P. mistakes it for sarsaparilla (which T.P. calls sassprilluh).
.......A sense of foreboding occurs in Benjy's narration when he recalls (several times) hearing Roskus say,"Taint no luck on this place," indicating that Roskus knows that doom awaits the family. Shortly thereafter, Benjy remembers a time when he hears that Caddy's name is never again to be mentioned in the Compson household (because of her promiscuous behavior that brings shame on the family). His memories take a turn for the dark side when he remembers the death of his grandmother in 1898 and the death of his father in 1912.
In one of his memories, Benjy recalls a time when Caddy's boyfriend, Charlie, makes advances toward Caddy. Benjy cries and pulls at Caddy's dress. Here is the scene as Benjy narrates it:
.......After Benjy recalls the smell of perfume on Caddy in 1905 (a smell he associates with sexual wile), he returns to 1928, when Caddy's illegitimate daughter, Miss Quentin, dallies with a man with a red tie on the grounds of the Compson home. He is a pitchman from the traveling tent show that Luster wants to see. Benjy annoys Miss Quentin (who is named after Benjy's brother Quentin) by approaching her when she is entertaining her beau. Unlike her mother, she cannot tolerate the presence of Benjy.
.......In another scene, Benjy wants to wait at the gate of the Compson home for Caddy to return from school, not realizing that she has married and moved out of the Compson home. He is with one of Dilsey's sons, T.P., who is looking after Benjy, with Mrs. Compson nearby.
.......When Benjy was in his teens, his family had him castrated after his brother Jason and his father concluded that Benjy had attacked some girls. It was a false conclusion. Here is the scene Benjy remembers:
.......After Benjy ends his reverie, he and Luster return to the house, where Dilsey has a birthday cake waiting for Benjy in the kitchen. Luster blows out the candles and cuts the cake while Dilsey is out of the room. Benjy sits by the fireplace, watching the flames, as he and Luster eat cake. Fire fascinates Benjy. When Dilsey returns, she notices Luster gorging on the cake and reaching for another piece, then scolds him for eating too much of it: "Reach it again, and I chop it right off with this here butcher knife," she says. A moment later, she repeats her warning: "Reach hit [it] one more time." Dilsey said. "Just reach it." Benjy then reaches into the fireplace, burns his hand, and begins to cry. Quickly, Dilsey pours soda on the burn and wraps a cloth around it. Mrs. Compson comes downstairs, enters the room, and complains about Benjy's crying, saying, "How can I lie there, with him bawling down here. Benjamin. Hush this minute." (Mrs. Compson is almost always lying down, suffering from imaginary illnesses and indulging in self-pity). Luster takes Benjy to another room, the library, which triggers in Benjy another memory of Caddy, a pleasant one, followed by a memory related to his name change when he was five years old. When Benjy was born in 1895, he was baptized Maury, after his uncle. However, in 1900, Mrs. Compson changed his name to Benjamin when she discovered that he was retarded. (In the Bible, Benjamin was the youngest son of Jacob, the Jewish patriarch. See Genesis, Chapters 42-45.) She did not wish to bring shame on the Bascomb name. Caddy, however, out of respect for Benjy, sometimes calls him Maury.
.......Later, after the interception of the letter to Mrs. Patterson (referred to above), Benjy recalls the following scene in which Uncle Maury nurses injuries inflicted by an outraged Mr. Patterson. The scene also reveals information about Mr. Compson's heavy drinking and Mrs. Compson's concern for the Bascomb name.
.......Chapter 1 ends when Benjy and his siblings go to bed. In the darkness, Benjy recalls that "I could see the windows, where the trees were buzzing. Then the dark began to go in smooth, bright shapes, like it always does, even when Caddy says that I have been asleep."
.......This chapter, narrated by Quentin Compson, begins between 7 and 8 a.m. on June 2, 1910. The place is Cambridge, Mass., where Quentin, attends Harvard University. On this day, he decides to cut all classes so he can prepare to commit suicide. After getting up, he goes to the dresser, picks up his wristwatch, breaks
the crystal, and twists off the hands. His father had told him that time was meaningless when little wheels kept track of it.
Chapters 3 and 4
.......Chapter 3, narrated by Jason Compson, takes place on April 6, 1928 (Good Friday), and Chapter 4, narrated by the author, takes place on April 8, 1928 (Easter Sunday).
Love Gone Wrong
.......The Sound and the Fury centers on the downfall of a family with roots in the aristocratic Old South. The family falls to ruin for a variety of reasons, but the main one appears to be the family's impaired or limited ability to express and share normal love. Mr. Compson's love of whiskey and nihilism command most of his attention, and Mrs. Compson's self-pity and inordinate concern for the family's "good name" prevent her from being a loving, full-time mother. Caddy fulfills that role for Benjy, and Dilsey does what she can for him and the other Compson children while raising a family of her own. In her own search for love, Caddy turns to promiscuity. In his search for love, Quentin becomes fixated on Caddy with platonic incestual desire. Jason loves no one but himself and money. Caddy's daughter, Miss Quentin, reenacts her mother's promiscuity. Unlike Caddy, though, she has no time for Benjy. Uncle Maury seeks love with another man's wife.
Time in Turmoil
.......Benjy has little or no sense of the passage of time. Even after Caddy has moved out of the Compson household, he waits for her at the front gate to come home from school. His mind lives in the past and the present as if they were one. Quentin–enthralled with the culture and values of the Old South Compsons–cannot adjust to the present. He is, in a sense, an anachronism. His father, on the other hand, exists in a kind of chronological limbo. He tells Quentin that "clocks slay time." He also says that "time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life." Faulkner appears to be making a sort of Einsteinian statement: that time is not fixed. It is relative to the cosmic traveler, whether he is in the Compson's surrey or on a trans-galactic spaceship piloted by Benjy, with Luster in tow searching the heavens for his lost quarter.
.......Caddy rebels against Old South Compson propriety when she becomes intimate with her male friends. Her brother Quentin rebels against time, twisting off the hands of his wristwatch. Jason, filled with contemptus mundi, rebels against Caddy, Quentin, Benjy, and his parents, regarding himself as the only worthwhile member of the family. He also rejects women as "bitches" and becomes a racist and anti-Semite. Mr. and Mrs. Compson rebel against parenthood.
.......The Compson family, a remnant of the Old South aristocratic way of life, is in its death throes. Its money is dwindling, its ancestral home is decaying, and its land holdings are shrinking. Prospects for a new generation of aristocratic Compsons are virtually nonexistent. Benjy cannot marry, Jason refuses to marry, and Quentin commits suicide. Caddy marries, but her husband divorces her after discovering that another man, presumably Dalton Ames, fathered the child she bears. This child, Miss Quentin, rejects the family and runs off with a man from a traveling show.
.......Mrs. Compson blames Benjy, Caddy, and others for the travails she faces. Jason blames everyone–including his siblings, his parents, Miss Quentin, and Dilsey–for his problems or failures. When in his car chasing Miss Quentin and the man with the red tie, he even blames the government for not fixing the roads,
saying "Yet we spend money and spend money on roads and dam if it isn't like trying to drive over a sheet of corrugated iron roofing. I'd like to know how a man could be expected to keep up with even a wheelbarrow."
.......The strongest and wisest character in the novel is the Compsons' black cook, Dilsey Gibson, who is at the bottom of the segregated Old South society. But though she lacks social status, authority, education, and money, she possesses what really matters in life: love, common sense, wisdom, faith, perseverance, and strength. She is stronger by far than any of the Compsons and able to cope effectively amid the turmoil of Compson dysfunction.
.......Roskus Gibson, Dilsey's husband, is a doomsayer, familiar figure in literature. This character type has appeared in literary works since ancient times. Perhaps the most famous fictional prophet of doom is the soothsayer in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. He warns Caesar to "Beware the Ides of March" (Act II, Scene I, Line 19), then repeats his warning. Roskus frequently speaks these words: "Taint no luck on this place." Sometimes, he accompanies his "prophecy" with an explanation, as in the following two examples–the first referring to Benjy's name change and the second referring to Mrs. Compson's proscription against ever again mentioning Caddy's name in the Compson household:
(1) "They aint no luck on this place." Roskus said. "I seen it at first but when they changed his name I knowed it."Persistent Character
(2) "That's what I tell you." Roskus said. "They aint no luck going be on no place where one of they own chillen's name aint never spoke."
.......Again and again, Luster bemoans the loss of the quarter he planned to use to see the traveling tent show. However, he persists in trying to find it and, when it does not turn up, persists in asking others to supply a quarter. Paragraphs 1 and 3 of Chapter 1 focus in part on the lost quarter. Thereafter, there are more than 20 references in the novel to the quarter that Luster needs. "Wish I could go [to the show]," Luster says again and again. He tells Dilsey, "Ef I jes had a quarter, I could go to dat show." Dilsey replies, "En ef you had wings you could fly to heaven. I dont want to hear another word about dat show." However, Luster persists. Eventually, Dilsey says, "I'll git you a quarter fum Frony tonight and you kin go tomorrow night. Hush up, now." Luster has a goal, a simple one: He wants to go to the show to see a man play a saw like a banjo. In this respect, at least, he is superior to the Compsons, who seldom speak of goals or visions for the future. Mr. Compson is content with the carpe diem of whiskey. Mrs. Compson is content with lying in bed and courting sympathy. Caddy Compson and her daughter, Miss Quentin, seek the sexual balm of now. Jason Compson did have a goal–to work in Sydney Herbert Head's bank–but after the job falls through, he does not set a new goal. Rather, he occupies himself with getting even with Caddy, whom he blames for the loss of the job because of her premarital promiscuity and pregnancy. In other words, the past takes control of him.
.......Many scholars liken Benjy to Christ for the following reasons: He is 33 (the same age as Christ when he died), he suffers mockery and other unjust treatment, and his story (omitting flashbacks) unfolds on Easter weekend. In addition, Benjy lives outside of time–as if in an eternal celestial realm–because he has no grasp of the difference between past and present. When a memory occurs to him, it as if it is taking place in the present. Moreover, most of the other characters in the novel want little or nothing to do with him, as if to say that in the world of 1928 people no longer accept Christ or his message. Finally, Benjy knows intuitively when Caddy sins and gets upset whenever anyone else strays from the "right path," as Luster does when he takes a wrong turn while driving Benjy home in the surrey from the Easter service. After Luster turns left instead of right at the Confederate monument in the town square, Benjy cries out. The omniscient narrator says, "Bellow on bellow, his voice mounted, with scarce interval for breath. There was more than astonishment in it, it was horror; shock; agony eyeless, tongueless; just sound, and Luster's eyes backrolling for a white instant. 'Gret God,' he said."
.......The Sound and the Fury moves from beginning to end without a single, unforgettable, climactic moment that alters the course of the novel. One gets the feeling while reading the novel that the climax occurred in the distant past, before Chapter 1. What the novel concentrates on is the
outcome of that long-ago climactic moment–an outcome centering on dissolution, decline, decomposition, decay. In other words, The Sound and the Fury is one long denouement. However, Miss Quentin stages a climax of sorts near the end of the novel when she steals thousands of dollars from a metal box Jason keeps, money that rightfully belongs to her. She then runs off with a pitchman from
the traveling show. Jason gives chase but fails to catch the fugitives.
.......Faulkner sometimes uses the stream-of-consciousness technique in the first three chapters. In stream of consciousness, a term coined by American psychologist William James (1842-1910), an author portrays a character’s continuing “stream” of thoughts as they occur, regardless of whether they make sense or whether the next thought in a sequence relates to the previous thought. Generally, a stream-of-consciousness passage appears without punctuation so that the flowing thoughts continue without interruption. The following stream-of-consciousness passage from Chapter 2 presents the thoughts of Quentin as he recalls bits and pieces of statements made by his mother:
what have I done to have been given children like these Benjamin was punishment enough and now for her to have no more regard for me her own mother I've suffered for her dreamed and planned and sacrificed I went down into the valley yet never since she opened her eyes has she given me one unselfish thought at times I look at her I wonder if she can be my child except Jason he has never given me one moment's sorrow since I first held him in my arms I knew then that he was to be my joy and my salvation I thought that Benjamin was punishment enough for any sins I have committed I thought he was my punishment for putting aside my pride and marrying a man who held himself above me I dont complain I loved him above all of them because of it because my duty though Jason pulling at my heart all the while but I see now that I have not suffered enough I see now that I must pay for your sins as well as mine what have you done what sins have your high and mighty people visited upon me but you'll take up for them you always have found excuses for your own blood only Jason can do wrong because he is more Bascomb than Compson while your own daughter my little daughter my baby girl she is she is no better than that when I was a girl I was unfortunate I was only a Bascomb I was taught that there is no halfway ground that a woman is either a lady or not but I never dreamed when I held her in my arms that any daughter of mine could let herself dont you know I can look at her eyes and tell you may think she'd tell you but she doesn't tell things she is secretive you dont know her I know things she's done that I'd die before I'd have you know that's it go on criticise Jason accuse me of setting him to watch her as if it were a crime while your own daughter can I know you dont love him that you wish to believe faults against him you never have yes ridicule him as you always have Maury you cannot hurt me any more than your children already have and then I'll be gone and Jason with no one to love him shield him from this I look at him every day dreading to see this Compson blood beginning to show in him at last with his sister slipping out to see what do you call it then have you ever laid eyes on him will you even let me try to find out who he is it's not for myself I couldn't bear to see him it's for your sake to protect you but who can fight against bad blood you wont let me try we are to sit back with our hands folded while she not only drags your name in the dirt but corrupts the very air your children breathe Jason you must let me go away I cannot stand it let me have Jason and you keep the others they're not my flesh and blood like he is strangers nothing of mine and I am afraid of them I can take Jason and go where we are not known I'll go down on my knees and pray for the absolution of my sins that he may escape this curse try to forget that the others ever were.
.......Faulkner exhibits considerable versatility in his writing style in the The Sound and the Fury. On the one hand, he presents the thought patterns and modes of expression of three dissimilar narrators–the first an imbecile, the second a sensitive college student, and the third a redneck racist. On the other, he presents his own observations as the omniscient narrator of Chapter 4. In addition, he writes dialogue in the Southern black idiom. Striking imagery characterizes the narration, including Benjy's. Following are examples:
Then I saw Caddy, with flowers in her hair, and a long veil like shining wind.–Benjy.
The grass was buzzing in the moonlight where my shadow walked on the grass–Benjy. (Here, Benjy turns the grass into chirping crickets. The shadow becomes the Shakespearean symbol of futile life.)
I quit moving around and went to the window and drew the curtains aside and watched them running for chapel, the same ones fighting the same heaving coat-sleeves, the same books and flapping collars flushing past like debris on a flood.–Quentin.
I could hear the Great American Gelding [Benjy] snoring away like a planing mill.–Jason.
A pair of jaybirds came up from nowhere, whirled up on the blast like gaudy scraps of cloth or paper and lodged in the mulberries, where they swung in raucous tilt and recover.–Omniscient narrator.
Along its quiet length white people in bright clumps moved churchward, under the windy bells, walking now and then in the random and tentative sun.–Omniscient narrator.
He was like a worn small rock whelmed by the successive waves of his voice.–Omniscient narrator describing the preacher, the Rev. Shegog. (Metaphor: The rise and fall of the minister's voice resembles the sound of ocean waves.)
Study Questions and Essay Topics
.......Faulkner derived the title from words spoken by Macbeth, the murderous title character of Shakespeare's great play. After Macbeth's enemies–full of righteous wrath–close in on him, Macbeth expresses despair and utter resignation upon realizing that all his hopes and dreams have come to naught as mere shadows of past promise. Macbeth says:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player.
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Act V, Scene V, Lines 17-21)
Macbeth's conclusion that life is nothing more than a tale told by an idiot sums up the Faulkner novel. Benjy, of course, is the idiot.