By DAVID A. KING, PH.D., Commentary | Published April 20, 2017
In one of the bleakest reflections upon the meaning of life, Shakespeare’s Macbeth laments:
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Consider this antithesis, from William Faulkner’s acceptance speech upon winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949:
“I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. … The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
Faulkner took the title for the novel that is perhaps his greatest masterpiece from the Macbeth speech, but “The Sound and the Fury”—much of which is indeed told by an idiot—refutes despair to become a testament to transcendence and redemption.
The “Sound and the Fury” was Faulkner’s fourth novel, and it was written at a time (1928) when the novelist’s career and life both seemed on the verge of collapse. His earlier books had not sold well, and few publishers were willing to take a risk on a writer whose genius was often obscured by his experimental, even avant-garde, style. Yet Faulkner had earlier in his career arrived at the realization that “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”
Faulkner transformed Oxford, Mississippi, his native soil, into the fictional “mythical kingdom” of Yoknapatawpha County. In a series of the most brilliant novels and stories of the 20th century, Faulkner displayed the complex burdens of the Deep South and its unique past, revealing that in fact “the past is not dead; it’s not even past.”
‘Pinnacle’ of literature
His treatment of the lost cause of the Confederacy, the tragic legacy of slavery and the horror of Jim Crow, and the decline of the old antebellum dynasties represents the pinnacle not just of Southern literature, but also arguably of modern world literature. His microcosm transcends the local and the particular to become truly universal. What happens in the town of Jefferson, Mississippi, county seat of Yoknapatawpha, reflects the plight of the entire world, a world where constantly “the human heart is in conflict with itself.”
So when Faulkner set out to write “The Sound and the Fury,” he held fast to his design. Deciding to write the book for himself, and for his own pleasure, Faulkner poured everything he knew into the story. Publication was no longer his primary aim; instead, he would get at the core of his characters, whose voices hammered in his imagination as though they demanded to be recorded on the page.
The book chronicles the decline and fall of the Compson family, the last in the line of an old Yoknapatawpha dynasty. The story is told in four distinct sections and by four distinct voices: Benjy, the idiot son; Quentin, the doomed son who commits suicide by drowning himself; Jason, the brutal and even demonic son; and Dilsey, the long-suffering servant of the Compsons, who gives the novel its profound redemption.
An Easter book
It is very important that most of the novel takes place during Easter weekend of 1928. Perhaps more than any other modern masterpiece, “The Sound and the Fury” is an Easter book.
Faulkner was not a Catholic. In the more than 70 articles I have written for The Georgia Bulletin, I have never written about a non-Catholic artist. Yet Faulkner was a Christian, an Episcopalian, and he was a believer who knew the Old Testament and New Testament almost by heart and who incorporated both Hebraic and Christian motifs and themes in much of his work.
Sadly, Faulkner’s “Easter book” is often misunderstood. Consigned for perpetuity to required summer reading and a fixture upon greatest-novel-ever-written lists, “The Sound and the Fury” has developed a reputation as a burdensome and even difficult chore. Described as impenetrable, confusing, and even impossible to understand, it is, truly, none of these things. It is beautiful.
Granted, the book is challenging. It employs multiple layers of narration, often rendered in the modernist stream of consciousness technique. Time itself becomes entirely relative and shifts back and forth from past to present. Even when a character is living and thinking in the present, his past constantly intrudes so that his subconscious and conscious minds are linked; memory and imagination become as relevant as the literal moment.
At the heart of the novel is a child’s first awareness of death. The central image that drove Faulkner throughout writing the book is that of Caddy Compson in a pear tree, her muddied underwear visible to her brothers below, as she gazes into a window of the Compson house to view the funeral of her grandmother. The novel is obviously influenced by Freudian theory, but there is something more archetypal at work as well.
Linked to Poussin painting
Faulkner had in mind Nicolas Poussin’s masterful painting, Et in Arcadia Ego, as he wrote the book; in fact the phrase is actually employed in the text. Sometimes referred to as “The Arcadian Shepherds,” the painting depicts a group of shepherds in the Hellenic pastoral paradise of Arcadia who have stumbled upon a strange stone, or monument. Indeed, it appears to be a tomb. Engraved upon the stone is the cryptic inscription, “et in arcadia ego,” which is loosely translated from the Latin to mean “Even in Arcadia, I, death, am present.” The shepherds gaze at the message in awe, wonder and fear. Their expressions capture our own bewilderment at the mystery of death.
And death is at the middle of “The Sound and the Fury.” Unable to reconcile his feelings about his sister’s essential purity, as well as her essential humanity, Quentin fabricates a bizarre fantasy about Caddy that so obsesses him he is driven to commit suicide. He does this 18 years before the present action of the novel. While a student at Harvard, Quentin purchases a pair of flat irons, which he uses to weight himself before plunging into the Charles River.
So the novel covers three pivotal moments in time: Caddy’s awareness of death in 1898, Quentin’s suicide in Boston in 1910, and Easter weekend in 1928. The novel begins on Good Friday 1928. This first section focuses primarily upon Benjy’s entirely sensory recollections of Caddy in her childhood. The second section retreats 18 years into the past with Quentin’s suicide in 1910. The third section concerns the maniacal Jason and his tragic relationship with Caddy’s illegitimate daughter. The fourth and final section, however, is centered upon Dilsey on Easter Sunday, and her epiphany regarding resurrection and eternity.
Conventional readings of “The Sound and the Fury” often correctly identify Benjy as a Christ figure; Jason as a satanic figure, and Quentin and Caddy as representatives of universal human nature. But before Catholic readers embark upon “The Sound and the Fury,” they must realize the importance of Dilsey.
Dilsey is a direct descendent of slavery and may in fact have been a Compson slave. She has worked for the Compson family her entire life. She has witnessed Mr. Compson’s demise and death by alcoholism and vanity; she has endured the madness of Ms. Compson; she has suffered under the tyranny of Jason. And yet she triumphs. In a novel that grapples with social collapse, personal upheaval and the inevitability of death, Dilsey—along with Benjy—represents the essence of the Easter mystery: the victory of salvation and redemption over death.
At the end of the novel, Dilsey is able to say, after a stirring Easter service at her church, “I’ve seed de first en de last, never you mind me. … I seed de beginnin’, en now I sees de endin’.” Dilsey has learned the fundamental truth of life and love, so eloquently expressed by Faulkner in his essay “Mississippi”: “You don’t love because: you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults.”
In 1946, Faulkner completed an appendix for “The Sound and the Fury,” which was first published in Malcolm Cowley’s important book “The Portable Faulkner.” In the appendix, Faulkner provides the chronology and genealogy of the Compson family, often writing at great length about the many characters. He saves Dilsey for last, and of her he writes only what might be his most profound sentence: “They endured.”
Dilsey therefore comes to represent an entire race of human civilization; in linking her with the suffering and redemption of the African-American people, Faulkner connects us as well to the ancient and enduring truth of Christ’s Passion, death and resurrection.
To paraphrase Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech, “when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening,” we will always have Easter.
David A. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Film Studies at Kennesaw State University and director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.