Literary Analysis: The Sound and the Fury
Title & Author
The title of the novel is The Sound and the Fury. The author's name is William Faulkner.
Historical and Cultural Context
The Sound and the Fury was published in October 1929. At this point in American history, the so-called “Roaring Twenties” were coming to an end and the Great Depression was beginning. Race relations were a major issue at that point, and Faulkner made them a topic of the novel. The interactions between the Compsons and Dilsey's family, as well as Jason's (and other characters') treatment of black people illustrated his negative views towards racist southerners and the racist traditions of the South. The novel describes parts of a three-decade period in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, ranging from the turn of the century until about the time the novel was written. Faulkner uses this transition in time to show a cultural change from the “Old South” (represented by Mr. and Mrs. Compson) to the “New South” (represented by Jason). The author's cultural bias towards these Southern cultures is revealed through his caricatures of Southern stereotypes. Through Jason, Faulkner shows that the New South is immoral and corrupt, and headed down the entirely wrong path, motivated by greed and progress. However, he also shows that the Old South was immoral as well because of its dependency on slavery and collective treatment of blacks.
The work is known for the philosophy of nihilism, the belief that “all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.” Mr. Compson is a nihilist, believes that the world is meaningless, and preaches that to his children. Faulkner also shows this philosophy through the character of Benjy, who cannot learn or communicate, that knowledge is irrelevant and communication is highly overrated. Benjy is the “best” character in the novel; his innocence makes him, by default, the most moral character - he is even portrayed as a Jesus figure by the fact that he celebrates his 33rd birthday in his section of the novel. Faulkner, by showing that Benjy is the most moral character in a world of immorality, is essentially advocating a nihilist philosophy.
The novel takes place in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional county in Mississippi. Its time is not linear, but ranges (in parts and pieces) from approximately 1898 (When the children play in the stream, and Caddy dirties her undergarments) to April 8, 1928 (When Miss Quentin steals the money from Jason and runs away).
The point of view of the novel is a switching first person - Benjy, Quentin, or Jason, in each of the first three sections of the novel. The fourth section, Dilsey's, is narrated in omniscient third person.
The protagonist is Caddy--she is the object of attention or affection throughout the novel, and the knot that ties all sections of the novel together. She is a different person in the eyes of each different character.
As Benjy sees her, she is a loving, caring mother figure. She fills the void left by the absence of his actual mother in the parenting process. Mrs. Compson is so self-absorbed and neurotic she can't be a mother at all. Caddy thus takes her place. Even as Benjy matures, his mind doesn't; he is still in need of a mother figure throughout his life, after Caddy leaves. He feels only a sense of loss, and the void in her absence.
As Quentin sees her, she is a symbol of honor. As the daughter of the family, she represents the Compson family. Quentin's twisted sense of honor and Southern pride cause him to protect Caddy at the expense of himself by claiming that her baby was his. To Quentin, Caddy transcends the role of a person and exists only as a symbol.
As Jason sees her, she is a symbol of his own hatred. He hates her, and her daughter, for being promiscuous. This points out his own hypocrisy in that his “girlfriend” is a whore from Memphis. Psychologically, Jason's hatred and loathing is actually directed towards himself - he hates Caddy because he hates himself because he hates her.
Caddy, independent of the other characters, is nothing; she is only shown through the biases of the others. Thus, she is unable to have any traits whatsoever - she does not exist as a person. The idea of Caddy, not the character, is what is actually the protagonist in the novel.
There is no clear antagonist throughout the novel, but a different antagonist for each section. In Benjy's section, the antagonist is time. Time takes away what is his (or what he perceives to be his) and he feels only a sense of loss. In Quentin's section, the antagonist is the Compson family. His childhood experiences and members of his family are what drove him to the brink of insanity and beyond to death. In Jason's section, the antagonist is himself. He is a hateful, vengeful, and immoral person - and it's his own fault. He rejects the values and ideals that his family had, because of how bad his family was, yet doesn't realize that having no ideals at all is worse - he values only money and superficial things. In Dilsey's section, the antagonist is chaos - Dilsey, as a Christ figure, brings order to that chaos (and thus triumphs both in the battle between protagonist and antagonist and in the cosmic battle between good and evil).
Miss Quentin is Caddy's daughter and resembles her in character traits, but does not have any significance on the other characters, with the exception of Jason. To Jason, Miss Quentin is merely another Caddy - another object of (self-) hatred.
Mr. and Mrs. Compson are foils to Jason, and representative of the old ideals and traditions. They change as time goes on, and they both pass away. Jason prevails, but not morally; thus, the ideals of Mr. and Mrs. Compson die with them.
Other characters that have not yet been mentioned contributed to the plot, but not to the deeper meaning of the novel. This includes such static and shallow characters as Herbert Head, Gerald Bland, etc.
Person vs. Person:
Jason vs. Miss Quentin, in Jason's section (III) and Dilsey's section (IV). Jason treats Miss Quentin as another object for his hatred - in this case, a surrogate for Caddy. Miss Quentin steals Jason's money (which is actually not his) and runs away. Symbolically, the ignorant (of Miss Quentin as a person, and of morality) Jason has been castrated (financially) for doing something wrong (stealing money from Caddy and his mother). This parallels his castration of the ignorant Benjy, and brings the section (as well as the conflict) to a close through a psychological contrapasso.
Person vs. Society:
Quentin vs. Society, in Quentin's section (II) - his troubled mind causes him to be unable to function as a person, or a member of society - and the society is what reinforces his twisted ideals leading to his suicide. Quentin (III) cannot cope with his own feelings - he has the “soul of a poet,” and that soul has been damaged by his traumatic childhood. He blames his family (his nihilist father and promiscuous sister) for his family's (and thus his) loss of honor. Unfortunately, his twisted mind tells him that without honor, life is not worth living (it becomes meaningless). Thus he is a believer in his father's nihilist principles after all. The conflict is actually resolved by his death by drowning.
Person vs. Nature:
Benjy vs. Time, in Benjy's section (I) - Benjy loses everything that has meaning to him - Caddy, his manhood, and his pasture... Time is the culprit, because as time passes, Benjy loses more and his feeling of loss is amplified. Eventually Benjy is institutionalized, causing him to lose the only thing he had left (his freedom). He couldn't lose his independence because he never had it, but he still had some measure of freedom. He also lost whatever sense of family he had left (which would be little since Caddy left... Dilsey's family was more his than the Compsons). Through this final loss, Benjy's character becomes completely meaningless, but his struggle is over (much like Quentin).
Person vs. God/supernatural:
Jason vs. God, in Jason's section (III) and Dilsey's section (IV) - Jason is an immoral person. His behavior and views go against Christian values, and his actions go against Christ-like figures in the novel. Jason never overtly battles God, in his own mind or on some cosmic battleground, but his thoughts and actions are in direct disagreement with the Christian themes in the novel. He is immoral and corrupt, characterized by greed and lust. He is the embodiment of sin in the novel, and thus an anti-Christ. This goes one step further when Dilsey is portrayed as a Christ figure... Jason's views and treatment of Dilsey and their continuing mutual antagonism is representative of the battle between good and evil. It is not resolved on a cosmic scale - to resolve such a conflict would defeat the entire purpose of religion. On a personal level, it is resolved when Jason is symbolically castrated and loses what little meaning he ever had.
Person vs. Technology:
Dilsey vs. Chaos, in Dilsey's section (IV). As a Christ figure, Dilsey brings order to the chaos that is the Compson family and is willing to sacrifice herself and her family to hold the Compsons up. Dilsey, as a foil to Jason, is the embodiment of Christian morals and ideals. She has no feelings but love for Benjy (the opposite of Jason); she is selfless, while Jason is selfish; she is a protector of the Compson family members, while Jason is a destroyer. Unfortunately, Dilsey's goal of protecting the Compson family is stymied by the family itself. She ultimately fails as the Compson family members fade away into meaninglessness one by one.
Person vs. Self:
Jason vs. Himself, in Jason's section (III)... also visible in Dilsey's section (IV). Jason's hatred and loathing towards the other characters, especially Caddy and Miss Quentin, is actually self-hatred. Jason's hypocrisy consumes him psychologically. He (as said above) hates Caddy because he hates himself because he hates her. Which is to say, he hates her not because she is promiscuous, but because she points out his flaws and hypocrisy with her promiscuity. His negative feelings toward Caddy carry over to Miss Quentin for the same reason. While he hates them both outwardly, it is actually subconscious self-hatred due to his sub-conscious desire and subsequent failure to embody the ideals of his family. The resolution to this is that his hatred is amplified in an infinite loop until it completely consumes him, and he ceases to exist as a character (at the end of the novel). He is the last Compson to degenerate into meaninglessness, and the last Compson... ever.
Rather than reach a climax at the end of the novel, it reaches an anti-climax (in keeping with the nihilist philosophy and underlying meaninglessness). The Compsons, one by one, cease to have meaning. For some, it is by ceasing to exist (as in the case of Quentin and Mr. Compson). For others, it is by losing whatever meant anything to them specifically (as in the case of Jason and Benjy). And so, the novel recedes back into the meaninglessness from whence it came.
Miniature climactic events are witnessed throughout the novel - these are more turning points than actual climaxes. If a single event could be called a climax, it would have to be the point at which Miss Quentin steals Jason's money and runs away. That is the single event that leads to the downfall of what is left of the Compson family.
One theme of the novel is that a sense of inevitability ensnares all of existence. This is especially evident in Quentin's section, while he prepares to kill himself. Time is constantly an issue to Quentin, and the time draws nearer to the time of his death as the section progresses linearly. However, this theme is also present throughout the entire novel - the inevitability of Jason's downfall is shown through his endless consuming rage; the inevitability of Jason institutionalizing Benjy is foreshadowed throughout the novel by Jason's comments and thoughts; the inevitability of Miss Quentin taking on the (negative) traits of her mother exists because of the similar family conditions she is presented with. It was inevitable, from the time that Caddy dirtied her undergarments in the stream, that she would lose her virginity, and with it, the honor of the family. Thus inevitability permeates the entire novel through Caddy, the central figure.
Another theme is that love is not enough to conquer hate; the two merely negate the effects of each other and cease to exist. A reaction between matter and antimatter results in absolutely nothing - neither exist, yet nothing is produced. In this way, the love of Dilsey and the hate of Jason cancel each other out, leaving the Compson family void of meaning. This illustrates the nihilist principles that Faulkner endorses.
Yet another theme is that meaninglessness is perfection. Benjy is unable to think, and unable to communicate. He is the embodiment of innocence. He is the most “perfect,” the most moral character - yet is void of any “meaning” that the other characters have. Jason is portrayed negatively and is essentially the opposite of Benjy - worldly, angry, and corrupt - and completely immoral.
One memorable moment was the scene in which the Compson children played in the stream, and Caddy dirtied her undergarments. This was extremely important, for it foreshadowed Caddy's (promiscuous) role in the rest of the novel, and her significance to the other characters.
Another memorable moment was the scene in which Jason went looking for Miss Quentin. He left in a fit of rage, trying to find her... to recover the stolen money, the majority of which he stole in the first place. With his twisted and corrupt value system, he is actually able to justify this - illustrating precisely what is wrong with the entire Compson family. Each member of the family is able to do the wrong thing and justify it because their value systems have become twisted by their collectively traumatic childhood.
On page 76, in section II, Quentin recalls his father telling him (of the watch he was given) “I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.” This set the platform for Quentin's ideals and his obsession with time, which led to his suicide. It was this speech that his father gave him that can be traced to his death.
On page 180, in section III, Jason thinks to himself, “Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say.” This reveals his negative feelings towards Miss Quentin. Even further than that, it reveals the connection in Jason's mind between Caddy and Miss Quentin (essentially, Miss Quentin is a surrogate for Caddy - thus, “once and always”).
The novel is structured into four parts. Time is scattered between those four parts over a thirty-year timeframe. This organizational structure allows many different viewpoints to be presented (those of Benjy, Quentin, and Jason) about the same events that recur between sections. Dilsey's section provides closure to those events with a third-person omniscient narrator.
Caddy is a symbol in the novel (symbolic of something different to each Compson), and is the central figure of the novel. She is symbolic of loss to Benjy, of honor to Quentin, and of self-hatred to Jason.
Benjy and Dilsey are symbolic of Christ. Benjy, through his innocence and morality, as well as his birthday, becomes a Christ figure. Also, Dilsey is the central religious figure and the embodiment of Christian ideals.
The syntax and diction vary between the four sections of the novel completely; this allows for a different “feel” to each section. Those narrated in first person become more authentic as the diction and syntax provide insight into the characters. Benjy's section is filled with simple sentences and simplistic diction, as one might expect. However, it is obvious that the narration is far beyond even Benjy's level of communication, as can be evidenced by the frequent use of figurative language. Quentin's section uses no punctuation whatsoever - this serves to emphasize time and inevitability, as the words literally careen towards the end of the section while Quentin is carrying out his suicide. Jason's section is filled mostly with quotes of others, reinforcing the idea that he focuses his hatred on the entire world (although subconsciously he hates himself). The third-person narration in Dilsey's section emphasizes her unbiased status towards the Compson family (while all of the other sections are seen only through the biases of their narrators). She provides unconditional support to the Compsons, which is far more than they give each other.
Significance of Title
The title, "The Sound and the Fury", is taken from a line in the Shakespeare play Macbeth:
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 just a waking 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,
The “idiot, full of sound and fury” is in reference to Benjy in the novel. However, the meaning lies deeper than that; The Sound and the Fury is indeed a “tale... signifying nothing” with its nihilist themes of meaninglessness. The Christian values it seems to promote are thus undermined by the meaninglessness of the entire novel.
Parallels to Other Works
The Sound and the Fury can be paralleled to Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse in that they both deal with time and meaning in relation to human thought and personality. However, they both do so in different ways, stemming from the difference in philosophy between the two novels. The Sound and the Fury treats time as an inevitable force of destruction, as does To The Lighthouse - however, there is one major difference. In The Sound and the Fury, the Compsons as a family cease to have meaning. In To The Lighthouse, while there is a still sense of meaninglessness to it, the characters are still able to find meaning in the small moments that make up time. The difference between the two novels is the difference between the nihilist philosophies illustrated by Faulkner and the modernist philosophies illustrated by Woolf.
One can also draw a parallel between The Sound and the Fury and Forster's A Passage to India. The issue of meaning in life is dealt with similarly in A Passage to India and To The Lighthouse. Fielding and Aziz, having lost their friendship, are still able to part on good terms at the end of the novel because they have accepted the inevitability of their inability to be friends. This is in contrast to Jason's character in The Sound and the Fury; he refuses to accept the inevitable behavior of Caddy (and Miss Quentin), and blames them (and subconsciously himself) for their promiscuity. The meaning that Aziz and Fielding have found, in an agreement to disagree, is lost on Jason Compson.