The Sound and the Fury
reviewed by Jon Duelfer
Then Ben wailed again, hopeless and prolonged. It was nothing. Just sound. It might have been all time and injustice and sorrow become vocal for an instant by a conjunction of planets.
The Sound and the Fury tells the story of an early 20th century, Southern family driving themselves into financial and moral ruin. Years before, they were the quintessential, white American family: wealthy, self-made, and deeply religious. Now – after the death of their father and the continued abuse from their psychotic, hypochondriac mother – they must confront the tragedy that awaits them.
The first two chapters of the novel, which make up almost half the length of the entire book, are disorienting. Faulkner weaves in and out of a complex stream of consciousness without any clear indications of where the story is leading.
Without the author’s prestige, I would have thrown down this book in frustration. I couldn’t tell who the characters were or what was happening – cornerstones of any piece of conventional fiction. But I can confirm that if you are willing to hold off on any judgment through the first two chapters, a beautiful and epic tragedy will unravel that is well worth any frustrations.
True to the novel’s title, the first chapter starts off with a fury of incomprehensible, internal dialogue. The narrator, Benjy, appears to be a young child who is barely able to form complete thoughts. As the story goes on, however, we learn that he is much older and is actually mentally handicapped.
Faulkner pieces together Benjy’s thoughts in an eerie, seemingly random fashion. It’s near impossible to hook onto his thought process as we would a typical narrator’s.
Our shadows were on the grass. They got to the trees before we did. Mine got there first. Then we got there, and then the shadows were gone. There was a flower in the bottle. I put the other flower in it.
Fiction typically follows some sort of consistent timeline; Benjy’s narration does not. Words, smells, and sounds will tear him away from the present and launch him into memories of his past.
For example, seeing a tree, smelling the rain, or hearing somebody calling out “caddie” in the nearby golf course pulls Benjy into memories of his sister (whose name is Caddy). Within a span of a few words, he may alternate between a memory of the past and the present.
“Hush now.” she said. “I’m not going to run away.”
So I hushed. Caddy smelled like trees in the rain.
What is the matter with you, Luster said.
The beginning of the second chapter is a breath of fresh air. Quentin, another one of the brothers, is away at Harvard for his first year of the university.
Although his narration is also a stream of consciousness, he articulates his thoughts clearly at first – especially when compared to Benjy’s chapter. He has a negative few of others and the world around him.
…he had been guide mentor and friend to unnumbered crops of innocent and lonely freshmen, and I suppose that with all his petty chicanery and hypocrisy he stank no higher in heaven’s nostrils than any other.
His nihilism leads him into trouble again and again, though he always claims it to be no fault of his own. As the chapter continues, his thoughts become more introspective and serious.
Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.
He constantly goes through memories of his sister, Caddy – as Benjy did – and we begin to lose grasp of a consistent timeline again. His narration, which was articulate at first, descends into nonsense.
Now and then the river glinted beyond things in sort of swooping glints, across noon and after. Good after now, though we had passed where he was still pulling upstream majestical in the face of god gods. Better. Gods. God would be canaille too in Boston in Massachusetts. Or maybe just not a husband. The wet oars winking him along in bright winks and female palms. Adulant. Adulant if not a husband he’d ignore God. That blackguard, Caddy…The river glinted away beyond a swooping curve.
Faulkner conveys Quentin’s state-of-mind through his deteriorating dialogue. Something is seriously bothering him, and he must try to come to terms with it.
Finally, finally, a normal narrative. Jason – the last of the brothers – is left in charge of the Compson’s household after the death of his father. At first, he seems like a hard-working man trying his best to take care of his family.
As the previous chapters suggest, first appearances are often misleading. He is a sad, hateful, sexist, racist, and spiteful character that resents having to take care of his mentally handicapped brother, his abusive, psychotic, hypochondriac mother, and his niece who hates him. He even claims to take care of the maid, Dilsey, though it turns out that Dilsey actually takes care of the family while Jason wallows in his own sorrow.
In Jason’s chapter, we begin to patch together the confusing pieces of Benjy’s and Quentin’s memories. He paints a sad picture of a once reputable family, who now struggles to get by. He believes both the economic and moral fate of his family rests on his shoulders.
The air brightened, the running shadow patches were now the obverse, and it seemed to him that the fact that the day was clearing was another cunning stroke on the part of the foe, the fresh battle toward which he was carrying ancient wounds. From time to time he passed churches, unpainted frame buildings with sheet iron steeples, surrounded by tethered teams and shabby motorcars, and it seemed to him that each of them was a picket-post where the rear guards of Circumstance peeped fleetingly back at him.
“And damn You, too,” he said. “See if You can stop me…”
The final chapter follows Dilsey – the maid of the Compson’s household – who has been with the family through their decline. Different from the other chapters, this one is told in an omnipresent third person point of view.
It allows Faulkner to jump between the past and present and complete the story of the Compson family. It also allows him to paint a picture of Jefferson, Mississippi, the family’s hometown.
The road rose again, to a scene like a painted backdrop. Notched into a cut of red clay crowned with oaks the road appeared to stop short off, like a cut ribbon. Beside it a weathered church lifted its crazy steeple like a painted church, and the whole scene was as flat and without perspective as a painted cardboard set upon the ultimate edge of the flat earth, against the windy sunlight of space and April and a midmorning filled with bells.
The Sound and the Fury is a difficult novel. For the first two chapters, I was constantly asking myself why it was one of Faulkner’s most famous works. I struggled through sentences, re-read them, flipped back a couple pages to understand what I missed, and often gave up altogether trying to comprehend what was going on.
Until Jason’s chapter, I didn’t understand what the story was about. It passed in a blur, sometimes beautiful for Faulkner’s prose, and sometimes completely incomprehensible. Then, I began to paint a picture of the Compson family. I both rooted for their demise and hoped that they would escape it. I hated their actions and motives, but saw slivers of myself in them.
The Sound and the Fury is an epic tragedy that is a treasure trove of innovative writing, beautiful prose, and complex characters. By the end of the novel, I understood why this was one of Faulkner’s most famous works and believe that it is, and will be, one of the greatest American novels ever written.