Temporary: Quentin Compson and Hamlet

In what way may two literary characters, conceived and written independently of each other, be compared, and to what degree is this comparison justified? If a character is merely the sum total of ink on paper, then no comparison is possible. If, however, the reader is able to suspend disbelief, and accept literary characters as existing somehow outside of the text, than a comparison may be quite useful. The words and actions of one character may be, by way of analogy, informative regarding another. William Faulkner's Quentin Compson (in The Sound and the Fury)shares many basic qualities with Shakespeare's Hamlet. They are both university students, brooding and melancholy, obsessed with the sexuality of a close female relative (Slabey, 81). Both are quick-tempered and ready to fight, but somehow powerless to act on crucial matters. They are obsessed with the nature of death and time, and both deliberately seek to destroy themselves to escape their problems. It might be argued that Quentin was in fact based on Hamlet, and that the similarity is deliberate. Hamlet is certainly one of the most enigmatic and fascinating characters in all of English literature. It is not necessary, however, to prove a direct correlation between them; the analogy is valid in either case.

There has been a great deal of discussion in the 20th century regarding Hamlet's "Oedipus Complex," suggesting that his melancholy, his madness, his inability to act, and ultimately his destruction are the result of a sexual fixation on his mother, repressed from infancy. A major criticism of this approach is that it rests on negativity: what Hamlet says is undermined by what he doesn't say. A. J. Waldock summarizes this objection by saying, "If Hamlet has a complex, what business is it of ours? When a complex is made into dramatic material it becomes our business, not before." (262) Quentin's complex, though, is made into dramatic material, and is appropriately the business of any reader. Because the two characters have such striking external similarities, it is only natural to assume that they are consistently similar internally. Through a comparison of Hamlet and Quentin, much can be learned about both characters which will be useful in understanding their behaviors and motivations, and the nature of the tragedies surrounding them.

In the second scene of the play, Hamlet shows his desire to return to the University at Wittenburg. There is no reason to believe that either Claudius or Hamlet's father were University students, so when Hamlet confronts his father's ghost, as Peter Alexander says, "Not merely two types, but two ages confront one another. Wittenburg—the University—is face to face with the heroic past." (35) Similarly, Quentin is the only member of his family to go to Harvard. Just as the only friends Hamlet cares to talk to are his friends from Wittenburg (Horatio, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern before he understands their duplicity), the obsession with being a "Harvard man" is the only topic Quentin seems to think about other than his sister. He says, "Will there be hats then since I was not and not Harvard then. Where the best of thought Father said clings like dead ivy vines upon old dead brick. Not Harvard then. Not to me, anyway. Again. Sadder than was. Again. Saddest of all. Again." (13) As much as Quentin values his father's advice, his father is clearly not a "Harvard man." Hamlet and Quentin, though, are not simply "sensitive intellectual types." The melancholy and depression in which they are found is brought on by their current situations. A. C. Bradley says of Hamlet that "the text does not bear out the idea that he was one-sidedly reflective and indisposed to action." (13) He was esteemed by the people and the court, and spoken of as a soldier, rather than a philosopher. Quentin, also, could not always have been the brooding neurotic found in the text; if he had been, the wild and active Caddy would not have favored him as she did. Additionally, Shreve's reaction to Quentin's bizarre behavior on the morning of April 10 shows that his behavior was bizarre (Faulkner, 82).

The cause of the change in Hamlet's behavior is obvious; it is, as Gertrude says to Claudius, "no other but the main,/ His father's death and our o'erhasty marriage." (41, II.2.59-60) The psychologist Ernest Jones claims that Hamlet's disabling melancholy is brought on by repressed sexual feelings towards his mother, saying:

Hamlet had in years gone by, as a child, bitterly resented having to share his mother's affection even with his own father, had regarded him as a rival, and had secretly wished him out of the way…The actual realization of his early wish in the death of his father at the hands of a jealous rival would then have stimulated into activity these "repressed" memories, which would have produced, in the form of depression and other suffering, an obscure aftermath of his childhood's conflict. (78)
Therefore, the bulk of Hamlet's disgust is with his mother's "incestuous" marriage, rather than his father's murder. Claudius is hated as a successful rival, rather than a murderer. Seeing Quentin in a new suit, Shreve asks him, "Is it a wedding or a wake?" (82), thus mirroring, in one simple question, all of Hamlet's problems. Quentin's hypochondriac mother is largely absent from his life, so he projects the mother onto Caddy (Wadlington, 73) when he says, "I'd have to turn back to it until the dungeon was Mother herself she and Father upward into weak light holding hands and us lost somewhere below even them without even a ray of light. Then the honeysuckle got into it." (173) The mother and father are lost somewhere up above, and because of their absence all Quentin can focus on is the honeysuckle, Caddy, who becomes a surrogate mother-figure (Fowler, 11).

Describing Hamlet, Jones says, "When, on the other hand, the aroused feeling is intensely "repressed" and associated with shame, guilt, and similar reactions the submergence may be so complete as to render the person incapable of experiencing any feeling at all of attraction for the opposite sex; to him all women are as forbidden as his mother." (88-89) Similarly, Quentin is asexual; when Caddy becomes sexually active, his repressed feelings are stimulated, and Quentin is unable to express any sexuality at all. He says, "Did you ever have a sister? No but they're all bitches. Did you ever have a sister? One minute she was. Bitches. Not bitch one minute she stood in the door." (92)

In this context, Hamlet's abuse of Ophelia is perfectly logical. First, he says, "Nymph, in thy orisons/ be all my sins remembered," (64, III.1.97-98) implying that Ophelia, here, is "woman," and his disgust with her is his disgust with himself because of his feelings toward his mother. Indeed, his accusations to her are based on her capacity as a "breeder of sinners," (65, III.1.132) presumably, sinners like himself. When Quentin calls Natalie a "dirty girl," (134) he is the dirty one; Natalie could have been anyone. The little immigrant girl is "dirty" as well (125), but she, unlike Caddy and Natalie, is acceptable as a companion because she is a child, and therefore not sexually mature. Quentin's sexual play with Natalie is entirely focused on Caddy, but Caddy is not interested. When Quentin says, "We were dancing sitting down I bet Caddy cant dance sitting down," Caddy replies, "I don't give a damn what you were doing." (136-137) This is Quentin's problem, not Caddy's. Once they have been discovered, though, Quentin has nothing but hatred left for Natalie, and says to her, "Get wet I hope you catch pneumonia go on home Cowface." (136)

The women are not the only outlet for anger for either Hamlet or Quentin; both are quick to fight. John C. Bucknill says, "It is the meditative, inactive man, who often seizes opportunities for action, or what he takes for such, with the greatest eagerness. Unable to form and follow a deliberate course of action, he is too ready to lend his hand to circumstances, as they arise without his intervention." (Bucknill, 315-316) In a fit of madness, Hamlet strikes out and kills Polonius, mistaking him for Claudius. When Quentin fights Gerald at the picnic, he doesn't know why he did it. Spoade says:

The first I knew was when you jumped up all of a sudden and said, 'Did you ever have a sister? did you?' and when he said No, you hit him. I noticed you kept on looking at him, but you didn't seem to be paying any attention to what anybody was saying until you jumped up and asked him if he had any sisters. (166)
In the narrative, and presumably in Quentin's mind as well, this event is mixed up with his fight with Dalton Ames. In both fights, though, Quentin is ludicrously unsuccessful.

Quentin also fights with T.P. at Caddy's wedding; the scene is narrated by Benjy, so no explanation is given for the fight, but it is probably safe to assume that it was just as pointless, particularly as T.P. doesn't seem to care (21). Jones says of Hamlet:

Hamlet is a man capable of very decisive action, with no compunction whatever about killing. This could be not only impulsive, as in the killing of Polonius, but deliberate, as in the arranging for the death of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. His biting scorn and mockery toward his enemies, and even towards Ophelia, his cutting denunciation of his mother, his lack of remorse after the death of Polonius; these are not signs of a gentle, yielding, or weak nature. (37)
By this logic, it is not some basic weakness in Hamlet's nature that prevents him from murdering Claudius; rather, his delay is wrapped up in his own unhealthy feelings towards his mother. Quentin's impotence can be similarly explained.

When Quentin meets Dalton Ames on the bridge, he says he wants to kill him, but cannot even bring himself to hit him with a closed fist (160). When Dalton Ames tries to hand him the pistol, Quentin won't even take it. He says of this:

If we could just have done something so dreadful that they would have fled hell except us. I have committed incest I said Father it was I it was not Dalton Ames And when he put Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. When he put the pistol in my hand I didn't. That's why I didn't. He would be there and she would and I would. Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. (79)
He refuses to murder Dalton Ames, finally, because then Ames would be in Hell with Caddy and himself, and he doesn't want to share Caddy even in death. Likewise, Hamlet refuses to murder Claudius at prayer because then Claudius would go to Heaven:
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven,
And so I am revenged. That would be scanned.
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
Why this is hire and salary, not revenge! (85, III.3.76-82)
This reasoning, although basically sound, does nothing to explain the other numerous delays of his revenge. D. G. James says, "And could a Hamlet, who half his time believed neither in heaven nor hell, sincerely and with a whole mind say these things?" (James, 86) Quentin's rationale appears more truthful, and is also more fundamentally problematic; Hamlet does not want to send Claudius to Heaven, but Quentin does not want to send Dalton Ames to Hell, because he knows that he (Quentin) and Caddy will both be there as well.

Quentin is equally ineffective in his murder-suicide attempt with Caddy. As Doreen Fowler says, "Quentin's abortive attempt at joint suicide with Caddy simulates sexual intercourse—Quentin proposes to penetrate Caddy with his knife." (12) Quentin is caught up in memories of Caddy's muddy drawers, the hallmark of her burgeoning sexuality, and is too distracted to push the knife, even with Caddy telling him to push it. Then he drops the knife, and while he's looking for it Caddy decides to leave. The plausibility of this excuse is questionable; Quentin says, "here it is it was right here all the time." (153) When Hamlet confronts Gertrude in her closet, the appearance of his father's ghost (which he alone can see) reminds him not to harm her. Hamlet's explanation for his behavior is that, "I must be cruel, only to be kind;/ The bad begins, and worse remains behind." (93, III.4.199-200) Quentin, like Hamlet, must be cruel to Caddy in order to save her, but the time is not right.

Quentin's narrative begins, and ends, with the watch, accompanied by Mr. Compson's discourses on Time. Clearly Quentin wants to stop time, as evidenced by his smashing the watch. At first glance, the reasoning appears to be simple; without time, he and Caddy could have been children forever, and never separated. The final conversation between Quentin and Mr. Compson (176-178) is very telling, though. Mr. Compson says Quentin's depression is "a temporary state of mind," (177) and Quentin repeats the word "temporary" four times, as though gaining some great enlightenment; the last time, Mr. Compson follows with, "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." (178) "Temporary" in that passage can have two meanings. The first is simply "having to do with time"; in that case Quentin's fixation on the word is understandable. However, "temporary" also means "brief, or transient," and it is this meaning and its implications that Quentin struggles with. His childhood with Caddy was temporary, and it is over. However, his grief over losing her is also temporary, and this disturbs him even more. This, according to Mr. Compson, is the root of despair:

someday in very disgust he risks everything on a single blind turn of a card no man ever does that under the first fury of despair or remorse or bereavement he does it only when he has realized that even the despair or remorse or bereavement is not particularly important to the dark diceman. (178)
His devotion to his sister, and sorrow at losing her, is the strongest feeling Quentin has ever known, and even this, Mr. Compson says, is transient and unimportant. This is the root of Quentin's despair, and he is broken by it (Lowry, 46).

Hamlet's obsession with worms and decay may have a similar origin. While feigning madness, he carefully explains how "a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar." (100, IV.3.32-33) Hamlet's king, like Quentin's pain, is "temporary," and this leads both of them to blindly follow out the course of events: Hamlet to his impulsive murder of Claudius, and his own death at the hands of Laertes, and Quentin to his ludicrously meticulous preparations for his own death, and his equally meaningless fight with Gerald.

Mr. Compson says, "no you will not do that until you come to believe that even she was not quite worth despair perhaps." (178) Hamlet, also, cannot enact his revenge until he realizes that it doesn't make any difference at all. Mr. Compson's "dark diceman" is equally unconcerned with the lives of royalty and common men. Hamlet and Quentin begin with a misplaced mother-fixation, and can only find release from their sufferings when they acknowledge, consciously or not, that the problem is with them, not Gertrude and Caddy or even Claudius and Dalton Ames, and finally the only release allowed to either of them is death.


Works Cited

Alexander, Peter. Hamlet: Father and Son. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Bradley, A.C. "Shakespeare's Tragic Period—Hamlet." Twenthieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet. Ed. David Bevington. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc, 1968. 13-21.

Bucknill, John C. "The Mad Folk of Shakespeare." Hamlet: Critical Essays. Ed. Joseph G. Price. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1986. 315-321.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. 1929. Ed. Noel Polk. New York: Random House, 1990.

Fowler, Doreen. "'Little Sister Death': The Sound and the Fury and the Denied Unconscious." Faulkner and Psychology. Ed. Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. 3-20.

James, D. G. "The Dream of Learning." Hamlet: Critical Essays. Ed. Joseph G. Price. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1986. 77-97.

Jones, Ernest. Hamlet and Oedipus. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1954.

Lowrey, Perrin. "Concepts of Time in The Sound and the Fury." Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Sound and the Fury. Ed. Michael H. Cowan. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc, 1968. 53-62.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. Lamar. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959.

Slabey, Robert M. "Quentin as Romantic." Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Sound and the Fury. Ed. Michael H. Cowan. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc, 1968. 81-82.

Wadlington, Warwick. Reading Faulknerian Tragedy. Ithica, Cornell University Press, 1987.

Waldock, A. J. "Hamlet: A Study in Critical Method." Hamlet: Critical Essays. Ed. Joseph G. Price. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1986. 259-266.

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