I Didn't Understand The Sound and the Fury

I’ve decided I’m alright with not having understood every word of The Sound and the Fury. In part, because it’s a notoriously difficult book to read. Google ‘most difficult novels’ or something like that and you’ll get numerous lists, all of which are enormously subjective passes through a ridiculous question with no useful criteria by which it can be answered. But Faulkner’s fourth novel appears on most of them, along with Gravity’s Rainbow, Ulysses, and Finnegan’s Wake

But the main reason I’ve decided that I’m okay with not having understood every single word of The Sound and the Fury is that I don’t think I was supposed to. Faulkner’s first narrator is Benjy Compson, an adult son of the Compson clan with a severe mental handicap. Benjy is in his early thirties when he’s speaking but he’s unable to process time in a linear way. His narrative jumps from one decade to another, sometimes mid-sentence, and he has a difficult time articulating what he’s seeing. Just from the book’s first paragraph:

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.

Benjy is watching two men play golf and following them by running along the fence that separates his family property from the fairway. He can’t describe what he’s seeing or it doesn’t occur to him that the reader, a stranger, doesn’t know (like his brothers and caretakers) what he’s talking about. He just speaks.

The second chapter is narrated by another Compson brother. Quentin Compson is a Harvard student walking through the streets of Cambridge, trying to help a small girl find her family or her house. He has obsessive notions of honor and family and purity and starts descending into a depression. By the end of the chapter, Quentin’s narrative (and Faulkner’s prose) is a complete mess

Then the honeysuckle got into it. As soon as I turned off the light and tried to go to sleep it would begin to come into the room in waves building and building up until I would have to pant to get any air at all out of it until I would have to get up and feel my way like when I was a little boy      hands can see touching in the mind shaping unseen door Door now nothing hands can see    My nose could see gasoline […] 

The italics are Faulkner’s, as are the lack of punctuation and strange multiple spaces between thoughts. That particular “sentence” continues for most of the page. It’s confusing to read but it also makes perfect sense. When Quentin is a depressed and obsessive college student walking the street, the narrative is intricate, but mostly straightforward. In the privacy of his room, in the midst of his depressive spiral, the narrative gets more and more jumbled.

If you want to understand The Sound and the Fury, you could look up analyses of the book that explain every symbol and turn of phrase and leap in the narrative. But I wonder if doing so defeats the purpose in some way. That’s not to say that understanding what’s happening in the book in a literal sense is a bad thing, but just that pulling out the annotations to follow every single word might defeat the purpose. 

Without trying too hard to attribute to Faulkner things Faulkner might not have intended, Benjy’s narrative might be instructive as to how the book should be read. Under Faulkner’s pen, Benjy develops a sort of poetic lilt that makes the section easy to read even while it’s difficult to understand. It flows from one word and one sentence to the next and doesn’t lend itself to note taking and pausing to consult a dictionary or footnotes. It just rambles. More to the point, however, is that Benjy is the narrator. 

Faulkner switches narrators whenever he damned well pleases, using three over the course of the novel (the Compson brothers: Benjy, Quentin, and Jason) with a fourth chapter written in third person that follows mostly Jason, Quentin (not the brother but rather their sister Caddy’s daughter, named for her deceased and beloved brother), and the maid Dilsey. If he wanted a narrator who could talk about Benjy’s life in detail, so that the reader would understand it, he would’ve had Jason narrate that section (or Caddy or Dilsey or Mrs. Compson). But the genius of Benjy’s section lies in the very fact that he can’t understand what’s happening around him. He doesn’t understand that his mother is a self-absorbed hypochondriac who alternately rules the house with an iron fist and pitifully withdraws when her children act outside of her plan for them. Quentin and Jason almost certainly know this but, because they know it, they talk around it. They both love their mother and understand that her behavior will make the reader think less of her, so they obfuscate and dance around the problem’s edges. Benjy loves his mother and doesn’t understand that she doesn’t seem to care about him; so he speaks frankly about her behavior. The notion of lying or holding back doesn’t occur to him.

Faulkner understands that Jason and Quentin can’t be the people they are and speak frankly about their mother. They have too much pride. He needs Benjy to establish the family dynamic and sacrifices a clear narrative to meet that more important narrative need.

I think about that phenomenon a lot. Maybe I’m the one attributing to Faulkner things he never intended, but it seems to me that people who try to wring from a book like The Sound and the Fury every ounce of literal plot and meaning are forcing it into a box it was never intended to occupy. Readers – listeners, etc – wear understanding like a badge of honor. Did you catch this reference? Did you understand what he meant by … ? By the time you’re reading this, I’ve probably started reading Ulysses. That might be a different situation –– as is, perhaps, Vladimir Nabokov and the more dense of Saul Bellow’s work. They are laden with allusions, literary references, deeply hidden philosophical tid-bits, and endless wordplay, double-entendres, and writer’s jokes. Those books lend themselves to the dictionary, the annotation, the reading with a pen. I think The Sound and the Fury is something different, less precious, simpler in its own obstinate way. The challenge of reading Herzog is getting it all. The challenge of The Sound and the Fury is being okay with the notion that I was never meant to.

Faulkner, ReadingPeter Amos