The experience of time and history and the disruption of narrative traditions in William Faulkner's 'The Sound and the Fury'

Seminar Paper, 1997

26 Pages, Grade: 1,00




1. Fateful time - conciliatory time: an analysis of four different time experi- ences
1.1 Benjy’s ignorance of time
1.2 Quentin’s obsession with time
1.3 Jason’s concept: “time is money“
1.4 Dilsey’s endure

2. The decline of the Compson’s: aspects of family and individual history
2.1 Genealogy of the Compson’s
2.2 The past as burden, the present as impasse: reactions to a world broken up

3. The Sound and the Fury as an experimental novel
3.1 Traditional concepts of the novel and general readers’ expectations
3.2 Deviations and departures in The Sound and the Fury


Bibliography (List of Works Cited)


The task of the present seminar paper is a threefold one though there may only be two primary elements discerned when one reads the topic first. The first one, “experience of time and history“, is solely concerned with The Sound and the Fury (intra-textual part) whereas the second one “the disruption of narrative traditions“ necessarily takes other works into account (inter-textual part). The former constitutes a close textual analysis of the two notions of “time“ and of “history“ as seen through the eyes of the major characters, it is therefore centred on content; the latter focuses on technical and stylistic questions and is correspondingly centred on form.

Nevertheless, the treatment of the first part must be divided in two since the terms “time“ and “history“ though they are similar in that they are both “diachroni-cal“ actually are quite different. Time in itself may be regarded as some sort of naked or unreflected history, a primary experience of the succession of events which has not been ordered and put together yet. History is the usually ordered and documented and thereby secondary portrayal of time by human societies; it is generally subdivided into - according to its relevance for society as a whole - social, political, national, regional, economic, religious history etc. or family and individual history. I will only focus on family and individual history here since other aspects are of lesser relevance in The Sound and the Fury [1].

One chapter is dedicated to each of the three elements of the topic, of which the first one - time - is the most important as it serves as basis for the compre-hension and approach of the two other parts.

1. Fateful time - conciliatory time: an analysis of four different time experi- ences

William Faulkner once considered his fourth novel The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929, “his most splendid failure“[2]. This apparent contradiction seems striking, it makes us as readers and critics of his novel curious and it captures our imagination. The title of the present chapter is equally based on a contradictory statement: “Fateful time - conciliatory time“; time may be a grave strain, yet it may also have renewing and refreshing qualities. This oppositeness is characteristic for The Sound and the Fury and it does not only refer to time thus making for the novel’s complexity.

The book is divided into four parts, each told by a different narrator and it depicts the decline of the once-aristocratic southern Compson family from Jefferson, Mississippi (located in Faulkner’s famous fictious Yoknapatawpha County). The first three parts are told by the three unequal brothers Benjamin (Benjy), Quentin and Jason Compson and though their time experiences are very individual and differentiated, they are all negative and mostly fateful ones[3]. It’s only the fourth chapter, centred on Dilsey (while presented as third-person narrative), a black female servant, which presents us a more positive, counterweighing time experience.

Each of the following subchapters is dedicated to one of the four chapters and their order follows the order given in the book.

1.1 Benjy’s ignorance of time

The first section is told from the point of view of Benjy Compson, a thirty-three-year-old idiot; he recounts his personal impressions of his birthday on April 7th, 1928[4]. Benjy never transgressed the pre-conscious[5] infant state in which primary sensual perceptions are not yet linked with the activity of the consciousness. This

deficiency has severe implications for him: he has no clear I-perception and therefore cannot distinguish sufficiently between himself and the outer world, he nearly cannot speak[6] and what interests us here, he doesn’t have any sense of time.

Benjy is neither conscious of the passing of time, nor of the continuity of events. He lives in a perpetual present since past, (real) present, and future constantly melt for him[7]. The few impressions and remembrances which he has of past events disorderly come again to his mind in the form of simple associations; Wolfgang Iser called them “flickering impressions”[8]. Often, similar past events lead to such flashbacks. Benjy’s section starts with one of them. While searching a lost quarter in the grass with his black attendant Luster, he suddenly becomes aware of a similar past situation as he crawls with him through a broken garden fence:

“We went along the fence and came to the garden fence, where our shadows were. My shadow was higher than Luster’s on the fence. We came to the broken place and went through it. ‘Wait a minute.’ Luster said. ‘You snagged on that nail again. Can’t you never crawl through here without snagging on that nail.’

Caddy uncaught me and we crawled through. Uncle Maury said to not let anybody see us, so we better stoop over, Caddy said. Stoop over, Benjy. Like this, see. We stooped over and crossed the garden, where the flowers rasped and rattled against us. [...] Keep your hands in your pockets, Caddy said. Or they’ll get froze. You don’t want your hands froze on Christmas, do you.” (2)[9]

For Benjy, past and present are the same; in the moment when actually Luster uncatches him, it’s for him as if Caddy uncaught him like she did in the past. The advice Caddy gives to Benjy to put his hands in his pockets since it was cold on that Christmas day is especially remarkable. In spite of this, the actual date where this flashback takes place is April 7th, 1928! It’s another proof for the fundamental temporal confusion in Benjy’s mind.

Time shifts like the one in the quoted passage are generally marked by a change in typeface from Roman to italic. Otherwise, it would probably be impossible for the reader to understand Benjy’s fragmented impressions. Throughout the section, no less than 13 scenes from 13 different time levels occur. Benjy’s earliest memory concerns the death of his grandmother (Damuddy) in 1898 when he was three years old. Most other memories focus on his older sister Caddy, the only really important person for him. Benjy recalls such events as her first use of perfume (1905/06), her loss of virginity (1909), her wedding (1910) etc. Memories concerning himself include his name change from Maury to Benjamin (1900), the first time he slept alone (1908) and his castration (1910) following an attack on the burgess girl. These events are presented in 106 fragments which constantly mix and therefore lack any chronological order whose creation is the reader’s task if he is to make any sense out of Benjy’s section[10].

One might even go a step further and claim that the reader has to create (or at least to imagine) not only the order of events but also Benjy’s consciousness itself departing from his statements based on mere perceptions. His timeless passivity ne-cessitates the shaping “time-giving” activity of the reader who himself transforms Benjy’s “pre-story” into a story in the conventional sense of the term[11].

The language this idiot child uses also reveals his mental state. Sentences are isolated and not embedded in a meaningful, consistent context. This is the result of the fact that Benjy never consciously relates cause and effect in a time relationship or in a relationship to himself; most events that happened to him appear just if they were events in the outer world, detached in some way from himself. When he burns his hand for example, he says simply:

“My hand jerked back and I put it in my mouth and Dilsey caught me. I could still hear the clock between my voice. Dilsey reached back and hit Luster on the head. My voice was going loud every time.” (50)

The burning of his hands and the fact that he instinctively drew it back are merely momentary, flowing experiences from which he cannot establish any further intel-lectual cause-effect relationship. He does not know why exactly he drew his hand back and put it in his mouth except for the fact that it was a reaction to the basic sensation of pain of which he might have already forgotten the origin. The next sensation – without any apparent relationship to the previous one – fills his mind immediately after that: “I could still hear the clock between my voice”. It seems as if momentary perceptions were Benjy’s only brain activity and if so, they must be the only proof for him of being alive[12].

The frequent use of the static verb was confirms again his pure receptive, passive thinking based on unreflected momentary sensual impressions:

[I put the was / were forms in italics in the Roman type part of the quoted passage]

“[Jason was chewing a piece of paper] Jason threw into the fire. It hissed, curled, turning black. Then it was grey. Then it was gone. Caddy and Father and Jason were in Mother’s chair. Jason’s eyes were puffed shut and his mouth moved, like tasting. Caddy’s head was on Father’s shoulder. Her hair was like fire, and little points of fire were in her eyes, and I went and Father lifted me into the chair too, and Caddy helped me. She smelled like trees.

She smelled like trees. In the corner it was dark, but I could see the window. [...]” (61)

Parataxis frequently accompanies short, choppy, and repetitive sentences. Equally, sentences often lack temporal or causal clauses, and often replacing them:

[I put the and forms in italics in the quoted passage]

“ Her hair was like fire, and little points of fire were in her eyes, and I went and Father lifted me into the chair too, and Caddy helped me.” (61)

Imprisoned in his timeless existence, Benjy decisively stands apart from all the other narrators in The Sound and the Fury. He unwillingly kept his childlike (a-tem- poral) innocence and is thereby spared the destructive power of the flowing of time which will become so acute in Quentin’s chapter. But Benjy pays a high price: the fateful disintegration of his personality.

1.2 Quentin’s obsession with time

In contrast to Benjy, his older brother Quentin Compson is fully aware of time and of its destructive effects on his personal existence. They result from a troubled relation-ship which he developed towards all succession of events and any progression in his

life[13]. Right at the beginning of Quentin’s section[14], which retells his personal experiences on the day of his suicide in Harvard (June Second, 1910), we get an insight into his consciousness:

“When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight o’clock and then I was in time again, hearing my watch.” (65)


[1] Faulkner treats aspects of Southern history together with the individual histories of symbolic charac-ters for example in Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). In The Sound and the Fury, the treatment of problematic aspects of Southern history as a whole is only implicit as the novel is concerned primarily with the individual fate of some members of the Compson family (cf. also the introductory remark of the History chapter).

[2] The Most Splendid Failure is now the title of a book by André Bleikasten where he quotes Faulkner’s famous statement. When he was asked once about what book of his he considered best, the writer an-swered: “The one that failed the most tragically and the most splendidly. That was The Sound and the Fury [...]“ (Bleikasten 1976, 1).

[3] Cf. the basic article of Sartre on “Time in the Work of Faulkner“, a valuable general introduction to the following analysis.

[4] From the abundant criticism on Benjy’s time experience I’d like to mention Bleikasten 1976, 67-89; Iser 1972, 215-221; Lowrey 1954, 57f. and Weber 1969, 31-39.

[5] The literal translation of the German word “vorbewußt“ used in psychology; Bleikasten called it “the zero degree of consciousness“ (Bleikasten 1976, 71).

[6] The reader doesn‘t know exactly whether Benjy can speak at all since his most important reaction to outward (negative) stimuli is crying, a typical infant reaction when they are not yet able to speak.

[7] This state is characteristic of some persons who suffer from psychosis.

[8] The literal translation of the German “flackernde Eindrücke“ (Iser 1972, 215).

[9] Page references of quotations from The Sound and the Fury refer to the Picador Classics Edition, 1993.

[10] Critics such as Edmond L.Volpe offer a valuable help here; he put together the Chronology of Scenes and established a list of the scene shifts (Volpe 1964, 353-365).

[11] Cf. Iser 1972, 220f.; for more aspects on this technique, see chapter 3.

[12] He might therefore be called - without being prejudiced against mentally deficient people – an “animal man“ since he is animate in the most brute and elementary way.

[13] The reasons for this attitude are rooted in the family life of the Compson’s, cf. chapter 2.

[14] The abundant criticism on this section includes Bleikasten 1990, 91-104; Iser 1972, 221-232; Low-rey 1954, 57f.; Sartre 1965; Weber 1969, 40-64 and Zink 1956, 295-298.

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The experience of time and history and the disruption of narrative traditions in William Faulkner's 'The Sound and the Fury'
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
Modernist fiction: William Faulkner’s novels
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Dominik Fuß (Author), 1997, The experience of time and history and the disruption of narrative traditions in William Faulkner's 'The Sound and the Fury', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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