The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
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Cannonball Read V: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

By bonnie | Book Reviews | June 11, 2013 | Comments ()


Good. Night. What a rollercoaster I've been on! I've read Faulkner before ("A Rose for Emily" in high school and As I Lay Dying in college), but no one warned me that The Sound and the Fury would take up all my mental energy. I actually had to go find some study aids (a practice I strongly condemn to my students, who often just read the aids and skip the novel) to help me figure out what I've just read. And by study aids, I actually mean Wikipedia. My shame and confusion are high right now.

Let's get to it: The Compson family is a mess. We know this, because the novel's four parts give us slightly different perspectives on a similar set of events (not unlike the new season of Arrested Development). Part 1, taking place on April 7, 1928, gives us the inner workings of Benjamin Compson or Benjy, a cognitively-challenged man of 33 and the youngest sibling. Benjy's experience is at once highly internal and highly visceral. He knows intrinsically what is happening around him, yet he cannot interact with the world as a stable adult. Benjy's perspective is confusing, because he can remember an incident with his beloved sister Caddy when they were children or trying to elude his caretaker as an adult. It was very confusing.

Part II takes place on June 2, 1910, following Quentin, the oldest Compson child. Quentin is obsessed with Caddy's sexual proclivities. And by obsessed, I mean Jaime Lannister obsessed. So. Creepy. Quentin is also deeply troubled and very gifted, so he's been sent to Harvard to study. But he fritters away his time obsessed with Caddy, who's gotten herself pregnant by someone.

Then we have Part III, taking place on April 6, 1928. Some major changes have occurred for the Compsons, which we see filtered through the third child, Jason, a truly despicable human. Jason is obsessed with Caddy's daughter's sexual proclivities. But it's not the fun "I'm in love with my sister" that we see at play in Quentin. Rather, it feels a lot more like Black Snake Moan. Jason tries to beat his niece up and lock her in her room. He follows her in town when she's with a boy. And he steals the money Caddy sends for her expenses. Did I mention this daughter is named Quentin?

Part IV takes place on April 8, 1928, and we thankfully get to hear no more stream-of-conscious from any of the family members. Rather, a third-person omniscient narrator tells us about these events, which starts to bring the book together. Dilsey, the faithful and elderly African-American servant, tries to hold the family together and prays for Benjy at church. Young Miss Quentin runs off with a guy in the circus and Jason unsuccessfully tries to follow them. Benjy gets upset when his caretaker Luster drives the wrong way around a monument.

I realize this all sounds crazy, and it kind of is. If someone were to ask me would I teach it, I probably would, but I'm not sure in what context or how to go about it. It's a daunting read. I was not prepared for the kind of mental fortitude it would take, nor for the garbled stream-of-consciousness that would make up most of the narrative. I think Faulkner is a genius. I don't hate stream-of-consciousness (in fact, Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers). I just have Feelings about this reading experience, and I don't know how to make the words come out.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it, and for more of bonnie's reviews, check out her blog The Universe Disturbed.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • LadyCusp

    I finished reading this book out of spite. I picked it up because it's a classic and it has got a killer-Shakespearean-reference-title. When I got to the THIRD perspective, I wanted to cry. I thought it was just plain mean to have to start back from scratch on such a miserable story. Glad to read your review though, because even though I did not enjoy reading the book, I STILL want to figure it out--like there might be a real answer. So, it's been haunting in that way.

  • jennp421

    One of my professors told me that the first part was supposed to be published in different colored inks to make it easier for the reader to understand but would have been too expensive. While Benjy was difficult at first, I think Quentin's portion was the one I struggled with most - once you crack Benjy, it's relatively easy to follow along with where he's going . . . Quentin, on the other hand, I expected to be easier, so I was frustrated when he was even more difficult. I've been avoiding picking up Absalom from my to read pile for years now (I think it's a Quentin in college story).

  • Fredo

    Read this and As I Lay Dying in high school honors English class. I'm as avid a reader as it gets. Hell, I've read Don Quixote in Castillan. I was going through Dostoyevski at 10 years old. And I found Faulkner to be the most exhausting author I've ever read. That's really the best description I have for him: exhausting. It tired me to read him. For all his genius and his abilities, it was akin to reading a Soviet-era instruction manual (worse actually, since I have read a few of those too!)

    I often wonder if I should give him a chance. After all, Faulkner is akin to a deity in writing circles in the South -- it's a question as to who is bigger: Twain, Faulkner or Tennessee Williams. And any time I do, I think back to reading those two books and run like hell in the other direction.

  • Andrew

    I had to read this in college and it is still one of the most poorly written books I've ever read.

    When the professor has to draw on the front board how the daughter escapes out the window because it's not clear in the text, something has gone wrong with your prose.

    When she has to explain that the whole second chapter is leading up to Quentin's suicide because that went over everyone's head, you as an author have failed in your most basic duty: connecting with your readers.

    I don't hate stream of consciousness writing but I think it's nothing more than a failed gimmick. There's a reason no one really writes like that anymore, at least not enough that they're known for it. Five hundred years from now it will probably only be known as a quirky early twentieth century oddity.

    Try reading this with one of it's contemporaries, like "The Great Gatsby". Which of those two books is easier to connect with? Which of those two authors actually succeeds in telling a story with meaning and significance to it's readers.

  • Danar the Barbarian

    I think of stream of consciousness less as a fad and more as an art movement. Would you say that Picasso couldn't paint, because you are looking at one of his cubist portraits but can't accurately picture the model he painted from? Woolf, Stein, and Faulkner perhaps should be considered "painterly" writers, rather than novelists, because it IS hard to get a grip on what is going on exactly. But that doesn't mean the works or authors will be discredited. I think The Sound and the Fury is genius, and a work of art, even if the operative word there is "work". Fitzgerald is to Monet as Faulkner is to Picasso.

  • Andrew

    I wouldn't compare Faulkner to Picasso because even with Picasso's cubist paintings you can still identify basic concepts like: "those are people". You can still derive an emotional connection with what you are seeing.

    The first half of The Sound and the Fury is so opaque as to be off-putting (although the second half is certainly an improvement; if the whole novel were like the second half I would have a much higher opinion of it). If the only emotional connection you can get from a piece of work is frustration, the author has failed.

  • tmoney

    I read this in college and had the same experience with my professor. I don't often struggle with novels, but this one was a bear, so much so that I never finished reading it. Also agreed on the stream of consciousness being a fad.

  • Melina

    I had to read this on Spring Break in Cancun for a massive presentation that I had to give the day we got was pre-Internet days so I was lost after my first read through--but I blamed it on being semi drunk and on the beach. My second read through on the plane home I had the epiphany that there were two Quentins (yep, I'm slick)! Finally, by my third or fourth read through I think I finally got it...but it took all of my brain power. How is it though, that I think it's a great book?

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