It is a story in which many of the southern themes are woven into an artful and compelling tale of an aristocratic agrarian family clinging to dusty old traditions handed down from pre-war generations.
The novel does not portray tales of civil war heroism but begins with the final effects of Confederate defeat on the Compson family. In “The Sound and the Fury,” Faulkner leaves his characters without future; it seems like they are living in the past instead of struggling for better destiny.
The reader first meets the Compson family on the brink of complete destruction after years of ruin.
In the novel, Faulkner explores the southern themes of tradition, progress, race, religion and despair through three first-person narratives from the three Compson brothers: one from the perspective of an idiot, the second from the perspective of a dead man, and the third through the perspective of the Compson’s bitter, greedy and sadistic last patriarch, Jason. The fourth and final section is written from a third person perspective which has a largely religious flavor. The sister of the Compson brothers, Caddy, is the central focus of all four sections, and therefore her character is considered the novel’s central figure.
“The characters in The Sound and the Fury are each in their own ways wedded to the past, which is Sartre’s main criticism of the novel.” (Brooks 44) Faulkner’s characters lack a future, and therefore Faulkner portrays human beings as In-itself without For-itself–that is, as people determined by their pasts rather than as being the source of their future possibilities. The For-itself is consciousness conceived of as a lack of Being. We are what we are not in that we are not yet a possible future self.
For example, someone who chooses to be a lawyer but has not yet completed law school is what he is not. He is not a lawyer, but he is projecting himself towards a possible future self qua lawyer, i.e., he is a “lawyer-to-be.” (Minter 117) Time, or temporality, is a dimension of the For-itself in that it is a subjective process whereby the For-itself projects itself toward a possible future self.
Faulkner’s characters are not determined by their pasts because they are the past; the past is “extra-temporal” in the sense that the past for Quentin, Caddy’s brother, exists in the present. (Pouillon 92) As such, the characters are psychologically dominated by destiny. Different commentators disagree with this conclusion and have attempted to find the future in various aspects and themes of the novel.
Some search for it in the character of Dilsey, who is seen mainly in a religious context, while others have sought it in Jason, who is looking ahead to the modern commercial society while turning his back on the old south. Peter Swiggart argued that Quentin’s perspective is a kind of fusion between past, present, and future, which is a kind of religious view, and Dilsey, who, along with preacher Shegog, is the embodiment of Faulkner’s moral order. (Swiggart 227) According to this spiritual perspective from eternity, Dilsey transcends time, and Quentin seeks its extinction.
Perrin Lowrey maintained that each section of the novel focuses on a character dealing with the problem of time in his or her unique way. Benjy has no sense of time, but the past is experienced as the present; Quentin, who is obsessed with the history, sees opportunity as something to be destroyed; for Jason, time is money made by beating the clock. The final section is seen as Dilsey’s section, for whom, according to Lowrey, time is a continuum, again emphasizing the eternal, religious perspective. (Pouillon 104)
A work concerning Faulkner and time with which this essay shares an affinity is Douglas Messerli’s “The Problem of Time A work concerning Faulkner and time with which this essay shares an affinity is Douglas Messerli’s “The Problem of Time in The Sound and the Fury: A Critical Reassessment and Reinterpretation.” Messerli’s interpretation is based on the phenomenology of Eugene Minkowski as described in his work Lived Time, which he applies to each of the characters’ dealings with the problem of time as suggested by Lowrey. (Messerli 33)
A complete exposition of the phenomenology of time and Messerli’s application of it to the novel would lead us too far astray. As such, we must content ourselves with a brief enumeration of Messerli’s main points. First, Benjy, Quentin, and Jason each have or live a certain aspect of time: Benjy has only an animalistic awareness of the present, Quentin is egocentrically involved with the past and wants to destroy it, and Jason lives for the future, “hurrying to reach what he has come to confuse with time–money–before it is gone.” (Pouillon 119)
In this way, Messerli agrees with Lowrey by finding the future in Jason’s section. Second, Dilsey, who is considered the final section’s main character, transcends time, for she has “… seed de beginning en now she sees de ending.” (Messerli 40) Third, he attempts to connect these individual experiences of time by posting the character of Caddy as Faulkner’s version of the role of time, because she appears in some way, either via memory or as symbolized by her daughter, in all four sections.
I agree with Swiggart, Lowery, and Messerli in their conclusion that the novel contains the future, although only fleetingly; however, I do not think that it can be found in Jason’s section nor does Dilsey exemplify it. Also, I see Lowrey’s insight that each of the novel’s four main sections explores a different aspect of time use and that Messerli is correct to investigate this suggestion regarding the lived experience of time.
Given the vast range of Faulkner’s work since The Sound and the Fury and different criticism, it is unfair to say that Faulkner’s metaphysics of time, in general, is precisely the metaphysics found in this one novel. Therefore, the present inquiry limits its concerns to the characters’ phenomenologies of time in this novel and the chronological or clock-based model of time that provides its metaphysical scaffolding. In other words, the results of this essay apply only to The Sound and the Fury and are not intended to apply to Faulkner’s work in general.
The Sound and the Fury is a story written in four parts, three of which are narratives from the respective perspectives of the three Compson brothers, Benjy, Quentin, and Jason. The first is written from the perspective of the idiot Benjy on his thirty-third birthday, April 7, 1928. The second is written from Quentin’s perspective on the day of his suicide, June 2, 1910. The third is from Jason’s perspective during a pivotal point in his antagonistic relationship with his illegitimate seventeen-year-old niece, Quentin, on April 6, 1928. (Brooks 111)
The final section takes place on Easter Sunday, April 8, 1928, and is written in the third person. It follows the enduring black kitchen servant and maid, Dilsey, whose family has worked for the Compsons since the days of slavery, on the day Quentin steals seven thousand dollars from her uncle and runs away. A significant portion of this section is devoted to the discovery of Quentin’s disappearance and Jason’s fruitless search for her.
Time, as measured and represented by clocks, is the paradigm of time found in The Sound and the Fury. Here time is an accumulation of discrete isolatable instants, contrary to Sartre’s conception of temporality as a totality. For Quentin and Jason time is what is collected in the past. Their father says, “Man the sure of his climatic experiences … Man the sum of what have you” (Faulkner 153). He also says, “A man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you’d think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune” (Faulkner 129).
As such, humans are the entire collection of what they are; who you are, what you become is constituted by these past experiences. In this way, the Compson brothers are In-itself only without a For-itself; that is, without a projection toward a possible future self, for these past experiences determine the next person. Sartre points out that this makes sense of another, somewhat odd phrase found in the novel, “Fui. Non-sum”—“I was. I am not.” These characters are immutable selves fixed in the past (Sartre 73). However, this is not entirely correct for Benjy and Jason, for both have the present as a part of their respective phenomenologies of time as discussed below.
The main criticism of the novel is that Faulkner confuses chronology and temporality, characterizing time as an external rather than an internal relation, distinct from and determinate of human consciousness, which is to emphasize a past without a future. This confusion of chronology and temporality led literary experts to criticize Faulkner further for the novel’s lack of a progression towards a future event, which he finds endemic to the structure of the entire book (Minter 126).
For, in each first-person narrative, words describing the present are often interrupted by descriptions of past experiences, which sometimes wholly usurp the story describing the chronological present. This interplay between the characters’ narratives of the past and their narratives of the present is a movement that does not go anywhere since Faulkner’s world has no future progression. Sartre comments: “It seems as though Faulkner has laid hold of a frozen speed at the very heart of things; he is grazed by congealed spurts that wane and dwindle without moving” (Sartre 75). This “motionless movement” is characteristic of the novel as a whole. A story is told nonetheless, which implies some movement between these narratives of the past and present.
The critic describes this movement as a “sinking in” of the present into the past out of which the gift may reappear without reason (Pouillon 130). He illustrates this notion with a metaphor of an airplane flight with lots of air pockets. At each pocket, the protagonist’s consciousness sinks back into the past, arising only to sink back again. So, the novel’s order is not the rational ordering of chronology but rather the emotional ordering of the heart, which provides a temporal movement from one moment to the next, but does not progress toward a future event.
“This is a matter of emotional constellations” (Messerli 41). Does it bring us to the questions: What is the nature of this motionless movement characterized by this sinking in of consciousness into the past? And, to what extent is the novel’s ordering an emotional constellation? The answers to these questions are different for each of the novel’s four main sections.
In sum, literary experts criticize Faulkner for maintaining a chronological metaphysics of time under which consciousness is determined by the sure of its misfortunes, leaving his characters without their future possibilities. Sartre, on the other hand, maintains that the novel is a matter of emotional constellations, which provide it with a purposeful ordering different from a rational, chronological order. It implies that any expansion of Sartre’s interpretation of the novel will include an account of emotions in each of the novel’s sections.
Faulkner leaves his characters without futures; however, this is not to say that the future is not present in the novel; for it is present as an absence brought about by the expected but unaccomplished isolation of it from the grounds of the three Compson consciousnesses. However, Faulkner provides a brief glimpse of a phenomenology of time that includes the future in the character of Caddy’s daughter, Quentin, as something external to us and which cannot be caught.
I would criticize this characterization of the future because we are the source of our possibilities and therefore of our possible future selves. But, some of the value of Faulkner’s work is that he provided a southern phenomenology of time in which the past dominates the present, and the future is fleeting. Faulkner was not looking to describe the lived experience of all human beings, but instead was describing and expressing a distinctly southern expertise that non-southerners could feel so profoundly they almost believed they experienced it themselves. (Pouillon 153)
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