Book Review: The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner (Paperback 464 Pages)

Posted: March 9, 2013 in Books

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The Compson family is a wealthy, aristocratic family living in a large house in Mississippi.  The family has put up a façade of success, but it is really a family in decline, decaying from the inside. Jason Compson III,  the patriarch of the family is also an alcoholic, and eventually dies of the disease.  Jason’s wife Caroline is bedridden for a good portion of her life, probably suffering from some psychosomatic illness of her own creation.

Quentin, the  eldest  Compson son, is set to go to Harvard, squandering more of the family’s wealth.  Quentin then hears of his sister Candace’s pregnancy out of wedlock.  He is distraught by the news, so distraught that he tries to tell his father that he is responsible, and has had an incestuous relationship with Candace.  Jason III scoffs at this idea, and Quentin is left with no other choice but to commit suicide. Candace tries to cover the pregnancy by marrying a banker named Herbert Head.  Herbert promises a job to Jason Compson IV, Candace’s younger brother, but quickly rescinds the offer when he finds out that Candace’s child is from another man.

Candace gives birth to the child, a girl named Quentin, whom she abandons at the Compson home.  There Quentin grows up with her uncle, Jason IV, a frustrated racist, who is unsuccessful at making his own money so he tries to steal what’s left of the Compson money from his niece Quentin.   Quentin has grown up to be quite the wild child and she and her uncle clash quite a bit about who she is dating and how late she stays out.  The youngest Compson child, Benjamin, is mentally disabled, and is a constant source of shame and scorn to the family. Does the Compson family ever regain prominence, or does their show decline into oblivion continue?

I’ve read a lot of books, and a lot of classic books and I have to say that The Sound and the Fury is undoubtedly the worst classic book I’ve ever read.  I’m truly at a loss as to why this is considered a classic novel. The plot is dense, the voice of the so-called protagonist, Candace, is the weakest of the main characters, and the book relies on many societal and cultural stereotypes, which are insulting when read today.

The first chapter is narrated by Benjy, the mentally challenged member of the Compson family, who at different points in the book is a child and a 33 year old adult.  His age never seems to matter though, Benjy simply whimpers and moans.  This is not the character to lead the narration, and I’m sure Faulkner knew nothing about mental disability in 1929, so Benji is treated like little more than a slobbering child.  Why make the first impression that of a whimpering moaning man/child when the author neither understands or seeks to understand the malady that plagues Benjamin?

The second chapter is narrated by Quentin, a person so preoccupied by his sister’s virginity that he commits suicide.  Why does Faulkner seem obsessed with incest in this chapter, why does he bring up such a taboo subject here, especially if it’s a lie?  I do not understand.

The third chapter is narrated by Jason IV, who fancies himself a businessman, buying and selling cotton futures, but is so filled with hate and rage, spewing the N word with such regularity, that he’s no more than a garden variety racist, who is in reality such a bad businessman that he works as a clerk in a store and has to resort to stealing money pledged to his niece.  The fourth chapter is told through the eyes of  Dilsey, an elderly servant in the Compson household.  This chapter really adds nothing to the exposition of the book, other than to further the estrangement between Jason the 4th and Quentin.

Muddying the waters even more is the literary techniques used by Faulkner.  He tells the story in such a non-linear fashion that almost immediately, the reader becomes lost. It’s like traveling to a place you’ve never been to without a map, you don’t know where you’re going, you don’t know how to get there but you do know the journey will end.  Another technique that Faulkner employs which adds to the readers frustration is his stream of consciousness technique.  The reader can not only hear the character’s voice, but all the voices and thoughts in the character’s head, and by the time he stops using stream of consciousness, the reader is begging to get the character’s voices out of his head.

The servant characters were a thorn in my side, that silly Stepin Fechit dialect, Yessah, NoSah.  The unending subservience, I was sick of Dilsey and her whole family in no time.  This was 60 years after the Civil War for crying out loud, Faulkner couldn’t find one erudite person of color in the South 60 years after the Civil War?  That’s inexcusable.  Moreover, white Southerners are also stereotyped as well, they are nothing more than inbred racists, on Faulkner’s eyes.  How is this book a classic again?  Ralph Ellison, the author of the Invisible Man recognizes the pernicious black stereotypes in his critique of this book.  He is the only person to mention stereotypes as far as I know.

I would compare this book to East of Eden in that both talk about the dissolution of once prominent families, but since Steinbeck is a much better writer in my opinion, East of Eden is a compelling story whereas The Sound and the Fury was a disjointed mess , in search of a voice.  I also think of Huckleberry Finn when reading this book, but again Twain is a much better writer and gives Jim an innate intelligence that makes him smarter than Huck in a lot of ways.  That intelligence is missing from Faulkner’s black characters. Huck Finn was written almost 40 years before The Sound and The Fury.

Finally, there are many verses borrowed from the Bible in The Sound and the Fury.  I have gained a good understanding of the Bible over many years, yet I simply couldn’t understand the use of these verses in Faulkner’s book.  I have even read that Benjy is a Christ like figure, that analysis is simply ludicrous in my mind.

The Sound and The Fury.  Signifies Nothing.

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