Interpreting Caddy Compson
William Faulkner's fourth novel, The Sound and the Fury, is a haunting and sometimes bewildering novel that surprises and absorbs the reader each time it is read. The novel was Faulkner's personal favorite and, along with James Joyce's novel Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land, is generally thought to be one of the greatest works of literature in English of the twentieth century. The Sound and the Fury also signalled the beginning of the "major period" of Faulkner's own literary creativity; four of the five novels that followed—As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!—are, along with The Sound and the Fury, often regarded as the best in Faulkner's oeuvre. Not surprisingly, the novel has received an extraordinary amount of critical analysis, much of which has been devoted to explaining Faulkner's technical experimentations. Critics have also widely discussed Faulkner's treatment of issues such as race, suicide, incest, time, history, and religion. Central to any reading of the novel, however, is the character that Faulkner claimed was his source for the novel—Caddy. Richard Gray has described Caddy as the novel's "absent presence" and each of the four sections as "another attempt to know her." But to the reader, Caddy remains an elusive mystery whose enforced silence prevents her from ever being known. To her three brothers, she is a source of obsession and irritation that cannot be forgotten or overcome.
The Sound and the Fury explores the breakdown of the familial relationships that lead to the Compson family's tragic deterioration. Few readers would disagree that the family's demise is indeed tragic, but the precise reasons for the downfall are still debated. David Dowling has suggested that the tragedy of the Compsons is that they are slaves to themselves and to the past. This argument is particularly relevant to the novel's first two sections. Benjy's monologue, for example, is uttered in the present—Easter weekend, 1928—but is mainly comprised of memories from his childhood and adolescence. Most of these memories are connected to his sister, Caddy, whose departure following her marriage to Herbert Head leaves a void in Benjy's life. Because Caddy was the one family member to provide Benjy with the nurturing love that he needed, and because, as Margaret Bauer observes, Mrs. Compson does little else but whine about being punished by God for her family's transgressions, Caddy was more of a mother figure to Benjy than Mrs. Compson was. Through his monologue, which often obscures the boundaries between present and past, Benjy reveals both a deep-seated attachment to a past inhabited by Caddy and a desperate yearning for her return. Like his companion, Luster, who is busy searching for a lost quarter, Benjy, too, hopes to find that which he has lost.
As many critics have noted, Benjy's memories are largely concerned with Caddy's sexuality. His disapproving cries after catching Caddy and Charlie on the swing provide merely one example of his preoccupation with his sister's sexual awakening. It is in the second section, however, that Caddy's sexuality emerges as the central issue of the novel. Quentin is totally obsessed by the subject and throughout the morning, afternoon, and evening of June 2, 1910, can think of little else. His relationship with his sister is anticipated by the childhood scene at the branch where Caddy, ignoring Quentin's protests, removes her dress in front of her brothers and Versh. Quentin slaps Caddy, who then falls on her behind and muddies her drawers. This highly symbolic scene prefigures Caddy's future as a so-called "fallen woman" and shows Quentin's futile attempts to protect his sister's honor and body. Some readers also believe that the scene suggests Quentin's implication in his sister's later promiscuity, as well as his own incestuous feelings towards her.
When Caddy reaches sexual maturity, Quentin is still trying to protect her but his attempts are always unsuccessful. Just as he fails to prevent Caddy from taking off her dress at the branch, so he fails later in life when confronting Caddy's lover, Dalton Ames. His final defeat occurs on the afternoon of June 2, 1910, as he is driving with Mrs. Bland and some friends from school. One of his friends, Gerald Bland, begins "blowing off" about his many women and Quentin, who has just been thinking about the humiliating incident with Caddy's lover, automatically repeats the same question he had asked Dalton: "Did you ever have a sister?" Ironically, the beating Quentin then receives from Gerald occurs just moments after Quentin was himself accused of kidnapping a little girl. The girl's brother, Julio, threatens to kill Quentin, thereby reproducing—and mocking—Quentin's threats against Dalton.
(The entire section is 1979 words.)