Monday, April 27, 2009

"The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner

Summary: The Sound and the Fury follows the Compsons, once a reputable Southern family, now in a state of decay. The patriarch of the family, Mr. Compson, is dead from alcoholism; son Quentin commits suicide; son Jason is angry and bitter; son Benjy is severely mentally retarded; and daughter Caddy is "disgracefully" divorced with a child out of wedlock. Each son takes turns narrating the story and the petty lives the family leads.

Musings: I've been regularly reading for pleasure for several months now, and I typically "eat" books (as my husband puts it). I'm a fast reader and can easily read several books in a week. Although I've read a number of challenging novels recently (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Beloved), The Sound and the Fury takes the cake. I don't think I've had to work so hard at reading in quite awhile. The first two sections of the book were daunting, and I probably wouldn't have made it through Benjy's section without some help from Sparknotes. I had to read more slowly and reread more parts of the book than I have done in a long time. Nonetheless, now that I'm finished, I'm proud of myself for sincerely working my way through it.

The first section of the book is narrated by Benjy. Severely mentally retarded, Benjy has no concept of time, so he narrates both the present and past events as they were one, often without signaling the time shift to the reader. He describes things literally and as a child might, picking up on pieces of conversation and an occasional detail without combining all the parts together to make a recognizable whole. Sometimes the most basic plot details (like the fact that Benjy and Luster, a servant, are watching golfers at the beginning) were lost on me, even after several readings. Benjy lives in a world where his desires are guided by small stimuli, which he caretakers frequently fail to understand. Most of his interaction with other people consists of his caretakers telling him to "hush."

The second section is narrated by Quentin, the oldest son, and I expected to have an easier time reading this part of the book. However, Quentin is not much better than Benjy. Although aware of time (actually, hyper-aware), Quentin relays much of his section in stream of consciousness, where Faulkner removes all punctuation (even apostrophes!). I had a tendency to read the stream of consciousness quickly, since it flowed together without grammatical interruptions, but in doing so I lost all meaning of what I was reading. I found I had to pretend to insert my own punctuation in order to make sense of what I read.

The third section is coldly narrated by Jason and was straightforward and relatively easy to understand. The final section describes both Jason and the Compson family servant Dilsey, and is told in third person.

Overall, Faulkner has created some of the most unlikeable and irredeemable characters I have ever encountered in literature. With the exception of Dilsey and a few minor characters, the other members of the Compson "family" are all terrible people. We are told that most of the family problems stem from Caddy's "promiscuity," which leads to her child out of wedlock and sudden marriage (and subsequent divorce). Although Caddy is blamed for the family problems, Faulkner never gives her a voice (as he does her three brothers). Instead, we are left with three pathetic men who have centered their pathetic lives around Caddy's "dishonorable" actions. Benjy is too disabled to accurately understand what is happening, but nonetheless he ties his existence to "owning" Caddy and howls when he thinks she has left him for another. Quentin feels personally ashamed at Caddy's actions, and when his lame attempts to "save" her from disrepute are rejected, he goes into despair and eventually commits suicide. Jason, the worst of the brothers, is misogynist, racist, and anti-Semitic; he is angry and bitter at being left behind on the farm without the prestige he desired. He has no compassion and no feeling for others.

Nevertheless, Jason would have to compete with his mother, Mrs. Compson, for title of "worse person on the planet." Self-absorbed and manipulating, Mrs. Compson uses whining and self-pitying to manipulate the people around her.

My overall thoughts on the book are ambivalent. The Sparknotes analysis argues that "Caddy's indiscretions... irreparably taint the family name." I don't know if this is the common interpretation of the novel, but I find it hard to accept Caddy's fault in the downfall of the family. Yes, she has relationships with men, but her home life is terrible, and it's not unsurprising to see a young girl chase after new relationships. Caddy regrets the actions she commits that cause harm, and she genuinely tries to help the things she can, unlike her brothers. To me, it is the brothers' unwarranted obsession with women's purity that causes the family's problems. It is men's obsession with keeping "their" women in line with traditional gender roles that taints the family's name, not the woman's actions.

Of course, women are never given a voice with which to object to their biased portrayal. The three brothers each receive a section to narrate, but Caddy does not. Even the last section, which follows the servant Dilsey, is narrated in third person, thus removing any female from the opportunity of narrating from her point of view.

It only just occurred to me that the title comes from a Macbeth soliloquy which I memorized back in AP Lit:

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.

In many ways the title is an apt description of the Compson sons. Benjy is the natural "idiot," but his brothers in many ways share the title. They are full of thoughts and anger and bitterness, but their wailing means nothing and comes to nothing.

The novel is beautifully written, despite the difficulty in reading it. It's a book I'd like to discuss in an academic environment, since I think there's far more to it than can be digested by a single person.

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