Caddy’s submersion in the river and her willingness to die at Quentin’s hand make this scene highly reminiscent of Shakespeare’s treatment of Ophelia in Hamlet. Having been rejected by the Danish prince, Ophelia is maddened by grief and, singing snatches of songs and clutching at flowers, drowns herself in a river. There’s also the uniting theme of unwanted pregnancy: rue, a powerful abortificant, is one of the herbs which she strews about her.
This is suggestive of Christ’s crucifixion wounds. Though it is thought that nails were usually driven through the wrists, the majority of art depicts them entering the palms of his hands. The reference ties in with Quentin’s identification with Francis of Assisi: during a forty-day fast, an angel of the Lord appeared to the saint in a vision and bestowed the mark of the stigmata on him, making him the first person to bear this symbol of Christ's suffering.
Spanish moss, an air-plant which takes its name from the long grey beards of Spanish immigrants it was said to resemble, is ubiquitous across the southern states.
Lafayette County Courthouse stands at the centre of Oxford’s Courthouse Square. Originally constructed in 1840 and rebuilt in 1873 after being burned by Union troops during the Civil War, its Italianate-Greek revival architecture has earned the building a place in the US National Register of Historic Places.
Explore Courthouse Square by clicking inside the image below.
Faulkner is probably thinking of what was then the Colonial Hotel. Built in 1870 by William Thompson on the north side of Courthouse Square, it was the first hotel to be erected after the only previously extant example, the Oxford Inn, was demolished during the war. It has served multiple purposes over its history and at one point housed the First National Bank (see note at page 78). It is now the home of the Tollison Law Firm.
Quentin’s pitiful attempts to act out the role of hero draw on the fictional treatments of cowboys and the ‘Wild West’ that were popular in Faulkner’s time. With colonization spreading inland from the East coast, the West was always the area beyond the advancing frontier. The romanticization of this region and its settlers can be traced back to the minstrel shows and dime novels of the mid-1800s; films produced from the 1890s onwards further crystallized the image of the Old West in the popular imagination. Storylines typically involved cowboys and gunfighters battling it out against the harsh landscape and the onslaughts of savage natives. The threat Quentin delivers to Dalton Ames is quintessential of the genre.
Atlantic City, New Jersey, was — as it still is — a popular hub of hedonistic recreation. Known as ’the playground of the world’, its dance halls, boutiques, gambling casinos, theatres and concert halls drew in vast crowds of pleasure-seekers.
Henry Reuterdahl's Atlantic City: The World's Play-ground (1922) provides a charmingly-illustrated guide to all the attractions the seaside city has to offer.
The main pleasure quarters of Atlantic City line the famous Boardwalk which, having opened in 1870, was the first structure of its type to be built in the U.S. In 1910, five piers stretched from the Boardwalk over the Atlantic Ocean. These were devoted to amusements ranging from the daredevil spectacles of diving horses and high-wire motorcycle acts to the more refined pleasures of orchestral music.
In Greek mythology, Leda, the Queen of Sparta, is one of the many mortals desired by Zeus. He takes the form of a swan and, pretending to escape the claws of an eagle, casts himself into her arms. In this guise he rapes or seduces her on the very night she consummates her marriage to King Tyndareus.
Listen to Dylan Thomas reading W. B. Yeats’ beautiful, unsettling poem about their coupling.
Genesis 41-46. During the seven year famine which devastates the Middle East, Benjamin’s father Jacob orders his ten sons (Benjamin’s half-brothers) to go from Israel into Egypt to secure grain. When they arrive, they are accused of being spies by the Vizier. Unbeknownst to them, the Vizier is in fact Benjamin’s direct brother, Joseph, whom they had previously sold into slavery. He demands that the ten sons bring their young sibling with them into Egypt to prove their integrity. Jacob, fearing to lose his favourite son, is reluctant to comply but eventually does so. The idea of Benjy as a sacrifice ties in with later imagery that allies him with Christ.
Folk superstition has long held that it is bad luck for an odd number of mourners to attend a funeral; this supposedly heralds another death.
At this time, brothels and Memphis were almost synonymous. After Unionists seized control during the Civil War, the city introduced regulated prostitution in order to address the growing problem of venereal disease. Though this was abandoned shortly after the war, prostitution continued to flourish and the area surrounding Beale and Mulberry Streets became a notorious red light district.
Christ’s Passion, as recounted in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, is the bodily and spiritual suffering Jesus undergoes during his trial and crucifixion. The pattern of blood refers to the injuries he receives during his flagellation and to the stigmata on his hands and feet. Quentin’s association of the blood stains on his clothes with these wounds figures his suicide as an act of atonement for humanity’s sins that has been necessitated by his father and which he must undergo with passive forbearance.
This is a play on another of Benjamin’s multiple meanings. Genesis 35.18 describes Rachel’s death during childbirth: “And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Benoni: but his father called him Benjamin.” As the note for page 48 explains, Benoni translates as ‘son of my sorrow’.
In the Book of Numbers, the Israelites' procession to the Promised Land is beset by a terrible drought as they attempt to cross the desert of Zin. With both the travellers and their cattle on the verge of death, Moses prays to God and God appears before him. He bids Moses take his rod and use it to smite a rock. “And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also” (Numbers 20.11).
Translating as I was not. I am. I was. I am not, this Latin epigram derives from the teachings of Epicurus. Arguing that all sensation and consciousness are terminated at the point of death, he held that death could entail neither pleasure nor pain. Fear of one's own demise, therefore, involves an irrational supposition that the conscious mind that is aware of death as a loss somehow continues after its owner has expired. The expression conventionally ends in Non curo: ‘I do not care’. Quentin’s omission of these final words suggests both a lack of reconciliation with the fate which he, nevertheless, does not question and a failure to fully comprehend suicide as the termination of awareness.
This recalls Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s visionary poem ‘Kubla Khan’, which follows the flow of the river Alph to the sea:
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean.
The entire poem can be read here.
A reference to Cupid, the Roman God of love and desire, whose gold-tipped arrows inspire love in the hearts of those they impale.
Though references to his blindness are rare or absent in classical works, they have since become commonplace in literature and art. Explanations for this vary. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helena pronounces “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind” (Act 1, Scene 1). Classical scholars, such as C. D. Gilbert, argue that it is Cupid's indifference to the effects of his works that garner him this reputation.
Though Quentin’s father isn’t the first Mississippian to poke fun at this notion — Mark Twain does so with great relish in numerous of his works — atheism was, and still is, a highly unpopular position. Deep in the Bible Belt, Mississippi has been passionately religious since colonial times, and evangelical Protestantism has been dominant since the Civil War. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, 95 per cent of contemporary Mississippians feel that religion is an important part of their daily lives.
In the Book of John, it is recorded that when Christ’s crucified body is taken down from the cross, “one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water” (John 19.34). Remembering how his father ridiculed Maury’s Christian beliefs and how he taught instead that “all men are just accumulations dolls stuffed with sawdust”, Quentin re-imagines Jesus as the personification of his father’s ideas. He draws a perverse relish from the idea that the crucifixion, intended to purchase salvation for humanity, will be insufficient to atone for the sin he is set upon.
Colonel Sartoris is a character from Sartoris (1929), the novel which Faulkner published shortly before The Sound and the Fury. The deceased patriarch of a once-wealthy family, the Colonel is based on Faulkner’s own great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner. Many incidents in the Colonel's life — fighting in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, being deposed by his own troops, constructing the local railroad and being killed in a feud with his business partner — are recreated from those that befell Falkner.
Colonel Sartoris would later feature prominently in The Unvanquished (1938), as well as making appearances in novels including Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and short stories ‘A Rose for Emily’ (1930) and ‘Barn Burning’ (1939). This process of transposing the characters of a novel into different works fascinated Faulkner and the Compsons too have alternative lives in different works. Quentin is the principal narrator of Absalom, Absalom!, in which his father also plays a crucial role, whilst Jason figures in The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959). The family also crop up in short stories such as ‘That Evening Sun’ (1931) and ‘A Justice’ (1931).
In the Book of Matthew, when Jesus is crossing Gergesenes he is accosted by two men possessed by devils.
And, behold, they cried out, saying, What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? art thou come hither to torment us before the time? And there was a good way off from them an herd of many swine feeding. So the devils besought him, saying, If thou cast us out, suffer us to go away into the herd of swine. And he said unto them, Go. And when they were come out, they went into the herd of swine: and, behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters. (Matthew 8.29-32)
Quentin’s fantasy of Caddy and Dalton Ames’ coupled bodies as those of the devil-possessed swine ties in with the imagery of page 125: “the beast with two backs and she blurred in the winking oars running the swine of Euboeleus running coupled within”. See note.
The belief that a severe shock, grief or fear can cause the hair to suddenly turn white can be traced back to the Talmud. Though it sounds like the stuff of folklore, this is a recognised syndrome known as Canities subita. It takes its colloquial name, Marie Antoinette syndrome, from the popular belief that Marie Antoinette’s hair turned white the day before she was led up to the guillotine. Quentin’s father is implying that Quentin approaches suicide as though it will condense all his despair into an apocalyptic crisis that will free him from torment. In that this implies he will survive to experience the catharsis, it cannot derive from a sincere desire for death.
This is a typically Faulknerian appellation for the gods, envisioned as waged in an unfairly weighted game, quite indifferent to the human lives with which they gamble. Though the deities of Greek and Roman myth frequently interfere with the lives of mortals and are often fond of games of chance, the notion that they stake human fates on dice and chess owes more to popular culture than classical literature.