The Sound and the Fury
by William Faulkner
Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start. Unless, of course, you’re a reader of The Sound and the Fury. In that case, starting in Benjy’s world can be a bit of a nightmare. Don’t get us wrong – Benjy’s a nice enough guy (unlike some other characters that we can think of). He’s just not the easiest man in the world to follow.
Let’s start with the facts, then: Benjy’s thirty-three in 1928. As one of the neighbors sarcastically quips, however, it’s like he’s been three for thirty years. Benjy is mentally handicapped. He’s unable to talk, which becomes one of the most intriguing aspects of his section of the novel. How do we begin to enter the world of a character whose perspective on life is utterly unshaped by communication with other people? OK, we realize that’s an exaggeration: every now and then, somebody does pay attention to Benjy. Luster, for instance, whispers Caddy’s name just to get him upset. And when Benjy does get upset, he bellows. It’s actually one of his trademarks. And he does it very, very well.
Other than that, however, Benjy seems to live mostly in the past. It’s not too hard to understand. Who would really want to live with the other members of the Compson family? Any takers? We thought not. As he shuttles between different moments of his childhood and the sort of sad life that he lives in his present, Benjy actually sets up a dynamic that Faulkner plays with for the rest of the novel. Time shifts. Got it? It sounds so simple right now, doesn’t it? But shifting time becomes one of the most difficult aspects of the novel. Believe us, we’re there with you. It’s hard to read Benjy’s section.
OK, so Benjy’s difficult. But what else does this time shifting tell us about his character? Well, for one thing, it means that time is pretty irrelevant to him. Important things are always present. Caddy and trees and flowers occupy most of his waking thoughts…and that’s one way of making them always part of his experience.
There are a few things that remain stable for Benjy: he’s fascinated by the fire, he loves his slipper and his flower, and he loves his Caddy. In fact, stability might just be the name of the game for Benjy. He’s a big fan of order, largely because it’s often difficult for him to draw conclusions on his own. Remember learning about deductive and inductive logic? Benjy hasn’t figured out either. When Caddy was around, Benjy had someone to help make him sense of the world: "It's froze." Caddy said. "Look." She broke the top of the water and held a piece of it against my face. "Ice. That means how cold it is" (1. 236).
Without Caddy, however, Benjy just notices bright cold shapes. No ice. No recognition of the fact that it’s cold outside. This insistence on noticing only the impression that a person, thing, or sensation makes on Benjy has been lauded by critics as one of the high points of the novel. We know, it’s occasionally pretty confusing. But it’s also a rather brilliant exploration of how a character like Benjy might inhabit his own world.
If having things stay the same is what makes Benjy a happy camper, it’s probably because he’s not able to do much to communicate his opinions of change. Think about all the times that Benjy seems to be "trying to say" something: it only works when Caddy’s around. He gets Caddy to realize that he doesn’t like her perfume. He can’t, however, talk to the girls outside his gate without scaring the heck out of them. It’s worth pointing out that Benjy’s actually pretty scared about his gate being left open, as well. Notice how his language gets completely caught up in his failure to "try to say." Even his ability to perceive the world around him takes a nosedive in the section below:
I opened the gate and they stopped, turning. I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say, and she screamed and I was trying to say and trying arid the bright shapes began to stop and I tried to get out. I tried to get it off of my face, but the bright shapes were going again. (1.700)
As he tries harder and harder to communicate, the world dissolves into whirling shapes. His own perception gets caught up in his lack of language, and the whole thing goes down like a sinking ship.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t really get any better for Benjy as time goes on. In this particular insistence, his inability to say anything leads the girls at the gate to claim that he assaulted them. He’s castrated as a result.
Once Caddy leaves, he’s left roaming the grounds of the Compson house pretty much on his own. When the family sells his pasture land, it becomes a golf course. We’re almost thinking that Faulkner’s a bit too cruel with this one. See, there are caddies on golf courses. And, as we mentioned before, every time Benjy hears the word "Caddy," he lets out a loud moan of despair. It’s almost a conditioned response – and it’s the one sure-fire way that his family has of getting him to speak.
Unfortunately, no one seems to care whether Benjy speaks or not. Luster just uses Caddy’s name as a way to get a quick rise out of Benjy. Quentin (Jr.) and Jason only think about Benjy when they want to get him out of the way. Oh, and then there’s his mother. She takes the cake. We’ll get to her later.
Here’s the question with Benjy: is Faulkner creating the "idiot" that he needs just to experiment formally? Or is Benjy a character in his own right? It’s a big question, and it’s a tough one. Since we can’t exhume Faulkner to ask him his opinion on the subject, we’ll have to turn to our next best authority: the text itself. Does Benjy seem to be a fully rounded character? Well, compared to the other folks in Faulkner’s novel, he actually has quite a lot figured out. He desires things (Caddy, in particular) and he actually thinks about how to make those desires reality. We can’t come down with a definite answer about Benjy’s section for you. It could be that you find it disturbing – and that’s OK. Keep in mind, though, that Faulkner’s other characters are probably equally disturbing. More importantly, they’re much less able to think about the cause of their unhappiness/depression/all-around misery and despair.