The Sound and the Fury

by William Faulkner

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Critical Evaluation

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The Sound and the Fury is William Faulkner’s first masterpiece. His initial two novels, Soldiers’ Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927), were apprentice efforts. His third novel, Sartoris (1929), was the first set in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, a territory in northern Mississippi that would serve as the setting for most of his subsequent novels and short stories. In telling the Yoknapatawpha County saga, Faulkner created a fictional history of the entire American South.

What separates The Sound and the Fury from his three earlier novels is its technique. Faulkner’s first novels are, for the most part, narrated chronologically by an omniscient narrator. The Sound and the Fury breaks that pattern. Each of the novel’s four chapters is told by a different narrator. The first chapter is told by Benjy, the second by Quentin, the third by Jason, and the fourth by an omniscient narrator. Faulkner was one of the first American writers to employ such a complex narrative strategy, though modernist British novelists such as Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf had earlier published works using such strategies.

Through the use of multiple narrators, Faulkner is able to relate the Compson family saga from four separate viewpoints. Each of the three Compson sons brings to the story a different set of perspectives and prejudices. Benjy, whose narrative covers about twenty-five years of Compson family history, is the most honest of the novel’s narrators. Mentally incapable of making critical judgments, Benjy simply narrates events as he saw them. Moaning and weeping, Benjy registers the painful episodes in this family’s tragic history.

Opening the novel with Benjy’s narrative was risky for Faulkner. Benjy’s mind is unable to focus on a single event for more than a few pages; he skips arbitrarily from event to event, rendering his tale meaningless to anyone who does not read it very carefully. Faulkner’s decision to let Benjy speak first was a brilliant one, for it suggests the themes to which the author would return again and again. For Faulkner, a southerner with a keen sense of his region’s tragic past, history was not the linear story of humanity’s accomplishments but rather a jumbled tale of pain. The title of The Sound and the Fury comes from lines in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623): “Life . . . is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.” Benjy’s rendering of Compson history is, indeed, the anguished tale of an idiot, full of sound and fury.

Quentin’s narrative also features time shifts and stream-of-consciousness narration, techniques that Faulkner borrowed from James Joyce and used brilliantly in The Sound and the Fury and future novels. Quentin can function better than Benjy in the present, but, like his developmentally disabled brother, he is unable to keep past events from dominating his present life. He is traumatized and emotionally paralyzed by his sister’s sexual promiscuity; he cannot forget these past events and move on with his life. Tormented by the past, and guilty over his own incestuous desire for Caddy, Quentin finds no escape other than suicide. His tragic end suggests Faulkner’s view that the past is inescapable; it continues to affect and shape the present and future.

Jason’s narrative is, for the most part, chronological, yet he, like his brothers, is unable to escape the traumas of the past. He is an angry man, and his bitterness is rooted in events from the past—his family’s willingness to offer Quentin a Harvard education while Jason was not even able to attend the state university and Caddy’s failure to arrange a banking career for...

(This entire section contains 984 words.)

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him through her husband. Though Jason holds a job and functions normally, he is a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, obsessed with past events. Jason is also a greedy man, and his preoccupation with money reflects the drift toward commercialism in the South as the plantation society faded in the post-Civil War period.

The novel’s final chapter is told by an omniscient narrator, an attempt by Faulkner to allow an objective speaker to tell the Compsons’ story. This chapter focuses on Dilsey, who is depicted sensitively by neither Benjy nor Jason. With Faulkner narrating, Dilsey emerges as something of a heroine, a woman who has attempted to hold the Compson family together through decades of tragedy.

Though each of her three brothers assumes the role of narrator, Caddy is never allowed to tell her story in the first person. Faulkner once stated that he decided not to use Caddy as a narrator because she was “too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes.” As Faulkner suggests, Caddy becomes a symbol of lost innocence. Benjy narrates an episode in which Caddy muddies her drawers in the stream (on the evening of their grandmother’s funeral), and Caddy’s soiled undergarments foreshadow her fall from innocence. Finding little compassion and love in the Compson household, she seeks it through sexual encounters, which ultimately leave her pregnant and, later, rejected by her husband and family. She becomes a focal point in all her brothers’ narratives and the major cause of their anger.

Told chronologically, The Sound and the Fury is the saga of a southern family in decline. Faulkner’s portrait of the once-prominent Compson clan shows two dysfunctional parents, a suicidal son, a fallen daughter, a developmentally disabled son, and a son racked with bitterness. For Faulkner, the Compsons represent the collapse of the South’s social order in the decades following the Civil War. Faulkner would elaborate on this compelling theme in future works and, in novels such as As I Lay Dying (1930) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), perfect the daring narrative strategies he first employed in The Sound and the Fury.

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