The Sound and the Fury | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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

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Summary

Luster is in charge of Benjy, a mentally challenged man. Benjy does not speak, but he moans or bellows when distressed. Caroline Compson, Benjy's self-centered mother, complains if her son makes too much noise, so Luster takes him outside. He leads Benjy all around the Compson property as Luster looks for a lost quarter that he wants to spend on a ticket to a traveling show in town. They stop at a fence dividing the property from a golf course. The golf course is built on land that once was owned by the family but was sold to pay for the wedding of Caddy, the Compson's only daughter, and for the Harvard tuition of Quentin, the Compson's oldest son.

Benjy has barely seen his beloved sister since she married in 1910, but he loves to watch the golfers who yell "caddie" because the word sounds like her name and makes him think of her. When his clothing gets caught on a fence nail, it triggers for Benjy a memory of Caddy. As Luster works to free him, Benjy remembers a day from his childhood, December 23, 1902, when Caddy took him outside to play and he got caught on a fence nail in the same way.

This is the first of several memories of Benjy's childhood triggered by locations, words, or events in the present. During the first part of this section (beginning with "Caddy uncaught me" and ending with "I couldn't smell trees anymore, and I began to cry"), Benjy's memories do not occur in chronological order. Instead, they appear as fragmented flashbacks or memories that spring into his mind in no particular order. They range from his grandmother's death in 1898 to a terrible incident from his late teenage years, c. 1913. Benjy frequently resumes his scenes in the present from these flashbacks.

Benjy's memories include the following. Some memories are made up of more than one scene. Dates are specified whenever possible.

  • 1898, death of Damuddy: A number of scenes surrounding the death of the Compson children's grandmother, Damuddy. This memory is woven throughout the section.
  • c. 1900, Benjy's early childhood: Benjy's mother changes his name from Maury to Benjamin. A number of scenes also occur, featuring the Compson family together at home.
  • December 23, 1902, Caddy and Benjy deliver a letter: Caddy and Benjy deliver a letter to Uncle Maury's married lover, Mrs. Patterson.
  • Date unknown, Benjy delivers a letter: Benjy delivers a letter on his own to Mrs. Patterson.
  • c. 1905–09, Caddy's sexual awakening: Multiple scenes illustrate the effect of Caddy's sexual awakening on her and her family, especially Benjy.
  • 1908, Benjy sleeping: Benjy, used to sleeping with Caddy, does not want to sleep by himself.
  • April 1910, Caddy's wedding: A scene that takes place on the day of Caddy's wedding as T.P. gets Benjy drunk, infuriating Quentin.
  • June 1910, Quentin's funeral: The children watch Quentin's hearse go by.
  • 1910, Death of Jason Compson III. The Compson children's father dies.
  • 1910–12, Roskus's commentary: Roskus discusses the Compsons' bad luck.
  • 1912, drive to cemetery: T.P. drives Benjy and his mother to the cemetery where his father and his brother are buried.
  • c. late 1912–13, Dilsey mourns: Dilsey mourns the death of her husband, Roskus.
  • c. 1913, Benjy's castration: At age 18, Benjy is castrated after approaching and scaring two girls passing his house who think he is sexually attacking him.

Beginning with the first flashback to December 23, 1902, the section moves back and forth, from flashback to the present day, as follows:

  • December 23, 1902: Benjy, age seven, and Caddy, about age eight, crawl through a fence. Earlier that same day, Versh takes Benjy outdoors after Benjy's uncle, Maury Bascomb, persuades his sister Caroline, Benjy's mother, to let them go despite the cold. Versh and Benjy meet Benjy's sister, Caddy, as she arrives home from school. The children reenter the house to get warm, and then Caddy offers to take Benjy back outside. Uncle Maury again persuades their mother to let them do so.
  • Present: Luster tells Benjy to stop moaning as they pass the carriage house.
  • 1912, drive to cemetery: Dilsey's son T.P. drives Benjy and his mother to the cemetery in a carriage. Dilsey has given Benjy a flower to hold because it calms him. Caroline worries about Caddy's daughter, Miss Quentin, whom they have left behind at the house. She stops to speak with her adult son Jason, telling him that Benjy is a "judgment" on her. Jason notes how his Uncle Maury is borrowing money from her bank account.
  • Present: Luster calls Benjy a "cry baby." Luster and Benjy walk through a barn. Benjy wants to return to the golf course.
  • December 23, 1902: Caddy and Benjy deliver a letter: he and Caddy walk to their neighbors', the Pattersons', house. There, Caddy delivers a letter from Uncle Maury to his married lover, Mrs. Patterson.
  • Date unknown, Benjy delivers a letter: Benjy remembers delivering another letter from Uncle Maury to Mrs. Patterson, but on his own. This time, Mr. Patterson is present and is suspicious. He and Mrs. Patterson rush toward Benjy to intercept the letter, frightening Benjy. Mr. Patterson grabs the letter.
  • Present: Benjy wants to go back to the golf course, but Luster wants to continue his search for his quarter. They reach the branch, or stream, where Luster talks with some people washing clothes. He finds a golf ball in the branch, and then lets Benjy play in the water.
  • 1898, death of Damuddy: Roskus asks the Versh and Compson children to come home to supper. Earlier that same day, the Compson children and Versh play in the branch. Caddy sits in the stream and gets wet, making her underwear muddy. She takes off her dress, and she and Quentin splash each other. Caddy threatens to run away, upsetting Benjy, and then tells him she won't leave.
  • Present: Benjy continues to cry. Luster explains that Benjy still thinks he is on his family's land, but they sold it. The people at the branch tell Luster that "taint no luck" in looking at "a looney."
  • 1898, death of Damuddy continued: Roskus arrives at the branch and tells the children it is time to go home. Jason threatens to tell on his siblings for getting wet. Quentin mentions that Jason can't because their grandmother, Damuddy, is sick.
  • Present: Luster says he is going to the travelling show.
  • 1898, death of Damuddy continued: Benjy recalls Quentin lingering at the branch while the children walk past the barn where Roskus milks a cow. The flashback stays at the barn but changes years, from 1989 to 1910.
  • April 1910, Caddy's wedding: The day of Caddy's wedding, in the barn. Quentin hits and kicks T.P. repeatedly because T.P. and Benjy are drunk on liquor T.P. took from the Compsons' cellar. Versh and Quentin give Benjy a hot drink to sober him.
  • 1898, death of Damuddy continued: When they reach the house, with Quentin now following behind them, Jason tattles on Quentin and Caddy to their father, who tells them all to be quiet and eat in the kitchen, where their housekeeper, Dilsey, will take care of them. The children hear their mother crying. Jason also starts to cry as he has every night because he can't sleep with his grandmother, Damuddy. Versh takes the children to his family's house. This leads to a series of flashbacks to other times that Benjy has stayed at the Gibsons'.
  • 1910–12, Roskus's commentary: c. 1910, T.P. is caring for Benjy at the Gibson cabin. They go to the barn where Roskus milks a cow. Roskus is in pain and can milk the cow with only one hand because his right hand no longer functions. Roskus says there "taint no luck" on the Compsons' place. Roskus tells his wife, Dilsey, that Benjy, along with his sister, Caddy, is one of two signs that the Compsons are not only cursed but doomed because "there aint no luck on this place."
  • 1910–12, Roskus's commentary continued: c. 1912, Dilsey sends Benjy and Caddy's young daughter, Miss Quentin, to her house. Frony, her daughter, watches them as Miss Quentin and Luster, who are very young children, play together. They go to the barn where T.P. milks a cow as his father, Roskus, watches. Later in the house, Roskus says there are now three signs of the Compsons' decline: Benjy, Caddy, and now Miss Quentin. Roskus notes that Benjy "knows a lot more than people thinks" and does not approve of the fact that the Compsons have exiled Caddy from the family.
  • June 1910, Quentin's funeral: Benjy and T.P. watch Quentin's funeral carriage pass by.
  • Present: Luster tells Benjy he can't have the golf ball that Luster found in the branch. At this point, Benjy's memories begin to come thicker and faster and are more fragmented than ever.
  • 1898, death of Damuddy continued: The Compson children are at the Gibson cabin, but they are not yet aware that their grandmother Damuddy is dead. Frony mentions her funeral accidentally, but the children still don't seem to understand.
  • c. late 1912–13, Dilsey mourns: Dilsey moans because Roskus has died. Benjy howls. Luster claims to have seen his father's ghost "waving his arms" in the barn.
  • 1898, death of Damuddy continued: Frony admits Damuddy, the Compson children's grandmother, has died. Caddy remembers a horse Roskus had to shoot whose corpse was then fed on by buzzards.
  • 1910, death of Jason Compson III: Benjy says he smells death, as his father lies dying in a nearby room. T.P. takes Benjy to the Gibson cabin. Benjy bellows. They pass the bones of the dead horse.
  • Present: Luster continues to look for his lost quarter.
  • 1898, death of Damuddy continued: Caddy wonders if the buzzards will "undress" her grandmother's corpse the way they did the horse's corpse. Versh predicts Jason will be a rich man because he "holds his money all the time." Caddy mistakenly thinks her grandmother's funeral is a party and asks Versh to push her up into a tree so she can see it. As she climbs into the tree, her "muddy drawers" become visible to her brothers. Jason threatens to tell on her. Dilsey appears and tells Caddy to come down. Caddy says that all she saw in the house were people sitting in chairs. The memories shift from Damuddy's funeral to the day of Caddy's wedding.
  • April 1910, Caddy's wedding earlier that day: during Caddy's wedding celebration, T.P. and Benjy drink some liquor T.P. stole from the Compson cellar. They find a box to stand on so they can look through a window and spy on Caddy's wedding. Benjy sees Caddy in her wedding veil. He falls off the box and cries. Quentin comes out and kicks T.P. Caddy appears and hugs Benjy.
  • c. 1905–09, Caddy's sexual awakening: Benjy is upset with Caddy, who is now 14, because she no longer "smells like trees" to him. Jason accuses her of feeling superior to everyone else. Caddy now wears perfume because she is seeing, and possibly sexually experimenting with, boys. After she has washed, Benjy calms down, and Caddy realizes that her perfume bothered him because it had changed her scent. She gives her perfume away to Dilsey. Benjy, now 13, does not want to sleep by himself because he is used to sleeping with Caddy. Dilsey puts him in Uncle Maury's room, and Caddy comes to stay with him as he drifts off to sleep. Their father and mother discuss Uncle Maury, who Jason Compson III views with contempt because he sponges off the family financially.
  • Present: Luster and Benjy continue their search. Luster tells Benjy not to wander over to the swing where Miss Quentin is sitting with her date and likely making out with him.
  • c. 1905–09, Caddy's sexual awakening continued: Benjy interrupts Caddy and her date, Charlie, as they make out on the swing. Charlie demands that Benjy leave, and Caddy takes Benjy to the house where she washes her mouth out with soap and tells Benjy that "I won't anymore." Present: Benjy has wandered over to the swing where Miss Quentin and her date, a man from the traveling show, are making out. The man tries to play a cruel joke on Benjy. Luster tries to sell the man the golf ball, unsuccessfully. He later notes that Miss Quentin climbs down the tree outside her window every night to go out with different men. Luster and Benjy go back and walk along the fence by the golf course.
  • Post-1910: T.P. is caring for Benjy. Benjy is heartbroken that his sister, Caddy, no longer lives in the Compson home. He sees two girls passing by the Compson house and follows along the fence after them, possibly in his yearning for his sister. The girls are frightened and run away. T.P. scolds Benjy.
  • c. 1912–13, Benjy's castration: Jason and his father talk about how Benjy has gotten out. Something has happened, and Jason speculates that they will have to send Benjy to a mental asylum in Jackson if he doesn't get shot first.
  • c. 1912–13, Benjy's castration, earlier: Benjy follows two girls along the fence. He is alone, the gate is open, and he comes out. He moves toward the girls, "trying to say," and catches hold of one of them. The girl screams and chaos ensues.
  • Present: Luster and Benjy are on the golf course, where Luster tries to sell a golf ball to one of the players. The man keeps the ball and pays Luster nothing. Benjy plays with weeds, which he calls "flowers." Luster knocks them over, and then repeats "Caddy" to make Benjy bellow. Dilsey scolds Luster for his actions.

Benjy's mind moves back and forth faster than ever between fragments of flashbacks from 1900 and also from 1905 to 1909. These are interwoven with scenes in the present. Benjy's mind moves so quickly among these flashbacks that some of the them are broken into single sentences or very short segments. Many of the flashbacks focus on Compson family disagreements. Because they are so intricately interwoven, the two memories as well as events from the present are summarized separately below:

  • c. 1900, Benjy's early childhood: Dilsey scolds Caddy for not keeping Benjy away from their mother, who has changed his name from "Maury" to "Benjamin." Caddy explains to Dilsey about the name change. Dilsey says changing your name does not change your luck. Caroline objects to Caddy nicknaming her brother "Benjy" as being unrefined and demands that she call him "Benjamin" instead. Caddy says she enjoys taking care of her brother. She appears to understand him better than their mother does. Their father comes in and greets Benjy. Caddy and Jason fight after Jason cuts up paper dolls that Caddy and Benjy made. Their father breaks up the fight. Caddy tells Benjy they will make more dolls soon. Caddy comforts Benjy. They hear Jason crying in another room. Caddy tells her brother Quentin how Jason cut up the paper dolls, and then notices that Quentin has been in a fight. Quentin's father questions him and discovers that Quentin had gotten into a fight when he attempted to defend a girl at school from a prank. Later, their father holds Caddy, Benjy, and Jason affectionately. As the children go to bed, he tells Caddy to take care of Benjy. Benjy sleeps beside Caddy.
  • c. 1905–09, Caddy's sexual awakening: Caddy arrives home, and her parents stop her as she tries to sneak past them. Caddy has likely lost her virginity, and she cries. Benjy also cries and pulls at her dress in distress.
  • Present: Dilsey serves Benjy a birthday cake she baked for him. Benjy burns his hand in a fire and cries. His mother complains that the incident has disturbed her when she is trying to rest. Dilsey gives Benjy an old slipper, likely Caddy's wedding slipper, to keep him quiet. Later, at supper, Jason complains to Luster that Benjy is too noisy. Luster asks Jason for a quarter to go to the traveling show. Jason refuses and then criticizes Quentin for dating one of the performers from the show. Benjy continues crying at supper, which disturbs Miss Quentin, who thinks he should be sent to a mental asylum. Quentin objects to the "dirty slipper" Benjy keeps on the table and wants him to eat his supper in the kitchen. Dilsey says that Benjy won't bother Quentin further. Quentin and Jason throw sarcastic barbs at each other and argue. Quentin gets tries to throw a glass of water at Jason, but Dilsey grabs her arm. Quentin storms away from the dinner table. Luster finds Benjy outside the house, holding Caddy's old wedding slipper, and scolds him for "moaning and slobbering." Miss Quentin has given Luster a quarter to go to the traveling show. Later that night, Benjy cries when he looks at his castrated body. He and Luster see Miss Quentin climbing down the tree outside her window and running away.
  • 1898, death of Damuddy continued: Benjy's section ends with a flashback as the children prepare for bed on the night of their grandmother Damuddy's funeral. Jason cries because he wants to sleep with his grandmother, but he still doesn't understand that she's dead. Quentin is also crying, likely realizing the truth. Their mother comes in and says goodnight. Dilsey cleans off the mud from Caddy's underwear that got dirty when she played in the branch. As the children go to bed, their father tells Caddy to take care of Benjy. Benjy falls asleep in Caddy's arms.

Analysis

In the first section of The Sound and the Fury, readers must quickly let go of their expectations of following a traditional story line in which events occur in chronological order. William Faulkner's use of stream of consciousness mimics the way the mind actually works: memories often arise in bits and pieces, triggered by objects or words that are associated with those memories. Nor do memories appear in a logical order. In addition, Benjy is a mentally challenged man with no concept of past, present, and future, which further contributes to the difficulty of following the text. As a result, Benjy experiences the past in flashbacks, in which scenes from the past interrupts the actions of the present. The confusion felt by readers is not limited to the sequence of events. Shifts in the setting are also abrupt, and locations are neither clearly described nor identified. Character names are introduced with no explanations of who the people are.

Readers really cannot expect to understand what is going on upon a first reading; rather, they must "feel their way" through the experiences described, often rereading and cross-referencing as they go along. In order to do this, it helps to look for telltale clues so readers can stitch the fragments together in order to identify events, settings, and characters.

These clues may include:

  • when the text shifts from regular to italic type, which often signals a movement from present to past or from one memory to another.
  • mention of specific events or dates. For example, in 1928, Luster notes that it is Benjy's 33rd birthday, so readers can figure out that Benjy was born in 1895. In a later scene, Roskus notes that Benjy is 15, so readers can assume it is 1910. Benjy interrupts teenage Caddy and her date in a swing. Later in the novel, he interrupts Caddy's daughter, Miss Quentin, and her date in the same swing, which lets readers know that several years have passed.
  • descriptions of clothing, or other personal details. For example, Caddy's muddy underwear tips off readers that it is 1898 because that is when she was playing with her brothers at the branch. At another point, Benjy mentions that Caddy wears flowers and a shining veil, signaling that the scene takes place during her wedding. If the text mentions that Luster is looking for a coin, it is a clue that events are taking place in the present.
  • setting: milking cows signals that the setting is the barn; players hitting balls on a green signals that the setting is the golf course, and so on.

While it may feel frustrating to deal with the stream-of-consciousness technique, Benjy's fragmented memories actually provide valuable information. For example, each of his memories reveals something about the personalities of the novel's cast of characters. Benjy's memories of his mother reveal her as shallow and self-serving, and his father as kind but unable to change the family's situation. Benjy's memories of his brothers and sister as children reveal the personality traits that will define them: Caddy's compassion and strength, Quentin's need to defend women's honor, and Jason's early signs of cruel behavior.

Benjy's memories also demonstrate how much the Gibsons' lives are intertwined with those of the Compsons'. Dilsey, for example, watches over all the Compson children as if they were her own as she navigates through the Compsons' dysfunction. Dilsey's children, Versh, T.P., and Frony, and her grandson, Luster, act as Benjy's caretakers at different points in his life. Roskus is quick to note that the Compson family is troubled, even cursed, and he does not approve of the way they exile Caddy from the family.

Different characters' reactions to Benjy also reveal further information about their personalities. Caddy treats Benjy with love and understanding, as do his father and Dilsey. Other characters are not so kind. His mother either ignores Benjy or wants him to be quiet, and hands him off to someone else to take care of. She also considers him a "judgment," or punishment, on her. Luster and T.P. are charged with taking care of Benjy and generally do a respectable job, but Luster teases him and makes him cry and T.P. gets him drunk. Other characters ignorantly call him "looney" or worse. Jason is disgusted by him, while Miss Quentin wants him to be sent to a mental hospital to get him out of the way.

Their family history weighs heavily on the Compsons. It is packed with conflicts and deaths and disappointments that haunt every member of the family across generations as the family decays and disintegrates. By the end of this section of the novel, readers have enough information to at least identify, if not fully understand, the key factors in this sordid family history: Caddy's promiscuity, her brother Quentin's suicide, Jason's rage, the complete dysfunction of the father and mother and uncle who should have been acting as role models and sources of comfort to all four of the Compson children, the carrying forward of the family's decay to the next generation as represented by Miss Quentin, and the importance of Dilsey and her family in trying to hold the Compson family together as it disintegrates.

The first time the present-day narration by Benjy is interrupted by one of his memories, italics signal the shift. When the italics shift back to regular type, but readers are not placed back into the present time but into a different memory. However, as the novel proceeds, readers soon learn that these shifts are not always indicated by typeface, but there are somewhat logical connections in the form of memory triggers. For example, getting caught on a nail in the present day triggers a memory of a time many years before when the same thing happened. As readers begin to see these patterns, they are compelled to read and reread to piece together the meaning that words alone cannot provide. This is one of the main points William Faulkner wants to make: language is an imperfect means at conveying meaning.

Faulkner suggests that Benjy's cries and moans have an emotional basis: "He recognized tenderness and love though he could not have named them, and it was the threat to tenderness and love that caused him to bellow when he felt the change in Caddy. He no longer had Caddy; being an idiot he was not even aware that Caddy was missing. He knew only that something was wrong, which left a vacuum in which he grieved."

Benjy's memories do seem to cause him some sort of pain, mostly derived from a sense of loss. He certainly mourns the loss of his sister, Caddie. He even recognizes the physical loss of his castration and cries when seeing himself naked in a mirror. Luster seems to comfort him with his words ("Looking for them aint going to do no good. They're gone."), but in reality, Benjy hushes when the image triggering his tears is replaced with the reflection of him in a gown. Indeed, Benjy cannot be comforted by words, which he cannot understand, but only by his mind moving on to something else.

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