In 1929, William Faulkner had a keen sense that it was all falling in of its own weight. When he published The Sound and the Fury, now recognized as an American classic, it confused folks more than wowed them. The first section, written from the perspective of Benjy Compson, the intellectually-challenged son of a white Mississippi first family, is nearly incomprehensible on first read. Finally, on my third attempt and with the help of Spark Notes, I got enough of a hang of things to get to the second section and beyond, when the work starts opening up into a panoramic view of a family and a system that was doomed.I don’t know what made the strange summer of 2020 the right time to go back to Faulkner. Maybe it’s that we’re having another round of our awful battles about history and race, two areas that Faulkner struggled with mightily. And even if it is difficult to read the caricatured language of his black characters and the frequent use of ‘the n-word’ today, he does have significant black characters and they do disturb the dominant white myths that cause so much damage. He seems to know that the American story is rotting on the vine.
The Compsons are, to put it politely, in decline. The old house is still standing on the farm, but they’ve had to sell a large plot to pay for a wedding for their daughter, Caddy, and to send Quentin, another son, to Harvard. Meanwhile, the last son, Jason, has been souring into a devious miser, perhaps the best portrayed soul in the grips of greed I have seen in a book. And he pairs it with a savage cruelty to all around.
Old regimes related to honor and sexual purity come to haunt all the characters. Caroline, the would-be matriarch, lives in her upstairs bedroom, habitually unwell. The father, already a shadow of his ancestors, dies. Quentin is obsessed with his sister’s sexuality and commits suicide after a year in Cambridge. Jason manipulates Caddy’s daughter, who comes to his care, though her own budding rebellion brings him to obsession and ruin as well.
And through it all stands the figure of Dilsey, the long-time African-American servant who runs the kitchen and the house. Her faith and diligence lends what little shape and dignity the Compsons can claim. In the end, she takes Benjy to Easter services as Jason goes after his niece in a murderous rage. “Toward the church they thronged with slow sabbath deliberation,” there to be met by an unprepossessing preacher with a simple message of resurrection. She wipes her tears before Benjy’s final climactic moan. “Bellow on bellow, his voice mounted, with scarce interval for breath. There was more than astonishment in it, it was horror; shock; agony eyeless, tongueless; just sound.”
It’s a howl for another land, another story. All of those with privilege have lost their way and their words. What’s left but simple faith and wordless horror at the devastation we bring to one another?
In the current moment, when so much seems to be at stake and so little seems clear, I found some comfort in the deep currents of Faulkner’s language and his unsparing look at human failing. For him, for the South, for America, for us, there is no innocent history. Like Benjy, the innocent who now weeps when he looks at himself in the mirror or hears the name of his sister, time can make monsters of us all. And God bless those who have a Dilsey to soften the blow.