Who is the narrator, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can we trust her or him?
First Person, Third Person Omniscient
As you’ve probably noticed by now, The Sound and the Fury is actually a four-part novel. Unlike other four-part novels, however, it’s also got four different narrators: Benjy, Quentin, Jason, and the Voice in the Sky. Actually, the Voice in the Sky is just what we’re calling the omniscient narrator of the final section. Critics tend to refer to this section as Dilsey’s section, because it follows her actions the most closely, but the narrative voice just isn’t Dilsey’s own.
Why the switch-up between narrative voices? Well, for one thing, it helps us to see that all of the Compson kids are special in their own way. In this case, though, we sort of think that it’s true. They’ve all got unique perspectives on their family lives and their individual sorrows. By combining all of these perspectives, Faulkner allows us to see just how much siblings share. They all meditate on their childhood at some point in their sections. They all think about Caddy. A lot. And they all have to deal with the legacy of emotional manipulation that their parents leave them.
Plus, when we’re reading first-person narration, we really get to get inside characters’ heads and see what it’s really like to be Quentin (or Benjy or Jason). Just like a reality TV. show. Only better.
OK, so we’re in people’s heads. That’s how this novel works. What’s with the fourth section, then? Why don’t we get to hear Dilsey’s voice? It’s a pretty big question for this novel (and we have to tell you, it has stumped critics far older and deader than we are now). We’ve got a couple of theories to toss your way, however:
- Faulkner didn’t want to inhabit (and narrate) the experiences of a woman.
Think about it: all the women in the novel (Caddy, Mrs. Compson, Dilsey, Frony) are talked about. Sure, we get a few pages of Mrs. Compson’s lecture to Quentin, but that’s nothing compared to the looong time we get to spend in the boys’ heads. In a lot of ways, this is a novel about women. After all, it’s Caddy who gets married and leaves. Nonetheless, it’s not about women’s experiences. It’s more about men’s experiences of women.
- Faulkner wasn’t comfortable inhabiting (and narrating) the experiences of a black character.
The logic for this theory runs something like the logic of the last one. For a novel that’s steeped in racial meditations, The Sound and the Fury is still essentially offering a white perspective on racial relations. Perhaps Faulkner just didn’t want to assume the responsibility of thinking about another perspective. Perhaps he felt that it would be dishonest to try to imagine himself into Dilsey’s world. Either way, the fact that Dilsey’s section is narrated in third person distances us from the mindset of the most central black characters in the novel.
- Dilsey’s the only character who’s not completely absorbed by her own world.
In a way, the third-person narration more accurately reflects her perspective than a first-person voice could. See, she spends so much time thinking about and caring about the fates of others around her that she actually does have a greater critical distance from her own self-perception than the other characters do. Maybe she just doesn’t need to process all of the stuff that a Benjy or a Quentin feels compelled to think about all the time. Dilsey doesn’t need a strong "I." She’s more concerned with building a sense of community.
Any of these readings are plausible. Hey, that’s why we offered them to you. Which one makes the most sense to you?