Last Updated on March 22, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1287
The first section of The Sound and the Fury is told by an erratic, unreliable narrator who rejects the present and eschews conventional chronology to linger in the realm of memory and association. On April 7th, 1928, Benjy, a mentally disabled man who is a member of the aristocratic Compson family in the Southern town of Jefferson, Mississippi, is looking through a fence that borders the Compson property.
On the other side of the fence is a pasture that once belonged to the Compsons but was sold years ago and has since become a golf course. When the golfers call for their caddies, Benjy thinks of his sister, Caddy, whom he associates with the smell of trees. Benjy has no sense of time, and his mind continually wanders between the past and the present. As he considers the sights and sounds of the present, they conjure associations that remind him of two critical, deeply intertwined memories: his grandmother’s funeral and Caddy’s wedding day.
On the day of their grandmother’s burial, Benjy hazily recalls, he and Caddy played in a nearby stream; Caddy fell, dampening her dress and muddying her underclothes without realizing. Later, Caddy climbed a pear tree beside the house to look in on the mourners and see what they were doing. As she climbed the tree, her brothers, Benjy, Jason, and Quentin, saw her muddy underclothes from below, and the sight of his sister’s sullying rendered Benjy incoherent and upset.
Benjy walks around the Compson estate with his keeper, Luster Gibson, the grandson of Dilsey Gibson, the Compson family’s housekeeper. When they return to the house, Benjy and Luster eat the cake Dilsey has prepared for Benjy’s thirty-third birthday. As Benjy undresses for bed, he sees Miss Quentin, Caddy’s illegitimate daughter, climbing out of her window and down the pear tree that Caddy climbed up on the day of their grandmother’s funeral.
The second section of the story is narrated by Quentin Compson, Benjy’s brother, and takes place eighteen years earlier on June 2nd, 1910. Quentin is a student at Harvard and, when the section opens, is lying in bed listening to the ticking of the watch he inherited from his grandfather. When his father gave him the watch, he told him that watches slay time by dividing it up into manageable segments and added that he hoped that the watch would allow Quentin to forget about time.
Like Benjy, Quentin continually thinks about the past, particularly about his sister, Caddy, with whom he is obsessed. Before leaving for Harvard, Quentin falsely told his father that he committed incest with Caddy and that he—not her lover Dalton Ames—was the father of her child. As he gets up from bed, he taps his watch on the corner of his dresser, and the glass face breaks; however, he can still hear it ticking.
Quentin goes outside and has breakfast. He then buys a cigar but only takes a couple of puffs before he gives it away. He buys two flat irons, which look like shoes when they are wrapped, takes a random streetcar, and gets off at a bridge, where he stands for a while, looking into the river and thinking about death. Leaving the bridge, he goes into a bakery and buys some bread for a little girl there, then wanders vaguely into an Italian district, with the girl following him.
The girl’s brother sees them together and attacks Quentin, accusing him of kidnapping his sister. Quentin is arrested, forced to pay a six-dollar fine, and goes away in a car with a wealthy Kentuckian student named Gerald Bland, and his friends, who happen to be passing. In the car, Bland boasts about his sexual conquests, so Quentin hits him, as he associates Bland in his mind with Dalton Ames, who lacks respect for women and, therefore, Caddy. Bland returns the blow, and Quentin winds up bloodied and beaten, slinking back to his room where he leaves his broken watch for his roommate to find, then goes back to the bridge, which he eventually leaps from.
Jason Compson, the final Compson brother, tells the third part of the story, which takes place on April 6th, 1928, the day before Benjy’s narrative. Jason is irrationally angry because Miss Quentin has been missing school. This particular cause for irritation leads Jason to think about the resentment he feels towards all his family members, particularly Quentin, who is now dead, having committed suicide at Harvard in 1910. The family sold the pasture to pay for Quentin’s tuition, which turned out to be a waste.
Unlike Quentin, Jason has always had to work for a living; currently, he has a job as a clerk at an agricultural supply store, which he finds demeaning and beneath him. However, he makes extra money by cashing the checks Caddy sends for Miss Quentin’s upkeep and giving forged checks to his mother. As his mother is too proud to try to cash the forged checks from her daughter—whom she views as fallen for having a child out of wedlock—and always burns them, Jason has been getting away with this for years.
While heading to work, Jason sees Miss Quentin in the company of a man in a red tie, who is part of a troupe of traveling show people. When they nearly run into Jason in their car, he chases them for miles. However, they manage to evade him, and when he gets out of his car to pursue them on foot, they double back and let the air out of his tires. Jason borrows a pump and returns home, where he alludes obliquely to the man in the red tie at dinner. His mother does not understand what he means, but Miss Quentin does and storms out of the dining room. Jason hears Benjy snoring and thinks of the time when Benjy was castrated because he unintentionally frightened some schoolgirls, and his motives were assumed to be impure.
The fourth and final part of the novel unfolds from the perspective of an omniscient third-person narrator, who describes the events of April 8th, 1928, two days after Jason’s narrative and one day after Benjy’s. It is Easter Sunday, and Dilsey—one of the Compson family’s servants—is dressed in her best clothes, ready for church. The Compson household is thrown into uproar early in the morning when it is discovered that Miss Quentin is missing. Her grandmother is certain that she has committed suicide like her uncle Quentin, but Jason quickly discovers that she has run away with the three-thousand dollars that he kept in a strongbox in his bedroom. He goes straight to the sheriff, who refuses to help him, saying that he is not sure whether Jason is the rightful owner of the money.
Jason drives to Mottson, as the troupe of show people is there, and he is convinced that Miss Quentin has run away with the man in the red tie. When he arrives at their camp, he grabs an old man by the arm and tries to question him, but the old man attacks Jason, and he has to be rescued by the manager of the troupe. The manager tells him that Miss Quentin and the man in the red tie are not there. He sent them away because he disapproved of their behavior. Jason returns to Jefferson, where he finds Luster and Benjy out in a carriage. Benjy is howling because Luster has deviated from his normal route, and Jason furiously tells Luster to drive him home. As he sees the familiar sights of Jefferson on the return journey, Benjy grows quiet again.