Quentin Compson, the eldest of the Compson children, is the Harvard boy. He’s the bright hope of the family. The Compsons wager everything on him, even selling the pastureland that’s supposed to belong to Benjy in order to pay for Quentin’s tuition at Harvard. Unfortunately for the Compson family, Quentin’s stopped living in the present. He’s turning in upon himself – time and the future and the world outside have stopped mattering all that much. He wants to focus on his past.
Agonized, troubled, and increasingly neurotic, Quentin spends most of his time worrying about how the sisters of the world are being treated. See, Caddy was the most important person in Quentin’s life. He came to understand relationships and women and sexuality through her. It’s not too surprising, then, that he thinks of most other women as somebody’s sister.
That’s where most of Quentin’s problems begin. Let us put it to you this way: if desiring your sister is taboo (it’s incest, in fact), then thinking about all women as sisters means that any desire you have is immediately a cause of guilt. That’s why Quentin finds himself laughing hysterically when he’s actually accused of stealing someone’s sister. He finds a little girl in a store, spends most of the day trying to take her home, and finally gets arrested for attempting to kidnap her. Some world, huh?
Of course, as we all know by now, Quentin’s the last person in the world to ever do anything to harm a woman. He’s gotten beat up many, many times for defending women’s honor. In fact, as a boy, all he has to say is "she," and his father knows exactly why he came home with a black eye.
And, shocker of all shockers, Quentin decides to tell his father that he’s committed incest with Caddy. Let’s be very clear here: Quentin has not done anything with Caddy. No sex. No incest. In fact, he’s a virgin (as his roommate Shreve will make painfully clear later on). That doesn’t stop him from trying to protect Caddy, however. As he thinks, "If it could just be a hell beyond that: the clean flame the two of us more than dead. Then you will have only me then only me then the two of us amid the pointing and the horror beyond the clean flame" (2.252).
What he wants, in other words, is a way to stop the course of history. He’s willing to do just about anything to make it happen – even if it means leaving the world entirely. The desire to "save" Caddy, however, is complicated by a rather reductive notion of how women function in the world. As his father says:
"Women are like that they dont acquire knowledge of people we are for that they are just born with a practical fertility of suspicion that makes a crop every so often and usually right they have an affinity for evil for supplying whatever the evil lacks in itself […]"(2.203)
In other words, Quentin’s stuck with saving Caddy and with pointing out to Caddy the fact that she needs saving. Unfortunately, she disagrees. Why is Quentin so ridiculously invested in protecting his sister? We suggest that you read our character analysis of Mrs. Compson for some sense of just how much pressure the poor kid was under. He’s pretty convinced that he’s been conscripted into a club of a few good men. As he reflects, "Father and I protect women from one another from themselves our women" (2.103).
When Caddy doesn’t accept his "saving," it’s Quentin who falls apart. Faulkner plays with the ways that Quentin first theorizes and then lives the stopping of time; by the end of his section, Quentin’s mind is shuttling between his present and a past that seems just as relevant as anything he’s currently living. The discovery that he can’t live in both the past and the present (or, as he says, "Massachusetts and Mississippi") at the same time is his undoing.