Columns > Published on March 22nd, 2012

Post-Mortem: "The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner

Post-Mortem: As much a book review as an autopsy is a eulogy. A breakdown of the mechanics of a book and the reasons why it should be read by the writers among us.

It takes a while to love The Sound and the Fury. The book is tough. The writing is beautiful, the characters interesting, all these things are true.

But what makes the book ultimately fascinating, and a masterpiece, is revealed slowly. My epiphany actually came in the closing pages when I realized that, dammit, everything was in this book. The characters felt as real as anybody I'd met. I had followed them as they entered a storm of linguistic artistry: a depressive breakdown, mental disability, the collapse of a family, and the fading of past glories. Somehow, a dead writer from the Deep South had taught me, a young middle-class Brit, something new about the hardships and joys of humanity. I couldn't ask for anything more from a novel.

If you've already creaked open the cover and been a little put out by the slew of weird and incoherent imagery, don't worry: The third and fourth parts help make sense of the previous two. Maybe you'll have to reread (if you're a brave soul), but it will gradually form into some kind of coherent structure.

What can the jobbing writer learn from such a convoluted book? Why bother? Quite simply, the book is an utter joy when you accept the difficulty and engage with it. If you come expecting mysteries to unfold straight away, disappointment will quickly follow.

Let's dissect a little:

Some Notes on the Plot

A great difficulty presents itself when trying to describe what actually happens in The Sound and the Fury. In conventional terms, not a great deal. Many of the big events happen "offscreen".  It is the story of the Compson family of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, located in Northwestern Mississippi. The Compson family were once great aristocrats, now helplessly watching their lineage decay. The reader sees this decline through the four youngest members of the Compson family. The book is told in four parts. Parts one, three, and four all take place over the Easter weekend of 1928 at the Compson household. Part two takes place in 1910, following one of the Compson boys' experiences at Harvard.

The difficulty comes in describing the plot. Each of the four parts enters someone's mind (except the fourth; it's a more objective viewpoint, largely trailing a family servant) and consists largely of their thoughts, emotions and impressions.

For example, the first part is with the youngest Compson, Benjy. Benjy goes for a walk and looks at things. That's largely it. What fills the pages are his long and dense floods of memories triggered by incidental occurrences. Each part has very little going on in terms of action. Instead, the draw of the novel is in the completely intimate way we are bound into the minds of this family. To simply describe the plot would be a disservice, and do the novel no favors. Besides, all that can be pieced together later. I wholeheartedly recommend just going with the flow.

For reference, should you want it, here are the four Compsons we follow. Each gets his or her own chapter, with the exception of Caddy. Very slight spoilers may follow. From oldest to youngest:

  • Quentin: The oldest. Intelligent, but prone to depression and fixated on archaic notions of feminine purity and Southern honor. Has a strong attachment to Caddy. Narrator of part two.
  • Caddy: The only daughter. Caring but independent, very close with Quentin, and caretaker to Benjy. Faulkner considered her the hero of the novel. Has no chapter of her own, but the other characters all revolve around her in some way.
  • Jason: Comes to inherit the patriarchal role of the Compson family. Obsessed with money, has little regard for his family, and is happy to steal from them. Narrator of part three.
  • Benjy: The youngest. He is mentally disabled, unable to deal with change, and only feels kinship with Caddy. Narrator of part one.

Stream of Consciousness

Okay, we've opened the front cover and started reading. What the hell's going on? We're thrust into the thick of Benjy's mind, unable to process or understand what he's seeing. Even more than that, he lapses into memory without being able to distinguish between the present and the past, experiencing time as one constant torrent. Everything is the present.  The slightest trigger sets a memory in motion; the call of nearby golfers for their caddies instantly puts Benjy in distress at the thought of his sister. Climbing through a fence recalls a similar event almost three decades before. The repeated refrain of "Caddy smells like trees" is a constant reminder of the event by which all three Compson boys are marked: they're watching Caddy climb a tree and muddy her undergarments. The key to grasping Benjy's apparently mystifying section is to understand that Caddy, or rather, her absence as the caring and loving older sister, is what obsesses him. The next step: assume everything proceeds in a causal chain. In the narrative, objectively speaking, Benjy is just going for a walk with Luster, the servant looking after him. Almost everything that happens is a memory.

Stream of consciousness is the narrative method of representing a character's thoughts and emotions by monologue or in relation to their actions. Joyce had released Ulysses a few years beforehand, and Faulkner continued to develop the technique. It allows a blending of sense: impressions, memory, feelings and ideas in a way that gives complete access to a character.  Faulkner spoke of this novel as four failed attempts to tell a story, with even his objective authorial description failing to actually capture the truth. Benjy and Quentin – whose section is a little more coherent until, y'know, he has a breakdown – are barely in control of their mental processes. What differentiates these methods and passages from other stream of consciousness narratives – such as the final chapter of Ulysses – is how important emotion is. It's not just a slew of thought, but outpourings of grief, of fear, of trying to understand.

Quentin has a firmer grasp on reality, although not by much. As his depression overwhelms him, having lost all faith in his sister, as well as the truth and honor he valued, he begins to lose his mind. The section becomes even more diffuse than Benjy's; Faulkner begins to play with the punctuation as floods of emotion and thought batter into one another:

there is nothing else in the world its not despair until time its not even time until it was.

It's only in the last two parts of the book that we feel on stable ground. First we're in the mind of the mentally sound, if cruel, Jason, and then a drifting objective narrator, largely following the Compson's head servant, Dilsey. The effect is staggering; by placing the furious lapses into language up front, the last half of the novel feels oddly serene in comparison, but with a lingering eeriness.

It's difficult to generate emotion in the reader. Most writers have to invoke abstracted and, when done badly, overdone imagery. "He felt a surge of sadness." Etc. Faulkner's genius is to do it a different way: using language to circle around the emotion, making us aware of what's felt by repetition and breakdown in communication. For example, this powerful (and repeated) phrase from Quentin's depressive mind tells more about the anxiety of an ignored child than attempting to describe the actual sadness: "If I'd just had a mother so I could say Mother Mother."

A lesson we can learn from Faulkner then: emotions unfiltered by rationality can stand alone. It's a challenging task for the writer but, if pulled off, resonates with the reader on a whole other level.

Fragmentation of Time

So, the novel largely takes place on the Easter weekend of 1928. Unless you include Quentin's Harvard experiences in 1910. And the huge chunks of the novel which whirl around various years and days and moments. But it's worth remembering: stripped of all the sideways moves into fragments of memory and past, the novel takes place on just four days. Three of which are consecutive. It sounds so simple, not at all intimidating. Of course, we view those Easter weekend days out of order: 2, 1, 3, but that's not too bad. It's the first two parts, those revolving around Quentin and Benjy (Benjy's chapter being primarily a disconnected ricochet around his memory) that cause such consternation.

This is how the novel plays with time: it takes a stable time-period as its base, reaches into the past, and retrieves specific events and images. These images develop and lend greater clarity to the final state of the Compson family (or what remains of it).

What effect does it have though? It screws with your conception of time. It makes time a malleable and playful thing. Everything seems to be occurring at once. In 1928, Quentin has been dead for eighteen years, yet he never leaves the narrative completely. There are intimations of Quentin everywhere. Caddy's ghost lingers; it haunts the decaying Compson household. She is always present. All things are happening at once. The past is still very much alive in the present. We already feel we know something of Caddy from Benjy's chapter; but this is only a memory. She is gone.

The Sound and the Fury takes place across decades through many fragmented leaps into memory. The prose is haunting in its repetition; it places the surges of memory in the overarching events of the Easter weekend. As Dilsey, the matriarchal servant comments: "I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin."

The Gap at the Centre of the Novel

Caddy, the free-spirited girl of the Compson family, is not granted a chapter of her own. Nevertheless, let's face it, the novel revolves around her. As a child, she scrambles up a tree and her three brothers look up and notice her underwear is muddied. This stain provokes a strong reaction from each of them: Jason is disgusted; Quentin is shocked; Benjy moans (he can't really do much else). Later, each will define himself in relation to her. She is Benjy's protector and closest friend. Quentin's fixation with her has an almost incestuous quality. Jason adopts her daughter, stealing the child support payments.

Caddy is the novel's ambiguous center. She is something like a Hitchcockian "MacGuffin", a plot device that drives the novel and characters forward. She is mysterious, she is charming. But what is she in the end? A ghost. It is beautiful.

The Malleability of Plot

The twentieth-century masterpiece Nightwood by Djuna Barnes is another classic of modernist storytelling: plot wise, it's fairly basic. A woman named Robin Vote skips through the lives and hearts of both men and women in Europe. Relationships come together and fall apart, but that's it. Everything that makes the novel great happens beyond the plot. So much of it is in the language, in the conversations, in the flow of words. Ulysses is about a long walk home by a horny man. Again, Joyce makes something epic – literally, it's based on the Odyssey – out of the mundane and quotidian.

Faulkner knew very well how to plot a novel. But plot wasn't the point here. If you take away the maelstrom of language in The Sound and the Fury, the plot is surprisingly threadbare. All the dramatic events – the pregnancy, Quentin's death – are reported or remembered in fragments. The novel is formed like a mosaic, requiring the reader to interpret the prose into a unified whole. Faulkner is not afraid to make the reader work. There's no reason to be as impenetrable as him, but a great deal can be done just with a threadbare plot. Focus on characters, mix things around. The masters did a lot with a little.

Be Ambitious!

Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949. In lectures and interviews, he referred to The Sound and the Fury as his favorite, while also repeatedly referring to it as a "splendid failure". Posterity has disagreed; few lists of modern classics omit Faulkner's "failure".
Still, modernism has had its day, right? Even postmodernism has started to get on our nerves. Tell a story and tell it simply.

Faulkner saw things differently, however, and that is why he's important. He addresses one of the great concerns: what is it to be human? But he does this in a stylistically radical and innovative way. Faulkner's sheer ambition is something that, in my opinion, the modern writer often lacks. The idea of writing the "Great American Novel" is something few would say unironically. Yet something's still missing: the desire, the yearning, to chronicle the emotions and thoughts that compose and bind us all.

It's worth returning to Joyce for a moment. Ulysses is a masterpiece, sure, but hardly accessible. It's not exactly meant for the average reader, unless they happen to be versed in, well, almost everything, or have a thick guide at hand. Much of the challenge is cerebral. Faulkner has made something that is focused more on the emotional: the raw ingredients of humanity and the directness of moment to moment experience.

About the author

Jack is a graduate of the University of Warwick. His current project is a surreal biography of the band Paris and the Hiltons. He lives in the UK, where he founded the netlabel Portnoy Records. He can't juggle yet, but really is trying very hard. Often he tells people he's ten feet tall, even when they're standing in front of him, which makes for awkward pauses. He writes incoherent thoughts and opinions at the International Society of Ontolinguists.

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