Why is The Sound and the Fury considered a modernist text?

Expert Answers
mercut1469 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Modernist writers often focused on fragmented, nonlinear narrations which sometimes dealt with themes of isolation and loss. These elements are in abundance in William Faulkner's novel The Sound and the Fury. The novel is mostly set in the mythical town of Jefferson, Mississippi and tells the story of the once aristocratic Compson family through the eyes of four different characters. Faulkner uses a nonlinear approach in weaving his plot, with the opening chapter set on "April Seventh, 1928" but then back tracking to 1910, before returning to April, 1928 with two more chapters set on the day before and the day after the seventh.

Faulkner also employs the modernist technique of "stream of consciousness," a mode of writing utilized by the famous European writers James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Streams of thoughts without chronological order pervade the text, especially in the first chapter which is told from the point of view of the mentally challenged Benjy Compson whose thoughts alternate between present day events and past experiences. This fragmented style is in direct correlation to the disjointed way in which Benjy experiences reality. Faulkner employed italics to delineate the flashbacks which are frequent in Benjy's telling of the story.

Likewise, chapter two, told from the point of view of Benjy's older brother Quentin, takes the reader back to 1910 and again fluctuates between Quentin's present day activities and the past. This chapter focuses primarily on what Quentin perceives is his family's loss of reputation because his sister Caddy has become pregnant out of wedlock. Quentin is unable to reconcile his southern heritage of honor and chivalry with his sister's promiscuity. He eventually commits suicide by drowning. This chapter also makes use of fragmented text and incomplete thoughts. Even in appearance, the text often lacks punctuation and doesn't conform to the accepted rules of grammar (the modernist poet E.E. Cummings also abandoned punctuation principals in his work).

The third chapter shifts back to the day before Benjy's section and tells the story of Benjy's and Quentin's younger brother Jason, who has been left as the caretaker of his family, which now consists of his hypochondriac mother, Benjy, the undisciplined and promiscuous Quentin, the illegitimate daughter of Caddy, as well as several black servants. Jason's section is the most linear and conventional part of the book. It tells the story from the first person point of view of Jason. The chapter further dwells on the family's loss of honor as Jason has become bitter and cynical as he attempts to keep the family's economic situation from deteriorating. 

The final chapter again shifts its narrative technique as it contrasts with other chapters because it abandons the first person narrative which dominated the first three sections. It is told from several perspectives but basically focuses on the black servant Dilsey, who is the real head of the Compson family. The chapter also relates the story of how young Quentin takes off with the money Jason had hidden away in his bedroom safe. The money was a combination of Jason's life savings and the money he had stolen which had been originally meant for Miss Quentin's support. The episode highlights the losses which continue to plague the family.

Faulkner's novel is a masterpiece of shifting viewpoints and narrative techniques. Although many of the same events are related throughout the book, it is often difficult to resolve these different versions in any comprehensible fashion. This, of course, was Faulkner's purpose. He viewed the world as highly fragmented and difficult to understand because each individual has his or her own version of what the truth might be at any given point in time. The Sound and the Fury was only the beginning of Faulkner's experimentation and he would write even more challenging modernist novels such as As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom.

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question