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Benjy & Quentin sections of The Sound & the Fury

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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.

(Macbeth: V.v.18-27)

These Shakespearean verses lend William Faulkner the title of this novel, and speak of the philosophy behind it. In this soliloquy, Macbeth implies that the life is only a shadow of the past. He idealizes the greatness of the past, and expresses his inability as a modern man to achieve that greatness. “Faulkner reinterprets this idea,” comment Phillips & Johnson, “implying that if man does not choose to take his own life, as Quentin does, the only alternatives are to become either a cynic and materialist like Jason, or an idiot like Benjy, unable to see life as anything more than a meaningless series of images, sounds, and memories.”1

The three Compson brothers reveal their perspectives through their streams of consciousness in the first three sections of the novel. The fourth section is the perspective of “the narrator.” Before we attempt to compare the first two sections of the novels i.e. the perspectives of Benjy and Quentin, we must not forget the conclusion of Donald Kartiganer, as he analyses the form of the novel. “None of the four tales speak to another, each imagined order cancels out the one that precedes it. Truth is the meaningless sum of four items, that seem to have no business being added: Benjy plus Quentin plus Jason plus ‘the narrator’. ‘You bring them together’,” he quotes Faulkner, ” ‘…and…nothing happens’.” 2

Benjy Compson is a mentally retarded thirty year old man at the time of narration. Although he can not speak, he often registers his protest in the form of loud unpleasant moans, and these moans are the sounds that communicate the fury. Being an “idiot”, he is unable to understand any abstract concepts such as time, cause and effect, or right and wrong. He merely absorbs visual and auditory cues from the world around him.

Kartiganer thinks that the Benjy section comes first in the novel “for the simple reason that Benjy, of all the narrators, cannot lie, which is to say he can not create.”2 Since Benjy is a retard, his section represents extreme objectivity, a condition impossible to the ordinary mind and far in excess of even the most naturalistic fiction. “Being an idiot, Benjy is perception prior to consciousness,” according to Kartiganer, “prior to the human need to abstract from events in an intelligible order. His monologue is a series of frozen pictures, offered without bias.”

The same author realizes that “In [his] section, Quentin […is] extremely subjective, […] imposing a distorted view on experience, in exact contrast to Benjy, who can abstract no order at all.” 2Quentin is the oldest of the Compson children. He is very intelligent and extremely sensitive, but is paralyzed by his obsession with Caddy and his preoccupation with a very traditional Southern code of conduct and morality. He feels an inordinate burden of responsibility to live up to the family’s past greatness and prestige. “The One Dimensional contrast between the presence and absence in Benjy’s section,” thinks Gary Lee Stonum, as he rediscovers Faulkner’s search for narrative method, “is replaced by a more complex conflict between the actualities of the world and the ideals that Quentin demands of it.” He wants “nothing more but to replace life with interpretation,” thinks Kartiganer, and “to see himself as the knight of the ideal, challenging and spurning the temporal world in the name of pure ideals.” Adds Stonum.

Time in the Sound and the Fury, explains Deshaye in an attempt to justify the namesake “is a component of entropy, the increasing chaos of the universe. The Compsons’ lives become less stable in every generation, so that the Southern ideals of a strong and landed nuclear family come apart.”

This aspect of time can not be felt by the idiot Benjy, due to his inability to understand abstract concepts. Benjy does not recall, and therefore can not interpret, the past from the perspective of the present; nor does the past help to determine that perspective. Instead of past and present being a continuum, each influencing the meaning of the other, they have no temporal dimension at all. They are isolated autonomous moments, that do not come ‘before’ of ‘after’.2 Kartinager sees a “timelessness in the scenes Benjy relives, but it is not the timelessness of art, abstracting time into meaning. It is an absence for the need of art.”

Quentin on the other hand, characterized by his over-sensitivity to abstract concepts such as honor and virginity, is obsessed with time.

The first half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of a number of prominent Southern families such as the Compsons. These aristocratic families espoused traditional Southern values. Men were expected to act like gentlemen, displaying courage, moral strength, perseverance, and chivalry in defense of the honor of their family name. Women were expected to be models of feminine purity, grace, and virginity until it came time for them to provide children to inherit the family legacy. Faith in God and profound concern for preserving the family reputation provided the grounding for these beliefs.

The Civil War and Reconstruction devastated many of these once-great Southern families economically, socially, and psychologically. Faulkner contends that in the process, the Compsons, and other similar Southern families, lost touch with the reality of the world around them and became lost in a haze of self-absorption. This self-absorption corrupted the core values these families once held dear and left the newer generations completely unequipped to deal with the realities of the modern world.

Quentin’s first memory in his section, is of his father giving him his Grandfather’s watch. “I give it to you not that you may remember time,” said Mr. Compson, “but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.” Quentin’s confusions start right away. Storhoff in his attempt to find out Quentin’s dilemma, realizes that “Quentin’s watch becomes a functional symbol of his family’s double bind.” The watch had been given to him as the treasured legacy of his legendary grandfather, who according to Mr. Compson “was always right” therefore it will justifiably stimulate, in contrast to his father’s words, Quentin’s idealization of the great past and his attempt to conquer time. Storhoff notes that “the watch alternately communicates and metacommunicates, and oscillates in its meaning from a sign of the family’s past grandeur to a concrete representation of human fragmentation and destruction.”

This obsession with time and the obsession with the past continues to urge him to constantly create the predecessors of the situation in his narration of past events. His situation therefore becomes endlessly repetitive. “And to escape from that kind of repetition,” psycho-analyses John Irwin, “one must escape from the self.”

As we understand some part of Quentin’s Dilemma, it is not surprising to know that James Guetti, while talking about metaphors in the novel, can not resist commenting that Quentin’s is “the most penetrating account in the novel, for the struggle of order.”

Phillips and Johnson think that it is the southern code that “defines order and chaos within Quentin’s world, and causes him to idealize nebulous, abstract concepts such as honor, virtue, and feminine purity. His strict belief in this code causes Quentin profound despair when he learns of Caddy’s promiscuity.”1 Stonum however refers to Quentin’s plight as personals, and relates his ideals to personal failures: “His ideals spring from an intensely personal situation, as does his failure to attain them.” 3 These opinions are both correct and actually in accordance.

This can be understood in the light of the opinion of Sundquist as he explores ‘the Myth of the Sound and the Fury, “Quentin’s Madness […] is primarily the South’s, whose intense fascination with the gynealotry increased in proportions to threats against it and created the peculiar situation in which the period of southern history that came mythically to embody extreme virtue and honor […] was precisely the period whose virtue and honor […] were built on the most hideous corruptions of the human spirit imaginable.”

Benjy too, does have an acute sensitivity to order and chaos, and he can immediately sense the presence of anything bad, wrong, or out of place. He is able to sense Quentin’s suicide thousands of miles away at Harvard, and senses Caddy’s promiscuity and loss of virginity. Although he is apparently ignorant of the Compsons’ social affairs, he is stuck in a time when his first memories were formed. He clearly recognizes and fears change, as change removes him from the “ordered place” of the past and affronts him with an uncertain world that becomes less coherent as time passes.

“The pulse of Benjy’s section is disturbance and placation,” finds out John Matthews as he discovers the feeling of loss in the Novel. “Every loss that he suffers – whether it is Caddy disappearing into marriage, or merely his flower being snatched away by Luster – must be met with some effort to ‘fix [it] back again just like it was at first’.”

Therefore, unlike Quentin’s sense of order and chaos that is related to the southern values and obsessed with time as it idealizes the past, Benjy’s order “depends upon the permanence of a simple spatial movement from left to right, as he rides to and from the cemetery.” Comments Guetti. “To Benjy’s mind, the world takes the form of a small number of catchwords, the principal of which is ‘Caddy’, or as the men in his pasture-turned-golf-course say, ‘caddie’. The presence of Caddy, his sister, gives Benjy his greatest stability and security; the awareness of her absence – constantly reemphasized for Benjy by her ‘symbolic’ presence in the word ‘caddie’ – triggers the inarticulate moaning that seems the essence of profound chaos.”

It is this obsession with Caddy that is eminent in Matthews’ comments: “The configuration of loss […] governs virtually every detail of Benjy’s picturing of the past.”

While Benjy’s relationship with Caddy is that of love as well as obsession and the care that she gave to him, and while ‘order’ for Benjy requires the presence or symbolic presence of Caddy in his life, Quentin’s relationship with Caddy is much more profound that that of Benjy. It is Caddy’s development from a child, to adolescent, and her subsequent loss of virginity that epitomizes the change, which, according to Kartiganer, “is the essence of confusion” in Quentin’s mind, which eventually leads to his suicide.

Thus, the detailed comparison of the form and structure of the two sections, and the comparison of the two characters, can appropriately be concluded by the following statement by Kartiganer: “The deliberate flight from the fact that dominates Quentin’s monologue reverses the effect of Benjy’s monologue that precedes it. Benjy has made us aware of the distortion of the literal; his language is exact, free of bias. It is truth, not metaphor. Yet this exaggerated objectivism results in the most simplistic of moral designs. Quentin on the other hand has plunged into metaphor; but in doing so he reduces subjectivism to an art of decadence:” that are, in the words of Mr. Compson, “symmetrical above the flesh.”


1. Phillips, Brian and Johnson, Evan. SparkNote on The

Sound and the Fury. 18th February 2004

2. Kartiganer, Donald M. The Sound and the Fury and the Dislocation of Form in The Fragile Thread. University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.

3. Stonum, Gary Lee. The Search for a Narrative Method in Bloom, Herald (ed). Modern Critical Interpretations: William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

4. Deshaye, Joel. A Brief Analysis of The Sound and the Fury’s Namesake The Sound and the Fury: a Hypertext Edition. Ed. Stoicheff, Muri, Deshaye, et al. Up. Mar. 2003 University of Saskatchewan. Accessed 18th February 2004

5. Storhoff, Gary. “Faulkner’s Family Crucible: Quentin’s Dilemma.” Mississippi Quarterly. 51:3-4, 465-482, 1998.

6.Irwin, John T. Doubling and Incest / Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner. Expanded edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

7. Guetti, James. “The Sound and the Fury” and “The Bear”, in The Limits of Metaphor. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967.

8. Sundquist, Eric J. The Myth of the Sound and the Fury in The House Divided. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

9. Matthews, John T. The Discovery of Loss in The Sound and the Fury: A Norton Critical Edition. David Minter, ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982.

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