The novel’s first narrator is Benjy, a mute, mentally disabled man who experiences time as a series of muddled perceptions. He is one of four children of Jason Compson III and Caroline Compson, along with Quentin, Jason IV, and Caddy. The Compsons are an old, aristocratic Southern family from Jefferson, Mississippi. After the Civil War the Compsons declined in wealth, morality, and sanity: Jason III is a philosophical but ineffective alcoholic and Caroline is a self-obsessed hypochondriac, and their children have a host of problems. The central tension of the story involves the three brothers’ individual obsessions with Caddy.
The first section occurs on Benjy’s thirty-third birthday, the day before Easter 1928. Benjy and his teenaged black caretaker, Luster, hang around a golf course where many things remind Benjy of his past, including the death of his grandmother, Quentin and Caddy playing in a stream, Benjy’s attack on a passing school girl, Caddy first kissing a boy and first wearing perfume, and her wedding. In the present action, Benjy interrupts Miss Quentin, his niece and Caddy’s illegitimate daughter, kissing a man with a red tie. Luster then takes Benjy home for dinner, where his brother Jason scorns him but Dilsey, the Compsons’ servant, treats him kindly.
The second section is narrated by Quentin, and takes place at Harvard eighteen years before, on the day Quentin committed suicide. Quentin’s narrative is also interrupted by memories and musings. Quentin is haunted by the constant ticking of his grandfather’s watch, which he connects to the Compson family pride. Quentin pinpoints the loss of the Compson honor on the loss of Caddy’s virginity. He is tormented by memories of Caddy’s promiscuity, and Quentin himself lying to his father, saying he and Caddy had committed incest. He remembers his own encounters with Caddy’s first lover and then her husband, and his father saying virginity is a meaningless concept. In the present action, Quentin breaks his watch, which still keeps ticking, and stands on a bridge thinking about death. Later he buys bread for a young Italian girl, gets beat up by her brother, and gets a ride with a swaggering, promiscuous Harvard boy, whom Quentin then attacks. When he returns to his dorm room at Harvard, Quentin leaves his watch behind and goes out.
Jason IV narrates the next section, which is the day before Benjy’s narration. The bitter, cruel Jason works at a farm supply store and steals money that Caddy, who is disgraced and disowned by the family, sends to Miss Quentin, the daughter she has never met. Jason bitterly dwells on the past and Caddy, as Caddy’s husband had offered Jason a bank job, but then retracted it when they divorced because of Caddy’s illegitimate child. In the present action Jason argues with Miss Quentin, his boss, and his mother, and bullies Quentin into signing a money order. Later he chases Miss Quentin and her lover, but they eventually leave him stranded miles away from town. Jason makes his way home, torments Dilsey and Luster, and gets in another argument with Quentin over dinner.
The last section begins by following Dilsey as she gets the household ready on Easter Sunday, the day after Benjy’s section. Jason wakes up to discover that Miss Quentin has run away and stolen all his money – most of which he himself had stolen from her. Jason rushes off and Dilsey, Luster, and Benjy go to an Easter church service. Meanwhile the police refuse to help Jason, so he pursues Quentin to another town, where he is attacked by an old man and fails to find Miss Quentin. Meanwhile Luster takes Benjy on a carriage ride, but he deviates from the usual course and Benjy starts howling. Jason appears and strikes Luster and Benjy. When Luster returns to the usual path Benjy grows calm, feeling everything is back in order.
In the Appendix, Faulkner describes the history of the Compson family and their fates after the novel. After Caroline dies, Jason sends Benjy to an asylum and sells the Compson house. Years later a librarian sees a picture of Caddy in a magazine, and she brings it to Dilsey, but Dilsey has no desire to “save” Caddy, as she is better off away from Jefferson.