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Literature / The Sound and the Fury

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"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."
Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5

The Sound and the Fury (1929) is one of William Faulkner’s most famous novels. Befitting a Faulkner work, it’s both mildly incomprehensible and incredibly tragic.

The story follows the extremely dysfunctional Compson family of Jefferson, Mississippi (part of Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, where many of his stories are set). It’s mostly focused on the four Compson siblings: Benjy, Quentin, Jason, and Caddy.

Each of its four sections is narrated by a different family member: the first by the mentally disabled Benjy; the second by Quentin, a Harvard student who’s essentially forsaken his family by this point; the third by Jason, an objectively despicable human being who resents his role as family patriarch and emotionally abuses his mother, brother, and niece; and the fourth by Dilsey, the family’s black cook/housekeeper who observes the dysfunction. (Her section is also unique in that while the Compson brothers narrate in first person, Dilsey’s section is a more standard third-person omniscient narrative.)

In 1945, Faulkner wrote an appendix that clears up a few issues and describes what happens to everyone that wasn't already dead by the novel's end.

Two film adaptations have been made. The first, released in 1959, was directed by Martin Ritt and starred Yul Brynner, Joanne Woodward, Margaret Leighton, Stuart Whitman, Ethel Waters, Françoise Rosay, and Jack Warden. The second, released in 2014, was directed by James Franco, who also starred with Tim Blake Nelson, Jacob Loeb, Joey King, Loretta Devine, Ahna O'Reilly, Scott Haze, Seth Rogen, and Danny McBride.

This novel provides examples of:

  • all lowercase letters: The end of Quentin's section.
  • Apocalyptic Log: Quentin's section has some elements of this, particularly when he suddenly blacks out in the middle of a sentence, leading to a flashback, but, because his mind's breaking down, it's told without any punctuation.
  • Berserk Button: DO NOT say disparaging things about women, or anything that suggests that you've never had a sister, in front of Quentin.
  • Big Brother Instinct: All the Compson boys have strong opinions on Caddy. Quentin's definitely falls into this trope. The reason he confesses to incest with her is that, if the two of them committed an act that atrocious, they would at least endure whatever punishment they deserved together. His implied overly strong attachment to Caddy might explain his action.
  • Blackmail: Jason does this to Caddy.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Just to be clear: Caddy and Quentin DID NOT have a sexual relationship, although Quentin spends the entirety of his section ranting about how they did. This is a lie that he told to his father. His father realized that Quentin was lying, unfortunately for Quentin.
  • Closer to Earth: Benjy. He can smell Caddy's lost virginity.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Caddy names her daughter after her brother Quentin, who killed himself. This results in a surprising moment in Benjy's narrative in which Quentin is mentioned carrying out a particular action, but this action is described using feminine pronouns. It almost looks like a typo for a moment, until the reader realizes that there are two people named Quentin.
  • Deep South: The broader scope of the novel is the fall of pre-Reconstruction southern society and its obstinate refusal to take the transition lightly.
  • Defiled Forever: Even though Caddy wasn't raped by Dalton Ames, everyone has this reaction to her having lost her virginity to him.
  • Downer Ending: The Compsons, a noble family with a proud Southern Heritage, completely destroys itself within two generations.
  • Driven to Suicide: Quentin.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Caddy is the central figure of the novel, but it is narrated from the perspective of four other characters. Faulkner even said that Caddy is the real protagonist of the story.
  • Freudian Excuse: Every. Single. Compson.
  • Funetik Aksent: The blacks and Italians in the story have very strong phonetic accents. This was standard at the time - compare Huckleberry Finn.
  • Generation Xerox: Caddy and her daughter, although Caddy is more caring than her daughter, mainly because after Caddy’s brother Quentin was Driven to Suicide and Mr. Compson drank himself to death, Miss Quentin was raised by her nasty uncle and equally nasty grandmother, with Dilsey being the only person who could truly care for Miss Quentin.
  • Good Bad Girl: Caddy.
  • Incest Subtext: Quentin and Caddy. Especially on Quentin’s side.
  • Inner Monologue
  • Innocent Inaccurate: One of the reasons that Benjy's section is difficult to understand is that he himself cannot understand much that is going on around him (he is mentally handicapped). While he frequently narrates flashbacks, he narrates said flashbacks in present tense as if they're happening right now because he has no concept of time.
  • Ivy League for Everyone: Quentin is a student at Harvard.
  • Jerkass:
    • Mrs. Compson, to everyone except Jason and her brother Maury.
    • Jason.
    • Luster is pretty nasty towards Benjy, although part of it is most likely due to frustration at having to take care of someone as profoundly disabled as Benjy is.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Cruel and cynical though he is, many of Jason's observations about the state of affairs of his dysfunctional family aren't exactly unfounded.
  • Literary Allusion Title: "The sound and the fury" is a quote from Macbeth; upon hearing of the suicide of his wife, the title character describes life as "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." The first part of the book could be seen as "a tale told by an idiot," while the title is more generally symbolic of all the meaningless traditions the Compsons desperately cling to, which ultimately culminate in their demise.
  • Magical Negro: Dilsey.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Jason, especially concerning Caddy and her daughter.
  • Mind Screw: In their respective sections, Benjy and Quentin both disregard chronology in such a way that it's almost impossible to understand what is happening until you can put them into a larger context.
  • My Beloved Smother: Caroline Compson is this to her favorite son Jason, who turns out to be as terrible as she is (though in a different way).
  • My Sister Is Not A Slut: In order to preserve Caddy's dignity after she becomes pregnant out of wedlock, Quentin confesses to committing incest with her so that their parents won't think she was sleeping around. Yes, in the Compson family, pre-marital sex is a worse sin than incest. Or at least Quentin thinks that pre-marital sex is worse than incest.
  • My Sister Is Off-Limits: Quentin's attitude towards Caddy. He's not very good at enforcing this rule.
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Quentin's father preaches nihilism to him.
  • Non-Linear Character: Benjy literally cannot tell the difference between the past and the present - everything seems to be happening to him at the same time. Quentin is not one of these, but his disjointed narrative gives the impression of it.
  • Non P.O.V. Protagonist: Caddy, the main character of the novel, is the only Compson child not to receive a section told from her POV. This is narratively demonstrated in an anecdote from the Compson siblings' childhood in which Caddy climbs a tree and all her brothers look up to see her panties covered in mud. While Caddy is doing the action, it's her brothers' different points of view of the incident which dictate the course of the novel.
  • No Punctuation Period: Quentin's narrative near the end.
  • Not What It Looks Like: A little Italian girl follows Quentin around for awhile, and he tries to find out where she lives - upon which her brother attacks him, under the impression that he was trying to kidnap and molest her. In spite of his innocence, Quentin still has to pay a hefty fine.
  • The Noun and the Noun
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted with Jason the III (the father) and Jason IV (the son). Also averted with the two Quentins (one of whom is male, the other female), which is just one of the many, many things which makes Benjy's narrative difficult to follow.
  • Only Sane Man: Dilsey, especially in relation to the Compsons.
  • Painting the Medium: In Benjy's narrative, shifts in time are indicated with brief passages in italics. Quentin's narrative is almost entirely based on this trope, the formatting and sentence structure growing increasingly erratic and disjointed as Quentin approaches the Despair Event Horizon.
  • Parental Favoritism: Mrs. Compson only cares for her vicious son Jason because he most resembles her Bascomb relatives and pays little attention to any of her other children.
  • "Rashomon"-Style: Much of the story is told from the conflicting points of view of three Unreliable Narrators: Benjy with his severe mental retardation, Quentin with his obsessive neuroses, and Jason with his jaded views towards everyone and everything around him.
  • Sanity Slippage: Quentin's narrative.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism:
    • Jason, disdainful of everyone around him and full of bitterness, is at the cynical end of the spectrum. His section even begins, "Once a bitch always a bitch."
    • Quentin, with his ideals, though often misguided, of honor and gentlemanly conduct, is at the idealistic end. Suffice to say, reality and lofty ideals don't always mix well.
    • Mr. Compson's wearied cynicism and nihilistic outlook are a counterpoint to Quentin's extreme adherence to abstract concepts such as honor and purity.
    • Faulkner himself is much more on the idealistic side than his characters - the ending shows that it is Dilsey and her family who will inherit the earth, because they are held up by some degree of hope.
  • Suicide Pact: Quentin tries, and fails, to make one with Caddy.
  • Unconventional Formatting: In Quentin's narrative, sentences are broken up with short phrases in italics, there are long passages with extremely disjointed arrangement of text, and as the narrative goes on it begins to shed punctuation, paragraph breaks, capital letters and conventional sentence structures. This is used to visually represent Quentin's declining mental state.
  • Unreliable Narrator: All of the narrators qualify to a greater or lesser extent. The most reliable (in the sense of partiality) narrator is Benjy, who is also mentally handicapped. At the other end of the spectrum, it can be difficult to discern from Quentin's narration what really happened.
  • Virgin Power: Caddy's virginity is a big honking deal. Especially for Quentin.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Just one part of Quentin's very heavy emotional baggage.

Alternative Title(s): The Sound And The Fury