Where It All Goes Down
Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, 1928; Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1910
We have to be honest here: we’re not quite sure where to begin with this one. The setting of The Sound and the Fury is arguably one of the most important aspects of the novel. It’s not just because Faulkner himself drew a map of the imaginary county (that’s Yoknapatawpha) in which most of his novels are set. It’s not even because readers ever since then have become almost obsessed with re-creating Faulkner’s imaginative world. (We’re not kidding about this one. Do some web searches on Yoknapatawpha. We guarantee that you’ll be amazed with what you find. And maybe even a bit scared).
Nope, the setting of The Sound and the Fury is important because it’s set in the South. In the post-Civil War South, as a matter of fact. We know, we know – a quick check of any timeline will tell you that the Civil War ended long before Faulkner got around to writing his novels. It was over in 1865, as a matter of fact. Or was it?
Critics have been debating whether Faulkner’s novel is the greatest Southern novel or the greatest American novel for decades. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, for Faulkner, the South is a land that never becomes fully re-integrated into the United States in the decades (or even centuries) after the Civil War. In The Sound and the Fury, it all falls down to Quentin’s musing, "Mississippi or Massachusetts. I was. I am not. Massachusetts or Mississippi" (2.1005). The two locations are distinct "countries," and he can’t belong to both. As he says, "our country was not like this country" (2.228).
It’s no coincidence that Deacon, the black man who befriends Quentin in Massachusetts, wears a military parade uniform. Faulkner uses the uniform as a sort of half-funny joke, sure, but it’s also a reminder of how far the North has moved away from the history of secession and war. Men in the North wear uniforms in almost-mocking parades; men in the South sit on back porches and talk obsessively about the generals and governors who form their ancestry.
Even when the novel moves to the North, following Quentin to Massachusetts, it never really stops inhabiting the South. The wisteria and jasmine and honeysuckle that Quentin grew up with invade his memory in Massachusetts. He’s managed to trick himself into smelling the South in his dorm room.
OK, so the novel’s set in the South. But it’s also a novel of rural life. The Compsons live on an acreage on the edge of a small town in Mississippi. Like most small towns, things rarely change. Jason, for one, speaks contemptuously about his fellow townspeople: they just can’t ever seem to catch up with technology. For Benjy, however, that stability is comforting and necessary. Remember when he freaks out because T.P. takes the carriage the wrong way around the block?
Oh, and since we’re getting more and more micro in our analysis, we should mention that The Sound and the Fury is also a novel about a house. The Compson house, to be precise. It’s strange, though – we hear lots and lots about the Compson house (and, of course, about the people who live in it), but we rarely get a solid description of the house. Maybe that’s because its inhabitants take it for granted. By the time we actually find out what the house looks like, it’s ceased to become a home. Here, for example, is the description of Quentin’s room:
It was not a girl's room. It was not anybody's room, and the faint scent of cheap cosmetics and the few feminine objects and the other evidences of crude and hopeless efforts to feminise it but added to its anonymity, giving it that dead and stereotyped transience of rooms in assignation houses. (4.146)
Wow. It’s clearly not a girl’s room. We get the picture.
Although it may not seem like it, The Sound and the Fury is also an inter-war novel. Its two sections are set before both WWI and WWII. See? When you play with time, you get to take all sorts of important historical event into account.