Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury: Benjy's Sense of Time and Narrative Voice

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Portrait of William Faulkner by Carl Van Vechten.

Portrait of William Faulkner by Carl Van Vechten.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's just a waking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."


—Macbeth V.v.

In Carolyn Denard's essay "The Long, High Gaze: The Mythical Consciousness of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner," she notes that Faulkner often gave

"voice to the 'discredited' within the South - the alienated, the insane, the idiosyncratic - Ike, Benjy, Darl. These nationally and locally discredited get Faulkner's gaze… He does not simply praise these characters—the gaze is not applause; it is a sincere, lingering consideration of their place in the universe—how they fail and how they triumph, but always how they matter." (Kolmerten 22).

In the first chapter of William Faulkner's emotionally charged novel, The Sound and the Fury, Benjy Compson, the severely retarded son who narrates this section, matters in a most profound sense. It is through his voice—childlike, detached, and often disorienting—that readers are confronted with the reality of time as a recurring motif and how time affects and informs human experiences. It is through Benjy's voice and acute sense of order that readers are able to ascertain the nature of the Compson family decline, as we work to make meaning of a tale told by an individual for whom time as we know it is inconsequential. What does matter is Benjy's perception of order, sensation, and memory within the realm of present-day time. Benjy matters because in this novel, and in this first chapter, the reader is asked to grapple with questions of perception, history, and chronology.

Guiding Questions

  • How does William Faulkner portray time in the first chapter of The Sound and the Fury?
  • How does the use of time relate to the novel's form and content?

Learning Objectives

  • Explore Faulkner's unique writing style and understand the relationship of form to content
  • Discuss the use of time in Benjy's section (chapter one) of The Sound and the Fury

Background

  • This lesson, part of a curriculum unit, covers chapter one of The Sound and the Fury. This opening chapter is the most difficult and many students may require some assistance and encouragement, for narrative time is structured by the mental shifts of Benjy, a mentally disabled member of the Compson family. The shifts in time sequence and stream-of-consciousness narrating force the reader to work at an interpretation of the text. Instead of a linear model, where a traditional plot unfolds, readers of The Sound and the Fury must begin to piece together the plot by first learning to understand Benjy's character. Benjy's needs, desires, and longings are what order his memories, rather than the traditional rule of the clock and calendar. Yet the novel can also be overwhelming in its emotional intensity, particularly as one moves beyond the first chapter. Thus, regardless of the novel's inherent complexities, it is imperative that student readers are able to move beyond their feelings and to articulate thoughtful and informed meanings for themselves through close reading of the text.
  • William Faulkner on the Web (WFotW), available via EDSITEment reviewed Internet Public Library, offers a useful list of Benjy's attendants at various stages of his life. You might choose to share this with students to help them organize their timelines, an assessment activity suggested in the Assessment section of this lesson. As they read, suggest that students keep track of who is with Benjy—this will give students a useful tip for figuring out what memory or moment Benjy is remembering or experiencing.
  • WFotW links to a hypertext version of The Sound and the Fury, available at The University of Saskatchewan. Decoding the role of sequential time in The Sound and the Fury is difficult for many students because of the nonlinear nature of Benjy's chapter. Although the novel unfolds more clearly with subsequent chapters and more lucid narration, it would be helpful for teachers to have on hand a chronological sequence of the events, for Benjy certainly does not remember them in this order. This hypertext provides visual aids for tracking Benjy's section.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • 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.
  • Prepare the colored-ink activity by either creating a word-processing document with the relevant text (below), or by downloading and copying the Colored-Ink Exercise PDF file. If using the printed version, make sure students have a variety of highlighters or some other manner for marking up the document. See the exercise description below for more details.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Reading Benjy

As noted by William Faulkner on the Web, Faulkner suggested that colored ink be used in Benjy's section to help differentiate the shifts in time. At the time, publishing in such a way was deemed unfeasible, but the concept remains useful as an exercise in reading Benjy's section. The exercise that follows will help students engage with and discuss the narrative shifts in Benjy's chapter. While the text is in "colored ink" here as a possible example, the students should only receive black ink that they will "color."

"Colored Ink" Exercise

Instructions for students: Review the following passage (you should already have read at least past this section of the novel prior to this exercise). Faulkner once said that he would like to use colored ink to detail different shifts of time and thought in The Sound and the Fury, particularly for Benjy's section. Read the passage, taken from the hypertext version of The Sound and the Fury, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library (the text corresponds to text from page 11 of the Norton Critical Edition, 2nd edition). Note any words or ideas that don't make sense to you. Then, using highlighters (if you are working on printed paper), or the Highlighter Tool if you choose to copy the text to a word processing program, "color" the text in a manner that you think shows shifts in Benjy's perception of time, memory, or ideas. Once you are done, answer the questions that follow, explaining your choice by using evidence from the text.

I is done it. Hush, now." Luster said. "Aint I told you cant go up there. They'll knock your head clean off with one of them balls. Come on, here." He pulled me back. "Sit down." I sat down and he took off my shoes and rolled up my trousers. "Now, git in that water and play and see can you stop that slobbering and moaning."

I hushed and got in the water and Roskus came and said to come to supper and Caddy said,

It's not supper time yet. I'm not going.

She was wet. We were playing in the branch and Caddy squatted down and got her dress wet and Versh said,

"Your mommer going to whip you for getting your dress wet."

"She's not going to do any such thing." Caddy said.

Questions

  • Who are the characters in this section? What are their relationships?
  • The chapter heading is April Seventh, 1928—is there a part of the passage above that could be considered this date (Benjy's "present")? If so, what are some indications of this?
  • Does this passage represent "linear time" (meaning, in a progression from one earlier moment to one later moment)?
  • How many historical moments or memories do you think Benjy is living (or reliving) in this short passage? How many did you mark with different colors? Explain your choices.

Students might choose to color their passage a variety of ways. One example of an answer follows:

The three moments in time are:
  • The present (red) with Luster at the golf course, to
  • the end of moment playing in the creek, when Roskus comes to get them for supper (the grandmother has died, but the children don't know that), preceding a slight shift back to
  • the beginning of the moment when the children were playing in the creek, when Caddie first gets her britches wet. This progresses forward until it meets the blue section again.

This is just an example of how someone might complete the exercise and answer the questions, though students should always be able to correctly justify their decisions using evidence from the text. Teachers might consider making handouts with one or two other passages, and dividing them among groups. Much of the first chapter could be covered in this manner. Also keep in mind that the online hypertext version of The Sound and The Fury has many aids to help students understand the timeline in this chapter (although it is recommended that students only use these after they first attempt to grapple with the text on their own).

Once students complete the exercise individually or in groups, continue classroom discussion on the questions raised in the exercise. Students might also begin debating the following questions:

  • Why do you think Faulkner begins the novel with such a disorienting chapter?

Remind students to keep this question in mind as they finish the chapter. Encourage them to write a brief answer to the above question in their journal, citing at least two passages from the chapter.

Activity 2. Faulkner's Form, Benjy's Time

As students continue reading Benjy's section, ask them what they noticed about the formal features of the novel so far. Students might point out:

  • Stream-of-consciousness style. Mention that while this is Faulkner's narrative trademark, he was not the first to make use of this interior monologue technique. Faulkner's literary predecessors, as well as his contemporaries, made use of the technique—notably James Joyce, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf.
  • Non-linear narrative/broken sense of time; frequent and unexpected time shifts. Benjy's thought process is not guided by the normal sense of narrative chronology. His sense of perspective and memory is not set by the hands of a clock, but through other reminders. Ask students to recall different things—objects, scents, or sounds, for example—that cause Benjy to remember something. Possible guiding questions include:
    • Why does Benjy react so strongly to the golfers calling for their caddies? (Benjy interprets the golfers' cries for their caddies as calling out his sister's name)
    • Why does Caddy make Benjy give her perfume to Dilsey?
  • Have students reread the section when Caddy dirties her underwear and continue to the scene where Benjy gives perfume to Dilsey. Working in teams, with markers or colored pencils, have students color or mark this passage (as they did in Activity 2) to reflect how they feel Benjy is shifting in his various thought patterns. Teachers may consider breaking the passage into sections and assigning smaller pieces to different groups. After reviewing the shifts of time and memory, ask students to consider the following questions:
    • Who is watching Caddy up in the tree? What is Caddy looking at? What does this major event portend for the family? How might it be symbolic for Faulkner's vision of the South?
    • At the beginning of the chapter, Luster is with Benjy in the present. Who is with Benjy now? Are we in the past or present? How do you know?
    • Why might Caddy have flowers in her hair and a long veil?
    • Benjy cries when he can't smell trees anymore. What does he sense?
  • When students have finished the chapter, ask them to briefly glance at the dates for each of the next three chapters. Benjy's chapter occurs on April Seventh, 1928, which is the Saturday before Easter day; Quentin's is June Second, 1910; Jason Compson narrates the third chapter on Good Friday—April Sixth, 1928; finally, the fourth chapter focuses on Dilsey on Easter Day, April Eighth, 1928.
  • Finally, consider Benjy's status as a member of the Compson household. Ask students to consider the date - April Seventh, 1928, the Saturday before Easter day—and Benjy's age—33, the age of Christ upon crucifixion.
    • What role does Benjy play in the Compson family? What does his unique perspective show us about the Compsons?
    • What might Benjy's need for consistency, and his extremely strong nostalgia for the past say about the concept of family? About the South as a place?
    • Does Benjy fulfill a symbolic role in the novel?

Assessment

  • Ask students to create a reading journal, noting details such as Faulkner's use of narrative structure/time, narrative voice/point of view, form, and character. In this journal, students should cite passages and raise questions for class discussion. Collect the journal at the end of the curriculum unit.
  • Ask students to note the major events detailed in Benjy's chapter and arrange them chronologically. Have students update the timeline as they continue the novel.
  • Students may write a brief essay or reading journal entry on one of the following questions, citing at least three examples from the text:
    • What is Benjy's role in the family?
    • Instead of chronological time, how does Benjy order events? In this alternate sense of time, what is revealed about the idea of memory?
    • What are some major changes that occur in Benjy's lifetime and what do those changes reflect about the Compsons and their home in the South?

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources
Authors
  • Pamela Tolbert-Bynum (AL)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Student Resources
Media