W. Faulkner - The Sound And The Fury

Seminar Paper, 1998

14 Pages


Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn Englisches Seminar

Hausarbeit zum Proseminar:

Der amerikanische Roman des 20. Jahrhunderts

W.Faulkners The Sound And The Fury

Prof. Dr. L. Hönnighausen und K.Fischer-Burrell, M.A.

WS 1997/98

Philipp von Melle

In the novel The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner, there is a relation to the idea of the fatal woman; which was a major theme in the late nineteenth´ century literature and can in a certain way be transferred to the role of Caddy Compson, and partly to her daughter Quentin, mainly in her function consisting the decay of the whole family, their members, their ideals and their way of life.

The idea of the woman´s bad influence on men, of course as a male concept, is very old. It already roots in the ancient mythology, whose well-known examples are mainly Circe, the Sirens and Ulysses as well as The Medusa theme. Although in Ovid ´ s Metamorphoses we read about women causing the death of a man, even they do not kill him by themselves. The myth of Diana and Actaeon is a good example: Actaeon, who has the bad luck to be watching the goddess Diana swimming in a lake, gets transformed into a deer by the angry Diana. His own hunting dogs chase him and tear him to pieces, because they do not recognize him as their master any more. (Ovid, Metamorphoses III, 138 - 252)

Another aspect of the woman as a dangerous person for men is, what Siegmund Freud called the "fear of castration". The myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus can be read in this way: The boy Hermaphroditus, reaching a lake in the mountains, is being seen by the nymph Salmacis. She, eager to be joined with him, pulls him into the lake. When she realizes that she cannot posess him, she wishes to become one body with him, so they get melted together as a person half man, half woman. (Ovid IV, 271-388) The development leading to Quentin Compson´s suicide is related to this aspect.

As the novel The Sound And The Fury can be interpreted in a symbolistic tradition, there are many symbols in it which refer to sexual connotations and which are, according to the symbolistic context of the late nineteenth´century, closely related to the death and decay images dominating the setting of Faulkners novel.

Why have so many male artists in all times and epoques connected the female principle with impurity, disease, death; in ine word: "the evil" ? First, there is the christian theology, in which Eve seduces Adam to eat frum the tree of cognition. The woman caused the expulsion from the paradise and therefore is responsible for all sins in the world. There is the cult of virginity; only men and women who save their virginity are able to serve God and to become member of the clergy. And there are only women who seduce men and make them forget their honest principles.

Second, to explain the close connecton of women with impurity, disease and death, there are some primitive ancient fears about women´s menstruation. Additionally, prostitution in the nineteenth´century flourished. (Bade 9) Because there was still no effective cure for syphilis, the fear of veneral disease and death always coincided close together with erotic experiences. I believe that this aspect could quite well get into the literary context, as there are many poets, writers and artists who died because of syphilis. The best known for me is Heinrich Heine and, according to Bade, also Baudelaire, Maupassant, Manet and Gauguin.

Turning the view to the relation of Caddy Compson to her child Quentin, there is also the idea that the mother passes on her fatal qualities to her child; and in fact has Quentin, the illegal child whose father is not known, little chances to escape from the role Caddy played in the Compson family until she had to leave because of her divorce with Herbert Head.

According to a need for compensation, artists created an imagination or a model of their mothers as the only true woman a man can trust. Thei male principle was always connected with an imagination of reason, analysis and power in contrast to the female one that appeared in connection with nature, sexuality and sensuality. Short to say, the moter was a good woman and some others, although they desired them, were bad.

Of course I do not like to identify Faulkners The Sound And The Fury in a on-to-one translation with these concepts, but I think that the obvious symbolical and sexually connotated history of the Compson children as well as the circumstances leading to the failure of the whole family demand a view back into traditions of the ancient century, even I talked mostly of european artists and concepts, the American literature is connected to this in a close way: Just to name Edgar Allan Poe and his translation of Baudelaire´s 42 Fleurs Du Mal into the English language, the decay theme in his stories and his personal way of life.

Faulkner himself stated in several comments to The Sound And The Fury that the idea for this book grew out of the image of a little girl climbing the pear tree in front of her parent´s house to watch her grandmother´s funeral, while their brothers, staying on the ground, look upwards at their muddy drawers. To strengthen this, I willl quote some sentences taken from an interview with Jean Stein vanden Heuvel, seen in the Norton Edition of The Sound And The Fury. (233):

It began with a mental picture. I didn´t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl´s drawers in a pear tree where she could see through a window where her grandmother´s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below.By the time I explained whpo they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it was impossible to get it all into a short story and that it would have to be a book. And I realized the symbolism of the soiled pants, and that image was replaced by the one of the motherless and fatherless girl climbing down the rainpipe to escape from the only home she had, where she had never been offered love or affection or understanding.

Let us shift into the Benjy section of the novel where this scene takes place. (24-25) Benjy tells us in his own way what happened there and what events led to this situation:

The group of the children return to their house after playing when a snake appears. In connection with the pear tree I was remembered to the biblical scene of Eve seducing Adam to try a fruit from the tree of cognition. Faulkner uses the pear tree because pears have in the literature always been used to show a sexual connotation because of their form and the shape of their skin. I also would like to mention that the children are not allowed to take part in the funeral but have to stay outside, so Caddy´s action of climbing on the tree is like breaking a law dedicated to them by their father. Short to say, here is the moment of trial for the forbidden thing.

Short before, the children are playing at the river when Caddy´s dress gets wet and she starts to take it off. Quentin tries to stop her because he does not want his sister to undress herself in front of the other children (because of the difference in gender, I assume). Quentin slaps her, she slips and falls down in the water, totally wet now. The other children want to tell about this, so that Quentin has to feel guilty in the case that his sister gets punished. His trial to preserve her from some male views, or his trial to save her from male acess ends in a total failure. (12-13)

Very important and perhaps already showing forward to the further development of this novel, it is not Caddy who bothers about taking her dress off but Quentin. I think that here is the first index of Quentin as the person who wants to deny the sexual awakening of his sister and tries to be the guard of her virginity. In the moment of undressing the differences in sex get through; connected with the fact that Caddy likes to undress herself and her brother trying to avoid it, one consists that Caddy´s sexuality is close connected with Quentins failure.

Another index of Quentins failure beginning here is the fact that Quentins feeling for guilt results from water, which often has functioned as the image of the dark abyss in which evil things live. The water here is close connected to Quentins failure because he finally decides to choose drowning in water as the suitable method for his suicide. Significantly also D. Fowler (11) states that the Compson boys experience the difference between man and woman while looking up to Caddy´s muddy drawers. Caddy herself experiences death, namely the death of her grandmother.

Quentin is the person who suffers most of the decay of the family, the nihilistic loss of alll idealism in his family´s attitudes. The consequences for him are also the most fatal ones, too, as they lead finally to his suicide. The others are in fact only a brother, born as an idiot, although Faulkner never named Benjy that way, and a materialistic, money-fixed merchant full of self-pity, due to the whole world only eager to get his holy money. I on myself think that Quentin is the smartest person of the family and the others do not think so far as he does in the way concerning the family and Caddy, and I would like to present his suicide as the result of his disability to cope with the roles women play in his life and in a certain way as a victim of them, because something must have gone wrong in the normal development of his personality.

Normally, boys pass a phase of desire for their mother and deny of their father due to a phenomenon that the psychoanalyst S. Freud called the "Oedipus Complex", according to Sophokles´ancient drama. The first woman they realize is in fact their mother, and their desire concentrates on the body of their mother. This leads to anticipations towards their father as he is the man their mother is connected with. These things stay for a while until the boy projects his desires onto other girls he gets in contact with. His mother becomes the person he can trust and who is a part of the whole family again while his father becomes something like a friend for him up to the state they can do some things together. But here the relations between the family members are not as they should be. His mother is not a powerful person which is a help for him but an always complaining hypochondric woman that watches herself as the only person bearing things in godly punishment, although she is a person doing nothing but lying in the bed and complaining. Married to a woman like this, it is no surprise that Mr.Compson fleas himself into nihilistic philosophy in contrast to the puritan-like fantasies of his woman, and that he uses as a refugium lots of alcohol that do not complain everytime on everything.

For Quentin, there is no person he can look up to, so his sister Caddy has to replace the failing mother, as she does it already for Benjy. But she cannot be a person he looks up to, because she is two years younger than he is; his oedipal desires for her can therefore not be compensated by the authority and the wisdom of age, and his feelings for her stay connected with sexual desire. Quentin names his wish for a mother several times, as example on page 109: "if I´d just had a mother so I could say Mother Mother". Quentin also associates his sister with the camphor smell in his mother´s room, "an odor of camphor (61)".

For his father, he cannot get a replacement, so that all things connected with his father get connected with the same agonistic and denying attitudes his father told Quentin about. The most impotant thing is time, so as Quentins father gives the old watch to his son, saying that time would be the grave for all human trial to act, time gets joined with the bad taste of failure, senselessness and agony (48). By breaking the watch and finally through his suicide, Quentin tries to escape from time, but this is not the whole reason leading to his suicide.

In order to refer on my thesis that I put at the beginning, there is a need for a little modulation of it in the way that Caddy is not the destroying factor in Quentins life on herself and by her own intention; she becomes the destoying factor only because of the desires and functions her environment places on her. I think that Quentin cannot cope with his own relations to women: Caddy´s numerous expriences with other men make him think of him as a failure, concerning his role as a man. This is suppoted by the way Caddy deals with her affairs, by her secret doing in everythig concerning her own personal development. This leads to a denying of herself in front of her family that she has to compensate by a double-life in wich her family cannot take part any more. In this way, she gets alienated from her brothers, especiallly from Quentin, who is the one that has the most problems with this due to his feelings for her. Quentin himself wishes Caddy to be more open-minded to him, but she is not. The secretivity of her life drives him mad. "Why wont you bring him to the house, Caddy? Why must you do like nigger women do in the pasture the ditches the dark woods hot hidden furious in the dark woods." (59)

Quentin is always trying to prevent his sister´s adventures. The first reason for this is that he wants to see in her the holy, virginal untouched mother-surrogate he always lacked for, the second is that he is afraid of his younger sister being more advanced is sexual experiences than him, because as her older brother he is the one who should be the more experienced person. His denying of Caddy´s boyfriends leads to the fight with Dalton Ames, in which he finishes as the looser. His own male identity gets diminished by this for him ashaming event: Quentin is not able to take the gun that Ames offers him and the first strike with which he wants to hit Ames is not a real blow with his fist but a little hit with his flat hand, like women do. Quentin characterizes this whole fight, and therefore Caddy´s affair with Ames too, as something feminizing him, as something leading to the loss of his male identity. (Confare D.Fowler 8) Quentins preoccupation with phallic symbols throughout the whole book supports this. Guns are often a supplement to strengthen the need for masculinity. The other weapon he is unable to use is the knife he presents at the planned suicide joined together with his sister (95-97). Dropping the knife with which he wanted to penetrate his sister is a metaphor for sexual failure as a man. This whole incident is in turn a sign for his strong desire to be joined with his sister, to unify with her, even it is only a unity in death.

By failing to fulfil his role as a man, there is an enormous pressure being on him. This pressure roots in the model of his father as a man whose experiences he has to behave sufficient for. As Quentin feels a feminisation going on with him, he has a need to prove his role as a man in front of his father. He has no real experiences with women but only the unsucessful affair with that girl Nathalie in the barn which was interrupted by Caddy (85-87). As a provocation for his father he invents a fictive incest, but the nihilistic and alcoholized commenets of his father are fatal for him.

The second aspect of a pressure being on him are his studies at Harvard. He knows very well that his brothe Benjy is the person who had to suffer for his personal career, although Quentin did not want to go to Harvard, he had preferred Jason to go there. Jason did not, because he planned to work in the bank business, protected by his brother-in-law Herbert Head and Quentin was the one who had to go there and benefit from the selling of Benjy´s pasture. He does not want to be there, and the only way out is to commit suicide.

To support my thesis I want to consist that Caddy´s behavior and her meaning for Quentin are initial factors that lead to Quentin´s suicide. Caddy´s influence to her brother is lethally bad, although it was not intented by her. In the Compson Appendix theat folllowed The Sound And The Fury about 15 years later Faulkner states that Caddy knew very well about these things but did little to save her brother. In the Caddy chapter we read:

"Knew the brother loved death best of all [...] would (and perhaps in the calculation [...] of her marriage did) have handed him the hypothetical hemlock." (208)

This is the more tragical as Quentin is not able to flea out of his environment. Just as his brother Benjy, he is totally imprisoned by his own memories. Just going away and leaving the family would be impossible for him as the memories are his system to put the world in order. He is so busy with thinking about the past that he is not able to act in the presence. Everything new makes him fail because he is not able to react on a new situation. Having lost the fight about his sister one time, he is damned to lose her to the boy, and to lose his own identity in memories because all following fights (for example that with Gerald Bland) remember him of his first failure done to him by Dalton Ames.

The second Compson brother Jason, the only sane (Appendix 212), is just like Quentin not too lucky with his sister. Although the description of him as sane must be ironical, his attitude on his sister is not sexual but quite material. "Sane", in the Faulknerian context, can mean something like materialistic, realistic, or simply: not thinking too much about useless things but about money. "Sane" creates a contrast to his two obvious insane brothers. "Sane" also means that Jason does not think about his feelings for other persons, therefore he is not able to comprehend the reasons for Quentins suicide, he thinks that some weird people at the university have told Quentin to kill himself.

I says no I never had university advantages because at Harvard they teach you how to go for a swim at night without knowing how to swim ... (123)

In which way does Caddy harm him? This can be found in the Jason- specific way of seeing other people. Jason is a "reasonable" person who judges things on criteries of his own benefit. His sister Caddy, going to marry a wealthy banker of the north, is happy with this because his career will improve. Herbert Head promises his brother-in-law an agreable job in his own bank-business. Of course he takes his offer back in connection with the acknowledgement of Caddy being pregnant with another man´s child and the following divorce.

Imagine a child who is given some sweets by a stranger: suddenly his mother appears, taking the sweets away because they are bad for his teeth. The child will blackmail her for everything now, just as Jason blackmails his sister for having destroyed his life by being divorced from Herbert Head. The reason for this is that Jason only judges other persons by criteries of his own benefit. His sister is not allowed to live her own life but has to fit into his personal concept of career.

This is the main function of Caddy as the "femme fatale" for Jason, but there is another aspect in his behavior, is is the thing that some authors say him to be impotent (cf. D.Fowler 9 ff). A person like Jason wants to see the world only by his view and does not accept other views. The life of his sister is something he cannot cope with, as Jason is said to be the child noone liked to play with. He is the one who reports the bad things to the parents, who wants to blackmail Caddy for getting her dress wet at the river scene from which all my thougts got their initial aspect. To say it short, Jason´s love for money is a compensation for his social failure.

Doreen Fowler extends the social failure to a sexual one, and I think she is right. Feelings of a male, or say machoistic identity can only be supported in the relation to other people, especially in relations to women. He also cannot bear the dissipated way of life of his own sister and compensates it by fetishizing money. His niece Quentin gives him the final stroke by stealing his money, and the money he only acquired by cheating his own mother. Here again is a woman the initial factor for a man to fail, as his self-confidence based on money is destroyed by stealing it.

The last fight is taking place on Easter Sunday in 1928: Quentin, escaping from the where she grew up fulfils the act of her mother Caddy. The whole story took the beginning with Caddy climbing the pear tree as an action of yielding to the trial for the forbidden. Quentin is climbing down the rainpipe and fulfills the role of "Eve" Caddy as the person breaking out of the old rules, destroying the configuration of the Compson family and completing the process of the decay.

Jason, trying to fight with the old man in Mottstown (as he thinks he had something to do with the man his niece went away with), gets defeated in his masculine identity once and for all as he gets a blow on his head (the freudian symbol for castration) and is not able to drive his car anymore. Here shows the domination of man over machinery the idea of masculinity, to stay in the context of D.Fowler. The girl Quentin makes him conscious of the failure of his constructed reality.

As the third suffering brother I have to name Benjy, whose story is a story of loss. André Bleikasten clearly points out that the series of loss happening to him is mainly a loss of impressions and feelings originating from his sister Caddy. The process of Caddy´s awakening as a woman coincides with the process of alination from her; a process he is afraid of as his desire for Caddy is very posessive. The first main point here is Caddy´s use of perfume. Benjy loses the smell of trees here which is a thing he loves.

[...] and Caddy put her arms around me, and her shining veil, and I couldn´t smell trees anymore and I began to cry.


"Benjy." She said. "What is it, Benjy. What has Caddy done."

"He dont like that prissy dress." Jason said. "You think you are grown up, dont you. [...] "


"Just because you are fourteen, you think you are grown up, dont you." Jason said.


I went to the bathroom door. I could hear the water.


"Did you find Caddy again." She said. "Did you think Caddy had run away." Caddy smelled like trees. (26-27)

Finally, his desire for Caddy gets fatal for him as it leads to his castration. Due to his undefined but incestous feelings for his sister he has to suffer the loss of his male identity, as he exchanges the Burgress girl with his sister and attacks her on her way home. Corresponding to the usual psychological context, the punishment for incest is castration, and in his memory the incident with the girl is closely connected with the castration and the anesthesia before. "They were going up the hill towhere it fell away and I tried to cry. But when I breathed in I couldn´t breathe out again to cry, and I tried to keep from fallin off the hill and I fell off the hill into the bright, whirling shapes." (34)

To quote Bleikasten, "Benjy would not be so extraordinarily alert to his sister´s sexual development nor so preoccupied with her virginity if sexuality played no part in his own desire." (78) The loss of his loved pasture is also cnnected with female sexuality as the pasture is sold to pay for the wedding of Caddy with Herbert Head. Here also Caddy´s female function makes a man suffer.

The final question is, if it was neccessary to postulate a concept of a "fatal woman" to examine all aspects of women and their function in The Sound And The Fury. Of course we can find this concept, but only in a very alienated version, as the woman´s function in the downpulling of men is only an indirect one. The Compson brothers have to suffer for the affairs their sister has with other men, and Caddy´s aims are not like hurting the family. But all those conflicts have their roots in Caddy or her daughter Quentin finding to their own role as women, as constituting themselves in contrast to the traditional,old-fashioned social structure of the South


W.FAULKNER, The Sound And The Fury, An authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Contents and Criticism, 2nd edition, New York/London 1994. ( Norton Edition)

PATRICK BADE, Femme Fatale. Imagines Of Evil and Fascinating Women, New York 1979.

ANDRÉ BLEIKASTEN, Benjy, Or The Agony Of Disposession, Of Time And Unreal, in: The Most Splendid Failure, Faulkners The Sound And The Fury. Bloomington, London: Indiana University Press 1976, 67-89, 121-143.

LAWRENCE E. BOWLING, Faulkner: Technique Of The Sound And The Fury, Kenyon review, 10 (Autumn 1948), 522-566.

ARTHUR A. BROWN, Benjy, The Reader And Death: At The Fence In The Sound And The Fury. Missisippi Quarterly 48 (Summer 1995), 407-420.

DOREEN FOWLER, "Little Sister Death": The Sound And The Fury and the Denied Unconscious, Faulkner And Psychology, D.M.Kartiganer and Ann J.Abadie (ed.), Missisippi University Press 1994, 3-20.

JOHN T.MATTHEWS, Fames Of Reference, The Sound And The Fury, Faulkner and the Lost Cause, Boston 1991, 3-13.

JEAN-PAUL SARTRE, Time In Faulkners The Sound And The Fury, William Faulkner, 2 Decades Of Criticism, F.J.Hoffmann and Olga W. Vickery (ed.), Michigan 1954, 180-188.

MARSHA WARREN, Time, Space, and Semiotic Discourse in the Feminization/Disintegration of Quentin Compson, The Faulkner Journal, Fall 1988/Spring 1989, 99-111.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


W. Faulkner - The Sound And The Fury
University of Bonn
American Novel of the 20th Century
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ISBN (eBook)
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Faulkner, Sound, Fury, American, Novel, Century
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Philipp von Melle (Author), 1998, W. Faulkner - The Sound And The Fury, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/100252


  • guest on 6/30/2001

    Wo ist der Text???.

    Das Thema ist ja echt interessant, aber leider ist kein Text dazu vorhanden.

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