Although there are several different types of irony, the term is a common literary device used effectively by authors to convey to their readers a sense of contradiction. In literature, the device often takes the form of a method to reveal that the seeming reality presented in the plot and expected by readers is quite different from the underlying truth. In The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner expertly employs the device to undermine various cultural myths in this experimental novel.
The plot of The Sound and the Fury is divided into four parts that provide flashbacks to various events in the lives of the Compson family members. The Compsons, a Southern aristocratic family of distinction in Mississippi from the 1890s to the late 1920s, are decaying rapidly, along with their reputation. The events are not presented in chronological order, which makes for a difficult read.
In parts 1, 2, and 3, Faulkner uses the stream of consciousness technique, in which the thoughts of his characters flow freely, allowing readers to peer into their minds to get a vision of the “truth” as they perceive it. In part 4, a third-party narrator puts the prior events into chronology, unfiltered through the minds of the characters, which ironically reveals the truths leading to the family’s decline. For example, Mrs. Compson, who purports to be a well-bred Southern lady, does not fit the mold. She is self-centered and morally unreliable. She relies on a false persona. She is basically meaningless.
Other myths are also shattered by the author’s use of irony. Like her mother, Caddy is morally empty. She receives no family support and experiences the negative side of life. She has no sense of sexual morality and loses her innocence, to the chagrin of the family.
Mr. Compson purports to be a Southern gentleman and head of a prestigious family. In reality, he inherited his wealth, drank himself to death, and left his family in a dire situation.
The Compsons’ youngest son, Benjy, is mentally “bankrupt” and morally weak. He is referred to as “the idiot.” Oldest son Quentin suffers from emotional instability and is suicidal. Middle son Jason believes in his mind that he is honest. In reality, he is dishonest, malicious, greedy, and morally corrupt.
The book title The Sound and the Fury is a direct reference to Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. A similarity between Shakespeare’s vision of life in his play and Faulkner’s theme in his novel sheds light on the use of irony to demonstrate the contradiction between the perception of life through the eyes of Faulkner’s characters and the reality seen by the readers.
In act 5 of Macbeth, the tragic king’s famous soliloquy includes the following passage:
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s characters deeply regret past events that serve to foreshadow future family decay. They lose their property, prosperity, reputation, and envisioned domain because they act like “lighted fools.” Quentin’s suicide by drowning is ironically not a literal “dusty death.” The Compsons envision life not as a joyful passage of time, but as a “brief candle” burning out due to their own actions. The Compsons in reality are all “idiots,” because of their hypocritical mental misrepresentations of life.
In literature, the phrase "sound and fury" has come to mean a lot of loud and angry noise that is empty, meaningless, and resolves nothing. Faulkner uses irony to highlight and challenge the myths in the minds of his characters, who, in reality, have created their own moral wasteland.