The Sound and the Fury

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Time, Memory, and the Past Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Time, Memory, and the Past Theme Icon
Decline and Corruption Theme Icon
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Time, Memory, and the Past Theme Icon

Faulkner deals with the concept of time in a unique way in The Sound and the Fury. Benjy, the book’s first narrator, is mentally disabled and completely lacks a sense of time. Faulkner creates the sensation of Benjy’s perceptions by shifting the narrative years backwards or forwards mid-paragraph, as certain words and sensations remind Benjy of past experiences. This allows Faulkner to make surprising and poignant connections between past and present events. Quentin, the next narrator, is the opposite of Benjy – Quentin is obsessed with time, and cannot seem to escape its inexorable passing. Quentin’s main preoccupation is with the lost glory of his family (as represented by Caddy’s lost virginity), so the constant chiming of clocks and the ticking of his grandfather’s watch becomes a symbol of the decline he cannot escape. Among the main characters, Dilsey has the only healthy relationship with time and the past, as she is able to step back and see herself and the Compson family as a small piece of history – she has seen the beginning, and now she sees the end.

The title of the novel itself, The Sound and the Fury, comes from a monologue in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where the speaker laments the pointlessness of an individual life within the relentless march of time and history. This theme then becomes generally symbolic of the overarching decline of the Compson family, as well as its individual members. The characters are unable to forget the past and move into the modern world. They cannot see themselves without pride and self-absorption, even as time marches on and leaves them broken behind it.

Time, Memory, and the Past ThemeTracker

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Time, Memory, and the Past 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 Time, Memory, and the Past.
April Seventh, 1928 Quotes

“All right.” Versh said. “You the one going to get whipped. I aint.” He went and pushed Caddy up into the tree to the first limb. We watched the muddy bottom of her drawers. Then we couldn’t see her. We could hear the tree thrashing…
“What you seeing.” Frony whispered.
I saw them. Then I saw Caddy, with flowers in her hair, and a long veil like shining wind. Caddy Caddy

Related Characters: Benjamin (Benjy) Compson (speaker), Frony Gibson (speaker), Versh Gibson (speaker), Candace (Caddy) Compson
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, already, the imagery of Caddy's "muddy bottom" finds its way into Benjy's narration. There is something voyeuristic about the others standing around watching from below while she climbs into the tree. There's little indication that Benjy feels anything but adoration for Caddy, but his oldest brother Quentin certainly has confused feelings about Caddy's emerging sexuality.

The kids are trying to spy on their grandmother Damuddy through an upstairs window, compelled by rumors that she is sick and dying. The Compton children, especially Caddy, are driven by their curiosity to find out what is happening in their chaotic home. Given the incompetence of their parents, the kids have to make their own sense of events like their grandmother's impending death.

At the end of this passage, Benjy sees Caddy again and is thrown back (or forward) into a memory of Caddy's wedding. Because both of these events happen in the past, but years apart, it can be extremely confusing to read Benjy's narrative. It is a multi-layered past, and Damuddy's death occurs well before Caddy’s wedding. But Benjy links things together through sensation and emotion, not through temporality or cause-and-effect. This allows Faulkner to link Damuddy’s funeral and Caddy’s wedding thematically: they are both, in part, signals that the Compsons’ prosperity is waning.


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Caddy and I ran. We ran up the kitchen steps, onto the porch, and Caddy knelt down in the dark and held me… “I wont.” she said. “I wont anymore, ever. Benjy. Benjy.” Then she was crying, and I cried, and we held each other. “Hush.” she said. “Hush. I wont anymore.” So I hushed and Caddy got up and we went into the kitchen and turned the light on and Caddy took the kitchen soap and washed her mouth at the sink, hard. Caddy smelled like trees.
I kept a telling you to stay away from there, Luster said. They sat up in the swing, quick. Quentin had her hands on her hair. He had a red tie.

Related Characters: Benjamin (Benjy) Compson (speaker), Candace (Caddy) Compson (speaker), Luster Gibson (speaker), Quentin Compson, The man in the red tie
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, an occurrence in the novel's present (April 1928) sends Benjy spiraling into a memory. Benjy is trapped inside himself, still mourning his loss of Caddy all these years later but unable to vocalize any of his sadness or anxiety. In this memory, Benjy sees Caddy on the swing kissing a boyfriend, and he panics. After the boyfriend, Charlie, becomes angry at Benjy, Caddy chooses her brother over her boyfriend and runs away with Benjy to comfort him.

Because nearly everyone else is ineffective at comforting Benjy, Caddy is left to do too much of it. What might be seen as a “normal” developmental phenomenon— her first kiss on the swing outside their house— is interrupted by Benjy, who can only understand the kiss as another sign that Caddy is planning to run away. After comforting him, Caddy washes her mouth “hard” with soap. She has internalized much of the shame her family forces upon her, and wants to wash away her sin against the Compson honor.

Once she does this, Caddy once again smells like trees in Benjy’s mind; this tells us that Benjy has returned to a relative stability within himself. At the end of the passage, we return to the present, where Benjy has interrupted Miss Quentin (Caddy’s daughter) kissing someone (the man with the red tie) on the same swing.

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.

I went to the dresser and took up my watch, with the face still down. I tapped the crystal on the corner of the dresser and caught the fragments of glass in my hand and put them into the ashtray and twisted the hands off and put them in the tray. The watch ticked on.

Related Characters: Quentin Compson (speaker)
Related Symbols: Quentin’s Watch
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

In a foreshadowing of his suicide to come, Quentin takes his first step toward ending time (at least as he knows it). Tortured by his watch and its always-ticking insistence on the passing of time, Quentin tries to destroy it. But even once he removes its parts the watch continues to tick; as Quentin has learned, there is nothing he can do to stop either the forward progress of time or the backward pull of his painful memories.

Quentin’s narration never seems to build up to big moments like this. It gives little warning that something important is about to happen, and we only find out later that a passage like this one was actually full of significance. Everything is downplayed, and this passage reads as if breaking his watch were something Quentin does every day as part of his routine. Even as he prepares to take his own life, Quentin is obsessively neat, placing the glass and the watch hands nicely in the ashtray. He seems to want things to end without much disturbance for anyone else, but we already know from Benjy’s section that Quentin’s death will wreak havoc on the Compson family.

April Sixth, 1928 Quotes

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

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.

Ben’s voice roared and roared. Queenie moved again, her feet began to clop-clop steadily again, and at once Ben hushed. Luster looked quickly back over his shoulder, then he drove on. The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and façade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.

Related Characters: Benjamin (Benjy) Compson, Luster Gibson
Page Number: 320-321
Explanation and Analysis:

In this final passage of the book, Luster drives the Compsons' coach with Benjy aboard and the horse Queenie leading the way. Luster, not the usual driver of the coach, deviates from the usual course, and Benjy immediately grows very upset. Jason then rushes up and strikes both Luster and Benjy, ordering them home. This scene is hectic, with Faulkner's brusque sentences introducing a number of different characters each doing different things, in rapid succession.

In the final few sentences, as Luster corrects his course, Benjy immediately stops crying and seems to derive some comfort from his surroundings. Everything is "in its ordered place," and even if things are falling apart they are familiar. 

This seems like a strange ending to the book, as Faulkner's narration zooms out to give a wider view of all the characters at once. In fact, the entire fourth section of the book (most often thought of as Dilsey's section) has this zooming-out effect after the intense internality of the first three sections. As their wagon whips around the Confederate statue, Faulkner situates the Compson family once again in their town, their country, and their collective history. Things go on, the novel seems to say, even if they go on to fall apart.