The Sound and the Fury Themes

Themes

The final scenes of The Sound and the Fury are related by an omniscient narrator. If the whole book had been structured the same way, the novel might be less challenging—and less interesting. Instead, readers must contend with three unreliable narrators in the novel's first three sections: Benjy, an idiot; Quentin, a suicide; and Jason, superficially sane but vicious and heartless. All three narrations feature interior monologues, which, according to literary scholar Robert Humphrey, represent the psychic content and processes of character partly or entirely unuttered, just as these processes exist at various levels of conscious control. Even Jason, who prides himself on dwelling in the "here and now," goes from present to past in his thoughts. He has an extended flashback, or memory of several past scenes, as he opens mail at work. He remembers both his father's funeral and his dealings with his sister, Caddy—whom he blames for his loss of a job in a bank—before a chance comment from his boss, Earl, brings him back to the present, which is Good Friday, April 6,1928.

Benjy, who begins the novel with a narrative describing the events of Saturday, April 7, 1928, his birthday, is an idiot with no sense of cause and effect. Scene shifts from various times in the past occur in Benjy's mind when present-day experiences trigger his memory. If Luster, Benjy's black attendant, unsnags Benjy from a fence in the present, Benjy recalls Caddy freeing him from a fence more than twenty years before. When Benjy follows Luster to a small stream, where children are playing in the water, the scene makes him recall a similar scene with his brothers and sister at the stream thirty years before on the day their grandmother died. Nearly a hundred of these scene shifts, usually indicated by a change in type face, occur in Benjy's narration; they average better than one a page. The juxtaposed story fragments set out themes that help the reader to understand not only Benjy but his family and their situation. William Faulkner seldom juxtaposes more than three or four stories in Benjy's narrative to develop a theme, and with rare exceptions, the broken pieces of narrative are chronological even though they are interwoven with other stories from different times. Before one can discuss thematic development, the broken stories must be briefly described.

In the present, when Luster is Benjy's attendant, Luster looks for a lost quarter that will take buy him a ticket to a circus that is in town. He takes Benjy around the Compson place, goes by the golf course next to the property, plays with other children in the stream, steals a golf ball, and tries to sell it, only to have the ball stolen from him in return—all before he takes Benjy back home. There they blunder into Caddy's daughter Quentin, who is kissing one of the men from the circus. Luster finally gets Benjy inside where Dilsey, not Caroline Compson, has a birthday cake for Benjy on his thirty-third birthday. After Luster teases Benjy, the two eat the cake.

The earliest of Benjy's memories is the Damuddy's death story, where Benjy and his siblings are playing in the stream, unaware that their grandmother has died. Caddy and Quentin fight when Caddy wants to take off her wet dress. In a later story, which takes place in the family living room, Benjy is being told his new name—Benjamin. His mother, upon becoming aware of Benjy's shortcomings, protects her brother at the expense of her son. Shortly afterward, in another story, Benjy and Caddy are used as unwitting go-betweens in an affair that Uncle Maury has with a farmer's wife, Mrs. Patterson. A few years later, in stories that follow steps in Caddy's adolescence, readers see Benjy's reactions to Caddy using perfume, Caddy kissing a boy, and finally, in an action that cannot be undone, Caddy's loss of virginity. In each case (except the latter), Caddy tries to undo whatever has happened in order to pacify Benjy. Caddy's wedding is nightmarish for Benjy, for when T. P., Benjy's attendant at the time, discovers champagne in the cellar which he thinks is "sassprilluh," Benjy gets drunk with T. P. As he does so, Benjy's world spins out of control. Still later stories show Benjy walking through the front gate, trying to ask schoolgirls where Caddy is. After his actions are misinterpreted, the story ends with images of Benjy's castration. The arrival of the corpse of Caddy's brother Quentin at the Compson's home, Mr. Compson's funeral, and Benjy's perspective of the death of Roskus, Dilsey's husband, are the other stories developed in Benjy's narration.

Meaning, however, does not arise from reconstituting stories from the fragments of Benjy's narration, as existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once observed. In the first theme developed through juxtaposition, scenes from the present (where Luster is selfishly trying to enlist Benjy's help in finding his lost quarter), are juxtaposed with others in which Benjy and Caddy go on an errand for Uncle Maury, and in which Benjy and his mother take a carriage ride to the cemetery. Caroline Compson does not know how to pacify Benjy, but Dilsey does. Two of his family are dead: his father Compson and Quentin. Only when Mrs. Patterson in a later scene gets angry at Benjy because he is coming alone to deliver a message, do readers realize that the children have been used as go-betweens in an affair. Luster's selfishness is minor and easy to fathom; Caroline Compson's is more pronounced, while Maury's use of the children is disgusting.

In another sequence of scene shifts, visual snapshots from various deaths are rapidly juxtaposed for ten pages. One sees scenes from the Damuddy's death story, from Quentin's funeral, from Jason Compson's funeral, and from that of Roskus, Dilsey's husband. In one of the scenes from Quentin's funeral, when Roskus is still alive, he says, '"They ain't no luck on this place ... I seen it at first but when they changed his name I knowed it.'" Roskus's statement about no luck is repeated, as if he were a prophet or seer; flapping...

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The Sound and the Fury Themes

Time
The themes in The Sound and the Fury are so closely interwoven with the characters and structure of the novel that it is difficult to separate these elements. In all four sections of the novel, however, time is an important theme that Faulkner develops. The central characters of the four sections each cope with time in a different way. In the first section, Benjy's sense of time is defective. His thoughts move from present to past time without the ability to grasp the real meaning of events. Benjy is free from time because he cannot understand its impact on his feelings. Quentin's efforts to cope with the present are impeded by his memories. He cannot accept the changes in his life that time inevitably brings. His sense of loss over the innocence of his childhood love of Caddy is unbearable. Rather than deal with life's changes over time, he puts an end to time by committing suicide. Jason, on the other hand, lives in time present, around which all his actions flow. By living in time present, Jason reacts to events as they occur, unlike Quentin who acts on time past. In the last section of the book, Dilsey represents another view of time. Hers is a historical view. She embraces all of her life experiences and those of the Compsons with a religious faith about the timelessness of life. Her view most closely reflects the author's viewpoint on time. By having the novel cover four days, each section representing one day, Faulkner is able to use time to give the novel a tight framework.

Pride
Pride is the undoing of the Compson family. The loss of their property and status demoralizes the elder Compsons, Caroline and Jason III, the parents of Benjy, Quentin, Jason, and Caddy. Out of their sense of family pride and their economic and social decline, they turn inward. Mr. Compson turns to alcohol in his sense of loss. Mrs. Compson retreats to her bed and self-pity. Quentin's concern over the family "honor" and how Caddy has shamed the family lead him to kill himself. The younger Jason is racked with pride and it is his undoing. With him it is both pride and jealousy. He feels cheated and feels that he deserves better. Caddy deceived him, he thinks, and he uses this to justify stealing from her. When Caddy's daughter, Quentin, steals from her uncle, Jason, he is outraged that he has been undone. Faulkner shows the tragic results of pride in the characters of these Compson family members.

Love and Passion
Natural and unnatural love among siblings, love between the sexes, and Christian love are themes that pervade The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner shows the love the Compson brothers have for Caddy. Benjy loves the care she gave him when they were young. When he hears the word "caddie" called out on the golf course, he moans because it sounds like her name. He misses her after she leaves home to marry. Benjy's love is the love of an innocent for someone who has shown him affection. Quentin's love for his sister Caddy is an unnatural one. He has incestuous feelings for her. He is jealous of her boyfriends and denies that she has had lovers. He fantasizes an incestuous relationship between them, although Faulkner writes in his "Appendix: Compson 1699-1945" that Quentin "loved not the idea of the incest which he would not commit, but some presbyterian concept of its eternal punishment: he, not God, could by that means cast himself and his sister both into hell, where he could guard her forever and keep her forevermore intact amid the eternal fires." Caddy, as she is presented through her brothers' monologues, seems to develop in a natural way. As a child, she shows love toward Benjy and Quentin. As a young woman, she has lovers, becomes pregnant, marries, and leaves home. Christian love is the thematic note on which the book ends. Through Dilsey, Faulkner presents the view of love that springs from religious faith, a love that endures pain and accepts reality.

Sanity and Insanity
The contrast between Benjy and Jason reflects a theme of sanity and insanity in The Sound and the Fury. An idiot who does not comprehend reality, Benjy displays a world in chaos through his monologue. Faulkner uses his character to explore the meaninglessness of sensory reactions to sounds, sights, and language. Quentin's suicide also can be regarded as an act of insanity because it comes from his inability to deal with reality. Mr. Compson's alcoholism can be seen as a slow suicide. It is an unnatural retreat from reality, as is Mrs. Compson's retreat to her bed. The two characters who emerge as sane in the novel are Jason and Dilsey. Dilsey's sanity is rooted in her total acceptance of the realities of life. Jason also deals with the here and now, but his sanity is perverted by his...

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