A Biography of the Author
Faulkner called The Sound and the Fury “the book that failed four times”. The story that demanded to be told and retold is obviously that of Faulkner’s personal past and the acute problems it had’ created. Faulkner said that any writer in the early stages of his career “is writing his own biography, because at that time all he knows is what has happened to him” and “his only insight in it is into himself”. All of Faulkner’s previous works had been to some degree “biography” but never in such a compulsive and inward fashion as The Sound and the Fury. In it Faulkner began to explore the inner regions of the psyche.As Faulkner tried to understand some of his own desperate anxieties and to embody them in the structure and characters of the novel, he simultaneously illuminated them for his readers. In creating Benjy and Quentin Compson, Faulkner employed great psychological thoroughness of presentation .and thus made them very vivid, sympathetically human, and fully realized.
Parental Failure, the Source of the Problem
With his willingness to explore the roots of anxiety and motivation, Faulkner also began to trace the difficulties of his characters to their origins in a troubled childhood. Quentin Compson is, like Faulkner himself, sub-consciously preoccupied with self-destruction. The problem is traced to its source in parental failure which has left the major character Oedipally arrested and incapable of attaining masculine adulthood. The causes of this problem are the emotional deprivation created by a difficult family situation. We see how the deficiencies of the crucial parent-child interaction affect, an entire group of children, all of whose plights are related to the author’s own.
“Linked Characters” in the Novel
Along with the psychic portraits of the novel, the symbolic relationships of the characters are also attributable to the introspective nature of Faulkner’s concerns. The Sound and the Fury marks the beginning of Faulkner’s ability to create “linked characters”, that is, characters who represent closely inter-related ego-fragments rather than fully discrete individuals. Benjy and Quentin are psychically akin in a way earlier characters created by Faulkner bad not been. Benjy and Quentin serve as emotional mirror images of each other in their arrested development ; and Jason is related to them by more than blood, because he suffers from similar problems whose causes are different: In this approach to character-relationships, as in other technical aspects The Sound and the “Fury, Faulkner’s artistic -sophistication is a direct result of his exploration of new psychic territory in himself and in his fiction.
The Problems in Faulkner’s Life in 1928
No single event in Faulkner’s life during this period visibly accounts for his sudden .delving into the darker layers of the mind, but rather a series of small occurrences whose cumulative effect drove him increasingly inward. Faulkner said that he wrote The Sound and the Fury when he was struggling with difficulties of an intimate nature, thus implying that the problems, whether real or imagined, were primarily sexual. From every point of view, 1928 was certainly an odd and trying time in the author’s life. That year Faulkner became thirty-one, yet be still lived as a bachelor in the house of his father whom he bated, and was confronted daily with younger brothers who were not only married but producing children. He continued to wait for Estelle to end her ten-year-old marriage and worked occasionally at odd jobs in addition to writing. His life-style hardly pleased his male relatives, and it was in 1928 that his uncle, a local judge, is said to have made the following remark about Faulkner “What, that nut I’m sorry to say he’s my nephew.” Moreover, Faulkner was becoming more and more addicted to heavy drinking. Whatever the exact problems which troubled him at this time, only through his writing could he begin to try and face them.
Quentin’s Resemblance to Faulkner
The Sound and the Fury was written by Faulkner in a mood of anger and despair. Underlying the book is a feeling that all children are betrayed in fundamental, ways by their parents and left to struggle helplessly in a world were they can find no aid. Every member of the Compson family is to some extent either a victimized child or a betraying parent. The principal villains are the senior Compsons, who have by their lack of interest or their distorted loyalties damaged all the children, and the cycle is tragically repeated in the next generation, as Jason proves a cruel substitute-father to his niece ; and even Caddy, who nurtured her bothers with such tenderness, abandons her own child. Benjy at thirty-three is still a victimized child ; and Quentin, despite his great intelligence, is trapped in the terrible problems created by his sense of parental deprivation. Quentin’s feeling of masculine inadequacy undoubtedly reflects Faulkner’s own. Quentin’s father, like Faulkner’s father, offers little to his sensitive son except a destructive example Quentin’s mother, like Faulkner’s mother during a crucial period, pays most of her attention to another child. Quentin’s consequent lack of self-esteem and his tendency to regard all women as mothers or whores are qualities Faulkner had already shown in his fiction. There arc; other autobiographical echoes in The Sound and the Fury, for Faulkner models nearly every character in the book on some figure in his own life.
Benjy, Psychologically Like Faulkner
Faulkner chose to open the novel with the section belonging to Benjy, the thirty-three-year-old imbecile whom he called “truly innocent, that is, an idiot.” Faulkner has occasionally been criticized for his decision to begin with a monologue by a mental defective ; bus the decision was a brilliant one, both from the artistic and psychological paints of view. In the first place, Benjy’s section is, from the artistic point of view, an appropriate means of introducing the story of the doomed Compsons Secondly, Faulkner’s use of a principal character who is objective saves the book from the emotional confusion which had flawed Sartoris and which occasionally renders Impenetrable even Quentin’s section of this novel itself. Faulkner apparently had in his mind an actual person for his creation of Benjy (the actual person being the severely retarded son of an
doctor) ; but if the idiot thus had origins in the local environment he also has considerable symbolic importance as a mirror of Quentin and, therefore, in an exaggerated form, of Faulkner himself. Oxford
A Dualistic Self-Portrait By the Author
The first two interior portrayals seem almost diametrically opposed. Benjy focuses on the purely physical sensations of sight and smell and is unaware of cause and effect, while Quentin explores the abstract and is acutely aware of consequences and the movement of time. But the portrayals are psychically similar in basic ways. Both brothers are obsessed with their sister whom they have lost to time and circumstance but who once offered the sort of emotional nurturing which was not made available by their mother. They long to sleep with Caddy. Benjy yearns to share a warm bed with her as he did before the family tried to separate them when he was thirteen ; and Quentin wants to possess Caddy sexually, to commit incest not only to show their exclusiveness but also as proof that there is some code meaningful enough that a violation of it will lead to eternal damnation. Both Benjy and Quentin have, as a consequence, been in some sense castrated. Benjy has been castrated in a physical sense, as a result of his chasing little girls and “trying to say” in an attempt to regain his lost sister. Quentin has been castrated in a psychological sense, because of the extreme attachment to Caddy that prevents him from consummating any other relationship and makes him see the announcement of her wedding as a sentence of death for himself. The sense of smell is strong in both brothers and gives rise to memories of Caddy. To Benjy she smells like “trees” ; to Quentin, the knowledge of her sexual involvement with someone else is associated with the heavy smell of honeysuckle. Thus Benjy is a psychological double of Quentin ; and his experience anticipates, at a more primal level what happens to Quentin. The two sections belonging to Benjy and Quentin are thus more closely related than any other pair in the novel, and it is obvious that the significant core of that story about himself which Faulkner felt he had to tell again and again appears in the first half of the book. Faulkner may have intended to reveal this, dualistic self-portrait, for Benjy was born the same year as Faulkner, and Quentin is the eldest son, again like Faulkner.
Faulkner’s Own Memories in the Novel
Benjy is psychologically a child, and his simple responses give us one view of things before we move into the tortured complexity of his brother’s section. Both are victims ; Benjy the victim of his mental deficiency and of the selfishness of most of the members of his household Quentin, despite his intellectual powers, the victim of his psychic inability to break out of early sexual attitudes created by those same family inadequacies. Benjy’s uncomfortable feelings during the period after his grandmother’s death are undoubtedly based on Faulkner’s memories of the upheaval after the death of Damuddy in 1907. Benjy’s memories of the physical and emotional uproar surrounding his sister’s wedding are clearly based on Faulkner’s own reaction to the marriage of Estelle. The commotion and chaos culminate finally in a picture of severe dislocation within the microcosm of the household. This is amplified, in the following section, into dislocation in the macrocosm which is expressed by Quentin’s uprooting from
and removal to Harvard at his family’s behest and his subsequent aimless wanderings around Mississippi as he moves even closer to self-destruction. Boston
The Mental Travels of Benjy, and Quentin
This physical movement on both the small and the large scale is paralleled by the travels between past and present in the minds of the brothers. Benjy’s transitions are based on the senses : he hears a golfer yell “caddie” and bellows for the sister who has been gone from him for years ; he sees the girl Quentin with a man and recalls a past scene between Caddy and a suitor which had disturbed him ; he smells death at his father’s funeral precisely as he had at his grandmother’s years before. Quentin’s urgent mental leaps are also prompted by sense-experiences, such .as the smell of honeysuckle, the overhearing of a key phrase, or the sight of a little girl, but he quickly moves from association to agonized recollection of his painful experiences, and from that to the conclusion that all possibilities for the future have been destroyed by the past. His journeys backward in time lead him forward to destruction.
The Emotional Disarray of the Parents
Benjy’s section includes just about every crucial piece of family “data” that the later portions amplify. Through his wounded sensibility and uncomprehending eyes we see the physical decline of the Compson place, its decay imaging the emotional disarray of the family itself. The mother treats Benjy as a troublesome object put on earth to punish her, and retreats to her, room and her hypochondria. She denies all the children affection ; Benjy she denies even the name he was given at birth, “Maury”, seeing it as a family inheritance inappropriate to be given to an idiot. Benjy’s father is an alcoholic and a nihilist who, though occasionally demonstrative toward his retarded son, is too often overwhelmed by his own problems ; his main legacy to his children to his hideous vision of man as “created by disease, within putrefaction, into decay”. Benjy’s parents generally ignore him, his brother Jason destroys his play-things, and almost the only tenderness he receives is from his sister Caddy and the negro servant Dilsey, who act as mother-protectors.
The Two Stories on Parallel Tracks
The only member of the family with whom Benjy does not interact in either a positive or a negative way is Quentin. This emphasizes the fact that their stories are meant to illuminate rasher than to intersect each other. In neither Benjy’s nor Quentin’s section does one brother have evaluative or emotionally responsive thoughts or images of the other. The only scene in which Faulkner dramatizes any interaction between the two is after Caddy’s wedding, when Quentin tries to sober up his drunken and helpless younger brother. But Quentin’s actions are performed in. an. indifferent manner ; the scene is a brief one ; and the importance of Benjy’s story in relation to Quentin’s remains primarily illustrative and anticipatory. The two narratives run on parallel tracks.
Caddy, the Focus of Benjy’s and Quentin’s Ruminations
Caddy is the central focus of Benjy’s ruminations, ass she is of Quentin’s, for she has been loving and solicitous to Benjy during the years she lived at home. Benjy’s attachment to his sister is understandable, but he makes the same sort of unspoken demands for exclusiveness in their relationship and for sexual purity on Caddy’s part that Quentin will make quite explicitly in his section. When Benjy comes upon Caddy and a young man embracing in the porch swing, he cries out and pulls at her dress, continuing to bellow until she leaves her lover to join him. After Caddy marries, Benjy’s association of her wedding with the death of his grandmother shows that he perceives her liaison as a sort of “death” in the same way that Quentin will later, when the link between sex and death becomes clearer. Benjy also moves from an image of Caddy in the pear tree and the “muddy bottom of her drawers”, with its suggestion of sexual contamination, to a recollection of her wedding day when, despite her beauty, he “couldn’t smell trees any more”. The smell that connotes purity vanishes and his final memory is one .in which a remembrance of Caddy holding him is linked with the smell of death. The association of dirt and sex and Caddy and death in Benjy’s mind is a powerful one. It comes in part from a sense of loss, but it also suggests the fatal aversion that will be a major element in Quentin’s narrative.
The Close Relationship Between Quentin and the Author
Quentin’s desperate situation is undoubtedly related to the despair that was threatening to overwhelm Faulkner at the time he wrote the Sound and the Fury. His section is by far the most highpitched, and its emotional confusion reveals the extreme agitation experienced by a sensitive intelligence surrounded by insoluble difficulties. Some passages in this section are so private as to be almost incomprehensible. Such privateness may well be a result of the author’s having drawn much of the material in this section directly from his own anguished and confused thoughts. Faulkner later admitted his identification with Quentin. Moreover, Quentin, greatly resembles Bayard Sartoris who is an arrested and suicidal character with a strong biographical component. In other words, there is a close relationship between Faulkner and Quentin, and this may perhaps account for Quentin’s problems and for the special complexities of this section.
The Resemblance Between Faulkner’s and Quentin’s Circumstances
By the Freudian definition, Quentin is a classic Oedipal figure who has transferred his yearning for his mother on to his sister, and whose inability to identify with his cynical and ineffectual father has prevented him from attaining masculine adulthood. His insistence on female virginity, his distaste for the sexual act, and his rather feminine behaviour are all symptoms of a well-known emotional disorder. However, it does not seem as if Faulkner were offering to us a case history in terms of Freud in. the portrayal of Quentin. Faulkner seems rather to have made use of certain impulses with which he was directly and personally familiar. Fortunately Faulkner, unlike Quentin, conquered his problems to a great extent before it was too late. Even so, there are certain minor manifestations of Quentin’s symptoms in Faulkner’s own life. Faulkner too had lost a sister-lover to marriage, and certainly the failings of Faulkner’s parents had a striking resemblance with the failings of the Compsons.
The Similarity Between Mrs. Compson and Faulkner’s Mother
Mrs. Compson, weak, hypochondriacal, and excessively .aware of social proprieties, is in no obvious way a portrait of Faulkner’s mother. But she is incapable of giving her children adequate affection. In this connection we may note that, according to a psycho-analyst, Faulkner suffered from a feeling that his mother had given him scan y emotional sustenance. In his portrayal of Mrs. Compson, therefore, Faulkner may have been making use of his own mother’s failings. Faulkner also had his memories of a certain period in i 9 i 5 when he was Quentin’s age and when his mother was ill for several months so that he and his brothers had to look after themselves. Mrs. Compson’s detachment is symbolized physically by the time she spends alone in her own room, while her moral inadequacy is shown by the strong favouritism she displays to Jason, the child whom she regards as “her joy and her salvation”. Quentin has deeply been affected by her failure. He is keenly aware of Gerald Bland’s devoted mother and says with an anguished sense of loss : “If I could say Mother. Mother” in the midst of his thoughts about Caddy, then repeats : “If I’d just had a mother so I could say Mother” just before his suicide. His yearning is primarily for affection, but it has a sexual component too.
Faulkner’s and Quentin’s Attitudes Towards Caddy
Quentin’s unresolved feelings for his mother have left him with the feeling that all sex is unclean, a feeling which Faulkner bad also shown in his earlier work. Quentin regards sex as something “nigger women do in the pasture the ditches the dark woods hot hidden furious in the dark woods.” His sister Caddy has become Quentin’s mother-substitute by giving him the tenderness he needs, and she has also, as is often the case, replaced the mother sexually in the Oedipal triangle. Faulkner shared Quentin’s passion for Caddy. Even though he never directly portrays her, Faulkner described her as “my heart’s darling” and said : “I did not realize then that I was trying to manufacture the sister which I did not have”. His fervour for this sisterly figure who appears only in the minds of others is revealing, especially since Faulkner had spent much time with a Caddy-like cousin whom he and his brothers thought of as a sister ; and he was soon to marry a woman who had been in other significant ways a “sister” to him as well as a romantic object of desire. Caddy is thus a complex, symbolic, and important sister-mother-lover image to both Quentin and to Faulkner.
The Resemblance Between Mr. Compson and Faulkner’s Father
Mr. Compson is like Faulkner’s father only in his alcoholism and detachment. With a nice touch of irony, Faulkner gave more of his father’s qualities to the villain Jason and to Quentin’s drunken Uncle Maury. But though Mr. Compson shows moments of compassionate understanding, he is as destructive a male parent as was Murry Falkner, chiefly because his only legacy to his son is a constant stream of nihilistic statements that greatly undermine Quentin’s serious need to believe in something. Mr Compson’s fundamental decency somehow makes him all the more potent a negative force in the realm where Quentin is vulnerable. Mr. Compson describes the watch which he gives to Quentin as a “mausoleum of all hope and desire”, and asserts that Christ “was worn away by a minute clicking of little wheels.” Soon obsessed by the time and by the watch which is clicking his own life away, Quentin feels that only some sort of heroic encounter can give him the significance he desires. But his father’s words ruin any possibility of meaning in that direction, because Mr. Compson has said : “No battle is ever won. 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.” Even Quentin’s wish to defend his sister’s honour has been deflated by his father who says : “It was men invented virginity not women.”
Caddy’s Lovers, Based on Estelle’s First Husband
Mr. Compson is more a negative voice sounding in his son Quentin’s head than a physical presence with whom Quentin feels the need to struggle physically ; and Quentin’s direct confrontations of an Oedipal nature are with his sister’s lovers. Each “rival”, poised and confident, may have been based partly on Cornell Franklin, the successful lawyer and businessman to whom Faulkner had lost Estelle ten years before. Quentin re-lives two of these encounters, with their sexual overtones, and each adds to his sense of defeat and emasculation. The first to come to his mind is his encounter with Herbert Head whom Caddy married. The soft-spoken Herbert Head is friendly and somewhat paternal toward Quentin, but like Quentin’s father he insists on imparting bitter truth to Quentin, declaring that he was not the first or the last of Caddy’s lovers. Quentin helplessly imagines shooting Herbert but is prevented from even striking him by the appearance of Caddy. Herbert’s final remark is to deflate Quentin by calling him a “half-baked Galahad”.
Faulkner’s Own Ineffectualness Reflected in Quentin’s
In a similar encounter, Quentin confronts Dalton Ames, the man he believes responsible for having made his sister pregnant. Making an appointment as if for a duel, Quentin melodramaticall demands that
should leave the town by sunset or else “I’ll kill you.” Dalton , however, reacts with a paternal understanding and the sort of harshly realistic comment that is so destructive to Quentin, saying : “No good taking it so hard. It’s not your fault, kid, it would have been some other fellow.” Dalton has a pistol–a symbol of masculinity–which he offers to Quentin : but Quentin, trembling like a frightened girl, tries to slap Dalton with his hand, and then faints. Quentin fails in his attempt to defeat these two substitute father-figures who are replacing him sexually in a relationship with his sister-mother, just as Faulkner, in a more oblique manner, proved unable to defeat Cornell Franklin through his failure to prevent Estelle’s marriage. Faulkner once said of Quentin’s unmanliness that “he was such a weakling that even if they (Quentin and Caddy) had been no kin, she would never have chosen him for her sweetheart. She would have chosen one like the ex-soldier she did.” Dalton
Quentin’s Sexual Incompetence
Quentin is defeated in these confrontations which confirm his, sense of emasculation. He almost desires a state in which he would, not have sexual organs to trouble him, remembering a man who had castrated himself; but Quentin then realizes that even such a. drastic measure would not be sufficient to remove his pain : “It’s, not not having them. It’s never to have had them.” His sexual incompetence is again revealed in the imagined scene in which he vainly tries to carry out Caddy’s murder and his own ‘suicide, He has a knife and holds its point at her throat as she tries in sexual terms to guide him saying “no like this you’ll have to push harder, push it are you going to...yes push it”. But Quentin cannot perform the action. He begins to cry, drops the knife, and slinks away
Quentin’s Linking of His Sister and Death
Quentin has early linked his sister and death in his evocation of “Saint Francis that said Little Sister Death”, and the two become closely associated when he is followed by a little Italian girl he calls “sister” while he carries out the preparations for his suicide. Having transformed his sister’s wedding announcement into the announcement of his own death, haunted by the memory of the smell of honeysuckle that he associates with sex, and obsessed by the water, “peaceful and swift that offers the possibility of his merging into the ultimate “mother”, the ocean, he moves toward death. As he carries on an inner dialogue with his father and his father’s destructive ideas, he once again remembers the shadows of his past, “inherent themselves with the denial of the significance they should have affirmed”, and in his final memories of his inability to act purposefully, even to the point of committing the incest that was his. one great desire, he reveals a consequent loss of a sense of self : “i was afraid i was afraid, he recalls, with the sense of “i temporary” that is his last important thought before dying. Faulkner uses the lower case (i, not I) to show how pervasive is Quentin’s fatal lack of identity.
Quentin’s Psychological Emasculation
The anxieties produced in Quentin by the failure of his parents hold him so in thrall as a young man that he is effectively victimized by them just as Benjy is effectively victimized by his severe mental deficiency. Quentin’s psychological emasculation eventually proves to have more serious consequences than Benjy’s actual castration. Quentin cannot move outward to act significantly in the world even to achieve damnation by committing incest or murdering one of the threatening father-figures, but turns his anger inward to carry out the negative act possible, namely suicide. Sister and death finally merge as his obsession with the first leads him relentlessly to the second.
The Pressure of Personal Problems on Faulkner in the First Two Sections
With the great poignancy of Benjy’s section and the confused intensity of Quentin’s section, the most deeply felt half of this novel comes to an end. We perceive a certain release, on Faulkner’s. part, from the weight of pressing personal concerns, as if his writing about suicide somehow liberated him from the danger of resorting to it in his own case, and as if the depiction of emotional ghosts from his childhood and young manhood somehow helped to overcome the threat they had offered to his psychic balance He moves on to tell the story twice more, with no loss of artistic power but certainly with greater detachment.