The Sound and the Fury (Book Review)

Title: The Sound and the Fury

Author: William Faulkner

Publication Date: 1929

Producer: 2005 Random House, Inc. Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc.

Narrated by: Grover Gardner

Recording Time: 8 hours, 51 minutes

[NOTE: If you’ve only read this novel one time, the following review will probably feel like a spoiler – because I do not think it is possible to know what happens in this novel from only one read-through. I read it three times just to put this review together.]

THE PLOT

Benjy’s Narrative (Section 1)

The first section of the novel is narrated by Benjamin “Benjy” Compson, sometimes also referred to as Maury, as that was his original name before it was changed later to Benjamin. “Benjy” has a mental development disorder which leads to him being a source of annoyance and embarrassment to the family. His narrative voice is a stream of conscious jumping to and from events within his life, and it is written in a simple manner. It’s a point of interest, too, that though we read Benjy’s narrative, from his perspective, we do not hear the character speak aloud from the perspectives of other characters.

This section of the book is extremely difficult to follow in an audio format where there are no cues (spacing, italics, etc.) to indicate that the time period has changed. After a while though, Benjy’s narration develops a certain rhythm which makes it easier to follow. The easiest clue for figuring out the time period, in the Benjy section, is who his caretaker is.

Benjy’s great loves are fire, the golf course adjacent to the house where he lives – on land which used to belong to his family, the Compsons, and his sister Caddy.

Benjy’s thoughts cover a few scenes from his life. He remembers when his grandmother died. During the wake, he and his siblings, who were all still young, were banished outside. Caddy, his sister, climbed into a tree to peer through the window into their house. Benjy remembers that both he and his brothers, Quentin and Jason, saw that Caddy’s underwear was muddy. This is the earliest memory for Benjy and he associates Caddy thereafter with the smell of trees, commenting often that Caddy smells like trees.

Benjy remembers that his name was changed from Maury, after his uncle, to Benjy when it was discovered that he had a disability.

He remembers the marriage and divorce of his sister Caddy.

He remembers being castrated, after he attacked a girl – the incident occurs when the gate is left unlocked and he is unsupervised.

Benjy also enjoys watching golf because he likes to hear them call for their “caddie” while playing.

Quentin’s Narrative (Section 2)

Quentin is the brightest of the Compson children. His family sells a portion of their property to pay for his education at Harvard. Most of his section takes places while he is at Harvard, though as with Benjy, the narrative also is non-linear and jumps suddenly to other moments from earlier in his life, too. He is erudite and his narrative voice is mellifluent – a marked contrast with Benjy’s voice in the first section. Quentin’s nin-linear time jumps are sudden, as they were with Benjy, but his are somewhat easier to follow.

Quentin spends much of his section obsessing over his sister, Caddy, and focusing in particular on the issue of her virginity. When Caddy has sex, outside of marriage, Quentin becomes discombobulated. He seeks out advice from his father who more or less tells him not to worry about it and that time will mend any injuries. Before Quentin leaves for Harvard, Caddy becomes pregnant. She is unable to say who the father is, though a man named Dalton Ames is a chief suspect. Quentin confronts him, and after Dalton is unable to dissuade Quentin from fighting, he boxes her brother senseless. Afterward, Caddy tells Quentin that she will never to speak to Dalton again. Quentin, in a bizarre effort to bind himself to his sister’s problems, so that he might be able to better care for her and those problems, tells their father that they have committed Incest. The elder Compson does not believe him.

Caddy marries a man named Herbert Head, because she wants to be married quickly before her child is born. Herbert finds out that the child is not his and then sends both Caddy and her new daughter away. This event also causes Herbert Head to rescind his offer of a bank job to Caddy’s brother, Jason. Jason holds Caddy and her daughter responsible for this and never forgives them.

Quentin wanders through the streets of Cambridge and he meets a small Italian immigrant girl who speaks no English. The girl follows him around, saying nothing, as Quentin wanders up and down streets, knocking on doors, trying to find where the girl lives. We see Quentin’s relationship with this little girl mirroring his feelings for his own sister, with him even referring to the girl as “sis” as they walk. Abruptly the girl’s older brother attacks Quentin, accuses him of stealing his sister, and Quentin is arrested. After explaining the situation to the English speaking law enforcement, Quentin drowns himself.

Jason’s Narrative (Section 3)

This section takes place on the day before Benjy’s section, on Good Friday. Jason’s narrative is consistent, much more linear than the previous two, and it is characterized by Jason’s desire to make money, his on-going bitterness over the fact that his sister robbed him of a banking job many years earlier, his bitterness over having to support his entire family and their servants, his views on investing – and his financial losses when investing, and his toxic relationship with Caddy’s daughter Quentin.

Jason is Miss Quentin’s caretaker now, manipulating Caddy to obtain this position in place of their mother Caroline, and Caddy is no longer allowed to see her. Jason also blackmails Caddy into sending support funds – funds which he then steals for himself. He views this as a fair repayment for the loss of the bank job years earlier. In this section, Jason leaves work to find Quentin, who has run away. After finding her, they have an argument about how her behavior needs to change.

Section 4 (Dilsey):

Dilsey’s section takes place on Easter Sunday – the day after Benjy’s section and two days after Jason’s section – and is not a first-person narrative, though she is the focus. Dilsey is one of the Compson family’s servants.

In this section, Miss Quentin runs away. Jason discovers that she has taken a box from among his things, filled with all of his money, totaling thousands of dollars. Dilsey, who is the matriarch of the servant family, takes her family (her grandson Luster and his mother Fronny) as well as Benjy, to church. After being underwhelmed by the appearance of the special guest preacher, Dilsey is moved to tears by his sermon – weeping that continues on for a while after. She is convinced that she is witnessing the destruction of the Compson family.

Jason calls the police in search of the stolen money, but they seem uninterested in helping him find it. He ceases to press them on the matter when one of the law enforcement officers starts asking pressing questions about the source of this money – seeming to know how Jason obtained it. Jason then sets out to find Quentin and her boyfriend, on his own. In the neighboring town, after narrowly surviving a confrontation with an old man he questioned as to the whereabouts of Quentin and her boyfriend, Jason resigns himself to the lost money.

After church, Dilsey lets Luster drive Benjy to the graveyard in an old horse and carriage. When Luster does not follow the usual path, Benjy begins to wail. A newly returned Jason jumps in and manages to quiet his brother. The novel ends as Luster turns to look at Benjy whose eyes are blue and serene again.

MY REVIEW

I would not advise anyone to “read” this novel for the first time via an audio format, as I did. I had to listen to the book three times to figure out what actually happened in the novel’s first two narrative sections. I suspect that this would have been a difficult read, either way, but I think you should approach this book with as much help as possible the first time through.

This book is a technical masterpiece and I can understand now why it is almost universally regarded as one of best English language novels of all time. However, greatness and enjoyable are not synonymous. If I were to compare this novel to a dining experience, The Sound and the Fury was akin to expensive and nearly inedible caviar. While I think Faulkner’s book is tremendous from a technical perspective, I did not enjoy the story at all. I wish he had applied a technical writing effort, of the magnitude presented here, to a story where one might feel something for the characters. When I read a novel, if all of my attention is on what the author is doing, and how clever he is in doing it, rather than on the story itself, then something important has been missed.

From a technical standpoint, I was blown away by his ability to provide clear narrative voices, and thought processes, for wildly different character types. I was also very impressed – in the midst of my confusion – at how well the non-linear writing style worked to convey and unfold the details of the story, even if it did take me three times through to piece it all together.

Chacters:

Candace “Caddy” Compson: Though she never is a first person character, she is the most important figure in this story and is the source of different forms of obsession from all three of her brothers. She becomes a mother figure for Benjy after Caroline, their mother, more or less writes Benjy off. She has a caregiving type of relationship with Quentin, her brother, as well, though in Quentin’s case the care seems to be primarily emotional, and for him, confusing. Jason’s obsession with her is more straight-forward: he feels she did him gravely wrong.

The trouble is, though, these interpersonal relationships are not fully developed, and thus the reader does not have a strong enough sense for why Caddy’s brothers are obsessed with her. We can infer at least that a lot of the trouble for Caddy’s brothers relates to Caddy’s failure to adequately replace the emotional role that their mother abandoned. However, inference is as far as that goes. That lack of development means the novel lacks an emotional punch that I believe it really needs.

Caddy is sexually promiscuous. This is foreshadowed within the novel by the references to the muddy underwear incident when she as a child. Her behavior is symbolic of a rejection of Southern codes of honor and conduct. Unlike her brother Quentin, who is defined by his Southern heritage, Caddy ultimately escapes.

Quentin Compson:

Quentin is the oldest of the Compson children. He is extremely intelligent, sensitive, and he feels a great burden to restore their family to its former greatness. He is also a character who largely defines himself by his Southern-ness. Quentin falls into a desperate tailspin when he learns that his younger sister Caddy is pregnant out of wedlock, largely because her behavior does not live up to his ideals. As a result, he is torn between those ideals and a burden he feels to care for his entire family. His inability to resolve this tension ultimately leads him to choosing suicide.

Quentin’s narrative is replete with abstract thoughts and ideas. He seems unable to be assertive, and when he does attempt to take action, it invariably backfires – as was the case with his failed fight against Dalton Ames and his inability to help the Italian girl find her home. When reading through his section, it becomes difficult to trust him as a reliable narrator due to the way he views the world.

Benjy Compson:

Benjy is completely reliant on Caddy for both his physical and emotional support. Caroline, his mother, becomes so self-absorbed that she more or less abandons him while continuing to live with him. He relies on order and consistency and whenever anything changes from the norm, he is prone to crying out. Benjy’s ability to sense order and chaos also makes him one of the few who notice the decline of his family, early on in the narrative. Unfortunately though, his inability to communicate renders him impotent to spur anyone else to action. His impotence – a trait seemingly shared by all of the Compson men – is made part of his literal life story when he is castrated.

Jason Compson:

He is the third of the Compson children, and the only one who is loved by their mother Caroline. Ironically, he is the only one of the children who seems not to love her. Jason’s character is marred by anger and cynicism. He does not show love for affection for anyone. In addition, unlike his brothers, Jason is always concerned about the present or the near future. He is an interesting mix of motivated for success and unambitious to pursue it in a realistic way. As a result, he is willing to steal from the people around him, and pursue get-rich-quick investments, but he is unable to commit to a type of work that might offer him long term financial stability. His lack of motivation seems driven by self-pity. He is unable to move beyond the loss of the banking job. The fact that someone of his temperament is the head of the family is the chief evidence in support of their descent.

Caroline Compson:

The mother of the Compson children is a primary cause of the fall of this family. Her neglect, via hypochondria, of Quentin, Caddy, and Benjy causes emotional ruin to both brothers and her daughter Her absence also pressures Caddy to fill a matriarch’s role within the family – a pressure that proves too much for her. The one member of her family that Caroline loves is the one member least deserving – her son, Jason – and as a result she ignores and in some cases supports Jason’s abusiveness.

Caroline is deeply insecure about the family from which she was born, the Bascombs, and this causes her to constantly bemoan her side of the family and fixate on the Bascomb and Compson character traits. Her insecurity causes her to change Benjy’s name, from Maury to Benjamin, after learning that her brother Maury is an adulterer and in her mind, no longer worthy of being a namesake for her son.

Mr. Jason Compson:

Despite being alive for a lot of the time covered by the novel, the patriarch of this family is very notably absent and detached from what happens herein. From what we do observe of him, he is fatalistic, in the sense that he seems to believe that what is done, is done, but he also adheres to notions of a Southern honor code. He passes down the latter, but not the former, to his son Quentin. He passes the former, but not hte latter, to his son and namesake Jason.

Compson is concerned so much with honor that he imperils the family financially to send Quentin to Harvard, in large part because of the prestige associated with attending there. However, he does not put that Southern honor code into practice. He is indifferent to a Southern Virtue violation that occurs with the sexual promiscuity of his daughter Caddy. When he tells Quentin not to worry about his sister, this sends Quentin into a spiral of confusion and self-doubt that ends with Quentin’s suicide. Sometime thereafter Mr. Compson dies also, leaving his son Jason as the head of the family.

Miss Quentin:

The daughter of Caddy, and the only member of the next generation of Compsons, she inherits her mother’s early sexual promiscuity. Unlike her mother, though, she is unashamed.

A key difference between Quentin and her mother is that while Caddy was raised by a kind father, Quentin is subjected to the abuses of her uncle Jason. As a result, Quentin is desensitized and returns Jason’s cruelty, in kind, in a way that her mother was unable.

Symbolically, Quentin represents the first generation of Compsons who are not Old South Southerners and her break from the family is portrayed as a positive, inasmuch as it ensures her ultimate success in dealing with them and staring a new life on her own terms.

Dilsey:

Dilsey is the matriarch of the family of Compson servants. She is the only stable person in the house. She is the primary witness to decline of the family, having been there during its entire decline. She is also the lone adherent to the alleged values upon which the family was founded – faith, family, virtue, and honor. She remains unaffected by the various character ailments that effect the Compsons – namely self-absorption, sexual immorality, vanity, anger, and lack of ambition. By contrast, she is loving, patient, and selfless, even in the face of abuse. She puts herself between Jason and Miss Quentin when she believes he intends to abuse his charge. She takes Benjy to church when others – both white and black – look down on her for it. She does all of the day-to-day things that allow the home to function (cooking, cleaning, watching out for Benjy, etc.) She also manages to raise and care for her own family, as well, and all of her own family seem to be better than the comparatively more privileged Compsons.

The focus on Dilsey, as the novel ends, creates a sense that she is the new torchbearer for the ideas and values, of the now-fallen Compson family. As a result, there is a sense of hope and optimism in her that functions as a silver lining around the tragedy of the Compson family.

Trigger Warnings:

This novel is replete with both a casual and overt racism which was undoubtedly accurate for the time period. I think the general arc of the story is not racist, but it does reflect and portray a lot of racism from that time in history.

This novel also includes a mentally impaired character who is abused by his caretakers. The depiction is not done in great detail, and mostly focuses on neglect, with a reference to striking him to quiet him.

Do I recommend this novel? Unless you are a glutton for literary punishment, are a professional writer who appreciates the craft as much as the story, or are required to read this for school, I do not. That said, it is a masterpiece.

2 thoughts on “The Sound and the Fury (Book Review)

  1. I’ve tried Faulkner once or twice and bounced off. I need to try again. I have a copy of As I Lay Dying, but maybe I need to find a more accessible Faulkner book to start with (to the extent that can be true). But I enjoy even Cormac McCarthy’s most Faulknerian books so much I expect I will enjoy Faulkner when I am finally ready to put the work in.

    1. Let me / your blog know how it goes. Now that my baseline expectation for myself has been sufficiently lowered, I think I could tackle him again… but I have no desire to right away. I’m looking forward to reading something a little more accessible.