Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner

So far, this list of the 100 Best Novels is proving very depressing.  Faulkner did not set out to write a cheery novel when he wrote this one, that's for sure.  

The Sound and the Fury, my second foray into my classic-reading adventure, chronicles the downfall of a southern family.  Faulkner sets his story in the first few decades of the twentieth century.  The Compsons are a prime example of familial dysfunction.  The father, Jason Compson III., drinks himself to death.  The mother, Caroline, does not do much of anything, leaving the raising of her four children to the servants.  Quentin, the oldest child, ultimately drowns himself while at Harvard after his only sister, Caddy, becomes pregnant out of wedlock and quickly marries to obscure this fact.  Jason IV, the third child, becomes the patriarch after the death of his father and elder brother.  He rules maliciously, seeking only that which will benefit himself.  Benjamin, first named Maury after a philandering uncle and nicknamed Benjy, suffers from severe mental retardation of some sort and requires full-time supervision.  Quite the cheery bunch, don't you think?

The only truly stable character through the book does not share the Compson blood.  Dilsey, one of the family's African-American servants, serves as a primary mother figure for the children as well as general caretaker of the family.

Faulkner broke the book into four distinct sections.  In a fascinating approach, he wrote each in a different style and from a different point of view.  The first chapter, written as seen from the eyes of Benjy, contains absolutely no sense of time and no ability to delineate between the present and memory.  Just as Benjy does not understand the passage of time and sequence of events, so we are not giving their context in his chapter.  The story bounces from moment to moment, spanning decades, as Benjy's memories are triggered by what happens around him in the present day.  At first, this style of writing can be difficult to follow.  The scene changes rapidly, sometimes staying in one moment for a page, sometimes for a sentence.  Faulkner marks the changes with italics in some places, but not all.  Complicated, yes; but once you pick up a few key signals, you can discern when Benjy's mind is present.

The second chapter relocates the reader to years earlier in Boston, where the eldest Compson son, Quentin, attends Harvard.  Again, Faulkner uses time as a fluid commodity.  At the start, you think Quentin to be a much more reliable narrator than his brother Benjy.  After all, he understands the sequence of time.  He quickly proves a challenge, though, as his portion of the novel nears an almost stream of consciousness style. Quentin, whose mind we enter on the day of his suicide, jumps from present to past to fantasy seamlessly.  Faulkner gives no clues here as he did with the italics in Benjy's chapter.  This ultimately makes Quentin's chapter even more difficult to comprehend, yet it also reveals things about the family's narrative in a more straightforward manner, without the cloud of mental disability fogging the interpretation of important events.

After Quentin's suicide, Faulkner jumps forward to return to the same Easter weekend from Benjy's chapter.  Here, Jason finally delivers a straight forward, first person narrative.  It was at this point that, for me, the downfall of the Compson family became truly evident.  Jason, now leading the family, cares only for himself.  He is his, for some reason, his mother's favorite and she overlooks his glaring flaws.  He has spent years stealing the money which Caddy sends to provide for her illegitimate daughter, named Quentin after her late uncle.  He acts recklessly with his investments and the family money is all but gone.  Meanwhile, young Quentin defies all authority and is set to follow in her mother's promiscuous footsteps but without any of her shame.  

After each of the male Compson children has had their chance to narrate in his own way, I fully expected the final chapter to be narrated by Caddy.  After all, it has been argued by many that the three brothers are each obssesed with her in their own way: Benjy as a mother figure, Quentin with a near incestuous love, and Jason with hatred.  Her actions guide their actions and so the family has fallen.  Yet, Faulkner does not give Caddy a chance to speak for herself.  Instead, the fourth chapter speaks in yet another style.  This time, Faulkner allows the reader omniscience and narrates himself.  For the most part, the chapter revolves around Dilsey and Jason as they spend Easter Sunday in opposite ways.  Dilsey takes Benjy to church while Jason hunts for Quentin, who has run away with a traveling showman.

I will not give away the ending, but suffice it to say that the Compson family should sees no return to glory in their future.  Faulkner has given us the tale of their demise and I think to see any hope in the end is futile.  Some critics argue that the symbolism of the story ending on Easter Sunday signals a resurrection for the southern family.  I simply did not see that as Faulkner's intent, but the beautiful thing about deep, well-written literature is that there is much to interpret and agree or disagree about.

Faulkner definitely uses symbolism in the book.  While, his play with time in the first half of the book can make following the plot difficult at times, it serves an important role as one of the main themes.  Quentin's deliberate destruction of his heirloom watch speaks volumes.  The most powerful symbol, in my opinion, is that of Caddy's childhood underwear.  On two different occasions, once playing in the muddy creek with her brothers and once going to bed after a funeral, she soils them.  There is a moment after the creek incident when all three brothers are looking up at Caddy's muddy underwear drying in the tree above them.  Here, Faulkner lays thick the foreshadowing of how Caddy's promiscuity will captivate and affect each of them.

The Sound and the Fury certainly did not leave me with any hopefully, encouraging thoughts, but after this, my first experience with Faulkner's work, I will call myself a fan.  The book was not depressing in a the-world-is-ending-and-all-hope-is-lost sort of way.  Rather, Faulkner explores the nature of disintegrating family and the depravity of human condition.  His writing is skillful, intentional, and enjoyable, despite its dark message.  I look forward to reading more of his work as I continue working toward my goal.

Have you read The Sound and the Fury?  Do you think there is hope for the Compson family?  What is your favorite point of view style to read?

Pages: 326
Date Completed: April 23, 2013

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