Updated: Nov 27, 2019
The Sound and the Fury is William Faulkner's 1929 masterpiece. Written from four different perspectives, with each chapter/date being led by a different narrator, the novel centers around the aristocratic Compson family and their fall from grace. While this novel is now widely known to be an incredible accomplishment in literature, it was not a commercial success upon its initial release.
When this Southern Gothic month began, I mentioned that reading Faulkner can be a challenge. His writing was experimental. He writes solely from the perspective of his characters without providing explanations, immersing the readers in the mind of the narrator. Combined with dialects and cluttered memories, it's easy to feel as if you can't keep up, but the thing about Faulkner is if you continue reading his work, you begin to understand his pace. You start to develop a rhythm, and before you know it, his words and his characters become a part of you.
We began this month with The Unvanquished and made our way through his other works, such as Light in August and As I Lay Dying. We have worked our way up to this moment, the moment where we finally dive into Faulkner's greatest work. Today, I have chosen to focus on Quentin Compson's chapter, because to me, this is not only one of the greatest chapters in literature, told from the perspective of one of the greatest characters in literature, but it also contains one of the greatest paragraphs ever written, full of timeless quotes that shake you to your core, and bring context to what inspired this prolific author.
“June Second, 1910” is told from Quentin Compson's perspective, eerily diving into the dark thoughts that torment him on the day of his suicide. Unlike in the previous section, “April Seventh, 1928”, where the narrator’s perspective is nothing more than a string of images, Quentin not only has a concept of time, but is actually obsessed with its infinite presence in his life.
“June Second” opens with the sound of Quentin’s ticking watch and a memory of the day he received the watch from his father, where he remembers his father's words in one of my favorite literary passages of all time:
“I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire...
I give it to you not that you may remember time,
but that you might forget it now
and then for a moment
and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it.
Because no battle is ever won.
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.”
Knowing his obsession with time, his father gives Quentin the watch in hopes that he won’t have to think about it so much now that time is always on him, but instead, this just makes time all too real for him, because now he cannot escape it. This leads him to think about the inevitability of his life, and how time serves as a reminder of his family’s moral decay.
The catalyst for this decay is the pregnancy of Quentin’s sister, Caddy, whose promiscuity and inability to name the father of her child mortifies him. While Benjy has no real understanding of the happenings around him, thus having no concept of cause and effect, Quentin can directly attribute Caddy’s indiscretions as the cause of the decline of the Compson family.
Quentin is incredibly reliant on order. He is traditional in his beliefs, and he abides by a strict moral code to maintain this order in his life. Caddy’s pregnancy out of wedlock is in direct opposition of his code, and it is the thought of that dishonor that catapults him into the whirlwind of mental chaos that readers experience in pages 176-178. The paragraph on 176 begins with a fluidity of words that match the sound of his ticking watch,
“the first note sounded,
measured and tranquil,
emptying the unhurried silence…”,
also signaling to readers the beginning of his final thoughts. We are immediately clued into the fact that Caddy is the impetus for Quentin’s downward spiral when he mentions “that vivid dead smell of perfume that Benjy hated so” (176).
Throughout this long, final paragraph, we get a closer look at how the antebellum lifestyle and its ideals shaped Quentin’s character, specifically the concepts of feminine modesty and male gentility. For this reason, he wishes to take his sister’s sin upon himself and suffer for her, or at the very least, suffer with her, so that he can protect her. This desire is what leads him to making the false admission of incest, claiming that the unborn child was his. He believed
“it was to isolate her out of the loud world
so that it would have to flee us of necessity
and then the sound of it would be as though it had never been” (177).
Quentin is so distraught by Caddy’s lack of purity, he feels the only way to exonerate his family of this shame is by doing the honorable thing; escaping by suicide, or claiming the child as his own and running away together. His father; however, disregards this ideology as frivolous and invented by men, furthering Quentin’s descent into despair.
Quentin then enters an internal battle, wrestling between the chance of life and the reprieve of death. He repeats “i temporary” to himself several times throughout pages 177-178, as he remembers his father telling him that the situation with Caddy will not seem so bad after some time has passed, which almost disgusts Quentin.
“You seem to regard it merely as an experience that will
whiten your hair overnight so to speak
without altering your appearance at all,” (177)
is Quentin’s reaction, displaying his exceptional grasp of cause and effect, as he understands that everything you do in this life changes you and effects your entire future, be it big or small. His shock at his father’s disregard to this fact is almost disdainful, leading him to think that, once again, the only way out is suicide,
“…under the first fury of despair
…when he has realized that even the despair or remorse or bereavement
is not particularly important to the dark diceman
…and i temporary” (178).
In his final thoughts, Faulkner depicts death winning through dreams dying, such as when Quentin’s father reminds him
“you will remember that for you to go to Harvard has been
your mothers dream since you were born
and no Compson has ever disappointed a lady” (178).
Readers are reminded once more of Quentin’s mother’s dream of Harvard, and the legacy of the Compson family chivalry, but we are immediately dissuaded once again by the affirmation of “i temporary”, and his belief that his death is what’s best for all of them. However, as Quentin dies, so do all the dreams the family once had for him, and so the family honor dies as well.
The paragraph closes with the repetition of time once again,
“the saddest of all
there is nothing else in the world
its not despair until time
its not even time until it was,” (178)
bringing us back to the soliloquy that influenced The Sound and The Fury in the first place, where Macbeth says:
“…the way of dusty death…life’s but a walking shadow…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
It is in this final paragraph of “June Second, 1910” that it comes full circle with its namesake, proclaiming that there is nothing in this life but time, and time is nothing but despair, and despair is nothing but death.
While both Benjy and Quentin’s narratives are abstract, they are polar opposites of each other in delivery. Benjy’s lack of understanding of time leaves him with nothing but physical sensory as a means to experiencing the world around him, without any way of identifying what is actually happening. Quentin, on the other hand, is completely aware of time, by the way he hears it calling him from his watch, and how he sees it rearing its ugly head on his curtains through the sunlight, with darkness and light being a constant imagery throughout his narrative.
There is no escape from time, just as there is no escape from his family’s failing legacy. The only thing he can do is die on his own terms, maintaining the order he holds so dearly, up until his very last breath. Caddy’s actions have sullied the Compson family name, and readers can tie this back to the moment where all three brothers saw Caddy’s dirtied underwear back in “April Seventh, 1928.” Faulkner has a flawless way of tying various moments together, bringing readers back to the past, much in the same way the narrators do.
In the end, we are taken to the conclusion, which is that of Quentin’s suicide, and we see his final moments, where he finally puts his watch away as he exits the room, effectively putting time, and this life of despair, away for good.