The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury
The Sound and the Fury  
First edition cover
Author(s) William Faulkner
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Southern Gothic novel
Publisher Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith
Publication date 1929
Media type Print (hardback and paperback)
Pages 336
ISBN 0-679-73224-1
OCLC Number 21525355
Dewey Decimal 813/.52 20
LC Classification PS3511.A86 S7 1990

The Sound and the Fury is a novel written by the American author William Faulkner. It employs a number of narrative styles, including the technique known as stream of consciousness, pioneered by 20th century European novelists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Published in 1929, The Sound and the Fury was Faulkner's fourth novel, and was not immediately successful. In 1931, however, when Faulkner's sixth novel, Sanctuary, was published — a sensationalist story which Faulkner later claimed was written only for money — The Sound and the Fury also became commercially successful, and Faulkner began to receive critical attention.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Sound and the Fury sixth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century


Plot introduction

The Sound and the Fury is set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. The novel centers on the Compson family, former Southern aristocrats who are struggling to deal with the dissolution of their family and its reputation. The novel is separated into four distinct sections. The first, April 7, 1928, is written from the perspective of Benjamin "Benjy" Compson, a 33-year-old man with severe mental handicaps. Benjy's section is characterized by a highly disjointed narrative style with frequent chronological leaps. The second section, June 2, 1910, focuses on Quentin Compson, Benjy's older brother, and the events leading up to his suicide. In the third section, April 6, 1928, Faulkner writes from the point of view of Jason, Quentin's cynical younger brother. In the fourth and final section, set a day after the first, on April 8, 1928, Faulkner introduces a third person omniscient point of view. The last section primarily focuses on Dilsey, one of the Compson's black servants. Jason is also a focus in the section, but Faulkner presents glimpses of the thoughts and deeds of everyone in the family.

Explanation of the novel's title

The title of the novel is taken from Macbeth's soliloquy in act 5, scene 5 of William Shakespeare's Macbeth:

"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."

Immediately obvious is the notion of a "tale told by an idiot", in this case Benjy, whose view of the Compsons' story opens the novel. The idea can be extended also to Quentin and Jason, whose narratives display their own varieties of idiocy. More to the point, the novel recounts the decline and death of a traditional upper-class Southern family, "the way to dusty death". The last line is, perhaps, the most meaningful; Faulkner said in his speech upon being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature that people must write about things that come from the heart, "universal truths". Otherwise they signify nothing.

Plot summary

The four parts of the novel relate many of the same episodes, each from a different point of view and therefore with emphasis on different themes and events. This interweaving and nonlinear structure makes any true synopsis of the novel difficult, especially since the narrators are all unreliable in their own way, making their accounts not necessarily trustworthy at all times. Also in this novel, Faulkner uses italics to indicate points in each section where the narrative is moving into a significant moment in the past. The use of these italics can be confusing, however, as time shifts are not always marked by the use of italics, and periods of different time in each section do not necessarily stay in italics for the duration of the flashback. Thus, these time shifts can often be jarring and confusing, and require particularly close reading.

The general outline of the story is the decline of the Compson family, a once noble Southern family descended from U.S. Civil War hero General Compson. The family falls victim to those vices which Faulkner believed were responsible for the problems in the reconstructed South: racism, avarice, selfishness, and the psychological inability of individuals to become determinants[clarification needed]. Over the course of the thirty years or so related in the novel, the family falls into financial ruin, loses its religious faith and the respect of the town of Jefferson, and many of them die tragically.

The reader may also wish to look in The Portable Faulkner for a four-page history of the Compson family. Faulkner said afterwards that he wished he had written the history at the same time he wrote The Sound and the Fury.

Part 1: April 7, 1928

The first section of the novel is narrated by Benjamin "Benjy" Compson, a source of shame to the family due to his autism; the only characters who evidence a genuine care for him are Caddy, his older sister; and Dilsey, a matriarchal servant. His narrative voice is characterized predominantly by its nonlinearity: spanning the period 1898–1928, Benjy's narrative is a pastiche of events presented in a seamless stream of consciousness. The presence of italics in Benjy's section is meant to indicate significant shifts in the narrative. Originally Faulkner meant to use different colored inks to signify chronological breaks. This nonlinearity makes the style of this section particularly challenging, but Benjy's style develops a cadence that, while not chronologically coherent, provides unbiased insight into many characters' true motivations. Moreover, Benjy's caretaker changes to indicate the time period: Luster in the present, T.P. in Benjy's teenage years, and Versh during Benjy's infancy and childhood.

In this section we see Benjy's three passions: fire, the golf course on land that used to belong to the Compson family, and his sister Caddy. But by 1928 Caddy has been banished from the Compson home after her husband divorced her because her child was not his, and the family has sold his favorite pasture to a local golf club in order to finance Quentin's Harvard education. In the opening scene, Benjy, accompanied by Luster, a servant boy, watches golfers on the nearby golf course as he waits to hear them call "caddie"—the name of his favorite sibling. When one of them calls for his golf caddie, Benjy's mind embarks on a whirlwind course of memories of his sister, Caddy, focusing on one critical scene. In 1898 when their grandmother died, the four Compson children were forced to play outside during the funeral. In order to see what was going on inside, Caddy climbed a tree in the yard, and while looking inside, her brothers—Quentin, Jason and Benjy—looked up and noticed that her underwear was muddy. How each of them reacts to this is the first insight the reader has into the trends that will shape the lives of these boys: Jason is disgusted, Quentin is appalled, and Benjy seems to have a "sixth-sense" in that he moans (he is unable to speak using words), as if sensing the symbolic nature of Caddy's dirtiness, which hints at her later sexual promiscuity. At the time the children were aged 9 (Quentin), 7 (Caddy), 5 (Jason) and 3 (Benjy). Other crucial memories in this section are Benjy's change of name (from Maury, after his uncle) in 1900 upon the discovery of his disability; the marriage and divorce of Caddy (1910), and Benjy's castration, resulting from an attack on a girl that is alluded to briefly within this chapter when a gate is left unlatched and Benjy is out unsupervised. Readers often report trouble understanding this portion of the novel due to its impressionistic language, necessitated by Benjamin's Autism, and its frequent shifts in time and setting.

Part 2: June 2, 1910

Quentin, the most intelligent and tormented of the Compson children, gives the novel's best example of Faulkner's narrative technique. We see him as a freshman at Harvard, wandering the streets of Cambridge, contemplating death, and remembering his family's estrangement from his sister Caddy. Like the first section, its narrative is not strictly linear, though the two interweaving threads, of Quentin at Harvard on the one hand, and of his memories on the other, are clearly discernible.

Quentin's main obsession is Caddy's virginity and purity. He is obsessed with Southern ideals of chivalry and is strongly protective of women, especially his sister. When Caddy engages in sexual promiscuity, Quentin is horrified. He turns to his father for help and counsel, but the pragmatic Mr. Compson tells him that virginity is invented by men and should not be taken seriously. He also tells Quentin that time will heal all. Quentin spends much of his time trying to prove his father wrong, but is unable to. Shortly before Quentin leaves for Harvard in the fall of 1909, Caddy becomes pregnant with the child of Dalton Ames, whom Quentin confronts. The two fight, with Quentin losing disgracefully and Caddy vowing, for Quentin's sake, never to speak to Dalton again. Quentin tells his father that they have committed incest, but his father knows that he is lying: "and he did you try to make her do it and i i was afraid to i was afraid she might and then it wouldn't do any good" (112). Quentin's idea of incest is shaped by the idea that, if they "could just have done something so dreadful that they would have fled hell except us" (51), he could protect his sister by joining her in whatever punishment she might have to endure. In his mind, he feels a need to take responsibility for Caddy's sin. Pregnant and alone, Caddy then marries Herbert Head, whom Quentin finds repulsive, but Caddy is resolute: she must marry before the birth of her child. Herbert finds out that the child is not his and sends mother and daughter away in shame. Quentin's wanderings through Harvard, as he cuts classes, follow the pattern of his heartbreak over losing Caddy. For instance, he meets a small Italian immigrant girl who speaks no English. Significantly, he calls her "sister" and spends much of the day trying to communicate with her, and to care for her by finding her home, to no avail. He thinks sadly of the downfall and squalor of the South after the American Civil War. Because he can't deal with the amorality of the world around him, he commits suicide. While many first-time readers report Benjy's section as being difficult to understand, these same readers often find Quentin's section to be near impossible. Not only do chronological events mesh together regularly, but often (especially at the end) Faulkner completely disregards any semblance of grammar, spelling, or punctuation, instead writing in a rambling series of words, phrases, and sentences that have no separation to indicate where one thought ends and another begins. This confusion is due to Quentin's severe depression and deteriorating state of mind. The section is therefore ironic in that Quentin is an even more unreliable narrator than his brother Benjy was. Because of the staggering complexity of this section, it is often the one most extensively studied by scholars of the novel.

Part 3: April 6, 1928

The third section is narrated by Jason, the third son and Caroline's favorite. It takes place the day before Benjy's section, on Good Friday. Of the three brothers' sections, Jason's is the most straightforward, reflecting his single-minded desire for material wealth. By 1928, Jason is the economic foundation of the family after his father's death. He supports his mother, Benjy, and Miss Quentin (Caddy's daughter), as well as the family's servants. His role makes him bitter and cynical, with little of the passionate sensitivity that mark his older brother and sister. He goes so far as to blackmail Caddy into making him Miss Quentin's sole guardian, then uses that role to steal the support payments that Caddy sends for her daughter.

This is the first section that is narrated in a linear fashion. It follows the course of Good Friday, a day in which Jason decides to leave work to search for Miss Quentin (Caddy's daughter), who has run away again, seemingly in pursuit of mischief. Here we see most immediately the conflict between the two predominant traits of the Compson family, which Jason's mother Caroline attributes to the difference between her blood and her husband's: on the one hand, Miss Quentin's recklessness and passion, inherited from her grandfather and, ultimately, the Compson side; on the other, Jason's ruthless cynicism, drawn from his mother's side. This section also gives us the clearest image of domestic life in the Compson household, which for Jason and the servants means the care of the hypochondriac Caroline and of Benjy.

Part 4: April 8, 1928

April 8, 1928, is Easter Sunday. This section, the only one without a single first-person narrator, focuses on Dilsey, the powerful matriarch of the black servant family. She, in contrast to the declining Compsons, draws a great deal of strength from her faith, standing as a proud figure amid a dying family. It can be said that Dilsey gains her strength by looking outward (i.e. outside of one's self for support) while the Compsons grow weak by looking inward.

On this Easter Sunday, Dilsey takes her family and Benjy to the 'colored' church. Through her we sense the consequences of the decadence and depravity in which the Compsons have lived for decades. Dilsey is mistreated and abused, but nevertheless remains loyal. She, with the help of her grandson Luster, cares for Benjy, as she takes him to church and tries to bring him to salvation. The preacher's sermon inspires her to weep for the Compson family, reminding her that she's seen the family through its destruction, which she is now witnessing.

Meanwhile, the tension between Jason and Miss Quentin reaches its inevitable conclusion. The family discovers that Miss Quentin has run away in the middle of the night with a carnival worker, having found the hidden collection of cash in Jason's closet and taken both her money (the support from Caddy, which Jason had stolen) and her money-obsessed uncle's life savings. Jason calls the police and tells them that his money has been stolen, but since it would mean admitting embezzling Quentin's money he doesn't press the issue. He therefore sets off once again to find her on his own, but loses her trail in nearby Mottson, and gives her up as gone for good.

The novel ends with a very powerful and unsettling image. After church, Dilsey allows her grandson Luster to drive Benjy in the family's decrepit horse and carriage (another sign of decay) to the graveyard. Luster, not caring that Benjy is so entrenched in the routine of his life that even the slightest change in route will enrage him, drives the wrong way around a monument. Benjy's hysterical sobbing and violent outburst can only be quieted by Jason, of all people, who understands how best to placate his brother. Jason slaps Luster, turns the carriage around, and Benjy suddenly becomes silent. Luster turns around to look at Benjy and sees Benjy drop his flower. Benjy's eyes are "...empty and blue and serene again."

Appendix: Compson: 1699–1945

In 1945, Faulkner wrote an appendix to the novel to be published in the then-forthcoming anthology The Portable Faulkner. At Faulkner's behest, however, subsequent printings of The Sound and the Fury frequently contain the appendix at the end of the book; it is sometimes referred to as the fifth part. Having been written sixteen years after The Sound and the Fury, the appendix presents some textual differences from the novel, but serves to clarify the novel's opaque story.

The appendix is presented as a complete history of the Compson family lineage, beginning with the arrival of their ancestor Quentin Maclachlan in America in 1779 and continuing through 1945, including events that transpired after the novel (which took place in 1928). In particular, the appendix reveals that Caroline Compson died in 1933, upon which Jason had Benjy committed to the state asylum; fired the black servants; sold the last of the Compson land; and moved into an apartment above his farming supply store. It is also revealed that Jason had himself declared Benjy's legal guardian many years ago, without their mother's knowledge, and used this status to have Benjy castrated.

The appendix also reveals the fate of Caddy, last seen in the novel when her daughter Quentin is still a baby. After marrying and divorcing a second time, Caddy moved to Paris, where she lived at the time of the German occupation. In 1943 the librarian of Yoknapatawpha County discovered a magazine photograph of Caddy in the company of a German staff general and attempted separately to recruit both Jason and Dilsey to save her; Jason, at first acknowledging that the photo was of his sister, denied that it was she after realizing the librarian wanted his help, while Dilsey pretended to be unable to see the picture at all. The librarian later realizes that while Jason remains cold and unsympathetic towards Caddy, Dilsey simply understands that Caddy neither wants nor needs salvation from the Germans, because nothing else remains for her.

The appendix concludes with an accounting for the black family who worked as servants to the Compsons. Unlike the entries for the Compsons themselves, which are lengthy, detailed, and told with an omniscient narrative perspective, the servants' entries are simple and succinct. Dilsey's entry, the final in the appendix, consists of two words: "They endured."

Characters in The Sound and the Fury

The genealogy of the Compson Family
  • Jason Compson III (?–1912) — father of the Compson family, a lawyer who attended the University of the South — a nihilistic thinker and alcoholic, with cynical opinions that torment his son, Quentin. He also narrates several chapters of Absalom, Absalom!.
  • Caroline Bascomb Compson (?–1933) — wife of Jason Compson III — a self-absorbed neurotic who has never shown affection for any of her children except Jason, whom she seems to like only because he takes after her side of the family. In her old age she has become an abusive hypochondriac.
  • Quentin Compson III (1890–1910) — the oldest Compson child — passionate and neurotic, he commits suicide as the tragic culmination of the damaging influence of his father's nihilistic philosophy and his inability to cope with his sister's sexual promiscuity. He is also a character in Absalom, Absalom!. The bridge over the Charles River, where he commits suicide in the novel, bears a plaque to commemorate the character's life and death.
  • Candace "Caddy" Compson (1892–?) — the second Compson child, strong-willed yet caring. Benjy's only real caregiver and Quentin's best friend. According to Faulkner, the true hero of the novel. Caddy never develops a voice, but rather allows her brothers' emotions towards her to develop her character.
  • Jason Compson IV (1894–?) — the bitter, racist third child who is troubled by monetary debt and sexual frustration. He works at a farming goods store owned by a man named Earl and becomes head of the household in 1912. Has been embezzling Miss Quentin's support payments for years.
  • Benjamin ("Benjy", born Maury) Compson (1895–?) — the mentally disabled fourth child, who is a constant source of shame and grief for his family, especially his mother, who insisted on his name change to Benjamin. Caddy is the only family member who shows any genuine love towards him. Has an almost animal-like "sixth sense" about people, as he was able to tell that Caddy had lost her virginity just from her smell. The model for Benjy's character may have had its beginning in the 1925 New Orleans Times Picayune sketch by Faulkner entitled "The Kingdom of God".
  • Dilsey Gibson (?–?) — the matriarch of the servant family, which includes her three children — Versh, Frony, and T.P. — and her grandchild Luster (Frony's son); they serve as Benjamin's caretakers throughout his life. An observer of the Compson family's destruction.
  • Miss Quentin Compson (1911?–?) — daughter of Caddy who goes to live with the Compsons under Jason IV's care when Herbert divorces Caddy. She is very wild and promiscuous, and eventually runs away from home. Often referred to as Quentin II or Miss Quentin by readers to distinguish her from her uncle, for whom she was named.

Literary significance and reception

The novel has achieved great critical success and a prominent place among the greatest of American novels. It played a role in William Faulkner's receiving the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The novel's appreciation has in large part been due to the technique of its construction, Faulkner's ability to recreate the thought patterns of the human mind. It was an essential development in the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique.

Like much of Faulkner's work, The Sound and the Fury has been read as typifying the South as a whole. Faulkner was very much preoccupied with the question of how the ideals of the old South could be maintained or preserved in the post-Civil War era. Seen in this light, the decline of the Compson family might be interpreted as an examination of the corrosion of traditional morality, only to be replaced by a modern helplessness. The most compelling characters are also the most tragic, as Caddy and Quentin cannot survive within the context of the society whose values they reject as best they can, and it is left to Jason, unappealing but competently pragmatic, to maintain the status quo, as illustrated by the novel's ending.

There are also echoes of existential themes in the novel, as Sartre argued in his famous essay on Faulkner.[citation needed] Many of the characters also draw upon classical, Biblical and literary sources: Some believe Quentin (like Darl in As I Lay Dying) to have been inspired by Hamlet and Caddy by Ophelia. Benjamin may derive his name from the brother of Joseph in the Book of Genesis.


See also


  • Anderson, Deland (1990). "Through Days of Easter: Time and Narrative in The Sound and the Fury". Literature and Theology 4 (3): 311–24. doi:10.1093/litthe/4.3.311. 
  • Bleikasten, André. The Ink of Melancholy: Faulkner's Novels from The Sound and the Fury to Light in August. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.
  • Bleikasten, André. The Most Splendid Failure: Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1976.
  • Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963.
  • Castille, Philip D. (1992). "Dilsey's Easter Conversion in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury". Studies in the Novel 24: 423–33. 
  • Cowan, Michael H., ed. Twentieth century interpretations of The sound and the fury: a collection of critical essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968.
  • Dahill-Baue, William (1996). "Insignificant Monkeys: Preaching Black English in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Beloved". Mississippi Quarterly 49: 457–73. 
  • Davis, Thadious M. Faulkner's "Negro": Art and the Southern Context. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.
  • Fleming, Robert E. (1992). "James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones as a Source for Faulkner's Rev'un Shegog". CLA Journal 36: 24–30. 
  • Gunn, Giles. "Faulkner's Heterodoxy: Faith and Family in The Sound and the Fury." Faulkner and Religion: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1989. Ed. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991. 44–64.
  • Hagopian, John V. (1967). "Nihilism in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury". Modern Fiction Studies 13: 45–55. 
  • Hein, David (2005). "The Reverend Mr. Shegog's Easter Sermon: Preaching as Communion in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury". Mississippi Quarterly 58: 559–80. 
  • Howe, Irving. William Faulkner: A Critical Study. 3d ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975.
  • Kartiganer, Donald M. The Fragile Thread: The Meaning of Form in Faulkner's Novels. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1979.
  • Marshall, Alexander J., III. "The Dream Deferred: William Faulkner's Metaphysics of Absence." Faulkner and Religion: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1989. Ed. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991. 177–192.
  • Matthews, John T. The Play of Faulkner's Language. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1982.
  • Matthews, John T. The Sound and the Fury: Faulkner and the Lost Cause. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
  • Palumbo, Donald (1979). "The Concept of God in Faulkner's Light in August, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom!". South Central Bulletin 34: 142–46. 
  • Polk, Noel. "Trying Not to Say: A Primer on the Language of The Sound and the Fury." New Essays on The Sound and the Fury. Ed. Noel Polk. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. 139–175.
  • Radloff, Bernhard (1986). "The Unity of Time in The Sound and the Fury". The Faulkner Journal 1: 56–68. 
  • Rosenberg, Bruce A. (1969). "The Oral Quality of Rev. Shegog's Sermon in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury". Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 2: 73–88. 
  • Ross, Stephen M. Fiction's Inexhaustible Voice: Speech and Writing in Faulkner. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1989.
  • Ross, Stephen M., and Noel Polk. Reading Faulkner: "The Sound and the Fury." Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1996.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. Patrick J. Hoffmann & Olga W. Vickery. ed. William Faulkner; Three Decades of Criticism. New York: Harcourt. pp. 225–233. 
  • Tredell, Nicholas, ed (1999). William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury; As I Lay Dying (First ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-12189-7. Retrieved August 28, 2009. 
  • Sundquist, Eric J. Faulkner: The House Divided. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983.
  • Urgo, Joseph R. "A Note on Reverend Shegog's Sermon in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury." NMAL: Notes on Modern American Literature 8.1 (1984): item 4.
  • Vickery, Olga W. The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical Interpretation. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1964.

External links

Preceded by
Sartoris or Flags in the Dust
Novels set in Yoknapatawpha County Succeeded by
As I Lay Dying

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