The Sound and the Fury

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Race and Class Theme Analysis

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.
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The setting of The Sound and the Fury is Mississippi in the early 1900s, when slavery was still a recent memory, and the Compson family has black live-in servants who are basically slaves in all but technicality. Slavery ended with the Civil War in the 1860s, but African-Americans remained as second-class citizens. Most of the policies of reparations and equal rights failed, which left the wealthy, slave-owning aristocracy broken but the former slaves themselves not much better off than before. This left an ever-present tension between blacks and whites in everyday society. Within the novel, the black servants are scorned by the Compsons, but it becomes clear that the Gibsons are more sane and capable than the Compsons themselves, as they have not been corrupted by their own family pride and slave-owning history. The Compson family ends with the novel, but the Gibsons “endured.” The Compsons also see themselves as superior to the other whites of Jefferson, clinging to their glorious past and blind to their present corruption.

Dilsey, the matriarch of the Gibsons, is the strongest positive character of the book and has her own section, though she isn’t given a narrative voice like the Compson brothers. Instead, the novel’s most progressive accomplishment is simply treating the Gibsons with the same unsympathetic, deeply human characterization as the Compsons. Nothing is sentimental or idealized, and it is only Dilsey’s calm fortitude in the face of corruption and madness that can endure the tragedy of the Compsons’ world.

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Race and Class 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 Race and Class.
June Second, 1910 Quotes

That was when I realised that a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behavior; a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among. But I thought at first that I ought to miss having a lot of them around me because I thought that Northerners thought I did, but I didn’t know that I really had missed Roskus and Dilsey and them until that morning in Virginia.

Related Characters: Quentin Compson (speaker), Dilsey Gibson, Roskus Gibson
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

For much of this section as it builds toward Quentin’s suicide, always hinted at but never explicitly narrated, Quentin is an observer of the things around him. He seems removed from everything, and interacts with other people only when he has to. He is, as we might say now, stuck in his own head.

In this reflection, Quentin remembers when he came north to Harvard and began to see black people (or at least the racist conception of them) as a “form of behavior.” His move north from Mississippi to Massachusetts is significant, given that it happened in the early twentieth century when the South was still reeling from its defeat in the Civil War and under the influence of reactionary and often violent racism. Quentin, having grown up with black people like Roskus and Dilsey as his family’s servants, has to reconcile his southern past with his northern present upon his arrival at Harvard. He does so by deciding that the difference between white and black people lies not in their personhood but in their varying forms of behavior.

Quentin decides to take people for what they are, but reverts to categorizing black people as an “obverse reflection of the white people he lives among.” This is no more humanizing than the alternative— the racism he grew up immersed in— but demonstrates at least that Quentin is attempting to think through his past and his present.


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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.

“All right,” I says. “We’ll just put this off a while. But don’t think you can run it over me. I’m not an old woman, nor an old half dead nigger, either. You dam little slut,” I says.
“Dilsey,” she says. “Dilsey, I want my mother.”
Dilsey went to her. “Now, now,” she says. “He aint gwine so much as lay his hand on you while Ise here.” Mother came on down the stairs.
“Jason,” she says. “Dilsey.”
“Now, now,” Dilsey says. “I aint gwine let him tech you.” She put her hand on Quentin. She knocked it down.
“You damn old nigger,” she says. She ran toward the door.

Related Characters: Jason Compson IV (speaker), Mrs. Compson (speaker), Ms. Quentin Compson (speaker), Dilsey Gibson (speaker)
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the novel’s chronology, the only people left in the Compson home are Mrs. Compson, Jason (the youngest of the four children, now grown up), Benjy, Miss Quentin, and the six black servants. The family has virtually disintegrated, and Jason makes the mistake of thinking that he’s the only one holding together what remains of the Compsons.

It has always been, throughout the novel, Dilsey and the other black servants who are the stable core of the family. But Jason struggles to be the leader of the family and establish authority over Miss Quentin, who has a tendency to skip school and ride around in cars with men.

Jason often gets angry at his niece Quentin, and here he calls her a “little slut” and threatens to beat her. Dilsey, sure of her role as the true leader of the Compson family, steps in to protect Quentin. Dilsey has raised Jason from birth on, and knows he will probably back down. Even after Dilsey protects her, though, Quentin disparages her brutally. Quentin is furious that Dilsey cannot honor her request to see her mother, and in her anger easily slips into the same racism that Jason embodies. Quentin is certainly sympathetic in comparison to Jason, but she too can be very cruel and racist.

“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.

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.

“I wish you wouldn’t keep on bringin him to church, mammy,” Frony said. “Folks talkin.”
“Whut folks?” Dilsey said.
“I hears em,” Frony said.
“And I knows whut kind of folks,” Dilsey said. “Trash white folks. Dat’s who it is. Thinks he aint good enough fer white church, but nigger church aint good enough fer him.”
“Dey talks, jes de same,” Frony said.
“Den you send um to me,” Dilsey said. “Tell um de good Lawd don’t keer whether he bright er not. Don’t nobody but white trash keer dat.”

Related Characters: Dilsey Gibson (speaker), Frony Gibson (speaker), Benjamin (Benjy) Compson
Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:

Unlike her mother Dilsey, Frony is concerned with other people around town and what they might think of the Compsons and their servant family. When Frony says “bringing him to church” she refers to Benjy, whom Dilsey insists on bringing with them. Dilsey remarks on Benjy’s in-between status in the eyes of the white townspeople: not good enough for white church, but too good for black church.

Dilsey dismisses the gossipers as “trash white folks,” and her willingness to defend Benjy at any cost makes her his Christ figure as they head to Easter service. Benjy cannot offer Dilsey anything besides love, but still she does anything she can to keep people from forgetting him, the man-child Jason wants to have sent off to the asylum.

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.

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.