The Sound and the Fury
by William Faulkner
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Wait a second, that’s not a description!
You’re right. But give us just a second to explain, anyway. See, Faulkner’s a tonal chameleon. Or a total chameleon. Either way, really. He switches his tone up so often (and so well) that it’s hard for us to give it an official title.
When he’s in Jason’s head, Faulkner’s tone is acerbic, sardonic, and downright cruel. Remember Jason’s delightful opening line, "Once a bitch, always a bitch, what I say" (3.1)? Exactly. It’s almost as if Faulkner’s trying to make us hate the guy from the moment we meet him. Quite frankly, it works. Jason is so unwilling to believe that anything good could ever come out of another human being that we find ourselves feeling the same way. Of course, that also means that we’re unwilling to believe that there’s any good in Jason. Here at Shmoop, we’re betting that Faulkner wanted us to feel that way. Check out our analysis of Jason in the "Character Analysis" section for reasons why we feel this way. We promise that it’s good.
When we’re in Benjy’s section, however, the tone of the novel is less easy to pin down. Faulkner’s completely committed to representing Benjy’s inner world. Because Benjy’s mentally handicapped, Faulkner resorts to an impressionistic language of the senses in order to describe Benjy’s world. In other words, we don’t actually read about Benjy eating oatmeal. Instead, we get a description of how he sees a bowl emptying:
It got down below the mark. Then the bowl was empty. It went away. "He's hungry tonight." Caddy said. The bowl came back. I couldn't see the spot. Then I could. "He's starved, tonight." Caddy said. "Look how much he's eaten." (1.879)
See the difference? It’s almost as if Faulkner’s trying to avoid a specific tone when he’s inside Benjy’s mind, if only because Benjy himself hasn’t developed a personality which asserts itself in the world. He observes things; things happen to him.
In Quentin’s section, however, Faulkner’s tone is educated (even pedantic) and frequently neurotic. Quentin’s the smartest of the Compsons, sure, but he’s also cracking up. Faulkner uses lots of big words and lots of literary/biblical references to make sure that we know just how much stuff Quentin has knocking around in his head, but that doesn’t stop him from making Quentin a pretty hard guy to follow. As he delves further and further into his memory, his tone becomes less and less educated, more and more emotional.
The final section of The Sound and the Fury may just be one of Faulkner’s biggest literary triumphs. We admit, it’s actually a pretty normal part of the novel, right? The Faulknerian voice (if we can call it that) seems to have disappeared completely. There’s a third-person narrator whose approach to the events of novel is sedate, even detached. It’s almost like a breath of fresh air, isn’t it? Here’s a sample:
The day dawned bleak and chill, a moving wall of gray light out of the northeast which, instead of dissolving into moisture, seemed to disintegrate into minute and venomous particles, like dust that, when Dilsey opened the door of the cabin and emerged, needled laterally into her flesh, precipitating not so much a moisture as a substance partaking of the quality of thin, not quite congealed oil. (4.1)
We’d just like point out how incredibly literary Faulkner’s tone is at this point. The narrator’s relaxed, sure, but it’s also totally in control of the story that’s about to unfold. We love it – if only because it’s a reminder of just how crazy the other sections of the novel actually are.