I must admit reading Faulkner is a bit of a challenge. I didn’t know how big of a challenge until I started reading The Sound and the Fury.
Reading challenging material has it rewards however, and I’m glad I did. Here are some of my thoughts about this strange and enchanting novel.
First, the title. It is from a quote by Shakespeare from his play, Macbeth: “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day/To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! 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.” Act 5, scene 5
The idiot in this case has a double meaning. Shakespeare is referring to man writ large but Faulkner is referring not only to all mankind but the first section of the novel is narrated (told) by Benjy, a mentally retarded (idiot) family member. It takes a while to figure this out. Faulkner brilliantly takes us inside the head of this mentally retard person and his tale is told in a sort of a primitive poetry.
The Sound and the Fury is divided into four parts. The first three parts are written from the points of view of the three Compson brothers. The fourth and final section is told by an omniscient narrator.
The time-line is a little confusing as each section is told out of joint, so to speak, as follows:
Part 1. April 7, 1928 (Holy Saturday) – Benjy
Part 2. June 2, 1910 – Quentin
Part 3. April 6, 1928 (Good Friday) – Jason
Part 4. April 8, 1928 (Easter Sunday) – Omniscient Narrator
Faulkner wrote Quentin and Jason’s sections, he says, to clarify Benjy’s section. “I had already begun to tell it through the eyes of an idiot child (Benjy). I had to tell the same story through the eyes of another brother.”
According to Faulkner, in his introduction to the book, he set out deliberately to write a tour-de-force. It began with the image of the little girl’s (Caddie) muddy drawers. “I was just trying to tell the story of Caddy, the little girl who had muddied up her drawers and was climbing up the pear tree to look in the window where her grandmother lay dead.”
Faulkner writes of the south which he describes as old, since dead as opposed to the north which is young, since alive. The Civil War killed the south. There is a thing called the new south, but it is not the south. Only southerners have taken horse whips and pistols to editors about the treatment or maltreatment of their manuscripts.
I was born in the south, but I have had the privilege of living all over the United Sates. The last twenty years of my life I lived in the northeast before returning to my roots in Kentucky. My friends in the north would ask me what was it I liked about the south? I like everything about the south, I would answer. But I could always tell they were deeply suspicious.
In Jean-Paul Sartre’s review he states that a critic’s task is to define the writer’s metaphysics. He says it is immediately obvious that Faulkner’s metaphysics is time. Man’s misfortune lies in his being time bound. “…man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you’d think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune.” This, then, is the real subject of the book: “…time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when time stops does time come to life.”
Faulkner frequently refers to the “branch” in his novel, and remarks that the branch was to “become the dark, harsh flowing of time.”
The best description of the book also comes from Sartre: “Faulkner’s vision of the world can be compared to that of a man sitting in an open car and looking backwards at every moment, formless shadows, flickering, faint tremblings and patches of light rise up on either side of him, and only afterwards, when he has a little perspective, do they become trees and men and cars.”
Faulkner does wonderful things with dialect and idiom. A couple of examples:
“I wuz huntin’ possums in dis country when dey was still drownin’ nits in yo pappy’s head wid coal oil, boy. Ketchin um, too.” Louis
“Dat’s de troof. Boll-weevil got tough time. Work ev’y dayin de week out in the hot sun, rain er shine. Aint got no front porch to set and watch the wattermilyuns grow and saty’dy don’t mean nothin a-tall to him.” Uncle Job
And finally, as finely wrought a piece of prose as I have ever read describing Dilsey:
“The gown fell gauntly from her shoulders, across her fallen breasts, then tightened upon her paunch and fell again, ballooning a little above the nether garments which she would remove later layer by layer as the spring accomplished and the warm days, in color regal and moribund. She had been a big woman once but now her skeleton rose, draped loosely in unpadded skin that tightened again upon a paunch almost dropsical, as though muscle and tissue had been courage and fortitude which the days or the years had consumed until only the indomitable skeleton was left rising like a ruin or a landmark above the somnolent and impervious guts, and above that the collapsed face that gave the impression of the bones themselves being outside the flesh, lifted into the driving day with an expression at once fatalistic and of a child’s astonished disappointment, until she turned and entered the house again and closed the door.”
The past takes on a super reality. The present moves along in the shadow, like an underground river. Everything is absurd. Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.