The Sound and the Fury:
Obsessions and the Order of Time
Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is the exploration of the downfall of a once righteous family and the eventual decay of their hopes and values. Many different elements are used to build this story of the Compson family. Two of the most important elements are the different obsessions among the characters, and the way time is conveyed in this story. I will be looking at these ideas as well as two of the critical essays written about this story, including Jean-Paul Sartre's “On The Sound and the Fury : Time in the Work of Faulkner”, and Cleanth Brooks ' “Man, Time, and Eternity”.
One of the first things that struck me as I started to read this story was the chronology Faulkner chose to use. We are transported into the mind of a retarded young man, Benjy, and are forced to follow his thoughts. In his essay “On The Sound and the Fury : Time in the Work of Faulkner”, Jean-Paul Sartre seems to echo some of my initial confusion with his question, “Why has Faulkner broken up the time of his story and scrambled the pieces? Why is the first window that opens out on this fictional world the consciousness of an idiot?” (p. 265) At first, I found it nearly impossible to follow the way the story was occuring. It took a couple pages to understand that the italics signaled a sort of change of time and scene. As Sartre notes, “Nothing happens; the story does not unfold” (p.265). It is as if we as readers are merely moving from one seemingly unrelated event to another. I believe this was to have us as readers explore these complex events simply, through Benjy's thoughts. Things come to us without any chronological order, yet are painted clearly in our minds by Benjy's descriptions and senses.
Sartre then goes on to note that “Man's misfortune lies in his being time-bound” (p.265). Faulkner seems to be trying to break our conventional ideas of how a story should usually is—beginning, middle, and end—and is instead building a story through thoughts and a sort of stream of consciousness approach without focusing on the ideas of time and chronological order. According to Sartre, Faulkner portrays this idea of timelessness through several events within the story. For example, “Quentin's gesture of breaking his watch has a symbolic value; it gives us access to a time without clocks. The time of Benjy, the idiot, who does not know how to tell time, is also clockless” (p. 266). It is this freedom from the restrictions of time that allow Faulkner to tell this story in the unique approach that he does.
Further into the story, we are again faced with the idea of time when we come to the character Quentin. We find Quentin also lost in past events and preparing to commit suicide. Sartre makes an interesting observation on this: “The coming suicide which casts its shadow over Quentin's last day is not a human possibility; not for a second does Quentin envisage the possibility of not killing himself” (p.269). He goes on to note that “Quentin thinks of his last day in the past, like someone who is remembering” (p.270). This is an idea that I found to be very intriguing. It seems that Faulkner is almost making the point that for these characters, the future was predetermined, the present never really existing at all, and that it is only the memories of the past and the expectations for the future that truly exist. This greatly helps to explain their moral decay and their loss of hope.
This story is greatly affected by Faulkner's unique concept of time and order. But the characters in this story all also have some things in common. This is their obsessions. As Cleanth Brooks notes in his essay “Man, Time, and Eternity”, this is a story “told through one obsessed consciousness to another” (p.290). Every character that we come upon seems to have one fixation or another. Many times while reading this story, I made note of the repetition of ideas within the characters thoughts. As Brooks says, “The sense of frustration and ‘entrapment' is overpowering” (p.290). I too, sensed this while reading. With Benjy, this obsession includes his memories of Caddy, and experiences captured through his senses, such as the “smell of trees” and the “smell of rain”. These ideas are constantly being played over and over again within his thoughts. It is what Brooks refers to as a “primitive poetry” (p.291). Since Benjy isn't able to think in “normal” human terms, he seems to be obsessed with things that he could take in through his senses, as well as Caddy, who treated him with love and compassion.
Quentin, on the other hand, holds his obsession with the idea time. In the first couple paragraphs that we are introduced to Quentin, he repeatedly checks the time. For example, he says “…Christ was not crucified: he was worn away by the minute clicking of little wheels” (p.49). Soon after, he says, “I began to wonder what time it was” (p.49).
Another obsession that Quentin holds is about Caddy's loss of virginity to Dalton Ames. “I have committed incest I said Father it was I not Dalton Ames ” (p.51). Thoughts of Caddy's “impurity” and the carelessness of the rest of the family about it seem to haunt Quentin. As Brooks states, “Caddy's betrayal of her honor and the fact that she is cut off forever from Quentin mean that he possesses no future he is willing to contemplate” (p.291). It is this lack of hope for the future is what in part leads to his eventual suicide.
We then move to Jason, who's completely taken with the idea of money and practicality. He is cold and almost evil in his thoughts. He shows very little love for anyone, especially his own family. Each of these family member's obsessions are different yet just as intense and affect who they are and how they deal with the outside world.
The Sound and the Fury is a very complex yet intriguing novel. It explores many different facets of human nature. These include the simple sensual ways of Benjy, the obsessive and hopeless Quentin, and the cold and bitter Jason. Although the events of the story come to us without chronological order, we as readers are still capable of becoming engaged in the novel and understanding what is occuring within it. Faulkner's portrayal of time and the stream of consciousness help us truly know the characters and what they think and feel. The obsessions that these thoughts often carried were very telling and interesting. Each character's unique obsession gives us further insight into who it is they are as characters, and why they do the things they do. Without these two important elements, much of the story's purpose would be lost.