Study Guide

The Sound and the Fury Themes

  • Language and Communication

    Capturing the complexity of human thought production and human memory, Faulkner quickly became one of the leading figures of American Modernism. In The Sound and the Fury, multiple narrators produce stories which weave together the past and the present in restless, unending searches for a language that will allow them to convey the pain of the present and the vanishing promise of the past. Faulkner’s a technically brilliant writer; his range is evident in the spectrum of voices that he creates within one novel. Each character wields language in an utterly unique way.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Benjy’s section of The Sound and the Fury has been critically acclaimed as the most innovative section of the novel. It’s also pretty hard to understand. What seems formally interesting or different about Benjy’s section? How does it fit into the novel as a whole?
    2. During the Reverend Shegog’s sermon, he switches from very precise diction to a form of black dialect. How does this change get tracked in the novel? Why is it important?
    3. Is Benjy’s form of communication less effective than other characters’?
    4. Which section of The Sound and the Fury sounds most like spoken language? Which best represents a character’s thoughts?

    Chew on This

    Because Jason’s section of The Sound and the Fury is the least formally erratic, it creates a character that’s the least interesting.

    Although Benjy Compson is presented as an "idiot," it’s Quentin Compson who is least able to communicate effectively.

  • Family

    This is a novel about family – but more than that, it’s about a family in a freefall. An alcoholic father, a worthless uncle, a whining mother, and four curious children: the Compsons sound like a stock TV family, right? Well, not exactly. Through the perspectives of multiple characters, Faulkner creates a text that explores the ties between family members and the long-standing tensions that pull apart families. Although the Compson family is ostensibly the center of the novel, it’s also a novel of individuals – characters isolated even from those who know them best.

    Questions About Family

    1. How do the Gibsons fit into the Compson family?
    2. Mrs. Compson is convinced that calling her mentally handicapped son after her brother will bring bad luck to the family. How does changing Benjy’s name affect the other children in the Compson family?
    3. Does Caddy’s daughter, Quentin, feel any sense of connection to any of her family members?
    4. Is Jason’s hatred of all his family members believable? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Although the members of the Compson family are all very different, they share the same moral convictions.

    By refusing to allow Caddy’s voice to enter into The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner assures that she’ll remain the central figure of the novel.

  • Innocence

    In this novel, innocence comes in strange forms. There’s the mother who preaches a sort of rigid withdrawal from life, a son whose attempts to speak result in forced castration, and a son so obsessed with innocence that he kills himself to stop thinking about it. As Mr. Compson says, innocence can only be recognized once it’s been lost. That doesn’t mean, however, that people won’t chase the ideal it represents forever. No coming of age story is complete without a loss of innocence; in The Sound and the Fury, we have loss upon loss upon loss.

    Questions About Innocence

    1. Is Quentin (Jr.) an innocent girl? If so, why is she not likeable?
    2. Does Quentin actually understand his father’s philosophies about sexuality and morality? If so, why does he still commit suicide?
    3. Other characters think of Benjy as a simple child. Does his section of the novel disprove this view? Why or why not?
    4. Does Faulkner offer any positive versions of innocence in this novel? What does this say about the possibility for innocence in the world he depicts?

    Chew on This

    Quentin’s emotional breakdown at the end of his section results not from anger at the loss of Caddy’s innocence but despair at the loss of his own.

    The image of Caddy’s muddy drawers is the key to the novel because it confuses temporality, combining innocence with evidence of later guilt.

  • Sin

    For the characters of The Sound and the Fury, sin is almost always related to sex. In fact, at times the two are synonymous. A daughter’s blossoming sexuality becomes the tipping point which throws an entire family into chaos. Even though sex is at the center of the novel, it’s something that the characters can’t address fully. If they admit that someone has moved beyond the morals preached by older generations, then they’re left navigating unknown territory – something which moves one brother to madness and another to all-consuming rage. Sin, we learn, is a relative term – one that changes according to the shifting perspectives of individual characters.

    Questions About Sin

    1. Does Quentin actually believe that Caddy’s actions are sinful? If not, why is he so upset?
    2. Why does the message Dilsey hears from the Reverend Shegog affect her so deeply?
    3. Why does Jason refuse to allow Quentin (Jr.) to see her own mother? What affect does this have upon Quentin?
    4. What, according to Mrs. Compson, is the greatest sin a person can commit?

    Chew on This

    Caddy’s sin isn’t that she’s sexually promiscuous – it’s that her promiscuity undercuts her ability to behave as a "lady."

    Because he’s not mired in notions of morality or right and wrong, Benjy Compson remains the one character able to articulate his relationship with Caddy in terms of love.

  • Home

    Ah, home sweet home. A falling-apart house in a small Mississippi town becomes the center of this novel. As we see, however, even the land the house stands on is disintegrating: pasture land is sold to buy a college education. More than the Compson house, however, this is also a novel about the South. Heck, maybe it’s even THE novel about the South. Rife with the smells, sounds, and sights of rural Mississippi, The Sound and the Fury creates a world that hovers between the history of the Civil War and the present (that’s the 1930s, in case you were wondering).

    Questions About Home

    1. How does the emphasis on the difference between the Gibson house and the Compson house affect your ideas of the Compson family?
    2. Is Caddy a good sister?
    3. How does selling Benjy’s land affect the Compson family? Who does it affect most?
    4. Who is the head of the Compson family?

    Chew on This

    It’s impossible to imagine the Compson house. Faulkner presents the reader with too many fragmented smells, sounds, and colors to allow us to draw together a single image.

    "Home" in The Sound and the Fury exists only in characters’ memory. Home never "is" – it’s always a location in the past.

  • Guilt and Blame

    Your crummy fate is always easier to take if you blame it on someone else, right? Well, if you agree, this book’s for you. We’ve counted so many different layers and permutations of blame in The Sound and the Fury that, well, we’ve lost count. There’s the guilt of being a virgin and the guilt of not being a virgin. There’s the shame of staying at home and the guilt involved in leaving. In other words, there are no easy choices. So racked by fear of themselves that they can’t begin to see what they might really want, characters in this text cast around for someone – anyone –to blame for their problems.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Why doesn’t Mrs. Compson like her granddaughter Quentin?
    2. Who (or what) does Mr. Compson blame for Caddy’s pregnancy?
    3. Is Jason justified in blaming Caddy for his current situation? Why or why not?
    4. What does Mrs. Compson gain by blaming the failure of the family on her own faults?

    Chew on This

    Guilt becomes the most important mechanism for individual characters’ emotional development in The Sound and the Fury.

    Quentin’s futile attempts to protect all women are actually ways of lashing out at Caddy for her refusal to accept his help.

  • Principles

    Trying to figure out what’s right and wrong leads an entire family to rip itself apart, individual by individual. Faulkner creates character after character who try to figure out how to play a game that seems to have stacked dice – life never quite gives up what it once promised to, people never quite satisfy your expectations. OK, so the world’s totally screwed up. What now? We get to see four different characters’ unique responses to the challenge of all challenges – how to get by from day to day. Sure, there are overarching codes of conduct (that of the Southern gentleman), but they just don’t seem to fit the modern world.

    Questions About Principles

    1. Why does Mrs. Compson stick to her notions of Southern gentility and morality?
    2. How greatly do Mrs. Compson’s ideas of human nature differ from her husband’s?
    3. Is Quentin influenced by his mother’s opinion of Caddy? How?
    4. For Dilsey, the doctrines of Christianity provide the principles by which she lives. What are the sources of other characters’ principles?

    Chew on This

    Although Mrs. Compson is one of the most ineffectual characters in the novel, her ideas of morality and sexuality shape the novel more than any other characters’ ideas.

    Gerald Bland, the perfect Southern gentleman, becomes an alternate possibility that the novel holds out for Quentin’s future – one which demonstrates Quentin’s alienation from traditional Southern values.

  • Race

    Setting a black family and a white family together in the post-Reconstruction South, Faulkner makes racial relations an inevitable center of the novel. What does it mean to be white in the North? What does it mean to be black? How does this change when you’re in the South? How are kinship structures formed across racial and social boundaries? How do differences in economic and social status cloud our understanding of differences between races? More broadly, how does a white author steeped in Southern values accurately and sympathetically relate the experiences of his black characters? They’re all tricky questions – and The Sound and the Fury pursues them relentlessly, arriving at answers that are rarely easy.

    Questions About Race

    1. Why isn’t Dilsey’s section written in the first person (like the other sections are)?
    2. How do the Gibsons relate to the Compsons?
    3. Quentin recognizes the Gibsons as kin – but only after he moves to the North. Why isn’t this possible for him in the South?
    4. The Sound and the Fury often contains the racial reflections of characters which are stereotypical – if not outright racist. How does this influence your sense of the novel’s attitude towards/ thoughts on race?

    Chew on This

    By giving the last section of the novel to Dilsey, Faulkner attempts to argue for a form of racial equality that the characters of the novel themselves can’t recognize.

    By refusing to allow Dilsey to speak for herself in the final section of The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner falls prey to the same sorts of racial blindness which he depicts in earlier sections of the novel.

  • Memory and the Past

    For the characters in The Sound and the Fury, memories of the past dominate the present day. Revolving around Caddy, the runaway daughter of the family, the novel works (and re-works and re-works) the consequences of her disappearance from her brothers’ lives. Everything important happened Before. Before what? Well, before the time of narration. Also before characters have a chance to figure out what response they should have. Focusing on the past, characters let the present moment slide by – and only later do they realize how much of their lives they’ve lost.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Do any of the members of the Compson family actually live in the present?
    2. How much does the fact that the novel is set in the South (after, of course, the Civil War) affect the way that race is discussed?
    3. How do the Compson brothers deal with the past differently? Who has the best grasp on their relationship with their past?
    4. Is Caddy the central figure in all the brothers’ memory? What else factors into their childhood memories?

    Chew on This

    Of all the Compson brothers, Jason Compson is the one most obsessed with the past.

    It doesn’t really matter when Benjy’s or Jason’s section of the novel occurs. Although The Sound and the Fury is set in 1910 and 1928, the novel’s timeline actually stops much earlier.

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    If virginity is at the heart of Southern values, then growing up and exploring sexual identities becomes a pretty difficult business – at least, it is for the Compsons. Tangled in the sense of right and wrong promoted by the older generation, the Compson children have to fight their way out of oppressive (and even impossible) circumstances. Sex is the undiscussed heart of the novel – if only because Caddy, the runaway daughter, throws all social and sexual mores to the wind. Struggling to overcome the devastation of Caddy’s loss, her brothers find it impossible to discover their own sexuality outside of their relationship(s) to their sister.

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. It’s pretty obvious that Quentin’s sexuality revolves around his understanding of and feelings for Caddy. Is this true of the other Compson brothers? Why or why not?
    2. Why exactly is Quentin so bound up in his emotions about Caddy’s sexuality?
    3. Mrs. Compson thinks that Quentin (Jr.) is an exact replica of her mother, Caddy. Do you agree? How does she seem different than Caddy?
    4. Does Benjy have a sexual identity? What in the text leads you to your conclusion?

    Chew on This

    The Sound and the Fury is a meditation on the ways that Southern morality interferes with developing a sexual identity.

    Quentin Compson’s sexual identity is a reflected one: he only experiences his own sexuality via that of his sister, Caddy.