The Compson Family’s Disintegration

“Love’s pleasure lasts but a moment; love’s sorrow lasts all through life” (O’Connor). Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian’s words apply to the actions of William Faulkner’s characters in his The Sound and the Fury and convey love—and reasons to pursue it—as well as the timeless duration of the effects of love. Benjy, Quentin, Jason, and Dilsey possess different attitudes toward time. These characters, along with Caddy, also reflect the effects of love and a lack of love. Faulkner utilizes the characters of Benjy, Quentin, Jason, Dilsey, and Caddy to express the themes of time and love, which eventually lead to the Compson family’s decline.

Faulkner demonstrates the theme of time through the major characters in the novel. He shows the different perspectives of three of his characters, Benjy, Quentin, and Jason, in their respective sections through the use of the stream-of-consciousness technique. Faulkner includes this particular literary device as a method of accomplishing his own stated desire to “put all of human experience between one Cap and one period” (“The Sound” 825). Faulkner expounds upon this view of time, which is most evident in Quentin’s section, in his statement that “there is no such thing as was; if was existed, there would be no grief or sorrow” (“The Sound” 825). Stream of consciousness is a technique in which “the free-flowing thoughts, impressions, and random leaps of association within the mind of a character are rendered without regard for linear development of action” (“The Stream-of-Consciousness”). Faulkner embeds stream of consciousness into his characters’ monologues through a lack of punctuation and capitalization, as well as the recurrence of important ideas (“Themes”). Sartre interprets the setting of Faulkner’s novel as having a “missing link: the lived future.” Eusebio L. Rodrigues reiterates, “…the protagonists of Faulkner are invariably nailed to the cross of the past” (Messerli). The phrase “Fui. Non sum,” which translates to “I was. I am not” and appears in Quentin’s section, enforces the argument that the characters are “immutable selves fixed in the past” (Skirry). Faulkner’s theme of “the continuation of the past into the present” is visible in the Compson family’s decline (“The Sound” 825).

In all four sections of the novel, the main characters respond distinctively to time. In the novel’s first section, Benjy interprets all life experiences as interchangeable, indistinguishable events. His thoughts shift from events in the present to those in the past due to his association of sounds and images rather than a firm understanding about the significance of events. Because he is incapable of comprehending the impact of the passage of time, Benjy is liberated from time’s effects (“Themes”). Lawrence Bowling construes Benjy’s tendency to depart from the present to be an inherent purpose of his mind: “As is characteristic of Benjy, his backward-looking mind returns to the present only long enough to be reminded of another fragment from his past” (Roggenbuck). Faulkner, however, claimed that Benjy possessed the capacity to choose to reject the future: “There was Dilsey to be the future, to stand above the fallen ruins of the family like a ruined chimney, gaunt, patient and indomitable; and Benjy to the past. He had to be an idiot so that like Dilsey, he could be impervious to the future, though unlike her by refusing to accept it at all” (Roggenbuck). According to Faulkner, Benjy “chooses to establish his relationship to the world by detaching himself from 1928 and seeking refuge in his past” (Roggenbuck). Benjy therefore resides in pleasurable memories to find strength to bear his unfortunate current existence. Through Benjy’s eyes, time serves as a method of escape from reality.

In contrast to Benjy’s ability to bolster himself with pleasurable thoughts from the past, Quentin’s memories hinder his ability to survive in the present in the second section of the novel. His overwhelming grief over the loss of his sister’s innocence is intolerable, eventually compelling him to end his battle with time through suicide (“Themes”). Quentin’s father passed on his grandfather’s watch to Quentin, saying,

I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reductio 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 the victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools (Skirry).

The actual Latin phrase, reductio ad absurdum, “reduced to absurdity,” reflects Mr. Compson’s belief that time “reduces human experience to absurdity because all life concludes with death.” Mr. Compson’s cynicism affects Quentin’s thoughts and ideas about life, resulting in his final demise (Ross). Quentin’s father says, “A man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you’d think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune” (Martin). He also believes that clocks slay time, claiming, “Time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels—only when the clock stops does time come to life” (Martin). On the day of his suicide, Quentin breaks the watch in a futile attempt to conquer time. Ironically, Quentin, who represents hope for the family, symbolically kills the family along with himself because of his inability to endure in the present and pursue his goals at Harvard in order to create a better future (“Family”).

Contributing to the theme of time in Quentin’s section is the pervasive nature of the image of the shadow. Quentin is constantly aware of his shadow’s presence and is usually trying to evade it. At one point, Quentin imagines drowning his shadow, foreshadowing his later death. Quentin’s persistent efforts to distance himself from his shadow, a reminder of the passage of time, are representative of “that part of himself that possesses all the humanity and non-order that he cannot accept” (Martin). Because Quentin spends all his energy trying to conquer his shadow, which finally results in suicide, rather than shed light upon it in order to reach an understanding of his life, the shadow later serves as a symbol of the Compson family’s past greatness. Faulkner refers to Quentin, saying, “There was nothing for him to do save buzz, frantic and inviolate, inside the glass walls of his tumbler until he either gave up or was himself by himself, by his own frantic buzzing, destroyed” (Martin). Faulkner explains how Quentin’s inability to move beyond the “glass walls of his tumbler” and accept changes lead to his final downfall. The extensive reference to the shadow also alludes to the soliloquy from Macbeth that serves as the source of the novel’s title:

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. (Ross, Macbeth, V.v. 23-28)

In addition to his inability to consent to personal changes, Quentin’s knowledge of the impossibility of changing Caddy back into what she once was causes him to end his life. His father assures him that the pain will subside and life will continue, but his words do not perform their desired, comforting effect. Quentin’s pain is the only testament to human truth and the meaning of life. Because time will eventually alleviate his pain, Quentin commits suicide not to escape his agony but in order to preserve the veracious intensity of his feeling because he too believes that it will eventually dissipate (Longley). Karl E. Zink concludes that Faulkner “sees man as the creature of change, and his doom as the necessity to submit. This is the source of poignant regret for the loss of much that is good or beautiful. But cessation of change is death” (Messerli). Quentin’s failure therefore lies in his inability to accept changes in both Caddy and himself, which arises from his overwhelming desire to seek “stasis, the perfect and dead world Faulkner saw in the image of Keats’s Grecian urn,” contributing to the Compson family’s decline (Messerli).

On the other hand, Jason, who narrates the third section of the novel, lives in present time in contrast to Quentin whose thoughts mainly focus on the past. Jason views time as money to be gained by outpacing the “mechanical and minute-to-minute” ticking of the clock (Messerli). In the last section of the novel, Dilsey presents yet another assessment of time through a historical perspective. She glances back on her past and embraces her life experiences with an unwavering, pious faith (“Themes”). Dilsey’s interpretation of time is one of a “continuum—Christ’s birth and the present and eternity are all related in time.” Perrin Lowrey details, “Dilsey…realizes what has happened to the Compsons, and she sees them in their proper historical perspective. In her mind there is an interaction of all the faculties; sensation and emotion and reason work together, and this interaction allows her to understand time in its several senses. The opposition between temporal and eternal fades away” (Messerli).

In addition to the theme of time, Faulkner includes love among family members, love between the sexes, and Christian love to demonstrate the Compson family’s decline in his novel. Faulkner presents the Compson brothers’ love for Caddy. Benjy longs for the tender loving care his sister showed towards him when he was young and moans upon hearing the word “caddie” called out on the golf course because the name invokes lost memories (“Themes”). Only Caddy’s slipper, which equates to Caddy, which is the same as love to Benjy, can stop his tears (Messerli). Benjy possesses natural, innocent love for someone who has treated him with compassion and decency. Quentin’s love for his sister Caddy, however, is incestuous, for he is envious of her relationship with other boys and refutes the truth about her past lovers. In spite of Quentin’s outwardly visible signs and actions implying his supposed, incestuous desire for his sister, Faulkner writes in his “Appendix: Compson 1699-1945” that Quentin “loved not the idea of the incest which he would not commit, but some presbyterian concept of its eternal punishment: he, not God, could by that means cast himself and his sister both into hell, where he could guard her forever and keep her forevermore intact amid the eternal fires” (“Themes”). Faulkner notes in his appendix that Quentin “loved death above all” (Bauer).

In contrast to Benjy and Quentin’s love for their sister, Jason’s incessant obsession involves “…immortal hatred and study of revenge.” Jason exemplifies narcissistic qualities, allowing no room for concern of others. Jason fails to realize that the prime impetus of his actions emanates from “his crippling inadequacy of the soul.” Through Jason’s eyes, his niece Quentin serves as a living reminder of Caddy’s ignominy and his lost job, therefore functioning as Jason’s target at which he aims all his inner enmity. Jason uses the lost job his niece cost him as justification for all his moral wrongdoings. He can simultaneously claim that Quentin is an irrevocably fallen woman and complain about his futile attempts to offer her guidance; he can insist on his indifference towards his niece’s actions even while following her footsteps in order to spy on her (Longley). Since his mother, who is incapable of giving love, shows Jason favoritism in childhood, he acquires a position of opposition towards his sister, the only person who can ever love him. Because Jason grows up without love, he can only harbor hatred, which causes him to later possess feelings of jealousy toward Quentin even after his brother’s death. Jason’s vain attempts to rectify his niece’s mistakes may be a quest for love expressed in abhorrence. However, since Jason does not believe in love, he replaces his search for love with the pursuit of money (Messerli). Caddy sends monthly checks as a method of supporting her daughter since Jason forbids Caddy to visit Quentin. Caddy’s checks never carry out their intended purpose, however, for Jason intercepts the mail and cashes the money into his own savings. He further demonstrates his conceited malice by burning free tickets to a traveling show in front of Luster simply because he is well aware that Luster cannot pay for them (“Family”). Furthermore, because of his parents’ lack of love, Jason condemns Benjy to an asylum, sells the house, and engages in criminal activity, demonstrating the devastating effects of a lack of love (“The Sound” 825).

Conversely, Dilsey encompasses loving qualities rather than hateful sentiments. Having been raised in a Christian environment from his youth, Faulkner would likely have been exposed to this biblical passage: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (Smith, 1 Cor. 13: 4-7). Dilsey exemplifies every quality of love listed by St. Paul, making her the “antithesis” of Jason Compson. By providing a reference to Dilsey in the appendix to The Sound and the Fury that reads, “They endured,” Faulkner connotes that Dilsey loves in an unconditional, agape sense (Smith). The novel ends on this theme of Christian love. Faulkner utilizes Dilsey’s character to demonstrate the kind of love that emanates from pure faith and endures adversity (“Themes”). Dilsey, who “seed de first en de last,” represents “the only humanity that survives the fall of the house of Compson—the only humanity to endure” (“The Sound” 826).

While Dilsey may be the caretaker and Quentin the oldest child, Caddy is the “chosen substitute” for her negligent parents because of her ability to offer compassion and sacrifice. The “notorious image of the hypochondriac Mrs. Compson doing little else besides whining about being punished by God for her family’s transgressions” is evidence of the parents’ neglect. Caddy attempts to compensate for her mother’s neglect by attending to Benjy’s needs herself. The fact that Caddy’s response to her mother’s indifference is the cause of her downfall is largely Quentin’s responsibility. The love of family members, particularly Quentin, fails her, leading to inward betrayal. Concerning Caddy, Baum points out, “Ironically enough, those qualities in her character that are admirable are the ones which lead to her fall: her complete selflessness, which leads her to be indifferent to her virginity and to what happens to her; her willingness to put the other person’s interests first; and her great desire to communicate love” (Bauer). Caddy’s strong desire to express love leads her to sexual activity, resulting in Quentin’s disapproval and desperate attempts to reveal to Caddy the immorality of her actions. Once she views her sexuality through her brother’s eyes, she perceives her actions as sinful rather than loving and condemns herself, resulting in a pregnancy without knowledge of the father’s identity. Caddy’s family finds a husband to “legitimize” Caddy and her child, but upon discovering the truth about his wife’s condition, Caddy’s husband sends her home where she is shunned because she has sinned. Bauer writes, “This rejection reinforces Caddy’s acceptance of Quentin’s belief in her sinful nature and she loses confidence in her capacity to be a good mother to her child” (Bauer). Caddy begins to believe that she would be a negative influence upon her child and therefore allows her family to raise her daughter, despite her justified suspicions of the “treatment of the innocent baby as a symbol of its mother’s sin” and her empirical knowledge of their tendency to damage and ruin. According to Lawrence Bowling, abandoning her child is Caddy’s paramount failure. He writes,

She is “damned,” not because she committed fornication and bore an illegitimate child but because, living in a state of perpetual sin, she has neither desire nor hope for redemption; but, most of all, she is damned because, instead of accepting her duty to her child and being the best mother she could, she abandoned the child to the same household which had been her own ruin (Bauer).

Thus, Bauer echoes, “The tragedy of Caddy’s life is repeated by her child” (Bauer). Because Caddy’s daughter is the only progeny of the Compsons, this loss signifies the end of the family line (Bauer).

De Florian’s words translate into actions throughout the course of The Sound and the Fury. Benjy and Quentin live mostly in the past mentally, accounting for Faulkner’s extensive use of the stream-of-consciousness technique in their sections. Quentin’s watch, which once belonged to his grandfather, and his shadow are symbolic of his relationship with time, which he sees as something to be conquered. Jason tries to make every second count; for him, lost time equates to lost money. He wants to use time to the fullest in order to achieve maximum efficiency. Dilsey is the only character that functions and dwells within present time. Because of her parents’ failure to provide parental love, Caddy is forced to intervene and adopt the role of a mother at a very early age. Because Caddy makes this decision, Benjy views his sister as synonymous with love. Quentin’s stance toward love is more complicated. He claims to have committed incest, implying a supposed unnatural love for his sister, but in actuality, he only loves death. Jason replaces love with money out of the bitterness of his heart while Dilsey loves unconditionally and endures whatever comes. De Florian’s words concerning love and time could not apply to this novel more whole-heartedly.


Works Cited:

Bauer, Margaret D. “The Evolution of Caddy: An Intertextual Reading of The Sound and the Fury and Ellen Gilchrist’s The Annunciation.” The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 40-51. Online Detroit: Gale, 2003. Student Resource Center-Gold. GACS Private Library. 15 Feb. 2009.

“Family.” Thematic Guide to the American Novel. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. Gale Virtual Reference Library. GACS Private Library. 15 Feb. 2009.

Longley, John L., Jr. “Who Never Had a Sister: A Reading of The Sound and the Fury.” Mosaic, Vol. VII, No. 1, Fall, 1973, pp. 35-53. Student Resource Center-Gold. GACS Private Library. 25 Jan. 2009.

Martin, Robert A. “The Words of The Sound and the Fury.” The Southern Literary Journal. 32.1 (Fall 1999): p46. Literature Resource Center. GACS Private Library. 25 Jan. 2009.

Messerli, Douglas. “The Problem of Time in The Sound and the Fury: A Critical Reassessment and Reinterpretation.” The Southern Literary Journal. 6.2 (Spring 1974): p19. Literature Resource Center. GACS Private Library. 15 Feb. 2009.

O’Connor, Joseph. “Pages from an Alien Dictionary.” The Irish Times. 12 Apr. 2009 <;.

Roggenbuck, Ted. “‘The Way He Looked Said Hush’: Benjy’s Mental Atrophy in The Sound and the Fury.” The Mississippi Quarterly. 58.3-4 (Summer-Fall 2005): p581. Literature Resource Center. GACS Private Library. 7 Feb. 2009.

Ross, Stephen M. and Noel Polk. Reading Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. NetLibrary. GCPL. 19 Apr. 2009.

Skirry, Justin. “Sartre on William Faulkner’s Metaphysics of Time in The Sound and the Fury.” Sartre Studies International. 7.2 (Dec. 2001): p15. Literature Resource Center. GACS Private Library. 7 Feb. 2009.

Smith, Christine. “Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.” The Explicator. 66.2 (Winter 2008): p100. Literature Resource Center. GACS Private Library. 7 Feb. 2009.

“The Sound and the Fury.” Masterpieces of World Literature. Ed. Frank N. Magill. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1989. 823-826.

“The Stream-of-Consciousness Novel.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol.178. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. GACS Private Library. 7 Feb. 2009.

“Themes and Construction: The Sound and the Fury.” EXPLORING Novels, Detroit: Gale, 2003. Student Resource Center-Gold. GACS Private Library. 25 Jan. 2009.


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