The Sound and the Fury

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree.

So begins “April Seventh, 1928,” the first section of The Sound and the Fury. It is one the most Faulknerian things Faulkner ever wrote. Commonly refered to as “Benjy’s Section,” this is arguably Faulkner’s most famous opening, and rightfully so. Benjy is a mentally disabled man who will narrorate the next 75 pages[1].

Having just read Faulkner’s previous three novels, this book packs quite the wallup. The first three books show that there is something just below the surface, simmering. The Sound and the Fury is where it finally boils over. Faulkner called it his favorite book and it is widely regarded as a masterpeice.

I’ve read The Sound and the Fury many times so it’s hard for me to be totally surpised. But having read his first three just prior it took me by surprise just what a leap it was. The quality of writing and storytelling is an incredible improvement.

The opening of Quentin’s section, for example, is one of favorite paragraphs ever written:

When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather exruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.

The book is divided into four sections:

  • April Seventh, 1928 (narrated by Benji)
  • June Second, 1910 (narrated by Quentin)
  • April Sixth, 1928 (narrated by Jason)
  • April Eighth, 1928 (in the third-person, but often called Dilsey’s section as it follows Dilsey’s day closely)

In typical Faulkner fashion, there are no reliable narrators. Benji is a mentally disabled man who will tell you how he is feeling at any given point in time, normally not in chronological order. Indeed, Benji seems to have very little sense of time, so feelings and events will be told to the reader in no discernable order. Jumps of twenty years can happen in a single sentence, usually indicated only by italics.

Quentin is a confused and suicidal intellectual, dismayed by his sister’s emerging sexuality. Quentin also jumps around in time, and he quite literally tries to stop time by breaking his father’s watch. Quentin’s logorrhea and abstract metaphors are a sudden shock after reading seventy five pages of Benji’s short sentences and limited vocabulary. I remember having a sense of relief having made it through the hard-to-understand Benji section, only to be surprised that Quentin’s section is also very hard to follow.

The third section is narrated by the terribly vengeful, bitter, petty, greedy and wholy unsympathetic younger brother of Quentin and Benji. Jason’s section stays pretty much in the present and follows a straight-forward narrative. If you’re reading this book for the first time, Jason’s section is where things start to make sense. But Jason is an unpleasant person. The opening line of his section sets the tone quickly:

Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say.

The last section is finally straight-forward is the only section you can really trust. The first three are filled with the emotions of the narrators and their perspectives are very skewed. The fourth section follows Dilsey, the black servant of the family, as she cares for Benji, prepares breakfast for the family and then attends an Easter Sunday service.

The day dawned bleak and chill, a moving wall of gray light out of the northeast which instead of dissolving into moisture, seemed to disintegrate into minute and venomous particles, like dust that, when Dilsey opened the door of the cabin and emerged, needled laterally into her flesh, precipitating not so much a moisture as a substance partaking of the quality of thin, not quite congealed oil.

The Sound and the Fury is classic Faulkner. The story concerns the Compson family and its downfall. The Compsons were, before the Civil War, an aristricratic family. The grandfather was a Civil War colonel.

But the family is crumbling. The father has died. The oldest son is mentally disabled and has been castrated. The second son has commited suicide. The daughter has been run out of the family for having a child out of wedlock. This is quentissentially Faulkner. And he will revisit this theme many times. A successful family’s decline.

The striking thing about reading these novels chronologically is huge leap in quality that comes with The Sound and the Fury. All of Faulkner’s novels so far have been entertaining. None have been bad. You get a tangible sense that a writer is slowly finding his voice. And that voice begins to roar in The Sound and the Fury. It is considered a masterpiece of American literature for a reason. From the opening lines, all one can think is, “Wow.”

Read all of the Faulkner Reviews.

[1] I am referring to the 1992 Modern Library Edition with the corrected text and Faulkner’s appendix.