The Sound and the Fury | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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The Sound and the Fury | June Second, 1910 | Summary

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Summary

The oldest Compson son, Quentin, who is living in a dormitory and finishing his first year at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, narrates the second part of the novel. He describes the scene as he awakens. Time is the main thing on his mind. He guesses the time based on the shadows, and he listens to his watch ticking, remembering the words his father spoke as he presented Quentin with his grandfather's watch: "I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it ..." This seems to be Quentin's quest for the first part of his narration (ending with words he remembers his mother saying: "try to forget that the others ever were").

Quentin hears his roommate, Shreve, getting ready for class but makes no such preparations himself. After Shreve leaves, Quentin breaks the watch and cuts himself on the broken glass, but the watch keeps on ticking. He then begins methodical activities: packing his belongings in a trunk and addressing it, bathing and shaving and dressing, and writing and addressing letters. During these activities, italics indicate Quentin's short recent memories or launch the longer ones: his father's decision to send him to Harvard in 1909; Caddy's wedding in April 1910; his false confession to his father of committing incest with Caddy, which is related in tandem with the story of his fight with her real lover, Dalton Ames, who is the probable father of her unborn child, sometime in 1909.

Quentin leaves for town shortly after Shreve returns from class. Quentin looks unsuccessfully for Deacon, who often does errands for Harvard boys. He stops by the post office, visits a jeweler to see about fixing his watch, and then buys two six-pound flatirons (large pieces of metal). He rides the cable car out to the Charles River. He continues to notice the time, whether through shadows, clocks chiming or ticking, or through conscious efforts not to note the exact time.

His thoughts also travel to recent memories as well as events from long ago, such as the changing of his little brother Maury's name to Benjamin around 1900. When he arrives at the river and moves onto a bridge to stare down into the water, his musings make it clear that he is planning to commit suicide. He will use the flatirons to drown himself. In the next instant, he is watching Gerald Bland row and musing about Gerald and Gerald's mother, and another student named Spoade. Quentin's mind then turns to further memories of his meeting with Caddy's lover, Dalton Ames, in 1909, which also happened on a bridge over a river, this time in Jefferson.

This meeting with Dalton does not go well for Quentin, who demands that Dalton leave town. Dalton is rude and condescending. Physically, he also easily overpowers Quentin. He has a gun, which he uses to show off by shooting a small piece of bark in the river. Dalton then hands the gun to Quentin, as if daring him to threaten him, but Quentin passes out. As Dalton rides away on horseback, Caddy rushes to the scene, having heard the shot and fearing that Quentin has been hit. Quentin demands to know if she loves Dalton; her response is to let him feel the pulse in her throat quicken when she hears Dalton's name.

As Quentin begins walking back to Harvard, his memories also move from Dalton Ames to Herbert Head, Caddy's husband, whom Quentin meets and instantly dislikes. As he remembers his mother's flirtatious tone with Herbert, Quentin also remembers other times when her words have bothered him, such as when she cries over Caddy's promiscuity and asks his father to let her leave with her son Jason, her favorite, because all the other children, particularly Caddy at the moment, are a disgrace to her.

Quentin returns to Harvard Square, finds Deacon, and gives him instructions about delivering the sealed letter—his suicide note—to Shreve. By this point, Quentin is really trying hard not to care about exactly what time it is. Whenever he starts to count the chimes, as he tried to count minutes in school as a young schoolboy, or figure the time based on other clues, he stops himself. He runs into Shreve again, and tells him to expect a note tomorrow. Although Shreve questions Quentin about what he is doing, Quentin avoids his questions.

Quentin takes a trolley. During the ride, he remembers some of his father's ideas about life. His father believed that the future is predetermined and therefore can't be changed. Eventually, Quentin travels toward the Charles River. On his way there, his memories flit around among comments and actions in the past. He recalls Gerald and Mrs. Bland's relationship, which he finds offensive and more fragments of his confrontation with Dalton Ames. He also remembers Herbert Head's conversation with him. Herbert makes it clear that he has promised Caroline that he will help Jason, likely by finding him a job. He also asks him about what Herbert views as Caddy's unusual fascination with Quentin. Quentin is disgusted by Herbert's observation and is rude to him. He and Herbert almost fight, but Herbert tries to talk him out of it. Quentin links Dalton, Gerald, and Herbert in his mind as the type of dishonorable men he detests.

As Quentin disembarks from the car and begins walking, his memories shift to an intense conversation he had with Caddy, trying to get her not to marry Herbert, "that blackguard." It must be a painful memory because the next thing he recalls is having a broken leg. After more disjointed memories, Quentin comes back to the present time near a bridge, and he hides the flatirons he is still carrying. As he stares into the water and fantasizes about the possibility of being alone in hell with Caddy (Then you will have only me then only me then the two of us), his sees three boys who are fishing. They hope to catch a giant trout for the promised prize of a fishing rod worth $25. They advise Quentin where he can find a clock, and he continues walking. Quentin's thoughts remain focused on Caddy and his failure in trying to stop her marriage, interspersed with advice from his father, who thinks Quentin's intense concern for propriety, honor, purity of woman, and so forth, is useless.

Approaching a town, Quentin sees the clock the boys told him about. He enters a bakery. A small girl whom he calls "sister" is in the shop, and he helps her get the attention of the owner as he buys buns for himself and for her. She buys a loaf of bread, and the owner also gives her a "gnarled cake" for free. Quentin and the girl walk along together, and he decides to buy her ice cream as well. After that, Quentin cannot seem to get rid of the child. He tries to find out where she lives so he can take her home, but no one seems to know. A couple of men direct him to Anse, the town marshal, whom he cannot find, and he even knocks on the door of an Italian woman who does not speak English. He assumes the girl does not speak English, either.

Eventually, Quentin tries to escape from the girl by giving her a quarter and running away, but she catches up to him again. As they continue trudging along together, Quentin's memories turn to a time in his youth when Caddy was jealous of a girl Quentin was kissing. He and his sister fought over it and then made up. Finding himself back at the river with the girl, Quentin sees the same boys swimming that he previously met fishing. They are angry that a girl is in their space, and splash her and Quentin until they retreat, turning back toward town.

As they walk and talk, suddenly a young boy and two men run toward them. Quentin is startled when the little girl speaks her only words, proving she actually does speak English: "There's Julio." Julio is her brother, and he has brought Anse to arrest Quentin for "stealing" his sister. Quentin cannot stop laughing at the absurdity of the situation, and they all head to town where he will face his charges.

Along the way they encounter Gerald and Mrs. Bland, Spoade, Shreve, and two young women driving in Mrs. Bland's car. They stop to provide assistance, and when Quentin is set free after paying a hefty fine, he joins them in the car. As they ride along, Quentin seems nearly delirious. His mind slips into more sexually charged memories of Caddy as the other young men flirt with the girls in the car and talk about their exploits. Quentin recalls the time he tried to get Caddy to agree to a double suicide pact so they could be together and her honor would not be further compromised by young men. He even proposes that they say they have committed incest and the baby is actually Quentin's. He then revisits the humiliating scene with Dalton Ames yet again.

Quentin, Spoade, Shreve, Mrs. Bland, and the two young women stop for a picnic, which largely involves drinking wine. Suspended between the past and the present, Quentin hears Gerald making demeaning comments about women. He attacks the speaker he most despises, Gerald. As he comes fully to his senses, Quentin seems to have no memory of their fight but has obviously been badly beaten by Gerald. Shreve and Spoade are with him at a house in the country as he comes to. Once he is revived, Quentin heads out on foot to find a cable car back to the city.

Quentin finally reaches his dorm room after dark, having lost all track of time. He takes off his bloody clothes, uses gasoline to clean the vest, washes himself, and sets the room back in order. All the while, his mind is whirling through diverse memories of his family's dysfunction, including selling off family land and his disturbance at the announcement of Caddy's wedding. Finally, Quentin remembers his father's response to Quentin's desperate claim of incest with Caddy. He tells Quentin that he will one day see that Caddy is not worth the despair he feels about her and suggests that Quentin leave for Harvard as soon as possible. Quentin denies his father's prediction: "i will never do that nobody knows what i know."

Quentin feels that suicide will be a relief. His memories finally cease as a bell chimes an unknown time, and he dresses to leave the room to fulfill his plan to kill himself.

Analysis

The complexity of Quentin's narrative is somewhat reminiscent of Benjy's section because of the stream-of-consciousness technique William Faulkner once again employs. Like Benjy's, Quentin's memories are often triggered by events in the present. Quentin's section is also similar to Benjy's in the way memories, and especially sensual impressions from the past (like the scent of honeysuckle flowers), surface and then submerge in no apparent order, as if they were petals scattered on water. However, while Quentin can interact with real life in a way Benjy cannot, Quentin is so mentally anguished that he believes suicide is his only release. In this section, readers try to reconstruct what has led to his gradual disintegration.

The mechanical way in which Quentin packs up his dorm room and completes his other suicide preparations makes it clear he has made up his mind about his fate. Nonetheless, fragments of memories come to his mind about how the sale of Benjy's beloved land to pay his tuition led to heartbreak for Benjy. ("He lay on the ground under the window, bellowing. We have sold Benjy's pasture so that Quentin may go to Harvard.") Is it not shameful to throw away the opportunity he has been given? He is also tortured by his mother's perception of him as a child who, like Caddy and Benjy, brings shame to the family rather than honor. Will his suicide not cast an even bigger shadow on the family?

Quentin's fixation on time—and his desire to try to stop its forward momentum—is conveyed throughout his section. Now that he has lost his "fallen" sister Caddy to sex, pregnancy, and marriage, the future holds no meaning for him. Memory by memory, he reveals his unhealthy attachment to her. Quentin has a strict code that demands knight-like chivalry centered on purity and honor, yet he has failed in every effort to maintain this code, especially where Caddy is concerned. Although he himself has remained a virgin, Caddy lost her virginity much too young, and has been promiscuous to boot. She even became pregnant out of wedlock.

But when he tries to defend Caddy's honor by fighting Dalton Ames, the apparent father of her child, or stand up to Herbert Head, her arrogant fiancé, Quentin appears overly dramatic and ridiculous. And when he then tries to claim the fatherhood of Caddy's baby for himself as a last desperate attempt to prevent her being viewed as a slut, it shows how twisted his sense of honor really is. How could committing incest be considered more honorable than an illegitimate pregnancy? His father, who doesn't believe him, calls Quentin on the absurd nature of his claim and tells him that Quentin "is confusing sin and morality." Quentin even suggests that he and Caddy ought to go to hell by committing suicide together, revealing how he mixes sin, sex, and punishment in his mind.

The high percentage of words devoted to Caddy in this section reinforces Quentin's obsession with his sister. It's clear he simply cannot recover from losing her in every sense—his connection to her is lost, her honor is lost, her important role in Benjy's life is lost, his hopes of saving her are lost. He has failed as her brother and does not wish to live with his own dishonor. Similarly, he cannot save the little girl he meets in the bakery and calls "sister." She seems to need him, yet he cannot help her find her way home, nor can he save the loaf of bread she carries.

Caddy and the little girl are also similar in another way. Quentin describes the girl as dirty. One of his most prominent memories of Caddy—as is also true for Benjy—involves the day of Damuddy's death. As the children play in the branch, Caddy's bloomers get muddy. Later, when she climbs a tree to spy on the adults and try to figure out what is going on, her brothers see the muddy bottom of her underwear. The sight becomes a symbol of how she later "dirties" herself through "dirty" sexual promiscuity. The importance of this scene cannot be overstated; it is not coincidental that it comes up so often in Benjy's and Quentin's sections. As Faulkner explained, the idea for the novel first came to him as this image of a little girl with symbolically muddy bloomers, a single image that evolved into the tragedy of "two lost women: Caddy and her daughter."

Sexuality, dirtiness, and fighting appear linked in Quentin's mind. His falling into pig manure and then dirtying Caddy with mud as they fight follow his early experience of kissing a young girl named Natalie. When Spoade taunts him about being a virgin and calls Shreve his husband, Quentin fights Spoade—just as he fights Dalton Ames and Herbert Head because of Caddy's sexual involvement with them, and with Gerald Bland for bragging about his success with women. His sense of masculinity is fragile. Purity and honor go hand in hand in Quentin's code; having a dishonored sister and dishonorable parents makes it impossible for him to keep living in a world he sees as dirty and corrupted.

While she appeared frequently in Benjy's section, Dilsey is missing from Quentin's. Dilsey's strength and core values represent what is missing from the Compson family. Perhaps if Quentin had a tighter bond with her, he could be himself, especially because it's clear that he realizes how damaging it has been to have a maternal void ("If I could say Mother. Mother"). However, there is some evidence from Quentin's comments about African Americans that Quentin's code, which stems in large part from the culture of the Old South, cannot allow him to have intimate, meaningful connections with the hired help, even though he admits missing them and includes in his narrative some memories of influential moments with the male Gibsons.

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