The Sound and the Fury

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Themes and Colors
Time, Memory, and the Past Theme Icon
Decline and Corruption Theme Icon
Words and Language Theme Icon
Sin and Sexuality Theme Icon
Race and Class Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Sound and the Fury, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Decline and Corruption Theme Icon

One of the overarching themes of the book is the decline of the Compson family, which also acts as a symbol of the decline of the South itself. The family was once a model of the wealthy, slave-owning Southern aristocracy before the Civil War. By the time of the novel, however, the Compsons have lost most of their wealth and land, despite their feeble attempts to halt their downward spiral. They sell off most of their land to pay for Quentin’s education at Harvard – itself an attempt to maintain their social status – but this too backfires with Quentin’s suicide. By the end of the novel and the appendix, Jason, the last male Compson, has sold everything and lives above a farm supply store.

The Compson decline manifests itself physically, mentally, and morally: Jason III is an alcoholic, Caroline is a self-obsessed hypochondriac, Benjy is severely mentally disabled, Caddy is disgraced and disowned, Quentin is suicidal, and Jason IV is bitter, greedy, and cruel. The Compson line literally ends with The Sound and the Fury, as Jason is incapable of loving and so seems unlikely to get married and have legitimate children.

This theme also applies to the “Southern values” held dear by the Compsons, and extends to the Old South itself. Faulkner shows how the aristocracy declined after the Civil War, when the slave-based wealth of the upper-class whites was destroyed, but old families like the Compsons still clung to outdated systems and traditions. Caddy tramples on the ideal of the chaste Southern lady, and Quentin’s suicidal obsession with his sister’s chastity is a perversion of the chivalrous, honorable Southern gentleman. Only Dilsey seems to preserve the old Southern values – honor, kindness, hard work, and religious faith – without the corruption of self-absorption. This is significant in that Dilsey is also the main black character in the novel, a servant to the Compsons and not actually part of the family. Yet her character is Faulkner’s only hint at redemption for the South – that by holding onto purer versions of its original values, the South might someday heal itself.

Decline and Corruption ThemeTracker

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Decline and Corruption Quotes in The Sound and the Fury

Below you will find the important quotes in The Sound and the Fury related to the theme of Decline and Corruption.
April Seventh, 1928 Quotes

“It’s no joke.” Mother said. “My people are every bit as well born as yours. Just because Maury’s health is bad.”
“Of course.” Father said. “Bad health is the primary reason for all life. Created by disease, within putrefaction, into decay. Versh.”
“Sir.” Versh said behind my chair.
“Take the decanter and fill it.”

Related Characters: Benjamin (Benjy) Compson (speaker), Mr. Compson (speaker), Mrs. Compson (speaker), Versh Gibson (speaker), Maury Bascomb
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage provides a glimpse into how each of the Compson parents tends to function throughout the novel. Mrs. Compson is extremely anxious, and when she enters the novel she is almost always brooding over her family's troubles. Mr. Compson, on the other hand, is aloof. He makes huge philosophical pronouncements-- like "Bad health is the primary reason for all life"-- and drinks heavily. He demonstrates a certain level of caring for his children, but does little to engage with them in a deeper way. 

In this scene, Mrs. Compson scolds her husband through tears for a joke he has just made about her brother, Maury. She often worries that the Compson bloodline is cursed, wondering if she should have stayed in her "well born" family and avoided all the tragedy that seems to follow the Compsons around. 


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“Candace.” Mother said. “I told you not to call him that. It was bad enough when your father insisted on calling you by that silly nickname, and I will not have him called by one. Nicknames are vulgar. Only common people use them. Benjamin.” she said.

Related Characters: Mrs. Compson (speaker), Benjamin (Benjy) Compson, Candace (Caddy) Compson
Page Number: 63-64
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Compson is very sensitive to the names used for her children, and sees some connection between using full names and achieving the elevated status she seeks. This seems like a petty, desperate attempt to avoid all the “vulgar” realities of her family, and it is characteristic of Mrs. Compson that she worries about names while failing to take care of her children in any real way.

And, yet, this deep concern with names also makes sense within Faulkner’s novel. We learn that Benjy’s name was changed from Maury (like his uncle) to Benjamin when his parents discovered his disability. These characters feel pressing emotional connections with, and superstitions about, their names. In their eyes, calling the disabled child “Maury” would dishonor Mrs. Compson’s brother Maury. And calling Benjamin “Benjy” would, according to Mrs. Compson, lower their family to “common people” status.

At this point, it is also worthwhile to note how much doubling of names we see in this novel. The young Jason is named after his father Jason; Benjy is originally named Maury after his uncle; Caddy’s daughter Quentin is named after her dead brother Quentin. This makes the book more confusing to read, but also suggests important connections between different characters that are worth further consideration.

June Second, 1910 Quotes

When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire… I give it to you not that 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.

Related Characters: Quentin Compson (speaker), Mr. Compson (speaker), Mr. Compson
Related Symbols: Quentin’s Watch, Shadows
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we switch abruptly from Benjy’s section to Quentin’s, hoping for more clarity but not finding it. The style changes noticeably, from Benjy’s scattered narration to Quentin’s much more analytical but still very scattered section. Like Benjy, Quentin finds himself thrown from the present back into the past, with all its painful memories.

At the very start of Quentin’s section, its two major themes are present: shadows and time. Quentin is disturbed by the shadows following him and everyone else around all the time. He is also tortured by time, embodied in the watch given to him by his father, along with one of Mr. Compson’s characteristically vast philosophical pronouncements: “I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire…”

Hearing the watch Quentin is “in time again” and cannot escape it. Though Mr. Compson gives Quentin the watch in the hope that he might “forget it now and then for a moment,” it clearly has the opposite effect.

April Sixth, 1928 Quotes

Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say. I says you’re lucky if her playing out of school is all that worries you. I says she ought to be down there in that kitchen right now, instead of up there in her room, gobbing paint on her face and waiting for six niggers that cant even stand up out of a chair unless they’ve got a pan full of bread and meat to balance them, to fix breakfast for her.

Related Characters: Jason Compson IV (speaker), Ms. Quentin Compson
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

Another abrupt switch in narrative style brings us from Quentin’s almost unbearably heavy section into Jason’s comparably easy-to-read, but still disturbing, section. Clearly, from his first sentence, Jason is not as troubled as Quentin is by concepts like considering a woman a "bitch." Whereas Quentin’s whole sense of self seems to revolve around troubled concepts of masculinity and virginity, Jason is brutally practical and cruel.

We learn that the “she” of this section is Miss Quentin, Caddy’s illegitimate child who has been taken from her mother and absorbed into the Compson family as if she has no mother at all. Jason’s main concern with this younger Quentin (whose name is confusing until we realize who she is) is to make things as easy for himself as possible. He thinks of his niece as a “bitch” and the black servants, like Dilsey, who have sustained his family throughout his entire life as “six niggers that cant even stand up out of a chair unless they’ve got a pan full of bread and meat to balance them.” Jason, unlike the other Compsons, is fiercely focused on making money and making his way through life, and always assumes that he is the victim of other people's laziness and irresponsibility.

“Remember what I say,” I says. “I mean it. Let me hear one more time that you are slipping up and down back alleys with one of those dam squirts.”

She turned back at that. “I don’t slip around,” she says. “I dare anybody to know everything I do.”
“And they all know it, too,” I says. “Everybody in this town knows what you are. But I wont have it anymore, you hear? I don’t care what you do, myself,” I says. “But I’ve got a position in this town, and I’m not going to have any member of my family going on like a nigger wench. You hear me?”

Related Characters: Jason Compson IV (speaker), Ms. Quentin Compson (speaker)
Page Number: 188-189
Explanation and Analysis:

Jason’s relationship with his niece Quentin consists, as far as we can tell, almost entirely of arguments with her in which he accuses her of sneaking around with a boy and she slips away or tells a lie. But here she takes Jason’s accusation head-on, daring “anybody to know everything I do.” Jason, concerned about his family honor but more so about his job security, insists that Quentin has earned a bad reputation around town.

We might be able to forgive Jason some of his meanness given all of the tragedies he has lived through, but phrases like this one are especially hard to read: “I’m not going to have any member of my family going on like a nigger wench.” This is doubly brutal, as Jason dehumanizes and black women while lowering Quentin to that same dehumanized status. Quentin, meanwhile, seems to revolt at every turn against this family that is at once hers and not hers; she knows her mother, Caddy, is out there somewhere but is always prevented from seeing her.

“You can say nonsense,” Mother says. “But she must never know. She must never even learn that name. Dilsey, I forbid you ever to speak that name in her hearing. If she could grow up never to know that she had a mother, I would thank God.”

Related Characters: Mrs. Compson (speaker), Candace (Caddy) Compson, Ms. Quentin Compson, Dilsey Gibson
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

Always conjuring up things to worry about besides the more pressing issues right in front of her, Mrs. Compson seeks to prevent Quentin from ever learning her mother’s name. Mrs. Compson even dreams of her granddaughter growing up “never to know that she had a mother.”

Dilsey is in a precarious position, knowing that Mrs. Compson’s wish for Quentin is absurd but also that she cannot easily disobey her. The amount of shame in the Compson family about Caddy’s illegitimate child is somewhat shocking, as it threatens to tear the family apart once again. Mrs. Compson does little of practical note to help her family-- she even burns what she thinks are checks from Caddy-- but instead mostly stays inside her room and dreads whatever might happen next. This passage also once again emphasizes the importance of names, particularly for the character of Mrs. Compson.

“You’s a cold man, Jason, if man you is,” she says. “I thank de Lawd I got mo heart dan dat, even ef hit is black.”
“At least I’m man enough to keep that flour barrel full,” I says. “And if you do that again, you wont be eating out of it either.”

Related Characters: Jason Compson IV (speaker), Dilsey Gibson (speaker)
Page Number: 207-208
Explanation and Analysis:

Dilsey takes a more definitive stand against Jason here, calling him cold after he refuses once again to let Caddy see her daughter Quentin. Dilsey, having just reminded Jason that his father would have been much more forgiving toward Caddy and Miss Quentin, puts Jason on the defensive. Dilsey makes one of her boldest claims: “I thank de Lawd I got mo heart dan dat, even ef hit is black.” It is surprising in a way that Jason stays as calm as he does, and we might suspect that he has a special softness (or respect) for Dilsey even if he cannot admit it.

Again Jason retorts with an assertion of masculinity and family leadership; as he claims, at least he is “man enough to keep that flour barrel full.” Throughout Jason’s section, we see a tension between different forms of family leadership. Jason keeps the family financially afloat, while Dilsey feeds the family and keeps them emotionally afloat. Jason probably sees this as external to his patriarchal role, but the novel continues to reveal how essential Dilsey is to the Compson family’s survival (even if this survival is limited).

How the hell can I do anything right, with that dam family and her not making any effort to control her nor any of them like that time when she happened to see one of them kissing Caddy and all next day she went around the house in a black dress and a veil and even Father couldn’t get her to say a word except crying and saying her little daughter was dead and Caddy about fifteen then… I haven’t got much pride, I cant afford it with a kitchen full of niggers to feed and robbing the state asylum of its star freshman. Blood, I says, governors and generals.

Related Characters: Jason Compson IV (speaker), Benjamin (Benjy) Compson, Candace (Caddy) Compson, Mr. Compson, Mrs. Compson
Page Number: 229-230
Explanation and Analysis:

In a conversation with his coworker Earl, Jason seems to realize the absurdity of his mother’s role in their increasingly small family. First he realizes that Mrs. Compson is “not making any effort to control her nor any of them.” Then Jason remembers a time when his mother saw Caddy kissing someone and “all next day went around the house in a black dress and veil.” This is one of the only passages where Jason critiques his mother and acknowledges that his father might be a helpful presence. The memory also shows the unhealthy level of shame and pressure placed on Caddy at a young age, and is another illustration of Mrs. Compson's neurotic, melodramatic nature.

Throughout this novel, Faulkner experiments with how little he can give his readers while still giving them the chance to understand what is going on. Here Jason uses only the pronouns “she” and “her” but we can figure out that he is speaking about his mother.

At the end of this passage, we find a brutal assessment of his brother Benjy— “robbing the state asylum of its star freshman”— and then get a seemingly random statement, “governors and generals.” Jason refers to the collective history of the South and its defeat in the Civil War, a concept central to Faulkner’s fiction. In doing so he tries to link his family’s troubled history to that of the South as a whole — emphasizing the idea of how far the Compson "blood" has fallen.

“When they began to sell the land to send Quentin to Harvard I told your father that he must make an equal provision for you. Then when Herbert offered to take you into the bank I said, Jason is provided for now, and when all the expense began to pile up and I was forced to sell our furniture and the rest of the pasture, I wrote her at once because I said she will realise that she and Quentin have had their share and part of Jason’s too and that it depends on her now to compensate him… You were right to reproach me.”
“Do you think I need any man’s help to stand on my feet?” I says. “Let alone a woman that cant name the father of her own child.”

Related Characters: Jason Compson IV (speaker), Mrs. Compson (speaker), Quentin Compson, Candace (Caddy) Compson, Mr. Compson, Herbert Head
Page Number: 262
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mrs. Compson makes a last-ditch effort to explain their troubled finances to Jason and comfort her own guilt about her role in the family’s downfall. She summarizes many of the things that have brought the family to where it is now: the sale of part of their land to finance Quentin’s Harvard education, the rejection of help from Caddy’s husband Herbert, and the tension between Caddy— always just outside the bubble of her own family— and the others.

When Mrs. Compson says Caddy will “realise that she and Quentin have had their share,” the name Quentin remains ambiguous. She might be saying that Caddy’s brother Quentin had his share when he was sent to Harvard or that her daughter Quentin got her share when she was taken in by the remaining Compsons. Faulkner’s doubling of names throughout the novel allows him to leave ambiguities like this, and thereby link two different characters together thematically; in this case, both Quentins have an unacknowledged debt to the Compsons as far as Mrs. Compson is concerned.

After all this, Jason reasserts his fragile patriarchal role and asks, “Do you think I need any man’s help to stand on my feet?” And it would be even worse, he says, to accept help from his dishonorable sister Caddy.

April Eighth, 1928 Quotes

“I know you blame me,” Mrs. Compson said, “for letting them off to go to church today.”
“Go where?” Jason said. “Hasn’t that damn show left yet?”
“To church,” Mrs. Compson said. “The darkies are having a special Easter service. I promised Dilsey two weeks ago that they could get off.”
“Which means we’ll eat cold dinner,” Jason said, “or none at all.”

Related Characters: Jason Compson IV (speaker), Mrs. Compson (speaker), Dilsey Gibson
Related Symbols: Easter
Page Number: 279
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Compson opens this passage with her characteristic self-blame, projected onto Jason. She feels completely uncomfortable making a decision or asserting herself, so she reacts always as if she had no choice but to let things happen as they do. The “them” Mrs. Compson refers to is her six black servants, led to church by Dilsey for the Easter service. She goes on to call them “the darkies,” revealing a casual disregard for the people who have always kept her and her children alive.

Jason misunderstands at first, equating church with “that damn show.” He seems to feel like he is always letting the servant family go see some show or another, even though it rarely seems like they are away from the Compsons for long (and they are essentially slaves in all but technicality). Mrs. Compson says she promised Dilsey “two weeks ago that they could get off.” But in the meantime she has neither told Jason nor made plans to prepare dinner herself. As always, she is a passive observer of the family’s affairs, except when she decides to make declarations about them.

In the midst of the voices and the hands Ben sat, rapt in his sweet blue gaze. Dilsey sat bolt upright beside, crying rigidly and quietly in the annealment and the blood of the remembered Lamb.
As they walked through the bright noon, up the sandy road with the dispersing congregation talking easily again group to group, she continued to weep, unmindful of the talk…
“Whyn’t you quit dat, mammy?” Frony said. “Wid dese people looking. We be passin white folks soon.”
“I’ve seed de first en de last,” Dilsey said. “Never you mind me.”
“First en last whut?” Frony said.
“Never you mind,” Dilsey said. “I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin.”

Related Characters: Dilsey Gibson (speaker), Frony Gibson (speaker), Benjamin (Benjy) Compson
Related Symbols: Easter
Page Number: 297
Explanation and Analysis:

In a rare reversal, Benjy is alert and watching while Dilsey cries. The Easter service has moved Dilsey deeply, and when Frony pushes Dilsey after church to explain why she is crying Dilsey explains, “I’ve seed de first en de last.” Using the same language he always uses for these black characters, Faulkner reveals deeper truths about Dilsey’s connection to the Compson family and to their overall history.

Even though she has always been a servant to the family, she has a real connection to them. Dilsey is perhaps the one character who sees “de first”— the period of relative happiness when the Compson kids were all children— and “de last”— the Compson family as it stands now after all its tragedies — and can be a relatively objective observer, accepting the sweep of time in a way Quentin or Jason cannot. In the Christian tradition, Easter encompasses an ending and a beginning; first Christ dies, then he goes to heaven to begin his eternal reign. The Easter service inspires Dilsey to consider the Compson’s family history as a whole, and she realizes that there may be no Christ-like rebirth for the Compsons. At the same time, Dilsey herself has been a sort of Christ figure throughout the novel, bearing all of her duties with humility and respect, rarely faltering — and now, ironically, she is the only real hope for a "resurrection" of the Compsons, and figures like Dilsey are the only real hope for a resurrection of the South itself.

“Fiddlesticks,” Mrs. Compson said. “It’s in the blood. Like uncle, like niece. Or mother. I don’t know which would be worse. I don’t seem to care.”

“Whut you keep on talkin that way fur?” Dilsey said. “Whut she want to do anything like that fur?”
“I don’t know. What reason did Quentin have? Under God’s heaven what reason did he have? It cant be simply to flout and hurt me. Whoever God is, He would not permit that. I’m a lady. You might not believe that from my offspring, but I am.”

Related Characters: Mrs. Compson (speaker), Dilsey Gibson (speaker), Quentin Compson, Candace (Caddy) Compson, Ms. Quentin Compson, Maury Bascomb
Page Number: 299-300
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Compson is once again absorbed in her compulsive reflection on her family and whatever curse might have befallen them, leading them to such a state of ruin. As in many of Faulkner’s works, as Mrs. Compson tells it here, misfortune is “in the blood.” She lost her son Quentin to suicide, and now loses her granddaughter Quentin to what she fears might be something similar. (And in a cruel aside, she also suggests that Ms. Quentin turning out like her mother would be just as bad as killing herself like her uncle.)

Dilsey is quick to correct her— “Whut she want to do anything like that fur?”— but Mrs. Compson won’t be comforted. She laments Quentin’s suicide, wondering what reason he could have had to do such a thing. But her sadness is buried once again in self-absorption, class concerns (“I’m a lady”), and abstractions about the final cause of her misfortune (“Whoever God is, He would not permit that”). Once again, Faulkner’s doubled usage of the name Quentin allows for potent connections to be made between the two characters, even though the brother Quentin was so disturbed by the child-to-be Quentin.

Appendix Quotes

LUSTER. A man, aged 14. Who was not only capable of the complete care and security of an idiot twice his age and three times his size, but could keep him entertained.

They endured.

Related Characters: Dilsey Gibson, Luster Gibson
Page Number: 343
Explanation and Analysis:

In this appendix, added by Faulkner before a reprint of his novel was released, Faulkner clarifies some of the connections between different characters and clears away ambiguities. People seem torn on whether or not they like the appendix, and some would say that ambiguities like whether or not Quentin truly committed incest with Caddy are part of what makes Faulkner's novel great.

Nonetheless, the appendix appeared and this is the very end of it. Faulkner has gone through the Compson family's history, and arrives at the servant family, the Gibsons. Their descriptions are much shorter, and we might connect this with their place in the novel: they speak less often and take up less space than the Compsons, but have vital roles in keeping the family alive. 

Even if he wasn't committed to racial equality, Faulkner admires his black characters, and this admiration shows up more clearly here than anywhere else in the novel. Luster's role in caring for and entertaining Benjy is noted with some amazement, and he is confidently declared "a man" at the age of 14. And Dilsey is introduced with a simple phrase: "They endured." She is once again presented as the most admirable character in the book (her lack of description perhaps suggesting a kind of awe), and this is what Dilsey enables the Compson family to do, despite all its troubles: endure.