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The following editions of The Sound and the Fury are available for purchase online:

The Sound and the Fury (Vintage Paperback Edition)The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text

Vintage International


ISBN: 0679732241

Published 1990

The Sound and the Fury (Norton Critical Edition) The Sound and the Fury: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, and Contexts, Criticism

Norton Critical Edition, 2nd Edition

W.W. Norton


ISBN: 0393964817

Published 1994

The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text with Faulkner’s Appendix

Modern Library


ISBN: 0679600175

Published 1992

The Sound and the Fury

Random House


ISBN: 0394446402

Published 1984

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Film version of The Sound and the Fury

Published October 7, 1929, by Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith.

The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s fourth novel, is his first true masterpiece, and many consider it to be his finest work. It was Faulkner’s own favorite novel, primarily, he says, because it is his “most splendid failure.” Depicting the decline of the once-aristocratic Compson family, the novel is divided into four parts, each told by a different narrator.

The Story

Section 1: “April Seventh, 1928.”

   Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went through the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.
from The Sound and the Fury

The first section is told from the point of view of Benjy Compson, a thirty-three-year-old idiot, and recounts via flashbacks the earliest events in the novel. As an idiot, Benjy is the key to the novel’s title, which alludes to Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. For the most part, his language is simple-sentences are short, vocabulary basic. Reading this section is profoundly difficult, however, because the idiot has no concept of time or place-sensory stimuli in the present bring him back to another time and place in his past, instantly and without warning (except for a change in typeface from Roman to italic). Most of his memories concern his sister, Caddy, who is in some ways the central character in the novel. Benjy’s earliest depicted memory, from 1898 (when Benjy was three years old), establishes the essence of her character-the children are ignorant of the death of their grandmother, “Damuddy,” and Caddy is the only Compson child brave enough to climb the pear tree and look through the window at the funeral wake while her brothers stand below, gazing up at her muddy drawers, which were soiled earlier when they were playing in a creek adjoining the Compson estate.

Most of Benjy’s other memories also focus on Caddy, who alone among the Compsons genuinely cared for Benjy. Key memories regarding Caddy include a time when she uses perfume (1905), when she loses her virginity (1909), and her wedding (1910). Benjy also recalls his name change (from Maury to Benjamin) in 1900, his brother Quentin’s suicide in 1910, and the sequence of events at the gate which lead to his being castrated, also in 1910.

Reading Benjy’s section is difficult, but it is not impossible. First, note that there are two characters named “Maury”-Benjy before 1900 and Mrs. Compson’s brother, “Uncle Maury” Bascomb-and there are two Quentins-Benjy’s suicidal brother and Caddy’s illegitimate daughter. Second, you can get some sense of the time by noting who is taking care of Benjy. Three black servants take care of Benjy at different times: Versh when Benjy is a small child, T.P. when Benjy is approximately 15 years old, and Luster in the present, when Benjy is 33.

Section 2: “June Second, 1910.”

   When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.
from The Sound and the Fury

The second section recounts the story from Quentin Compson’s perspective. Even though the present-day of this section is almost eighteen years prior to the present-day of Benjy’s section, it nevertheless follows roughly the chronological development of the novel, for while many of Benjy’s recollections are of their early childhood, most of Quentin’s flashbacks record their adolescence, particularly Caddy’s dawning sexuality.  Quentin’s section takes place on the day he commits suicide, and in the present we follow his wanderings around Boston (he is a student at Harvard University) as he fastidiously prepares for death. Like Benjy, he too is obsessed with the past and frequently lapses into flashbacks. Unlike the fairly discrete narratives of Benjy’s multiple memories, however, Quentin’s are much more fragmentary-a repeated (and usually italicized) word or phrase early in his section often recurs later with greater detail and embellishment. Quentin’s flashbacks also are much more intellectual than Benjy’s. Whereas Benjy records mainly sensual impressions, Quentin more often delves into more abstract issues such as character motivation, guilt, honor, and sin.

He begins his section by contemplating time, even breaking the hands off his watch in a futile attempt to “escape” time. Another minor obsession Quentin has throughout his section is with shadows; the word “shadow” is repeated constantly throughout his section (thus recalling Shakespeare’s image of a “walking shadow” in the soliloquy alluded to by the novel’s title). Alone among the present-day Compsons, Quentin still feels pride in his family’s noble and glorious past, but he recognizes that today nothing remains of that past; it is mere shadow, and he is merely a “poor player” strutting and fretting, powerless to achieve anything of serious importance. Part of Quentin’s mental perturbation arises from his father’s deep and unswerving cynicism and nihilism; much of his section is a sort of inner dialogue with his father, in which Quentin hopes to prove his father wrong. In fact, his suicide may be just that-his escape from time-for Mr. Compson has told Quentin that as time passes, Quentin will forget his horror, which is unacceptable to Quentin because forgetting would render his horror meaningless, and so he escapes time in the only way he can, by drowning himself.

The source of Quentin’s horror is Caddy. Hearkening back to antebellum views of honor, Southern womanhood, and virginity, Quentin cannot accept his sister’s growing sexuality, just as he cannot accept his father’s notion that “virginity” is merely an invention by men. Most of his flashbacks concern directly his involvement in Caddy’s sexual maturing, but ironically they depict also just how ineffectual Quentin is. In an attempt to restore “honor” to Caddy and to the Compson family, for example, he confronts Dalton Ames, who may be the man who impregnated Caddy, but Quentin is easily overpowered by Ames-and in the present, when he mistakes a fellow student for the adversary of his flashback, Quentin gets beat up. In another incident, Quentin proposes a suicide pact with Caddy, but ultimately he cannot go through with it.

Section 3: “April Sixth, 1928.”

    Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say. I says you’re lucky if her playing out of school is all that worries you. I says she ought to be down there in that kitchen right now, instead of up there in her room, gobbing paint on her face and waiting for six niggers that cant even stand up out of a chair unless they’ve got a pan full of bread and meat to balance them, to fix breakfast for her.
from The Sound and the Fury

Section three is told by the third Compson brother, Jason, and is set on Good Friday. Unlike his brothers, Jason is much more focused on the present, offering fewer flashbacks, though he does have a few and he refers frequently to events in the past. The tone of Jason’s section is set instantly by the opening sentence: “Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say.” Jason is a sadist, and his grimly humorous section reveals just how low the Compson family has sunk-from Quentin’s obsessions over heritage and honor and sin to Jason’s near-constant cruelty, complaints, and scheming.

As earlier in the novel, this section reflects a rough chronological advancement-the focus now is not on Caddy herself (though she does appear in a few flashbacks and she often is the subject of Jason’s pointed remarks) but rather on her daughter, Quentin, who came to live with the Compsons following Caddy’s divorce and who is now, like Caddy in Quentin’s section, entering into adult sexuality. Much of Jason’s section is about his trying to track her down when she skips school to be with a man associated with the circus then in town, but for first-time readers of the novel, Jason’s section is also probably when the difficulties of Benjy’s and Quentin’s sections begin to make sense. Among the “discoveries” here are that Quentin drowned himself (the suicide itself was not depicted in Quentin’s section), that Benjy is a “gelding,” that Caddy was divorced and that her daughter, also named Quentin, has come to live with the Compsons. Other things, too, are revealed more clearly: Mrs. Compson’s hypochondria, Mr. Compson’s alcoholism and nihilism, and especially, Jason’s meanness and greed. For years, Caddy has been sending money to her daughter, and since Mrs. Compson has forbidden Caddy’s name from being mentioned in the house, she has likewise forbidden her money. To overcome this hurdle, Jason gives Mrs. Compson duplicates of Caddy’s checks (for Mrs. Compson to ceremoniously burn) while he cashes the actual checks and pockets the money, giving little or none of it to his niece.

Section 4: “April Eighth, 1928.”
    In the midst of the voices and the hands Ben sat, rapt in his sweet blue gaze. Dilsey sat bolt upright beside, crying rigidly and quietly in the annealment and the blood of the remembered Lamb.
from The Sound and the Fury

The fourth and final section is told from an omniscient viewpoint. It is sometimes known as “Dilsey’s Section” because of her prominence in this section, but she is not the sole focus in this section-a long sequence follows Jason as he pursues his niece, who has stolen about $7,000 from him, to “Mottson.”

The focus here is entirely upon the present-day, Easter Sunday, and to that end, all traces of Caddy, including her daughter and even the very mention of her name, have been removed. The two main narratives presented in this section are fairly straightforward: Jason’s pursuit of his stolen money and his inevitable come-uppance when he insults the wrong man in Mottson; and Dilsey’s attendance at an Easter church service, at which a preacher from St. Louis, Reverend Shegog, delivers a sermon which stirs in Dilsey an epiphany of doom for the Compson family. As she says, following the service, “I’ve seed de first en de last ... I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin.”
The Courthouse in 1930
The Lafayette County Courthouse with Confederate Monument, 1930

As the novel ends, the two narratives again converge: Luster has secured permission to drive Benjy to the graveyard, and both he and Jason arrive at the courthouse square in Jefferson at about the same time. But Luster goes past a Confederate soldier on the “wrong” side, which causes Benjy to start crying. Jason approaches, hits Luster, and tells him to take Benjy home. And thus, the novel ends: “[Benjy’s] broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and façade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.”


According to Faulkner, the story began with a vision of a little girl’s muddy drawers as she climbed a tree to look at death while her brothers, lacking her courage, waited below:

I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried it with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed and I tried myself-the fourth section- to tell what happened, and I still failed.[1]

Faulkner added a fifth attempt to tell Caddy Compson’s story in 1945, when he wrote an “Appendix” to the novel to be included in The Portable Faulkner then being assembled for Viking Press by Malcolm Cowley. “I should have done this when I wrote the book,” Faulkner told Cowley. “Then the whole thing would have fallen into pattern like a jigsaw puzzle when the magician’s wand touched it.” In the Appendix, titled “Compson 1699-1945” (to resemble an obituary), Faulkner offers some additional glimpses into Compson family lore, both from the clan’s aristocratic past and in the years following the dates in the novel.

Before Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury, he had written a book which he thought was to be the book that would make his name as a writer. He wrote his publisher, “I have written THE book, of which those other things were but foals. I believe it is the damdest best book you’ll look at this year, and any other publisher.” That manuscript was Flags in the Dust, and it would not be published until eleven years after Faulkner’s death.

The discouragement of having Flags turned down, and then severely cut by his friend Ben Wasson into what would be published as Sartoris, apparently led Faulkner to begin writing a book entirely for himself, and publishers be damned. That book, originally titled “Twilight,” was The Sound and the Fury. Later, Faulkner would say it was the novel he felt most “tender” toward because it had caused him “the most grief and anguish.”

Structure, Technique, and Criticism

None of Faulkner’s novels has generated as much critical response as The Sound and the Fury. Because of the sheer abundance of published criticism on the novel, not to mention the vastly divergent opinions and interpretations of the novel, any effort here at commentary on the novel must necessarily fall short.

Still, there are some things on which critics agree. Few dispute that the novel depicts a “tragedy,” the decline of the Compson family. There is agreement too that much of the novel is told in a stream-of-consciousness style, in which a character’s unadorned thoughts are conveyed in a manner roughly equivalent to the way our minds actually work. Themes critics continuously note in the novel are order, honor, sin. And nearly all critics consider it a technical masterpiece for the way Faulkner incorporates four distinct narrative modes in telling the story of a little girl with muddy drawers.

But as any great literary work should, The Sound and the Fury invites a number of approaches, methods, and philosophies to those who would interpret it. Nearly every reader agrees that Caddy Compson is a key, if not the key character in the novel, though critics differ in how prominent her role should be. Much has been made, too, of the religious backdrop of the story. The present-day setting of Easter has led some critics to question whether Benjy is some ironic modern-day Christ figure-his age (thirty-three), in particular, is suggestive of Christ at the time of his crucifixion. Still others view parallels between Dilsey and the “suffering servant” of Isaiah.[2]


  1. Faulkner in the University, ed. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph Blotner (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1965; the University Press of Virginia, 1959; reprinted 1977): 1-3. Back to text
  2. “Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high. As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men: So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider….” (Isaiah 52:13-15). The passage continues through Isaiah 53:12 and describes the servant’s numerous sufferings - “despised and rejected ... a man of sorrows” (53:3) - concluding with “he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (53:12). It is perhaps significant to note that this is only one of four similar “Servant-of-the-lord” oracles in the book of Isaiah; the others occur at 42:1-4; 49:1-7; and 50:4-11. Of these three, only the last seems equally applicable to Dilsey.
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How to cite this page (MLA style):

Padgett, John B. “The Sound and the Fury: Commentary.”  William Faulkner on the Web.

This page was last modified on Monday, July 07, 2008, at 02:56 PM CDT.
Copyright © 1995 – 2008 by John B. Padgett.
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