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The Role of Time in The Sound and The Fury

In Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury[1], time and the past seem as critical but complex themes. As a novel constructed about past events which have taken spot before the time of narration, the previous appears to be really much alive within the narration of the 3 Compson brothers. Even so, beneath the surface there is a contrasting sense of the futility of this connection with the previous, along with the notion that time waits for no man, leaving those caught up in the previous behind. Faulkner’s use of a stream of consciousness narrative style permits the passing of time to be expressed differently across the four sections of the novel, suggesting that, despite the fact that physical time might wait for no man, there is possibly one more sort of time which is seasoned differently for each person.

On the surface, The Sound and the Fury appears to revolve about the very notion that the previous is neither dead nor past, as the plot is driven completely by events which took spot years prior. For the most element, the present exists solely as a product of a past which the characters either can not, or will not, leave behind. John-Paul Sartre outlines this notion in his essay “On The Sound and The Fury. Time in Function of Faulkner”. In it, he suggests that inside Faulkner’s novel, “The present, nameless and fleeting, is helpless before [the previous]. It is full of gaps, and, by means of these gaps, things of the past, fixed, motionless and silent as judges or glances, comes to invade it”[two]. Certainly, the helplessness of which Sartre speaks appears to define the narratives of all 3 of the Compson boys, as each and every is obsessed by the previous in various techniques. One particular brother is obsessed with denying it, one obsessed with holding onto it, and the third appears totally incapable of even understanding the notion of time divisions. With regards to the “gaps”[three] in the present getting “invade[d]”[4] by the past, the whole novel is set across three days, but through the continual use of flashbacks the whole history of the Compson family members is recalled. The reader spends far a lot more time viewing the past than the present, supporting Sartre’s suggestion that the present is “full of gaps”[5], as the present time narration is interjected with the constant re-emergence of the previous. Surely, one could argue that if the past was actually dead, it could not seem so apparently and repeatedly all through the present of the narrative. At the centre of this sense that the past is not previous lies the character of Caddy Compson. Even even though she runs away long just before the time of narration, her presence saturates the entire novel. She is one of the “things of the past”[six] of which Sartre speaks, and she most surely seems to “invade”[7] the present. She exists to us only via the memories of her 3 brothers, but these memories of her are so prevalent that Catherine Morley sees fit to refer to Caddy as “the absent heart at the centre of The Sound and the Fury”[eight]. Indeed, Faulkner himself truly named Caddy Compson his “heart’s darling”, and the original image and inspiration for The Sound and the Fury. The extremely fact that Faulkner constructs an complete novel around a girl whose image exists only in the previous epitomizes the overflow of the past into the present, as the complete text appears devoted to keeping the past alive. Caddy stands as an embodiment of the past and represents the influence it continues to hold over the present. Every single of the Compson brothers obsess over Caddy, and her perceived fall from grace, to the extent that their own present appears to be structured about items which have currently come to pass. Morley argues that “Caddy Compson’s imprint upon each and every of the Compson brothers is indelible”[9], reflecting the way in which the past can be noticed to irrevocably stain the present, bleeding by means of the barriers between diverse points in time to blur with each other the constructs of a chronological timeline.

The section of narrative which most clearly lays concentrate on the past more than the present is that of Benjy Compson. Certainly, the items Benjy sees and hears in the present lead his stream of consciousness to switch seamlessly among events from the previous and events from the present. This is evident as Benjy hears present day golfers calling for their golf caddie, which instantaneously draws Benjy back into memories of his sister as the word is reminiscent of the name ‘Caddy’. Additionally, he stands at his gate in the present day, waiting for Caddy to return home as she utilised to ahead of disappearing eighteen years earlier, delineating his lack of understanding that she has turn into a portion of his past. Peter Conn emphasizes Benjy’s apparent inability to place his memories behind him as he suggests that “the present is decreased to the vanishing point, serving as tiny far more than a transparent theatre scrim via which the past can often be perceived”[10]. Benjy’s castration is symbolic of his inability to separate his future from his previous, as he is rendered physically incapable of reproduction. He is trapped in a state of timelessness, incapable of moving forward, and the creation of new life presents the possibility of alter and the transition from a child-like figure into a father. The reality that his disability stunts this possibility can be seen to be a part of what prevents him from breaking totally free from this psychological timelessness. According to James L. Roberts “For Benjy, all time blends into one sensuous knowledge. He tends to make no distinction amongst an event that happened only hours ago and a single that occurred years ago”[11]. Indeed, Roberts’s view draws on the way in which Benjy’s stream of consciousness transitions among distinct time periods without having implicitly informing the reader of these time jumps. Thomas L. McHaney supports and expands on this notion as he suggests that “The person reading The Sound and the Fury for the first time is as a result initially difficult pressed to tell previous from present”[12]. Certainly, Benjy’s mental condition renders him incapable of understanding the passing of time, and via his utilisation as a narrator he allows Faulkner to draw the reader into the identical timeless perspective as Benjy.

On the surface, it could appear as though the past is every bit as alive in Quentin’s narration as it appears to be in Benjy’s. Like Benjy, Quentin’s experiences in the present usually trigger memories of the past, sending his thoughts backwards in time. For example, the small Italian girl he meets reminds him so much of his sister Caddy that he comes to refer to her also as ‘sister’. In actual truth, Quentin seems to view all women as ‘sister’ figures, emphasizing his preoccupation with Caddy and his desperation to proper her wrongs by way of imprinting on a surrogate sister. Quentin is obsessed with his sister’s past actions, as he unable to accept her sexual ‘sin’ or lost virginity, and carries this burden along with him even in the present. Throughout his narration, he continuously reminisces on the words of his father, who philosophised that time cures all ills, such as the painful memories of Caddy. He becomes desperate to cease the progression of time so that he in no way has to overlook his past with Caddy and the emotions it evoked in him. The idea of the past not necessarily becoming previous is furthered in Quentin’s narration as he recalls far more of his father’s words. He laments how “Father mentioned clocks slay time. He said time is dead as lengthy as it is getting clicked off by little wheels only when the clock stops does time come to life” (71). To Quentin, this opens up the possibility of reclaiming his past by destroying the divisions of a chronological timeline.

In contrast to Quentin and his battle to hold onto the previous, the character of Jason Compson at initial seems to be intent on denying its extremely existence. He seems to live solely in the present, with his motivation and attention to detail getting rooted in his ploys to cheat other people for his personal brief term achieve. Nevertheless, contrary to his desire to disregard his history, it really manages to color the person he is in the present. He is, a lot like his two brothers, obsessed with Caddy, only the obsession is of a diverse sort. In contrast to Benjy, who yearns for his sister to return to him, and Quentin, who desperately wishes to save Caddy from her moral and sexual downfall, Jason blames Caddy for all of his and his family’s misfortunes, carrying his bitterness more than the previous around with him in the present. In his eyes, Caddy’s sexual and moral discrepancies in the past lost him a position at Herbert Head’s bank, leaving him with no ambition for the future, and without something but resentment for his previous and those who had been a part of it. More than this, Quentin appears unable to cease himself from seeing incarnations of the previous in the present. This is especially evident as Caddy’s daughter, Miss Quentin, becomes a target for Jason’s cruelty as she seems to embody the same sexuality as her mother, major Jason to associate her with his past. Gene D. Phillips highlights the redirection of his wrath from Caddy to her daughter as he states that “In the intervening years Jason has cruelly transferred his contempt and hostility for his sister to the motherless and fatherless girl Caddy abandoned”[13]. Even as he tries to leave the past behind, he attempts to control his sister’s sexuality by controlling the solution of Caddy’s illegitimate affair.

Offered the significance of the past to the central characters, it is surely tempting to argue that the previous in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is anything but dead. However, it could alternatively be deemed that the past is dead, and what lives on is the family’s psychological inability to accept this truth. Michael Cotsell supports this notion as he argues that “In Faulkner’s contemporary novels, there is the repeated sense of the persistence of the past and yet it is actual irrelevance”[14]. Certainly, this is particularly evident in Quentin’s narrative. As previously suggested, Quentin certainly appears to be trapped by his past, allowing it to consume his present. Nevertheless, it could be also be argued that he is in actuality a character who actively fights to maintain the previous alive, only to eventually suffer an inevitable defeat. This defeat is symbolized by his try at destroying his watch. He tears the hands from the clock face in an eventually futile bid to enter a state of timelessness, only to discover himself constantly haunted by the phantom sound of time ticking away. This signifies the unhindered forward flow of time, as it moves on to leave the past in the past, and epitomizes the helplessness of any man attempting to maintain the previous alive. This supports Cotsell’s notion of the past being eventually irrelevant, as no matter how far Quentin sinks into the memories of his past, he will never be able to go back. His attempts at stopping time are maybe as futile as he and Benjy’s insistence on desperately clinging to the past, as the past is lowered just to a shadow cast more than the present. His suicide is his final try to quell the passage of time, as only by removing himself from reality can he stifle the ticking of the clock, both actually and figuratively. His declaration that he can not reside in both “Massachusetts and Mississippi” (147) signifies the realisation that, if he wishes to hold himself from losing his hold on the previous, his only choice is to die. His decision to take his personal life is an action which, ironically, solidifies his position as a component of the previous as he removes himself from each the present and the future.

Caddy might be the heart of the story, but it is critical to note that she is the only main character who is not provided a possibility to narrate. If Caddy stands as an embodiment of the previous, then the implication of this is that the past in fact is dead in any physical or self-sustaining way. Her memory is kept alive through the memories and narratives of her 3 brothers. The view of Caddy varies significantly amongst the narrative sections, as we see her via the different lenses of every single of her brother’s streams of consciousness. The Caddy as portrayed by Benjy is an idealized image and the subject of his longing, which stands in stark contrast to the antagonistic Caddy described by Jason. Indeed, we never ever see an entirely unbiased view of Caddy, or of the Compson loved ones previous in basic. This seems to contradict Sartre’s notion of the present being “helpless”[15] prior to the past as the past is manipulated and reworked primarily based on the attitude of the present narrator. In this sense, Caddy represents the death of the previous as her memory is kept alive only in the minds of her brothers. In addition to existing as a symbol of the Compson family’s past, the character of Caddy holds a wider significance as she can also be noticed to represent the decline of the American South. Her non-marital loss of virginity is symbolic of the corruption of Southern values, and her failure to reconcile with her household suggests that these outdated Southern values have no place in a modern day globe. Perhaps for Faulkner, the past of the American South is as dead as the glorious previous of the Compson household.

Faulkner’s use of an omniscient and impartial narrator in the final section effectively removes the reader from the Compson boys’ streams of consciousness and reinstates the existence of chronological time. This is emphasized through the character of Dilsey, who acts as a sort of anchor with regards to time, and on whom the final section is largely centered. Terrell L. Tebbetts argues that “Dilsey knows what time it is. How diverse she is from Quentin and his lamented conviction that, given that no clocks can inform time appropriately, there is no time”[16]. Certainly, the action of telling time and the look of clocks and watches appears as a common motif in the narrations of Quentin and Dilsey, but it seems in two really different approaches. As talked about previously, Quentin seems to battle against the time shown by the clock, constantly attempting to intervene or escape from its relentless passing. In contrast, Dilsey is the only character who measures time making use of its physical, chronological timeline. The omniscient narrator draws focus to the clock in the kitchen, and notes the fact that when the clock strikes, Dilsey is unquestioningly conscious that it is 8 o’clock. She readily accepts this to be correct, without having attempting to fight against time itself. It is not only the passing of time which Dilsey can see clearly, but also the passing of the Compson family’s personal history. She is not blinded by her longing to course correct, her insistence to deny their history or an inability to recognize the division between past and present, and this enables her to function as a mediator between external time and the internal time of the household she has been with since lengthy prior to the novels point of narration starts. She recognizes chronology, and understands that the Compson household name is fading additional into a time gone by. This is evident as she is noticed to remark “I’ve seed de very first en de last…I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin” (253). Her distinction among the starting and the ending of these events delineates her capacity to separate the previous, the present and the future, and to accept the temporality of all issues. Just like Caddy, and then Quentin, the remaining loved ones members will inevitably fade into the past also.

Probably then, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury portrays the previous as being both dead and alive simultaneously by splitting the passing of time into two different sorts. Firstly, there is the external passing of time, encompassing the physical reality around us and its chronological order. In this timeline, the previous is the past. Time flows forward consistently, never stopping to allow the previous to catch up regardless of attempts at human intervention. On the other hand, there is the internal passing of time, which exists inside the minds and thoughts of person characters. This timeline is completely diverse to the former, with the previous and the present becoming significantly less clearly defined. Stephanie K. Evers underlines the distinction among the internal and external passing of time inside Benjy’s narrative as she argues that “Certainly, all-natural time passes that is, Benjy ages and the planet about him modifications. Nevertheless, Benjy does not recognize the divisions of this time”[17]. Benjy, in a lot of approaches, achieves that inner timelessness sought so desperately by Quentin. Quentin is unable to overlook the passing of time while Benjy is unable to recognize it to commence with as a consequence of his mental disability. Consequently, it is by way of his state of thoughts that Benjy appears to ‘defeat’ time in a way that Quentin, who is of a sounder mental state, could not. This emphasizes the importance of internal time, and the way in which it flows differently for every single individual person without any reliance on external time. The organic time to which Evers refers passes the very same for all of the narrators, it is the way they knowledge this time psychologically which varies. Certainly, Evers underpins a separation amongst physical time and psychological time as notes that, in the final section of the novel, “the narrative moves forwards chronologically. The chief explanation it can do this is due to the fact, as opposed to Benjy, Quentin and Jason, the final narrative includes no one’s memories or feelings”[18]. In other words, with no the interplay of internal time in the novel’s final section, Faulkner manages to juxtapose a panoramic and impartial view of time passing and the Compson loved ones history against the intricate pattern of previous and present place forward in the first three sections. Mr Compson emphasizes the significance of internal time over external time as he tells Quentin “you will use it to obtain the reducto absurdum of all human knowledge which can match your person requirements no greater than it fitted his or his father’s” (63). In other words, time can be measured in much more ways than through the clock, as internal time is tailored to the individual, passing differently from person to individual.

In conclusion, the past in The Sound and the Fury seems to be each dead and alive, as time itself appears to pass in two separate but coexisting techniques. The external, physical time of the actual world passes chronologically, leaving past events behind to make way for the present. This external time is central to the final section of the novel, as the omniscient narrator is unaffected by his own sense of time, permitting us to see an impartial view of the physical passing of time in relation to the Compson family members and their history. Nevertheless, the stream of conscious narrative style emphasizes the passing of internal time over external time as the 3 Compson boys narrate from their personal deeply skewed perceptions of how the previous relates to the present. Faulkner successfully epitomizes the subjective nature of this internal time, as each and every brother offers us an entirely distinct portrayal of the same timeline.


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Cotsell, Michael. William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury. Penrith: Humanities-Ebooks, 2008. Accessed December 2, 2015.

Evers, Stephanie K. ““Trying to Say”. Narrative Aesthetic and Patriarchal Language in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.” M.A Thesis, University of South Alabama, 2009.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. London: Random House, 2013. McHaney, Thomas L. The Sound and the Fury. Farmington Hills: Gale Group, 2000.

Morley, Catherine. Modern American Literature. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Phillips, Gene D. Fiction, Film and Faulkner: The Art of Adaptation. Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2001.

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Sartre, Jean-Paul. “On The Sound and the Fury. Time in the Function of Faulkner”. In Faulkner: A Collection of Crucial Essays, edited by Robert Penn Warren, 87 – 95. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1966.

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[1] William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (London: Random Residence, 2013). Subsequent references in parenthesis are to this edition. [2] Jean-Paul Sartre, “On The Sound and the Fury. Time in the Work of Faulkner”, in Faulkner: A Collection of Vital Essays, ed. Robert Penn Warren (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1966), 89. [three] Sartre, “On The Sound and the Fury”, 89. [4] Sartre, “On The Sound and the Fury”, 89. [five] Sartre, “On The Sound and the Fury”, 89. [6] Sartre, “On The Sound and the Fury”, 89. [7] Sartre, “On The Sound and the Fury”, 89. [eight] Catherine Morley, Modern day American Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 130. [9] Morley, Modern day American Literature, 81. [10] Peter Conn, “William Faulkner map of Yoknapatawpha County”, in Literature in America: An Illustrated History, by Peter Conn (New York: CUP Archive, 1989), 431. [11] James L. Roberts, CliffsNotes on Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (Lincoln: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999), 36. [12] Thomas L McHaney, The Sound and the Fury (Farmington Hills: Gale Group, 2000), 5. [13] Gene D. Phillips, Fiction, Film and Faulkner: The Art of Adaptation (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2001), 153. [14] Michael Cotsell, William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury (Penrith: Humanities-Ebooks, 2008), accessed December 2, 2015, [15] Sartre, “On The Sound and the Fury”, 89. [16] Terrell L. Tebbetts, “Postmodern Criticism,” in A Companion to Faulkner Research, eds. Charles A. Peek and Robert W. Hamblin (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004), 136. [17] Stephanie K. Evers, ““Trying to Say”. Narrative Aesthetic and Patriarchal Language in Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury” (M.A Thesis, University of South Alabama, 2009) 86. [18] Evers, “Trying to Say”, 86.
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