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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
[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.
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.
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.
1-2 class periods