Study Guide

The Sound and the Fury Memory and the Past

By William Faulkner

Memory and the Past

Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools. (2.1)

The Civil War disintegrates in Mr. Compson’s analysis, becoming nothing more than a reminder of individual defeat. Interestingly, this analysis carries over into his advice for Quentin regarding Caddy.

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)

Even time for Quentin is something that he inherits from his family: a second- (or third-) hand watch measures time for him. In some ways, the watch becomes for Quentin a symbol of repetition as much as for the continual movement of time.

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)

Mr. Compson’s ironic commentary on the decay of the Southern gentleman is also a marker of the shift from property-owning gentry to the middle class. Gentlemen buy their own books; middle-class men check them out from the library.

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)

By positing living time as something outside of temporality, Mr. Compson sets up an impossible existence for Quentin. The only way for him to escape time is to leave it altogether –and the only way that he can think of to do that is to kill himself.

Again. Sadder than was. Again. Saddest of all. Again. (2.95)

Quentin’s suggesting that the endless monotony of the present is more depressing than the past. Faulkner’s showing his colors as a modernist here: history is a pretty horrible thing to face, but the sense that history could repeat itself over and over (and over) is more horrible yet.

Honeysuckle was the saddest odor of all, I think. I remember lots of them. Wistaria was one. (2.903)

It’s interesting that Quentin’s starting to sound a lot like Benjy here, isn’t it? Remembering the flowers around his house, Quentin implies that the scents they give off have connected themselves to specific memories. Remember how Quentin smells honeysuckle on the night that Caddy runs off with Dalton Ames?

A quarter hour yet. And then I'll not be. The peacefullest words. Peacefullest words. Non fui. Sum. Fui. Non sum. Somewhere I heard bells once. Mississippi or Massachusetts. I was. I am not. Massachusetts or Mississippi. (2.1005)

This is Quentin breaking down. In case you were wondering, the strange words are Latin. Your friendly Shmoop translation service suggests that they mean "I was not. I am. I was. I am not." Depressing, huh? Quentin’s pretty much talking himself into suicide at this point.

[…] and he was the saddest word of all there is nothing else in the world its not despair until time its not even time until it was (2.1008)

Quentin remembers his father’s musing that "was" is one of the saddest words of all. Why "was?" Well, we bet that it’s got something to do with the fact that the past is, for Mr. Compson, over and done with. You only actually feel things once you start remembering them. It’s a strange sort of temporality – one that lives looking backwards.

All right, den," Luster said. "You want somethin to beller about?" He looked over his shoulder, toward the house. Then he whispered: "Caddy! Beller now. "Caddy! "Caddy! "Caddy! (4.441)

The very mention of Caddy’s name sends Benjy into a howling frenzy. Luster knows that this is the one sure-fire way to get a reaction out of Benjy – and we see that this is the one communicative link that others try to make with Benjy. In other words, they’re completely happy to let Benjy live mostly in the past.

"I've seed de first en de last," Dilsey said. […] "I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin." (4.280-282)

Dilsey’s the one character who recognizes Quentin’s running away as the end of the Compson family. She’s also the only one stable enough to recognize a difference between past, present, and future – between the beginning and the ending.