The Sound WITH the Fury: Quentin’s words in The Sound and the Fury


  In a class conference held at the University of Virginia, William Faulkner explains about the question, why Faulkner did not have a section with Caddy, in The Sound and the Fury (1929) as follows:

It began with the picture of the little girl’s muddy drawers, climbing that tree to look in the parlor window with her brothers that didn’t have the courage to climb the tree waiting to see what she saw. And I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed and I tried myself-the fourth section- to tell what happened, and I still failed. (FU, 1) 1

From this remark, we know that he lays significance in not having Caddy narrate but in describing her through “somebody else’s eyes.” Considering that he also told “the explanation of that whole book is in that (not having written Caddy’s section),” the gap between what is and what is told seems to relate to the story’s theme. Faulkner repeatedly represents this book as “the most splendid failure,”2 a paradox with an implication of success. From these words, we might learn about Faulkner’s belief in the relationship between word and meaning. Words, for him, do not exist with absolute meaning, but have meaning conceived by a network of other various meanings, and therefore, it would be natural that a gap between the object and the word or between what is told (written) and what a listener (reader) understood should not be perfectly filled. “Caddy” may possibly be interpreted as a very metaphoric word representing the relativity of meaning. The failure to describe her may epitomize Faulkner’s main theme of this story, the recognition of the “truth,” which can be inexpressible, in other words, the truth is that “the complete description by words” is impossible. Donald M. Kartiganer expresses this as “Faulkner’s impassioned metaphor for the modern crisis of meaning” (“Dislocation of Form”, 23) and also points out that “he is trying to force the language to reach beyond the meanings that precede and prepare it” (“Now I Can Write”, 73). Regarding this issue, Hiraishi also tells that “what impresses us in the book is not the impotence of words itself but the reality existing beyond the words vaguely but certainly” (235) and how Faulkner displays this issue of words and meanings in the story.
   As the narrative technique of this book, Faulkner renounced the omniscient point of view 3 and attempted to show different styles of “telling,” by stream of consciousness or interior monologue. The first narrator is an idiot, Benjy, who projects his reality mingling the present and the past through his five senses by limited words as Sasamoto details. He never lies, hides, or predicts, so his words are limited but completely “objective” (Ross, 171). The third narrator is Jason, who fierily monologizes in his own words, so he would be categorized as a traditional first-person narrator.
   In this paper, I’d like to focus on the narrator of the second section, Quentin. He is, unlike Benjy, a Harvard university student who can deliberately choose what he says, in other words, who can tell a lie, conceal a fact, interpret and explain. However, he rarely “tells” anything as a narrator and only “shows” what he sees, thinks and dreams. Like Benjy, his consciousness (sub-consciousness) just floats between memories and the present. Faulkner himself explains Quentin’s irrational narrative condition as produced from a state between madness and sanity just before his suicide (FU, 94-95) and Noel Polk describes it as the “things that he really doesn’t want to put into words” (155). Because most of the memories in Quentin’s narrative are related to Caddy, which means as a narrator he CAN’T “put into words” things about Caddy. If so, what kind of words does Quentin, the narrator who can’t tell about the object of the story, use? What is the meaning of “telling” for Quentin? In this paper, considering the relativity of words Faulkner implies, I would like to analyze the words Quentin articulates in his memory and think about the relationship between his narrative and the words he uses.

Father’s influence on Quentin’s words

   In looking at Quentin’s words, it would be necessary to examine the words of his father, Mr. Compson, who is thought to have much influence on Quentin. Much revised from the manuscript, Quentin recalls his father’s words repeatedly (11 times in the first 10 pages). The things to be remembered are mostly about the notion of “time,” “life/death,” “sex/virginity” and “women,” summarized as follows: “[T]ime is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels: only when the clock stops does time come to life,”4  life is based on “reducto absurdum (reductio ad absurdum)” (76), “[i]t’s [virginity is] like death: only a state in which the others are left” (78), and “they [women] dont acquire knowledge of people, …are just born with a practical fertility of suspicion, …have an affinity for evil” (96). They are all complicatedly correlating and seem to dominate somehow in Quentin’s belief system. Mr. Compson insists people “cannot even remember tomorrow what seemed dreadful today” (80) and “nothing is even worth the changing of it” (78) for human nature cannot avoid death, based on “reducto absurdum.” Therefore, he gives up everything from the beginning and doesn’t understand Quentin’s struggling condition, in which Quentin can’t accept the reality of Caddy, her loss of virginity, the unmarried pregnancy, and marriage for the sake of family.
   The strong pessimism and resignation of Mr. Compson are expressed in the form of assertive negative utterances, as Rockyer points out as “aphoristic” (34), which overwhelm Quentin. He asserts everything negatively. “[N]o battle is ever won” (76, underline added). “[V]ictory is an illusion” (76, underline added). “[A] man is the sum of his misfortunes” (104, underline added), so he never acts for changes because it is vain to do so. These assertive utterances are often strongly prejudicial or subjective, like “[w]omen are never virgins. Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature” (116, underline added). Although this connotes the loss of virginity of his daughter, he just seems to acknowledge it as if it were a general phenomenon of women and not to think about who it is referring to in particular. About Quentin also, he asserts “you wanted to sublimate a piece of natural human folly into a horror and then exorcise it with truth” (177, underline added) as if Quentin’s words and acts were useless, and at last through his domineering assertions, he robs Quentin of his own authority to think and feel, saying “you are still blind to what is in yourself to that part of general truth” (177, underline added) without ever sharing in what Quentin is feeling. He implies he is wiser than Quentin, but instead of leading his son specifically, he cowardly escapes by using Ms. Compson’s hope, “you will remember that for you to go to harvard has been your mothers dream since you were born and no compson has ever disappointed a lady” (178, underline added). As John T. Irwin points out the father emasculates Quentin, Mr. Compson gets away from everything by resigning every hope, so he rejects Quentin’s emotions of despair, regret, and condolences, and the acts caused by wishing for some change. Therefore, Quentin is left dangling in a state tormented by various unresolved emotions, so he eventually chooses a way to “shirk” (80) the inevitable oblivion the father insists.

Quentin’s rejection of father’s “just words”

   Quentin remembers his father’s words about time, his view of life and death, and women and seems to accept them. Many critics (Clarke, 68; Now I Can Write, 87; Rockyer, 33, Ross, 182-83) quote Quentin’s words, “people will make of unreality a possibility, then a probability, then an incontrovertible fact, when their desires become words” (117), and focus on a view of Quentin, trying to substitute words for reality or create truth by words, and how this is a result of his father’s influence. This indeed relates to the utterance of Quentin to his father, “the sound of it would be as though it had never been… if i could tell you we did it would have been so and then the others wouldnt be so and then the world would roar away” (177) and to Caddy, “Ill tell Father then itll have to be” (148). Quentin seems to have the idea that he can create facts as he wants them to be instead of telling the truth might be similar with his father’s superficial “just words” (116). However, when Quentin faces the reality of Caddy’s loss of virginity and cannot help feeling something about it, his words seem to differentiate from his father’s words and get released from his influence. That is, if the father’s words are “just words” as Quentin claims and don’t convey any intention or feelings of the speaker, Quentin’s words seem to appeal to something beyond only the literal meaning toward a listener. Before examining Quentin’s words, I’d like to introduce the speech act theory.
Proceeding from the theory of J. L. Austin, John R. Searle analyzes the philosophy of language, especially metaphor and the indirect speech acts, which convey the very meaning the speaker says and may also imply an indirect meaning. According to him, utterances have five general categories of illocutionary acts from twelve dimensions: assertives, directives, commissives, expressives, and declarations. As the example of an indirect speech acts, let’s have a look at the sentence, “Can you reach the salt?” This is not only asking about the possibility someone can reach it or not, but this is also “requesting” someone to pass the salt. In this way, the speech act theory reveals how words have various functions in communication. When looked at from this theory, Quentin’s words seem to use or rather depend on such illocutionary force.
   Quentin’s delusionary image labeled on Caddy is originally generated by the “words,” like marriage and virginity, whose definition tends to be affected socially or culturally. Caddy is never constrained by such social definitions and acts freely following her own will, so Quentin cannot control his various emotions such as anger, unhappiness, irritation, and jealousy caused by the gap between his image of what she should be and what she is. His conversation with Caddy overflows with his words filled with such emotion. He blames Caddy’s act:

Why must you do like nigger women do in the pasture the ditches the dark woods hot hidden furious in the dark woods (92)

As pointed out in Reading Faulkner, Quentin’s aversion for sex appears with negative adjectives like “dark,” “hidden” and “furious” in a rhetorical interrogative form losing the meaning of “why.” This sentence is used to criticize Caddy’s sexual openness rather than to ask her for a reason. He also repeatedly questions her closely about her marriage like, “do you love him,” “[w]hy must you marry somebody, Caddy,” but these utterances also are not expected to elicit Caddy’s response but to sound reproachful of her acts. Quentin also declares or promises to “kill Aims” (150), and suggests escaping to a place nobody knows with her. However, considering how firmly Quentin believes in what he says, the speech acts would not be “directives or commissives.” To understand the indirect speech acts, as Searle says, “the speaker communicates to the hearer more than he actually says by way of relying on their mutually shared background information, both linguistic and nonlinguistic, together with the general powers of rationality and inference on the part of the hearer (31-32)” Caddy should know Quentin well. They of course own “their mutually shared background information,” so it goes without saying that Caddy knows he cannot kill Aims, and cannot run away with her. If so, how does she interpret Quentin’s words? They might work as “expressives”, with him pouring out his hatred or anger toward Aims so much that he wants to kill him, his love toward Caddy so much that he wants to escape with her or kill her. In the scene where Quentin asks for a double suicide with Caddy, although the impotence of Quentin’s words or the lack of his masculinity is frequently indicated, a symbolic relationship through their words seems to be appearing. Focused on a conversation with Caddy who accepts (never disagrees with) him or his words, would it be possible to think that some emotional unity Mr. and Mrs. Compson did not give Quentin seems to be secured by the communication with Caddy? Different from his father’s reaction, the conversations with Caddy might satisfy Quentin emotionally and seems to construct a quasi-parent- children relationship.
   How do Quentin’s words work on Ames and Herbert? The only case when Quentin’s words mean literally or exactly what he says can be seen when he meets Ames. He summons Ames, insists on “his” request and uttered “directives” to leave town: “I came to tell you to leave town… I say you must go not my father not anybody I say it” (159). However, it is doubtful how literally Ames takes Quentin’s words because Ames isn’t afraid of Quentin at all and, on the contrary, he gives him his pistol and helps when Quentin faints. It is unthinkable that Quentin’s words function as a threat. Are Quentin’s act and words completely ineffective? This is the feeling Quentin confesses after the confrontation:

“I felt almost good after all those days and the nights with honeysuckle coming up out of the darkness into my room where I was trying to sleep even when after a while I knew that he hadnt hit me that he had lied about that for her sake too and that I had just passed out like a girl…” (162, underline added)

I’d like to pay attention to the “good” feeling Quentin felt although he “passed out like a girl.” It might be interpreted as a feeling that he was able to say exactly what he wants to say and also that he was able to convey his desperate feeling to Aims. Considering Aims’ lie for the sake of Quentin’s or Caddy’s face, it would be possible to think Quentin’s words succeeded in getting Aims to feel something and as a result arouse sympathy.
  In contrast, Quentin shows his discomfort indirectly to Herbert about marriage with Caddy.

“I’m not going to tell Father and Mother if that’s what you are getting at” (108)

This sentence implies mutually shared background information (Herbert was found cheating and dropped out of Harvard) and functions as a “promise,” but because this promise depends on how the listener responds, it also contains the possibility of being broken. That is, for Herbert, it would work as a “threat.” Usually, a threat is a “directive” based on a strong intention but Quentin succeeds in implying a “threat” by constructing a hierarchical relationship with the promise without telling the truth. In fact, Herbert tries to win Quentin over with money. The utterances would successfully show his disagreement toward their getting married.
   In this way, Quentin’s utterances related to Caddy rarely mean literally what he says but depend on “the general powers of rationality and inference on the part of the hearer.” This would be different from the assertive (the direction of fit is words to the world (Searle, 12)) and directive (the direction of fit is world-to-words (Searle, 14)) father’s words which literally show the meaning of the sentence, and would be full of indirect speech acts that he wishes the hearer to share or recognize in the secondary meaning of his utterances. Above all, his secondary illocutionary force characterizing his indirect speech acts would be “expressives” (the speaker is neither trying to get the world to match the words nor the words to match the world (Searle, 15)). Lastly, I would like to think about Quentin’s repeatedly recalled utterance, “I have committed incest.” How does it function between Quentin and his father?
   This is the confession to his father, called “assertives.”5 However, Mr. Compson knows this utterance is not true, so it won’t convey the literal meaning and it is deprived of the function of “confession.” Moreover, because of the lack of strong intention to deceive his father, the lie neither works as “a lie.” Considering the impact the meaning of the utterance has, it might be possible to interpret the indirect speech act of the utterance as an “expressive,” that is, telling Quentin’s emotions such as “despair,” “melancholy,” and “desperation,” wishing to strike a chord in the heart of his father. Or, as Mr. Compson points out, he might be trying to “alarm” (176-77), which would convey the meaning of a “directive.” By pressing his father as “I have committed incest I said Father (underline added),” Quentin seeks some reaction from him or wants to get him to feel something . Eventually, however, this utterance doesn’t provoke anything Quentin expected his father to feel. Mr. Compson still tries to manipulate ostensively by saying “[i]t’s nature is hurting you not Caddy” (116) and completely denies his attempt, “you are too serious to give me any cause for alarm” (176-77, underline added) so the father-son relationship Quentin demands fails to be constructed.
   Quentin is not trying to express himself literally through what he says. Indeed, his words do not convey the truth at all but they are different from his father’s “just words” to cover the reality or the fact. Quentin’s words imply or convey his emotions from his struggling relationships, and get the hearer to feel something. If his father’s words are just “sounds,” it could be said that Quentin’s words are filled with “fury.” In the second section, Quentin’s challenge to depart from his father’s words and failure can be read by the loss of Caddy’s virginity.

Quentin’s narrative and the reader

   In modernism, when a new interpretation about language was introduced, which released the language from absolute meanings and emphasized ideas about the relativity of semantics and social influences on words, Quentin represents the modern personality struggling between meanings and the words. Lastly, I would like to think about how he, as a narrator, communicates with the reader.
As I have repeatedly mentioned, Quentin does not try to reveal the truth of Caddy in spite of being the narrator about HER, and refuses to make assertions. As Donald M. Kartiganer points out, Quentin drives the language “further and further from facts, style from purpose, art from meaning” (Dislocation of Form” 30). Hiraishi reads Quentin’s use of repetition is as appreciation of the “emotion,” and says that what the reader obtains is “something” gained from his ambiguous complicated memory, imagery, and daydream reflecting in his mind. Arthur F. Kinney suggests that Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness requires of the reader “an active collusion” and “transfer[s] the sense of wholeness from the protagonist to the reader” (33), and in the collusion I would like to point out the relevancy of his word use. That is, on the one hand, Quentin’s section represents what he does not want to say, but on the other hand, the stream-of- consciousness method itself enables him to use his way of “telling,” neither assertive nor directive, and to entrust how it is comprehended to the readers, therefore in the manner of an indirect speech act. The second section is full of “direct” discourse. It conveys the meaning literally and directly (assertives) to the reader, but unlike indirect discourse, because the imitator of the conversation, Quentin, mediates minimally, how it is understood, is determined by the reader. Although he is a narrator, Quentin refuses to explain by using words freely. Considered from his language use and a reading of section two, however, the language of the whole section would become metaphorically Quentin’s, in the sense that it intends to share the illocutionary or secondary meaning with the reader.


1. Similar comments can be seen in FN 104-105, FU 32, 84.
2. FU, 77. As the other description, “the best failure,” “the most gallant, the most magnificent failure” (61). In FN, Faulkner expresses as “the finest failure” (9, 103).
3. Section 4 is often considered as “omniscient, objective, semi-omniscient, third-person-objective” but there is the interpretation that it is the reader’s (Margaret Blanchard, 560-61).
4. The Sound and the Fury (New York: Vintage, 1990) 85. Subsequent citations will also refer to this edition with the page number in parenthesis.
5. Rokyer (31), Clarke (68), and Matthews (82) interpret this as “imaginary” comment to his father but Bleikasten (93), Irwin (48), and Ross take the stand not to assert whether it’s “remembered” or “only imagined.” In this essay, as I was writing, I took this as “remembered” by consulting Niiro’s analysis.
6. Irwin indicates that this confession is the word uttered by expecting his father’s “punishment” and at the same time urged his father “to play a masculine role (69).” Likewise, Bleikasten also says “[t]o interpret it as a resurgence of a repressed wish is plainly not enough. …what Quentin secretly intends by confessing it to him is to challenge paternal authority, to provoke Mr. Compson into acting at last as the punishing father (114)” and reads Quentin’s intention to get his father to act something.

Works Cited:

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Copyright (c) 2008 Hina Miyauchi