Friday, December 17, 2010
On Rereading The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Note: The following may give away details of the book that some readers would consider spoilers and would rather avoid. Rather than being a conventional review, which I found next-to-impossible with this book, the following represents my experiences while rereading it.
I decided to reread William Faulkner’s masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury because each time I do reread, I discover something new in the book.
A lot of people I know begin The Sound and the Fury only to fling it aside in frustration before they read even fifty pages. It is frustrating, I know. I think part of this frustration is due to the fact that Faulkner decided to begin his book with the jumbled thoughts of Benjy Compson, a severely mentally challenged boy/man. And if this weren’t confusing enough, Faulkner jumps back and forth in time when he gives us Benjy’s thoughts, as the book is written in stream of consciousness. (Faulkner didn’t originate stream of consciousness, but he’s probably the author who used it most effectively.)
One thing I’ve found that helps is to make a mental note of who is caring for Benjy at the time. That way, you’ll be able to keep track of how old he is. There’s Versh, who cares for Benjy circa 1900, when Benji is about three; there’s T.P., who cares for Benjy in 1905-1912, when Benjy is about fifteen; there’s Luster, who cares for Benjy in the story’s present, when Benjy is thirty-three.
Some people who are new to the book have asked me why Faulkner italicized parts of the text. The italicization refers to time shifts in the narrative, though in truth, there are other time shifts Faulkner did not italicize. Personally, I’ve never read why he chose to italicize some shifts in time and not others. I do know that once a reader gets “into” the book, the time shifts and stream of consciousness prose smooth out, and the book really isn’t difficult to understand at all. In fact, it’s highly rewarding.
The Sound and the Fury details the decline and fall of the wealthy Compson family in early twentieth century Mississippi. In detailing the family’s fall from grace, Faulkner gives us a wonderful portrait of the relationship between three brothers (the severely disabled Benjy, the haunted, neurotic Quentin, and the angry Jason) and their willful, rebellious sister, Caddy, their parents, Jason Compson III and Caroline Bascomb Compson, and how the lives of the white family are held together by the blacks who are in their employ, primarily Dilsey and Luster.
Before you begin reading, it helps to know a little about the personalities of each member of the Compson family. Jason Compson III, the father of the three boys and Caddy and the husband of Caroline, is a very well-read, well-spoken man, but he tends to be cynical, fatalistic, and emotionally detached. He honestly believes there is little he can do to curb the tide of cataclysmic events that are befalling his family, though he does manage to hang onto the outward semblance of what he considers his gentlemanliness and his honor.
While Mr. Compson is, in part, responsible for his children’s eventual downfall, his wife, Caroline, is equally guilty. She is a self-absorbed woman, who goes around in a daze of hypochondria and self-pity, a mother who loves only the ill-mannered and malicious Jason, and dismisses her other three children. She is overly concerned with the honor of her Bascomb family name, a name she feels her brother, Maury, disgraced. Ultimately, she changes Benjy’s name from the original “Maury” to “Benjamin.” (It does not help the reader to learn this later rather than sooner.)
The book is divided into four sections, and though Faulkner labels his sections with dates and not with names, the first section belongs to Benjy, the second to Quentin, the third to Jason, and the fourth to the various black servants, mostly Dilsey and Luster, who we first meet in the early pages of Benjy’s section.
Though she has no section of her own, Caddy (Candace) Compson is, without a doubt, the most important figure in The Sound and the Fury, as she’s the object of obsession for each of her three brothers. Caddy is willful, rebellious, and headstrong, but she’s also genuinely loving and affectionate. She even attempts to “fill in” as a mother figure for Quentin and Benjy. Unlike Jason, Caddy is not angry with the world, and unlike Quentin, she is not obsessed with the past and unable to strike out on her own.
Though Benjy’s section is difficult until the reader “gets in the swing of things,” Faulkner did an extraordinary job of giving us the jumbled thoughts of a character that lacked the ability to think clearly. Of course Benjy’s thought processes are going to be jumbled, and of course they are going to be emotional, and of course one thought is going to lead to an earlier memory. Though Benjy’s section, in particular, can be frustrating, when a reader steps back and really takes a good look at it, it all makes complete sense.
Benjy Compson is a tragic figure, and not simply because of his mental and emotional challenges. These would not be enough to make him sympathetic. Though most readers would care, of course, reading eighty pages (it’s seventy-six pages in my paperback copy) of the thoughts of a severely mentally challenged boy/man would become annoying, even though we did care. Part of the genius of Faulkner is that he realized this fact, and he gave us reason to empathize with Benjy, not just feel pity.
Poor Benjy. Besides his mental and emotional challenges, he is deprived of his very name; the pasture he loves so much is eventually sold to finance his older brother’s college education; his beloved Caddy, his only source of affection and the one person Benjy is totally dependent upon, will fall from grace, and Benjy will no longer be able to see her; and Benjy will eventually be castrated like a bull (symbolic of the emotional castration of all the Compson men and their inability to take affirmative action). Faulkner, who was a true genius, makes us feel these tragedies along with Benjy, though of course, Benjy cannot process them clearly; he doesn’t understand anything that’s happening. In a masterful twist of irony, the new owner of the pasture turns it into a golf course. When the players call out, “Caddie,” Benjy, who has no idea what a golf caddy is, only hears his beloved – and absent – sister’s name. This confusion begins on the first page, so be on the lookout for it. Unlike his brother, Quentin, who is obsessed with abstract concepts, Benjy has no comprehension of them.
Benjy’s section of The Sound and the Fury, and the start of the book, begin on the day before Easter in 1928, on Benjy's thirty-third birthday. After the conclusion of Benjy’s section, Faulkner cuts to the year 1910. This section, which is also written in stream of consciousness, is told from the perspective of Benjy’s older brother Quentin, a haunted, neurotic young man who is a student at Harvard. Quentin is distressed at Caddy’s downfall, but he’s also obsessed with it. (It is Quentin who figures prominently in another masterpiece by Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom.)
As the oldest of the four children, Quentin, being extremely sensitive, feels a terrible burden to live up the greatness the Compson name possessed in days gone by. This is a quiet, “old school” Southern man, who is possessed of a very Southern way of dealing with things. However, it’s important to remember that Quentin is neurotically obsessed with Caddy, and his neurosis with his sister and her fall from grace is paralyzing to Quentin, it is so great. Quentin’s problems are further heightened when he learns that his father, far from being distressed at Caddy’s predicament, simply doesn’t care about it. It was the Southern code of honor and Caddy who gave Quentin’s life meaning and purpose, and without them, he’s figuratively lost at sea. When reading this section, remember that Quentin is a highly unreliable narrator, and it’s near to impossible to understand which of his actions are actions that he actually committed and which are simply fantasy.
The third section of the book is narrated by Caddy’s younger brother, the very angry and malicious Jason, who is also obsessed with Caddy’s disgrace, though in a far different way than Quentin. And each man’s obsession, of course, will lead to consequences, not for Caddy, but for him. These consequences are organic; they grow out of character and the action that grows out of character, another facet of Faulkner’s genius. Strangely, Jason is the only one of her four children that Caroline Compson truly loves, though Jason can in no way return her love. Hatred for women – all women – is one of Jason’s inherent characteristics, and while Quentin is fixated on the past, Jason is fixated on the present and the future. This is a man who will advance his own agenda by any means available.
The fourth and concluding section of the book is a more or less straightforward narrative in third person, and belongs to the black servants of the Compson family, primarily Dilsey and Luster. It is in this fourth section where the reader will encounter the characteristic passages that highlight Faulkner’s genius for detail and description, something that many readers love and other readers find annoying.
Dilsey is a wonderful character and a wonderful person. She is the only source of stability in the Compson household, and since she is not a member of the family, her narrative is perhaps the only one on which we, as readers, can rely. In a twist of irony, Dilsey lives her entire life on the very principles on which the Compson family was built, however, in Dilsey, these values and principles remain uncorrupted by baser emotions and desires.
It doesn’t help a disoriented reader to learn that Faulkner created two “Quentins.” There is Quentin, the oldest Compson son, and there is Quentin, the daughter of Caddy. (Those “she’s” when referring to Quentin in the beginning pages of the book are not a misprint.) You’ll find that “Miss Quentin” bears many similarities to her mother, Caddy, and yet, in many other, very important ways, she’s entirely different.
I usually hate it when books are described as “difficult,” yet The Sound and the Fury can be truly “difficult,” though it doesn't have to be. It’s not impossible, though. If you take some time with it, read slowly rather than rapidly, and really think while reading, you’ll probably find The Sound and the Fury totally fascinating and be in awe of Faulkner’s genius at symbolism and foreshadowing.
I generally don’t reread books. There are just too many books I want to read to go around rereading. However, The Sound and the Fury is one I reread just about every year, and each time I do, I’m rewarded in ways I couldn’t have expected the year before.
Recommended: Highly recommended to anyone who genuinely cares about great literature. This is what it's all about.