William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury

William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury

When teaching literature, many instructors find that students struggle to build a connection between the works they are reading and their own lives.  But finding this connection is necessary for one to receive the fullest possible benefit from literature.  Some texts are easier to relate to than others may be. William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and The Fury is one story that most of us find we cannot relate to in any way.

Based in America’s Deep South in the early part of the 20th century, The Sound and The Fury may be considered disturbing, even demented, but few have ever considered it relatable to their own lives.  This story of the Compson family and their reconstructed lives after the fall of southern aristocracy, shows their struggle to adjust to their newly given, and much lower, social standing.  The family fails to function as a community, and eventually falls apart as the members of the family go down their own dark path.  There are issues of mysogny, mental illness, suicide, incest, and racism deeply embedded throughout the story and the reader has many dysfunctions from which to discover, but seldom to relate.  However, since 2007, many Americans have encountered a decline in social status and loss of family property due to an economic downturn, much like the Compsons did in the story.  This may perhaps be the most relatable issue in The Sound and The Fury to date, and we can use the story as a way to see how a family can self-destruct under the conditions of such a loss.  While few people have encountered all of the oddities of this story, by relating to the financial loss of the Compsons, today’s readers can see that they are not the first to experience such financial and social decline.

In this turn-of-the-century story, the Compson family, who was once part of southern aristocracy, seemed to have made their family fortune off the backs of slaves for generations.  However, decades after slavery is abolished, their family fortune has diminished, and the family must sell of part of their family acreage to order to maintain some sense of social standing.  The family consists of four children; Jason, Caddy, Quentin, and Benjy, their traditional father and hypochondriac mother.  The household is run by servants, who seem to have more strength and integrity than the Compsom family they work for.  Faulkner seems to use the comparison of these two families to show us that those with a higher social status are less likely to be able to assimilate to a changed life.

In addition to the story being difficult to relate to, another oddity of the novel is perhaps the structure of the book itself; a structure that is not only broken up into four sections narrated from the perspectives of different members of the Compson household, but also told from differing periods of time.  This leaves the reader rather confused as he tries to figure out who is telling the story and how he can relate to the narrator.  The four sections tell the time period in the headings, but often the memory of the narrator befuddles the reader as most of the story is written in a stream-of-consciousness style.  The most confusing section is the very first one; the section told by the Compson brother, Benjy, who is mentally handicapped.  Since Benjy narrated his story as a mentally handicapped man, the reading is very difficult to understand.  Critics have long questioned Faulkner’s reason to start with this very difficult section, and many readers may simply give up on the novel due to the complexity at the very beginning.   But the novel is well worth the work, as readers will figure out.

Published in 1929, William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and The Fury may have seemed relevant only to the time and place from which it was written.  But as with most literature, the message is timeless.  While most of us have never had to confront the issues Faulkner addresses in this story, the issues of financial loss and a lower social status are as prevalent today as they were in the 1920’s.  But all is not lost, as we don’t have to suffer the same fate as the Compsons.  Faulkner’s portrayal of this pathetic family gives us a sense of what we shouldn’t do and how we shouldn’t act.  It is by addressing this bad example the Compson family gives us that we can see clearly how lacking the ability to overcome financial disaster can lead to our own destruction.

By Teresa Boyer/Adjunct Instructor, Lourdes University

Toledo Reads Contributor