Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury: Narrating Quentin's Mental Breakdown


The Lesson


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.

I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it."

The Sound and the Fury

As in the Benjy chapter, Faulkner's presentation of time is unique and complex as the Quentin chapter symbolically opens with a description of Quentin's watch, which was given to him by his father. Describing Quentin's recollection of receiving this gift, Faulkner writes, "I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it." The watch (and time itself) continues to gain symbolic meaning throughout the chapter. When Quentin fails to carry on the family name, Faulkner ultimately reveals how the Old South at large was giving way to a very new South in the early 20th century. It is symbolic that time does not progress (i.e., that it is "clockless") in this chapter, because stunted time means that neither the Compson family nor the Old South will move successfully "as is" into the 20th century. As students explore Quentin's stream-of-consciousness revelations, they trace his mental breakdown that leads to his suicide, assuring the overall decline of the Compson family, for whom Quentin was meant to carry on the family's aristocratic standing within the changing South.

Guiding Questions

  • How do Benjy's and Quentin's own sense of time differ?
  • What does Quentin's relationship to and recollection of time suggest about his character throughout the June Second, 1910 chapter and his relationship to and role within the Compson family at large?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Discuss the theme of time in The Sound and the Fury
  • Describe and explain the function of stream-of-consciousness as a narrative technique


  • This lesson, part of a curriculum unit, will cover only chapter two, although students will be expected to read the entire novel closely.
  • Like the 2-D Display of Time introduced at the beginning of the curriculum unit, this brief overview of Quentin's Chapter from the University of Mississippi will help students gain a better understanding of what happens in the Quentin chapter as they are reading that chapter for the first time.
  • If necessary during the discussion of this chapter, explain to students that Quentin only claims to have committed incest as a way of "saving" Caddy—both saving her chastity and honor and saving her from having to marry Herbert Head after being impregnated by Dalton Ames.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the curriculum unit overview and the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out any 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 EDSITEment LaunchPad for this unit (direct them to the section for this chapter).
  • "Symbols as Time Triggers" Worksheet: hand out these worksheets as an active reading exercise before assigning the Quentin chapter for reading, and ask students to bring the completed worksheets to class. Students will refer to their worksheets during the small group exercise.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Symbols as Time Triggers

As they prepare to read the Quentin chapter, ask students to chart time and time shifts by tracking on the "Symbols as Time Triggers" Worksheet, the key symbols that jumpstart Quentin's "process of fragmentary recollections." NOTE: hand out these worksheets as an active reading exercise before assigning the Quentin chapter for reading, and ask students to bring the completed worksheets to class. Students will refer their worksheets during the small group exercise below.

The worksheet is available as a PDF document or an online interactive chart. The symbols and their meanings are discussed below during the description of the group activity. Also ask students to read the first part of "On The Sound and the Fury: Time in the Work of Faulkner" by Jean-Paul Sartre, available via University of Saskatchewan's Department of English's Faulkner pages. Assign an excerpt up to the passage "The time of Benjy, the idiot, who does not know how to tell time, is also clockless."

In addition to discussing the key points learned from the lesson one, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury: Benjy's Sense of Time and Narrative Voice, of this curriculum unit, refer specifically to the following passage from this essay:

"In the first chapter, Benjy's flashbacks are extended in length and triggered by external stimuli in the present and by sensory association … In the second chapter, Quentin's recollections are more abstractly associative than Benjy's—a thought, not only a sensation, will begin a labyrinthine process of fragmentary recollections, often abbreviated and intermingled with one another so that several can occur within the space of two or three lines of text."

Begin class by discussing the Sartre essay. Help students understand that Sartre is saying that Benjy's delves into memories when a word, a smell, or some other sensation triggers the memory (golfers yelling "Caddie/Caddy," for example). On the other hand, Quentin will have a thought, which spawns—like a hydra's head—other thoughts by association, all of which mingle and wind together. The following guiding questions are useful for discussing this article with students:

  • What does Sartre mean by Faulkner's "technical oddity"?
  • What does Sartre mean by suggesting that "nothing happens; the story does not unfold"?

    Remind students, as they learned in Lesson One, that traditional chronological narrative, in which a plot unfolds as the reader progresses through the novel, is replaced by what Sartre defines as "clockless" time (in other words, time that stands still, in Faulkner's case, via the 'standing-in-place' narrative structure of stream-of-consciousness).
  • What is another way to describe "clockless" time?

    You can explain this notion by pointing out that in the Quentin chapter, for example, Quentin more or less could be narrating his story entirely via stream-of-consciousness without moving or progressing at all. Even when Quentin does move through time and space (e.g., helping the young girl find her way back home), he moves in circles without any clear direction, purpose, or progress.
  • How does Quentin's broken watch symbolize "clockless" time?

    Remind students that whereas Benjy's flashbacks are prompted by the golfers who say "caddie" (which sounds exactly like his sister's name: "Caddy"), for example, Quentin's memories, as Sartre suggests, are much more mentally prompted-often triggered by a handful of symbols that take on meaning throughout this chapter.

Now, break the students into four groups, and assign a symbol to each group. Each student should have marked several references to each symbol as they were reading the novel, so direct students to cite three group examples for their group to discuss in more detail. Visit each group during their analysis for directed teacher/small group discussions.

Watches/clocks. Explanatory Note: the watch/clocks keep bringing Quentin back to present time when Quentin engages in stream-of-conscious flashbacks.

Water. Explanatory Note: The regatta references indicate Quentin's present time vs. the rain references, which are part of Quentin's recollected/remembered time when he was at home with Caddy. Quentin's shadow Explanatory Note: The references to Quentin's shadow and his stepping on it indicate his obsession with death. A footnote in the Norton critical edition indicates that "In superstition, if you step on your own shadow, you will die." Quentin's references to his shadow bring him back to the present narrative time as he is running around Harvard and then the nearby town. Blood Explanatory Note: The blood references are both literal and figurative (i.e., "family blood"). By noting references, students will begin to notice Faulkner's many references to family blood/heritage/lineage, etc. Family blood is important, because blood, in The Sound and the Fury, ultimately is not thicker than water. Symbolically, Quentin commits suicide by drowning; literally, the Compson family ultimately breaks down. Students should recognize as well that Mrs. Compson and Jason are obsessed by family blood. Each group should respond to and discuss the following questions:

  • What makes the image symbolic?
  • Why and how does the symbol trigger time shifts throughout the chapter?
  • What does the symbol suggest about Quentin's mental state?
  • How does the symbol help to clarify this chapter's plot?

Have each group present their findings, recording important aspects on the board (it might help if you compile a list of possible findings on your own prior to class in order to supplement or confirm student findings; see explanatory notes above).

Conclude this activity by asking students the following questions:

  • What effect does Quentin's suicide have on the Compson family at large?
  • What do all of these symbols suggest about the Compson family?
  • How does the declining Compson family reflect the changing Old South?
Activity 2. Narrative Structure: A Sign of Quentin's Mental State

Like the "Benjy Chapter," this chapter of the novel is written in the first person point of view. Students should have an understanding of first person after completing the curriculum unit pre-reading review of the definition of point of view/narrative voice. Students will analyze Faulkner's use of person, closely studying several key passages to investigate Quentin's mental state. Because Quentin engages in fragmentary stream-of-consciousness style, his "I" perspective is imbalanced and confusing. Guiding questions, therefore, may include:

  • Does Quentin maintain a clear sense of the "I"?
  • How and why does Quentin's narration become confusing to the reader?
  • What does Quentin's narration suggest about his mental state?

Key passages include the following:

  • It was a while before the last stroke ceased vibrating. It stayed in the air, more felt than heard, for a long time. Like all the bells that ever rang still ringing in the long dying light-rays and Jesus and Saint Francis talking about his sister. Because if it were just to hell; if that were all of it. Finished. If things just finished themselves. Nobody else there but her and me. If we could just have done something so dreadful that they would have fled hell except us. I have committed incest I said Father it was I it was not Dalton Ames And when he put Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. When he put the pistol in my hand I didn't. That's why I didn't. He would be there and she would and I would. Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. If we could have just done something so dreadful and Father said That's sad too people cannot do anything that dreadful they cannot do anything very dreadful at all they cannot even remember tomorrow what seemed dreadful today and I said, You can shirk all things and he said, Ah can you. And I will look down and see my murmuring bones and the deep water like wind, like a roof of wind, and after a long time they cannot distinguish even bones upon the lonely and inviolate sand. Until on the Day when He says Rise only the flat-iron would come floating up. It's not when you realise that nothing can help you—religion, pride, anything—it's when you realise that you dont need any aid. Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. If I could have been his mother lying with open body lifted laughing, holding his father with my hand refraining, seeing, watching him die before he lived. One minute she was standing in the door

    I went to the dresser and took up the watch, with the face still down.

    Notes for Teacher: This is the passage, which appears fairly early in the Quentin chapter, in which Quentin explains his plan to claim incest as a way of "saving" Caddy from having to marry Herbert Head after being impregnated by Dalton Ames. Point out the "stuttering" and repetitive narrative quality of "And when he put Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. When he put the pistol in my hand I didn't….." passage. Quentin is starting to lose control of both his thoughts and his ability to exist/live with those thoughts. Note how the watch brings him back to present time in the narrative.

  • any live man is better than any dead man but no live or dead man is very much better than any other live or dead man Done in Mother's mind though. Finished. Finished. Then we were all poisoned you are confusing sin and morality women dont do that your mother is thinking of morality whether it be sin or not has not occurred to her
    Jason I must go away you keep the others I'll take Jason and go where nobody knows us so he'll have a chance to grow up and forget all this the others dont love me they have never loved anything with that streak of Compson selfishness and false pride Jason was the only one my heart went out to without dread
    nonsense Jason is all right I was thinking that as soon as you feel better you and Caddy might go up to French Lick
    and leave Jason here with nobody but you and the darkies
    she will forget him then all the talk will die away found not death at the salt licks
    maybe I could find a husband for her not death at the salt licks
    The car came up and stopped. The bells were still ringing the half hour. I got on and it went on again, blotting the half hour. No: the three quarters. Then it would be ten minutes anyway. To leave Harvard your mother's dream for sold Benjy's pasture for

    Note for Teacher: Here the narrative structure is starting to break down as Faulkner (via Quentin's narration) abandons the use of punctuation and the use of linear, or progressive, narration. Quentin clearly is breaking down himself mentally as he recollects his role within the Compson family. He feels the burden of being the reason the family sold Benjy's pasture (for his Harvard education), because he knows he is going to waste that education via suicide.

  • thought that Benjamin was punishment enough for any sins I have committed I thought he was my punishment for putting aside my pride and marrying a man who held himself above me I dont complain I loved him above all of them because of it because my duty though Jason pulling at my heart all the while but I see now that I have not suffered enough I see now that I must pay for your sins as well as mine what have you done what sins have your high and mighty people visited upon me but you'll take up for them you always have found excuses for your own blood only Jason can do wrong because he is more Bascomb than Compson while your own daughter my little daughter my baby girl she is she is no better than that when I was a girl I was unfortunate I was only a Bascomb I was taught that there is no halfway ground that a woman is either a lady or not but I never dreamed when I held her in my arms that any daughter of mine could let herself dont you know I can look at her eyes and tell you may think she'd tell you but she doesn't tell things she is secretive you dont know her I know things she's done that I'd die before I'd have you know that's it go on criticise Jason accuse me of setting him to watch her as if it were a crime while your own daughter can I know you dont love him that you wish to believe faults against him you never have yes ridicule him as you always have Maury you cannot hurt me any more than your children already have and then I'll be gone and Jason with no one to love him shield him from this I look at him every day dreading to see this Compson blood beginning to show in him at last with his sister slipping out to see what do you call it then have you ever laid eyes on him will you even let me try to find out who he is it's not for myself I couldn't bear to see him it's for your sake to protect you but who can fight against bad blood you wont let me try we are to sit back with our hands folded while she not only drags your name in the dirt but corrupts the very air your children breathe

    Note for Teacher: Here, as Quentin narrates in his mother's voice, the broken down language corresponds to the breaking down of the Compson family altogether (and, by extension, the decline of the Old Southern aristocratic family). Note Caddy's presumed role in the decline of the family.

  • Go out a minute Herbert I want to talk to Quentin Come in come in let's all have a gabfest and get acquainted I was just telling Quentin Go on Herbert go out a while Well all right then I suppose you and bubber do want to see one another once more eh You'd better take that cigar off the mantel
    Right as usual my boy then I'll toddle along let them order you around while they can Quentin after day after tomorrow it'll be pretty please to the old man wont it dear give us a kiss honey
    Oh stop that save that for day after tomorrow
    I'll want interest then dont let Quentin do anything he cant finish oh by the way did I tell Quentin the story about the man's parrot and what happened to it a sad story remind me of that think of it yourself ta-ta see you in the funnypaper
    What are you up to now
    You're meddling in my business again didn't you get enough of that last summer
    Caddy you've got fever You're sick how are you sick
    I'm just sick. I cant ask.
    Shot his voice through the

    Not that blackguard Caddy

    Note for Teacher: Quentin sometimes recollects entire conversations. While these conversations, including the one between Caddy and him toward the end of the 1910 chapter, help to shed light on what has happened in the past, they nevertheless reveal Quentin's obsession with Caddy's loss of virginity. Quentin, who turns the scandal of such a loss into his own mental breakdown, tried to be the savior of the Compson family's honor and sanctity. Knowing he can save neither Caddy nor the Compson family, he falls deeper and deeper into suicidal preparation as he breaks down mentally.

After discussing these passages with students, ask each student to choose one passage from Quentin's chapter and give a brief description for the following:

  • Who Quentin "is" during that passage—what are his obligations to his family?
  • Who is he most concerned with?
  • In what time period do his thoughts reside (in college, during the present, or sometime during his youth)?

Have some students share their visions of Quentin to help give the impression of his fragmented mental state. Finally, review Quentin in comparison to his brother—both are obsessed with Caddy, but what are the differences in their obsession?


  • 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 throughout the Quentin chapter and arrange them chronologically. Students can 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:
    • How does Quentin's sense of time differ from Benjy's?
    • What are some major differences that Quentin notices in the North, and what do those differences reflect about the Compsons and their home in the South?

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources
  • Kellie Tabor-Hann (AL)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources

Related Lessons