Page 26. " Blue howled under the kitchen steps. "

According to African American folklore, dogs often howl when a member of the family dies.

Page 26. " White folks don’t have funerals "

The funeral of Booker T. Washington, a prominent African American Civil Rights leader
Public DomainThe funeral of Booker T. Washington, a prominent African American Civil Rights leader - Credit: Library of Congress

Though Caddy’s remark is based on her limited understanding of mortality, it is true that black funerals tended to be more ostentatious than their white counterparts. Despite the poverty in which most African Americans lived, their death rites were lavish affairs and required much planning. This was a hangover from the times of slavery when death represented the only means of gaining freedom, making funerals occasions on which to affirm faith as well as to express collective anguish.  

Page 27. " the buzzards came and undressed her "
Turkey Vulture
Creative Commons AttributionTurkey Vulture - Credit: Don DeBold

In North American English, buzzard typically means vulture, and is most often applied to the Turkey Vulture. These scavengers, which feed mainly on carcasses, are common enough to be considered a pest in rural areas. They figure often in Faulkner’s work, most strikingly in As I Lay Dying (1930), where the coiling tension is mirrored by the ever-closer circling of buzzards attracted by the smell of Addie Bundren’s corpse.

 

Faulkner once stated in an interview for the Paris Review, "If I were reincarnated, I'd want to come back a buzzard. Nothing hates him or envies him or wants him or needs him. He is never bothered or in danger, and he can eat anything."

Page 28. " You were bad enough before you got that bullfrog voice. "

 

The bullfrog, a native of the eastern United States, takes its name from the hollow, booming call which the male uses to attract females during mating season. He drives air across his windpipe and into the air sacs at the base of his mouth. These balloon out and amplify the sound, which is powerful enough to travel as far as half a mile.   

Page 28. " The ditch came up out of the buzzing grass "
Cicada
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeCicada - Credit: Ato 01

Cicadas are extremely common in Mississippi and the males’ hypnotic buzzing causes grassy areas to sing like electric wire. The insect makes the sound using membranes on its abdomen known as tymbals. As the interior muscles are tightened and relaxed, the tymbals vibrate, creating a rapid series of clicks. These are amplified by chambers stemming from the trachea. Cicada song can reach a volume of 120 decibels, the equivalent of an airplane takeoff and quite loud enough to damage human hearing should one stand close enough.

 

 

Page 31. " The one next to it was where we have the measles. "
Back of female with measles
Creative Commons AttributionBack of female with measles - Credit: Wellcome Library

Measles is highly contagious: eighty-five per cent of those exposed to the virus go on to develop symptoms, including an itchy rash, diarrhoea, vomiting and an extremely painful cough. For this reason, sufferers are often quarantined. Prior to the introduction of routine immunization in 1963, the disease was a major problem. Large-scale outbreaks occurred on a two- or three-yearly basis, with young children being particularly at risk. Complications were common and could be severe; in a significant number of cases, they were fatal.

Page 31. " He went and pushed Caddy into the tree to the first limb. We watched the muddy bottom of her drawers. "
Eve, Serpent and Death
Public DomainEve, Serpent and Death - Credit: Hans Baldung

Tree of Knowledge
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeTree of Knowledge - Credit: YashiWong
The rich symbolism of this scene evokes the biblical story in which Eve, through eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, loses her native innocence. Just as this original act of defiance brings death into paradise, Caddy’s rebellion brings her into contact with the meaning of mortality. The parallel is underscored by the snake that crawls out from under the house on the previous page. Further, whilst Eve’s transgression brings her an awareness of the sins of the flesh, the image of Caddy’s muddied drawers prefigures her later sexual promiscuity.

Page 32. " T. P. fell down. He began to laugh, and the cellar door and the moonlight jumped away and something hit me. "
Prohibition agents pouring liquor into sewer following a raid
Public DomainProhibition agents pouring liquor into sewer following a raid - Credit: Library of Congress

The fact that both T. P. and Benjy topple over makes it clear that what they’ve been drinking is somewhat stronger than standard sarsaparilla. The concealment of alcohol in a soft drink bottle was necessitated by the 1907 ban on manufacturing, selling and importing alcohol in Mississippi.

 

Prohibition had been spearheaded by a diverse range of interest groups. Doctors, women’s organizations, religious figures, white supremacists and beleaguered African Americans together constructed an overarching narrative that figured alcohol as a powerful enemy of the moral faculties; which, by gradually eroding the individual, spread crime and destruction through a whole community. So powerful was this rhetoric that in 1920 the entire United States adopted Prohibition through the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. However, it ultimately caused greater social problems than it solved. Many citizens were unwilling to abide by its terms and the black market flourished, leading to a surge in smuggling, racketeering and associated violence. The countrywide ban was repealed in 1933. Mississippi, however, would remain dry until 1966, making it the last state to rescind.

 

Faulkner, an enthusiastic drinker, was vehemently opposed to Prohibition. When, in 1950, Oxford ministers began posting pro-dry posters around town, he responded with a leaflet now known as the 'beer broadside' — read it here.

Tree of Intemperance - Prohibition propaganda
Public DomainTree of Intemperance - Prohibition propaganda - Credit: Library of Congress

 

 
Page 34. " She took up the bottle and took the stopper out and held it to my nose. ‘Sweet. Smell. Good.’ "

Though synthetic perfumes were beginning to be manufactured domestically, those from France were most popular. Fashionable scents included Guerlain’s Jicky, which smelt of lavender, vanilla and civet; Coty’s La Rose Jacqueminot (jacqueminot rose); and Ambre Antique (vanilla, amber and civet).

Page 35. " Et ego in arcadia "

This is a common rewording of et in Arcadia ego. The phrase first appeared in a painting by Italian artist Guercino, completed in 1622. This work depicts two shepherds gazing upon a skull: the stone pedestal on which it rests is inscribed with these words. Originally interpreted as ‘I too was in Arcadia’, the line was assumed to speak for the erstwhile owner of the skull. Now generally agreed to mean ‘Even in Arcadia, I am present’, it is read as a memento mori, the words of a personified Death attesting to an omnipresence that extends even into the idealised arena of bucolic bliss.

Et in Arcadia Ego
Public DomainEt in Arcadia Ego - Credit: Guercino

Page 39. " He had a red tie. "

This identifies Quentin’s companion as a travelling show man.

Page 41. " Agnes Mabel Becky "
Three Merry Widows tin
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeThree Merry Widows tin - Credit: Minnesota Historical Society

Agnes-Mabel-Beckie were the names embossed on the tin of the Three Merry Widows brand of condoms. It would not have been easy for Quentin’s lovers to obtain these reusable rubber items, contraception not being favourably regarded in Mississippi. Cornstock laws had been introduced in the 1880s effectively banning access to contraception or information about birth control. This legislation was not reversed until 1965 for married couples and 1972 for the unmarried.

Page 43. " I reckon you’ll send him to Jackson, now. "

The Mississippi State Hospital in Jackson opened in 1855 as The Mississippi Lunatic Asylum, renamed Mississippi State Insane Hospital in 1900. It was developed according to the Kirkbride Plan, which held that therapeutic improvement could be fostered by the building itself and emphasized comfort, sunlight and privacy. The hospital is long gone, and the University of Mississippi Medical Center now stands in its place.

 

Google Map

 

Page 48. " Benjamin came out of the bible, Caddy said. "

In the Book of Genesis, Benjamin is the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons and the second son of Rachel. Rachel dies during labour, using her last breath to name her child Benoni. This translates as ‘son of my sorrow’, a sentiment chiming with Mrs Compson’s martyrish lamentations about her own offspring. Jacob quickly renames him Benjamin.

 

Jacob and Benjamin
Public DomainJacob and Benjamin - Credit: Adolphe Rogers

Benjamin is thus a censoring not only of Benjy Compson's original name but also that of his biblical forbear. Its meaning is ambiguous. Coming from the Hebrew, ben means son of whilst the second element, yamin, may mean south, right or right hand.  Alternatively, it may derive from yamim, meaning days, and allude to Jacob’s advanced age. The ramifications of these possible meanings are played with in Quentin’s narrative (see bookmarks for pages 74 and 145).

 

Also interesting to note are the racial dimensions to the name change. Benjy’s mother renames him to symbolically terminate the connection with ‘her’ family, the Bascombs, as her brother is also called Maury. Nonetheless, the meaning of the name, a variant of Maurice, is worthy of note: swarthy, dark-skinned, Moorish. Benjy’s two monikers can be read as evidence of the liminal position his condition confers on him: as an idiot, he subverts the white-intelligent/black-ignorant paradigm on which the social hierarchy of the time relies, and is therefore suspended between the white and black worlds, belonging wholly to neither. Fitting in with a broader pattern in the novel that portrays race as uncertain, malleable, fluctuating, he embodies a world in which deep fissures have opened up in all the old certainties. According to this line of interpretation, son of the south would seem an apt understanding of Benjamin.

Page 48. " It’ll be in the Book, honey, Dilsey said. Writ out. "
 
Detail from Judgement Day fresco
Public DomainDetail from Judgement Day fresco - Credit: Viktor Vasnetsov

 

Dilsey is referring to the Book of Life, in which the name of every person destined for heaven is recorded. According to Revelation, the book is to be opened on the Day of Judgement, when all are to be apprised of their ultimate destiny.

 

And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. (Revelation 20.12