You’ve seen it before, I’m sure. A car covered in bumper stickers. It’s a joke, right? It strikes us as silly, as garish. Visually, it’s unappealing. The multiple colors and various fonts scream at us to pay attention, and we can’t settle on a particular sticker to focus on. Neither do we see the back of that car as a mosaic. Too many ideas are trying to tell us some truth and what the driver believes. But real Truth can’t be captured in a pithy statement.
That’s why I appreciate literature. The books that I love come from the minds of artists trying to make sense of the world. I assume that the creators of bumper stickers are also concerned with making sense of the world. The difference is that writers understand that every thought can’t be contained in a single book. Instead, they work to make sure that every character, every setting, every word is used to break down the complexity of existence into digestible parts. Readers should not be told what to think or how to feel. They are simply guided to different places where the writer makes an observation, then leaves us to make of the text what we will.
The Sound and the Fury makes no claims that its readers will be handed an interpretation of the world. Readers aren’t even given a sensible narrative - I was lost before the end of the first paragraph. Faulkner is grappling with something big, something that warrants a complex writing style. It’s a major change in American identity: the decline of southern aristocracy. He chooses one family - the Compsons - that has fallen from once-great heights to serve as a representation of this much larger change. Each of the book’s four sections centers on one member of the family. Benjy, the son who narrates the first section, is mentally handicapped. The rambling prose of his section reflects his inability to differentiate between past and present. He is thirty years old but must be led around by the family’s black servants, observant all the while but unable to piece it together, let alone express it, in a meaningful way. Quentin’s obsession with time and purity drive him mad in the second section. The one child able to get away to make himself as an Ivy League student, Quentin is continuously drawn back to his hometown, with his memories taking control of his present consciousness. The third section, from their brother Jason’s point of view, shows the meanness that can come when you feel like everyone else got theirs, and you’re just a sucker. His anger lashes out like solar flares, wreaking havoc on all those around him - family and strangers. The final section is written with a more objective narrator. Dilsey, the black servant, drives most of what occurs at the close of the book. Hers is the only voice of hope of possibility found in the entire narrative.
While the sons control most of the narrative, it’s their sister Caddy who is depicted as controlling them. Her brothers don’t know how to accept her actions and independence. Their inability to adapt to change - whether it’s a break in routine or an altering of gender dynamics - dooms them and their family. Benjy relies on Caddy to sooth his jangled nerves when anything interrupts his rigid sense of order. After discovering that Caddy has borne a child out of wedlock, Quentin is unable to process what this means and his foundation is shattered. Jason makes her a scapegoat for the failings of his life, falsely attributing to her the reason why he’s just a store clerk. For being relegated mostly to memory - in fact, those references to the past may be the only times that she appears in the story - she has a powerful influence.
I hear a lot of talk about feminism, white male privilege and race relations from my socially-conscious friends. To me, they’re buzzwords hinting at some larger, more complex system or problem. Those words are bumper stickers - they say nothing nearly as interesting as the intricacies of The Sound and the Fury. Caddy could be made to be either victim or whore, but she’s not. Dilsey could have been portrayed as wise voodoo sage, but she’s not. There’s something much more interesting going on, and I encourage you to read this book and find out what it is.