Books

Beating the Clock: Jay Gatsby and Quentin Compson’s Struggle Against Time

Intro

I wrote the essay adapted below for my American Literature Survey class at Grove City College. I chose to write about The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner because I noticed that the way both novels dealt with time was profoundly interesting.

Trigger Warning: This essay discusses serious topics such as suicide.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

Analysis

The passage of time is inevitable, an insurmountable obstacle for fictional characters and modern-day individuals to wrestle with. Depending on one’s perspective, temporality can be viewed as a threat or an opportunity. If the limited nature of time is accepted, then individuals can adjust their lives accordingly—they can make the most of each moment and manage their time. However, there are a number of those who, when faced with the mechanical thrum of a clock, miss the meaning and value of time altogether and instead try to escape its influence or control it. In trying to micromanage and reset time, these characters instead become like puppets, using their time to struggle futilely against the ticking hands of a clock. This monomaniac obsession with time is manifested in Jay Gatsby from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Quentin Compson from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. By chronicling the tragic lives of these two characters, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner offer the modernist take on temporality as a component of the human experience, and demonstrate how the pervasive and constant measurement of time contributes to an ultimate sense of helplessness that can only be overcome by blind idealism, submission, or death.

Both Gatsby and Quentin are obsessed with a particular stretch of time that has already occurred. Unable to return to that time, they are instead fixated by it, and those treasured moments are revisited constantly through their memories. Gatsby is primarily concerned with manipulating time to avoid acknowledging change. Quentin wants either the traditional values of the past to be permanent and reiterated in the present, or to escape time altogether.

The narrative structure of The Great Gatsby is ironic because as Tony Magistrale and Mary Jane Dickerson assert, it “reveals time as a malleable and fluid concept, juxtaposing past and present” (118). Fitzgerald experiments with loosely chronological storytelling to narrate the occurrences in the life of a man unable to escape the strict linear progression of time. Inthe novel, time is rarely tangible and orderly until it comes into contact with a life-changing event, and then all subsequent events are regarded as derived from that event, and all prior events are seen as leading up to it. This is evident in the kiss the young Gatsby shares with Daisy, which is described as an “incarnation,” a form of reverse-apotheosis that brings the ambitious Gatsby into brief contact with reality and all its implications (Fitzgerald 111). What Gatsby does not realize is that in entering into a relationship with Daisy, he is falling in love with a woman as transient as her namesake flower. Instead, he mistakes the ideal for the person and believes he has acquired “the golden girl,” a refined, timeless, precious woman immune to change (Fitzgerald 120). Elsewhere, Nick explains that when Gatsby fell in love with Daisy, he saw her “gleaming like silver, safe and proud” (Fitzgerald 150). The tragedy of this moment is that he fails to realize that life is not like Keats’ Grecian Urn, a poem that Fitzgerald admired because “an extraordinary genius paused at that point in history and touched it” (“Letter to Francis Scott Fitzgerald”). Touched by Daisy, Gatsby feels like his life has been transfixed at this pivotal moment and is thereafter impervious to time.

This failure to recognize impermanence leads Gatsby to relive and romanticize the past constantly, because in his mind the present should be indistinguishable from the past. In his moment of incarnation, Gatsby’s life is re-ordered in terms of the relationship. When Gatsby reunites with Daisy after the war, she has already been married to Tom for years. Daisy has had a child, and her voice, though it rings with all the charm Gatsby remembers, is hollowed out with artificiality. Gatsby nonetheless perseveres with his intentions to elope with her. Nick is the first to express doubt about Gatsby’s ability to erase the intervening five years, claiming “You can’t repeat the past,” to which Gatsby replies, “Why of course you can!” (Fitzgerald 110). Gatsby has full faith in his ability to “recover…some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy, since all could be restored if he simply “could once return to a certain starting place” (Fitzgerald 110). When Daisy returns into his life during their first tryst, Gatsby is so flustered that he nearly knocks a clock off the mantelpiece – they are all deluded into believing it had “smashed in pieces on the floor” for a brief moment, as if the world had entered a moment of stasis and what time had stolen from Gatsby seemed recovered (Fitzgerald 87). It is an illusion, however. According to Berman, the clock is still “telling time (but not the right time) while it is falling”; time surges onward, unswayed by romance (49).

When Daisy presents her daughter before the assembled company, Gatsby “kept looking at the child with surprise” as if he hadn’t “ever believed in its existence before” (Fitzgerald 117). Gatsby further demonstrates his unwillingness to acknowledge the passage of time and the existence of change by prompting Daisy to say that she never loved Tom Buchanan. She eventually consents, but takes it back almost immediately. “Even alone I couldn’t say I never loved Tom,” Daisy explains, and Gatsby loses his confidence but not his dream (Fitzgerald 133). Even wealth, which he has sacrificed his energy and later reputation to secure, cannot allow him to transcend time. Gatsby’s green light may have, as Nick surmised, been the “future that year by year recedes,” or it may have been that Gatsby himself was inadvertently retreating from it, chasing its reflection instead by attempting to transpose the past into the present and the foreseeable future (Fitzgerald 180).

Like Fitzgerald, Faulkner experiments with the natural progression of time. Vickerey offers this explanation of Faulkner’s use of time in his novels: “Objectively, time exists and continues weaving its patterns regardless of the presence or absence of any one person; subjectively, it is dependent for its very existence on the individual’s awareness of it” (192). In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner shifts from past to present to trace the deterioration of Quentin Compson’s mind, which is primarily caused by Quentin’s acute awareness of time. Quentin abhors change just as much as Gatsby, 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.

Mechanical time can be considered as in contrast to natural time, which is more “cyclic,” and less concerned with “the position of mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial” (Vickerey 193, Faulkner 51). Quentin continually “attempts to construe his experience of natural time in terms of his obsession with mechanical time” (Vickery 193). As a result, he is fascinated and disturbed by clocks and watches. 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, but when 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 (50). Eventually he fully recognizes that mechanical time is not the same as natural time, and attempts to remove himself from both through suicide.

Like Gatsby, Quentin is obsessed with a certain stretch of time and a female character. This girl is his sister Caddy, and his life revolves as much around past experiences with her as Gatsby’s life was defined by his relationship with Daisy. As memories continue to invade Quentin’s consciousness before his imminent suicide, he recalls Caddy climbing the pear tree looking in at a funeral, her various lovers, her marriage to Herbert Head, and a failed suicide pact between the two of them. Quentin seeks to “restore and preserve the fixed world of his childhood with his sister” and to “prevent time from defiling their ideal past” (Korenman 10, 5).

Similar to Fitzgerald, Faulkner admired Keats and considered him his favorite poet, and  as Korenman points out, “the stasis he seeks closely resembles that of the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn” (10). Childhood for Quentin was a time steeped in values and traditions that were not reflected in larger society, which he realizes through the pessimistic, nihilistic ramblings of his father. Quentin’s beliefs are manifested in a chivalric, rather than religious or moral, code. Quentin romanticizes the time before Caddy’s sexual maturity and divorce, attempting to play the part of the noble gentleman protecting the virginity of his sister. His physical strength and influence do not match his convictions, so rather than being a modern-day knight in shining armor, he is merely a “half-baked Galahad of a brother,” losing quickly to every man he challenges on the behalf of his sister (Faulkner 73).

Caddy herself does not encourage Quentin’s chivalric behavior, arguing that marriage is her only option regardless of what her brother thinks about her future husband’s expulsion from Harvard (Faulkner 76). She does not regard sexual experiences as pleasurable, and the inexplicable sexuality of her character in light of that derails Quentin. Their father further disillusions Quentin by insisting that “purity is…contrary to nature” and that “men invented virginity” which is a state “like death” (Faulkner 77, 52). Constantly aware of “the long diminishing parade of time,” Quentin embraces idealism as a method of enforcing stasis, but just as Gatsby hoped to restore the past by going back over it to find where he could start over, Quentin futilely attempts to guard the moments of his childhood, which time has already robbed him of (Faulkner 51).

According to Messerli, Quentin understands the past to be “extra-temporal”; in other words, he treats the past as if it “exist[ed] in the present” (21). Unable to let go of the past, he cannot live fully in the present. Vickerey describes the tragedy of Quentin aptly as a product of “the disparity between [Quentin’s] actual youth with its anticipation of the future and [his] psychological and genealogical old age with its memories” (198). As Quentin’s father claims that “you cannot bear to think that someday it will no longer hurt like this,” Quentin repeats the word “temporary” like a refrain, to which his father eventually responds by saying “was the saddest word of all there is nothing else in the world” and “its not despair until time” (Faulkner 118). Through Quentin’s entire section, he breaks off what he is doing to engage in mental arguments with his father, who represents an alternative for dealing with the unforgiving and unrepeatable nature of time—submission. However, submission to the influence of time is not an option for Quentin; he craves immutability, and time necessitates change. There is only one remaining option in Quentin’s monomaniacal mind. “Quentin….is unable to accept becoming and must fight against it, attempting to stop time, to fix it finally by his own death” (Messerli 34).

The ultimate consequence of Quentin and Gatsby’s inability to handle mutability and the irretrievability of the past is untimely death. Strangely, both characters end their lives in water. Quentin, who has been notably walking within a shadow all day, drowns himself. Gatsby is shot in his pool, as shadows are cast over his vision of a future with Daisy. Water, which is typically evocative of life and baptism, represents in this case an escape, a vast and cold emptiness marked by absence of time and society, impersonal and ancient.

Faulkner does not depict the moment of Quentin’s suicide, although it is confirmed by other characters later in the narrative. After a day of wandering, Quentin jumped into the river, carrying weights in his pockets so that he would never rise again. By doing so, he disproves his father’s conviction that Quentin will eventually lose his horror at the degeneration of society by cutting his life off before he can be desensitized to the immorality of the world. Gatsby’s death is described as a “holocaust,” which has connotations of sacrifice (Fitzgerald 162). (The word would not be associated with genocide until after WWII, and The Great Gatsby was published in 1925.) At the time, Gatsby had devoted the last five years of his life to reliving the past, and Daisy had failed to live up to his expectations. In the wake of Daisy’s fall, he must come to a decision. His dream must be relinquished if he is to be able to live in the present. Instead, even then he attaches himself firmly to his ideals, and with his death he himself is delegated to the past, confined to the memories of Nick, his small circle of acquaintances from East Egg, and a few ungrateful partygoers.

Quentin’s death is not a victory over time. At the bottom of the river, he is free from the awareness of mechanical time, but natural time will continue to operate on him after death, and his life will be one more name in the declining Compson family tree, affixed in history. Neither did Gatsby’s death free him from time. As Nick would likely contend; Gatsby’s death was merely the climax of the story. Gatsby was once one of the “boats against the current,” striving to reach the unattainable, but with his demise in water, his control has finally been relinquished, and all that is left is for him to be “borne back ceaselessly into the past” (Fitzgerald 180).

Works Cited

  • Benson, Jackson J. “Quentin Compson: Self-Portrait of a Young Artist’s Emotions.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 17, no. 3, Jul. 1971, pp. 143-159. JSTOR, doi: www.jstor.org/stable/606793.
  • Berman, Ronald. “Fitzgerald: Time, Continuity, Relativity.” The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review, vol. 2, no. 1, 2003, pp. 33-50. JSTOR, doi: www.jstor.org/stable/41583050.
  • Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. Edited by Michael Gorra, 3rd Norton Critical ed., 2014.
  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner’s, 2004.
  • —. “To Francis Scott Gerald.” 3 Aug. 1940. Selected Letters by F. Scott Fitzgerald, fitzgerald.narod.ru/letters/letters.html.
  • Fobes, Alexander S. “F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, and the Watch for Spots of Time.” The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review, vol. 11, no. 1, 2013, pp. 80-98. JSTOR, doi: www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/fscotfitzrevi.11.1.0080.
  • Korenman, Joan S. “Faulkner’s Grecian Urn.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 7, no. 1, 1974, pp. 3-23. JSTOR, doi:www.jstor.org/stable/20077501.
  • Magistrale, Tony, and Mary Jane Dickerson. “The Language of Time in ‘The Great Gatsby.’” College Literature, vol. 16, no. 2, 1989, pp. 117-128. JSTOR, doi: www.jstor.org/stable/25111811.
  • Messerli, Douglas. “The Problem of Time in ‘The Sound and the Fury’: A Critical Reassessment and Reinterpretation.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 6, no. 2, 1974, pp. 19-41. doi:www.jstor.org/stable/20077487.
  • Vickerey, Olga W. “Faulkner and the Contours of Time.” The Georgia Review, vol. 12, no. 2, 1958, pp. 192-201. JSTOR, doi:www.jstor.org/stable/41395520.
  • Weisgerber, Jean. “Faulkner’s Monomaniacs: Their Indebtedness to Raskolnikov.” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, 1968, pp. 181-193. JSTOR, doi: www.jstor.org/stable/40467748.

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Books

Selective Hearing: Barriers to Truth in Faulkner’s Light in August

Intro

The essay that I have adapted into a blog article below was one I wrote for the class Civilization and Literature at Grove City College. It is on the book Light in August by William Faulkner, which was written in 1932.

Warning! Spoilers below!

Summary

In this book, there are two main characters. Lena Grove, a pregnant white woman who is searching for the man who got her pregnant, since he had promised to find a job and then send for her. The other is Joe Christmas, a man of uncertain ancestry who believes he might be part black. He passes for white for most of the book. He is having a sexual relationship with Joanna Burden until she threatens him at gunpoint. She later shows up dead, and Joe is the one eventually accused of murder. In the most brutal act of the book, Joe is shot and castrated by the authorities. It is never clear whether he actually committed the murder.

Analysis

C.S. Lewis claims that when one says one “believe[s] in” anything, this can have two potential meanings: “to accept as true” or “to approve of” (65). In Faulkner’s Light in August, society wholeheartedly embraces the latter definition. To them, truth is a social construct, grounded in desire and expectation. If any concept is contrary to their societal ideology, or is outside the scope of their interests, characters not only ignore it—they are deaf to it. It is for this reason that Armstid fails to tell Lena, the pregnant girl whose lover has left her, the truth of her hopeless situation, for she “would not have believed the telling and hearing it” (Faulkner 17). Nor would any other member of Faulkner’s constructed society believe a truth that was not pleasing to them, because first they would have to hear it. By creating a fictional society that refuses to accept objective truth when it does not match the predominant prejudices of the majority, Faulkner reveals how indifference to truth cripples society and creates a culture of apathy and hypocrisy.

Perhaps no scene in the novel so clearly depicts the immorality of this society’s egotistical and skewed view of truth as that of the Burden house during the devastating fire. The reactions of townspeople to this incident range from casual mutilation of the truth to a total disregard for it. For example, rather than say that the “countrymen” offered theories on who perpetuated the crime, Faulkner says that they “believed aloud,” as if by merely speaking the words, they conformed the world to their expectations (Faulkner 213). In the rest of the sentence, it is almost as if Faulkner is seeking the correct word for their treatment of this crime, for he says, “they knew, believed, and hoped that [Joanna Burden] had been ravished too: at least once before her throat was cut and once afterward” (Faulkner 213). In this society, “to know,” “to believe,” and “to hope” are synonyms; in fact, they are so similar that listing all three is redundant. Members of this society cannot discern that their so-called knowledge is based on a voyeuristic and sadistic hope, because if they were to admit this, they would be faced with their own hypocrisy. Al-Barhow theorizes that by “combining her assumed murder with rape” the community can “read the incident according to their conception of the relationship between white women and black men, and consequently assure themselves about the soundness of their beliefs” (54). As such, the aim of this perverted hope is to confirm their preconceived notions of the racial identity of a person who would commit such a heinous crime, and their assumption that a white woman would not have consented to a sexual relationship with a black man.

As the crowd is straining to detect any hint of closure on the case from the sheriff, Faulkner describes a strange phenomenon. Standing before the fire, suddenly “their faces [became] identical one with another,” and all of their senses were reduced to sight in a process called “apotheosis” (216). According to Merriam Webster, this word can refer to a thing’s “quintessence,” which is “the essence of a thing in its purest or most concentrated form” or to an “elevation to divine status,” which is equivalent to deification.

Arguably, both definitions of apotheosis apply in this case. The people are relying purely on sight to distinguish the truth. However, the compounding of all their senses into one leads to a deficiency, rather than a sharpening, of their ability to discern what is actually occurring. The faces of the townspeople even become indistinguishable, which emphasizes the simplification of their mindset as they all begin to act in accordance with each other. The essence of the town’s values and prejudices becomes distilled as the people of the town recognize and attempt to affirm the strongest and most prevailing attitudes of the crowd, and as they adopt what they think is the societally acceptable opinion. As a result, the individuality of each person is concentrated into a pure manifestation of their societal ideology.

To think of apotheosis as what Merriam-Webster calls “an elevation to divine status” would be equally valid. When clustered together in a crowd, the townspeople become a representative for society as a whole, which, by creating and continually affirming an ideology that cannot be rejected without dire consequences, sets itself up as a god. Toomey supports this in his argument that the narrator of Light in August exhibits symptoms of schizophrenia; including a manifestation of “the grandeur complex” which often leads one to think one is Christ (453). This thought could be expanded to encompass Faulkner’s entire fictional society, since the townspeople have effectively been severed from reality, exhibiting “emotional detachment in situations which should arouse emotion” and accepting societal judgments, regardless of evidence, to be sufficient grounds for condemning a man to death (Toomey 453).

As a result of this grandeur complex, Faulkner’s society attempts to assert its set of stereotypes as undeniable truth, even when it becomes clear that acceptance of these views is contrary to reason and to the Christianity they profess. It is for this reason that they will condemn a man more for his racial identity than for an actual crime—it is compatible with their concept of truth. Fr. Dominic Legge, while reflecting on moral relativism, indicated that while it is permissible for a Christian to “judg[e] actions, which we can observe and assess,” it is not reasonable to judge “persons” (353). Legge gives this as his reason: “To judge a person implies making a judgment about the interior movements of the heart. This is God’s domain, not ours” (353). Society in Light in August is incapable of making this distinction, and cannot recognize that morality is exclusively determined by God, and not by what merits social approval.

A consequence of the townspeople’s reliance on socially approved ways of thought is that they are unable to handle uncertainty. They would rather grasp at any explanation, regardless of evidence or lack thereof, than deal with the discomfort of ambiguity. As soon as they see the body, they assume Joanna was raped and killed by a black man. As soon as they see the sheriff question a black man, they think “Sheriff’s got him. Sheriff’s already caught him” (Faulkner 216). These thoughts come from no one in particular, they are less “unsourceless” than the crackling fire (Faulkner 216). The word itself is vague; it is as difficult to pinpoint its meaning as it would be to track down the originator of the condemning thoughts of the townspeople. It would be far clearer for Faulkner to write that the roaring fire had a more obvious source, but that would not convey the unreflective morass of ideas held by the vast crowd. Goellner calls this phenomenon “choric,” and “not so much a public voice as a private consciousness” (107).

Before the sheriff even began interrogating the stranger, the townspeople were standing about in apathetic restlessness, first staring at Joanna’s body, then at the place where the body had been, and then just the fire. Their gaze is disturbing and violating, “static and childlike,” until the sheriff takes “the poor thing” away from them (Faulkner 213). They are in a permanent state of the impudence and self-centeredness of childhood, without any of its innocence. They do not have the maturity to think of their own children, who they bring with them to this scene of violence and desolation. Before they knew that the fire was set deliberately, or that a murder had occurred, they armed themselves with the expectation of finding a scapegoat. As soon as they see the body, they begin to “canvass about for someone to crucify” (Faulkner 214).

Furthermore, this desire to find the culprit does not stem from a need for justice. Joanna was in many ways despised by the town, since she did not subscribe to the social ideology that all its members accepted. Even her acts of kindness in offering the people of the town a feast did nothing to reconcile the relationship—they “would never forgive her and let her be dead in peace and quiet” (Faulkner 214). They imagine that the body itself asks to be avenged, unwilling to admit that she is beyond any pain now. They attribute to her a desire that they would be ashamed to admit was their own, and they do this because it makes for “nice believing” (Faulkner 214). It has already been stated that the townspeople equate knowledge, belief, and hope. This is proved by their later obsession with finding Christmas, who falls victim to the town’s self-righteous anger, and is punished with castration and death. They believe desperately that they are doing it for Joanna, even though she had been “born and lived and died a foreigner” (Faulkner 214). Faulkner even compares the townspeople to a doctor who makes his patients believe that his only wish is for everyone to get better, when in reality that would be self-defeating and make his skills obsolete. They pretend that they are doing something that is good for another person, when in reality they are sating their own selfish desires, for they “have ever loved death better than peace” (Faulkner 215).

Even the sheriff, who is more focused on his duty than on staring at a corpse or the devouring flames, is unable to feel any empathy for those who society sees as inferior. He asks his men to find a black person, not because segregation has caused them to live on the rims of society near the social outcast Joanna, but because he knows that he can compel a black man to speak. The sheriff knows that the law is based on the whim of society, without regarding what is true or noble, and that since he is in charge of enforcing the law, he will not be contested no matter what lengths he goes to, as long as his behavior is in accordance with the right stereotypes. He could not have advanced in society if he did not have the proper opinions.

As a result of his position of power, the sheriff is able to seize and torture a man with vicious threats and a brutal whipping. Knowing that this man is innocent, he threatens to hand him over to the people, knowing the crowd would be provoked to violence, that they “aint got no jail to put him into” and “wouldn’t bother to put him into a jail if they had one” (Faulkner 217). There is no evidence that could justify his action, and the reader can suppose from the prevailing attitudes of the town that this outrageous conduct would never be directed toward a white man. The sheriff is not satisfied until the prisoner tells him exactly what he wants to hear—that the notorious Christmas and Brown are to blame. Even those who stand for justice in this town will only hear what they want to believe, and will equate this belief with truth.

When the people of Jefferson are faced with a scene of tragedy and violence, they can only see their own “inescapable portrait,” projecting their own desires onto the voiceless, and using this to justify their cruelty (Faulkner 213). The townspeople are selectively deaf to the truth, hearing only what confirms their bias and maintains their shared ideology. Ultimately, they “believ[e] aloud” that they are Christians while groveling at the feet of an idol—through the mirage of apotheosis, they worship Society as their god (Faulkner 213).

Works Cited

  • Al-Barhow, Abdul-Razzak. “Focusing on the Margins: Light in August and Social Change.” Southern Literary Journal, vol. 42, no. 2, 2010, pp. 52–72. JSTOR, doi:www.jstor.org/stable/4105764. Accessed 1 Nov. 2018.
  • “Apotheosis.” Merriam-Webster, 2018, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/apotheosis.
  • Faulkner, William. Light in August. Random House, 1932.
  • Goellner, Ellen. “By Word of Mouth: Narrative Dynamics of Gossip in Faunkner’s ‘Light in August’.” Narrative, vol. 1, no. 2, May 1993, pp. 105-123. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20107002. Accessed 1 Nov. 2018.
  • Legge, Dominic. “Who Am I to Judge?: Politics and the Problem of Moral Relativism.” Nova et vetera, vol. 15, no. 2, 2017, pp. 351-364. Project Muse, doi: doi.org/10.1353/nov.2017.0019. Accessed 10 November 2018.
  • Lewis, C. S. “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought.” Present Concerns: Essays by C. S. Lewis. Edited by Walter Hooper, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1987, pp. 61-66.
  • Toomey, David M. “The Human Heart in Conflict: ‘Light in August’s’ Schizophrenic Narrator.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 23, no. 4, 1991, pp. 452-469. JSTOR, doi: www.jstor.org/stable/29532818. Accessed 12 Oct. 2018.

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Books

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?

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If you are having suicidal thoughts, please seek help from a professional.

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