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.
Words and Language Theme Icon

Faulkner’s innovative and often confusing language is the most unique part of The Sound and the Fury. Each section of the book is told in a different narrative style, where the writing itself blends with the themes and stories it describes: Benjy’s section is muddled and subjective, while Jason’s is clear but brutal. The winding sentences and stream-of-consciousness style mirror the struggles of the narrators as they try to make sense of a past that seems as real as the present. Within the plot itself, repeated phrases and memories are important to each character, like Caddy’s name to Benjy.

While the writing is original and beautiful, the style and use of multiple narrators actually seems to point to the failure of language, especially in its ability to capture the truth of an emotion or event. Different points of view, perspectives of time and memory, and narrative styles are needed to properly tell the story of The Sound and the Fury, but even then they can only hint at the truths Faulkner is trying to express. The tortured stream of consciousness of sections like Quentin’s creates the feeling of struggle, of trying to work through memory and suffering through thoughts and words. In this way Faulkner is both telling the story and offering a meditation on the failure of language to truly capture life.

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Words and Language 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 Words and Language.
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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“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. 

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.

“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.

Listen no good taking it so hard its not your fault kid it would have been some other fellow
Did you ever have a sister did you
No but theyre all bitches
I hit him my open hand beat the impulse to shut it to his face his hand moved as fast as mine the cigarette went over the rail I swung the other hand he caught it too before the cigarette reached the water he held both my wrists in the same hand

Related Characters: Quentin Compson (speaker), Dalton Ames (speaker)
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

Quentin confronts Dalton Ames, a man at least a few years older than him who has presumably impregnated Caddy. Dalton condescends to Quentin, calling him “kid” and saying it’s not Quentin’s fault. But Dalton drastically underestimates the amount of emotional importance this situation has for Quentin, unaware that Quentin fixates obsessively on Caddy’s virginity (to the point of threatening to kill Dalton earlier in the passage).

When Quentin says “Did you ever have a sister did you,” he gives Dalton one last chance to realize the harm he has done to Quentin’s sense of honor. Dalton replies, “No but theyre all bitches,” and Quentin tries to hit Dalton. But Dalton is much stronger than Quentin, grabbing both of Quentin’s hands with just one of his. Although Quentin holds such a deep conviction that he must protect Caddy from sexual advances, he is physically much weaker than her suitors and finds himself unable to do much of anything. His inability to enforce his internal rule system on the outside world may be part of what makes this memory so disturbing to Quentin.

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.

“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.

April Eighth, 1928 Quotes

“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.

“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.