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Southern Values

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

There’s an old saying that goes something like this: "The South never dies." (There’s another saying that goes something like "The South shall rise again." Faulkner sure seems to disagree. But let’s just stick with the first one for now, shall we?) For Mrs. Compson, however, that’s sure the case. The idea of Southern gentility gets worked into just about every aspect of The Sound and the Fury. Caddy’s sexuality is bad because it’s not "ladylike." Benjy’s mental illness isn’t just difficult, it’s also a direct affront to the notion of the well-ordered Southern country family. Even Jason’s obsession with cash (not to mention his job as an employee of the hardware store) is a crude, vulgar fall away from the traditional occupations of the Southern gentleman.

Sure, Faulkner takes a couple of potshots at the notion of Southern gentility. After all, Mrs. Compson can’t do anything more than sit in her room and bemoan her fate. Let’s not even talk about her brother, Uncle Maury. OK, we can’t help ourselves. We will. Maury, you see, is the perfect Southern gentleman. When it comes time for a funeral, Maury pulls out his black gloves. Of course, he’s also a complete mooch who lives off of the money that the Compsons send to him…but at least he’s properly dressed.

Faulkner’s sarcasm aside, though, it’s probably a good idea to note all the ways that Southern values do drive this novel. As Quentin notes after seeing a Kentucky boy at Harvard, "ever since then I have believed that God is not only a gentleman and a sport; he is a Kentuckian too" (2.72).

Quentin can’t stand the fact that Caddy’s not a virgin. Why? Well, largely because of the ways that he’s been conditioned to think about women. See, if Quentin’s going to be a gentleman, then he has to think of women as ladies. And a "lady" just doesn’t do the sorts of things that Caddy did.

Why do people seem so obsessed with being gentlemen, anyway? After all, it seems like the time of the good ol’ South is, well….over.

Yes. And no. As Quentin remembers, "Father said it used to be a gentleman was known by his books; nowadays he is known by the ones he has not returned" (2.18).

Southern values may be outdated, but that doesn’t mean that they stop being important. They condition the way that men and women interact, the ways blacks and white communicate with each other, and the ways that individuals define themselves within their societies. The tragedy of Southern values in this novel is that they just don’t seem to match up to the realities of the modern world. But that doesn’t mean that they stop being appealing.

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