The Sound and the Fury | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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The Sound and the Fury | Context


The Deep South

Born in 1897, William Faulkner witnessed firsthand the failed results of post–Civil War efforts to rebuild and redeem the Old South known as the Reconstruction (1865–77). From a well-established Southern family, Faulkner observed Southerners' often twisted efforts to preserve their pre–Civil War social structure, and much of his writing records the resulting decay of values—along with the endurance of those affected. His obituary in the New York Times cited critics who claimed, "Mr. Faulkner's writings showed an obsession with murder, rape, incest, suicide, greed and general depravity that did not exist anywhere but in the author's mind." However, Faulkner recorded the truth as he saw it. He used innovative writing styles and created his own fictional world in order to shine a spotlight on the unique region of Mississippi in which he lived and the difficult transitions it faced.

Faulkner's inclusion of African American characters is an important aspect of life in the Deep South in the post-Reconstruction era. Faulkner portrays Dilsey, the Compson family's housekeeper, as a morally upright and compassionate African American woman who is more deeply in touch with the world around her and able to adapt to it than the Compsons. Faulkner said, "Dilsey is one of my own favorite characters, because she is brave, courageous, generous, gentle, and honest. She's much more brave and honest and generous than me." She is arguably the strongest and most sane character in the novel.

Faulkner's own relationship to racism can be complex, and even contradictory. Some critics suggest that Faulkner provides a positive view of African Americans through his portrayal of Dilsey and the Gibson family, by comparing their strength and love to the extensive dysfunction of the Compson family. Faulkner devotes a long segment of the fourth part of the novel to Dilsey. However, the central protagonists of the novel are members of the Compson family, three of whom act as narrators, rather than the Gibson family, none of whom narrate the story.

While Dilsey is shown as strong and unafraid to speak her mind, other critics argue that she also fulfills a more traditional role. As the Compsons' long-suffering servant, Dilsey plays the part of a "magic negro"—a stock figure such as Uncle Remus or Uncle Tom, whose major role is to help out the white protagonists selflessly. Typically created and used by white writers and filmmakers, the "magic negro" features the following characteristics: has some disability, seems to have no past, possesses a magical power, exhibits patience and wisdom, has an earthy quality, and is willing to make sacrifices to save the white protagonist. Although the "magic negro" seems to show a black character in a positive way, the black character is still in a position of subservience to white culture as he or she helps the white character find redemption. Most troubling, one critic writing for Social Issues states that the magic negro "is ... regarded as an exception, allowing White America to like individual black people but not black culture."

Yet Faulkner attempts to represent relationships between blacks and whites in the Deep South of the time as he knew them. The novel takes place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the South was in transition. Some of the Compsons, such as Quentin, Jason, and their mother, Caroline, cannot see black people as equals. Jason, in particular, is an outright racist who calls blacks lazy and worthless. Faulkner includes language that is accurate for the period in which The Sound and the Fury occurs. Black characters are referred to using the commonplace vernacular of the time, which includes the term nigger, as vulgar then as it is now.

Similarly, characters refer to Benjy using derogatory terms for people with mental disabilities, including words such as looney and idiot. Benjy's negative treatment at the hands of his family and caretakers is evident. Faulkner's portrayal of him is meant to create empathy for Benjy just as his treatment of Dilsey is meant to create admiration for her.

Yoknapatawpha County

During his early struggles to establish himself as a writer, Faulkner received some important advice from fellow writer Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941), who advised him to write about what he knew best. Faulkner took this advice to heart and turned his attention to writing about the place he would always call home: Oxford, Mississippi. However, he was writing fiction and not history, so Faulkner decided to create his own fictional world based on Oxford, which he called Yoknapatawpha (pronounced yok-na-pa-TAW-pha) County. Yoknapatawpha is a Chickasaw Indian term that can be loosely translated as "water passes slowly through flatlands."

Fourteen of Faulkner's novels and many of his short stories are set in Yoknapatawpha. His first published novel was Sartoris (1929), followed by The Sound and the Fury, published the same year. Specific characters and locations recur throughout several of Faulkner's novels and stories, allowing Faulkner and his readers to explore the interrelated lives of his characters and their different experiences and perspectives living in the Deep South. The Compson family makes its first appearance in The Sound and the Fury. In the Appendix (added to the book by Faulkner 15 years after it was first published), Faulkner presents the genealogy of the family and reveals its decline. Members of the Compson family also show up in other novels, such as Absalom, Absalom (1936) and Requiem for a Nun (1951), as well as in short stories such as "That Evening Sun" (1931).

In Yoknapatawpha County, the people act just like the real people of Lafayette County, Mississippi, yet Faulkner is able to focus attention on the inherent problems by how he chooses to present his characters. This is the beauty of his fictional world, as he stated in a 1956 interview: "It opened up a gold mine of other people, so I created a cosmos of my own. I can move these people around like God, not only in space but in time too."

Multiple Narrators

The Sound and the Fury is made up of four parts, each with a different narrator. Each of the first three parts is narrated in the first person by one of the Compson family's sons. Part 1 is told from the perspective of Benjy Compson, a 33-year-old mentally challenged man. Benjy's brother, Quentin, a student at Harvard who is planning to commit suicide, narrates Part 2. A third brother, Jason, narrates Part 3 as an embittered adult, running the family home and working at a dead-end job in the town's general store. An omniscient narrator relates the events of Part 4, which focuses on the Compsons' housekeeper, Dilsey, and recent events in the Compson household.

The novel invites readers to cross-reference characters and events among the four sections, which often provide different perspectives on the same events. Readers must shift among all four sections to look for connecting threads that link the parts of the novel together and reveal the history of the Compsons.

Stream of Consciousness

From the time it was first published, The Sound and the Fury has been viewed as very challenging to read and understand. A great deal of the difficulty lies in the style of writing known as stream of consciousness, which Faulkner employs in the first two sections of the novel, and in the fact that there are four separate narrators.

The phrase stream of consciousness was first used by psychologist William James in 1890, and it was still considered an innovative literary technique during Faulkner's time. Modernist writers in the early 20th century prized the exploration of the psychology of their characters through innovative literary techniques and forms. Such writers include James Joyce (1882–1941) in his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) in her novel To the Lighthouse (1927), both of whom used stream of consciousness to reveal the inner lives of their characters in this way.

Stream of consciousness immerses the reader in the narrator's mind where thoughts and words flow together spontaneously. The technique causes potentially confusing shifts in time and place, such as jumping from the past to the present or from one location to another without explanation, to imitate the actual flow of thoughts through the mind. It may also make it challenging to identify which characters are speaking or which events are being discussed.

What makes this technique especially challenging in the first part of The Sound and the Fury is the fact that Benjy is a man with an extreme level of mental disability who is unable to speak. This purposeful choice by Faulkner reflects his perspective that ideal communication is never possible. He forces disoriented readers to look for the meaning hidden in Benjy's jumbled thoughts and feelings, and then fit together the puzzle pieces to get to the heart of the story.

The strategy continues in the second part of the novel, where readers must reckon with the thoughts of the extremely intelligent, yet mentally ill, Quentin. For example, by the time they read the second section of the book, narrated by Quentin, readers are likely to refer back to the first section of the book for Benjy's thoughts about the same events. As Faulkner once suggested in response to criticisms about stream of consciousness and the difficulty of understanding works employing it: "Read it four times."

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