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The Sound and the Fury | Themes

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The three most prominent themes in The Sound and the Fury are tightly interwoven. Rereading the lines from Macbeth from which the title comes (Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 19–28) will help readers see the connected threads more clearly:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Time

Time is omnipresent in The Sound and the Fury, but it is confusing—not just for the characters but for readers as well. Benjy's narrative slips and slides from past to present to past with no warning. For him, time has no meaning, so readers must struggle to follow the wanderings of his mind, to make meaning from what at first seem scrambled thoughts. William Faulkner intends to point out what tortures Macbeth: individual experiences, thoughts, and opinions are inconsequential and meaningless in the endless march of time.

Quentin also struggles with time. The past dominates his life, breaking into his present in the form of tortured flashbacks about his youth. Of the Compson brothers, Quentin is arguably the one most haunted by the decay of the Compson family. He is obsessed with, and yet confused by, the Old South's code of honor, stipulating that men should act like gentlemen and women uphold standards of purity, but he can no longer apply this code to his own family. His sister Caddy's development into a sexual woman challenges his code. As a result, Quentin wants to stop time, to freeze himself and his family in time to avoid further dishonor. However, progress into the future is inevitable. Quentin kills himself because he cannot move into the future.

Jason's struggle, on the other hand, is in part a race against time. It is also a rebellion against his place in time as the youngest and least favored son—the one for whom no land was sacrificed, for whom no money was reserved. He wants more money, more control, more recognition, and he wants it now because his parents did not grant any to him. His sadism demands constant feeding, and he cannot wait until all the burdens on him are removed so he and his money are the only things left. With the money, then, he can control the future.

In contrast, Dilsey understands and embraces the flow of time, rather than struggling to define herself against it. The Compson clock might be broken, chiming the wrong time every hour, but she still knows what time it is. She sees the beginning and the end of all time and is satisfied to live in the moment.

Decay of Family

The Compson household is in a state of decay, rapidly disintegrating in every sense. However, it is not just the Compson family that is rotting away. In exploring the decay of this particular family, once part of a proud aristocracy, Faulkner is also commenting on the gradual disintegration of the Old South that is so evident at the time he pens the novel.

Mired in self-absorption and unhealthy dependencies, the Compsons, like many others in the reconstructed South, cannot change. Because they cannot move forward, they are doomed to slowly decay, disintegrate, and disappear. Their world becomes smaller and smaller as they sell off their land, their buildings fall to shambles, and the next generation escapes. With the exception of Quentin's section of the novel, the other three take place in 1928, on the verge of the Great Depression, when many Americans lost everything they had. The Compsons and other families like them will soon be "heard no more," as Macbeth says.

The novel's stream-of-consciousness style often mirrors this disintegration. Boundaries break down between past and present, which often become hard to tell apart, as if time itself is disintegrating. As they try to fit the pieces of the story together, readers are also fighting to hold a meaningful narrative together, as it appears to come apart at the seams.

Language

Faulkner's innovative use of language, especially the stream-of-consciousness technique, goes hand in hand with the pervasive theme of time. With four different narrators relating many of the same events from such different perspectives, the truth seems elusive. But, that is the point: language cannot be trusted to reveal any absolute truths. Like time, language is ultimately meaningless, "signifying nothing," as Macbeth puts it. Nevertheless, people hold on to language dearly. In the novel, Benjy loves the word caddie because it is a pun on the name of his lost sister; Quentin repeats the word sister often; and Jason's favorite word is, of course, money. Readers, too, try to use language as clues to reconstruct the reality of the Compsons' situation based on the fragmented language and experience of each of its narrators, because language provides important clues to help readers navigate among the spontaneous mental associations of the characters, particularly Benjy and Quentin. The fragmented use of language also mirrors the struggle of the Compsons as the family decays toward disintegration and nothingness.

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