83 pages 2 hours read

William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1929

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Summary and Study Guide


William Faulkner’s 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury relays the trials and decline of a once-prominent Southern family, the Compsons. The novel grapples with the challenges of a changing cultural landscape as modernity encroaches on the values—and deep-seated prejudices—of the Old South. Told through the perspectives of the three Compson brothers, Benjy, Quentin, and Jason, the novel visits and revisits key events in the family’s past and present. Much of the concern swirls around their sister, Caddy, who expresses her independence and sexuality in ways counter to the morality expected by tradition. The novel’s final section is recounted by an omniscient narrator who hews closely to the point of view of the family’s Black housekeeper, Dilsey. This itself is indicative of the shift in the balance of power—away from old class structures with wealthy white families dominating the narrative—that threatens the formerly-influential Compsons. Faulkner, a Nobel laureate, explores the rich interior worlds and dense, difficult histories of characters caught up in the long arc of history.

This guide references the 1987 Vintage Books edition.

Note on Names: To avoid confusion about character names in the book, this guide refers to Benjamin (first named Maury) as Benjy throughout; Quentin refers to the eldest male sibling of the Compson family, while Miss Quentin refers to Caddy’s daughter, Quentin’s niece; and Father refers to Mr. Jason Compson III, the namesake of the middle son Jason.

Note on Punctuation and Spelling: Because much of the novel employs a style of narration that follows the characters’ internal (and not always orderly) trains of thought, standard punctuation is often not used. Thus, apostrophes, capital letters, commas, and periods, among other standard marks, are frequently dropped.

Content Warning: The novel contains racially-offensive and sexist language, as well as depictions of death by suicide, alcohol use disorder, incest, castration, and mental disability. This guide quotes and obscures the author’s use of racial slurs.

Plot Summary

Divided into four sections, each with a separate narrator, The Sound and the Fury details the declining circumstances of the Compson family, recounting the significant (and often tragic) events that have shaped and fractured the family unit. The author employs stream of consciousness narration through much of the novel, following the various narrators’ memories. Hence, the novel unfolds in a non-linear fashion, with particular events recounted and revisited through the perspectives of different characters.

The novel opens on April 7, 1928, the 33rd birthday of the youngest Compson sibling, Benjy. This section is told through his recursive and often disjointed perspective; Benjy has an unspecified mental disability, and his capacity for communication is limited. Still, as the section reveals, Benjy thinks, feels, and understands a great deal more than he is able to express. He and his sister Caddy, for example, have a special relationship. From his point of view, she is the sun around which he orbits. She becomes his protector—even from Mother, who considers Benjy’s disability a punishment and raising him a burden—and Benjy remembers holidays and outings with her as if they were yesterday. In reality, however, Caddy has long since been exiled from the family for reasons that are not fully clear to Benjy.

Benjy’s narrative recalls a long-ago Christmas, when he waits for Caddy out in the cold. He also remembers her wedding, where he and one of the servants get drunk, though Benjy’s experience of the event is distorted by confusion. He recollects scatterings of conversation between Mother and Father; interactions between his siblings, primarily Quentin and Caddy arguing; the death of their grandmother, Damuddy; and his dismay over Caddy’s dealings with local boys. Benjy’s memories fuse into one extended fugue state—he exists in a perpetual present—and when he hears the golfers across the fence shouting to their “caddies,” he grows agitated, pining for his sister.

The second section begins 18 years earlier, filtered through the perspective of the eldest Compson brother, Quentin. While his narrative also unfolds in a nonlinear and often disjointed fashion, several events that are hazy from Benjy’s point of view are clarified here. Quentin is away at Harvard, completing his first year of college. It is June 2, 1910, and his sister Caddy was married the week before. Thus, many of his memories reflect upon their relationship, which was fraught and overshadowed by sexual tension. Quentin recollects Caddy’s headstrong manner—his attempts at bossing her around are all for naught—and her confessions about sexual encounters. Because Quentin cannot bear the thought of Caddy being with other men, he fends off these revelations by inserting himself: Not only does he fight on her behalf, but he also claims in a conversation with Father that he has committed incest with Caddy. Father, for his part, does not believe Quentin, and the novel implies that Quentin confesses to protect Caddy—and to keep her for himself. She has gotten pregnant, and Quentin cannot bear the thought of her marrying Herbert Head, “that blackguard” (127). Head was expelled from Harvard for cheating and tries to bribe his way into Quentin’s and the family’s good graces.

While Quentin is remembering all these events, he takes a train out to the water and walks around. He visits a hardware store to pick up some flat-iron weights. At one point, he is accompanied by a young, foreign girl, whom he tries to escort home. He is accused of kidnapping her and is briefly detained before being rescued by some college friends who happen to be passing by. He gets into a scuffle with one of them—Quentin asks his friend, “’Did you ever have a sister?’” (190) before striking him—and refuses a ride back to town. He returns to his room later, carefully cleans his clothes, and brushes his teeth before leaving in the dark. He has ensured that his letters will get to the right people before drowning himself that night.

The next section is narrated by Jason, the middle Compson son. The reader is returned to April 6, 1928, the day before Benjy’s birthday. Much has occurred in the ensuing years since Quentin’s death by suicide: Father has passed, drinking himself to death; Caddy has been cast off by her husband, presumably because the child she was carrying was not his; and Jason and Mother have taken in Caddy’s daughter, Miss Quentin, to raise. Jason is bitter and resentful about all of this. Caddy’s husband had promised Jason a job at the bank where he was employed, but the dissolution of the marriage blocked that plan. Thus, Jason is stuck working in what he considers a menial job, far beneath his sense of entitlement, at a local hardware store. He is obsessed with money, particularly the amount of money he must spend to care for his niece and the greater Compson household, including the few Black servants.

The only obsession that draws his ire more than spending money is Miss Quentin. He views his niece as the embodied symbol of everything that has gone wrong in his life—the lost job, the besmirched reputation of the family, his ties to the Compson home—and her disobedience sends him into paroxysms of misogyny and violence. Miss Quentin is much like her mother, Caddy, to Jason’s dismay; she dodges school and allegedly engages in promiscuous behavior. He decides to take matters into his own hands, finally, and insists on driving her to school himself. He will keep a watchful eye on her—and force her to bend to his will.

Meanwhile, the reader discovers that Jason has been perpetuating a scheme for years to defraud his family, Miss Quentin in particular, of the money Caddy regularly sends for Quentin’s upkeep. He has his mother, who nurses an overblown grievance over what she sees as Caddy’s immoral behavior, burn the checks that he falsifies so he may pocket the real checks for himself. This is presumably how he is able to afford his new car.

Later that afternoon, Jason steps outside the shop only to see Miss Quentin strolling down the alleyway with a man in a red tie. A travelling show has come to town, and Jason assumes that his niece has taken up with one of the performers. A chase ensues, first on foot, then via automobile, but Jason is thwarted at every turn. He endures a flat tire and finally returns home, exhausted and infuriated. Miss Quentin has already made it back home, telling Mother and Dilsey, the housekeeper, that Jason has been chasing her. He flatly denies it, then insists that Miss Quentin come downstairs to eat supper with the family. He goads her into tears, and she runs, crying, to her room. Mother locks her in while Jason finishes a cigar before bed.

Two days later, on April 8, 1928, the final section begins: Jason has overslept, the fire has not been started, and Dilsey is trying to organize the household before she attends church. It is quickly discovered that Miss Quentin has run away; she is not in her sterile room, and a window in Jason’s room has been broken. Jason soon discovers that the ill-gotten money he keeps in a safe box in his closet has been taken. He phones the police department, demanding that they be ready to pursue his niece, leaving the house in a rage without even having breakfast.

Despite the chaos in the household, Dilsey readies Benjy for church, and the two attend the Black church across town. There is an inspirational guest preacher who rallies the congregation with his message. When they return home, Jason is still gone, and Dilsey predicts that he is not coming home. Instead, Jason is still embroiled in his search for Miss Quentin. The sheriff will not assist him—it appears as if Jason’s financial misdeeds are well-known, and he himself is disliked—so Jason tries to track her down on his own.

After a dangerous altercation and a cold trail, Jason finally gives up his chase, defeated. He hires a man to drive him back to Jefferson, suffering from a debilitating headache. As he drives into town, he sees T.P., one of the servants, driving Benjy to the cemetery. T.P. steers the carriage the wrong way, and Benjy begins to bellow in distress. Jason leaps from the car to put the carriage right, seething with embarrassment. Benjy finally quiets, and T.P. drives the carriage toward home.

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