Widely regarded as a literary classic, William Faulker’s The Sound and the Fury tells the story of a Mississippi family between 1910 and 1928. Fallen from their aristocratic pedestal, the Compson family members struggle to realize their identities and to deal with the challenges life presents them. Between uncompromising Quentin, promiscuous Caddy, the perpetual child Benjy, and controlling Jason, the Compson children must navigate the world with only their experiences and their parents—cynical Jason and hypochondriac Caroline—and Dilsey, their servant, to inform them. Along the way they will deal with marriage, illegitimacy, selfishness, maturity, greed, castration, and suicide: truly human dilemmas.
The Sound and the Fury
Originally published: 1929, US
*Note: I read the Corrected Text version of this novel.
Rating: 4 – Recommended Reading
Set in a fictional Mississippi town, The Sound and the Fury tells the story of the Compson family who have fallen from their aristocratic background to struggling in all aspects of life. The novel covers select parts of about 30 years in their lives, and the story is told in four sections from three of the family members and an omniscient narrator. The first section is narrated by Benjy, a mentally delayed man who is reliant on the family for care. His brother Quentin narrates the next section. He is a freshman at Harvard but is struggling with depression and is haunted by the memories of his childhood, especially of his sister Caddy and her disgrace. The next section is narrated by Jason, the son who still lives in the family home and struggles with his responsibilities to the family he sees as a barrier to his success and wealth. The last section is told by an omniscient narrator but focuses on the Compson’s main servant, Dilsey, and the fates of the Compson family members.
Stream of consciousness form
Faulkner famously wrote using a literary form called stream of consciousness, and The Sound and the Fury is an excellent example of that style. Stream of consciousness was not new when Faulkner used it—with some examples going back to the 18th century—but he was part of an explosion at the beginning of the 20th century with James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse as contemporaries. This style allows for fluidity in chronology and a realistic blending of emotions, thoughts, memories, and actions. The narration attempts to express the internal monologue of the character so that the effect is as close to the reader actually being that character as possible. This creates a unique way for the reader to relate to the characters that moves beyond simply understanding them and creates the ability for the reader to really empathize and feel as if they know the character well. In The Sound and the Fury, Faulker uses the stream of consciousness form uniquely as he plumbs the depths of not just one character but three throughout the course of the novel.
Memorable, rich characters
Due in part to the stream of consciousness style, Faulker has created characters in this novel that are fully fleshed out, real, and complex. By allowing the reader inside the mind of three of the characters—Benjy, Quentin, and Jason—Faulker is able to build characters from the inside out; the reader gets to know their minds before they know how the characters interact with others and change over time. But Faulkner did not stick to safe, universal characters in this novel, he took on the challenge of exploring the minds of a mentally challenged man and a suicidal man as narrators.
Benjy’s chapter is the first one, and although his mental state does make it repetitive to read, there is a rhythm to Benjy’s narration and a child-like innocence to his telling of events. I tried reading this chapter aloud and found myself lulled into Benjy’s rhythm of narration and at the same time feeling like I was losing my mind a bit. It’s brilliant. I can’t remember having ever felt that transformed as a reader. Faulkner truly captures Benjy’s unique voice.
Quentin’s chapter is intriguing in a very different way as he is highly intelligent but caught up in the past and being led into the immediate future by his depression. The only thing similar I could think of is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s own stream of consciousness exploration of Raskonikov, the philosophical murder who experiences dreams and madness in the wake of his actions in Crime and Punishment. For Quentin, his current troubles and his past memories overlap with increased frequency until the real chronology becomes difficult to distinguish. Faulker does an excellent job of depicting Quentin’s psychological state for the reader.
With the use of multiple narrators and nonlinear storytelling, The Sound and the Fury’s plot is something that the reader learns rather than is told. The reader works on connecting the plot points as the novel progresses and is given different perspectives and pieces of events from each of the characters. What is very interesting is that it is only the three brothers of the family who are given a direct voice. Caroline, the mother of the family, is relegated to a supporting player who is mostly depicted as crazy and, honestly, the most annoying character in the novel. Caddy, whose actions are the focus of most of the story, is hardly present and is remembered differently by each of the brothers; she is not given a voice of her own. Miss Quentin, Caddy’s daughter, plays a major part in Jason’s narrative but is also unable to explain herself. This blanket treatment of the women of the novel does not make their characters invisible, but it does show the focus of male control in this family and this time period. Complicating this idea of an overwhelming patriarchy is the Compson’s maid, Dilsey, who is not given a voice but is a big focus of the omniscient narrator in the final part of the novel.
While I enjoyed the challenge of this novel’s style, there are some common complaints about it that I wanted to include here.
The difficulties of stream of consciousness
While stream of consciousness offers a multi-dimensional version of a character it can also be difficult to read. Since this style involves mixing actions, memories, and feelings, these elements can all get a bit jumbled making it difficult parse out past and present events. It is inherently difficult to spend time in another person’s mind without confusion. Also, this style unavoidably makes characters seem unreliable since all you have is their perspective of events. To help this problem, Faulkner only focuses on three characters’ points of view. But, while there are some facts the reader can determine really did happen, there are many things that the reader is unsure about (or doesn’t trust the narrator about). People who enjoy stories with characters who are clearly good or bad, trustworthy or liars, will have a difficult time with the gray areas many of these characters inhabit.
Readers who enjoy stories that are told in order from beginning to end will be frustrated by Faulkner’s nonlinear storytelling in The Sound and the Fury. The first two chapters—narrated by Benjy and Quentin—are easily the most nonlinear, and are complicated by the mental and psychological difficulties of the main characters. The last two chapters are much more straight-forward in terms of plot and are interrupted less often by jarring memories. At least in Benjy’s chapter, Faulkner originally thought about using different colored inks to separate the chronological shifts Benjy makes between three periods of his life. While there is an edition that does this, most do not and the reader must rely on italics and the identities of Benjy’s caretakers to root them in time. For the reader who prefers to be guided along by the story and not having to be constantly aware of where they are in time, this book will certainly be a challenge.
This book is set in rural Mississippi and Faulkner has given many of the characters realistic dialects, mostly the characters who belong to the lower class. The Compsons, with their history of aristocracy, do not speak in dialect though they do have Southern vocabularies and speech patterns. Some of the characters’ dialects are easier to understand than others.
“You sho done it now. I’ll declare if you aint. Shut up that yelling” (21).
“‘Dis here ti’ aint got no air a-tall in hit,’ the negro said” (305).
Depending on how familiar the reader is with reading dialect, they may have to slow down at parts to figure out what is being said, but it gets easier as the novel goes on.
Truthfully, The Sound and the Fury is a challenging book with its nonlinear storytelling and variety of stream of conscious narrators, but it is a rich story full of the big emotions and shared struggles of humanity wrapped up in one tragic Southern family. If you are up for the challenging style of this Faulkner novel, you will be rewarded.