The Sound and the Fury--William Faulkner


When I finished this book I thought, "What can I say about it that hasn't already been said a million times?" And I realized at once my frustration with writing about great works of literature. I have been given faulty examples. All too often people tend to explicate "texts," and mine meaning from them--sometimes, perhaps the meaning the author had in place. At other times, without doubt, a meaning placed there by the reader. The interpretation of The Sound and the Fury is not something you need from me. That's a fool's errand and I leave it to those who claim to know what the muse whispered into Faulkner's ear.

Reading for meaning is something like eating a sandwich for carbon. Properly done, we do not read merely for meaning, we read to live for a while in the world created by the words, to enjoy the company of the author's creations, and to make from the experience what meaning it may have for us, regardless of the author's inscrutable intent.

While I was in Boston I looked into a "Critical Edition" of Faulkner's masterpiece, seeking from it some key that would magically open up the world of the book. What I discovered is that Faulkner had as little notion of what he had made as most of the critics. When asked about the specifics--why so much shadow in Quentin's monologue, why this detail, why that--he was occasionally able to provide some insight. More often than note his explanation was mundane--something akin to "a blot of mustard. . . or a fragment of underdone potato."

But my service to you in this and in all future reviews, is not to tell you what the book means. That is constructed through the interaction of the person with the text. The contours of the story are set, but the meanings are interactive and multiple and my take on it merely one of many--one that I would enjoy sharing with others who truly enjoyed the book. My service to you is to tell you why and how you can enjoy this or any other book.

Faulkner creates a world far distant from our own with powerful thematic resonances into our own. Does the fate of Caddy, Benjy, Jason, Quentin, Quentin, Jason, Caroline, Dilsey, Frony, Roskus, T.P. and Luster really matter as a question of interacting symbols or enigmas on a page. Does a "text" really matter?

Here I would agree with the postmodernists--no, it doesn't. A "text" cannot matter. But a story, a novel, a poem--all of them can matter. They matter not in the necessary details of the events that form them, but in the dialog that occurs between author and reader.

Faulkner's story certainly tells us something about the decline and fall of one Southern Family. It is every bit as gothic and ornate and detailed as Poe's "Fall of the House to Usher," to which it may own some of its trappings. But it is distinctively Faulkner, giving prominence for perhaps the first time, to themes that he will revisit time and again--purity, incest, honor, time. . . the litany goes on an on. The parallels between this and other works becomes a set of profound harmonics. For example, Caroline ( a thoroughly deplorable and annoying character whose actions or inactions bring about much of the calamity of the novel) bears a sharp resemblance to Cora of As I Lay Dying in her inability to see just how wrong she is in the judgment of her own children. She comes to love the central engine of wrath and destruction--Jason Compson--best of all of her children. Or perhaps so she professes in her constant auto-invalided state to keep a kind of tenuous hold over her shadowy realm.

And that is the realm of Faulkner, the realm of dreams and shadows of promises and denials. Faulkner is the essence of the Southern Gothic. There is violence here without redemption. Some read into Benjy an innocence and a purity that suggest a Christlikeness. And yet, in my reading, that is the furthest thing from Faulkner's mind. Yes Benjy lives in eternity and every moment he has experienced is now and they all flow together in his mind. But Benjy isn't even the idiot of the title, although he is mentally retarded. Indeed, The Sound and the Fury isn't the tale told by the idiot Benjy, but the tale told by the entire doddering, etiolated, effete, impotent Compson clan as they come to embrace the destruction of everything they once held dear. Each person sings his or her own part in the chorus of this tale told by an idiot. If I were to pick a single character to be the idiot of the story I would probably choose Caroline Compson. (Even though, one could drawn some lines of similarity between Benjy Compson and Dostoevsky's Idiot Prince.) Indeed it is chiefly through her telling that the final destruction of the Compson clan is brought about.

So, why read this? Because of its sheer lucious prose, its sinuosity, its strength of theme and of vision, because it creates the vivid and continuous dream, it invites us into the world of the characters, it tells us a story about ourselves at times and our tendencies, and it shows us in the person of Dilsey the way out. The Sound and the Fury does not pretend to be about redemption, and yet redemption is offered in the person of Dilsey who tells her daughter Fronny at the end, "I have seen the beginning and the end." Dilsey is the one stalwart support throughout the book--if more attention had been paid her the precipitate destruction of the family need not have happened.

In Faulkner violence is violence, it is not revelation or epiphany or grace--in that Flannery O'Connor turned Faulkner on his head--rather it is the playing out of the Calvinistic vision of the gothic South. Violence in Faulkner is a sign that the person committing it is not among the elect. And The Sound and the Fury has its share of violence. As in most Faulkner works, much of it implied and off stage. Quentin's demise, Benjy's castration, Caddy's sorrowful marriage and life, Jason Compson the elder's death by dipsomania after he sees his one hope dashed to death in the Charles river.

Read The Sound and the Fury not because it is a masterpiece of modernism, of tone, of the Southern Gothic, not because it is the touchstone of much modern literature, not because it will reveal to you things you've never known and never seen--read it rather because it is a powerful story with interesting characters and much to tell you about them and perhaps about you. The meanings you make from your reading will tell you more about yourself than they will about what Faulkner has written. Faulkner provides us with a mirror (some might say a fun-house mirror). What we see in it is more about who we are than about what Faulkner was trying to get across. Authorial intent is largely unknowable, but authorial effect is directly experienced.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on March 25, 2008 6:39 AM.

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