The Sound and the Fury is set for the most part in Jefferson, the county seat of Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi. This fictional town appears in many of Faulkner’s works and is modelled on Oxford, Lafayette, where he lived for the majority of his life.
From what he called his “little postage stamp of native soil”, Faulkner created a microcosm of Southern culture. Oxford inspired his tragic depiction of a world desperately clinging to the tatters of its ransacked past. Like much of the Deep South, Oxford had suffered badly in the Civil War, during which it was captured by Union soldiers. Shops, businesses, homes and lives were all lost during the siege. Today, the Confederate memorial in Courthouse Square, a landmark featured several times in the novel, bears witness to the town’s fractured past. Although during Faulkner's time it was beginning to recover its prosperity, Oxford was nonetheless a small rural town with a population of just 3,000 in the middle of what was considered the most backward state in the union.
Faulkner's complex, often unflattering portrayal of the South's race and gender dynamics tended to make his fellow townspeople uneasy. Considering his fame as a writer in 1939, local newspaper The Oxford Eagle remarked, "Well, they sure wouldn't hire him to write a Chamber of Commerce booklet for the town."
Listen to a recording of Faulkner pronouncing Yoknapatawpha.
The second part of The Sound and the Fury, Quentin’s narrative, is set in and around Harvard University. This revered Ivy League institution, the oldest in the USA, is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Situated in Greater Boston, Cambridge is – in contrast to Oxford, Mississippi – a densely-populated commercial centre, and was in 1910 the main fount of industry in New England.
As a north-eastern state, Massachusetts was a Unionist stronghold during the Civil War. Its history of abolitionist crusading placed it in direct opposition to the South's traditional support for slavery. The North rejected the Jim Crow laws implemented below the Mason-Dixon line. The contrast in social dynamics provides fertile ground for Faulkner’s exploration of what it means to be Southern.
Though Faulkner himself translated Yoknapatawpha as “water flows slow through flat land”, it in fact derives from the Chickasaw words yocona and petopha, meaning ‘split land’. This seems pertinent to the cultural location, for The Sound and the Fury is set in a fractured world divided by old and new values. In the background lies the antebellum South, with its fixed order and clearly defined social hierarchies, its emphasis on ancestry and eschewal of commercial values. This lost world, upturned by the Civil War, is gradually being replaced by one founded on capitalist expansion, a force which would transform America from an unorganized collection of regions to a global superpower. Much of the novel’s tragedy derives from the characters’ doomed bids to embrace, assimilate or oppose these shifts.
Yoknapatawpha is also split along racial lines. Faulkner was writing at the height of the Jim Crow era which, from 1876 to 1965, mandated segregation of all public facilities for blacks and whites, including water fountains, toilets, restaurants, schools and transport. These were nominally ‘separate but equal’, but in reality ensured that African Americans remained second class citizens. One of Faulkner’s greatest strengths as a writer is his refusal to over-simplify attitudes towards race: his outrage at the injustice and inequality visited upon African Americans does not prevent him from confronting the painful knowledge that he himself has been shaped by the legacy of ingrained prejudice — and that he has drawn comfort from it.
The fault-lines upon which Yoknapatawpha is founded are in essence those which Faulkner claimed to be at the core of his writing, and indeed of all significant writing: the human heart in conflict with itself.