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,
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
1-2 class periods