“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”
The writing challenge this week is to use the first line of my favorite novel to start my post. I could make up something up and try to be really creative with this, but when I read the line from what I think it is the greatest novel ever written, all I really wanted to do is discuss the book. So I give you my thoughts on William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. It tells the story of four days in the life of a troubled Southern family from four very different points of view.
Let’s start with the title. It comes from a line in MacBeth, when he learns of his wife’s death:
“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
Act V, Scene V
And that is what we get in a sense from the telling of The Sound and the Fury. The story is divided into four parts, each one narrated by a different ‘idiot’. The first section is narrated by Benjy, a 33 year old man who has the mind of a 3 year old. He is a source of great shame to his family, and Faulkner uses stream of consciousness, there are italics to note a shift in time, and this section often reads like a book where all the pages have been put together at random. It was one that I really struggled to get through the first time I read it (thanks Sparknotes for the help!), but it is the one section with the most reliable narrator. Benjy merely tells things the way he sees them, and can do nothing to cover up, distort, or rationalize the choices of his brothers, his family, and the people around him.
The next idiot who shares his woes is Quentin. He is the smartest of the boys, but the one with the most tortured life. He has idiotic ideas of the way the world works thanks to his drink obsessed father, and because of that and an unhealthy obsession with his sister and her purity, eventually kills himself. The last part of his section is hard to read, but also fascinating, as Faulkner has managed to really capture what it might be like inside the head of someone slowly losing their mind. I think that he is the character that suffers the most, makes an interesting case for the nature vs. nurturer argument. He has such a warped view on life, and the roles of family that he is an unreliable narrator, with his descent into madness a strong support for that.
The last of the idiots, and in my opinion, the biggest one, is Jason. He is obsessed with money. He is sexually frustrated. He is a cold monster. He steals money from his sister, he abuses his servants, and he is just an asshole (pardon my French). His section is one that I sometimes skim just because I don’t like him. He is the most unreliable of the narrators because he is so cynical and single minded. This is the easiest part to read in terms of the way it is written, but it does not make Jason any more trustworthy.
The final section is told in the third person and focuses on the servant that runs the household, and her abuse, sadness, and unquestioning loyalty to the family. She takes Benjy to church with her family believing that he is the only one that can truly be saved. We see Benjy breakdown when his routine is altered, giving way to his sound and fury, and his brother Jason being the only one to calm him down. The last lines of the book are perhaps some of the most chilling ever written, and I still get goosebumps when I read them.
“The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and facade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.”
Much of my undergrad was focused on the reliability of the narrators in Mark Twain novels, and while I sit in the library today shrugging off some important paper edits, I can’t help but get a little twinge for the good old days when I spent hours and hours reading great books and really digging into literature. Those four years in Merced taught me a lot, and I always thought I’d get a PhD in literature and then grow old teaching university students how to love, and really understand literature. I can’t help but wonder what my life would have been like if that was the path I had gone down, and whether or not I would be in Scotland right now if I had. I know a few of the struggles would be different, but Ii wonder if all roads would have eventually led here. Then I think about how much I’ve done, and how much I am really starting to like myself, and I realize that I might not feel the same way if my path had been different.
So there you go. My ramblings on a book that is a lot like me, a little bit complicated, very hard to read, but very very very worth it in the end.