Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Source of book: I own this.


Everyone had to read “A Rose for Emily” in high school, right? I have to confess, though, that is about all the Faulkner I had read. I decided to put The Sound and the Fury on my list for this year, in part because my wife had discussed reading an excerpt back in college - part of the narration by the developmentally disabled man, Benjamin. I figured I should experience that at least. Honestly, Faulkner isn’t my favorite author. I can see why he is considered important, of course, and he isn’t at all a bad writer. Rather, I think that I prefer Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty for my Southern Gothic literature. 

 I couldn't believe I found a picture online of the exact edition I own.

The Sound and the Fury is a fairly experimental novel, and didn’t initially sell well. Three of the four sections are told in varying degrees of “stream of consciousness” and jump around in time and place a lot, without much to guide one. The fourth is more straightforward, but it is about such a small period of time that it doesn’t really help to unravel the earlier parts of the story. There are two things that help with this. First is the Appendix that Faulkner wrote later, giving the history of the family before the story begins, and summaries of the characters, so that the reader can at least figure out who is who and what their individual stories are. Oddly, the Appendix is placed at the beginning of the book. In any case, this was helpful. I also confess to consulting Wikipedia for a more linear version of the story. 


The book tells the story of an aristocratic Southern family as it implodes. The Civil War freed the enslaved, although a few old servants still linger. The family’s wealth is slowly dissipating, as times have changed, and it has failed to adapt. 


The children each fail in their own way. Benjamin is mentally a toddler, and will never be able to care for himself. For the most part, his care is farmed out to the various black servants, but he is friends with his sister Candice (Caddy). She gets pregnant out of wedlock, and has a rushed marriage to another man. When he finds out she is pregnant with another man’s child, he deserts her. Quentin III is the smart kid, destined for college, and thus the family’s great hope. He attends Harvard, but feels his absence has meant he failed to protect Caddy’s virtue. After confronting the (probable) baby-daddy, he returns to Harvard and drowns himself. Jason is the most successful, but he too has failed. The funds raised from the sale of the family pasture (to be used as a golf course) end up going to Quentin III’s tuition, and Caddy’s wedding, and he is left with nothing. To make matters worse, he was promised a job by Caddy’s husband, but lost that when he deserted her. 


Caddy names her child Quentin, even though she is a girl. Due to the culture of the time, she is not allowed to raise her own child. Instead, her mother does. When Quentin IV comes of age, she runs off with a showman, stealing Jason’s cash from his safe. Well, some of the money is actually Jason’s, but most of it is money that Caddy sent for Quentin, which Jason has stolen because he sees it as his just due for the loss of his inheritance. 


So, that’s more or less the plot. The layout of the book is interesting as well. There are four total sections, the last of which is the shortest. The book starts out with Benjamin’s stream of consciousness, mostly about a particular day, but everything for his last 30 or more years is all muddled up, and people are kids again, and….well, it makes very little sense at all. However, it is excellent writing, and as an experiment of being inside someone’s head, it works very well. 


The second section is the stream of consciousness inside Quentin III’s head, before he commits suicide. Most of it is his exploration that day as he is undecided about his fate. But it also flashes back a lot, and isn’t that easy to follow either. Naturally, the thoughts are much more adult, more organized, and so on. But they meander just like an average adult’s thoughts - a recognizeable stream of consciousness. 


The third section is from Jason’s point of view. It is the most coherent of the first three sections, but it too has some stream-of-consciousness elements and flashbacks. 


The final section is in the omniscient third person point of view, but focuses on the lives of the servants on the day Quentin IV steals the money and disappears. 


One of the reasons the book is a hard read is that the Compson family is thoroughly unlikeable. Sure, one can feel sorry for most of them a little, but they are essentially a family steeped in selfishness, entitlement, and privilege. With the exception of Benjamin, they fail mostly because of their poor choices, with an assist from laziness and a refusal to take responsibility for their own actions. 


Really, the only one who shows any responsibility is Caddy, and society prevents her from having any way of redeeming herself. She supports her child, and tries to be involved (although Jason refuses to let her see the child), so I would say she is the most sympathetic character. We never get to see her point of view, and she is out of sight for most of the story. 


Benjamin is one who you want to sympathize with. And, to a degree, this is possible. But he also isn’t an “easy” disabled person at all. He throws tantrums, he cries a lot, he behaves inappropriately toward girls and women, and he seems every bit as self-absorbed as the rest of the family. No shade on Faulkner for writing him this way, though. This is one of those things people don’t say out loud about disabled children: they aren’t all sweet sunshine and roses. 


Jason, though, is such a piece of shit, I found him intolerable. Sure, he has a legitimate grievance about being cheated out of his inheritance, having to work in a menial job, and being taken for granted by the rest of the family. He also is a self-righteous boor, a thief, and a stalker. He is also nastily racist (although, to be fair, nobody white in this book except Benjamin - who doesn’t appear to have the cognitive ability to understand race - is innocent of this. They are all pretty bad.) 


All of which is why, in the end, I really rather cheered the disintegration of this fictional family. Good fucking riddance. A pox on your house. 


Faulkner seems to agree, as far as I can tell. He isn’t shedding any tears for the decline of the wealthy racist Southern family, but rather exposing the rot at its core. This may be why Faulkner doesn’t seem to be on the approved reading list for Fundies. After all, the Christian Patriarchy dream is to return to the Antebellum South. 


One disappointing thing about the book was that despite the multiple points of view, we never got one from a woman - and I think the women were potentially more interesting than the men. 


There were a few quotes I wanted to mention. This one is from Quentin III’s section, as he thinks about what his father said about virginity. 


In the South you are ashamed of being a virgin. Boys. Men. They lie about it. Because it means less to women, Father said. He said it was men who invented virginity not women. Father said it’s like death: only a state in which the others are left and I said, But to believe it doesn’t matter and he said, That’s what’s so sad about anything: not only virginity, and I said, Why couldn’t it have been me and not her who is unvirgin and he said, That’s why that’s sad too: nothing is even worth the changing of it. 


I would say that yes, historically, it was men who invented virginity. Although I think women care a lot about virginity too - it is a blunt weapon with which they hurt other women (usually the younger ones.) 


The other two quotes are on race, and I think they are also quite perceptive. The first one is also from Quentin’s mind, as he reflects on the damage the fact of Benjamin’s disability did to the family ego, and the place of black people in white consciousness. 


Dilsey [the old woman servant] said it was because Mother was too proud for him. They come into white people’s lives like that in sudden sharp black trickles that isolate white facts for an instant in unarguable truth like under a microscope; the rest of the time just voices that laugh when you see nothing to laugh at, tears when no reason for tears.


The idea of “white facts” is a close kin to “alternative facts” preached by Il Toupee - a world of denialism and fantasy. Faulkner is cutting close to the bone here. 


The final quote is from the final section. Quentin IV has disappeared with the money, which has puzzled everyone. It turns out, though, that some people know exactly what happened, but, for reasons, they haven’t said anything. This exchange between Dilsey, and the 14 year old Luster - usually Benjamin’s minder - is interesting. 


“I’ll bet she aint here,” Luster said.

Dilsey looked at him. “How you know she aint here?”

“Me and Benjy seed her clamb out de window last night. Didn’t us, Benjy?”

“You did?” Dilsey said, looking at him.

“We sees her doin hit ev’y night,” Luster said, “Clamb right down dat pear tree.

“Dont you lie to me, nigger boy,” Dilsey said.

“I aint lyin. Ask Benjy ef I is.”

“Whyn’t you say somethin about it, den?”

“Twarn’t none o my business,” Luster said. “I aint gwine git mixed up in white folks’ business.” 


I think Luster is smart here. No sense putting his head in that hornets’ nest, meddling in family dynamics. 


The Sound and the Fury was an interesting book. Not my favorite, but I appreciate what Faulkner did with it. His experiments work pretty well for what they are, but I can see why he decided to later add that appendix, because without it, I think I would have had a difficult time putting all the pieces together. I’ll probably read some of his other works as well, to get a better picture of his overall body of work. 


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