Tools of Characterization
Thoughts and Opinions
OK, this one’s a gimme. Because we’re given so many first-person perspectives, we’re up close and personal with all of the Compson brothers and their thoughts and feelings. Don’t get all warm and fuzzy, now. It’s actually not that wonderful of a feeling to be in Jason’s head. Read his section again for a reminder of why that’s the case.
Here’s what we do find out, though: Quentin’s obsessive, emotionally high-strung, and damned by an ultra-high-powered sense of responsibility for all women (or girls) everywhere. Benjy’s world is, in many ways, a natural world; his thoughts are anchored in the things around him, like trees, golf courses, and jimson weed flowers. Jason’s a bitter, bitter old man. Actually, he’s not that old. But he sure seems like he is. We talk about all of this in detail in our section on Faulkner’s "Style." Check it out.
The big looming question, then, is this: what do we do with the characters whose thoughts we don’t get to experience first-hand? Why, for example, don’t Dilsey’s thoughts make it onto the page? And why are the only opinions that we hear from Caddy ones that she expressed when she was around the age of seven? And have you noticed that they’re both women? What does that say about Faulkner’s approach to race and gender? We’re not sure that we have answers to these questions. But they’re worth thinking about. Why do we get to know the characters that we do get to know? And what is Faulkner trying to tell us about the ones that we don’t?
There are a few huge, gapingly apparent differences in social status in this novel. Any guesses? OK, OK, we’ll tell you. The Gibsons, the black family in the novel (that’s Dilsey, Roskus, T.P., Versh, Luster, and Frony), are servants in the Compson household. Sure, they’re part of the family…sort of. Dilsey raises all of the children, and T.P., Luster, and Versh spend more time with Benjy than any of his siblings. That said, though, they sure don’t any as much respect from the other characters as they deserve. They don’t even really get the respect that they deserve from the novel itself. Sure, we’re focusing on the Compsons – but we don’t ever learn much about T.P., Luster, and Frony as individual characters. Did they ever seem almost interchangeable to you when you were reading Benjy’s section? That’s what we’re talking about. Their characters don’t get developed very well; we have a hunch that that’s largely to do with their social status.
There are some pretty major social status questions in other areas of the text, as well. Mrs. Compson’s convinced that the entire family is slipping down the social ladder. That’s why she’s such a stickler for convention. Once Caddy runs away, she’s convinced that the whole family’s gone to hell in a hand basket. Maybe she wasn’t evil and self-absorbed before…but after that, she’s as big a pain in the rear as we’ve ever seen in a novel.
And remember Shreve? The Canadian? Well, he’s so far outside the recognized social order of America that he’s pretty much a barbarian. At least, that’s what Quentin’s other friends seem to think. Shreve uses his status as an outsider to do exactly what he wants all the time, however. Maybe that’s why he’s so funny. And delightful, really. Just thinking about his round pink face makes us smile.
If you have an education, you can get the hell out of Dodge. Or Mississippi, as the case may be. That’s how Quentin gets to Harvard – and how Jason gets stuck in Podunk, Mississippi. It’s actually not called Podunk. It’s Yoknapatawpha County. We just thought that Podunk sounded funnier.
It’s a pretty easy comparison, actually. Quentin gets to learn neat stuff. Jason gets to sell people different types of nails. Quentin gets to make friends and influence people. Jason gets to rip off his young niece. Fortunately, they’re both equally miserable. Actually, Jason might be the better off of the two; he gets to blame his unhappiness on Quentin.
Even though education can get you places, though, it doesn’t seem to allow you to wind up anywhere good. Quentin, for one, ends his life at the bottom of a river. Mr. Compson, who’s far too educated for the lifestyle he finds himself leading, quotes Latin as he drinks himself to death.
If education doesn’t allow you to reach for the stars, then what does? Well, there aren’t too many other options. Sorry. Did you think that this was a Disney movie? Seriously, though, Faulkner doesn’t give us too many other options – except for religion. And, as we’ve seen, it takes the right sort of person to get comfort from the thought of God. Otherwise, you’re just Mrs. Compson, whining about how your Bible wasn’t placed in exactly the right spot on your bed.
We just have to point one more thing out: notice how education in this novel is only a white man’s gig? We just thought that you might find that interesting.