The Sound and the Fury | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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The Sound and the Fury | 10 Things You Didn't Know


William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929, is one of the most notable works of the Southern Gothic genre. Like many of Faulkner's works, The Sound and the Fury discusses the effects of the Civil War on the American South and presents characters trying to cope with the transition to modern life in the New South. The novel is also a work of modernist fiction, featuring literary techniques such as stream of consciousness, pioneered by modernist authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Chronicling the stories of members of the Compson family, the novel features multiple narrators of varying reliability. At the time of its publication, The Sound and the Fury was relatively unpopular because the constant shifts in time period and narration confused many readers. It wasn't until after Faulkner had published several others works that critics turned their attention to The Sound and the Fury, which is now considered a critically important work of American literature.

1. The title The Sound and the Fury was taken from Shakespeare's Macbeth.

The Sound and the Fury is a reference to Macbeth's line, which he speaks after finding out that his wife has committed suicide. He describes life as a "tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing." Faulkner uses this line to refer, in particular, to a section of the story narrated by a mentally challenged man named Benjy, who is labeled an "idiot" by his family and stereotyped because of his mental disability.

2. The Sound and the Fury was not an immediate commercial success.

Although it is now considered one of the author's greatest works, The Sound and the Fury met with the same commercial failure as Faulkner's earlier novels. Faulkner described The Sound and the Fury as "a real sonofabitch," and sorrowfully referred to it as "the most gallant, the most magnificent failure." It was only years after its publication that Southern Gothic literature started to be viewed as critically important, and scholars rediscovered the text as a masterpiece of the genre.

3. One reviewer suggested readers skip the first 92 pages of The Sound and the Fury.

The review of The Sound and the Fury stated, "Let the reader start the book on page 93 [Quentin's narration] putting off the introduction to the end." The comment refers to the confusing opening of the book, narrated in a first-person, stream-of-consciousness style by Benjy, a man with mental challenges. Benjy cannot differentiate between the past, present, or future, and his memories crop up seemingly at random, without clarifying explanations. Faulkner purposely began his novel with Benjy as the narrator to create a sense of suspense as readers try to piece together his narrative and to highlight the problems of miscommunication within the Compson family.

4. Faulkner admitted his use of italics was confusing in The Sound and the Fury.

The author uses italics for various reasons throughout the novel, a technique which many readers find confusing. Originally, Faulkner used italics to signal "transference," or shift between periods of time, such as from the present to a memory from childhood. Later in the novel, however, he uses italics to convey "a speech by one person within a speech by another," a contrast that led him to admit that his "use of italics has been too without definite plan."

5. A special edition of The Sound and the Fury uses different ink colors to distinguish among characters.

Since many readers found the frequent shift among time periods confusing in the novel, the Folio Society released a special edition of The Sound and the Fury in 2012 featuring different colors for each time period. The decision to release this edition was, in part, a response to a quotation from Faulkner himself, who stated, "I wish publishing was advanced enough to use colored ink...I'll just have to save the idea until publishing grows up to it."

6. Faulkner added an appendix to The Sound and the Fury that provides a history of the Compson family.

Faulkner was dedicated to creating fiction that could function as its own "fictional universe," such as the Yoknapatawpha County setting that recurs in many of of his works. For The Sound and the Fury, he chose to include a supplementary appendix chronicling the legacy of the Compsons from centuries before the Civil War. It also reveals the fate of the novel's characters after 1928, when the novel ends. The appendix was first included in the 1946 Modern Library edition and has remained controversial ever since, with critics arguing over whether it improves the novel or detracts from it.

7. Faulkner modeled Benjy after a character he had already created.

The author wrote a sketch called "The Kingdom of God," serialized in 1925, that told the story of two bootleggers attempting to unload an illicit shipment of liquor in New Orleans. Their plan is foiled, however, by the brother of one of the men—a brother who has mental challenges. He has been credited as a precursor to Faulkner's character Benjy in The Sound and the Fury.

8. Many contemporary critics believe Benjy Compson has autism.

Although Benjy was often thought to have suffered from Down syndrome, there were few diagnoses for mental disabilities available at the time Faulkner was writing the novel. Some scholars now believe that Benjy's symptoms correlate with severe forms of autism, as he's unable to process the emotions and motivations of others around him.

9. Jason Compson III and his son, Quentin, also appear in another of Faulkner's novels.

The patriarch of the Compson family, Jason Compson III, acts as a principal narrator in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, published in 1936. Jason's son Quentin also reappears in Absalom, Absalom!, in which he narrates a story to his college roommate years before his suicide in The Sound and the Fury.

10. A memorial plaque was placed where Quentin Compson committed suicide in The Sound and the Fury.

In The Sound and the Fury, Quentin leaps to his death from a bridge, unable to come to terms with the lost honor of his family and the South in the modern age. The bridge in question, known as "Anderson Bridge" on Harvard University's campus, bears a small plaque commemorating the fictional character's suicide. The plaque was left anonymously by a Faulkner devotee and went unnoticed on the campus for years.

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