Summary of the Book
The Sound and the Fury consists of four sections, linked by a common set of characters and themes. Each might be read as an autonomous work. They all tell episodes in the decline of the Compson family, but are only loosely connected. Furthermore, the first three sections are presented from the perspective of characters whose impressions may not necessarily be reliable. Any reconstruction of the action is, therefore, somewhat uncertain.
The first section is dated April 7, 1928, the birthday of Benjy and the day before Easter. It is told from the perspective of Benjy, who is severely retarded, and consists mostly of sensual impressions blended with memories. These range throughout his entire life, from relatively happy times with his sister Caddy and brothers Quentin and Jason to his castration for a clumsy sexual approach to a girl.
The second section is dated June 2, 1910, and is narrated from the point of view of Benjy’s brother Quentin. Like the previous section, it blends the present and the past, but it records a relatively continuous chain of events. Quentin is at Harvard, and has decided to commit suicide. Before he does it, however, he wanders through Cambridge, having adventures, reminiscing and getting into a fight. He thinks, above all, of his sister Caddy and his obsession with her loss of virginity. Finally, he drowns himself in the Charles River.
The third section is dated Friday, April 6, 1928, and narrated by Jason Compson IV, brother of Caddy, Benjy and Quentin. He cheats and embezzles from all the female members of his family—his mother, Mrs. Compson; his sister, Caddy; his niece, Miss Quentin. But, though obsessed with money, he is an inept businessman whose circumstances remain fairly marginal.
The final section is narrated in the third person and dated Easter Sunday, April 8, 1928. Miss Quentin steals the money that Jason IV has embezzled from her together with the rest of his savings to run away with a circus performer. Jason is more furious than ever. The section focuses, however, on the housekeeper Dilsey, who manages to maintain her dignity and perspective through all the trials and tribulations.
The Life and Work of William Faulkner
Troubled young people may find some inspiration in the life of William Faulkner. He overcame more than a full share of hesitations, mistakes, false starts, poor luck and even defects of character to become the most celebrated American novelist of the twentieth century. Born in 1897 in the rural town of New Albany, Mississippi, Faulkner was taken as a child to the nearby university town of Oxford, where his father received a modest administrative post. He was a poor student, who failed to finish high school. When World War I broke out, he tried to enlist in the army but was rejected as too thin and weak. Not one to give up easily, he crossed the border and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He proved, however, to be an inept pilot who crashed twice and never was sent into battle.
Despite his poor record in school, Faulkner decided early that he wished to be a writer, but for a long time he knew neither what sort of thing he wished to write nor how to support himself. After the war, he returned to Oxford and enrolled for a while at the local university. He received mediocre grades in most subjects but flunked English. His early manhood was spent in a series of jobs, from delivering mail to shoveling coal. None worked out well and, after a while, he would either quit or else get fired.
Like many other aspiring authors of the early 1920s, Faulkner went to live in Greenwich Village, the Bohemian section of New York City. The stay was brief and generally lonely, except that he met the writer Sherwood Anderson, who offered valuable guidance. Anderson encouraged Faulkner to focus his literary efforts on the region where he was raised, most especially the Southern storytelling traditions.
After returning once again to Oxford, Faulkner eventually managed to publish a book of poems and a few novels, which sold modestly well but received no critical attention. Then an intense burst of inspiration produced his first major work, The Sound and the Fury in 1929 (also the year of his marriage). This novel not only began to bring Faulkner to the attention of the literary public, but it also inaugurated a period of extraordinary creativity which was to last about a decade and a half.
Several more works followed in rapid succession including such critically acclaimed novels as Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom (1936). He also wrote several collections of short stories including Go Down, Moses, which contained "The Bear," a novella of a young man preparing for life on the frontier which vanishes as he comes to maturity.
Recognition, however, came to Faulkner very slowly. While some critics felt his work contained high drama and themes of nearly Biblical dimensions, others accused Faulkner of being merely sensational. It was not until the late forties that his reputation as a leading American novelist became established. In 1950, Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for literature.
In his final decade Faulkner settled comfortably into a role as an elder statesman of American letters. His fiction became somewhat less pessimistic, though most critics feel that the energy of his early writing was gone. Since his death in 1962, however, his reputation has survived many changes in critical fashions.
The Sound and the Fury is a difficult text even for scholars who are used to literary experiments. It is best, however, not to feel intimidated. The reader who has some idea of what to expect will be far more comfortable with the book.
It is necessary, above all, to lay aside our expectations of a logical sequence of events. The first two parts, most especially, blend past and present, sensation and memory, dream and reality. Though some scenes are relatively clear, we are not always quite certain what is happening. The reader must, therefore, be willing to accept something short of complete understanding. Some may feel disoriented and confused. Those who can relax with the novel will be far better able to enjoy the vividness of the dialogue and description.
The reader must, in other words, first accept the novel on its own terms and not expect a traditional narrative. If the sense of a passage seems unclear, it is best to simply read on so as not to interrupt the flow of images and ideas. Then, if he or she desires, the reader may return later to the difficult passage and reconstruct what it meant. The reader should not worry too much about the details. He or she ought to concentrate instead on understanding important themes.
Before beginning the novel, the reader should also consider, as honestly as possible, just what his or her reason for reading it is. There are many possible motivations. Are you reading it simply to fulfill a school assignment and get a decent grade? Are you reading it for enjoyment? Out of curiosity? Do you wish to learn about literature in general? Are you interested in American history or Southern culture? Are you searching for wisdom? Are you intrigued by interpersonal dynamics?
Most readers will have a combination of motives, but which are more important? The novel may be approached in many ways. If you are aware of your motivations, you will know what sort of details to look for. You will also have a better idea of how much effort to expend. Generally, those readers whose reasons are complex and numerous will take longer than others to finish the novel. They will also find the experience more rewarding.
The best way to read The Sound and the Fury is to devote a session to each section. This should help the reader grasp the internal unity of each part. Those who read less at a session risk missing the connections between scenes. Those who read more at a session risk being unnecessarily confused. If the reader takes an average of one hour and forty five minutes per session, the four sections will require a total reading time of seven hours. This is, however, a very rough expectation. Much will depend, as already noted, on the purposes of the reading.
A single reading will be enough to give a good idea of the style and content of The Sound and the Fury, but it will certainly not enable the reader to understand everything. Many scenes can only be appreciated in retrospect, when one knows about consequences that are only apparent later in the novel. In addition to being aware of his or her purpose, the reader should also decide what level of understanding to be satisfied with. Many people feel moved to reread the book several times over a period of many years.
There are some minor disputes among scholars as to exactly what the correct text of certain passages in The Sound and the Fury should be. A surviving carbon copy of the manuscript as typed by Faulkner does not always correspond to the original edition, and it is uncertain which changes may have been authorized by the author.
In addition, Faulkner wrote a brief supplement to the novel for The Portable Faulkner, edited by Malcolm Crowley and first published in 1945. Most scholars, however, do not regard this as part of the novel. It contradicts the original text on some points, indicating that Faulkner probably did not remember his own narrative terribly well.
This study guide has been written following the text in the Vintage Books edition (1984), edited by Noel Polk, which is both highly regarded and easy to obtain. This discussion has been presented in such a way as to not make the reader dependent on the pagination in this or any other printed copy of the novel.