The Sound and the Fury
by William Faulkner
"I know I’m just a troublesome old woman. But I know that people cannot flout God’s laws with impunity" (3.168). There you have it. Straight from the horse’s mouth. We’re not saying that Mrs. Compson’s a horse, of course. Or that she acts like a horse. What we are saying, though, is that Mrs. Compson believes whole-heartedly in a Vengeful God. And her God requires that gentlemen behave like gentlemen and ladies behave like ladies.
After all, that’s how society has functioned in Jefferson, Mississippi for generations. And as far as she’s concerned, that’s how it’ll continue to function forever. Of course, in 1928 those codes of conduct are becoming…well, a bit outdated. In fact, they’re not so appropriate in 1910, either. Just don’t tell Mrs. Compson that.
If we were to describe Mrs. Compson’s official role in this novel, she’d be the mother. After all, she does give birth to Quentin, Caddy, Jason, and Benjy. The funny thing is, she doesn’t act too much like a mother. There’s no evidence that she has any affection for her children. She idolizes Jason, but that’s just because he’s got a good dose of the Bascomb in him. Mrs. Compson, you see, was a Bascomb before she was a Compson. And boy, does she regret the day that she changed her name. But before we get off the topic of motherhood, we should share her views on the subject:
I thought that Benjamin was punishment enough for any sins I have committed I thought he was my punishment for putting aside my pride and marrying a man who held himself above me I dont complain I loved him above all of them because of it because my duty. (2.154)
It’s your duty to love your kids? Your child is a punishment to you? Come on. Seriously? Oh yes, Mrs. Compson takes herself very seriously, indeed. She’s convinced that the fates of all of her children are somehow a reflection of God’s judgment upon her. Not that the kids have their own lives or anything. Nope. It’s all about her. In fact, we can see by the way that she treats Caddy’s daughter just how highly she values the role of a mother in a child’s life. As she warns Dilsey:
she [Quentin] must never know. She must never even learn that name. Dilsey, I forbid you ever to speak that name in her hearing. If she could grow up never to know that she had a mother, I would thank God. (3.170)
Heck, maybe young Quentin would be better off without Caddy. Who are we to guess? We’re pretty sure, though, that Mrs. Compson has no real motherly love for any of her kids. If she did, she might be just a wee bit more willing to allow Quentin to experience a relationship with her mother, as well.
What Mrs. Compson does provide, however, is a sense of family. For Mrs. Compson, family’s not about love. It’s not even about protection. And forget helpfulness. Family is about blood and reputation. Mrs. Compson keeps Uncle Maury (a.k.a. "The World’s Most Useless Human Being") around just because…yup, he’s family. And she convinces Caddy to get married to help save the family reputation. Then there’s the whole thing with changing Benjy’s name. Interestingly, even though we don't really like Mrs. Compson as a character, her notions of respectability and gentility are pivotal to the values of the novel as a whole. All of her children internalize her sense of morality. It may mess them up, but they still deal with it.
Other than that, Mrs. Compson becomes a sort of symbol of the Compson house. It’s decaying and off the beaten social path. She’s decaying, too: she spends most of her time in her bedroom, yelling useless and pathetic comments down the stairs to Dilsey. As if Dilsey didn’t have enough to do.
Why is Mrs. Compson so ridiculously easy to dislike? And why is she so ridiculous? Well, she’s caught up in a sense of Southern identity that just doesn’t hold sway anymore. In that respect, at least, she’s a lot like her husband. The older generation of Compsons infuses the novel with a sense of the South as an oppressive force – one that’s killing them even as it stifles their children.