Page 1. " The Sound and the Fury "

The novel's title comes from the famous ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Learning that his wife is dead and faced with the dawning realization that his doom is imminent, Macbeth delivers the lines: 

 

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.

Act V: Scene 5

 

On first encounter, this reference seems most pertinent to Benjy’s narrative. With a mental age of three, ‘idiot’ is the diagnosis he would have received from the medical establishment of the time. On a broader level, with its conviction that life is a pattern of anguish — and that this pain, for all its intensity, yet fails to imbue human existence with any lasting importance — the quotation resonates with all the novel’s characters.

 

 

Page 1. " Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. "
Golfer
Creative Commons AttributionGolfer - Credit: Boston Public Library

Though it is perhaps surprising to find golf figuring in a novel set in the 1920s Deep South, the sport was becoming increasingly widespread at this point. A British import, golf first arrived on American shores during the 1880s and was initially very much the preserve of the well-to-do. By the 1920s, though still some years away from achieving general popularity, it was beginning to spread geographically and across classes. Faulkner himself was a keen golfer and played regularly on the nine-hole course at the University of Mississippi.  

Page 1. " Ain’t you something, thirty-three years old, going on that way "

This is the first hint of Benjy’s mental condition. His character is based on Edwin Dial Chandler, a boy with Down syndrome who lived just three blocks away from the young William Faulkner in his home town of Oxford, Mississippi. He had the mental age of a child between three and seven years old though, unlike Benjy, he was able to talk. He was also a skilled baseball player and William and his brother John would sometimes play with him on their way home from school. Other children were less companionable and derived a good deal of entertainment from tormenting Edwin. These acts of childish cruelty appalled Faulkner and no doubt informed his sensitive portrayal of Benjy.  

 

It is notable that Benjy’s age is the same as that of Christ at the time of his crucifixion. Many scholars have seen parallels with the son of God.

Page 1. " Ain’t you going to help me find that quarter so I can go to the show tonight. "

Newmann's Road Show
Creative Commons AttributionNewmann's Road Show - Credit: Library of Congress
The arrival of travelling shows was a hotly anticipated event in the South. Rolling into town in brightly-painted wagons amidst a parade of jugglers and acrobats, their appearance heralded a time of license during which the restrictions of daily life were loosened and, perhaps, temporarily forgotten. Tent shows were particularly popular in the rural South. Less flashy than their northern counterparts, they served to showcase a variety of popular singers, blues musicians, novelty acts and theatrical performers. They were at the height of their popularity during the 1920s and would attract around 75 million people across the US annually. Only thirty years later, the combined effects of the Great Depression and the advent of television and radio had all but wiped them out.

Page 3. " We don’t never let him get off the place. "

The Compson’s family home is modelled on the Thompson-Chandler House on South 13th Street in Oxford, Mississippi. It was built in 1859 for William Thompson, a prominent local attorney and planter. Nine years later, his daughter, Lucretia Maria, and her surgeon husband, Dr. Josiah Chandler, moved in to care for him in his old age. They would go on to have seven children and the whole family created a deep impression on Faulkner. That they inspired the characters in The Sound and the Fury is hinted at in the name Compson, which suggests a blending of Thompson and Chandler, and the children’s lives are mirrored by those of the novel’s younger generation. Thomas, like Quentin, committed suicide as a student; Wiley, who never moved from his home town, worked in a hardware store and remained a life-long bachelor, as does Jason; Lula, who disappeared as a young girl never to be seen again, parallels Caddy; whilst Edwin inspired the character of Benjy.

 

Thompson-Chandler house
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeThompson-Chandler house - Credit: Joseph A

Google Map

 

 

Page 4. " Here’s you a jimson weed "

Though jimson weed is an attractive plant with large whorled flowers, its wide range of dubious monikers — including devil’s trumpet, devil’s cucumber and hells bells — attest to its baneful nature. Even a small amount can induce hypothermia and heart failure if ingested; giving it to someone of limited understanding would have been highly irresponsible.  

 

Jimson weed
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeJimson weed - Credit: Júlio Reis

Despite this, its recreational use is not unheard of. Smoked or made into tea, the plant can induce a delirious state, with visual distortions that cause one’s surroundings to take on a surreal, often threatening, aspect. Though it would be over-literal to suggest that Benjy’s view of the world is the product of ingesting jimson weed, there are certain parts of his narrative which seem to reflect its psychotropic properties. As if under the drug's influence, strange, shifting forms repeatedly manifest themselves, and the borders between dreamt and waking experience are indistinguishable. This line of imagery reaches a kind of clarity at the end of Benjy’s narrative: “Then the dark began to go in smooth, bright shapes, like it always does, even when Caddy says that I have been asleep”. 

 

Jimson weed also functions on a symbolic level. Edmond Loris Volpe notes that another of its aliases is stink-weed, and that its foul smell is “an ironic symbol of the loss of Caddy who smelt like trees”. He also states that “among hill people it was considered a symbol of the male sex organ”: it therefore serves as a funeral wreath for Benjy’s own eliminated sexuality.

Page 5. " It’s getting colder, Dilsey says "
Servant quarters in the grounds of Rowan Oak which Callie Barr occupied
Creative Commons AttributionServant quarters in the grounds of Rowan Oak which Callie Barr occupied - Credit: UGArdener

Dilsey is thought to be based on Faulkner’s own ‘mammy’, Caroline (or Callie) Barr. This warm, vital and impulsive woman was born into slavery in 1840, under the rule of Hugh Barr, a prominent Lafayette slave owner.  As a result of the limited opportunities available to blacks, she continued to work in a similar capacity as a servant after Emancipation in 1863. She joined the Faulkner family shortly after they moved to Oxford, Mississippi in 1902, when William was just five years old. A deep mutual bond developed between them that progressed from the nurturing relationship of childhood to a strong adult friendship. Though illiterate, she was a superb storyteller and her accounts of her pre-Civil War experiences and the Ku Klux Klan’s campaign of terror had a major impact on Faulkner’s portrayals of race and womanhood. Characters inspired by Callie Barr feature in several novels, including Molly Beauchamp in Go Down, Moses (1942), which is dedicated to her memory.

 

When, after a century-long life, she passed away, Faulkner held the funeral service in the lounge of his home at Rowan Oak. Her gravestone in St Peter’s Cemetery bears the inscription, “her white children bless her”. 

Page 8. " the tall white post where the soldier was "
Confederate statue
Creative Commons AttributionConfederate statue - Credit: Joseph A

Outside Lafayette Courthouse stands a statue of a Confederate soldier, a memorial to those who fought in the Civil War of 1861-65 (see bookmark for page 89). Erected in 1907, the statue was donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, of which Faulkner’s paternal grandmother, Sallie McAlpine Falkner (nee Murry), had been an assertive member. The plaque reads: “In memory of the patriotism of the Confederate soldiers of Lafayette County, Mississippi. They gave their lives in a just and holy cause.” 

 

Google Map

 

Page 8. " We’re going to the cemetery. "
Faulkner's grave in St Peter's Cemetery
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeFaulkner's grave in St Peter's Cemetery - Credit: Christopher P. Bills

St. Peter’s Cemetery, established in 1871, is located just north of Oxford’s central hub, Courthouse Square. Along with rebels, war veterans and the odd statesman, most of the Faulkner family are represented here. Faulkner himself is buried with his wife Estelle and stepson Malcolm Franklin. A fourth grave memorializes “E.T. – An old family friend who came home to rest with us”. The identity of this mysterious figure remains a closely guarded secret. Only Jimmy, Faulkner’s nephew, is alleged to know the answer.

 

St Peter's Cemetery
Creative Commons AttributionSt Peter's Cemetery - Credit: NatalieMaynor

Page 11. " Got a man in it can play a tune on a saw. Play it like a banjo. "

Though often thought of as a novelty instrument like the musical spoons, the saw has, since its early use in Appalachian Mountain songs, become an integral part of the American folk tradition. In the early 1900s it began to catch on amongst musicians outside of the Appalachian area, and by the 1920s it was a popular feature of travelling vaudeville shows. It is played by gripping the handle firmly between the knees and bending the blade into an S-shape. The musician draws a bow across the centre of the S to create a hauntingly ethereal vibration.  Alternatively, that ‘sweet spot’ can be struck or tapped to produce a different sound. The pitch is modulated by adjusting the curve of the blade.

 

Man playing the musical saw
Creative Commons AttributionMan playing the musical saw - Credit: MichaelTapp

    

Page 13. " ‘I’m older than that,’ Quentin said. ‘I go to school.’ "

The Progressive Era between the 1890s and 1930s ushered in a new, idealistic approach which emphasized inclusivity and universal access to education, though the South felt the benefits of this rather later than other areas. Whereas by the turn of the century compulsory attendance had been introduced across the North and West, Mississippi would not enact such laws until 1918, making it the last state to do so. However, one could attend a free public school between the ages of five and 21. Most would begin their education aged eight, as Quentin does and as Faulkner himself did. It seems likely that Oxford Graded School, which he attended, is the model he had in mind for the Compsons.

Page 18. " He’ll make a wart on you "
The grey tree frog is common across North America. Its wart-like glands are clearly visible in this picture.
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeThe grey tree frog is common across North America. Its wart-like glands are clearly visible in this picture. - Credit: cotinis
Touching frogs allegedly gives you warts
Creative Commons AttributionTouching frogs allegedly gives you warts - Credit: Bmann

This folk belief is generally applied to toads rather than frogs, although in fact there is no taxonomic distinction between the two categories. It derives from the resemblance of the amphibian’s parotoid glands — which are located on the back, neck and shoulders and which secrete an alkaloid substance that deters predators — to warts.

Page 20. " You all got to get done and get out of my kitchen "
African American servant cleaning a fireplace
Public DomainAfrican American servant cleaning a fireplace - Credit: Library of Congress

Dilsey’s injunction reflects the equivocal power that could be attained by black women in the post-Emancipation South. Though technically ‘free’, the daily lives of African Americans after the Civil War differed little to those under slavery. The majority of women held positions as domestic servants in the employment of white middle- and upper-class families. These jobs were extremely ill-paid, and access to left-overs was often all that stood between the servant’s own family and starvation. Nonetheless, whites were highly reliant on servants for the maintenance of their households and the upbringing of their children: like Dilsey, many were able to exploit this dependency to gain a considerable degree of power and influence in the domestic sphere.

 

Hannah Pine, an African American servant photographed in 1902
Public DomainHannah Pine, an African American servant photographed in 1902 - Credit: Alexander Allison

 

 
Page 23. " I heard a squinch owl that night "
Spooky the Screech Owl
Public DomainSpooky the Screech Owl - Credit: Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Squinch owl is a dialect term for screech owl, a small, compact bird with reddish-brown colouring and distinctive ear-tufts. Unlike the low, melancholy hooting of most common owls, screech owls emit a high-pitched trill. Such sounds, particularly heard at midnight, were thought to auger death or evil — a belief which seems to crop up wherever the bird is to be found, and one which was certainly held by Native and African Americans. Superstition also links screech owls with night-demons, ghouls and vampires.

 

Illustration from
Public DomainIllustration from "the Natural History of Carolina" - Credit: Mark Catesby
 
Page 24. " Luster had some spools and he and Quentin fought and Quentin had the spools. "
Sigmund Freud
Public DomainSigmund Freud - Credit: Max Halberstadt

Faulkner may well be thinking of literature’s most famous account of spool-play: Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). In one of his most profound essays, the founding father of psychoanalysis describes a boy’s game — which entails flinging a wooden spool away, yelling ‘Fort!’ (‘be gone!’), and then pulling it back with a happy ‘Da!’ (‘there!’) — as a process of reconciliation with his mother’s absences. The child’s sensory experiences bear a strong resemblance to Benjy’s for, when he flings it away, the spool isn’t merely out of sight but is ‘gone’; when he pulls it back it is magically restored. Likewise, Benjy is conscious only of what is immediately available to his senses, experiencing his environment as a giddying series of vanishings and sudden manifestations. The theme of separation is also pertinent as it is his inability to reconcile himself to the loss of Caddy that forms one of the novel’s deepest currents of tragedy. 

 

Read Beyond the Pleasure Principle here.

Page 24. " ‘Clean that udder good, now.’ Roskus said. ‘You milked that young cow dry last summer. If you milk this one dry, they ain’t going to be no more milk.’ "
Hand-milking
Creative Commons AttributionHand-milking - Credit: Denis Gustavo
Udder of a dairy cow
Creative Commons AttributionUdder of a dairy cow - Credit: Julia Rubinic

Although it is important to keep a cow’s udder well-washed as uncleanliness imparts an unpleasant flavour to the milk, Roskus is in fact advising T. P. to make sure he squeezes every last drop from it. In Cottage Economy (1822) William Cobbett states: “If you do not milk clean, the cow will give less and less milk, and will become dry much sooner than she ought.” A further incentive to thorough milking is that the last half-pint is the richest and best, and leaving any fluid in the udder contributes to its chances of becoming diseased.

Page 25. " Your bad talk got them Memphis notions into Versh "

 Memphis is a major city in the west of Tennessee, on the Mississippi river. During the 19th century it rose to prominence as a trading centre for cotton, lumber and slaves, and the continued commercial opportunities it offered attracted a huge number of people. In contrast to other parts of the South, African Americans were able to carve out successful businesses there, and many of the shops, clubs and restaurants along the notorious Beale Street were in black ownership from the early 1900s.   

 

Google Map

 

Page 25. " I raised all of them and I reckon I can raise one more "
Black slave with white infant in her arms
Public DomainBlack slave with white infant in her arms - Credit: New York Public Library Digital Collection
African American woman holding a white child c.1855
Public DomainAfrican American woman holding a white child c.1855 - Credit: Library of Congress

In the Deep South, the outsourcing of child-rearing to black servants was the norm, at least for the elite.  This practice derives from the time of slavery when black female house-slaves were accorded maternal responsibilities. Faulkner highlights the damaging effect this system could have on familial relationships in Quentin’s despairing lamentation, “if I’d just had a mother so I could say Mother Mother”.