Sunday, December 12, 2010

“The Sound and the Fury” : An Introduction

The Evolution of a Story into the Novel
Some time around the end of 1927, Faulkner began working on a story which he called “Twilight”. This story was based on his childhood memories, and this same story was gradually to evolve into a novel to which he gave the title The Sound and the Fury. Both emotionally and technically, this novel proved to be one of his most powerful books.
A few years after writing it, he said : “With one novel completed and consistently refused for two years, I had just written my guts into The Sound and the Fury, though I was not aware until the book was published that I had done so, because I had done it for pleasure. I believed then that I would never be published again.” However, it is unlikely that he wrote this book solely for pleasure because the book has a depth and intensity equalled by few others in his whole work.
The Author’s Account of the Genesis of This Novel
The following account given by Faulkner of the manner in which this novel originated is significant :
It started out as a short story about two children being sent out to play in the yard during their grandmother’s funeral. Only one of the little girls was big enough to climb a tree to look in the window to see what was going on. It was going to be a story of blood gone bad. The story told wasn’t all. The idiot child had started out as a simple prop at first as a bid for extra sympathy. Then I thought what would the story be told like as he saw it. So I had him look at it. When I’d finished I had a quarter of the book written, but it still wasn’t all. It still wasn’t enough. So then Quentin told the story as he saw it and it still wasn’t enough. Then Jason told the story and it still wasn’t enough. Then I tried to tell the story and it still was not enough, and so I wrote the appendix and it wasn’t enough. It’s the book I feel tenderest towards. I couldn’t leave it alone, and I never could tell it right, though I tried hard and would like to try again though I’d probably fail again. It’s the tragedy of two lost women: Caddy and her daughter.
An Impressive Technical Achievement
The Sound and the Fury is regarded by a number of critics as Faulkner’s greatest work and by some others as having been equalled only by Absalom, Absalom ! All have praised it as an impressive technical achievement in which Faulkner equals or surpasses James Joyce’s Ulysses in his use of stream-of-consciousness for character portrayal and in which he develops a remarkably effective narrative mode involving both parallelism and incremental expansion. Some critics have further seen the story as sociologically symbolic, signifying the very decline of Southern society itself, with Quentin’s suicide revealing the failure of the old code and Jason representing the rapacious standards of the New South. The splendour of this novel is fully apparent and sufficiently definable from an artistic and a sociological point of view. At the same time it is clear that many elements of the greatness of this novel emanated from Faulkner’s own psychology, from his conscious and unconscious emotional attitudes towards the novel as well as from his growing craftsman-ship.
No Conscious Method Behind the Writing of This Novel
Much that Faulkner said about this novel years after having completed it shows that it sprang from the deeper layers of his subconscious. The entire book dwells upon the war between sense and nonsense (or unreason) ; and, just as nonsense or unreason dominates the book thematically, so also did it control the creation of the book Faulkner talked’ about the title which he said had come “out of,,,, s unconscious”, and he talked about the “ecstasy” in which he wrote the book, “that eager and joyous faith and anticipation of surprise which the yet unmarred sheet beneath my hand held inviolate and unfailing, waiting for release.” Faulkner apparently created the novel without any conscious method : “I had no idea of writing the book it finally became. It simply grew from day to day.” A critic has explored the manner in which Faulkner worked, and he points out that Faulkner wrote it without notes, just letting the narrative expand and develop under his pen in the direction which the themes and the material seemed to demand.
The Personal Element
Assuming that Faulkner wrote this novel in a heightened state of emotion, it is not surprising that many significant aspects of its technique and effect should have resulted from the author’s personal psychology. The structure, the inwardness, the psychological portraits, and the interrelationships of the characters-all are a product of Faulkner’s effort at a crucial moment in his life to understand and depict his personal struggles in an exploratory and definitive way. Having begun this effort in his earlier novel, Sartoris, he took it to a much deeper level in The Sound and the Fury.
The Universal Significance of This Novel
In the richness of its characterization, the complexity of its inteior monologues, the incremental and expansive nature of its structure, and the resonance of its themes, The Sound and the Fury is a powerful and mature work of fiction that presents the squalor but also the splendour of humanity in defeat. It was an exhilarating, somewhat cathartic experience for its author, and he regarded the finished product with pride and excitement. He told his great-aunt that it was “the damnedest book I ever read” and that “I don’t believe anyone will publish it for ten years.” The book was, however, soon published and, although one short-sighted reviewer denounced it as a treatment of imbecility, incest, alcoholism, and insanity that was almost unreadable, another reviewer defended the “morbidity” of the novel as being “reflected from the impression, made on a sensitive and normally egoistic nature, of what is in the air”. In saying so, this second reviewer specified correctly the real origin of all the wider social implications of this novel-its exploration of one vulnerable sensibility, Faulkner’s own, trying to come to terms with the terrors and anxieties produced by a difficult personal past. Benjy and Quentin are both Faulkner himself. but the protagonist might also be any frail and fallen being whose sadness at the loss of past innocence and affection, incapacity to mature emotionally, and failure to believe, all combine to hold him in thraldom in the present and thus to negate the possibility of the future. Although the psychological portraiture of The Sound and the Fury emerged from the most troubled regions of Faulkner’s mind, he confronted his problems with such honesty and thoroughness, and expressed them with such sensitivity and penetration that they finally acquired a universal significance.
The Title
For the title of this novel, Faulkner borrowed a phrase, suiting his purpose, from Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. In the final Act of that play, the protagonist makes a soliloquy which has become famous and which reads as follows :
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
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.
The attitudes or some of the characters in the novel are clearly reminiscent of the ideas in the above passage, while the phrase “sound and fury” aptly describes the content of the various monologues in the novel. In Section II of the novel we find Quentin trying to crush and obliterate his shadow as he walks along a river-bank or through a wood. Benjy the idiot is “moaning and slobbering” most of the time and is constantly being asked to “hush up”. Jason keeps raging all the time against people––against his niece, against his mother, against the eastern Jews, against the negro servants in his household, against his idiot brother. He thus makes the loudest sound and shows the maximum fury. Mrs. Compson contributes to the “sound” by her whining, whimpering, self-pity, and discontent. Section l literally contains a tale told by an idiot. And, on the whole, the life of the Compson family signifies nothing except decay, decadence, and futility.
The Title Indicative of the Inner Chaos of Some Characters
Faulkner’s choice of a title for this novel is noteworthy from another point of view also. The three major protagonists of chaos in the novel are Mrs. Compson, Quentin, and Jason. An important element in the attitudes of these characters is strikingly reflected in the attitude of Macbeth who speaks the lines from which the title of the novel has been derived. Each of these three characters is bent upon self-pitying self-justification. All three feel certain that they have been victimized by circumstances beyond their control. All three project outward on life their own inner chaos, which has its roots in a perversion of love, through self-love. Similarly, in Act V, Macbeth is reported as refusing to recognize that he has been in any way to blame, or responsible, for what has happened to him. Instead, he also projects his own inner chaos outward in a self-justifying manner, in order to make a scapegoat of the whole world, even of time, and to view life itself as “a walking shadow”. The passage from which the title has been taken serves as a pertinent mirror of the attitudes not only of Quentin and Jason but also of their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Compson.
The Rapid Decline of a Family
In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner creates an aristocratic family marked by reckless and violent behaviour. The Compson lineage includes both a governor and a brigadier-general, but after the war the family fortunes and abilities decline rapidly. III Mr. Compson, the son of the general, the first open signs of decay appear. Oppressed by a tradition which he cannot uphold because of his weak character, he takes to drinking and to classical studies. His self-pitying wife is a terrifying example of the functionless Southern lady, and their four children represent different degress of social degeneration. Benjy is an idiot ; the girl Candace (Caddy) is promiscuous ; Quentin drives himself to suicide by an obsession with his sister’s dishonour. The last male Compson to survive, apart from Benjy, is Jason, demonic and childless, who sells the house and discards the heritage which the house symbolizes.
The Main Focus of the Novel
The main focus of this novel is upon Quentin’s relation to Caddy. His self-appointed role of priest-cum-brother parodies the moral idealism of previous Compson generations. Yet Quentin’s sense of personal honour is mingled with an excessive puritanism which he tries to impose upon his sister, and his moral rage is partly responsible for her unhappy fate. Quentin’s personal tragedy may be equated with a failure of the moral effort described by Faulkner in Pylon and Soldiers’ Pay. But The Sound and the Fury is saved from too rigid a thematic structure by the subtle handling of dialogue and patterns of symbolism. Although Quentin’s corruption is an important aspect of the Compson degeneration, the boy is first presented dramatically as a witness of the family’s decline. This contrast between Quentin and an immoral world is then complicated by the gradual revelation of the boy’s own failure. Quentin’s suicide is presented as less a reaction to Caddy’s dishonour than a futile attempt to preserve his moral pride in the face of an unknown future that might rob him even of despair.
A Series of Implicit Contrasts
Instead of establishing an allegorical action which conveys the moral argument, Faulkner creates a series of implicit contrasts between the tormented Compsons and various unsophisticated characters who stand outside the social frame-work. Benjy’s love for Caddy herself is set against Quentin’s self-conscious rage at her’ behaviour. The Compson servants are constant reminders of permanent values. An alliance between Benjy and Dilsey, the most important servant, is indicated by the scene, near the end of the novel, in which she takes the idiot to her negro church. They both hear a visiting preacher, a “meagre figure, hunched over upon itself like that of one long immured in striving with the implacable earth”. In rising to a vision of “the power and the glory,” the preacher illustrates the redeeming principle that is contrasted with the “sound and fury” of the Compson world. The preacher is a Christ-like figure, “a serene, tortured crucifix”, who transports his audience beyond the cares of the body to a spiritual reality devoid of considerations of space or time. “With his body he seemed to feed the voice that, succubus-like, had fleshed its teeth in him. And the congregation seemed to watch with its own eyes while the voice consumed him, until he was nothing and they were nothing and there was not even a voice but instead their hearts were speaking to one another in chanting measures beyond the need for words.” This acceptance of transcendent value is in strong contrast to the Compson concern for personal ownership, whether of sexual virtue or material wealth. Instead of accepting the flow of time, the Compsons are caught within it and they struggle desperately to extricate themselves. Faulkner indicates this attitude toward experience by a series of time-images. Quentin looks upon his suicide (an action foreshadowed by the breaking of his watch) as an effort to reduce time to an immobile instant in which past and present are one. Both his and Jason’s monologues are crowded with time-references expressing their effort to impose personal order upon experience. Benjy and Dilsey, on the contrary, stand apart from time : the one not aware of its passage, the of her always seeing things in a simple but effective pattern of understanding. By contrasting these attitudes toward a central image or concept, Faulkner achieves a symbolic design which itself constitutes the moral theme. His characters are usually defined by such oppositions or by the language describing their personal obsessions. Only in the full context of the novel are characterizations and themes fully revealed.
The Difficulty of Understanding This Novel
No reader can flatter himself with the idea that he can read The Sound and the Fury and understand it just as he reads any other novel and understands it. This is a baffling novel because it is not written in a straightforward manner or according to a narrative mode commonly employed by novelists. The Sound and the Fury is largely a psychological novel which suffers from a deficiency of action, which has very little of the love-interest that we associate with novels, which ignores chronology, and which puzzles us by its mixture of events in the present with recollections of past incidents. Faulkner has arranged the four separate sections of the novel in such a way that they do not tell a story in the conventional sense. We are not permitted by him to look directly at the total cause-and-effect sequence of events as such. Instead, each of the four sections provides a different aspect, a different view, a different angle of vision, a different reflection of some parts of the story. Whatever the merits of such a scheme, and they are considerable, the reader finds himself in a quandary and has to seek the help of critics and commentators in order to decipher the meaning of the novel and, indeed, to under-stand the story. One of the greatest of novels, The Sound and the Fury is also one of the most obscure.

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