Deranged, grotesque and, for the first 150 pages, very nearly incomprehensible, The Sound and the Fury is nonetheless one of the most profound and unforgettable books ever written. Utilizing the stream-of-consciousness technique pioneered by European modernists such as Joyce and Woolf, William Faulkner plunges his readers into the disintegrating psyches of a disintegrating Southern family. Each of the novel’s four narratives constitutes in itself a startling and original experiment in technique, and the subtle way in which they inform and illuminate each other is simply masterful. Not even the most sophisticated reader will grasp the full import of The Sound and the Fury on first encounter, but those prepared to apply careful attention to Faulkner’s obscure and intricate orchestrations, to wait patiently for the novel to yield up its meaning, will find themselves listening to a music of overwhelming, almost painful beauty.
At the centre of the novel is Caddy, an enchanting and blighted woman who was Faulkner’s own “heart’s darling”; in the varying attitudes of the other characters towards her, Faulkner grapples with an astonishing number of psychic and social crises. Through Benjy’s narrative, for example, he explores what it means to retain absolute innocence in a postlapsarian world. With remarkable insight and empathy, he shows that Benjy’s inability to conceive of his experiences other than through direct sensory perception — in other words, his inability to mediate or rationalize — ensures that each loss and trauma remains an ever-fresh wound.
No less subtle is his treatment of the changing social position of African Americans. By exploring the ways in which black and white identities rely on the obverse reflection of the other – how stereotyped behaviours are ascribed, adopted and manipulated; and how deterministic views of race undo themselves by insisting on the simultaneity of disparate traits – Faulkner blasts away the foundations on which black/white dichotomies are founded. This is not to say that The Sound and the Fury is a civil rights polemic. Faulkner is as sympathetic towards Quentin who, as a white Southerner used to his own superior status, feels threatened by the relative prosperity of northern African Americans, as he is towards Dilsey, whose fortitude in the face of suffering makes her the novel’s only truly admirable figure. Furthermore, the knowledge that race is, at heart, an artificial construct does not cancel out the paradoxical counter-truth that it is also a profound and integral part of one’s being. When Faulkner has a northern character assume black vernacular speech in order to win the confidence of whites, he knows racial signifiers are arbitrary; when he has the Reverend Shegog shift from white speech to black so as to underscore the parallel between the persecution of Christ and that of African Americans, he knows that they are the very essence of collective experience.
Another of the schisms on which Faulkner trains his unwaveringly honest eye is that between the old and new South. Taking a cruel and delicate scalpel to the oft-idealized antebellum era, he cuts through the veneer of gentility and honour and finds that it, like Mr Compson’s concept of humankind, is just a doll “stuffed with sawdust swept up from the trash heaps where all previous dolls had been thrown away”. At the same time the new South, with its commercial values, is symbolized by a growing suburban sprawl whose promise already looks decayed. Both the novel’s characters and its readers swing pendulum-like, adrift between these two hollow worlds, desperately seeking somewhere to anchor their faith.
At its heart, then, Faulkner’s tragic vision is concerned with what becomes of the human soul when all that it has cherished, protected and yearned for has rotted away. As the novel closes, it becomes apparent that the opaque and convoluted style has not been mere posturing but is an incredibly effective way of conveying that lost, disoriented bewilderment. It also allows for a powerfully disturbing sense of impending revelation that takes place not on the pages but in the reader’s own mind. When at last the splintered fragments merge together into a coherent whole and the full, devastating import of Benjy’s bellowing and Quentin’s abstractions finally emerges, the effect is at once a searing mental illumination and a visceral blow to the guts.
Listen to a 1957 recording of Faulkner talking about The Sound and the Fury at the University of Virginia.
The Sound and the Fury contributed to Faulkner being awarded Nobel Prize. Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels lists it as the 6th greatest English language work, whilst Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century places it at 34. Contemporary reviewers, however, were thrown completely off balance by the novel’s radical approach and opinion was violently polarized.
“Many, I am sure will call the author mad. But if Faulkner is mad, then James Joyce is equally so; if Faulkner is obsessed with futility and insanity, so is Fyodor Dostoevsky. It is true that ‘The Sound and the Fury’ is insane and monstrous and terrible, but so is the life that it mirrors. It is difficult to read, but I could not put it down.” (New York Herald Tribune Books, 13 Oct. 1929)
“The publisher does not say whether the entire 400 pages of the volume are intended as autobiography, but as an example of perfection in idiotic expressions, it deserves to be ranked as such. After reading a few pages the reader feels tempted to apply for admission to the nearest lunatic asylum.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 30 Nov. 1929)
“I admit that the idiocy of the thirty-three year old Benjy is admirably grasped by Mr. Faulkner, but one hundred pages of an imbecile’s simplified sense perceptions and monosyllabic gibbering, no matter how accurately recorded, are rather too much of a good thing.” (Nation, 15 Jan. 1930)
“The Sound and the Fury... is an experiment in technique which may be appreciated by a few of Mr. Faulkner’s more advanced fellow-writers, but I should not advise the ordinary reader, or even those interested in the art of the novel, to waste any time over it.” (Daily Telegraph, Apr. 21 1931)
“I cannot do justice in a short space to the beauty which Mr. Faulkner has been able to find in these lives of imbeciles, criminals, and unfortunates. The beauty is there, original and rather disturbing. It is a book which should be read more than once; and yet I hesitate to read it again.” (The Fortnightly Review 129, June 1931)