The Sound and the Fury, perhaps William Faulkner’s finest novel, follows the decline of a proud Mississippi family. Quickly recognized as a brilliant tour de force, it begins with the direct thoughts of a mentally retarded man and a suicidal youth, and has become a classic example of the stream-of-consciousness novel.
The first three sections are narrated by brothers Benjy, Quentin, and Jason Compson. Benjy, a grown man with the mind of a two-year-old, cannot speak but reacts intuitively to death, loss, light, and his beloved sister Caddy. Innocent Benjy does not know, he can only feel; thus his narrative is filled with images and sensations: “I couldn’t see it, but my hands saw it, and I could hear it getting night.” The youngest brother, he resists change, secure in a limited, ordered world until Caddy goes away.
Quentin, the eldest, is in love with the dead aristocratic past and its outmoded ideals of honor and chivalry. Obsessed with the thought of Caddy’s lost virginity, he invents an incestuous relationship between them. He is guilt-stricken because Benjy’s birthright, the pasture, was sold to send Quentin to Harvard. Isolated and distraught, he cannot bear a world that does not share his ideals. Like Benjy, he resists change; unlike his brother, he rejects life.
Jason, the middle son, is a product of Faulkner’s new, materialistic South. He views himself as a martyr, but in truth he is selfish, greedy, and devoid of compassion. As he seizes control of the family, Jason makes Caddy pay him for the briefest glimpse of her baby daughter and strives to separate them in order to punish both. He becomes a comically desperate man when his embezzled fortune disappears and the stock market falls.
In the fourth section, Dilsey Gibson, the Compsons’ black cook, becomes the central figure. Dilsey is a kind, decent woman who stays with the Compsons not out of love or even loyalty but because it is the right thing to do. She is the strong heart and backbone, the moral center, of this disintegrating family. Faulkner’s tribute to Dilsey, “They endured,” is echoed in his Nobel Prize address.