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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.