The Sound and the Fury | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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The Sound and the Fury | April Eighth, 1928 | Summary

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Summary

Narrated by the omniscient author, this final part of the novel opens at dawn on a cold Easter morning with a long description of Dilsey at her cabin. The long grind of work that marks her days begins with her collecting firewood and starting a fire in the kitchen stove of the Compson home.

Caroline begins calling to Dilsey immediately to wait on her and start her chores. Dilsey patiently explains that Luster overslept because he stayed at the show late last night. Caroline threatens to tell Jason that Luster is shirking his duties, but Dilsey just goes about her business, preparing breakfast.

Luster brings Benjy to the kitchen. For the first time, a physical description of Benjy is given to readers as a big, awkward man with eyes like "pale sweet blue" and a walk like a "trained bear" who drools "a little." Luster informs Dilsey that Jason is up and already angry. There is a broken window in his bedroom, and he has accused Luster and Benjy of breaking it. Jason and his mother appear, discussing who could have broken the window. Argumentative as ever, Jason demands that Miss Quentin be forced to join them at breakfast. Dilsey gets no response from Miss Quentin after repeatedly calling her in her room.

Jason suddenly jumps up and dashes to Miss Quentin's room. He discovers that she has packed her things and assumes she has run away. Caroline begins wailing that her granddaughter has committed suicide. Jason checks the money box in his room and finds it empty. He wastes no time in calling the police and demanding that they pursue his niece, who is clearly the thief.

Jason leaves and Dilsey remains calmly in control, instructing Luster to take Benjy outside and keep him quiet. She finishes her chores and returns to her cabin to get dressed for church. When she returns, the three of them set off for church. Frony joins them as they slowly walk among a growing group of African Americans dressed in their finest and greeting one another. They are excited to hear the guest preacher on this special day, a Reverend Shegog.

They are disappointed by the preacher's humble appearance, however. As he first begins to speak in the crowded church, he sounds like a white man. But then his voice changes, becoming "negroid," as he imparts a powerful message about the Resurrection of Jesus that catches everyone up in the spirit of the day. Throughout the sermon and while walking home, Dilsey weeps, overpowered by the emotion of how the preacher has conveyed "the power and the glory" of God. She feels the full sweep of eternity and says, "I've seed de first en de last.... I seed de beginnin, and now I sees de endin."

When they return to the Compson house, Dilsey changes clothes again, checks on Caroline, and sets out a meal. She knows "Jason aint comin home" and repeats that thought several times along with her prophetic words, "I seed de first en de last" as Benjy and Luster eat.

As soon as Jason leaves home that morning, he drives directly to the sheriff's house and tries to bully him into dropping everything to hunt for Miss Quentin and the man with the red tie. The sheriff declines to get involved: "You drove that girl into running off, Jason ... And I have some suspicions about who that money belongs to." The sheriff does reveal that the traveling show is going to the nearby town of Mottson. Jason then speeds toward Mottson himself, but has to slow his pursuit when he becomes sickened by the gas fumes from his car.

When he reaches Mottson, Jason locates the train carrying the traveling show and thinks Miss Quentin and the man she ran off with are on it. He decides to stage a surprise attack. When he tries to bully an old man into telling him where they are, the old man fights back, intent on killing Jason, and wounds him in the head. Two men from the show intervene and drag Jason away just in time. Somewhat dazed, Jason offers to pay various people to drive him in his car back to Jefferson. Finally, an African American man agrees to do it for four dollars—twice what Jason wants to pay.

Luster and Benjy return to watch the golfers. Benjy follows the fence along the golf course, wailing. Luster repeats Caddy's name cruelly and makes Benjy bellow in pain. Dilsey comforts Benjy and gives him Caddy's old slipper to hold. Dilsey and Luster get Benjy ready for his weekly carriage ride to the cemetery. Luster finds a single broken narcissus flower, repairs it with a splint, and then gives it to Benjy. Luster is allowed to drive Benjy to the cemetery.

Luster is excited and focused on showing off as he drives. As he approaches the square, he spots Jason's car. Distracted with trying to impress everyone, Luster turns the carriage in the wrong direction, moving counterclockwise around the square. Benjy begins bellowing at the top of his lungs, upset at this change in his routine. Suddenly Jason appears in the carriage, hitting Luster and Benjy, and breaking Benjy's flower. Jason turns the carriage back in the direction Benjy expects, and then tells Luster to take Benjy home. As soon as Benjy sees that they are now passing things "each in its ordered place" again, he calms down.

Analysis

The fourth section of the novel is often referred to as "Dilsey's section," and although she is not the narrator, she is the rock at the center of its events. William Faulkner loved this character he created, once saying, "Dilsey is one of my own favorite characters, because she is brave, courageous, generous, gentle, and honest." He lovingly paints a clear picture of Dilsey, inside and out, as a stable, wise, and compassionate woman. During this part of the novel, words such as indomitable and upright help confirm Dilsey's strong character.

Although her body has been diminished by age, Dilsey's spirit has not. Her confidence is revealed in her comments to others. Whether she addresses Caroline or Jason or Luster, Dilsey speaks her mind. She scolds Caroline for carrying on, condemns Jason for his evil temper, and treats her own children firmly. To Benjy she is kind, calling him "honey," calmly comforting him, and defending him to Frony—who is embarrassed by him—with the reminder "de good Lawd dont keer whether he bright er not." Dilsey always sees the truth, and this is symbolized by the fact that she knows the correct time, even though the Compson clock does not tell the correct time. When it chimes five o'clock, she knows it is actually eight o'clock.

The description of the outside of Dilsey's cabin is also important. It is modest but well kept, with a "patina ... like old silver." Lush mulberry trees surround it, offering beauty and protection. The description matches Dilsey herself. In contrast, the Compson house is "square, paintless ... with its rotting portico," a description that matches the ugly, decaying family who own it. Dilsey is a foil for the Compsons. Just as Dilsey's cabin contrasts with the Compson house and reveals its decay, her personality and outlook on life contrast sharply with the Compsons' and reveal the family's flaws. Where Dilsey is stable, rational, and aware of the world around her, almost all the Compsons are unstable, obsessive, and self-absorbed. Caddy, capable of compassion and caring for others, is the Compson who most resembles Dilsey.

The centerpiece of this part of the novel is the experience at church and Dilsey's response to it. Although Jason and his mother speak self-righteously of Christian beliefs and values, they fail to live up to them. Dilsey, however, embodies them. She is deeply moved at Reverend Shegog's message regarding the core central belief of Christians and the Resurrection celebrated on Easter Sunday: Jesus Christ was killed but rose again. Walking home, head held high, tears streaming down her face, Dilsey once again sees the truth. The Compson family has disintegrated and reached its end.

Faulkner also describes other characters for the first time. Readers learn that Benjy is a big man whose shape and form somehow "did not cohere." His fine hair and clear eyes, twice described as sweet and blue, are childlike. Jason appears "cold and shrewd," and Caroline is "cold and querulous." His eyes are like black-ringed marbles, and hers are "so dark as to appear to be all pupil." The selfishness of each of them, already clearly evident from the previous parts of the novel, continues to come out in their words and actions.

The final section is an illustration of both sound and fury that are powerless to change the decay and disintegration of the Compson family, suggesting there is little hope for them. If anyone has represented "fury" in the novel up to this point, it is Jason. But now, he seems impotent, unable to use his rage and bullying to control the situation. He has been "outwitted by a woman, a girl," his own niece who uses her own fury against Jason, who has treated her badly, to rob him and run off with a man. Worse, she is the "bitch of a girl" who symbolizes for him the loss of the bank job promised to him by Caddy's husband, Herbert Head. By robbing her and Caddy all of these years, he has been trying to even that score. Like Macbeth, he is constantly plotting to fulfill his ambitions. But, he has lost again. In the car waiting to get back to Jefferson, Jason sits "with his invisible life ravelled out about him like a wornout sock." The sudden return to "normalcy" that occurs with Jason's appearance in the carriage—all of his usual fury and need for power on full display—brings readers to the sharp realization that things never really will change for the Compsons.

The section also circles back to the very first scene in the novel, which opens as Benjy watches golfers through the fence. Benjy hears the word caddie and moans, feeling the loss of his sister. Here, Luster repeats Caddy's name in order to torment Benjy into bellowing. Benjy, who cannot speak, communicates largely through inarticulate sounds, including whimpering, bellowing, wailing, and moaning—all sounds of suffering and pain in the face of chronic loss. The sounds Benjy makes represent the woe of all the members of the Compson family, each of whom suffer losses of one kind or another. Benjy himself is often treated as a burden rather than a human being. Caddy is exiled from the family and is disconnected from her daughter. Quentin loses any chance at preserving the family's honor and kills himself. Jason cannot get away to establish a life of his own. Miss Quentin is disconnected from her mother. Benjy's moan is first a sign of how language fails to convey the full extent of human suffering. The failure to communicate through language haunts the characters in general: the inarticulate Benjy, the incommunicative Jason and Caroline, the unheard but truthful Dilsey, the unreasonably torturous Luster, and the isolated Miss Quentin and her dead namesake.

Dilsey's visit to the church in the previous half of the section offers a somewhat different experience of suffering, and one with a greater degree of hope. In this case, words are a powerful and effective form of communication, and sounds express joy more than pain. Once he moves past the "white-sounding preaching," the words of the Reverend Shegog and his impassioned delivery move the congregation, who respond with a mixture of moaning and exclamations ("I sees, O Jesus!"). The message he conveys both verbally and through the sound of his voice is about Christ's crucifixion, the Resurrection, and potential salvation. This is suffering with purpose, and therefore hope, and thus reflects perfectly the message of Easter itself.

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