Study Guide

The Sound and the Fury Analysis

  • Tone

    Grab Bag

    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.

  • Genre

    Coming-of-Age, Family Drama, Romance, Modernism

    The Sound and the Fury is a great big stewing mix of family problems, rage, family problems, hurt, family problems, anger, and family problems. In other words, there’s a lot of family. And there are lots and lots of problems.

    We’d like to compare it to a soap opera, but soap operas tend to find some sort of resolution at the end of the season. The funny thing is that most of the complications that we see arising between members of the Compson family are apparent only because the three Compson brothers each narrate their own section. In other words, the narrators are mostly so into their own stories that they don’t bother to explain exactly how the "drama" part of what we here at Shmoop are calling "family drama" comes about. It’s only through reading all the sections of the novel that we come to understand how fundamentally different – and how incredibly troubled – all the Compson kids are.

    That brings us to another point: you see, much of what’s revealed about the Compson family and their problems comes to us through formal innovations (like the separating out of Jason’s, Benjy’s, and Quentin’s voices). Formal innovation and formal fragmentation are key aspects of the modernist novel. Now, we know, modernism’s not really a genre. It’s a historical movement in literature. For the moment, though, we’ll talk about the ways that modernist novels toss all sorts of generic conventions to the wind. All that playing with time? That’s a modernist move. And the confusing moments when we’re inside a character’s head as they shuttle between the events of yesterday, today and seven years ago? That’s a fancy little technique called stream of consciousness writing – and it’s a signature of modernism, as well.

    We interrupt this program for a quick technical side note: stream of consciousness is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. If we think of all our conscious thoughts moving in a flowing stream from one idea to the next, then capturing those thoughts as they appear becomes the work of stream of consciousness writing. It’s supposed to be exactly what’s going on inside a character’s head. No dialogue. No outside narrator to explain things in a neat and tidy way. Just the thoughts of a character. Nifty, huh? Here’s an example stream of consciousness in Quentin’s section:

    My little sister had no. If I could say Mother. Mother (2.91)

    See how he’s not really talking to anyone? And how the sentences stop when his own thoughts do? Stream of consciousness, baby. Here’s another, just for good measure:

    Roses. Not virgins like dogwood, milkweed. I said I have committed incest, Father I said. Roses. (2.4)

    Here Quentin’s remembering a conversation he had with his father. The key here is that he’s remembering. He’s not actually having the conversation. He’s not talking out loud. It’s all in his head.

    Wait a second, weren’t we supposed to be talking about genre? Yes, we know. We just couldn’t help ourselves. Faulkner’s form is so gosh-darn interesting. Back to the genres, though…

    In a weird way, The Sound and the Fury is also a coming-of-age novel. We see the Compsons as kids and as adults. We don’t actually see them maturing (OK, that’s not totally true…but we’ll put it out there for now). We do, however, see them accumulating memories and situations which begin to constitute The Past. Why the capital letters? Well, for Faulkner The Past is so important that it probably deserves caps. And we here at Shmoop are going to use them. Plus, it’s pretty fun to make a big deal out of the small stuff. Even as The Past creeps up on the grown-up Compsons, however, their childhood continues to haunt them. This oscillation between The Past and the present – between childhood and today – allows us to read the novel as a coming-of-age narrative, even if it doesn’t adhere to all the conventions of one.

  • What’s Up With the Title?

    We’ve got to hand it to Faulkner: the guy draws from only the best sources. Need a title? Might as well turn to the greatest author in the English language. (Shakespeare, in case you were wondering.) The Sound and the Fury is actually a reference to one of the most famous ending soliloquies in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. (Since Faulkner’s using lots of high-brow literary language, we here at Shmoop thought that we would, as well. After all, it’s only fair. "Oeuvre" is a French word that describes an author’s/creator’s entire body of work. If you’re a basketball player, all those sweet moves you’ve got might just be described as your oeuvre. Use that one to impress your folks. It’s on us.)

    Back to Shakespeare and The Sound and the Fury, however; as we were saying, "sound and fury" comes from a very famous play. It’s from Macbeth, to be specific. As you probably guessed from reading Faulkner, he tends not to like comedy as much as he looooves a good tragedy. It’s probably fitting, then, that he chose to use Macbeth’s meditations on how his world has fallen apart at the end of the play.

    In the quote that Faulkner adapts, Macbeth himself is thinking about how nothing seems to be worth anything anymore. Check the quote out below. In fact, we recommend reading it out loud to yourself. It’s a guaranteed way to send some shivers down the old spine. Because it’s just so, so good, we’ve quoted a large chunk of it for you here:

    [Macbeth:] To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
    To the last syllable of recorded time,
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.
    (Macbeth, Act V, Scene v)

    If you’re interested in learning more about Macbeth, check out Shmoop's coverage of Macbeth – or better yet, read the play yourself. Believe us, it’s every bit as blood-and-gore and horror-packed as any of Faulkner’s novels.

    Why does Faulkner choose to appropriate some of the Shakespearean magic for his own work? Well, that’s the $10,000 question. We’re not completely sure why, but we have a few good hunches:

    1. Faulkner was pretty convinced that he was one of the world’s Great novelists. That’s Great with a capital g. The problem was that no one else seemed to recognize this yet. If you’re a young, aspiring novelist and you want to lay claim to greatness, how might you do it? Well, you could start by quoting the Bard himself. Sort of like Faulkner does.

    2. Macbeth is a play about a man’s world (and his family) falling completely apart. The Sound and the Fury is about several men’s worlds (and their family) falling completely apart. Notice any similarities? We thought so.

    3. Of course, the "tale told by an idiot" seems like a pretty clear reference to Benjy’s section of the novel. After all, he "bellows" all the time. Could he be the one that’s "full of sound and fury"? It seems pretty likely, right?

    4. Then again, Quentin’s not so brilliant in matters of the world, either. And Jason? Don’t get us started. In other words, determining just who Faulkner wants us to interpret as the "idiot" is a bit trickier than it might initially appear. We’re guessing that that’s precisely Faulkner’s point.

    5. One final thought: all that stuff about life meaning nothing and the world being full of gloom and doom is a pretty classically modernist stance. The modernist novel begins where most traditional tragedies end: with a world that seems impossible to put back into some sort of logical order. Words and actions mean nothing anymore. Characters are left to pick up the pieces of lives that just aren’t very significant. It’s not a very cheery prospect, we know, but The Sound and the Fury buys into a great deal of this gloom and doom. And heck, it still manages to be a pretty great novel.
    6. What’s Up With the Ending?

      Ending? What ending? Were you expecting a "happily ever after"? If so, you sure picked the wrong novel. The Sound and the Fury just ain’t about happiness. Or about ending things, for that matter. Why isn’t there an ending? Well, that’s a good question. If you look back at the Macbeth quote from which the title of our novel is drawn, you’ll see that Faulkner’s obsessed with the idea of "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" (Macbeth 5.5). In other words, maybe the only thing more terrifying and depressing than a tragic ending is the realization that there won’t be any ending. Things will just stay the same…forever. (Insert scary monster movie soundtrack here.)

      That’s not to say that lots of stuff doesn’t happen in the last chapter of the novel. After all, Quentin runs off with Jason’s money, leaving the house (and the Compson family) for good. We see just how rotten Jason actually is. Dilsey gets a good day’s praying in at church. All in all, it’s a fairly productive day.

      Scratch beneath the surface, though, and you’ll see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. (Haven’t we heard that one somewhere?) The family continues to put pressure on its female children, making unreasonable demands that force them to escape. We could agree with Mrs. Compson and insist that Quentin ran away because she’s just plain bad (like her mother was), but we think that there might be more to it than that. After all, nobody else in the Compson family changes, either. Jason’s as obsessed with flour as he was when he was a seven-year-old boy. Dilsey’s as solid in her faith as she was when the Compson children were little kids. As she asserts, everything happens in "the Lawd’s own time" ( 1.1296). It just seems like the Lord hasn’t gotten around to recognizing that the Compsons are stuck in a bit of a quagmire.

      Instead of an ending, then, let’s chat a bit about the last scene of the novel. Luster takes Benjy out for a ride in the carriage and decides to shake things up a bit. He’s only shaking things up a very little bit – instead of driving around the downtown circle clockwise, he’s going to go counter-clockwise. Unfortunately, this totally freaks Benjy out. He begins bellowing. And bellowing. And bellowing. Jason sees them and runs over, furious that Luster has caused Benjy to make a scene. As the novel closes, things start moving in their normal order:

      I could hear Queenie's feet and the bright shapes went smooth and steady on both sides, the shadows of them flowing across Queenie's back. They went on like the bright tops of wheels. Then those on one side stopped at the tall white post where the soldier was. But on the other side they went on smooth and steady, but a little slower. (4.1105)

      In other words, things are going just as they’re supposed to go.

      It seems like a pretty insignificant episode – but it’s actually a rather clever way to propose a teeny-tiny positive side to the whole "things never change and life is miserable" theme that Faulkner has going. You see, Benjy’s actually comforted by the routine of a world that continues to operate in exactly the same way as it did yesterday. For one member of the Compson family, at least, stasis is a way to ensure that the world is in proper working order. It’s not a perfect ending, that’s for sure. It’s not even a very hopeful one. It does testify, however, to the ability of people to endure pretty much anything. Benjy, for one, sees his world turn completely upside-down. As it returns to his normal order, however, he calms down. Things will be today just as they were yesterday. They’ll be the same tomorrow as they are today. Maybe that isn’t so bad, after all.

    7. Setting

      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.

    8. Tough-o-Meter

      (7) Snow Line

      The going can be a little rough here, thanks in large part to Willy Faulkner's groundbreaking narrative. Multiple perspectives? Check. Stream-of-consciousness monologues? Double check. At times, reading The Sound and the Fury can feel a bit like you're plunged into a thick forest, trying to find your way forward. Luckily for you, though, Shmoop is here to point out the landmarks.

    9. Writing Style

      Ridiculously Complicated

      Check out what Ernest Hemingway had to say about Faulkner in our "Brain Snacks" section. Actually, wait – it’s so good, we’ll just give you a quick summary: "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?" Looks like someone didn’t get invited to Faulkner’s next Christmas party.

      Seriously, though: with all the time shifting and sentence fragments and long, archaic words, Faulkner’s prose can be a handful sometimes. (And if you think this is complicated, just wait ‘til you read Absalom, Absalom!.) If you’re getting frustrated, then, don’t despair. You’re in good company. Generations of readers have found Faulkner’s style difficult, fascinating, and even aggravating.

      Why create so many readerly headaches? Well, one theory could be that Faulkner’s just a mean spirited guy. He’s out to make all you poor English students suffer. Then again, maybe he’s trying to convey just how fuddled Quentin’s mind actually is – or how terse and sarcastic Jason can be. Faulkner’s something like a literary maestro – he manages to orchestrate several completely unique, completely different styles into one novel. Just to remind you, below are a couple examples.

      Here’s Jason:

      "Well, Jason likes work. I says no I never had university advantages because at Harvard they teach you how to go for a swim at night without knowing how to swim and at Sewanee they dont even teach you what water is." (3.147)

      His sentences are short and terse. We’re guessing that this is one of the ways that Faulkner’s actually thumbing his nose at Jason. After all, the man can write absolutely beautiful, haunting sentences. Jason’s, however, sort of suck. They don’t really have many thoughts or adjectives in them, just actions and conversations. His style is completely different from Quentin’s:

      "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)

      OK, this is towards the end of Quentin’s section. As he edges closer and closer to suicide, his mind becomes more and more chaotic. Check out the difference in the sentence structures of the beginning of his section, for example, and those at the end. In the beginning, he recounts events in a precise, orderly fashion. By the end of his life, however, he’s all over the place. His sentences sprawl across pages (and pages and pages and pages).

      And we’ve got one more example of Faulkner’s style for you. This is the narrator of the fourth and final section:

      "The earth immediately about the door was bare. It had a patina, as though from the soles of bare feet in generations, like old silver or the walls of Mexican houses which have been plastered by hand. Beside the house, shading it in summer, stood three mulberry trees, the fledged leaves that would later be broad and placid as the palms of hands streaming flatly undulant upon the driving air." (4.3)

      It’s clean, elegant, and delicately-wrought. It’s also got a complicated simile ("like old silver or the walls of a Mexican house"). We’ve got to wonder: did Faulkner insert this fourth section just to show us that he could write "normal" prose?

      But back to our original point: when it comes to master-minding different styles, Faulkner’s got game. What’s the point of all this stylistic innovation? Well, Faulkner’s a bit of a literary show-off. But he’s also working to make real the very different experiences and world-views of different characters. And, well, perhaps that just takes some very different tools.

    10. Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

      Southern Values

      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.

      Muddy Drawers

      Ah, the wet undies. C’mon, folks, who doesn’t love this one? Caddy’s wet drawers just sound so…dirty.

      Well, that’s probably because they are dirty with mud. Caddy’s a little girl – she’s allowed to play in the mud.

      Caddy, the rebellious, vivacious, emotional sister to the Compson brothers, spends most of her adult life atoning for sexual experiences which she had when she was young. What her brothers remember, however, is this moment: "She was wet. We were playing in the branch and Caddy squatted down and got her dress wet and Versh said, "Your mommer going to whip you for getting your dress wet." (1.187-8)

      For Faulkner, this moment is the emotional center of the novel. The image of a little girl with muddy drawers becomes something that revolves through all of the characters’ memories. It’s sort of like when you have a dream about falling and then trip on the way to school. If you’re at all superstitious, then you’re probably convinced that the dream was foreshadowing your fall. The image of Caddy’s muddy drawers works in pretty much the same way for her brothers: after her pregnancy, they become a sign of her sexual "impurity."

      The poignant thing about this image, however, is that Caddy’s still a little girl. She’s completely innocent (if a little bit headstrong) when she’s falling into the creek. Why are we attached so much emotional weight to the fact that she gets a little bit dirty? Aren’t we just blowing this all out of proportion? Exactly. It’s this tension between innocence in the past and guilt/blame in the present that makes the image so compelling. It also makes it just a little bit easier to understand why everybody always seems to be looking backwards in this novel.

      Clocks

      If you forget everything else about Quentin, you’ll probably remember that he was that guy in that Faulkner novel who was so obsessed with clocks. Let’s face it: the guy’s got a bit of a problem. Just about everything he does or thinks about in his section is punctuated with some awareness of how that action does (or doesn’t) fit into time.

      Believe it or not, we’ve got a few things to say about clocks, as well. If you didn’t get enough from Quentin himself, that is. Here’s what we’ve got:

      1. Clocks are the markers of the historical past. If the clock keeps ticking, then things that happen before "now" have to have happened "then." If you want to run with this (and oh, believe us, Quentin does), then without any clocks, there wouldn’t be any difference between the present and the past. If there’s no "today," then how can there be a "yesterday"? It’s all pretty zany, we know – but it’s a decently sophisticated existential meditation. At least, that’s what Quentin thinks. Here’s what he remembers his father saying, "Because Father said clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life" (2.53).

        In other words, all the things that you think you might have missed (like, say, the chance to fix Caddy’s life) only become possible when the clock stops marking off the difference between the past and the present. Notice how violent this description of time is? Clocks slaying time? The Compsons don’t really think of the present as their friend.

      2. There’s a big difference between public time and private time. Remember how Quentin keeps listening to the bells of the Harvard campus? That’s public time, the kind that everyone can hear. If you don’t get to class by the time the bell tolls, you’re late. Everyone knows this.

        The trouble is, individuals often experience time in ways that are different than the public measurement of time. Think about it. It seems like you’ve only been playing a video game for a few minutes, but actually it’s 3:00 in the morning and you’re totally screwed because you have to be in class at eight tomorrow. You didn’t even notice the time passing. Sound familiar? That’s a form of individual time. It’s something that Faulkner experiments with for all of his characters, but most consciously with Quentin. Remember what Quentin says about his own watch?

        Just in case you don’t, we’ve got it here for you:

        It was Grandfather's and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it's rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father's. (2.1)
      If we focus in on that last line, we see what Mr. Compson’s getting at: a watch, even a watch that’s been in the family forever and ever, can’t actually measure time the way that an individual experiences it. Watches, in fact, are almost no good at all for that. Perhaps that’s why Quentin breaks his.
    11. Narrator Point of View

      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:

      1. 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.

      2. 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.

      3. 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?
      • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

        So you wanted a basic plot analysis, huh? Sorry. You’re reading the wrong book, pal. Come on, did you think this was the nineteenth century? Modernists hate easy plots.

        In case we forgot to mention it, The Sound and the Fury breaks most conventions. Following a logical plot just isn’t one of those conventions to which it chooses to adhere. After all, with sections that jump from 1928 to 1910 and back to 1928, it’s hard to figure out what "progress" actually means. As another Faulkner character once said, "The past is never dead. It isn’t even past." (That’s Gavin Stevens in Requiem for a Nun). In a lot of ways, the main actions of this novel occur before the first page was ever written. It arcs backwards, carrying its characters (and, of course, us readers) with it.

        So, what do we do with the fact that there’s no discernable plot here? Well, for one thing, time actually does pass…it’s just that characters aren’t willing to live in the present. If we compare The Sound and the Fury with another modernist juggernaut, Ulysses, for example, we realize just how sprawling Faulkner’s timeline is. Ulysses takes place over the course of a single day. The Sound and the Fury, on the other hand, seems to reach back into the past forever.

        Moreover, things actually do happen. The stock market crashes, a sister runs away, and a son kills himself. All in all, it’s got the makings of a fairly decent tragedy. (After all, tragedies are when bad stuff happens, right?) Well, yes. And no. We told you that modernists rarely had simple answers. See, your typical tragedy starts in a fairly happy place. Think about Macbeth: life’s not the greatest in Scotland, but then again, it’s not so awful either. Only later does the world fall apart.

        That’s where Faulkner separates his novel from the typical tragedy. Sure, the Compson family falls apart. And sure, you’ve got the sorts of death, destruction, and universal unhappiness that you’d expect from a tragedy. But here’s the kicker: the novel starts out in a crummy place. Don’t get us wrong: you could argue that things actually do get worse over the course of the novel. (Go ahead. We dare you.) You might even be right. In our opinion, though, things started going downhill when Caddy left. As we can see (or, wait – as we don’t see), that’s long before the novel actually starts on page one.

        What’re we left with, then? Well, a new form for the novel. That’s why folks liked Faulkner so much: he carried on the tradition started by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and the other modernist folk. More importantly, he does it in a way that speaks to the emotional import of American landscapes. What Joyce does for Dublin, Faulkner does for the South.

      • Plot Analysis

        Initial Situation

        Benjy grieves for the loss of Caddy and his land.

        OK, we know that The Sound and the Fury has a totally screwy plot structure. In fact, we’re not sure that we can make it fit into a classic plot analysis. But we’ll give it a try. Here’s the first point: we know Benjy’s grieving (or "blubbering"), but we don’t figure out why until much later in the novel. What we do know, however, is that Benjy’s life revolves around the land he lives on and the memories of his childhood. Time seems to have stopped.

        Conflict

        Caddy gets pregnant and marries the first man she can find.

        Well, this isn’t really playing fair, either. After all, Caddy’s pregnancy and marriage aren’t really narrated. (They do get mentioned several times in Quentin’s section, but the memories are so disjointed that it’s hard to figure out what he’s talking about.) We’d like to argue, however, that Caddy’s pregnancy and marriage are the root of all the problems for the Compson siblings. Caddy marries and goes away, leaving Quentin, Benjy and Jason in her wake. Dealing with the sorrow of her loss and the anger her sexuality occasions consumes all of her brothers. Each deals with Caddy in different ways, but their narratives all circle around their own relationships with their sister.

        Complication

        Mrs. Compson banishes Caddy and refuses to mention her name.

        Determined to uphold genteel conventions, Mrs. Compson puts on mourning when she finds out the Caddy kissed a boy (at age fifteen, no less). Once Caddy gets pregnant, she pushes her into a quick (and loveless) marriage. This is bad enough – but Mrs. Compson’s ideas of chastity and sin, while excessive, manage to influence the rest of her family deeply. Trapped in the paradoxical non-state of virginity, Quentin can’t understand Caddy’s sexuality but feels obliged to protect her against everything. Caddy herself is convinced that she’s a ruined woman, damned to hell. Even Jason uses his mother’s logic to dismiss Caddy as a "bitch."

        Climax

        Quentin contemplates suicide and announces that he’s committed incest.

        Quentin’s attempts to deal with his sister’s sexuality are perhaps the most confused – and thus the most interesting – of all of the three brothers. (Feel free to argue with us here. We’re actually pretty sure that Benjy’s response is just as interesting.) He’s convinced that he’s got to save his sister. Here’s the problem: she won’t be saved. Maybe if he says that he’s had sex with her? Well, unfortunately, that doesn’t solve much. It turns out that nobody believes him – especially Caddy. Convinced that his world is over, Quentin jumps into the river.

        Suspense

        Nope

        Sorry. There’s not much suspense. Because we jump between the past and the present so often (and so confusingly), most of the major actions are revealed before we actually figure out what they mean. For example: we know that Benjy’s field has become a golf course on page one. We just don’t know that the golf course was once Benjy’s field until much, much later. If there is any suspense, it’s of a formal quality: will Faulkner make all his characters’ narratives fit together? Do we really understand what’s going on?

        Denouement

        Quentin runs away

        Quentin (that’s the girl, mind you) manages to escape from the clutches of her mean, thieving uncle. She runs off with a slick, oily circus man. It’s a perfect ending, right? Well, except for the fact that Quentin seems pretty unhappy the entire time. We could be happy that the next generation of Compsons has managed to get away from the clutches of Mrs. Compson, with her repressed notions of sexuality. Then again, Quentin’s future doesn’t look all that great. It’s almost an ending – except that Faulkner chooses to include another section after Jason’s, making it impossible to consider this the final chapter of the Compson story.

        Conclusion

        Dilsey finds peace at church.

        What? Weren’t we talking about Caddy and the Compsons? Well, yes. So what’s going on here? For one thing, Dilsey really is a part of the Compson family, even if she doesn’t share their name. If Caddy’s the heart of the family, Dilsey is its hands. She runs the house, raises the children, and tends to the fallout of everyone’s emotions. It’s pretty obvious that none of the Compsons are ever going to find any sort of peace or rest…and after all, isn’t that what conclusions are about? Instead, Faulkner pulls a nifty trick. He turns our attention to Dilsey, the woman whose narrative has been a rather minor thread in the other narratives.

      • Three Act Plot Analysis

        Act I

        Benjy, the mentally handicapped son of the Compson family, passes his time remembering his childhood and the moments he spent with his sister Caddy, who’s now gone.

        Act II

        Eighteen years earlier, Quentin Compson, a young student at Harvard, struggles to make sense of his sister’s recent marriage. Unable to triangulate the supposed innocence and virginity of his sister with her obvious sexuality, he decides to kill himself.

        Act III

        Angry and bitter at his fate, Jason Compson lashes out at his niece. He steals all her money, but manages to lose most of his own money in the stock market crash of 1928.