BY BEN LEHMAN Set in turn of the century Mississippi, The Sound and the Fury chronicles the decline of the Compsons, a once prominent southern family who have fallen into social disgrace. The Compsons are a family destroyed by alcoholism, patriarchy, and suicide; they represent the decay of the southern aristocracy after the Civil War. Other literary greats like Marcel Proust write about music and wine and society, but Faulkner explores the darkest parts of human nature and showcases our unending selfishness cruelty.
Published in 1929 to positive reviews but minimal sales, The Sound and the Fury has remained remarkably relevant in the intervening 89 years since its publication. Although Faulkner claimed The Sound and the Fury was his “most magnificent failure,” it occupies sacred space in the pantheon of modern American literature. It is also one of the most difficult and daunting reads in the canon of American letters. It does not follow a typical linear narration, and it’s filled with jarring time jumps and perplexing prose that will leave the reader feeling lost. Indeed, the novel is not without its faults, but they do not detract from the overall brilliance of the work. The story of this ill-fated family has the terminal essence of a greek tragedy; these characters are doomed by their own hubris and folly.
The book is divided into four parts, three of which are told from the perspective of each of the three Compson brothers, while the last is told by an omniscient narrator. The beauty of the novel comes not from endless descriptions of characters or landscapes, but from the window into the minds of the characters and their darkest, most intimate thoughts that it affords the reader. Section one contains some of the most difficult passages in literature. Benjy, the narrator and youngest Compson, was born mentally retarded and has no sense of time. For Benjy, the present and past blend together, which leaves the reader to decipher what exactly is happening and when. Because of his limited mental capacity, Benjy cannot interpret the events in front of him, and thus he remains a silent observer, able only to watch as his family self-destructs around him.
Quentin, the eldest Compson son, is intelligent yet highly neurotic. He is obsessed with Old Southern values and burdened by his desire to live up to his noble heritage. Section two follows Quentin through a single day, chronicling his mental decline as he is haunted by memories of his father’s nihilism and his sister’s illegitimate pregnancy. Ultimately, Quentin cannot live with the family’s reversal of fortune and he drowns himself in a river. Younger brother Jason is an emotionally-stunted sadist incapable of giving or receiving genuine love and affection. Section three opens with his misogynist motto, “Once a bitch, always a bitch, what I say.” He hates women and his only romantic involvement is with a prostitute. Jason steals from his family and lacks the ambition to achieve anything for himself.
Left without a section – and without a voice – is the sister Caddy. Faulkner describes Caddy as “ageless and beautiful, cold serene and damned.” Caddy is strong-willed and rejects the patriarchal norms of her society. However, she becomes pregnant out of wedlock, staining her family name. Each of the Compson brothers is fixated on Caddy in different ways, yet none is able to possess her the way he wants. Without a section of her own, Caddy remains as enigmatic to the reader as she does to her brothers. But even when her character is absent, her presence is tangible, and the entire novel essentially revolves around the trials and tribulations of this tragic and elusive southern beauty.
The Sound and the Fury is an experiment in stream of consciousness narration and as such it is a notoriously difficult and maddeningly frustrating read. It is also essential, deeply rewarding your patience in a million intangible ways. It contains multitudes. The story of the Compsons is dark and bleak and innately American, and Faulkner’s telling of it is indelibly mysterious, groundbreaking and, above all things, necessary, which is why it is widely regarded as one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century.