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William Faulkner’s modernist novel The Sound and the Fury is a challenge for the reader and actually it is one of the books you have to read twice in order to fully understand because it has no chronology and the use of the stream of consciousness makes it more difficult to read. The stream of consciousness “refers to the recording of the flow of a character’s thoughts in a fragmentary, nonlinear manner. Images and impressions suggest others through an associative process that ignores distinctions between past, present and future.” (Anderson 12)
Broadly, The Sound and the Fury is the story of the decline and fall of the Compson family. The novel is structured in four sections, Benjy’s section, Quentin’s section, Jason’s section and an objective account which is considered by some critics to be Dilsey’s section. Benjy, Quentin and Jason are the Compson brothers and Dilsey is their black servant. In the first three sections the stream of consciousness is employed and the story is told in flashbacks. The fourth section has an omniscient narrator who is thought to be the author himself. Each section has a different date, the first, the third and the last sections are set around Easter in April 1928 in Jefferson and the second section in June 1910 in Harvard.
After a close reading of the novel, the author’s concern for the use of time and the passing of time becomes obvious. The purpose of this essay is to analyze how the time motif is employed and emphasized in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and how are the characters affected by time. Firstly, I will show the different ways in which the author uses time in the four sections. Secondly, I will analyze how the four main characters, namely Benjy, Quentin, Jason and Dilsey perceive time, how important time and especially the past is for them and what is their attitude towards the past.
Faulkner mixes past and present in his novel and “often shifts the time sequence back and forth without regard for chronological order.” (Roberts 11) Faulkner uses numerous time levels in Benjy’s section and in fact, the reader is confused by the time shifts between present and past. However, the author in most of the cases uses italics to signal the time shifts and gives clues that point to a particular episode in the story. For instance, Luster takes care of Benjy in April 1928. Although Benjy’s section is dated April seventh 1928, little of the events and facts that make up the story really happen that day “events of the past are constantly juxtaposed with various events in the present or some other time in the past.” (Roberts 36) Faulkner has a particular style of writing and he uses linear time only in the last section. In the other three sections, the sense of time is broken and there is an emphasis on the past. This points to the fact that the author is often concerned about “how much of the past intrudes upon the present.” (Roberts 36)
In Quentin and Jason’s sections the reader is still confronted with the recurring time motif. If in Benjy’s part, “clock time is almost totally disregarded” (Roberts 36) in Quentin’s narrative clocks are very important. Quentin is obsessed with clocks and the past that haunts him. In Jason’s section the flashbacks are used too, but “unlike the first two sections, it combines thoughts and memories, with many indicators of objective time and space reality.” (P. Anderson 199) The last section is written as a third person narrative and it is focused mainly on Dilsey, the Compson’s family servant. It sheds light on the events narrated in the previous sections. In order to indicate that the past and the present are both equally important for Dilsey, the author chooses to end the novel with a linear narrative making no use of the stream of consciousness technique or flashbacks.
In The Sound and the Fury, each character has a different approach to time. Benjy is a 33 years old man, but with the mental age of a 3 years old child. He is incapable to speak and to distinguish between the past, the present, and the future. His section, which opens the book, is the most intriguing because he “is completely oblivious of time” (Roberts 36) and he perceives things only through his senses. According to Roberts, for Benjy “all time blends into one sensuous experience. He makes no distinction between an event that happened only hours ago and one that occurred years ago.” (36) For instance, he waits for Caddy, his sister, to return from school in 1928 even if she left home in 1910. Benjy perceives the past only by making associations “Whenever something reminds Benjy of the past, his narration jumps to that past moment. With little understanding of time, Benjy narrates his memories of the past as if they are happening in the present.” (Anderson 35) For the mentally disables Benjy the concept of time does not exist. He lives in a world of his own.
Quentin, whose narrative is the only one not anchored in April 1928, but in June 1910 “expends all his energy trying to understand time.” (Roberts 36) His section begins with the memory of his father’s comments about time
When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight
o’clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when
Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire;
it’s rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of
all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his
father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now
and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no
battle is ever won he said. (Faulkner 89)
Throughout his entire narrative he feels haunted by the past and he tries “to escape from time.” (Roberts 25) In a desperate try to free himself from time he breaks his watch, but it ironically continues to tick proving him that whatever he does the passing of time is unstoppable
I went to the dresser and took up the watch, with the face still down. I tapped the
crystal on the corner of the dresser and caught the fragments of glass in my hand
and put them into the ashtray and twisted the hands off and put them in the tray.
The watch ticked on. I turned the face up, the blank dial with little wheels clicking
and click ing behind it, not knowing any better. (Faulkner 91)
At the end of his section, Quentin committs suicide in the final attempt to escape the clicking of the clock and symbolically time. His last gesture is not made with regret, but rather with joy and a sense of freedom “a quarter hour yet. And then I’ll not be. The peacefullest words. The peacefullest words.” (Faulkner 142)
Jason’s section precedes Benjy’s section and it is set in 6 April 1928. According to Roberts he “completely denies the past; he functions only in the present.” (27) Unlike Quentin, he thinks that the present is more important. However, there are moments when the past signifies something to him. For example, the moments when he remembers that he lost a position in a bank because of his sister Caddy. He is in contrast with Quentin because he does not care about his family’s reputation and history therefore the past. Time is important to him, but he is the man of the present “at last I found a pad on a Saint Louis bank. And of course she’d pick this one time to look at it close. Well, it would have to do. I couldn’t waste any more time now.” (Faulkner 201)
The last section is dated 8 April 1928 and it is narrated in the third person. Dilsey is the main character of this section and the only one who “brings the past and the present into a proper balance.” (Roberts 24) She is the only one that acknowledges the boundaries between past and present ” a cabinet clock ticked, then with a preliminary sound as if it had cleared its throat, struck five times. ‘Eight o’clock,’ Dilsey said. She ceased and tilted her head upward, listening.” (Faulkner 264) She is both aware of the past and the present. She witnessed both the prosperous past of the Compson family and its fall in the present “I seed the beginning, en now I sees de endin.” (Faulkner 284) Dilsey is not afraid of the passing of time and she does not regard the past as a menace for her present or even for her future.
In conclusion, the aim of this essay has been to analyze how William Faulkner employed the time motif and what impact has time upon the characters in his novel The Sound and the Fury. The analysis of the four sections revealed that in the first three time is not linear and there are always time shifts between the past and the present. Thus, chronology of events is totally disregarded in the first three sections and the stream of consciousness technique and flashbacks are used. On the other hand, in the last section time is linear with focus mainly on the present of the story that is April 1928. The characters Benjy, Quentin, Jason, and Dilsey are all affected by time and especially by the past but some more and others less. Benjy is unaware of the concepts of time and past and he lives in a continuous present. For Quentin the past is very important and he puts the present on a second plan. In contrast with him is his other brother, Jason, who sees the present important and gives no importance to the past. Unlike Quentin and Jason, Dilsey is focused both on the past and on the present.
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