The Sound and the Fury Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

Interpreting Caddy Compson

William Faulkner's fourth novel, The Sound and the Fury, is a haunting and sometimes bewildering novel that surprises and absorbs the reader each time it is read. The novel was Faulkner's personal favorite and, along with James Joyce's novel Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land, is generally thought to be one of the greatest works of literature in English of the twentieth century. The Sound and the Fury also signalled the beginning of the "major period" of Faulkner's own literary creativity; four of the five novels that followed—As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!—are, along with The Sound and the Fury, often regarded as the best in Faulkner's oeuvre. Not surprisingly, the novel has received an extraordinary amount of critical analysis, much of which has been devoted to explaining Faulkner's technical experimentations. Critics have also widely discussed Faulkner's treatment of issues such as race, suicide, incest, time, history, and religion. Central to any reading of the novel, however, is the character that Faulkner claimed was his source for the novel—Caddy. Richard Gray has described Caddy as the novel's "absent presence" and each of the four sections as "another attempt to know her." But to the reader, Caddy remains an elusive mystery whose enforced silence prevents her from ever being known. To her three brothers, she is a source of obsession and irritation that cannot be forgotten or overcome.

The Sound and the Fury explores the breakdown of the familial relationships that lead to the Compson family's tragic deterioration. Few readers would disagree that the family's demise is indeed tragic, but the precise reasons for the downfall are still debated. David Dowling has suggested that the tragedy of the Compsons is that they are slaves to themselves and to the past. This argument is particularly relevant to the novel's first two sections. Benjy's monologue, for example, is uttered in the present—Easter weekend, 1928—but is mainly comprised of memories from his childhood and adolescence. Most of these memories are connected to his sister, Caddy, whose departure following her marriage to Herbert Head leaves a void in Benjy's life. Because Caddy was the one family member to provide Benjy with the nurturing love that he needed, and because, as Margaret Bauer observes, Mrs. Compson does little else but whine about being punished by God for her family's transgressions, Caddy was more of a mother figure to Benjy than Mrs. Compson was. Through his monologue, which often obscures the boundaries between present and past, Benjy reveals both a deep-seated attachment to a past inhabited by Caddy and a desperate yearning for her return. Like his companion, Luster, who is busy searching for a lost quarter, Benjy, too, hopes to find that which he has lost.

As many critics have noted, Benjy's memories are largely concerned with Caddy's sexuality. His disapproving cries after catching Caddy and Charlie on the swing provide merely one example of his preoccupation with his sister's sexual awakening. It is in the second section, however, that Caddy's sexuality emerges as the central issue of the novel. Quentin is totally obsessed by the subject and throughout the morning, afternoon, and evening of June 2, 1910, can think of little else. His relationship with his sister is anticipated by the childhood scene at the branch where Caddy, ignoring Quentin's protests, removes her dress in front of her brothers and Versh. Quentin slaps Caddy, who then falls on her behind and muddies her drawers. This highly symbolic scene prefigures Caddy's future as a so-called "fallen woman" and shows Quentin's futile attempts to protect his sister's honor and body. Some readers also believe that the scene suggests Quentin's implication in his sister's later promiscuity, as well as his own incestuous feelings towards her.

When Caddy reaches sexual maturity, Quentin is still trying to protect her but his attempts are always unsuccessful. Just as he fails to prevent Caddy from taking off her dress at the branch, so he fails later in life when confronting Caddy's lover, Dalton Ames. His final defeat occurs on the afternoon of June 2, 1910, as he is driving with Mrs. Bland and some friends from school. One of his friends, Gerald Bland, begins "blowing off" about his many women and Quentin, who has just been thinking about the humiliating incident with Caddy's lover, automatically repeats the same question he had asked Dalton: "Did you ever have a sister?" Ironically, the beating Quentin then receives from Gerald occurs just moments after Quentin was himself accused of kidnapping a little girl. The girl's brother, Julio, threatens to kill Quentin, thereby reproducing—and mocking—Quentin's threats against Dalton.

Like Benjy,...

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Dilsey's Easter Conversion in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury

The main action of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury occurs during Easter Week, 1928. Because Easter is the holiest event in the Christian calendar, and because the Passion Week serves as the book's main organizing device, many readers have sensed the presence of religious themes in this often opaque work. But over the past five decades, critical interpretations have ranged from Christian spirituality to existential nothingness. While there has been no consensus on the meaning of the novel, Faulkner scholars have agreed over the years that the structure of The Sound and the Fury follows the Modernist "mythical method." Much as the Odyssey gives form and sequence to Joyce's Ulysses, episodes and images from the Christian Holy Week provide an external framework to Faulkner's narrative. Members of the Compson family undergo experiences which rehearse episodes from the last days of Jesus's life. The four sections of the novel form four Compson gospels, which like the biblical originals develop and expand the story they retell. These parallels to the gospel tradition are most insistent during the Sunday church service in the fourth section of The Sound and the Fury. By means of his powerful if unorthodox rendition of the Passion narrative, the Reverend Shegog wakens in Dilsey capacities for spiritual renewal. Her visionary Easter experience then rouses her to secular acts of rejection and affirmation.

Dilsey Gibson, the kindly and long-suffering domestic worker at the Compson place, is the major non-Compson character in The Sound and the Fury. A long-standing scholarly interpretation is that Dilsey represents a moral norm in the decadent Compson world and her actions set a standard of humane behavior. Opposing such a "religious" reading of the novel is the nihilistic view, in which Dilsey's Christianity is meaningless or irrelevant. Both approaches tend to regard Dilsey, whether noble or absurd, as static. Few critics of The Sound and the Fury see her as a developing character, although some describe her at the end of the novel as more devoted to the Compsons. My view is that the novel's fourth section, as well as the "Appendix: Compson," suggests the opposite—that she turns away from the Compsons after the Easter Sunday service. Her conversion is religious in that the Reverend Shegog's sermon revitalizes her faith in the Christian God. Yet her Easter experience also has practical consequences. Her life changes as she begins to distance herself from the Compsons and to reaffirm her membership in her African-American family.

Although she appears in the novel's first three sections, Dilsey figures most importantly in the fourth chapter—so much so that it is frequently called "Dilsey's section." She wakes to a cold, gray dawn on Sunday and works to warm the tomblike Compson house. It is worth noting that Easter means nothing to the Compsons (although Dilsey leads the retardate Benjy Compson uncomprehending to Sunday service). Her morning chores done, she makes the long walk to church. Dilsey, her daughter Frony, and her grandson Luster follow the wet streets of Jefferson, Mississippi, until the pavement runs out. Then they step down a dirt road to "a weathered church" outside town, where a revivalist minister from St. Louis preaches the Easter sermon. At first they are disappointed with the "shabby" little traveling minister, with his "monkey face" and "monkey body." But when his voice glides from the "level and cold" inflections of a white man into African-American intonations, they respond warmly.

However, the Reverend Shegog's use of Black English to stir his Mississippi congregation apparently has led some readers to underestimate him as a thinker. His Easter sermon is an acknowledged masterpiece of style and showmanship, but it is also impressive for its artistic skill and intellectual understanding of the Christ story. The Reverend Shegog reveals himself in Faulkner's text to be a learned man whose unconventional exegesis combines material from Christian, Hebraic, and Near Eastern sources to reconstruct the Passion narrative. By advancing a renovating vision of the power of life over death, his homily prompts Dilsey to break free from the Compsons and to renounce her years of resignation and denial.

The Reverend Shegog's sermon is based on the Christian concept of divine love, the mainspring for the redemption of humankind. But at the same time it insists that God's grace and forgiveness are not boundless. When the Last Judgment comes, the Almighty sternly warns, "'I aint gwine load down heaven!'" God's mercy and the granting of salvation are presented as inherently limited and conditional. This sermon depicts an angry God who denounces those who reject goodness and deny His love. In effect He says, you have murdered my innocent Son; for that, you will be destroyed. God the Father in heaven looks down on the cross on Calvary and cries in fury, "'dey done kilt Jesus; dey done kilt my Son!'" In punishment for the crucifixion, God drowns the world. "O blind sinner! Breddren, I tells you; sistuhn, I says to you, when de Lawd did turn His mighty face, say, Aint gwine overload heaven! I can see de widowed God shet His do'; I sees de whelmin flood roll between; I sees de darkness en de death everlastin upon de generations."

As many commentators have shown, and as he insisted, Faulkner knew the Scriptures well; his fiction includes many biblical parallels as well as Christ and Adam figures, such as Joe Christmas or Isaac McCaslin. In The Sound and the Fury the Reverend Shegog does not merely repeat the well-known events of the Easter story. Instead, he refashions the details of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to develop a mythological pattern consistent with the Passion narrative.

The most significant of these scriptural rearrangements occurs when the Reverend Shegog places the destruction of the world by water after the crucifixion of Christ. When Jesus dies on Calvary, His Father sends down global ruin in the form of a flood, an audacious reworking of the Noah-flood story from Hebrew Scripture. Then, amid total devastation caused by the scourging waters, there arises the promise of renewal in the figure of the risen Christ. The millennium arrives all of a sudden at the darkest hour:

"Den, lo! Breddren! Yes, breddren! Whut I see? Whut I see, O sinner? I sees de resurrection en de light, sees de meek Jesus saying Dey kilt Me dat ye shall live again, I died dat dem whut sees en believes shall never die. Breddren, O breddren! I sees de doom crack en hears de golden horns shoutin down de glory, en de arisen dead whut got de blood and de ricklickshun of de Lamb!"

In a dramatic departure from creedal orthodoxy, the Reverend Shegog's sermon abruptly asserts the power of life (the resurrection of Jesus) precisely at the moment when the power of death seems all-engulfing (the destruction of the world by flood after the crucifixion). While this account revises the orthodox Passion narrative, it has a mythic or poetic logic which recalls the classical literary form of the elegy. In "a rebound as sudden as that in 'Lycidas,' [the Reverend Shegog] makes the typical elegiac turn from universal despair to universal comfort and joy" [according to Richard P. Adams in Faulkner: Myth and Motion]. This ancient pre-Christian parabola of death and resurrection gives the Reverend Shegog's sermon its formal structure: borrowing from elegiac...

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The Death of a Family

The subject-matter [of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury] is the death of a family and the corresponding decay of a society. More narrowly, the novel is about the various Compsons—parents and children, brothers and sisters—and how they are able or not able to love each other, and how the failure of love destroys them all. The central focus is the beautiful and doomed Candace Compson. We never see her full-face or hear her speak in her own persona. She lives for us only in the tortured and highly subjective recollection of her three brothers: Benjy, the congenital idiot; Quentin, the moral abstractionist and suicide; Jason, the sociopath who lives only for money ("who to me represented pure evil. He's the most...

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