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Introduction

The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929, was William Faulkner’s fourth novel and is considered his first masterpiece. The story is set in the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha that Faulkner created for the Setting of his third novel Sartoris. Faulkner set fifteen of his novels and many short stories in this geographical location that he invented, the descriptions of which mirror the area in northern Mississippi where he spent most of his life. While he is called a Southern writer, most critics praise this book and many of Faulkner’s other fictional works for their universal and humanistic Themes. The book was published in the year of the great stock market crash on Wall Street in 1929 and sales were meager. Faulkner did, however, gain considerable critical recognition for the work.

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William Faulkner

The oldest of four sons of Murry Cuthbert Falkner and Maud Butler Falkner, William Cuthbert Falkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897. (He changed the spelling of his name in 1918.) When he was five years old, his family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where Faulkner would spend much of his life. Faulkner’s ancestors came to America from Scotland during the eighteenth century. William Clark Falkner, his great-grandfather, was a source of inspiration for the young Faulkner. William Clark had been a colonel in the Civil War, built railroads, and had also written a popular romance in 1881 called The White Rose of Memphis. He was murdered on the street by a business partner, and Faulkner re-created this event several times in his fiction. Faulkner also used his great-grandfather as the model for his fictional character Colonel John Sartoris in his 1929 novel Sartoris.

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Plot Summary

A April Seventh, 1928

Set in Mississippi during the early decades of the twentieth century, The Sound and the Fury tells the tumultuous story of the Compson family’s gradual deterioration. The novel is divided into four sections, each told by a different narrator on a different date. The three Compson brothers, Benjy, Quentin, and Jason, each relate one of the first three sections while the fourth is told from an omniscient, third-person perspective. At the center of the novel is the brothers’ sister, Caddy Compson, who, as an adult, becomes a source of obsessive love for two of her brothers, and inspires savage revenge in the third.

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Construction

A Structure

Faulkner has created an unusual structure in The Sound and the Fury. The story takes place over a period of four days, each of which is seen through the eyes of a different character. The first part of the book is the monologue of Benjy on April 7, 1928, the day before Easter. The second part of the book belongs to Quentin on the day of his suicide on June 2, 1910. Jason, the son, is the focus of the third section, April 6, 1928, which covers Good Friday, the day before Benjy’s monologue. The fourth and final section takes place on Easter Sunday, April 8, 1928. The story is not related by a single individual, but is often referred to as Dilsey’s section. In a fragmented way, the story of the Compson family and their tragedy is gradually pieced together. Each section adds bits and pieces of the history of the Compson family. Benjy’s account covers a period of twenty-five years. Quentin’s story ends earlier than the other two brothers, since he has committed suicide in 1910. In this section the reader learns more about the family’s early relationships. Jason’s section, the third in the book, reveals more of the dark side of the Compson family. This section echoes the religious events of Christ’s betrayal on Good Friday. The betrayal is by young Quentin, who steals money from her Uncle Jason and runs away from home. Dilsey’s section, the fourth and last, reveals Faulkner’s affirmation of her enduring qualities. It is Dilsey who has cared for and tried to keep the family intact for decades. The final section contains an Easter Sunday service in an African American church. The church service affirms Dilsey’s acceptance of Christian love, an event some critics have interpreted as echoing the resurrection of Christ.

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Themes

A Time

The Themes in The Sound and the Fury are so closely interwoven with the Characters and structure of the novel that it is difficult to separate these elements. In all four sections of the novel, however, time is an important theme that Faulkner develops. The central Characters of the four sections each cope with time in a different way. In the first section, Benjy’s sense of time is defective. His thoughts move from present to past time without the ability to grasp the real meaning of events. Benjy is free from time because he cannot understand its impact on his feelings. Quentin’s efforts to cope with the present are impeded by his memories. He cannot accept the changes in his life that time inevitably brings. His sense of loss over the innocence of his childhood love of Caddy is unbearable. Rather than deal with life’s changes over time, he puts an end to time by committing suicide. Jason, on the other hand, lives in time present, around which all his actions flow. By living in time present, Jason reacts to events as they occur, unlike Quentin who acts on time past. In the last section of the book, Dilsey represents another view of time. Hers is a historical view. She embraces all of her life experiences and those of the Compsons with a religious faith about the timelessness of life. Her view most closely reflects the author’s viewpoint on time. By having the novel cover four days, each section representing one day, Faulkner is able to use time to give the novel a tight framework.

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Characters

A Dalton Ames

One of Caddy’s lovers who may have made her pregnant. In his monologue, Caddy’s brother Quentin remembers his failed confrontation with Dalton Ames over Caddy and tries to deny Ames’s role in Caddy’s life.

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Historical Perspective

A The Impact of the Civil War on the South

The loss of the Civil War in the nineteenth century had a profound impact on the psyche of the South. The region not only lost the war, but their whole way of life as well. The aristocratic structure of slavery was destroyed when the South lost the war, but many of the social values remained. Whites still controlled the economic and social structure of the region. Blacks, while no longer slaves, were generally under the rule of white society. What evolved over the next hundred years in the South was a society where blacks were legally free, but socially disenfranchised from an equal education and equal economic opportunities. The relationship of the blacks to whites depicted by Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury reflects that social and economic divide. The blacks in the novel are servants of the Compsons. Their role as servant is expanded by Faulkner to that of spiritual caretaker, especially as he portrays the character of Dilsey.

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Questions

Research mental retardation and discuss the accuracy of Faulkner’s portrayal of Benjy. Compare public attitudes toward mental impairment and illness today to the attitudes shown in Faulkner’s novel.

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Compare and Contrast

1929: Black and white relations in the South were stratified along racial lines. Education was officially segregated, with facilities for black and white children “separate but equal.” Today: In the urban South, many African Americans, as elsewhere in the United States, have gained economic and professional status. Poor blacks everywhere in America are experiencing poverty and poor education at record low levels. Education is supposedly integrated, but neighborhood racial patterns have worked against equalizing education.

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