The sound and the fury
William Faulkner’s classic masterpiece, to which I’ve finally gotten around – but…better later than never, eh?
The novel, written in 1929, came to public attention and critical acclaim 2 years later, following the publication of “Sanctuary” – a more commercial work, which Mr Faulkner himself claims to have written only for financial gain. Even geniuses have to live on something, don’t they? 😉
It makes great use of the “stream of consciousness” technique (about which I actually remember learning a bit or two in highschool), and apparently it’s a Southern Gothic novel (of which I don’t claim to know anything 😀 – except that I picked it up only to stay in the South, following “Reflections in a Golden eye“). I should say I liked it, it’s brilliant and intriguing, but it’s also a difficult read; and perhaps one day I’ll have another go at it, otherwise I’ll never fully understand the first 2 parts.
The story, in itself, is the fall of a rich Southern family, the Compsons, comprised of a hypochondriac mother, an alcoholic father, a retarded son (Benji), a suicidal son (Quentin), a embittered son (Jason), a daughter who has made more than her share of unwise choices (Caddy) and later a runaway grand-daughter (Quentin). With such a display of characters, it’s not hard to imagine that this is the end of a rather lasting dynasty.
The book is divided into 4 parts, and the first 2 are the really tricky ones. The first 3 are narrated by each son in turn, while the fourth is a third-person narration, focusing on Dilsey, the black cook and housekeeper. Benji’s narration (the first part) was, to me, the hardest to follow, as his mind skips without warning from past to present, and his mental deficiency makes the events he tries to remember very hard to place in a larger context. The easiest way to separate the times is to identify Ben’s caretaker (Luster – in his 30s, T.P. – in his teenage years and Versh – in the childhood years). He remembers the night of their grandmother’s death, when all 4 Compson children stood outside while the adults “took care of things”, he remembers a beloved piece of land once belonging to his family (also a very disputed piece of land, that was sold to send Quentin, the eldest son, to Harvard and to offer Caddy a lavish wedding – both enterprises ending in disaster), but most of all he remembers his sister. She had been, for a long part of his life, the center of his universe and the only one in the family to show him true affection. Now that she has been banished from the city (after being thrown out by her husband, upon his finding out the true paternity of the child she bore), Ben feels a sort of absence in his life, painfully obvious in his maddening screams when hearing the word “caddie” from the golf-course next door.
The second part is represented by Quentin’s memories. In a way, deficient himself (not in intelligence, but in some kind of emotional capacity), the center of his universe was also his sister Caddy and his suicide followed her own downfall. Caddy turned out to be somewhat promiscuous for the times – when she got pregnant without being married with Dalton Ames’s child, Quentin tried (and utterly failed) to confront him. She was finally married to another man, Herbert Head (whom Quentin disliked), but he threw her out soon after, since he discovered the child wasn’t his. This rapid succession of events unhinged Quentin even more; until he finally committed suicide, by jumping off a bridge tied to a couple of flat-irons. Quentin’s reactions are motivated somehow by his obsession with purity, with virginity as well as a sense of family honor. A oddity about him, oddity that can only be explained by these obsessions, is that he claims, in front of his father, that he and his sister had incestuous relations, resulting in her pregnancy, a hypothesis that is dismissed from the start by Jason Compton sr.
The third part is the easiest to follow, due to the narrator’s – the least likeable of the Comptons, Jason jr. – logical and purpose-driven thinking. Following the death of his brother and father, the banishment of his sister, he is left with his mother and his niece – Caddy’s illegitimate daughter, Quentin. He doesn’t get along with them, he is deceiving and lying to his mother, and continually punishing his niece for the life he is forced to lead as a mere shop assistant (Herbert Head had promised him a job in a bank, but the deal fell through when he discovered Caddy’s infidelity and threw her out). Least likeable, yes, but not less interesting than all the other brothers, Jason is very bitter, cynical, calculated and his sole purpose is material gain – no matter the means. He practically steals the money Caddy sends for her daughter and, when Quentin finally runs away, she breaks into his drawer and takes all she finds there – 4000$ of her own money and almost 3000$ that Jason had put aside from his paycheck – and that he will never recover.
The fourth part wraps up the history of this family and tells how, after Caroline Compson’s death, Jason puts his last remaining relative in an insane asylum sells the house and starts over again in a new business. Actually, the 4th part is centered on Dilsey, the faithful servant and her acknowledgement of the family’s ultimate decay, which Jason’s acts will finally complete.
All in all, it’s very moving (like most such stories are to me) and it’s a representation of the “old” South’s lack of adjustment to the modern world. Something else that caught my eye (and reminded me of highschool – ok, no laughs please, but anyone else remembered “Baltagul”? 😀 ), was Ben’s renaming and the superstitions that led to it. Initially he was baptized Maury (after his uncle, Caroline’s brother), but, when his mother discovered he was retarded she insisted on renaming him; “Ben” was Quentin’s choice. The idea was, of course, to change his destiny, only mental illness couldn’t really be defeated by such superstitious tricks; it does stand, however, as another proof of the obsolescence of the whole Southern society.
There is a lot to be told about this novel and (a bit of trivia), starting with 2007 it’s part of the standard highschool curriculum in the States, so a lot of students are gonna dissect it to tiny little bits 😉 . There is also a really helpful (at least for following the chronology) edition online – here, which I only superficially browsed through 😀 and SparkNotes – here – which I didn’t read at all because, truth be told, I’m not that much into literary analysis. I can only say that it’s a book to be read – at least once. And that I definitely need a break until I try another of Mr. Faulkner’s novels 😉