The Sound and the Fury
by William Faulkner
Coming-of-Age, Family Drama, Romance, Modernism
The Sound and the Fury is a great big stewing mix of family problems, rage, family problems, hurt, family problems, anger, and family problems. In other words, there’s a lot of family. And there are lots and lots of problems.
We’d like to compare it to a soap opera, but soap operas tend to find some sort of resolution at the end of the season. The funny thing is that most of the complications that we see arising between members of the Compson family are apparent only because the three Compson brothers each narrate their own section. In other words, the narrators are mostly so into their own stories that they don’t bother to explain exactly how the "drama" part of what we here at Shmoop are calling "family drama" comes about. It’s only through reading all the sections of the novel that we come to understand how fundamentally different – and how incredibly troubled – all the Compson kids are.
That brings us to another point: you see, much of what’s revealed about the Compson family and their problems comes to us through formal innovations (like the separating out of Jason’s, Benjy’s, and Quentin’s voices). Formal innovation and formal fragmentation are key aspects of the modernist novel. Now, we know, modernism’s not really a genre. It’s a historical movement in literature. For the moment, though, we’ll talk about the ways that modernist novels toss all sorts of generic conventions to the wind. All that playing with time? That’s a modernist move. And the confusing moments when we’re inside a character’s head as they shuttle between the events of yesterday, today and seven years ago? That’s a fancy little technique called stream of consciousness writing – and it’s a signature of modernism, as well.
We interrupt this program for a quick technical side note: stream of consciousness is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. If we think of all our conscious thoughts moving in a flowing stream from one idea to the next, then capturing those thoughts as they appear becomes the work of stream of consciousness writing. It’s supposed to be exactly what’s going on inside a character’s head. No dialogue. No outside narrator to explain things in a neat and tidy way. Just the thoughts of a character. Nifty, huh? Here’s an example stream of consciousness in Quentin’s section:
My little sister had no. If I could say Mother. Mother (2.91)
See how he’s not really talking to anyone? And how the sentences stop when his own thoughts do? Stream of consciousness, baby. Here’s another, just for good measure:
Roses. Not virgins like dogwood, milkweed. I said I have committed incest, Father I said. Roses. (2.4)
Here Quentin’s remembering a conversation he had with his father. The key here is that he’s remembering. He’s not actually having the conversation. He’s not talking out loud. It’s all in his head.
Wait a second, weren’t we supposed to be talking about genre? Yes, we know. We just couldn’t help ourselves. Faulkner’s form is so gosh-darn interesting. Back to the genres, though…
In a weird way, The Sound and the Fury is also a coming-of-age novel. We see the Compsons as kids and as adults. We don’t actually see them maturing (OK, that’s not totally true…but we’ll put it out there for now). We do, however, see them accumulating memories and situations which begin to constitute The Past. Why the capital letters? Well, for Faulkner The Past is so important that it probably deserves caps. And we here at Shmoop are going to use them. Plus, it’s pretty fun to make a big deal out of the small stuff. Even as The Past creeps up on the grown-up Compsons, however, their childhood continues to haunt them. This oscillation between The Past and the present – between childhood and today – allows us to read the novel as a coming-of-age narrative, even if it doesn’t adhere to all the conventions of one.