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The Sound and the Fury | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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How does the effect of the narrative style of the first section of The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928) on help readers convey the novel's themes?

William Faulkner frequently portrays events in the novel out of chronological order through his use of stream of consciousness. Information typically provided in a logical sequence in a traditional narrative, such as characters, settings, and events, are fragmented and jumbled together and therefore unclear. As a result, it is harder for readers to identify characters or arrange events in a timeline. Readers are forced to experience a sense of disorientation, and then find their bearings by reconstructing the Compsons' history, piecing it together as the section moves along. By placing readers in such a challenging position, Faulkner draws attention to two of the novel's most important themes. Readers are thrust into the stream-of-consciousness narrative of Benjy, a man who does not speak and for whom time has no meaning. As readers struggle to make sense of his narration, they experience language as an often untrustworthy and insufficient means to discover the truth, but one that remains necessary. In addition, humans' thoughts and experiences often hurtle forward in the ongoing rush of time itself, often before anyone can grasp their meaning sufficiently. Nevertheless, humans struggle to articulate and make sense of their experiences.

What parenting do the Compson children receive from their father in The Sound and the Fury (April Sixth, 1928) that can be viewed as positive?

Although their father's alcoholism has made him derelict in many of his duties as a functioning member of society, Jason Compson III does love his children and he is usually gentle with them. However depressing and out of touch with reality his philosophies are, he offers them as advice to his children in the hope of shielding them from disappointment or false hopes as they grow up. Their father also tries to prevent the children from viewing their mother, Caroline, too harshly. He wants to hold the family together. He wants to act honorably, and this is perhaps best exemplified by his eagerness to take Miss Quentin into the Compson home despite his daughter's dishonor in bearing an illegitimate child. As Caddy reminds her brother, Jason, when she begs him to take good care of her daughter: "You have Father's name: do you think I'd have to ask him twice? once, even?"

What is remarkable about Benjy's sense of smell in The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928, and April Eighth, 1928), and which characters notice it?

Benjy's sense of smell is what he uses to identify those people, places, or things as familiar or unfamiliar to him. The best example is his expectation that Caddy "smells like trees." When her scent changes—when she takes on the smell of men or the perfume she uses to attract them—Benjy is very unhappy because he cannot associate her with her familiar smell. Caddy quickly understands this and does what she can to restore her familiar smell in an attempt to keep from upsetting her brother. More remarkable, however, is the idea that Benjy is able to smell tragedies before they occur. Dilsey and Roskus both believe that Benjy senses impending death through his sense of smell because they witness it over and over. As Roskus says, Benjy "know a lot more than folks thinks." On Easter Sunday morning when Benjy cannot be comforted, Dilsey knows he is picking up the scent of a tragic event in the Compson home by sensing the disaster of Miss Quentin's theft and escape. Dilsey tells Luster that she knows how to soothe Benjy: "'He stop when we git off de place,' Dilsey said, 'He smellin hit. Dat's whut hit is.'"

In The Sound and the Fury (April Sixth, 1928, and April Seventh, 1928), what mannerisms and habits does Jason have in childhood that foreshadow his sadistic personality as an adult?

Jason is filled with hatred from his earliest years, and this results in his tendency to be alone, even amid a large family. He likes to tattle on his siblings. This is not to gain attention; after all, he is the only Compson child their mother claims to love. Rather, he takes delight in causing discomfort to those around him. He especially likes to get his sister, Caddy, into trouble, which makes him feel superior to her, an early sign of his pronounced hatred of women. Jason's pure meanness is best exemplified when he coldly cuts up all of Caddy's and Benjy's paper dolls. Years later, as an adult, Caddie still remembers how sadistic her brother was, even in childhood, and says, "I know you. I grew up with you" and "you never had a drop of warm blood in you." Jason's cruelty also extends to children outside his family. His early love of money in preference to people is symbolized by the way he keeps his hands in his pockets nearly constantly. Even at a young age, he is wheeling and dealing. He profits from selling other children kites made of flour paste by partnering with other boys, but only if they are "smaller ones" that he can dominate.

What parenting flaws does Mrs. Compson have in The Sound and the Fury (June Second, 1910, and April Sixth, 1928), and how do they affect her children?

Mrs. Caroline Compson is extremely self-centered and self-serving. She demands constant attention, yet is unable to give sufficient attention or affection to her children. Rather than caring about their health and well-being, she cares about how others might perceive her based on her children's behavior. Therefore, though she is preoccupied with the image she projects as a mother, she fails to act as one, which adds to the decay and disintegration of the family. As the eldest Compson, Quentin seems to suffer the most from the lack of his mother's love. In his narrative, he laments it: "If I could say Mother. Mother." He feels the effect of this loss on all his siblings as well, especially linking Caddy's troubles to their mother's failure to demonstrate affection for them. Caddy is pushed toward promiscuity by her mother's extreme reactions when Caddy begins the normal process of maturing into a young woman. When she sees Caddy kissing a boy at around age 15, for example, Mrs. Compson "went around the house in a black dress and a veil," claiming that her daughter was dead. Where Caddy is concerned, Mrs. Compson is reactive and nonsupportive. Mrs. Compson's treatment of her son, Benjy, is especially terrible. She feels sorry for herself for having him. She expects others to keep him quiet and away from her. Her hypochondria gives her the excuse she needs to not have to deal with his care. She makes no provisions for the long-term care for him; as a result, Benjy ends up in a mental institution in Jackson. Although Jason is the one his mother loves, he couldn't care less. He loves only himself and ultimately thrives only by viewing everyone around him as a loser. His lack of regard for his mother comes through when he yells at her on Easter morning, "Give me the key, you old fool!" He often insults her to her face while he steals from her behind her back.

In The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928), which three memories does Benjy recall most often in the section he narrates, and why?

Benjy's three most frequent memories in the section he narrates are of his grandmother Damuddy's death, his name change, and Caddy's wedding. An argument can be made that no particular memory is more important to Benjy than any other, because time has no meaning to him, and his mind is not able to sort his memories in this way. On any given day, Benjy's memories are triggered by what is happening around him in the present. He is not able to make connections, to consciously push memories away or pull them up, as most people do. Nevertheless, these three events are central to the Compson family, as revealed by the novel's other sections. William Faulkner has made a choice to highlight them repeatedly, so even if he has created in Benjy a man incapable of thinking purposefully, he has used this character's narrative to underscore the importance of the events. While Benjy might not be able to use words to articulate the events in his memories or his response to them, he feels the loss behind them. This sense of loss is something that also affects Quentin and Jason, as well as other members of the family.

In what ways is Benjy's name change in The Sound and the Fury (April Sixth, 1928, and April Seventh, 1928) an example of situational irony?

Situational irony occurs when there is a gap between the expectation of what will happen versus what actually does happen. Mrs. Compson's decision to change her son's name from Maury to Benjamin to avoid embarrassing her brother Maury is an example of situational irony because Maury's own behavior is already embarrassing. There is little to admire about Maury Bascomb. He has his sister convinced that he is great and that the Bascomb family is great. His main reason for staying so close to her, however, is to sponge off the little money the Compsons have left. He tries to present himself as a businessman, but there's little evidence that he actually works. Instead, he is always asking for help "investing" in vague schemes that are probably imaginary. Maury also engages in illicit affairs, including one with married Mrs. Patterson, the Compsons' neighbor. He shamelessly involves the Compson children in delivering love notes to her, and even sends Benjy alone on one of these errands.

In The Sound and the Fury, what objects are sources of comfort for Benjy, and why?

Benjy is soothed by holding and touching a particular cushion when he is young. After Caddy gets married and leaves, he can be similarly soothed by holding and stroking a satin slipper she wore as a bride. Throughout the novel, he is also comforted by fires. When he looks at a fire, he sees pleasing shapes moving and feels warm. Before she left home, Caddy often took him to watch a fire to calm him down, so Benjy also associates fires with her comforting presence after she is gone. Benjy is also comforted by nature; especially trees, plants, and flowers. He is pleased when Caddy smells like trees, for example, and disturbed when she smells like perfume instead. He notices wind blowing leaves on trees and feels soothed by the sight. Benjy is also comforted when he is given a pretty flower to hold. However, the jimson plants that he seems to favor are actually weeds. Benjy loves a living thing that others do not love, even as most of those around him fail to love and honor him as a human.

What does the narcissus flower that Benjy holds in the fourth section of The Sound and the Fury (April Eighth, 1928) represent?

Many members of the Compson family suffer from egotism, or excessive self-absorption. Caroline is so self-involved she cannot care for her children sufficiently. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a youth who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and drowns trying to kiss his own image. This description echoes Quentin's suicide by drowning because he cannot get beyond his own self-absorption about his outdated code of purity and honor, or his obsession with Caddy. Jason is the personification of raging egotism and can think of little beyond himself and his hunger for money and power. The narcissus flower that Benjy clings to was originally broken and then mended by Luster, who puts a splint on it to hold it in place. It is broken again by a furious Jason after he jumps into the carriage to steer it back on course in the last scene in the novel. A flower is usually a sign of innocence, happiness, and beauty. Benjy's flower stands instead for his family's egotism, its disintegration, and its inability to heal itself.

What strong character traits of his sister, Caddy, are revealed in Benjy's section of The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928)?

Benjy's narrative reveals that Caddy loves her brother and treats him in a maternal way. From an early age, she is tasked by their father with helping to care for him at times when their mother is ill and cannot—although in actuality, Mrs. Compson does not want to act as a mother to Benjy, whose disability embarrasses her. Caddy speaks to Benjy as a concerned mother would. For example, she tells him to keep his hands in his pockets when the weather is very cold. She also tries to explain things to him, like what ice is. She makes an effort to understand her brother's point of view. When Benjy gets upset, Caddy is usually the one who tries to calm him, taking him to watch a fire or giving him a cushion to hold. If she upsets him, she changes her behavior to soothe him. She is fierce in her defense of her brother whenever anyone is mean to him. Benjy's narrative also reveals Caddy as fearless and headstrong. As a child, she plays with abandon and (April Seventh, 1928) gets dirty, dismissing any warnings that she will get into trouble for her recklessness. She climbs trees, ventures out in bad weather, and rejects what she views as the artificial worries of the adults in her world. If she wants to know what is going on in the dysfunctional household, she boldly asks and does not hold back her opinions.

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