As we begin William Faulkner’s important Modernist novel The Sound and the Fury, a novel known for its masterful development of the technique of stream of consciousness, you may need to exercise patience to understand and appreciate the expressive style of the prose, which differs drastically in the first three sections.
These differences attempt to capture the point of view, in the first-person, of each of the three Compson brothers: first Benjy, then Quentin, and finally Jason. Benjy is developmentally disabled in some way—he cannot actually speak—and so a first-person narrative in his voice seems to stray very far from realism, perhaps as far as possible. However, the effort to capture his perspective is a valiant effort to capture an individual’s subjectivity.
In Faulkner’s oeuvre, we find a complicated transition from realism to modernism. Some of his novels and short stories are far more realistic than The Sound and the Fury, and virtually all of them arise from Faulkner’s immersion in his own region of Mississippi. He created a fictionalized version of this region, calling it yoknapatawpha County. In focusing on a region threatened by industrialization and modern change, Faulkner carried on the tradition of regional writing, but radically updated it with modernist techniques, in some of his works.
“Regional writing, another expression of the realist impulse [mid to late 19th century], resulted from the desire both to preserve a record of distinct ways of life before industrialization dispersed or homogenized them and to come to terms with the harsh realities that seemed to be replacing these early and allegedly happier times… As the nation expanded, regional literature was also a way that different parts of the country were explained to one another.” (The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. C. 1865-1914. Ed. Nina Baym (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007): 10.)
It is fair to say that, among other things, the Compson family is struggling to accept economic and social changes, which threaten their traditional way of life, including strict racial and social hierachies and gender roles in the South. We see some of this contrast between the old South, and the comparatively modern North in Cambridge, Massachusetts (where Quentin is attending Harvard, in the novel’s second section) and in Jason’s interactions with the stock market in New York, and in the man in the red tie who passes through town and apparently courts Caddy, Jr. You might notice, for instance, that relations between blacks and whites are represented as subtly different in the South vs. the North.
A fourth- or fifth-generation Mississippian, Faulkner was the son of a railroad worker and a mother who had literary inclinations. He dropped out of high school in 1915, and attended the University of Missipssii for one year, 1919-1920. Thereafter he worked at odd jobs, and signed up with the British Royal Air Corps; he never saw combat.
In 1924, he published a book of poems, The Marble Faun. In 1925 he visited New Orleans, where he met Sherwood Anderson (author of Winesburg, Ohio ), and wrote his first novel, Soldier’s Pay (1926). Anderson helped him to publish it, and, a regionalist writer himself, gave Faulkner some crucial advice: “You have to have somewhere to start from: then you begin to learn,” he told me. “It dont matter where it was, just so you remember it and aint ashamed of it. Because one place to start from is just as important as any other. You’re a country boy; all you know is that little patch up there in Mississippi where you started from.”
Faulkner returned to Oxford, Mississippi, and married his (divorced) high school sweetheart, Estelle, in 1929. They had one daughter. In 1930 he bought Rowan Oak, a Greek Revival antebellum house, and begin to restore it. He lived there the rest of his life, and drew on local histories, gossip, and folklore for his fiction.
He published nineteen novels and many short stories, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1950. He is widely acknowledged to be America’s greatest Modernist and greatest Southern novelist. Though he moved back toward realism after The Sound and the Fury (1929), many of his best novels use the technique of stream of consciousness: “A term coined by William James in Principles of Psychology (1890) to denote the flow of inner experiences. Now an almost indispensable term in literary criticism, it refers to that technique which seeks to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind.” (J.A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 3rd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991): 919.)
Stream-of-consciousness writing, which was largely developed within Modernism first by James Joyce, is typically in the first person and is characterized in its most extreme forms by a lack of conventional punctuation and syntax, to mimic the unfolding of thoughts, memories, and sensory impressions in real time.
When there is no break in the stream of a character’s thoughts, there is no break in the prose. And just as human consciousness does not always distinguish between the present and memories of the past, such narration may switch back and forth between past and present in a disorienting manner. The free reign given to memory creates a sense, at times, that we have moved into the past, although the memories are being remembered in the present. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Faulkner are generally agreed to be the finest practitioners of the technique in Modernist fiction.
As you read the novel’s first section, notice that not all of the action described by the narrator (Benjy Compson, the developmentally disabled brother of Caddy, Jason and Quentin) is actually taking place on that day. When do you notice shifts into memories of the past? Make notes in the margins when you notice apparent shift from past to present, or present to past.
Jean-Paul Sartre observed about time in the novel (see his essay in our text):
“[Faulkner] could not tell it any other way…. Nothing happens, the story does not unfold…. In order to arrive at real time, we must abandon this invented measure [the clock], which is not a measure of anything…. The time of Benjy, the idiot, who does not know how to tell time, is also clockless.
“What is therefore revealed to us is the present, and not the ideal limit whose place is neatly marked out between past and future. Faulkner’s present is essentially catastrophic….
“Such is the nature of Faulkner’s time. Isn’t there something familiar about it? This unspeakable present, leaking at every seam, these sudden invasions of the past, this emotional order, the opposite of the voluntary and intellectual order that is chronological but lacking in reality…[?]”
Next week, I will clarify the first and second sections of the novel for you somewhat with a Mini Lecture. But it is important to swim in the mystery and beauty of The Sound and the Fury, and its treatment of time and perspective, in your first reading of it.
For your blog response, answer all of these questions. Yes, I know five is a lot of questions (the sixth is just to help me track your comprehension), but you need to address them all to make sure you are following and deeply understanding the novel. REMEMBER that EVERY answer must include quotations and analysis of that evidence.
- How are memories triggered and how are they indicated by the narrator? When are italics used in relation to the present and the past? Can we describe the past that is returned to, and how it differs from the present? Cite and analyze at least one passage as evidence. (See 3-8, 9-14, 15-20, 21-26, 27-32, 33-38, 39-44, 45-48.)
- What seems characteristic of Benjy’s point of view? How does he perceive other people and animals and their movements around him? Why do you suppose Faulkner chose Benjy to be the first narrator in the novel? Cite and analyze at least one passage as evidence. (See 3-8, 9-14, 15-20, 21-26, 27-32, 33-38, 39-44, 45-48.)
- Given that we are privy to Quentin’s thoughts, what would you say are his chief preoccupations? Does he share any concerns with “The Waste Land”? Does the relation between past and present function in the same why in Quentin’s mind as it does in Benjy’s? What do you make of Quentin’s attentions to time, his watch, etc.? Cite and analyze at least one passage as evidence.
- What seems to be the significance of the little Italian-American girl who follows Quentin, and her brother’s anger at him? What is the tragedy that befalls Caddy and himself, in Quentin’s eyes? And why do you suppose Quentin hit Gerald? Cite and analyze at least one passage as evidence.
- Notice that in many passages there are no paragraph breaks for pages at a time. Look at pages 109-111, for instance. What is Quentin thinking about, in these long stretches of unbroken prose, which make this form seem appropriate? Overall, how would you describe and contrast the narrative style of Quentin’s section, including the point of view, diction, syntax, and figurative language, in contrast to Benjy’s. Cite and analyze at least one passage as evidence.
- Please indicate a passage from the novel that does not make total sense to you. Cite it by page number.