The Sound and the Fury starts off confusing and continues to be confusing almost to the end. My knowledge of Faulkner before this was virtually non-existent, but I knew he was from the South, and I knew he was famous, and I knew he won a Nobel Prize, so I assumed his prose would be old, stodgy, and conventional, like John Steinbeck or Harper Lee. Instead, the first chapter sends you freewheeling through an impressionistic series of memories and phrases and thoughts, and it takes you several pages before you conclusively recognize that you are in the mind of a “man-child” named Benjy and that his memories are cycling between his 33-year-old present and his childhood.*
*Full disclosure: I owe a lot of my understanding, or at least the speed with which I achieved it, to the blurb on the back cover, which listed the main siblings and their distinguishing qualities (including a mention of “the man-child Benjy”). So– I cheated a little.
For the most part, it’s 1928. Three distinct sections take you into the heads of three main characters, three male siblings who belong to a supremely dysfunctional rural Southern family named the Compsons, followed by an omniscient fourth section. A fourth sibling, Caddy (short for Candace), is never fully represented except in the memories of the other three. Man-child Benjy adores her, almost like a second mother; sensitive Quentin is obsessed with her, overprotective of her; and self-centered jerk Jason writes her off as a teenage whore and castigates her alongside his submissive and self-pitying mother. Jason, contributing the third part of the story, threatens to force history into repeat by treating his niece, the illegitimate child of absent Caddy, as another teenage whore and running her out of the house with his harsh treatment and his perpetual, unresolved anger. Just to confuse things more, the niece’s name is also Quentin.
I was so unendingly bewildered the whole time I was reading this novel that each sentence, each new block of text felt like a struggle, a grasping at an orderly narrative that just barely eluded me. Understanding was so close yet so far away. The three (first-person) narrators are presented in descending order of nonsensical-ness, so the book gets progressively easier to understand not only because of the quantity of evidence building towards a complete picture but also because by the time we get to Jason, his view of the world, while incredibly frustrated and offensive and racist and misogynist and cynical and depressing, is told in straightforward prose. The previous two, not so much.
Benjy, as mentioned earlier, is a man-child, mentally incompetent and unable to speak and under the constant care of the black family that works for the Compsons. His thoughts are scattered, fragmented, rambling, childlike—they make no sense at all. Reading his chapter, I felt like George in “Harrison Bergeron” (mentioned briefly in this post); an intelligence handicap sending a cacophony of noise into my ear every few minutes to send all previous trains of thought flying in different directions, so that no logical trajectory can ever be established.
The second sibling, Quentin, is highly intelligent, as evidenced by his being the only Compson to attend an Ivy League, but he is emotionally tortured. It’s never stated explicitly (nothing is) but he comes to a self-inflicted end sometime in college, so his chapter takes place earlier than the other two, in 1910 while he is at Harvard and drifting towards suicide. His internal imbalance makes his prose rambling in its own way, and almost as confusing as Benjy’s. His recollections of his childhood become inward stream-of-consciousness rants. Dialogues often take place in italics, over ten pages, with no quotes, and no names, and no “he said she said”. Just lines and lines of words.
Have there been very many Caddy
I dont know too many will you look after Benjy and Father
You dont know whose it is then does he know
Dont touch me will you look after Benjy and Father
I began to feel the water before I came to the bridge. The bridge was of gray stone, lichened, dappled with slow moisture where the fungus crept. Beneath it the water was clear and still in the shadow, whispering and clucking about the stone in fading swirls of spinning sky. Caddy that
I’ve got to marry somebody Versh told me about a man who mutilated himself. He went into the woods and did it with a razor, sitting in a ditch. A broken razor flinging them backward over his shoulder the same motion completed the jerked skein of blood backward not looping. But that’s not it. It’s not having them. It’s never to have had them then I could say O That That’s Chinese I dont know Chinese. And Father said it’s because you are a virgin: don’t you see? Women are never virgins. Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature. It’s nature is hurting you not Caddy and I said That’s just words and he said So is virginity and I said you dont know. You cant know and he said Yes. On the instant when we come to realise that tragedy is second-hand.
All of this confusion and puzzling-out and lack of secure footing from which to determine the structure of the story and the roles of the characters, while incredibly frustrating, also meant I was turning pages at an astonishing rate-per-minute. I was like, damn! when is this story gonna make sense? maybe the next page will help… Before I knew it, I was done. So in that sense, I suppose, you could call it a page-turner.
The struggle of reading reminded me of a story from my childhood, a story I enjoyed very much. Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School series was one of my absolute favorites as a kid. It’s silly, absurdist fiction that to this day I still completely appreciate and like to revisit. I remember ordering the third installment, Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger, from the Scholastic catalog in fifth grade when it came out. It was so new I got it in hardcover.
The story “Pet Day”, while in most respects leagues and miles away from The Sound and the Fury, came to mind when I was reading the Faulkner work because of the bewilderment, the puzzling, and the delayed understanding which ultimately produces a much greater satisfaction than the intuitive understanding of your traditional narrative.
So it goes: Mrs. Jewls, the angelic teacher of the Wayside School franchise, has designated a “Pet Day,” a day when all the students can bring in their household pets. The story’s premise is pretty “Who’s On First” in that the names of all the pets cause a lot of confusion, even to Mrs. Jewls who ostensibly can see the pets—something the reader doesn’t have the benefit of. She sets up a poster board chart with the segments “Name of Kid,” “Name of Pet,” and “Kind of Pet” and proceeds to attempt to fill it out. Her attempts to do this continue over five pages and devolve into chaos until, abruptly, the story ends, and we see the chart as it (presumably much later) was finally filled out. And then in a moment everything makes sense.
Mrs. Jewls moved on. “What’s your pet, Myron?” she asked.
“Your pet’s a turtle,” said Sharie.
“What?” asked Mrs. Jewls.
“What is Jenny’s pet,” said Sharie.
“Jenny’s pet is a dog!” said Mrs. Jewls. “What’s his name, Jenny?”
Jenny nodded. Her dog sat up straight and tall and seemed to smile at Mrs. Jewls.
“He’s handsome,” said Mrs. Jewls.
“My mouse is handsome,” said Benjamin. Benjamin had a little white mouse in a cage on his desk.
“If you like mice,” said Dana, making a face.
“Mrs. Jewls likes mice,” said Calvin. “She eats them.”
“Gross!” said Dana.
“He won’t come when you call him,” said Kathy. “He doesn’t know his name.”
[spoilers] So: Sharie has a turtle named Yorpet. Jenny has a dog named What. Benjamin has a mouse named Handsome. Calvin has a cat named Mrs. Jewls. Kathy has a skunk (!) named Gross. Etcetera. There’s more.
It becomes a little simpler once you understand the basic premise, but coming in fresh (and nine years old) meant a dazzlingly confounding experience, which, of course, was the point.
The Sound and the Fury was similar in that things made much more sense by the time I was done. Things made even a little more sense when I looked up some write-ups online, in the middle of writing this post. I learned:
1) “The sound and the fury” is a phrase from a soliloquy in Hamlet: “It is a tale, told by an idiot: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It’s a great title, really.
2) The Compsons supposedly represent the decline of the great Southern families and the decay of Southern morality. In fact, despite stream-of-consciousness fragments that indicate the contrary, Quentin did not actually commit incest with his sister Caddy—or even think about doing it—he simply suggested claiming it to hide and share her shame of an illegitimate pregnancy, so overpronounced are his notions of traditional chivalry and honor.
3) Dilsey, the female black servant who is with the family from the children’s births to the end, is probably the only good, moral, practical character.
Upon further reflection, this last point is clear. The final section focuses mostly on Dilsey and her day, rising early to make breakfast, hounding at her son Luster to do his chores, and taking Benjy and her children to the local black church for a rare afternoon off. And most affectingly, her labored trips up and down the stairs, slow and difficult, as she tends to hypochondriac matriarch Miss Caroline and basically keeps the crumbling house from falling at least for a little while longer.