In a letter to Malcolm Cowley, Faulkner once wrote “I'm trying to say it all in one sentence, between one Cap and one period. I'm still trying to put it all, if possible, on one pinhead”. Attempting to summarize The Sound and the Fury involves a similarly impossible feat of condensation. With a plot that does not so much develop as gradually crystallize out of seeming chaos, any attempt to describe the book in brief will necessarily be inadequate to Faulkner's complex vision.
April seventh 1928
From the outset, the reader is plunged into an obscure world of disorienting time shifts and apparently incoherent references. Our first view of the Compson family comes through the eyes of Benjy, a thirty-three year old mute with severe learning difficulties. With a narrator incapable of making sense of his own experiences, we have no choice but to watch, bewildered, as fractured images accumulate, and to share in Benjy’s own tortured incomprehension. The one thing that emerges clearly from this tale told by an idiot is Benjy's utter love for his sister Caddy, an impulsive and rebellious girl whose tragedy lies at the centre of a novel from which she herself, absconded and never accorded her own voice, is largely absent.
June second 1910
If the first section is difficult to unravel, the second is nigh on impossible. We now rewind 18 years to when Quentin, the oldest and most cerebral of the Compson children, was a freshman at Harvard University. We accompany him on the last day of his life as he makes meticulous preparations for his suicide, although with his mind following a loosely-connected string of impressions, associations and memories, this will not become apparent until later. As with Benjy, his thoughts whirl around the image of Caddy, upon whom he has brought to bear all his deeply-cherished ideals of honour and virginity. The discovery that she is pregnant by one man, and intent upon marrying another to avoid the shame of a bastard child, completely shatters his faith in those values. Unwilling to countenance the suggestion that time will dull his horror, and drunk on the idea that he can chivalrously damn himself along with Caddy and thereby atone for her sin, he approaches suicide as an inevitability. His narrative ends on a note of Prufrockian bathos: before he sets out to throw himself in the river, he first takes care to clean his teeth and brush his hat.
April sixth 1928
With the third section, we are returned to the Easter weekend of 1928 and also to something approaching comprehensibility. This time our narrator is Jason, who Faulkner described as “the most vicious character... I ever thought of”. Whilst for Benjy Caddy is the centre of all surety and for Quentin she is a fallen angel, in Jason’s eyes she is simply a bitch. When her husband, who had promised Jason a job in a bank, divorces Caddy on discovering she is pregnant by another man, Jason loses out on what he sees as the greatest opportunity of his life. Brimming with rage, he seeks recompense by blackmailing Caddy into making him the sole guardian of her daughter Quentin (named after their dead brother) and then pilfers the money she sends home for her. With Mr Compson dead from alcoholism, Jason is now head of the crumbling family, a role he bitterly resents and which he exploits to arrange for the shocking castration of Benjy.
April eighth 1928
The final section — taking place on Easter Sunday — is told from a third-person perspective and focuses on Dilsey, the Compsons’ black servant and a figure of stoic endurance in the novel. Here we bear witness to Jason’s horror as he discovers that Quentin, sick of his tyranny, has run away with a travelling showman and stolen back the money he has pilfered. Meanwhile, Dilsey takes Benjy to an Easter service at a black church. With the words of the charismatic Reverend Shegog ringing in her ears, she declares, “I’ve seed de first en de last”, a statement which distils the ultimate and irrevocable disintegration of the family whose successive generations she has overseen. Only as the novel closes can the reader finally comprehend the full import of what has previously seemed so much sound and fury.