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[423] The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner

” Caddy smelled like trees. “ (I, 42 – Benjy)

The Sound and the Fury epitomizes Faulkner’s inexhaustible invention and powerful imagination. The book is apparently difficult reading since he deliberately chooses a style that involves salient obscurity. The reading is more than arduous; but upon completion I am rewarded with more than just satisfaction. Told in four parts of rough equal length, the novel captures the decadence of the Compson family in the 1920s through three brothers’ memories of their sister Caddy and the family cook’s reflections.

I could hear the clock, and I could hear Caddy standing behind me, and I could hear the roof. It’s still raining, Caddy said. I hate rain. I hate everything. And then her head came into my lap and she was crying, holding me, and I began to cry. (I, 55 – Benjy)

The first part is told by a congenital imbecile, Benjy, a man of 33 whose development has not advanced beyond childhood. He has no sense of time and portrays all the events in the present. His entire mentality revolves around Caddy, for whom he harbors fond memories and passionate devotion. Benjy’s narrative, at a first glance, is completely unreadable, owing to his associative thought-process. The whole of his 33 years are present to him in one uninterrupted and streamless flood. Different memories of Caddy subtly mark the time shifts across almost twenty events spanning 30 years. Benjy’s rigmarole actually gives a general picture of the intense passionate family relationships. One will be surprised at the completeness of his account despite its warped nature.

‘Did you ever have a sister? did you?’ and when he said No, you hit him. I noticed you kept on looking at him, but you didn’t seem to be paying any attention to what anybody was saying until you jumped up and asked him if he had any sisters. (II, 165 – Quentin)

Quentin is just as vague. His narrative dates back 18 years, in 1910, when he commits suicide at Harvard. A sensitive bundle of neuroses, he harnesses memories of Caddy after she became pregnant with the child of Dalton Ames, whom he confronted but lost disgracefully in a fight. It’s through Quentin and his turmoil that readers see the family’s estrangement from Caddy. He remembers Benjy and it pains him that his family has sold Benjy’s share of the land in order to send him to Harvard. He grieves over his failure to protect his sister from the paws of a scoundrel. As he mindfully prepares for his suicide, his narrative fades away to confusion due to severe depression and deteriorating state of mind.

Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say. I says you’re lucky if her playing out to be down there in that kitchen right now, instead of up there in her room, gobbing paint on her face and waiting for six niggers that can’t even stand up out of a chair unless they’ve got a panful of bread and meat to balance them, to fix breakfast for her. (III, 179 – Jason)

Jason’s narrative returns to the present and it is here the fogs lifts and the story quickens its pace. The mean kid spurned by his siblings is now the economic support of the family. Under his roof also is Miss Quentin, Caddy’s daughter who is constantly in pursuit of mischief. This is where readers finally see the dynamics of the Compsons. Knowing that the name Quentin covers two people, I pause and go back to re-read Benjy’s tale a second (and later a third) time to understand the big picture. Together with the third-person narrative that focuses on Dilsey, the family cook, the second half of the novel puts Benjy tale into a clear and kaleidoscopic perspective, as if the whole story suddenly becomes actual to one at a single moment. The effect that the obscurity produces is unparalleled and it mandates readers to re-read in order to appreciate the meaning.

All three brothers try, unconsciously, to construct order out of the chaos that are rampant in their family. They all fail as the family’s values become corrupted over time. Caddy seems to be the central character although none of the narratives devote to her. We know Caddy through her brothers who all hold her in fond memories—and gone is the love that binds them all together after she left. Ironically, it’s Dilsey who maintains a strong sense of order and endures the Compsons’ tumultuous downfall. The Sound and they Fury has the essential quality of a book that can be read over and over again, because it will afford a freshness and new meaning. It begs to be re-read.

321 pp. UK Vintage Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Take It For Granted

Faulkner intimidates me. I dreaded reading him in college. That said, I have made an effort to rediscover him. Reading Faulkner often reminds me how often I take an author and the book for granted, in the way how the story is told. But Faulkner is about defying such conventional story-telling. In The Sound and the Fury, the past frequently intrudes upon the present in the minds of three central characters who each narrate part of the novel. This intrusion is not unusual; it happens to every man and woman from time to time. For example, when you listen to a sermon in a church or a lecture in a classroom–or when you are jogging or making a bed–a memory from yesterday, a year ago, or 20 years ago may suddenly seize your attention. A sound, a sight, a taste, or a smell may have triggered that memory. Or the memory may simply have sprung up, unbidden.

Excerpt from Part I (p.2-4)

We went along the fence and came to the garden fence, where our shadows were. My shadow was higher than Luster’s on the fence. We came to the broken place and went through it.
“Wait a minute.” Luster said. “You snagged on that nail again. Cant you never crawl through here without snagging on that nail.”
Caddy uncaught me and we crawled through. Uncle Maury said to not let anybody see us, so we better stoop over, Caddy said. Stoop over, Benjy. Like this, see. We stooped over and crossed the garden, where the flowers rasped and rattled against us. The ground was hard. We climbed the fence, where the pigs were grunting and snuffing. I expect they’re sorry because one of them got killed today, Caddy said. The ground was hard, churned and knotted. Keep your hands in your pockets, Caddy said. Or they’ll get froze. You dont want your hands froze on Christmas, do you.
“It’s too cold out there.” Versh said. “You dont want to go outdoors.”
“What is it now.” Mother said.
“He want to go out doors.” Versh said.
“Let him go.” Uncle Maury said.
“It’s too cold.” Mother said. “He’d better stay in. Benjamin. Stop that, now.”
“It wont hurt him.” Uncle Maury said.
“You, Benjamin.” Mother said. “If vou dont be good, you’ll have to go to the kitchen.”
“Mammy say keep him out the kitchen today.” Versh said. “She say she got all that cooking to get done.”
“Let him go, Caroline.” Uncle Maury said. “You’ll worry yourself sick over him.”
“I know it.” Mother said. “It’s a judgment on me. I sometimes wonder.”
“I know, I know.” Uncle Maury said. “You must keep your strength up. I’ll make you a toddy.”
“It just upsets me that much more.” Mother said. “Dont you know it does.”
“You’ll feel better. ” Uncle Maury said. “Wrap him up good, boy, and take him out for a while.”
Uncle Maury went away. Versh went away.
“Please hush.” Mother said. “We’re trying to get you out as fast as we can. I dont want you to get sick.”
Versh put my overshoes and overcoat on and we took my cap and went out. Uncle Maury was putting the bottle away in the sideboard in the diningroom.
“Keep him out about half an hour, boy.” Uncle Maury said. “Keep him in the yard, now.”
“Yes, sir.” Versh said. “We dont never let him get off the place.”
We went out doors. The sun was cold and bright.
“Where you heading for.” Versh said. “You dont think you going to town, does you.” We went through the rattling leaves. The gate was cold. “You better keep them hands in your pockets.” Versh said. “You get them froze onto that gate, then what you do. Whyn’t you wait for them in the house.” He put my hands into my pockets. I could hear him rattling in the leaves. I could smell the cold. The gate was cold.
“Here some hickeynuts. Whooey. Git up that tree. Look here at this squirl, Benjy.” I couldn’t feel the gate at all, but I could smell the bright cold. “You better put them hands back in your pockets.”
Caddy was walking. Then she was running, her booksatchel swinging and jouncing behind her.
“Hello, Benjy.” Caddy said. She opened the gate and came in and stooped down. Caddy smelled like leaves. “Did you come to meet me.” she said. “Did you come to meet Caddy. What did you let him get his hands so cold for, Versh.” “I told him to keep them in his pockets.” Versh said. “Holding on to that ahun gate.”
“Did you come to meet Caddy.” she said, rubbing my hands. “What is it. What are you trying to tell Caddy.” Caddy smelled like trees and like when she says we were asleep.

Part I takes place on Saturday, April 7, 1928, the day before Easter, but flashes back frequently to previous years. The narrator of this chapter is Benjy Compson, who was born in 1895. He is feeble-minded. He cannot speak, read, or write. His retardation is so severe that he even confuses the past with the present. A memory from long ago may occur to him as a present experience. From the excerpt, the first part of the narrative denotes the present, in which Benjy, now 33 years old, is in the company of a friend Luster, who is looking for a lost quarter at the golf course. The italic part goes back in time, telling us about Caddy’s delivery of letter to Mrs. Patterson back in 1904. The next narrative tells us about Uncle Maury’s intent to arrange for Caddy to deliver letter to Mrs. Patterson, his secret lover. Why all the time shifts? Because Benjy has no sense of time, his only thought-process is associative: the event of the day, then, and what it reminds him of in the past are all one to him. That is why when in the present, snagged on a nail when crossing over the fence, he remembers the time when Caddy and he were to deliver the love letter to their neighbor.

Faulkner for sure challenges his readers to disentangle the characters and the time in which he tells the fragments of story. The joy to me is to not take things for granted, but to appreciate the unconventional manner of story-telling.