“The Sound and the Fury,” a masterpiece by William Faulkner, unfolds the tragic tale of the Compson family’s decline in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.
This intricate narrative is divided into four distinct sections, each offering a unique perspective into the disintegrating Southern aristocracy.
The opening section is a journey through the mind of Benjamin “Benjy” Compson, on April 7, 1928. Born Maury, Benjy was renamed due to his intellectual disability.
At thirty-three, his world is simple yet deeply sensory.
This segment leaps through time, piecing together Benjy’s life from his earliest memory as a three-year-old in 1898. Central to his recollections is his sister Candace “Caddy” Compson, a figure of compassion in his otherwise indifferent family.
Key themes emerge here, like Caddy’s muddy underwear during their grandmother’s funeral wake, symbolizing her budding sexuality, and the recurring motif of water as a purifier.
The second part delves into the tormented consciousness of Quentin Compson on the day of his suicide, June 2, 1910.
Quentin, obsessed with the Compson family’s noble past, grapples with the changing social mores and his sister Caddy’s sexual awakening. His flashbacks reveal a man torn between his father’s modern views on virginity and his own archaic beliefs about honor and purity.
Narrated by Jason Compson, the third brother, on April 6, 1928, this section contrasts sharply with its predecessors.
Jason’s narrative is grounded in the present, tinged with bitterness and cruelty, showcasing the family’s moral decay. He fixates on his niece Quentin, Caddy’s daughter, echoing his brother’s preoccupation with Caddy.
A startling revelation unfolds as Jason’s deceit and manipulation come to light, involving forged checks and stolen money.
Concluding the novel is an omniscient view set on Easter Sunday, April 8, 1928. This section, often associated with the Compson family’s black servant Dilsey Gibson, captures the final unraveling of the family.
It converges the narrative threads of Benjy and Jason, culminating in a poignant moment where Benjy, encountering his brother outside the town hall, is briefly elated, harkening back to a simpler time in his childhood.
In this final act, Dilsey emerges as a beacon of endurance amid the Compsons’ downfall.
Her perspective during an Easter sermon, where she acknowledges the beginning and end of the Compson lineage, poignantly encapsulates the novel’s exploration of time, memory, and the inexorable decline of a once-great family.
Benjamin “Benjy” Compson
Benjy, the youngest Compson child, is intellectually disabled and perceives the world in a unique, non-linear way. His narrative, filled with sensory experiences and memories, often revolves around his sister Caddy. Benjy represents innocence and purity amidst the family’s decay.
Candace “Caddy” Compson
Caddy is Benjy’s caring sister and a central figure in the novel. Her actions and sexuality significantly impact the lives of her brothers. Caddy’s choices, including her loss of virginity and subsequent marriage, become focal points of the family’s moral and societal decline.
Quentin, the eldest Compson son, is deeply troubled by his family’s disintegration and obsessed with Southern traditions and notions of honor. His narrative, marked by reflections on time and his sister’s sexuality, culminates in his suicide, driven by his inability to reconcile his ideals with the changing world.
Jason, the middle Compson brother, is cynical and bitter, reflecting the family’s moral downfall. He is preoccupied with financial gain and exercises cruelty and manipulation, particularly towards his niece Quentin. Jason’s narrative highlights the stark contrast between his materialistic worldview and his brothers’ more abstract concerns.
Mrs. Caroline Compson
The Compson matriarch, Mrs. Compson, is self-absorbed and emotionally detached from her children. Her constant complaints and victimhood further exacerbate the family’s dysfunction.
Mr. Jason Compson III
The Compson patriarch, Mr. Compson, is detached and philosophical, often providing a cynical commentary on life. His alcoholism and lack of practical guidance contribute to the family’s disintegration.
Miss Quentin, Caddy’s daughter, grows up in the dysfunctional Compson household. She rebels against her uncle Jason’s control and reflects her mother’s traits of independence and defiance.
Dilsey, the loyal black servant of the Compson family, represents stability and endurance. Her perspective in the final section offers a poignant counterpoint to the family’s decline, highlighting themes of perseverance and change.
1. The Relativity and Subjectivity of Time
Faulkner’s novel is a profound exploration of time, not as a linear progression but as a fluid and subjective experience.
The disjointed narrative structure, jumping back and forth through different time periods, mirrors the way memory functions, emphasizing how the past continually intrudes upon the present.
For Benjy, time is a confusing jumble of events with no clear distinction between past and present, reflecting his cognitive challenges. Quentin, on the other hand, is haunted by the past, his fixation on familial honor and Caddy’s sexuality causing him to view time as a burdensome weight.
This theme of time’s relativity is not just a narrative technique but a commentary on the nature of human consciousness and the way we process and give meaning to our experiences.
2. The Decay of the Southern Aristocracy
At the heart of the novel lies the decline of the Compson family, once a symbol of Southern aristocracy.
This theme is a microcosm of the broader disintegration of the old Southern order in the face of modernity and changing social norms.
The Compsons’ fall from grace is marked by a loss of moral and ethical values, financial ruin, and an inability to adapt to the evolving world around them.
Faulkner uses this theme to critique the romanticized ideals of the Old South, showing how they are incompatible with the realities of the 20th century.
The family’s decline is juxtaposed with the resilience of their black servants, particularly Dilsey, who represents endurance and moral strength amidst the chaos and moral bankruptcy of her employers.
3. The Complexity of Human Relationships and Identity
Faulkner delves deeply into the intricate web of relationships within the Compson family, using them as a vehicle to explore issues of identity, gender roles, and interpersonal dynamics. Caddy’s character, in particular, is central to this theme.
Her relationships with her brothers vary dramatically, each brother’s view of her revealing more about their own struggles and perceptions than about Caddy herself.
Benjy’s innocent love for Caddy contrasts starkly with Quentin’s obsessive fixation on her sexuality and purity, while Jason views her with contempt and bitterness.
These differing perceptions highlight the subjective nature of identity and how it is often shaped more by others’ perceptions and societal norms than by one’s true self.
The novel also explores the destructive impact of rigid gender roles and societal expectations, particularly in the context of the Southern code of honor and purity.
“The Sound and the Fury” is a complex and deeply layered work that masterfully captures the decay of a Southern family and, by extension, the transformation of Southern society.
Faulkner’s innovative narrative techniques and the depth of his characters make the novel a challenging yet profoundly rewarding read. The story’s exploration of themes like time’s relativity, the loss of innocence, and the inevitability of change resonates strongly, reflecting the universal human experience.
It’s a testament to Faulkner’s skill as a storyteller and his keen insight into the human condition.