- Rank: #1
- Author: William Faulkner (1897 - 1962)
- Published: 1929
- Publisher: Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith, Inc.
- Pages: 378
- First Line: ”Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”
- Last Line: ”The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and facade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.”
- ML Version: #187 (with As I Lay Dying - 1946), #187 (by itself – 1966), P6 (both with As I Lay Dying and by itself), gold dust jacket, new dust jacket
- Acclaim: Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #6, Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century, All-TIME List
- Film Version: 1959 (*** - dir. Martin Ritt)
- First Read: Fall, 1991
The Novel: Over the years, a number of people have attempted to read this novel because they have heard me talk so often about how it is the greatest novel ever written. Notice that I say attempted; I didn’t say they finished (high point – Veronica finished it – low point – my sister chose it for her book group and no one finished it, not even her). I tell people that it’s the greatest novel ever written, but I don’t actually tell them they should read it, for the same reason I don’t suggest to people that they read Ulysses – because it’s incredibly difficult and needs a considerable time commitment (not to mention attention commitment – this is not a book you can read in bed). If people want to read Faulkner, I usually suggest short stories or As I Lay Dying. But if they are serious about trying this, about trying to understand what is going on, about finding what is below the surface, what the idiot is actually telling us in his tale, then a whole word unlocks for us.
Don’t know what I mean about the idiot? Read your MacBeth and remember one of the most hauntingly poetic speeches in all of Shakespeare, when he has just been told of the death of his wife:
“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
Act V, Scene V
And that is the incredible thing that Faulkner has done here. He has told us that tale.
If you have never read The Sound and the Fury, and, unless you were forced to in a class, odds are you haven’t, the book is broken into four parts, four different days. In those four different days we get three different narrators and then a third person omniscient narration to finish the book. The days go like this: 7 April 1928 (Saturday), 2 June 1910, 6 April 1928 (Good Friday) and 8 April 1928 (Easter Sunday). The three narrators, in order, are Benjy Compson, Quentin Compson and Jason Compson, three very different brothers. Benjy is the idiot that the title references, mentally stuck at the age of three, but now 33. The first section is told from his viewpoint and that is where readers stumble. Because Benjy isn’t just stuck at the age of three; as Vonnegut would say, Benjy has become unstuck in time. It is difficult enough, if you don’t know what you’re getting into, to make it through the first two pages of Benjy’s narrative. But then you hit the italics, and, guess what, you’ve moved in time (the Folio Society printed a version like the one Faulkner originally wanted where all the time shifts were color-coded – so why won’t that appear in my For Love of Books: Faulkner post? – well, because it was $345 and I couldn’t afford it, and in spite of that, it sold out). Various words (the golfers that Benjy watching calling “caddy” for instance, which makes him think of his sister) or actions will cause him to slip into the past, into the rest of his life, all playing in front of him like a film that is stuck on random. Current films with a lot of interspersed connections like Traffic, Syriana and Contagion are often referred to as hyperlink films. Benjy’s brain is the original hyperlink film.
So, it takes 85 pages before we can get away from Benjy’s narrative, and by that time most people have put down the book. For those who haven’t, they then to get to go through Quentin’s tortured narrative on the last day of his life, followed by Jason’s brutally callous narrative, filled with spite and venom before we get to the final part of the book. But once you reach the end, if you can piece things together, you begin to realize something. Almost everything you needed to know, almost every major event in the book, the depths of every character, the whole story of the disintegration of the Compson clan was all told in the first part of the book. Benjy told us everything that we needed to know. We just didn’t realize it at the time.
Aside from the time slips, the Benjy section is confusing in other ways. Faulkner does a magnificent job of approaching the action from the point of view of a little boy who doesn’t know what is going on, but can only relate literally what he is seeing. Then, we get Quentin, who also never really tells us what is going on because everything is so confused inside his head. And then we get Jason, the last of the Compsons, filled with hatred at the sister who betrayed him, at the brother who can’t help him, at the brother who gave up, at the father who surrendered to drink, at the mother who won’t surrender her life, at the niece who encompasses all of this. The first three sections of the book are all so very different and yet all three of them are so perfectly true to the characters that Faulkner has created, to the characters that we first meet in Benjy’s section (where, going back to the confusion, he has two names and there are two Quentins and we have to figure out who is who and which is which and when we are).
Look at what he does with the narrative. Look at Benjy talking: “Our shadows were on the grass. They got to the trees before we did. Mine got there first. Then we got there, and then the shadows were gone.” Compare the poor simple-minded Benjy with Quentin and his tortured psyche: “I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.” Then we have the opening lines of Jason’s section: “Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say.”
In Quentin’s section, we see the disintegration of the South, of the family, of the honor that has held his mind together: “In the South you are ashamed of being a virgin. Boys. Men. They lie about it. Because it means less to women, Father said. He said it was men invented virginity not women.” His is an unreliable narrative, the last murmurings of a boy trying to be a man, trying to save what he can, and once he has determined that nothing can be saved, surrendering to the cold grave of the river.
Then there is Jason, an even less reliable narrator. He is filled with hatred for everything around him (“I never promise a woman anything nor let her know what I’m going to give her. That’s the only way to manage them.”) and yet, he has a deeply sardonic wit (“About four or five years ago he was taken sick. Scared the hell out of him so that when he was up again he joined the church and bought himself a Chinese missionary, five thousand dollars a year. I often think how mad he’ll be if he was to die and find out there’s not any heaven, when he thinks about that five thousand a year.”), and that wit can also be turned darkly against his family (“I says no I never had university advantages because at Harvard they teach you how to go for a swim at night without knowing how to swim and at Sewanee they dont even teach you what water is.”)
And so, we eventually come to the final section, when we are spared the voices of the individual Compson boys, and simply get brilliant, poetic Faulkner prose: “The day dawned bleak and chill, a moving wall of gray light out of the northeast which, instead of dissolving into moisture, seemed to disintegrate into minute and venomous particles, like dust that, when Dilsey opened the door of the cabin and emerged, needed laterally into her flesh, precipitating not so much a moisture as a substance partaking of the quality of think, not quite congealed oil.” It is Easter Sunday, the day of Resurrection, but there is nothing here to be resurrected. One Compson has died, but nothing will come from him. One has the initials JC but we can hope for no lessons of forgiveness from him. One is 33 years old and he can offer nothing but this story.
For, after hearing what Quentin thinks (“I was crying against her damp blouse then she lying on her back looking past my head into the sky I could see a rim of white under her irises I opened my knife”) and the brutal words that Jason spits out at the world (when his mother says “And then when her troubles began I knew that Quentin would feel that he had to do something just as bad. But I didn’t believe that he would have been so selfish as to – I didn’t dream that he -”, Jason replies “Maybe he knew it was going to be a girl. And that one more of them would be more than he could stand.”) or even the beautiful descriptions of the omniscient narrative (“It was not a girl’s room. It was not anybody’s room, and the faint scent of cheap cosmetics and the few feminine objects and the other evidences of crude and hopeless efforts to feminise it but added to its anonymity, giving it that dead and stereotyped transience of rooms in assignation houses.”), it is still Benjy who is the most reliable narrator.
And what is his narration? What is all of this about? It’s about the sister, Candance Compson, poor Caddy, who in her own way, ruins the lives of all three of her brothers, and yet, who is never given a voice of her own. In a sense, this is the Rashomon of literature – we get the individual viewpoints of what has happened in this family but we never actually see the truth. In the end, they are all just versions of that truth. And so we can find the one that for us, fits the best, and now that there is something else out there, something elusive that we can reach for and never find. And that is what is so refreshing about Benjy, once we sit back and look at all of this. He doesn’t know that there is something out there, that elusive thing we call truth. He only knows the world as it is structured for him. And when that structure doesn’t hold, everything will collapse, as in that final page, when Luster takes him the wrong way past the monument: “For an instant Ben sat in an utter hiatus. Then he bellowed. Bellow on bellow, his voice mounted, with scarce interval for breath. There was more than astonishment in it, it was horror; shock; agony eyeless, tongueless; just sound, and Luster’s eyes backrolling for a white instant.” But then, when things are fixed, and everything is right, we get that calm peaceful ending for poor Benjy: “The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and facade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.”
Note: If you really have an interest in The Sound and the Fury and are interested in critical approaches, and hey, who isn’t, you can take a peak at the following files. They are all from grad school and haven’t been looked at in years and they only scratch the surface of things I have written about this book.
The first thing to bear in mind when looking at my *** rating of this film is that this is rated as a film. As a film, as a Southern gothic film, it is interesting, has good performances and is fairly well-made. But as an adaptation of the novel, well, if you were to watch it (first you would have to find it – it has never been readily available; I bought my VHS copy off someone on Ebay several years ago), you would spend a lot of time pausing and going, wait, what? And then rewinding and trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
So let’s look at it for a minute like the film that it is, not the film that we may wish it was or the film that someone else could have made out of the novel. We have Yul Brynner in the lead role, playing a man who’s fed up with having to support the family name, a name that was given to him, not one he was born with. He is trying desperately to hold something together in this pathetic family in which one brother is a drunk and one brother is an idiot while the sister has left town years ago after dumping on them her illegitimate child. So he is hard on his niece. For a while we think it’s because he resents so much the sacrifices he’s had to make on her behalf only to be rewarded by her selling her school books, running around town and generally trashing the name he has been trying to bring back up in society. But then we start to get a realization that he actually loves the girl – loves her more than is proper (although this is the South, and he’s not her blood uncle, as keeps getting pointed out by one character or another). In fact, in an effective scene, after he has caught her with a carny who’s in town, she talks about how he makes her feel like a woman (she’s only 17). His response is to kiss her, passionately, a kiss she responds to far more than she, he or we could have expected and note that anyone can make her feel like a woman. But this changes the situation and so we aren’t that surprised when she turns her back on the carny, when he is offered a choice between money and her (“The money would have run out eventually,” she tells him, “But you would have had me forever.”). Brynner is very effective in the role and Joanne Woodward, as the niece brings a strong carnality to the role (and a great Southern accent). She’s even more effective when you consider that the same director put her in a film from the same source author just the year before in which she played a much older woman whose lack of passion is the core of the film.
So that’s the film as it’s made. It’s decently directed, the sets look good (it was actually filmed in Faulkner’s hometown), Brynner is effective and Woodward is quite good. It’s a solid enough film about a truly screwed up family.
But, here’s where we have to look at the rest of it. Is it the Compsons? Well, sort of. Jason has been made a step-brother, with several possible explanations. 1 - His mother refers to him as not a true Compson but a Bascomb and maybe the filmmakers took that too far. 2 – They needed an explanation to account for the fact that clearly Yul Brynner is not related by birth to the others in the film. 3 – Even though it’s a film about the South this was still 1959 and the film still needed a Production Code Seal and so maybe once they decided to throw the kiss in there they decided to make the relationship between Jason and Quentin more distant. My guess is mostly 3 with a bit of 2.
As for the rest of the family? Well, there is a Caddy, who comes back home in the film (probably because the filmmakers decided not to use any flashbacks and it was the only way to get her in the film – I guess the way to film the unfilmable novel is to leave out all the stuff that makes it unfilmable). They dispensed with Quentin (the brother) by mentioning that Quentin is named after someone who died and having a brother named Howard. Howard is a combination of Uncle Maury in the book (drinking his way to the grave) and Quentin (he has one scene with Caddy where he mentions fighting over her honor). Benjy is here in the film (played by Jack Warden effectively) but only as an idiot who never speaks (and is carted off to the asylum at the end), so we never see how he is the link to all of the Compson history. And the mother is French. I have no idea why.
The main problem is, that by eliminating all the flashbacks and just focusing on Jason and Quentin, it robs the novel of its majesty. There still sound and fury but it is no longer a tale told by an idiot and so it signifies, well, perhaps less than nothing?
So, in the end, if you do end up seeing this, your best bet is to approach it for what it is – a Southern story, full of lust and booze, with a couple of strong performances. Don’t go looking for the novel. They didn’t bother to film it.