William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury
After the problems getting Sartoris/Flags in the Dust published, Faulkner was determined to write the novel he wanted to write, regardless of what publishers wanted. This is the result, a novel that may be his most difficult (for the reader) but is also the one that has had the best critical reception. Critics are divided as to what it means, though you can take it as the decline of the Compson family and, by extension, the decline of the South.
The novel is divided into four sections, three of which take place in early April 1928 and one in June, 1910, though all four refer extensively back to the past. Faulkner, in later editions, provided a detailed background to the Compsons. For our purposes, the main characters are the four Compson children. The oldest is Quentin (a male), his sister, Candace, known as Caddy, their mentally retarded brother, Benjy (formerly Maury) and the youngest brother, Jason. Other significant characters are their parents, Jason and Caroline, their grandmother, Damuddy, whose funeral is key, Caddy’s illegitimate daughter, also called Quentin, and the black servants, Dilsey, the matriarch, and her sons and grandson who look after the mentally retarded Benjy during his life.
The first section, nominally set in April 1928, is narrated by the thirty-three year old, mentally retarded Benjy. Benjy has little concept of time, so jumps back and forward, which, till you have read the rest of the book, is quite confusing. In particular, he recounts Damuddy’s funeral, for which the children have been sent outside and which can only be seen by Caddy, who climbs up the pear tree to see inside and reveals her muddy drawers to her three brothers, all who react differently to this sight. Benjy is an embarrassment to the family and, indeed, his name is changed (from Maury) in order not to embarrass his Uncle Maury. But Caddy is devoted to him, the only one of the family who is. Accordingly, much of this section is about Caddy.
The second section jumps back to 1910 and recounts (as we only later find out) Quentin’s (the brother) last day alive, as he will kill himself later that day. Quentin is confused and, as a result, his thoughts are also somewhat confused. However, we learn that he is particularly fond of his sister, perhaps too fond, verging on incest. He does have the old-fashioned Southern view of women and tries (unsuccessfully) to protect his sister from men and gets beaten both when he confronts Dalton Ames, the man who impregnated her, and on this day, when he confronts a man who looks like Ames. In his wanderings around Boston (he is at Harvard) he is followed by a lost young Italian girl who does not seem to speak English and whom he is accused of abducting and whom he calls sister.
The third to speak, back in April 1928, is Jason, the youngest and most bitter. Jason is a nasty piece of work, particularly to his niece, Quentin, who is now living with the Compson family. He is greedy and cheats his niece out of the money his sister sends her daughter. But this section is where we learn the other bad things that have happened to the family and show how it has fallen. We learn of Quentin’s suicide, Caddy’s divorce, the fact that the family has had Benjy castrated because they feel he might be a danger, and that their father was an alcoholic and also fairly nasty.
The final section – also April 1928 – is told from the narrator’s point of view. It will be noted that, though she might be the central character, Caddy does not have her own section. We only see her through the (somewhat distorted) eyes of her brothers. Much of the emphasis is on Dilsey and we see that it is she alone who behaves well, though she does predict the end of the family. Jason again behaves badly, emphasising the decline of the family. Like other great works of the twentieth century, you cannot just read this novel once. You have to read it several times to appreciate both its complexity and how cleverly Faulkner has shown us both the decline of a family but also a picture of a character – Caddy – from widely different perspectives, even if they are all three her brothers.
First published 1929 by Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith