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.
Perhaps no other modern author in any country has succeeded quite so well as Faulkner in combining an intimate knowledge of traditional rural life with the themes and experiments of the literary avant-garde. Though he remained a regional author, only occasionally venturing outside of Mississippi, his novels are the most celebrated example of "high modernism" in American fiction.
The early decades of the twentieth century, as Faulkner came to maturity, were a period of extraordinary innovation and excitement in the arts. Inspired in part by the work of physicists like Einstein, artists and writers attempted to challenge received notions of time and space. In Europe, cubist painters tried to represent objects from several angles simultaneously, while futurists tried to show several moments in time at once. Surrealists challenged the boundary between fantasy and reality, and Dadaists placed in question the very legitimacy of art itself.
The modernists, a loose alliance of cultural movements, sought to replace traditional artistic forms with new ways of organizing experience. The way human beings experience the world, they pointed out, is far more fluid than a simple chronology. It is a blend of sensation, memory, anticipation, emotion and thought, which can sometimes become almost indistinguishable. In attempts to render the flow of experience, poets like T. S. Eliot broke down traditional forms. Others such as e. e. cummings even rejected traditional syntax.
In prose, the most discussed attempt to bring narrative closer to experience was a technique known as "stream of consciousness." This consisted of presenting the subjective reality of individuals through loosely connected associations rather than recording factual events. Several writers developed this technique almost simultaneously, but most critics feel it culminated in the novel Ulysses by James Joyce, first published in 1922, which sensuously described the perceptions of a man during a fairly ordinary day in Dublin, Ireland.
The most influential modernists were sophisticated cosmopolitans who lived in the great cultural centers of Europe such as London, Berlin, Vienna, Moscow and, above all, Paris. They felt an exhilaration at the rapid pace of intellectual and social change, even if they also feared the future. Faulkner, like virtually every aspiring young writer, made a pilgrimage to Paris as a young man. Though he returned somewhat disenchanted, Faulkner brought the techniques and concerns of the modernist to the literature of a region that was considered "backward" and "provincial." After reading Ulysses, he began to write The Sound and the Fury.
The South that Faulkner wrote about impressed more superficial observers as, depending on their point of view, a rural paradise or a bastion of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Faulkner, with his intimate knowledge of the region, uncovered tensions as complex and dramatic as those of any great Metropolis.
The memory of slavery, Faulkner found, lingered in the South as an ancestral curse, a sort of regional original sin. As a consequence of this, harmonious human relationships were extremely difficult, often impossible. The legacy of this institution remained as racial segregation and as an atmosphere of violence. While slavery was seldom mentioned, associations with it constantly surfaced. Nearly everything in society, in consequence, appeared sullied and degraded.
Sexual relationships, most especially, were complicated by this brutal legacy. The white masters had often amused themselves sexually with female black slaves, something that the mixed complexions of many people constantly brought to mind. For many people, both black and white, this suggested racial pollution. Genetic or social defects of individuals might be blamed on obscure rumors of such liaisons.
The people in Faulkner’s fiction respond to this sense of corruption in various ways. Some seek solace in religion, while others are consumed with rage. Some become embittered and cynical, and still more try to counter the corruption with romantic ideals.
At times, the search for purity culminates in a cult of Southern womanhood. The high value placed on virginity of elite young ladies reflects a longing for lost innocence. The chivalrous ideal appealed to a culture that was still largely agrarian, aristocratic and almost feudal. It placed, however, an unrealistic burden on women, which could lead to bitter conflicts.
Faulkner also realized that the South was changing in ways that were, perhaps, more subtle yet no less comprehensive than the changes coming to more heavily industrialized areas. As the generations raised under slavery died out, racial segregation was no longer universally accepted. Furthermore, the aristocrats were gradually being forced to cede power to the bourgeoisie, and traditional values were corrupted by the pursuit of money.
Though far too knowledgeable and sophisticated to romanticize the old South unduly, Faulkner often seemed to sympathize with the claims of tradition. Though he endorsed the civil rights movement of the 1950s, Faulkner never showed more than a very casual interest in political matters. He was far more interested in dramatizing problems than in searching for solutions. In his most highly regarded works at least, his view is fundamentally tragic.
The most celebrated writers often disregard all the rules that students of literature are expected to observe, and Faulkner is one of the best examples. His critics have had little difficulty in finding things to complain about. Faulkner would sometimes write convoluted sentences, filled with relative clauses in which the pronouns could not be linked with any identifiable antecedents. He seemed, furthermore, to dwell morbidly on obsessions with such subjects as incest, castration and senseless violence. His language is sometimes archaic and, many feel, overly florid.
Such criticisms caused the work of Faulkner to be neglected for much of his life, and similar complaints are still not uncommon today. Faulkner, however, had a wonderful ear for dialogue and an eye for sensual detail. He had fine control over the rhythms of his prose, which can be terse and dramatic or expansive and sensual. He was able to handle great themes of guilt and redemption. Finally, his defenders feel that his works are animated by a passion which renders their technical shortcomings nearly insignificant.
Master List of Characters
I. Members of the Compson Family:
Jason Compson III—the scion of an aristocratic family, husband of Caroline and father of Jason IV, Benjy, Quentin and Caddy. He constantly tells his children that all human endeavor is futile, and that it does not truly matter what a person does. He dies in 1912.
Caroline Compson—the wife of Jason Compson III and mother of the Compson children. She is constantly talking of her own death, which she believes is imminent. Deprived of other psychological supports, she values stability above all else. She banishes Caddy from her home for promiscuity, and she prefers Jason, whom she believes to be most normal, over her other children.
Caddy (Candace) Compson—the second of the Compson children and mother of Miss Quentin. She offers emotional support to her brothers Benjy and Quentin, who both become obsessed with her. She has several affairs, including one with Dalton Ames, who may be the father of Miss Quentin. She then marries Herbert Head, who, on learning of her pregnancy, abandons her. She is then also banished from the Compson house.
Benjy (at first "Maury," name changed to "Benjamin") Compson—the profoundly retarded son of Jason III and Caroline, and their youngest child. Though he cannot speak, the first section of the novel is told from his point of view. He often seems to have an instinctive wisdom, and his cries express the tragedy of the Compson household.
Quentin Compson (Dan)—the eldest child of the Compson family, son of Jason III and Caroline, brother of Caddy, Benjy and Jason III. The second section of the novel is told from his point of view. Despite going to Harvard, he remains obsessed with his sister and her loss of virginity, which, for him, symbolizes all the corruption of the world. He commits suicide by jumping in the Charles River.
Jason Compson IV—the third child of the Compson family, son of Jason III and Caroline, brother of Caddy, Quentin (male) and Benjamin. The third section of the novel is told from his point of view. He is so filled with rage that there seems to be no room for any other passion, and he lashes out against virtually everyone he encounters. He embezzles money sent by Caddy for her daughter Quentin, who, in turn, steals his savings and runs away.
Damuddy—the mother of Caroline Compson, dead since 1898.
Maury Bascomb (Uncle Maury)—the brother of Caroline. Alcoholic and irresponsible, he is constantly taking money from his sister. Initially. Benjy was named "Maury" after him, but the name was changed after the child’s retardation was discovered.
Miss Quentin—the daughter of Caddy, possibly conceived with Dalton Ames. She is constantly tormented by Jason IV, who also steals money that Caddy sends for her. Quentin finally retaliates by stealing the savings of Jason and running away with a travelling performer.
II. Negro Servants in the Compson House:
Dilsey Gibson—the most clearly positive character in the book, Dilsey is the wife of Roskus Gibson, mother of T.P., Versh and Frony and the grandmother of Luster. In the Compson house, she defends Benjy and Miss Quentin against mistreatment by Jason IV, even though her compassion is generally not reciprocated. In the final section of the book, she is generally the main character. Her ability to endure and retain her humanity despite the brutality that surrounds her does much to soften the pessimistic tone of the book.
Frony Gibson—daughter of Dilsey and Roskus and mother of Luster. She seems to take little interest in her son, but she is very concerned about propriety.
Luster Gibson—son of Frony and grandson of Dilsey and Roskus, he holds major responsibility for taking care of Benjy. Despite mistreatment by Jason IV and others, he manages to retain his good humor.
Roskus Gibson—husband of Dilsey, and father of T.P., Versh and Frony. After being nearly incapacitated with rheumatism, he dies around 1914.
T.P. Gibson—the eldest son of Roskus and Dilsey. He is a good-natured man, who helps out with a variety of tasks.
Versh Gibson—the second son of Dilsey and Roskus. He looks after Benjy until Luster takes over. Versh is superstitious and tells Benjy that the name makes him into a "bluegum" or sorcerer.
III. Other Characters:
Dalton Ames—a seducer of Caddy and possible father of Miss Quentin, who views women with contempt. Quentin (male), attempting to defend his sister’s honor, picks a fight with Dalton Ames, but Ames defeats Caddy’s brother effortlessly.
Anse—the sheriff in a town near Cambridge, Mass., who arrests Quentin for allegedly abducting a little girl.
Gerald Bland—a student at Harvard, who devotes himself to boxing and seducing young ladies. Quentin (male) picks a fight with him, but Gerald defeats his adversary without trouble.
Mrs. Bland—the mother of Gerald and a constant defender of male privilege. She defends Quentin (male) against the charge of abducting a child, but she takes pride in her son’s sexual conquests.
Three Boys—encountered by Quentin (male) as he wanders about Cambridge, Mass. They dream of winning a reward by catching a huge trout, but, rather than trying, they decide to go swimming.
Charlie—an early boyfriend of Caddy who shares a swing with her.
Deacon—a Negro at Harvard from the South, to whom Quentin (male) entrusts his suicide note.
Earl—the employer of Jason IV. He is troubled by the lack of time spent by Jason at work and suspects him of questionable financial dealing, but he does not wish to fire Jason out of regard for Mrs. Compson.
Little Italian Girl—a young girl who gets lost and whom Quentin (male) attempts to help, only to be accused by her brother of abduction.
Herbert Head—becomes engaged to marry Caddy and promises Jason IV a position at his bank. On learning Caddy is not a virgin, he breaks the engagement and rescinds his promise to Jason IV.
Uncle Job—an African-American who works alongside of Jason IV. He constantly angers his colleague with a casual approach to work, but Earl considers him very reliable.
Lorraine—a prostitute whom Jason IV visits in Memphis on weekends. Though Jason speaks of her, like everyone else, with contempt she is able to manipulate him for money. He does not want their relationship known and forbids her to call him at work.
Old Man—he is with a troop of travelling entertainers. After Jason IV, searching for his niece and her money, calls the old man a "liar," the man runs after him with an axe.
The Man with the Red Tie—a member of the troop of travelling entertainers, recognized by his red tie. He eventually helps Miss Quentin run away.
Natalie—an early girlfriend of Quentin, who arouses the anger of Caddy.
Jeweler—a man whom Quentin visits to ask if the watch from his father can be repaired.
Mrs. Patterson—a married woman with whom Uncle Maury is having an affair.
Mr. Patterson—the husband of Mrs. Patterson. He learns of Uncle Maury’s affair with his wife and assaults Uncle Maury.
Shreve MacKenzie—a roommate of Quentin (male) at Harvard who comes from Canada (also a character in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom).
Spoade—a fellow student of Quentin (male) and Shreve MacKenzie at Harvard, who has a reputation for laziness.
Squire—a public official who tries Quentin after he has been charged with abducting a young girl in Cambridge. He takes a very casual approach to the law, makes no judgement but requires Quentin to pay six dollars.
Rev. Shegog—a pastor who preaches a sermon that moves parishioners at the Negro church in Jefferson to tears.
Troop Manager—looks after the travelling entertainers and rescues Jason IV after one of the troop has assaulted Jason with an axe.
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.
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The Sound and the Fury, perhaps William Faulkner’s finest novel, follows the decline of a proud Mississippi family. Quickly recognized as a brilliant tour de force, it begins with the direct thoughts of a mentally retarded man and a suicidal youth, and has become a classic example of the stream-of-consciousness novel.
The first three sections are narrated by brothers Benjy, Quentin, and Jason Compson. Benjy, a grown man with the mind of a two-year-old, cannot speak but reacts intuitively to death, loss, light, and his beloved sister Caddy. Innocent Benjy does not know, he can only feel; thus his narrative is filled with images and sensations: “I couldn’t see it, but my hands saw it, and I could hear...
(The entire section is 361 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Compsons, a once-prominent Mississippi family, are in decline. The land that was once their sprawling plantation has been sold and turned into a golf course, and their once-splendid mansion is badly dilapidated. At the head of the family are Mr. Jason Compson, a retired lawyer taken to drink, and his wife, Caroline, a hypochondriac who spends most of her days in bed.
Benjamin, the Compsons’ youngest child, a developmentally disabled man, begins to tell the story of his life. On April 7, 1928, his thirty-third birthday, while he walks along the golf course with Luster, his caretaker, Benjy begins to reminisce about his childhood years. His mind jumps from event to event, covering more than a dozen events in all....
(The entire section is 860 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Sound and the Fury is about another family, the Compsons; like the Sartorises, they are of the aristocratic social level, the planter class. Unlike the Sartorises, who live north of Jefferson, the Compsons live in town. They consist of Mr. and Mrs. Compson and four children: Quentin, the oldest son, commits suicide while a student at Harvard University; he is attracted to his sister Caddy. Benjy, born Maury, is an idiot son. Jason, the youngest son, is grasping and amoral, without feeling for other people. The other important members of the household are Miss Quentin, Caddy’s illegitimate daughter (named for her uncle), and the black servant Dilsey, modeled to a great extent after the Falkner family’s Mammy...
(The entire section is 684 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Part 1 Summary and Analysis
Benjy: April 7, 1928
Maury Bascomb: brother of Mrs Caroline Compson. He is having an affair with Mrs Patterson
Benjy Compson (Maury, Benjamin): a profoundly retarded man, from whose perspective the section is narrated. He is the youngest son in the Compson family; brother of Caddy, Quentin (male) and Jason IV
Caddy (Candace) Compson: daughter of Mr and Mrs Compson, sister of Benjy, Quentin (male) and
Mrs Caroline Compson: mother of Benjy, Caddy, Quentin (male) and Jason IV
Jason Compson III: father of Benjy, Caddy, Quentin (male) and Jason IV
Jason Compson IV: son of Mr and Mrs Compson, brother of Benjy, Caddy and Quentin...
(The entire section is 5153 words.)
Part 2 Summary and Analysis
Quentin: June 2, 1910
Dalton Ames: the seducer of Caddy, with whom Quentin either remembers or imagines having had an encounter
Anse: the law enforcement officer who arrests Quentin
Gerald Bland: a young man from Kentucky who reminds Quentin of Dalton Ames. Quentin picks a fight with Gerald Bland and loses badly
Mrs Bland: the mother of Gerald Bland, who boasts about her son’s sexual conquests
Three Boys: youngsters Quentin encounters as they gaze at an enormous trout and daydream about the prize they could win by catching it
Deacon: an elderly Negro man who hangs around campus and reminds Quentin of Roskus. Quentin entrusts Deacon with...
(The entire section is 4283 words.)
Part 3 Summary and Analysis
Jason: April 6, 1928
Earl: owner of the department store where Jason works
Job: a Negro who works alongside Jason
Lorraine: a prostitute Jason sees in Memphis, to whom he gives money
This part takes place on the day before that of the first part. It is narrated from the point of view of Jason, the second youngest Compson child. This part of the novel is certainly more coherent than the previous two, but we should not assume the accounts in it are necessarily more reliable. While Benjy is limited by retardation and Quentin has a tendency to fantasize, Jason’s perspective is shaped by his anger and resentment.
As the section begins, Mrs...
(The entire section is 3070 words.)
Part 4 Summary and Analysis
Dilsey: April 8, 1928
Old Man: a member of the troop of travelling entertainers. When Jason presses him for information about the location of Miss Quentin, the man goes after Jason with an axe
Troop Manager: helps rescue Jason, then assures him that the couple he seeks is not around
The Sheriff of Jefferson: the law enforcement officer to whom Jason complains after Miss Quentin has taken money from his room and run away. He declines to pursue Miss Quentin
This part of the novel is not narrated from the perspective of any character, but it centers largely around Dilsey. It takes place on Easter Sunday. Luster, to whom Dilsey gave a quarter so he...
(The entire section is 2001 words.)