Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

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.

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.

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

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. 
  • 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.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Introduction to Faulkner and Faulkner's South

To situate The Sound and the Fury within its proper context, have students explore general biographical information on the author, including his life experiences and influences, and the cultural parameters of the novel. Within this textual, biographical, and cultural framework, students will engage the novel in a very subjectively critical manner that is supported by the text itself.

Using the following websites, students will (preferably in groups) explore one aspect of or perspective on Faulkner's life and the culture of the South. Students should explore the webpage in detail and then write a brief summary of what they discover. If there are images on the website, students should also analyze them-what kind of image is it (graph, photograph, etc.) and what does it reveal about the subject? What does it obscure? The Document Analysis Worksheets, available via EDSITEment-reviewed NARA Digital Classroom, might aid in this process.

Questions that students might want to consider:

  • What is the 'voice' of their website? Who wrote it? For what purpose? [these are also good questions for students to ask when viewing any webpage for academic purposes]
  • What effect does the style or form of the source have on your interpretation of the content? Does it matter if you read a biography, a chronology, a map, or an image? Do certain forms illuminate certain things while obscuring others? In what way?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages to having multiple perspectives on the same subject?

The teacher should have each group present their findings, recording important aspects on the board (it might help the teacher to compile a list of possible findings on his or her own prior to class in order to supplement or confirm student findings).

Web Links:

Allow each group to offer a perspective, writing the information on a black board. After all groups have presented, you should have a list of different "perspectives." Discuss them and put them in the context of Faulkner's life and work. This activity serves two purposes. First, the fact-finding aspect simply educates students about Faulkner's life, as well as some history of the South. Secondly, and equally importantly, the teacher can use this opportunity as an introduction to the idea of multiple perspectives or points of view in describing a family. They are creating a narrative of Faulkner just as many perspectives help shape the vision of the Compson family in The Sound and the Fury.

Finish by reviewing the quotation by Evan Goodwin from Little Blue Light, available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library:

[Faulkner] often told his stories using multiple narratives, each with their own interests and biases, who allow us to piece together the 'true' circumstances of the story, not as clues in a mystery, but as different melodies in a piece of music that form a crescendo. The conclusion presents a key to understanding the broad panorama surrounding the central event in a way that traditional linear narratives simply are unable to accomplish.
Activity 2. Introduction to the Novel and Useful Literary Terms

Introduce students to the hypertext edition of The Sound and the Fury offered by the University of Saskatchewan's Department of English, available via the EDSITEment reviewed Internet Public Library. Click the book cover, and then click on each chapter [the instructor is advised to review this online version and become familiar with its interface]. Review with students the Character Overviews from the University of Mississippi to introduce them to the characters (especially Benjy Compson, Quentin Compson, Jason Compson IV, Caddy Compson, Miss Quentin Compson, and Dilsey Gibson) and provide an overview of the structure of the novel—4 chapters, each with a different narrator.

Review the novel's Plot Summary, also from the University of Mississippi. Explain to students that instead of "giving away the story," this plot summary actually will help them better understand Faulkner's unique narrative style. Ask students to pay attention to how Faulkner "unfolds" this plot as they are reading the novel, and remind students to mark passages for class discussion. Refer to the 2-D Display of Time from the University of Saskatchewan. Knowing the novel's chronological time will help alleviate students' possible confusion about the course of events, particularly since the course of events is not presented in a linear way.

Students can refer to these helpful summaries as they are reading if necessary. The University of Saskatchewan's Department of English's map of the Compson house is also useful for gaining some bearings while reading the novel. It is particularly helpful for understanding where and how Benjy moves throughout the Compson yard since his pasture was sold in order for Quentin to attend Harvard.

Introduce students to Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness style:

a pure steam of words, apparently formless, but calculated to present a more intimate and vital depiction of characters and themes in a novel. (from "Little Blue Light" website, available via the EDSITEment reviewed Internet Public Library)

Review definitions of terms such as characterization, narrative, narrator/point of view, and symbolism. Brief definitions are available from the Purdue University Online Writing Lab, and more extensive definitions are available from Carson-Newman College.

Finally, point out the background of the title: The novel's title comes from a line found in William Shakespeare's Macbeth. Macbeth was a Scottish general who spoke these words upon learning that his wife had committed suicide. He sank into a deep depression and began to ponder the meaning of life amidst what was perceived as life's utter chaos.

Activity 3. Active Reading Activities

Reading Journal: Ask students to create a reading journal that they should add to throughout their reading experience, noting details such as Faulkner's use of point of view, time, form, and character. In this journal, students should cite passages and raise questions for class discussion. In the first chapter, for example, students might remark on the golf course, the cries of "Caddy" that stir Benjy's memory, his first memory in 1898 of Damuddy's death, and so on. Encourage students to make note of their questions, but to push through the each chapter. Collect the journal at the end of the curriculum unit.

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
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
Authors
  • Kellie Tabor-Hann (AL)

Resources

Student Resources
Media