17 William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury

Mr. Md. Intaj Ali

epgp books

What is the Module About:


This current module is about The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, most popular literary figures in American Literature. It contents the basic interpretation of the text along with author’s details, summary of text, important characters, style and narrative technique of the writer and themes and other issues discussed in the text.

About the Author (Personal Information)


William Faulkner is one of the most popular literary figures in American Literature especially associated with Southern literature which is specified as American literature about the Southern United States or by the writers or by the works held from this particular region. He is sometimes called “the American Shakespeare”, (Hamblinand Peek, A William Faulkner Encyclopaedia,1).


He was awarded the much coveted Nobel Prize in Literature in the year 1949 for his extensive work for the region Mississippi. He created a fictional setting called Yoknapatawpha County, based on Mississippi which is the backdrop of his most writings.


Faulkner created an impressive literary legacy and remains a revered writer of the rural American South, having expertly captured the immense complexities of both the region’s beauty and its dark past.1


William Faulkner was mainly a poet-novelist who has won two-time Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards as well. He died on July 6, 1962. . His most celebrated novels “The Sound and the Fury,” “As I Lay Dying,” and “Light in August” all contemplate the history and cultural ethos of the American South. He is primarily known for writing short stories and novels but he extends his art of writing in other genres like play, poetry, essays, and screenplays.


Michael Millgate concludes her intellectual discussion by saying that the greatness of Faulkner can be estimated only if we study his novels in the context of the total western tradition because “The solidity of Faulkner’s provinciality provide the unshakable foundation for his immensely ambitious exploration of the fundamental human themes with which he is always primarily concerned.

Works of the Writer


Faulkner in his literary career has published 13 novels and many short stories. Due to his prolific writings in different genre, he has been awarded the Nobel Prize at the age of fifty two. He got his fame during his lifetime though it was in late period.


Lawrence Thompson in his book, William Faulkner: An Introduction and Interpretation (1963), writes that Faulkner’s literary career from 1926 to 1962 produced fifty poems, ninety short stories, seventeen novels, and a three act drama in which his poetic genius got expression. Childhood memories and the tales heard from his Negro servants proved an infinite source of his creations. His works also encompassed post-war anguish, depression, ennui along with “the predatory injustices and inhumanities of Reconstruction era.


His most celebrated novels such as The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936) are deserved to be mention here.

 Complete list of works            


1919 First published poem, “L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune,” in The New Republic;

First published short story, “Landing in Luck,” in The Mississippian 1924 The Marble Faun (poetry)

1926 Soldiers’ Pay (novel) 1927 Mosquitoes (novel)

1929 Sartoris (novel); The Sound and the Fury (novel) 1930 As I Lay Dying (novel)

1931 Sanctuary (novel); These 13 (short stories)

1932 Light in August (novel)

1933 A Green Bough (poetry)

1934 Doctor Martino and Other Stories (short stories)

1935 Pylon (novel)

1936 Absalom, Absalom! (novel) 1938 The Unvanquished (novel)

1939 If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (The Wild Palms) (novel) 1940 The Hamlet (novel)

1942 Go Down, Moses (novel)

1946 The Portable Faulkner (compendium) 1948 Intruder in the Dust (novel)

1949 Knight’s Gambit (short stories and a novella) 1950 Collected Stories (short stories)

1951 Requiem for a Nun (novel)

1954 A Fable (novel); The Faulkner Reader (compendium) 1955 Big Woods (short stories)

1957 The Town (novel) 1959 The Mansion (novel) 1962 The Reivers (novel)2

Style of the Writer


According to Kartiganer, the driving forces of Faulknerian fiction are “linguistic, generic, social,  economic,  political  cultural,  moral”  (“In  Place  of  Introduction”  xiv).  Richard C. Moreland asserts that Faulkner’s writing “unsettles prevailing assumptions about time, space, language, loss, the self, the family, gender, culture, and history” (60). A recent review article by John E Bassett William Faulkner: An Annoted Bibliography of Criticism Since 1988 (2009), according to Lorie Watkins Fulton, seems to point out the overall trend of Faulknerian criticism which encompasses such broad areas as race, class, gender, realism, modernism, postmodernism, feminism, poststructuralism, rhetorical and ideological theories, and cultural studies.


The four parts of the novel interrelate many of the same episodes presented from different angle with an emphasis on various themes and incidents. Therefore this interweaving and nonlinear structure makes the novel more difficult to understand. Moreover Faulkner uses italics in the novel to shift from present to past for using flashback technique. But this gradual shift of periods sometimes confuses the reader and thereby it needs particularly close reading. The uniqueness of Faulkner lies in the creation of the unparalleled chronicle of Yoknapatawpha with “imaginative density and…intensity of realization” (Howe 297).


Malcolm Cowley in his “Introduction” in The Portable Faulkner (1946) has claimed that the pattern of his fiction is based on stories heard in his childhood, but he transformed the Towner Theresa M. The Cambridge Introduction to William Faulkner Cambridge. C U P, 2008.  material by adding emotions, passions, thoughts, feelings, ideologies, and conceptions. Consequently, his characters look like real human beings. The aged characters represent the old South while the young ones are shown affected by the loss of moral values in post-war world, and increasing commercialization. He also opined that in second reading a reader realizes that his many characters and incidents have a double meaning and serve as symbols. His novels possess the quality of “being lived, absorbed, remembered rather than merely observed” (xxv).


Irving Howe’s book, William Faulkner: A Critical Study (1952), presents the thematic analysis in two parts titled as “William Faulkner: His World and His Work”, and “An Achievement Considered”. Regarding the immortality of characters he says, that no novelist since Henry James has created such living characters that break the boundaries of novels and live  in  the  memories  of  readers  forever.  The  writer  also  praises  Faulkner’s  “dramatic conflict”, “persuasive characterization”, “fluidity of narrative”, and “the inner logic of the work” (11). He comments that even those critics who have given negative remarks and condemned the violence in his fiction were astonished by “the amplitude, vitality, and high coloring of the figures that move across the Yoknapatawpha landscape” (4). He suggests that Yoknapatawpha tale should be read as a chronicle which narrating the rise and fall of clans becomes a moral fable. The history given in his book facilitates a reader in knowing Southern tradition, Faulkner’s obsession with irretrievable past, and his “own intolerable acute awareness” (27) of guilt.

Background of the Text


The Sound and the Fury is a novel written by the American author William Faulkner. It was published in the year 1929 and it is one of the best novels of him. The author adopts different kind of narrative styles, including the technique popularly known as stream of consciousness4, coined by William James in 1890 in his The Principles of Psychology, pioneered by 20th-century European novelists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.


The title of the novel is taken from Macbeth’s famous soliloquy of act 5, scene 5 of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

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.

Plot of the Text


It is very difficult to understand the plot summary of the text in traditional point of view. Rather readers can approach the text in a deeper and compressive manner to grasp the flow of meaning of text. It actually needs intensive reading and interpretation to follow the chronological development of the novel. At a primary level it seems that the novel is about the three Compson brother’s obsessions and relations with their sister Caddy, but this does not represent the inner meaning of the text. The current novel is divided in four chapters voicing four different characters in the text chronologically including an appendix which sometimes called as the fifth part of the text. The actual reason of including appendix in the text is to reveal the unintelligible part of text where the readers are struggling to clarify opaque narrative of the story itself.


The first three chapters of the novel consist of the intertwined thoughts and memories of the three Compson brothers, recorded on three different days and year namely 7th April, 1928 , 2nd June, 1910 , and 6th April, 1928. The first part of the novel is narrated by Benjamin “Benjy” Compson who is thirty-three-year-old man. His narrative voice is presented in the form of stream of consciousness technique. He is the youngest child in the family and mentally retarded. The second part of the novel is narrated by Quentin Compson, the oldest child of Jason and Caroline. This chapter deals with the events of the last day of Quentin’s life, as he is trying make his preparations for suicide. Like the first section it is also described in stream of consciousness technique but with more careful manner not as disjointed at Benjy’s. It is constant slide between modern-day events and memories of Quentin Compson. The third section is narrated by Jason, the third child who is the only character who stands beside her mother. Jason’s narration takes place exactly one day before Benjy’s section which is the first section of the novel on Good Friday. The fourth chapter of the novel falls on 8th April, 1928, the day after Benjy’s narration and two days after Jason’s. Faulkner himself narrates the fourth chapter in his own voice by focusing on Dilsey, the Compson family’s devoted black housekeeper.

Short Summary           


The Sound and the Fury is set in Jefferson, Mississippi which is the backdrop of most of his novels and short stories. The novel deals with story of Compson family who are formerly aristocrats in Southern regions. But currently they are struggling to continue their family reputation. As suggested or described in the novel over the course of the 30 years , the family falls into financial problem and they loses their faith and hope in religion as well their expectation with the city Jefferson. During this struggling period many of the characters of the family die tragically without getting any hope in real life.


The novel is classified into four distinct parts with an appendix to reveal the unintelligible part of text.

Part 1: April 7, 1928.


The first part of the novel is narrated by Benjamin “Benjy” Compson who is thirty-three- year-old man. As Faulkner himself described it, Benjy’s part is a “tale told by an idiot.” One could point that Benjy is the “idiot” referred to in this line. The title of this novel comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act five, scene five, in Macbeth’s famous speech about the nonsensicality of life. He states that it is “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing.”


About the inclusion of Ben’s chapter in the beginning of The Sound and the Fury, the critic says that Ben’s version not only gives fragmentary impressionistic outline of the story, but it also justifies the first meaning of the title “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury” (Thompson ,30).


The novel opens with Benjy’s thirty-third birthday. He is not able to help his family much because of his physical illness. The only characters who concern for him are Caddy, his older sister and Dilsey, a Negro servant in the Compson family. The time period that has been spanned in this chapter in between 1898 to 1928. In this section one can observe the three emotional attachments of Benjy: fire, the golf course, and his sister Caddy. He has to experience the shocking incidents like divorce of Caddy because her child was not her husband’s and the selling his favorite field to a local golf club in order to provide Quentin’s further education at Harvard. Other crucial incidents that took place in this chapter are Benjy’s change of name from Maury, after his uncle in 1900 upon the discovery of his disability and the divorce of Caddy who is very dear to Benjy.

Part 2: June 2, 1910


The second part of the novel is narrated by Quentin Compson, the oldest child of Jason and Caroline. He is the most intelligent and disturbed children in the family. We can find in him best example of Faulkner’s stream of conscious narrative technique in the novel. This entire chapter is told from within Quentin’s voice on the day that he commits suicide. He is so much tormented by the memories of Caddy’s promiscuity and the desire of marrying another man to avoid the shame of a bastard child, completely shatters his faith in moral values. Through the portrayal of Quentin Faulkner emphasizes the importance of time and memory in Quentin’s world through the frequent appearance of clocks and watches.


Part 3: April 6, 1928


The third section is narrated by Jason, the third child who is the only character who stands beside her mother. Jason’s narration takes place exactly one day before Benjy’s section which is the first section of the novel on Good Friday, the day Christ was crucified. Faulkner introduced the character of Jason’s from his first sentence: “Once a bitch always a bitch,  what I say.” He is very sadistic and bitter man who only thinks about money and single minded person in the family. He became the guardian of the family after his father’s death. In the beginning Herbert Head had promised to give Jason a job at his bank, but rescinded that offer when he divorced Caddy because of her illegitimate affair with another man and divorced her. This abjuration left Jason no choice but to work at the farm-supply store. He bitterly behaved with her sister Caddy and even did not stop himself in blackmailing her.

Part 4: April 8, 1928


The fourth section of the novel is a shortest one, narrated by Faulkner himself. The most important character in this section is Dilsey, the Compson family’s devoted black housekeeper. The Comsons family undergoes a lot problems and sufferings. Dilsey is only character who can bring peace and order in the family in spite of so much sound and fury. This section deals with the panoramic view of two worlds of entire Compson family and Dilsey’s world. She is trying to make an order and peace in the chaos family with her utmost efforts. In this context of the novel Jason wakes in the morning and discovers that Miss Quentin has run away and stolen all his money that was stolen by him from her only. He cannot complain to the police because of his own problem. So he decided to follow her in other cities. The Sound and the Fury ends with the symbolic end of the Compson family’s downfall, but also suggests at the possibility of resurrection or renewal. Significantly, this last chapter occurs on the eve of Easter Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection and there by pass on a powerful symbol of salvation and hope.

Appendix: Compson: 1699–1945


The appendix part is later included in the novel to be published in the name of The Portable Faulkner. Sometimes this appendix is regarded as the fifth part of the novel. In the appendix the author represents the whole history linage of Compson family and their fortune after the novel. The appendix closes with an accounting of the Negro family who worked with loyalty as servants to the Compson’s family. The comment of Dilsey as “I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin” at the end of the novel suggests her presence since the beginning to end. In  this context, Dilsey’s presence can be felt everywhere in the novel. Dilsey’s entry, the final in the appendix, consists of two words: “they endured” suggests her conviction and faith on Southern value.

Important Characters


Jason Compson III/ Mr. Compson – He is the father and head of the Compson family. By profession he is a lawyer who attended the University of the South. He is an intellectual and well educated person. He dies because of his of alcoholism in 1912. He very cynical and detached man who believes that life is essentially without meaning and that is why he can do little to his family’s tragic downfall.

Caroline Bascomb Compson – Mrs. Caroline Compson has not shown as a proper mother in the novel. She never takes care of her children except Jason. She has no sense at all of a mother figure. She is responsible to a large for the downfall of her family. She becomes an abusive hypochondriac in her old age.

Quentin Compson III – He is the oldest child of Jason and Caroline.  The second part of the novel is narrated by him. He suffers from his mother’s indifferent attitude and substitutes his sister’s love for his mother’s. He is passionate and neurotic; he commits suicide because of the influence of his father’s nihilistic philosophy and his inability to cope with his sister’s sexual promiscuity in her teen age. He has romantic views about purity and virginity and that is why he cannot endure the memories of Caddy’s promiscuity and the desire of marrying another man to avoid the shame of a bastard child.


Jason Compson IV – Jason is the third child who is the only character who stands beside her mother. He is very sadistic and bitter man who only thinks about money and single minded person in the family. He became the guardian of the family after his father’s death. In the beginning Herbert Head had promised to give Jason a job at his bank, but rescinded that offer when he divorced Caddy because of her illegitimate affair with another man and divorced her. This abjuration left Jason no choice but to work at the farm-supply store. He bitterly behaved with her sister Caddy and even did not stop himself in blackmailing her.


Dilsey Gibson – She is the servant of the Compson family. She is the only selfless and kind individual in the novel. She cares for the all the children in the Comson Family as if they are her own children. She will be the only character who supports the family all through the novel from beginning to an end.

Themes and Other Issues Discussed


Faulkner deals with the concept of time, memory and past in a unique way as if they are interwoven together. The characters are unable to forget the glorious past and move into the modern world of chaos and disorder. The theme of decline and corruption of Southern aristocratic values are poignantly represented through depiction of Compson family. They have lost the Southern aristocratic values of love and faith. The story of The Sound and the Fury is not able to convey the voice of the author through any single narrative. He has used four different voices highlighting the subjectivity of each narrative in an unconventional way as if they are unable to convey the meaning in absolute form. The other themes are discussed in the novels are resurrection and renewal, sin and sexuality and race and class.


William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) is not merely the story of a family; it is the story of inadequate parents and their wounded children (Minter 118). The whole story of the novel contemplates the wounded relationship between parents and children. In a deeper understanding the novel has the connotation of Biblical ethos. Carvel Collins in his essay, “Christian and Freudian Structures,” presents the Christian and Freudian parallels in Faulkner’s most famous novel, The Sound and the Fury. He observes that three sections of the novel are based on Easter Sunday. Quentin’s monologue “contains the element of Christ’s experience on holy Thursday” (115).


Evelyn Scott opines that The Sound and the Fury is an important contribution to the literature of fiction and presents the story of the fall of a house, the collapse of a provincial aristocracy in  a  final  debacle  of  insanity,  recklessness,  psychological  perversion”  (26).  Maurice Coindreau views that the whole novel vibrates with sound and fury which signifies nothing. Perrin Lowrey in his essay, “Concepts of Time in The Sound and the Fury”, comments that this novel is the combination of two actions occurring in different time spans and covers thirty years family history of Compsons in three days. He also talks about the arrangement of the four sections, disrupted time sequence, and the cyclical progression.

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  • Collins, Carvel. ―Christian and Freudian Structures.‖ Princeton University Library XVIII Spring (1957):115-19. Print .The Princeton University Chronicle.
  • Cowley, Malcolm, ed. The Portable Faulkner (1946). Rev. New York: Penguin Group, 1997.Print. Penguin Books.
  • Fulton, Lorie Watkins. “[William Faulkner].” Rev. of William Faulkner: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism Since 1988, by John E. Bassett. Mississippi Quarterly 62. ¾ (2009): n. pag. Omnifile Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson). Web. 05 November 2016. <http://www.nlist.inflibnet.ac.in>.
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  • Moreland, Richard C. “Faulkner’s Continuing Education: From Self-Reflection to Embarrassment.” Faulkner at 100: Retrospect and Prospect: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1997. Eds. Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. 60-69. Print.
  • Thompson, Lawrance. William Faulkner: An Introduction and Interpretation (1963). 2nd ed. New York: Holt Rinehart and Windston, Inc. 1967.