Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury": Narrating the Compson Family Decline and the Changing South (5 Lessons)

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The Unit

Overview

Published in 1929, The Sound and the Fury is often referred to as William Faulkner's first work of genius. It was only his fourth novel, yet it is widely considered to be one of the greatest contributions to American literature and one of Faulkner's most heartfelt literary creations. In the canon of great works, it is primarily recognized for its experimental form. Faulkner's style is characterized by frequent time shifts, narrator shifts, unconventional punctuation and sentence structure, as well as a stream-of-consciousness technique that reveals the inner thoughts of characters to the reader.

This curriculum unit will examine narrative structure and time, narrative voice/point of view, and symbolism throughout The Sound and the Fury (with sections referred to as the "Benjy," "Quentin," "Jason," and "Dilsey" chapters). Students will engage in a close reading of the full novel and in activities that prompt them to consider the changing narrative structure and voice throughout the novel and the relationship between such changes and characterization. Students also will trace the decline of the Compson family. Upon completing this curriculum unit, students will have a solid understanding of the novel and of the changing South, and they will be able concretely to analyze the novel in spoken and written forms.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Faulkner use narrative structure, time, voice/point of view, and other devices such as symbolism throughout each chapter of The Sound and the Fury?
  • How does Faulkner characterize Benjy, Quentin, Jason, Dilsey (and Caddy), document the decline of the Southern Compson family, and portray the changing the American South?

Learning Objectives

  • Define Faulkner's place in American literary history
  • Describe Faulkner's "South" in the context of the historical South and understand how the South was changing socially and economically in the early 20th century
  • Understand narrative voice/point of view and its relation to content
  • Understand symbolism and its relationship to plot and narrative structure
  • Gain a firm understanding of The Sound and the Fury's plot and its use of time

Background

The Sound and the Fury is an emotionally charged work that is difficult for most mature readers, let alone junior and senior high school students. Yet it is not impossible to teach, nor is it out of the reach for most advanced students. In the novel, as in most of his works, Faulkner wrestles with moral themes, yet it is the structure of the narrative—at once stylistically compelling and yet obscure—that both ranks it as great among American literary classics and renders it so very complex for readers.

The Sound and the Fury details the moral decay of the Compsons, a once-prosperous aristocratic family from Mississippi, with a lineage that stretches back to before the Civil War and includes a military general and a former governor of Mississippi. The tale is told in flashbacks, unfolding over at least three different periods of time and from more than one point of view. Benjy Compson, the thirty-three year old retarded son of Jason and Caroline Compson, is the moaning and slobbering "idiot" who narrates the first of four chapters; his older brother, the sensitive, Harvard-educated Quentin Compson, narrates the second chapter; the mean-spirited and stingy younger brother Jason IV narrates chapter three; and chapter four is relayed by an omniscient narrator who tells the story of this family decline by ironically focusing on the maid Dilsey, rendered powerless by virtue of her race and position, and yet the de facto matriarch of this family and its only source of stability.

The Sound and the Fury continued to explore Faulkner's themes from earlier works related to the decline of the American South, as well as issues of morality, sin, and redemption, although one could rightly argue that his overarching concern was with the nature of human existence. These latter concepts are woven into a complex tapestry of race and class-consciousness and internecine struggle as the Compsons contend with the interrelated dynamics of family honor and feminine virtue within the context of social acceptability, life's perceived order, and the element of time.

  • The South: What is it, Where is it?, excerpted from John Shelton Reed's My Tears Spoiled My Aim and available via EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia, might be a good way to quickly review the multiple perspectives of the South. The article is lengthy, and uses statistics ranging from the 1920s to the 1980s, so it is intended as supplementary background information for the teacher.
  • For the purposes of this curriculum unit, the terms point of view and narrative voice will be used interchangeably. While some teachers might want to enhance the lesson by distinguishing between narrative voice and focalization, this lesson adopts the broader approach to point of view since the student is already grappling with a complex text. Point of view, then, here includes both 'who sees' (often termed focalization) and who speaks (often termed 'voice').

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout. Locate and bookmark suggested materials. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. The following worksheets are available for use, with their respective lessons in the curriculum unit noted in parentheses.
  • Students can access the novel and some of the activity materials via the Student LaunchPad.
  • Review the curriculum unit overview and the pre-reading activities for students.
  • Warn students to anticipate difficult reading ahead. While Benjy's version of events in the first chapter is complex and even difficult to read, for example, ask students to focus less on creating a firm initial sense of what happened and more on how the structure of Benjy's thoughts influences their sense of the Compson family's place in time and in culture.
  • Prepare students for Faulkner's use of offensive racist terms and racial stereotypes by setting the context of Faulkner's time and place. The article "Keeping Faulkner in the Classroom," by Lisa Hickman of Rhodes College (available from Southeast Missouri State University's Center for Faulkner Studies) will help you prepare students for such issues.

The Sound and the Fury is an emotionally charged work that is difficult for most mature readers, let alone junior and senior high school students. Yet it is not impossible to teach, nor is it out of the reach for most advanced students. In the novel, as in most of his works, Faulkner wrestles with moral themes, yet it is the structure of the narrative—at once stylistically compelling and yet obscure—that both ranks it as great among American literary classics and renders it so very complex for readers.

The Sound and the Fury details the moral decay of the Compsons, a once-prosperous aristocratic family from Mississippi, with a lineage that stretches back to before the Civil War and includes a military general and a former governor of Mississippi. The tale is told in flashbacks, unfolding over at least three different periods of time and from more than one point of view. Benjy Compson, the thirty-three year old retarded son of Jason and Caroline Compson, is the moaning and slobbering "idiot" who narrates the first of four chapters; his older brother, the sensitive, Harvard-educated Quentin Compson, narrates the second chapter; the mean-spirited and stingy younger brother Jason IV narrates chapter three; and chapter four is relayed by an omniscient narrator who tells the story of this family decline by ironically focusing on the maid Dilsey, rendered powerless by virtue of her race and position, and yet the de facto matriarch of this family and its only source of stability.

The Sound and the Fury continued to explore Faulkner's themes from earlier works related to the decline of the American South, as well as issues of morality, sin, and redemption, although one could rightly argue that his overarching concern was with the nature of human existence. These latter concepts are woven into a complex tapestry of race and class-consciousness and internecine struggle as the Compsons contend with the interrelated dynamics of family honor and feminine virtue within the context of social acceptability, life's perceived order, and the element of time.

  • The South: What is it, Where is it?, excerpted from John Shelton Reed's My Tears Spoiled My Aim and available via EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia, might be a good way to quickly review the multiple perspectives of the South. The article is lengthy, and uses statistics ranging from the 1920s to the 1980s, so it is intended as supplementary background information for the teacher.
  • For the purposes of this curriculum unit, the terms point of view and narrative voice will be used interchangeably. While some teachers might want to enhance the lesson by distinguishing between narrative voice and focalization, this lesson adopts the broader approach to point of view since the student is already grappling with a complex text. Point of view, then, here includes both 'who sees' (often termed focalization) and who speaks (often termed 'voice').

The Lessons

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Interpretation
  • Journal writing
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources