The Deafening Sound of Life : A Comparison of the Compson Brother’s Reactions to Tragedy

01 March, 2017 - 14 min read

Shocking literary aficionados of the era, Faulkner’s unorthodox novel recounting the happenings of a Southern family in the early 20th century shares much semblance with many of his contemporaries’ efforts to characterize the American psyche during that time period. However, Faulkner breaks from many of the accepted literary standards and delves into a thought-provoking, dark saga divided across the four primary characters in the story. Refusing to shy from the uglier aspects of life, Faulkner embraces several twisted and brutal plotlines continually baffling his audience. In his cynical novel The Sound and the Fury, modern author William Faulkner juxtaposes the characters of Benjy and Quentin Compson in order to show that ignorance really is bliss, highlighting the inevitable tragedy of human existence.

Although Benjy is able to delineate between certain central figures and memories, it is clear through the detached manner with which he describes the events in which he has found himself thrust that his mental disposition renders him oblivious to his surroundings. Benjy’s chapter, unburdened with subjective judgment, reads directly as he perceives the world around him: mostly free of opinion. These omissions prove to be integral to Benjy’s comparatively beneficial disposition to that of his brother’s. As a critic from Johns Hopkins University Press James Mellard identifies, Benjy’s innocence is established by his separation from Time and Nature, the two fundamental ingredients necessary to experience tragedy (62). Although he is arguably impartial, Benjy’s handicap noticeably prohibits him from forming holistic and accurate thoughts. This is evidenced through his repeated expressions of sensory dysphoria, where he conflates multiple sensations into one feeling in a way that, were it not for his handicap, would be inexplicably incorrect. Describing his perception of the harsh, frostbitten environment, Benjy recounts that he could “smell the bright cold” (Faulkner 6). Reinforcing this aspect of Benjy’s distorted perception, Faulkner includes several other instances of this confused descriptive style, such as, “I could smell the clothes flapping” (14), and “the smoke blowing blue” (14). Furthermore, Faulkner solidifies the characterization of Benjy as a disjointed klutz when he includes Benjy’s inner monologue recounting his reaction to an apparent burn, “My hand was trying to go to my mouth” (59). By subjecting the reader to these inaccurate descriptions, Faulkner forces them to empathize with Benjy.

While the other Compson children are also unaware of the tragedy occurring upstairs, Benjy, although concurrently upset, is unaware as to why. An attentive reader might be able to sift through the overlapping timelines to infer that the Compsons’ grandmother, referred to as Damuddy, is growing increasingly ill and dying. Although it is not evident that Benjy himself is privy to this detail which proves to be the source of much instability in the family at this point in his life, he remembers dialogue implicating the arrival of funeral guests, “‘Do you want to make him sick, with this house full of company?’” (Faulkner 8). Later on, as the children anxiously discuss the servant Dilsey’s cryptic instruction to remain silent, as well as the disturbing noise coming from upstairs, Benjy becomes distressed by the mysterious interruption, recounting, “then we heard it again and I began to cry” (25). By conveying this sense of cluelessness, Faulkner captures both Benjy’s sensitivity as well as his separation from the tragedy unfolding within his own household.

Among a throng of arguably negative aspects of his handicap, one of the more appreciable results of his mental disorder is a lack of empathy that prevents significant bias from staining his narration. In that sense, the last section notwithstanding, Benjy’s chapter is the most direct and clear. Although it is not immediately noticeable, there are no inferences as to the thoughts of the characters around him, only a relatively factual, yet fragmented account of his memories. For example, although Benjy’s reactions to the happenings around him are usually exhibited by his uncontrollable crying, none of the dialogue relayed by him includes retrospective thought about the nature of the said dialogue. Even to memory sequences which would usually elicit strong emotion, such as Caddy’s unpleasant sexual encounter with Charlie, Benjy volunteers no more commentary than the inclusion of his own crying, a reaction which is almost diluted because of its high frequency (Faulkner 47). Although it does not immediately stand out, the prolonged absence of descriptors accompanying any of the dialogue in Benjy’s section serves the same purpose of sapping emotional distortion from his narration.

Nevertheless, Benjy is not entirely detached from reality to the point where he remains unaffected by his surroundings. In fact, he is one of the most reactionary characters in the entire novel. However, even though he is disrespected and spoken down upon by many of the people he encounters, his recollection is not stained by how their actions affected him. Benjy offers no evidence of his feelings being hurt, even after being treated like a vicious dog as a passing girl commented, “‘I’m scared to… I’m going to cross the street’” (Faulkner 52). While his actions reflect his feelings, his narration does not. Once again omitting any insight into his emotional state, leading the reader to question its existence, Benjy includes depressing conversations such as that between his mother and father, where his mother breaks down as a direct result of Benjy’s behavior saying, “‘I know I’m nothing but a burden to you… But I’ll be gone soon’” (62). Passively participating in his own life, Benjy is shielded from the negative memories he has experienced and is not inhibited in his ability to carry on with his life, unlike his brother, Quentin.

Educated yet obsessively narcissistic, Quentin, in contrast, is acutely aware of precisely every detail which has led to the unfortunate situation that culminates in his act of suicide. Although peppered with occasional stichomythic dialogues barred from narrative description, Quentin’s chapter is comparatively bursting with imagery as he is consumed by a tragedy that occurs primarily in his mind. Quentin’s attention to detail and the ensuing introspective reflection starkly contrasts Benjy’s comparably shallow descriptions. The first paragraph of the chapter opens with a description of Quentin’s watch, and includes his ponderings on the nature of time, foreshadowing the whole chapter, as he proceeds to try to escape time. Ironically, Quentin recounts his father’s imparted wisdom, “I give it to you…not spend all your breath trying to conquer it” (Faulkner 76), which he proceeds to disregard for the duration of his section. Overshadowed by this single passage, all of Quentin’s actions for the rest of the novel are framed by his neglect of his father’s advice, and his struggle to undo the past, brought about by his own arrogance of intellect.

His narration becomes increasingly poetic as he approaches peak mental instability resulting in his death. Immediately following his intense exchange with Dalton Ames, distinguished by its rapid dialogue, free of description, Quinten reverts to his calmer, descriptive voice saying, “Everything was sort of violet and still … without any wind” (Faulkner 165). As his descriptions continue, his senses appear to transcend the conventional categorizations of imagery. Synesthetically describing his environment as he becomes enveloped in his own train of thought, Quentin claims, “I could feel the water beyond the twilight, smell” (169). With his narration becoming progressively more eloquent as his memory lapses between past and present, Quentin illustrates his surroundings in an interpretive manner such as, “between silence and nothingness… yellow and red and green… repeating themselves” (171), where he captures the essence of blinking lights under a bridge. These refined descriptions break, and a realization is paired with a detachment from the conventional narration as Quentin determines that the only way to retain control of his life is to end it, saying, “every man is the arbiter of his own virtues” (176). Although interspersed with confusing sections of memory and dialogue as Quentin torments himself with memories, the descriptions included surpass all efforts made in Benjy’s preceding chapter.

Quentin is highly educated in comparison to Benjy. His chapter flows poetically in contrast to Benjy’s butchered yet cut and dry section. A Harvard student, and the Compson family’s poster-boy, Quentin overshadows Benjy by a significant margin, who, as the shame of the family, has received no formal education whatsoever. His narcissism surfaces as he concludes that everything that troubles him is a result of his own actions, or lack thereof, whilst simultaneously pondering the tilted odds of life, contemplating the “dice already loaded against him” (Faulkner 177). However, his over-dramatization of his surroundings and the situations he finds himself in make it difficult to tell what is truth and what is exaggeration. As he approaches his fateful realization, Quentin includes such thoughts and observations of questionable validity amidst his otherwise artistic descriptions, recalling how he could hear “whispers secret surges smell the beating of hot blood” (Faulkner 176). Capable of significantly higher thought processes than his handicapped counterpart, Quentin’s grasp of language has the adverse effect of his intention to clearly communicate his thoughts to the reader. Rather, his use of imagery and description distracts the reader, as well as himself, from the actuality of his situation.

Noticeably inept, Benjy’s disability, while not incapacitating, effectively separates him from the ugly reality in which he exists. As one of the most distinct characteristics of any of the characters in the novel, Benjy’s detached narration is highly indicative of his disability. Throughout Benjy’s chapter, several of his otherwise understandable descriptions of characters’ actions are marked by a stream-of-consciousness style that, although made in an effort to further elucidate a situation, sometimes result in obscuring the actual events being described. Frequently defaulting to run-on sentences, as if to capture Benjy’s struggle to keep up with what is going on around him, Faulkner’s choice of style for Benjy’s narration often jolts the reader’s attempt to smooth over the intentionally choppy text. Hurriedly, Benjy recalls, “Dilsey was there, and Father put me in the chair and closed the apron down and pushed it to the table where supper was” (Faulkner 24). In this manner, as Benjy stumbles over his memories, forcing several actions and descriptions into one continuous thought, Faulkner conveys the confusion taking place within his mind.

While Benjy’s narration has the broadest timeframe of information to relay to the reader, his chapter is composed of a series of fragmented memories all occurring out of order, yet being remembered interconnectedly. Although initially appearing to be an indecipherable jumble of ideas, a discernable pattern of sensory input triggering his memory arises. Provoked by the cold, “You dont want your hands froze… ‘It’s too cold out there’” (5), provoked by the water, “I hushed and got in the water and roskus came” (17), and provoked by odors associated with Caddy, “Caddy smelled like trees… She smelled like trees” (43-48), Faulkner helpfully includes certain habits which give structure to otherwise disorienting passages. Benjy’s reliance on sensory association to denote significant memories from those that did not strike him enough to retain them help to further structure the reader’s understanding of Benjy’s mental situation.

Although Benjy is seemingly impervious to many of his immediate surroundings, he exhibits an acute and unusual awareness to certain details, albeit distributed over an extended amount of time. Contemporary critic Michael Millgate explains how the summation of Benjy’s existence within the novel is spread out across many points in time which reveals key aspects about his character, asserting that “occasional italicization should alert the reader to the kind of process going on in Benjy’s mind” (99). Millgate proceeds to enumerate the eight specific points in time which define Benjy’s character, noting how the transitions between memories are often accompanied by a leap from traditional Roman type to italics. However, in alignment with the confusion associated with Benjy’s character, this is not a steadfast restriction. Faulkner occasionally cloaks Benjy’s thoughts in italics, even though they appear to be taking place in the present memory, rather than being used as a transition into a another. When recalling the supper conversation between Quentin and his father, Benjy’s memory lapses into italics, “Hello, he said. Who won. ‘Nobody’” (Faulkner 67), without breaking away from his current memory, only serving to provide a semblance of a blurred recollection which is strongly implied by the fragmented nature of Benjy’s section. Although Faulkner offers a myriad of guiding clues to help translate this chapter, a considerable amount of red herrings are also included, making it one of the most challenging timelines to grasp.

Sharing semblance with his handicapped counterpart, Quentin’s chapter also includes lapses in syntactical correctness as he struggles to retain details during some of the intense sequences of his timeline. His inner turmoil is revealed in the tormented manner to which he often reverts, either when his negative thoughts are spiraling out of control, or when anxiously speeding through a past memory. Most identifiably, his syntax frequently implies that he is disgruntled, either recollecting in a blur, experiencing in a daze, or just drunk. Repeating himself, and trying to suppress the shameful conversation, Quentin’s account reads, “I said I have committed incest… Roses. Cunning and serene” (Faulkner 77). Spanning numerous pages each, two of the most notable abandonments of syntactical guidance take place as Quentin recalls his intense duel with Dalton Ames, “I saw you … enough of that last summer” (Faulkner 107-111), and during his unholy act with Caddy, “One minute… beating against my hand” (Faulkner 149-164). Both of these excerpts stand out from the rest of the novel as they are designated by multiple consecutive pages with no punctuation whatsoever. Faulkner further clouds the recollection of both transgressions by having Quentin oscillate between dialogue and description, forcing the reader to reread the passages multiple times, just as Quentin is forced to relive his memories perpetually. While this method is highly unorthodox, its execution is masterfully woven into the very nature of Quentin’s character, delineating his thought process from that of the other three perspectives in a truly unforgettable style.

After the most significant exhibition of the aforementioned stichomythia, Quentin’s memory jumps between a plethora of styles, indicative of his ongoing mental breakdown. It falls back to the familiarity of academic description, then subsequently regresses into drunken rambling as he finally becomes aware of his subconscious conclusion that the only way to escape himself is to die. His thoughts mingle together as he becomes increasingly enthralled in the potential escape that suicide offers, aided by his implied of consumption of alcohol, “that liquor teaches you to confuses the means with the end I am. Drink” (Faulkner 174). Interspersed in the subsequent drunken ramblings are snippets which give much insight into his impaired thought process, such as, “the strange thing is that... will not face that final main” (177). Finally, set apart again by a familiar and conventional style of writing, the last paragraph of the chapter leaves the reader with a chilling sense discomfort caused the calm state of mind that has befallen Quentin in his final memory. Only able to find peace in death, Quentin returns the watch to his dresser drawer, symbolizing his surrender to time. Ultimately, Quentin’s implied suicide delivers an impactful message about Faulkner’s perception of the the inevitability of suffering in human life.

The unfortunate Compson brothers in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury capture the ugly nature of human vitality. By impairing the point of view that the reader must experience Benjy’s memories of the Compson household through, Faulkner leads the reader to appreciate a sense of calm that is not shared by his brother’s chapter. This drab narration, although it hardly reveals any perceptions of happiness, when juxtaposed with the horrors of Quentin’s heightened intellect, comes across as a serene break from the madness of reality. Compared to Quentin’s tormenting conscience, Benjy’s obliviousness seems far more favorable. Masterfully crafting each of his characters around that which they cannot achieve, Faulkner identifies the emptiness that is consuming many Americans following World War I and leading into the Great Depression. Rather than deliver an uplifting novel, however, Faulkner develops the fears and vices that he sees whittling away at the American psyche, projects them upon his characters, and lets the chaotic situation dissolve into disarray.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. Print. Random House, 1990.

Mellard, James M.“The Sound and the Fury: Quentin Compson and Faulkner's ‘Tragedy of Passion.’” Studies in the Novel, vol. 2, no. 1, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970, pp. 61-75, Accessed 7 Feb. 2017.

Millgate, Michael. Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Penn Warren, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966, pp. 94-108.