William Faulkner's Sound and The Fury - when order unravels

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 11:12pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 March, 2015, 11:42am

The Sound and the Fury
by William Faulkner
Jonathan Cape/Harrison Smith


The Sound and the Fury was William Faulkner's fourth novel and his "most splendid failure". This tension summarises the feelings of many readers, combining admiration and bafflement in equal measure.

Faulkner was no exception, it seems. He wrote and rewrote this story of the disintegrating Compson family who had for decades lived in splendour in Mississippi. Having completed three sections, narrated by different characters using different narrative forms, Faulkner remained dissatisfied: "And that failed and I tried myself - the fourth section - to tell what happened, and I still failed."

The title comes from a famous soliloquy in William Shakespeare's Macbeth: "It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing."

These sentiments are echoed in the second section when the sensitive but troubled Quentin hears birdsong: "The bird whistled again, invisible, a sound meaningless and profound, inflexionless, ceasing as though cut off with the blow of a knife, and again, and that sense of water swift and peaceful above secret places, felt, not seen not heard."

Told over an Easter weekend in 1928 (and a June day in 1910), it unites three brothers - Benjy, Quentin and Jason - whose vivid impressions of the present vie with uncertain memories of the past. Linking each of these young men is their feelings for their sister, Candace. Her story is first told by Benjy, who many have suggested is Shakespeare's "idiot". Mentally challenged, he describes without understanding.

Benjy is almost the inverse of Quentin, whose second section understands too much, or at least too sensitively. The slow disintegration of his mind is marked by the tolling of a funereal bell that prophesies his suicide.

Many critics have argued that the novel's defining consciousness is Dilsey, the black matriarch of the servants and the focus of the fourth section. Her third-person presence expresses itself as a kind of sonic sensitivity to the Compson house: "I'm here alone so much that I hear every sound."

What she hears may be the essence of Faulkner's cri de coeur. There is Benjy's wail, "hopeless and prolonged". Later, "an indescribable sound went up, a sigh, a sound of astonishment and disappointment". By the end, the sound is the fury, "the grave hopeless sound of all voiceless misery under the sun".