When we think of the works of William Faulkner, we’re unlikely to muse upon feelings of glorious rebirth, or any kind of positive reversal. Cram your mind full of almost any of his novels—minus, perhaps, the potboiling Sanctuary, written by a fame-seeking Bill for cash—and you will come away away with the sensation that that family of yours you’ve complained about over the years is a veritable benchmark for stability and support. You may then reach for the bottle on behalf of the clans that Faulkner’s imagination created.
You can’t get much more dysfunctional than the brood at the heart of The Sound and the Fury, but what I would also tell you is that here we have the ultimate Easter novel.
There isn’t exactly a booming Easter lit market. It’s not like Christmas, where we have a bumper crop of ghost stories that will last as long as we do as humans. There is a story from 1886 by Chekhov called “Easter Eve,” which involves a guy taking a barge across a river on his way to a church service and the ferryman telling him about this dead buddy of his who never got to share his stories with anyone. That’s pretty good. But yeah—there’s an Easter literature void.
But it was at Easter in 1928 that Faulkner set what is perhaps his most famous novel, which came out the next year. It flopped. The Sound and the Fury was, after all, sufficiently confusing that Faulkner had gone all Crayola and hit upon the idea of having each speaker’s internal monologues rendered in a different color on the page so you would know who the hell was thinking what. It was the success of Sanctuary that lent a hand to Fury, which was subsequently rediscovered now that Faulkner was more bankable.
If you’ve read the novel, you may have wished Faulkner had convinced his publisher to go the tourmaline-route. Internal monologues clang together, with one voice shifting into another, time periods being exchanged and shuffled like cards in a deck; grammar is destroyed, rebuilt, knocked down again into the patois we might associate with a toddler on first learning to speak and speaking quickly, like some crack had been mixed in with a Hooked on Phonics packet.
Our central concern is with the impressively screwed up Compson clan, one of those rich, old school Southern families, who are going to lose everything, and, in that process, become more and more base. Lost. De-familied. But there is extreme Easter-y resonance here, largely because of the three voices—with that last one being a sort of double-voice—I think of as the novel’s trinity, its triangulation of faith, sin, resurrection. Like I said, Easter-y.
We are talking about Benjy, the mentally handicapped man-child who loves himself some gold, fire, and his sister, Caddy, another principal player, and the novel’s savior, in essence; and Quentin, the would-be upstart son who departs the South and matriculates to Harvard.
The Benjy section kicks off the novel, and if you find yourself sitting around this Easter sucking down some Cadbury Eggs and wish for a challenge, trying pitting your intellect against this bad boy from this misunderstood boy. With Benjy, we get unfiltered truth, completely untainted by the editorial system of checks and balances all of us apply to the thoughts and feelings that register in our brains. Benjy is a Christ-figure without the intellect, without the following of a band walking around, recording his every last aside, but he is pure and good, devoted, and he is treated like absolute offal.
A rhythm kicks in the more you stick with this section, sort of like when you read Finnegans Wake. You get acclimated, the voice buoys you along. Part of that, I think, is because most of us have a form of Benjy in us. It’s that inclination we all have that steers us toward what we know is right, which we often have to try to suppress and kill later, when we so often do what is wrong. We have to kill this because it is the source of our guilt. Most people cannot handle guilt, just as most people can’t overhaul what they have become, to get back to what they should be. That’s why so many people are walking around miserable and depressed, generating so much anger out into the world, because of that Benjy-like knowledge that an impulse to be decent, to know what is decent, has so often been vitiated. That’s why we all like kids, right? They’re not assholes yet.
Benjy is a form of pure love. Simple love, but pure. Quentin, who is decent to his brother, then becomes like Benjy in adult form, without the mental deficiencies, and a host of emotions he cannot unpack. At Harvard, Quentin wanders around a lot, unable to reconcile his mind and self with the people he sees around him.
Faulkner was among our most Shakespearean American novelists, but with the Southern Gothic slant, and the title of The Sound and Fury, of course, comes from the Bard’s Macbeth. “Life is but a walking shadow…it is a tale…Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The easy association is that Faulkner is riffing on Benjy, but he isn’t. We’re talking about the Quentin Compsons of the world. The people who think they have the answers, but don’t, in fact, and know this on a real, soul-tugging level which creates massive amount of hope, that can never payout, that desperation could morph into a reality.
Benjy’s section takes place the day before Easter, 1928. Quentin’s goes down June 2, 1910. It’s post-Easter. This guy is already dead, in a sense, and not to rise. If laptop computers existed in 1910, Quentin would have all of the correct sloganeering stickers on the back letting you know that he was a good person. But he’d have that conflict inside, the knowledge—because Quentin is very smart—that what you do gesturally has nothing do with what you are internally. Most people don’t care about the outward projection of a self synching up with the reality of what that self is on the inside, because their focus lies with what other people perceive them as. Quentin does care. And he can’t square the circle. So he wanders to a bridge over the Charles River, and he jumps in and drowns.
There are two other sections in The Sound and the Fury that happen right around Easter. The first is from April 6, 1928, involving the family’s oldest son, Jason, a mega-prick. He’s the plot-based villain of this piece, just a total scheming louse, a thief, tyrant, but he’s there to move the plot along, and for contrast. That same Easter we also see into the life of Dilsey, the African American servant who has to deal with this brood. But then we have Caddy, and her daughter Miss Quentin, named for her deceased uncle.
These two represent the rebirth that ultimately makes The Sound and the Fury a profound work of hope. Benjy loves Caddy. The latter is earthy, sensual. When she first has sex, Benjy can tell from the smell—presumably of blood. She is saddled with none of Quentin’s metaphysical internal torments because she refuses to be. Her brother Jason blackmails her, which parts her from her daughter, whom Jason wants to live with him in this psychotic mix of zeal to make sure she grows up without any sexual impulses, and to commit his latest family-based crime, which focuses on embezzlement. Great guy.
Miss Quentin catches on to what he has been doing, and lights out in the middle of the night. In this novel, it’s the same as pushing aside a boulder, stepping out of a cave, and going around to all of your friends to say, “What up? I’m back!”
Faulkner is clever here. It’s not hard to think that Miss Quentin is returning to her mother, but then again, Jason, who had been trying to chase her down, gives up the search. He knows where Caddie is, presumably, but there is something that tells him that this young woman is going somewhere else. Is going entirely her way.
I think that all of us are capable of mini-resurrections in our lives. Sometimes that is standing up to a colleague at work and allowing your real self to come out over the course of those forty hours of your week. Maybe it’s telling your spouse that you’ve pretended to be a certain way for fear of what would happen if you hadn’t, but you can’t go on like that anymore.
But maybe all of that comes down to an exercise of squaring the circle, which Benjy was aware of but couldn’t realize himself, and which doomed Quentin in his perceived failures. But not with that Easter resurrection twin bill of Caddy and her daughter. Always out there, always free, always saying, “Hey, I’m back, and so too can you be,” every time you read The Sound and the Fury.