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Study Guide: The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner

Cover of The Sound and The Fury

Study Guide:

The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner

Trigger warning: Suicide

Intro

This article was co-written by P. A. Wilson and Ashley Ostrowski.

We read The Sound and The Fury in the class 20th Century American Novel at Grove City College (GCC). Dr. Messer taught the class, and we would wholeheartedly recommend taking that course for anyone attending GCC.

Background

The Sound and the Fury was published in 1929 by William Faulkner. The action is centered around a single family in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County where most of Faulkner’s writings are set. Originally, Faulkner wanted to use several colors of ink to make the chronological shifts in the novel less confusing, but it was not at that time possible to publish a book that way. Faulkner described his book as “a real son-of-a-bitch…the greatest I’ll ever write”. Most college students would agree with at least the first part of that assessment.

Q&A

What makes this novel so difficult to read?

The reason that this novel has a reputation of being hard to understand is partially due to the beginning. The story begins from the point of view of Benjy, a character with a severe intellectual disability.

I ran into the box. But when I climbed onto it, it jumped away and hit me on the back of the head and my throat made a sound”

Benjy

Benjy has no notion of time, so the story continually shifts from past to present without much warning. If he hears or sees anything that reminds him of past events, his thoughts will launch back into the past.

One way to figure out the time period of each part of Benjy’s section is to pay attention to who his caretaker is. If it is Versh, Benjy is in his early childhood. When you see the name T. P., Benjy is in his middle teens. Luster cares for Benjy at age 33.

Quentin’s section is almost the opposite of Benjy’s, as he’s methodical and logical. The section is almost scholarly and academic. That makes it almost as hard to read as Benjy’s.

Jason’s and Dilsey’s sections are easier to read.

What is unique about Faulkner’s style?

  • Changes from present to past memory are indicated by italics
  • His questions aren’t ended with question marks
  • Faulkner doesn’t always use:
    • Complete sentences
    • Quotation marks
    • Apostrophes in contractions

What is the difference between the various perspectives and levels of awareness for the characters?

Benjy is the least aware. His understanding of things is almost entirely viewed through basic sensory perception. He doesn’t reflect on his actions and the actions of others. Sometimes one of his senses will remind him of the past, for example, when Luster tells Benjy to crawl, Benjy is reminded of a time with Caddy.

“Wait a minute.” Luster said. “You snagged on that nail again. Cant you never crawl through her without snagging on that nail.”

Caddy uncaught me and we crawled through. Uncle Maury said to not let anybody see us, so we better stoop over, Caddy said. Stoop over, Benjy. Like this, see.

Benjy’s section

Who is the most unpleasant character?

It’s a toss-up between Mrs. Compson and Jason. We agreed that Mrs. Compson is one of the worst mothers in literature. For example, she wears mourning black after she finds out that Caddy was kissed by a guy. She is a hypochondriac, which is not her fault, but she is also melodramatic and always feeling sorry for herself.

Nobody knows how I dread Christmas. Nobody knows. I am not one of those women who can stand things. I wish for Jason’s and the children’s sakes I was stronger.”

Mrs. Compson

Mrs. Compson doesn’t act like a mother to her children and gets angry when Caddy tries to play surrogate mother to Benjy. She is unpleasant because she is always complaining and often passive-aggressive.

I know I’m nothing but a burden to you…But I’ll be gone soon. Then you will be rid of my bothering.”

Mrs. Compson

Jason is the other unpleasant character whose perspective we are forced to endure for a fourth of the book. He is sadistic, racist, sexist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic. One time he cuts up Benjy’s dolls, and another time he leaves the gate open so that Benjy escapes and gets into trouble. He treats the girl Quentin (Caddy’s daughter who is named after her deceased brother Quentin) like trash and steals the money that Caddy is sending for her. He is constantly bitter that he was supposed to get a job at a bank through Caddie’s fiancé, but when the arrangement fell through he did not get it.

From the first line he speaks, Jason is a discordant nuisance in this book:

Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say.”

Jason

He is evidently sexist, as the quote below makes apparent:

Yet they [women] try to make men believe that they’re capable of conducting a business.”

Jason

How does Faulkner utilize biblical imagery?

Caddy was forbidden to climb a certain tree by her father. When she disobeys him, a snake slithers out from under the house. This parallels the acts of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis of the Old Testament.

Versh: Your paw told you to stay out that tree.

Caddy: That was a long time ago.

What is the significance of Caddy’s muddy drawers?

Our teacher made the distinction between earthy and dirty. Earthy is a word with healthy, natural connotations, while dirty has the implication of corruption. Earthy is a word that makes more sense to associate with Caddy. Her drawers got muddy from her playing outside. Caddy is not corrupted; she is a healthy young girl.

“Just look at you…It done soaked clean through onto you.”

Dilsey

How does the theme of parenthood affect this novel?

if I’d just had a mother so I could say Mother Mother.”

Quentin

Mrs. Compson fails to be an adequate mother figure because of her supposed illness and her irritating personality. She is aggravated when Caddy tries to play mother to Benjy, but Mrs. Compson does not act like a mother toward him. Quentin laments that he does not have a close mother figure who he can rely on as well.

Mr. Compson is an alcoholic and nihilist who can not sate his children’s emotional needs because he is so hopeless himself.

Does Faulkner accurately portray mental illness?

We’re not psychologists, so we can’t say for sure whether or not Faulkner portrayed Benjy’s character with accuracy. We also don’t know the name of the mental illness that Benjy has and other people don’t seem to either, except that it is generally regarded as an intellectual disability. We don’t know these things, but we do know that Faulkner portrayed Benjy’s character with a great deal of sympathy and care.

Did Quentin commit incest?

When we took courses in college, our teachers did not believe that Quentin committed or should have committed incest. Quentin tells his father that he and Caddy did it but his father doesn’t believe him. His father does not follow the Southern code of sexual morality that Quentin wants to hold onto. Quentin is appalled by his father’s disregard for morality and he wants to cross a line to make his father care. One of our teachers believed that Quentin wanted to admit to committing a sin so grave that he would be cast out of the family. Even if we think that Quentin may have done something like this, there isn’t evidence that Caddy would have agreed.

Why is Quentin so obsessed with clocks and time?

Quentin is obsessed with the chivalric past, which he sees through rose-tinted glasses. He recognizes the past as a better time for the Compson family. As a result, Quentin abhors change, but he is more disturbed by mechanical time, a human construction based off of the concept that time is measurable, and made necessary by the human desire to control and rationalize the abstract.

Near the beginning of his narrative section, Quentin suddenly breaks his watch by smashing the glass and ripping off the hands; afterwards, he is aggravated by its continual ticking which is unhindered by the loss of its hands. Time is not something physical or personal that he can suspend or defeat through force, it is above and beyond his control. The watch by its existence suggests that humans are able to in some way control time by quantifying it. Quentin demonstrates that mindset by his attempt to destroy the watch, aware that anything man-made can usually be destroyed by man, but forgetting that the mechanical watch is not synonymous with time itself. He finds that the passage of time is inevitable even if he cannot see a clock, or if none of the clocks in the shop he visits are set with precision, but continues in his delusion. “I was in time again, hearing the watch” Quentin muses. Eventually he fully recognizes that mechanical time is not the same as natural time, and attempts to remove himself from both through suicide.

Why was Quentin’s suicide not depicted in the novel?

We’re not sure, but we have some theories.

  1. Quentin is already suicidal, so showing him do it wouldn’t add anything to the story.
  2. Faulkner may have wanted to be careful about the issue. People are often very careful about how they depict suicide now and there are often trigger warnings and such when it is depicted.
  3. It may have been an artistic choice on Faulkner’s part to let us find out about Quentin’s suicide through secondary characters. Part of the nuance of The Sound and the Fury is the portrayal of wildly different perspectives and characters.

Why was Benjy renamed?

Benjy was originally named Maury after his Uncle Maury but after his parents found out that he had an intellectual disability, they renamed him Benjy.

Why was Benjy castrated?

Jason left the gate open and Benjy got loose and chased some girls. His parents thought he was going to rape them, so they castrated him.

Why was Benjy’s pasture sold?

We will swap Benjy’s pasture for a fine, dead sound.”

Quentin

Benjy’s pasture was sold to get money so that Quentin could go to Harvard to restore the family name.

Why was Benjy acting up at the golf course?

The golfers kept yelling “caddie” and it’s important because Mrs. Compson wouldn’t let anyone say Caddy’s name after Caddy left her daughter behind. She didn’t want young Quentin (Caddy’s daughter) to learn about her mother.

How does this novel handle race?

The text does use the n-word occasionally, unfortunately. The last section in the book focuses on Dilsey, the African-American servant of the Compson household. She is portrayed as the most morally grounded and admirable character in the entire book.

Conclusion

We hope you enjoyed this study guide. We may be making more in the future! If you have any feedback or questions, leave a comment. What did you think about The Sound and the Fury?

2 thoughts on “Study Guide: The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner”

  1. An excellent review! It makes me want to read this book!
    Having the foreknowledge of the difficulties will make it an easier read.

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