The Sound and The Fury

July 24, 2015

I recently read William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  The book had, frankly, been something I had planned to read for quite some time.  The usual delay between when I decide that I ought to read something and when I actually tackle it is running about fifteen years these days.  (I’m not sure why; it’s not because I’m too busy to read.)

Faulkner is obviously not a fantasy or science fiction author.  He wrote largely in the genre of “literary fiction.”  I have been heartened to see, in recent years, a lot more people admitting that this is just another genre, with its particular tropes and unrealistic conventions.  It is not my most favorite genre certainly, but I do enjoy literary fiction sometimes.

Faulkner is considered by many to be one of the giants of twentieth-century English-language literature, so I figured I ought to try him out.  The Sound and the Fury is similarly considered to be perhaps his best work, so I checked it out of the library.

The book was interesting in many ways, but I found it ultimately unsatisfying.  The story has four sections, and the first two are not structured as conventional linear narratives.  The first day is narrated by Benjamin Compson, an autistic thirty-three-year-old man, still living at the Compson family home in 1928.  His thoughts skip all around his past, which makes the beginning of the story a bit slow going—although it did not take me very long to figure out what was happening.  I did feel, however, that Benji’s whole character did not make sense.  He is nonverbal, yet his memories are portrayed as crystal clear, in a way that just did not ring true to me at all.  He apparently remembers names perfectly, which makes no sense at all.  Ultimately, he seems more like a literary storytelling device than a human character.

Of course, I do not really know what it feels like to be autistic.  I do not understand the qualia of Benji’s existence.  So I am willing to give Faulkner some leeway with Benjamin.  However, I did not feel the same way about the second narration, that of Benji’s elder brother Quentin, who tells the story of the day he killed himself back in 1910.

My complaint is not that Quentin’s narrative is hard to understand.  Having made my way through Benji’s chapter, I had no trouble following what Quentin was saying.  I knew how to recognize the changes of setting and the other odd textual tropes the authors was using.  In fact, it almost felt like I was having too easy a time understanding Quentin’s difficult history with his beloved sister Caddy; apparently, this section of the story is considered extremely hard to follow.  The inserted memories, with their gradually failing sentence structure and punctuation, are apparently supposed to represent Quentin’s failing psyche; but this simply did not work for me.  The storytelling would probably be labeled as “stream of consciousness,” but I kept finding myself thinking, My consciousness definitely does not operate this way.  I do not believe this is how anyone’s actual thought processes go, even if they are on the verge of completely losing it.  I could accept the style as a purely impressionistic representation of a person losing their faculties, but once again, that robs the narrator of an authentic human voice and reduces him to a literary device.

By the time the third chapter arrived, finally narrated in a completely straightforward fashion by the third Compson brother, Jason—who is the most obvious villain of the story, although his mother really seems to be the most despicable character in the tale—I was pretty sick of Faulkner’s self-indulgent attempts to be confusing merely for the sake of being confusing.  As I said, I got the hang of Benji’s and Quentin’s idiosyncratic voices pretty swiftly.  However, there were some things that just seemed over the top.  In particular, many members of the Compsons’ family share names, even when that makes very little sense.  There are two Jason Compson’s, father and son—which is not actually unreasonable, although it seems odd that they did not name the eldest son Quentin after his father.  However, Benji’s name was changed in childhood; before it was Benjamin, he was named after his uncle Maury.  Who changes a kid’s name because he turns out to be disabled?  (One of Benji’s minders—who, over the years, all come from the family of the Compson’s black servants—says the Compsons did it because they were superstitious, which was perhaps supposed to seem ironic, but for me it just served to emphasize the bathos of the whole name changing story.)  Most egregiously, however, is the fact that there are two Quentins.  Caddy names her illegitimate daughter after the brother who killed himself over his sister’s promiscuity.  This naturally leads to a lot of confusion, because the text is so deliberately unclear about which Quentin might be involved in a particular incident that is being remembered.  And this seems like a cheat.  The nonlingual Benji, after all, never gets confused about who is who, so why should the linguistic choices of his narrating voice end up confusing the reader?  The confusion is dragged out until, in Jason’s chapter, the situation is finally made clear, and the plot follows a fairly clean arc, with quite a bit more obvious conflict that in the first two sections.

However, the last chapter again seemed to me to be a failure.  The three Compson sons had narrated the first three chapters.  (Caddy does not get to narrate, although her presence is hugely felt in all three of her brother’s stories.  Faulkner apparently claimed that she was the true protagonist of the novel, although that seems to be pushing her importance much too far.)  In the fourth chapter, the viewpoint character is (mostly) Dilsey, the Compson’s aging cook and maid—the matriarch of the black family that have been the family’s servants for at least three generations.  Dilsey is a great character—far more moral and grounded than any of the Compsons—and I felt cheated that the chapter was not told in her voice.  Instead, the narrative proceeds entirely in the third person.  While this omniscient narration allows the story to make sideways excursions—to finish off the story of Jason’s comeuppance, for example—I think it is a real loss.  I wonder whether Faulkner felt he could not do justice to Dilsey’s own voice, that he could not speak to the reader as an aging African-American woman.  Perhaps he was right.  Quentin—who, in his most lucid moments, seems, of all the characters, the most like a mouthpiece for Faulkner’s own beliefs—is annoyed that the Northerners expect him to be a virulent racist.  He is somewhat racist, not surprisingly, but he obviously ambivalent about his racism—as I imagine Faulkner was as well.  Still, I think the novel could have been quite a bit stronger if it had been finished in Dilsey’s own voice.

Of course, The Sound and the Fury did manage to keep me reading.  There were many wonderful literary flourishes.  I really liked Quentin Compson, and I definitely empathized with him.  (I still am vaguely considering reading Absolom, Absolom! in which Quentin also features.  Yet his self indulgent suicide seemed pathetically incomprehensible.)  Just at the end of narration, he is fiddling with the electric devices in his Harvard dorm room, then pouring gasoline on his bloodstained waistcoat to get it clean.  His lack of care for his own safety was quite evocative, which is natural enough for a man getting ready to drown himself in the Charles River.

The corrupt judicial system in the western Massachusetts town Quentin visits on his last day also struck me as very authentic.  You don’t (so far as I know) need to pay the police a bribe after your wrongful arrest gets dismissed these days, but the feel of the place Faulkner described still lined up with the attitudes I remember encountering in the hinterlands of Boston.

I do not particularly recommend this novel, although it is certainly considered a classic of American literature.  It captures a certain time and place in America, but unlike, say, The Great Gatsby or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it does not sport a protagonist that is both likable and realistically authentic.  And it ends abruptly.


2 Responses to “The Sound and The Fury”

  1. Faulkner was not a writer of ‘literary fiction.’ That distinction did not exist yet–he was a modernist–an irritating one, though Sound and Fury, despite its garbled medical condition and generalized manipulation of form to get to the end he wants, is still possibly his best book–yet he fell in the same category as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, writing potentially for a mass audience (though, no, he didn’t sell books like either of them–most Faulkner is and was read because students are forced to buy the book by professors). When other forms of reading/media came along, fiction bifurcated into ‘literary fiction’ and ‘popular fiction.’ The overlap has mostly disappeared, now. The days of Dickens, Shakespeare, and Byron are gone, and ‘great’ literature is almost definition inaccessible and has a small market. …And, yes, Faulkner and later Joyce didn’t help with all this.

    • Buzz Says:

      I’m sure you know more about the historical divergence between “literary” and “mainstream” fiction. I had been under the impression that the distinction was fairly well established by the 1920s, since I recall reading a letter from that period by F. Scott Fitzgerald, in which he discussed the issue.

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