This next chapter is narrated by Quentin, Benjy’s brother. Quentin wakes up in his dorm room at Harvard, sees a shadow on the wall, and hears his watch ticking. The watch belonged to his grandfather, and Quentin remembers his father giving him the watch and saying he hoped the watch would allow Quentin to occasionally forget about time. Quentin then thinks about St. Francis calling Death his “Little Sister,” but St. Francis never had a sister.
While Benjy has no sense of past and present, Quentin immediately orients himself within the rigid confines of time. His grandfather’s watch will come to symbolize Quentin’s obsession with his family's history and honor (and loss of that honor). In these first few sentences he mentions the things that preoccupy him most – time, death, and sisters.
Quentin hears his roommate Shreve get up, and Quentin briefly gets up and then gets back in bed. He thinks of his father talking about time, and his own constant awareness of it. He remembers the wording of his sister Caddy’s wedding announcement. Her wedding was just two months before.
Quentin is just finishing his first year at Harvard. His narrative is not as confusing as Benjy’s, but it is very abstract and constantly interrupted by his musings and memories, often without warning or explanation.
Shreve then appears in the doorway and interrupts Quentin’s musing. Shreve reminds him that the bell for chapel will ring in two minutes, and Quentin says he didn’t know it was so late. He tells Shreve to go ahead and not wait for him. After Shreve leaves, Quentin looks out the window and watches the Harvard students all rushing to get to the chapel on time.
Quentin pretends to be unaware of time, when in reality he cannot escape his constant sensation of it. This section takes place on the day of Quentin’s suicide, though this is not explained yet. Here he begins to act strangely in skipping chapel, as if following a preconceived plan.
Quentin watches Spoade, a confident, nonchalant senior who is always late to chapel, and remembers how Spoade made fun of Quentin’s virginity by calling Shreve Quentin’s husband. Quentin angrily thinks that Spoade never had a sister, and he thinks about virginity in the South – men are ashamed to be virgins, but women are ashamed if they are not. He remembers his father saying that virginity is a meaningless concept invented by men.
Virginity is the other concept that obsesses Quentin. As with Uncle Maury, whose promiscuity is condoned, there is a sexual double standard in paternalistic Old South society – men are supposed to be gentlemen, protectors of chastity (but can be unchaste themselves), while women must be pure and virginal ladies.
A sparrow lands on Quentin’s windowsill and seems to listen with him as the hour chimes strike. Quentin then remembers lying to his father, telling him that he had committed incest and that he, not Dalton Ames, was the father of Caddy’s illegitimate child. Quentin then repeats Dalton Ames’s name to himself and remembers his father telling him that Quentin’s sorrow over Caddy’s lost honor was meaningless. Quentin then thinks of the Christian resurrection day, and imagines a “flat-iron” floating up from a river.
Quentin begins to hint at the nature of his planned suicide—to use the flat-irons (tailor’s weights) to weigh him down so he can drown. Both after Caddy lost her virginity and when she admitted she was pregnant, Quentin told his father that he had slept with Caddy. He considered this a “chivalrous” thing to do, somehow protecting her, but there is also an undercurrent of sexual tension between the siblings, so it is implied that part of Quentin wishes his lie were true both so he could save Caddy's honor and possess her sexually.
Quentin suddenly breaks his watch against the corner of his dresser, shattering the glass and then twisting off the hands. The watch keeps ticking, and Quentin notices that he has cut his thumb. He cleans the cut and his watch and then packs a suitcase. He pauses as the chimes for the quarter hour sound, and then he takes a bath, shaves, and puts on his new suit.
This is a symbolic action that perhaps fortifies Quentin in his plan to kill himself – he can break his grandfather’s watch to try and escape time and his heritage, but the watch will keep relentlessly ticking on. Quentin takes great care with his appearance, like his idea of a true Southern gentleman.
Quentin puts the key to his trunk and two notes into an envelope, and then seals it and addresses it to his father. He watches a shadow move across the door and thinks about the night of Caddy’s wedding, when Benjy and T.P. were drunk. Quentin goes outside and sees Shreve, who asks him why he is wearing a suit. Quentin deflects the question and goes to the post office, where he mails the letter to his father and looks for Deacon, a black man he knows. He last saw Deacon in the Decoration Day parade.
These letters are Quentin’s suicide notes, though this only becomes clear in hindsight. Quentin’s obsession with Caddy and her sexuality as sin makes him constantly return to memories of her wedding, which was basically a cover-up for her pregnancy. Quentin disapproved of Caddy’s husband, as later memories will show, but he was perhaps also jealous.
Quentin then goes to a store and has breakfast, and buys a cigar. He goes back outside and imagines the sun as a giant clock, and lets all the sounds of the street fade away except for the ticking of his watch. He goes to a clock shop and gives his broken watch to the man behind the corner. The man says he will fix it later, and Quentin asks for it back. Quentin then asks if any of the clocks in the window have the correct time, but he stops the man before he says what time it is. Quentin promises to bring his watch back later and leaves.
Faulkner emphasizes the importance of memory and the past through Quentin’s constant noticing of clocks and watches. While Benjy’s sense of time is muddled and amorphous, Quentin remains trapped within the rigid demarcations of time: the ticking of watches, the chiming of bells, the movements of shadows.
Quentin then thinks of his father saying that “clocks slay time,” that as long as time is being divided into neat little clicks it is dead. Quentin goes to a tailor and buys a pair of flat-irons – tailors’ weights for pressing clothes – hoping they will be “heavy enough,” and he thinks that what he plans for them may be his only application of his experience at Harvard.
Mr. Compson’s musings about time imply that he knew how obsessed Quentin was with the family honor and decline, and Mr. Compson hoped that Quentin would eventually stop worrying so much and be able to forget time for a while.
Quentin goes to the train station and boards a train. He sits down next to a black person, and he thinks about how he only missed Roskus and Dilsey – and thought of them as real people – after he moved away from home. The train stops, and through the window Quentin gives an old black man a quarter. The train starts up again, and while Quentin rides he remembers counting seconds as a child, trying to guess exactly when the bell would ring at school – but he was always interrupted by the teacher asking him a question or some other distraction.
Quentin’s preoccupation with time began at an early age. Now that he is out of the South, Quentin is able to step back a little and see the racial injustice at the very foundation of his family, that the Gibsons live alongside the Compsons but are treated as less human and less valuable. Only when he is away can Quentin think of the Gibsons as real people – mostly because he misses them.
In between his other musings and memories, Quentin’s inner dialogue keeps returning to the night Caddy lost her virginity, when she came home and Benjy started wailing. Quentin then thinks about the Compsons changing Benjy’s name from Maury.
That night was devastating for Quentin, so he relives it just as Benjy did. In a way it upset his sense of order, like it did Benjy’s, but for Quentin it was the order of Southern values and the Compson honor.
The train stops by a bridge across the harbor and Quentin gets off. He walks onto the bridge and looks down at the water. He thinks about the fifty-foot drop from the bridge, and watches his shadow in the water. He thinks of an old saying that “a drowned man’s shadow was watching him in the water all the time.” He thinks of the weight of two flat-irons, and of Benjy smelling Damuddy’s death.
Quentin’s musings on shadows connect to his preoccupation with time (as shadows mark the movement of the sun), the Compson decline (as the family is a shadow of its former self), and death, as his shadow in the water foreshadows his leap from the bridge with the flat-irons to weigh him down and drown him.
Quentin then sees Gerald Bland, a wealthy, swaggering Harvard student, rowing a crew shell across the river. Bland’s mother is driving her car alongside him as he rows, and Quentin remembers her constantly boasting about the many girls Gerald has had, and her pickiness in allowing only wealthy Southern friends for her son. Quentin then thinks painfully of Caddy losing her virginity, and Dalton Ames, and Caddy getting married to Herbert Head, who promised Jason a job at a bank and owned one of the first automobiles in town.
Quentin is obsessed with time, virginity, and honor, but ultimately all he can do is think abstractly about such things. Every action he tries to take fails, as he is just as impotent as the other Compson men. Gerald Bland is the anti-Quentin, caring nothing for female honor, but a man of action. Dalton Ames is the man who took Caddy’s virginity. Jason’s job offer will become important later.
Quentin’s memory then shifts through a confusing series of memories about Herbert Head and Mrs. Compson’s letters about him, and his invitation to Caddy’s wedding. He remembers how his parents sold Benjy’s pasture to pay for Quentin’s Harvard tuition. Quentin then vaguely muses about his mother’s shallowness and vanity, and the fact that neither he nor Caddy ever had a real mother that they could turn to when they needed her. His memories keep returning to the smell of honeysuckle, and Mr. Compson talking about virginity and women’s “affinity for evil.”
One of the ironies of the novel is that the Compsons sell their land to pay for Quentin’s tuition. His attendance at Harvard is an attempt to maintain the family’s social status, but they are required to sacrifice their land – another symbol of status, and also something dear to Benjy – to pay for it. This is an attempt by the Compson’s to halt their family’s downward spiral, but it backfires horribly with Quentin’s suicide (Quentin waits until the end of his freshman year to commit suicide so he gets the full "value" of that sold land; another example of misguided "honor").
Quentin finds Deacon, the black man he was looking for earlier. Deacon has lived around Harvard for years, befriending and mentoring many students. Quentin and Deacon talk and Quentin gives him a note he has written to Shreve, asking Deacon not to deliver it until tomorrow. Quentin says farewell to Deacon and then briefly meets Shreve again by the post office.
Since leaving Mississippi and beginning to appreciate African-Americans more, Quentin has befriended Deacon in a more meaningful way than he could with Dilsey and Roskus. The note Quentin gives to Deacon for Shreve is Quentin's final suicide note.
Quentin then remembers his mother saying that Jason was the only child close to her, and the rest of her children had turned against her. He thinks of her long complaints about how Benjy’s ailment was a punishment against her, and how only Jason was more Bascomb (her family) than Compson, and how she once argued with Mr. Compson and begged to be allowed to leave and take Jason with her.
Part of Quentin’s obsession with virginity and honor – the idealization of the feminine as an “other” – is because of his lack of a strong female presence growing up. Mrs. Compson chose Jason to bestow affection on, and even with him she did very little mothering.
Quentin gets on a trolley, still thinking vaguely about time, and he gets off around lunchtime. He remembers more about Gerald Bland, and Bland’s mother boasting about her son’s good looks and promiscuity. Quentin then slips into a memory of talking with Herbert Head two days before his marriage to Caddy. Herbert is slick and confident, trying to befriend Quentin, who is clearly angry with both Herbert and Caddy.
Quentin sees Bland as a similar type to Herbert Head or Dalton Ames, a man who doesn’t respect women or value virginity. Quentin is unable to take effective action against these men, however, and is always embarrassed or beaten. In a way his hatred of them is jealousy.
In the memory Herbert keeps offering Quentin a cigar, and talks about how he is giving Jason a job at a bank, but Quentin brings up Herbert’s past – Herbert was expelled from school for cheating, and thrown out of a club for cheating at cards. The two almost get into a fight, but then Caddy comes in and sends Herbert away.
Quentin is idealistic and abstract, and unable to do anything to change the situation he finds so intolerable. He is preoccupied with honor, even in the husband of his dishonored sister.
Quentin then remembers talking to Caddy before her wedding. Caddy says she is sick, and Quentin says that if she’s sick she can’t get married, but Caddy says that because of her sickness – her pregnancy – she has “got to marry somebody.” Quentin then asks Caddy if she has slept with many men, and if she knows who the father of her child is, but she deflects both questions.
This is the closest thing we get to an explanation of Caddy’s situation – she knows she is already pregnant so she decides to get married quickly. Herbert will later divorce her when it becomes clear the child is not his. Quentin puts infinite value on Caddy’s virginity, while she seems indifferent to it except as it affects Quentin and Benjy.
Quentin thinks again about virginity, and about Mr. Compson saying that Quentin was only upset with Caddy because he himself was a virgin. Quentin remembers Mr. Compson saying that virginity is a meaningless idea invented by men, not women, and that Quentin shouldn’t concern himself so much with Caddy’s purity. Quentin thinks again about pretending he had committed incest with Caddy. He wishes that they had somehow purefied themselves by committing this ultimate sin and then running away together, far from the judgment of the world.
Quentin’s sense of the family honor is stronger than his father’s, though it was Mr. Compson who instilled this pride in Quentin, so Quentin cannot heed his father’s philosophy and indeed finds it dishonorable. Quentin makes his false confession of incest as a chivalrous attempt to take Caddy’s “sins” onto himself, that he might suffer for them too. Yet there is an element of his own sexual desire for Caddy in this too, as he wishes the lie was true.
Quentin walks onto a bridge again, looking into the water and thinking about drowning, shadows, and the Christian resurrection of the dead. Then three boys appear with fishing rods, and they talk about trying to catch a huge, famous trout that hangs around the bridge. Quentin asks them if there are any factories around that whistle on the hour, and shows them his broken watch. The boys walk away, arguing about where they will fish or swim next.
Quentin’s plan for suicide begins to become more clear. He thinks of it again after remembering his father disparage the idea of virginity, so his suicide may be a means of preserving his ordered ideals and beliefs, even in the face of a world that doesn’t care about them and a father that has betrayed them.
Quentin then remembers trying to convince Caddy not to marry Herbert Head, and telling her about Herbert’s history of cheating at school and cards and calling him a “blackguard.” Quentin tried to convince her to run away with him and live off the money for his Harvard tuition, but Caddy said she couldn’t – they sold Benjy’s pasture to pay for Quentin’s tuition, so he had to finish his schooling or it will have been in vain. She was also worried about Benjy being sent to the asylum in Jackson when Mr. Compson dies.
This offers some more explanation as to why Quentin completed his first year at Harvard before killing himself – Caddy didn’t want the loss of Benjy’s pasture to be “in vain.” Quentin is only able to ineffectually “tattle” on Herbert Head to try and stop the marriage, and Caddy disregards his objections.
Back in the present, Quentin goes into a bakery and meets a little Italian girl there. The girl doesn’t speak, but she looks dirty and hungry, and Quentin buys her some bread, despite the baker warning him about “them foreigners.” When Quentin leaves the shop the girl follows him, but she still won’t speak when he asks her where she lives. Quentin starts to walk through the Italian district, looking for the girl’s home and calling the girl “sister.”
Quentin is still trying to protect “sisters,” but is unable to truly help them or understand them. He can try to follow his Southern code of chivalry, but his actions are ineffective as usual. This is a different kind of racism in the North, dealing with a fear of immigrants.
As he walks, Quentin thinks about the smell of honeysuckle and more about Caddy, particularly one time Quentin slapped her after she kissed some “town squirt,” and how she retaliated by calling Natalie, a girl Quentin had kissed in the past, a “dirty girl,” and then they got into a fight in the mud and rain. After Quentin makes several fruitless attempts to find the Italian girl’s family, the girl’s older brother Julio suddenly appears and attacks Quentin, accusing him of kidnapping his sister.
This memory is much more sexually charged in relating to Caddy. The “dirty” Italian girl makes him think of Natalie, whom Caddy called “dirty.” This implies that Caddy was jealous of Quentin’s love interests just as he was of Caddy’s. Julio is another disrespectful man of action defeating the hapless Quentin, though in this case Julio thinks that Quentin has design's on the girl when in fact Quentin is trying to protect her—an echo of Quentin's desire to protect Caddy but that this desire is tinged with sexual longing.
A police marshal catches up with them and arrests Quentin, as Julio has accused him of kidnapping his sister. Quentin is taken to the squire and he passes a big car containing Shreve, Spoade, Gerald Bland, and Bland’s mother, along with two girls. Quentin’s friends find his situation both hilarious and undignified, and they accompany him to the squire’s office. The policemen soon side with Quentin over Julio, but they make Quentin pay seven dollars before he can leave.
This situation is almost comedic if it weren’t another example of Quentin’s tragic failure to act effectively. He tries to help the Italian girl, but ends up caught in an embarrassing tangle with the law in front of his Harvard friends. Quentin’s privilege over the Italian Julio is obvious here, as the policemen side with Quentin immediately.
Mrs. Bland takes Quentin in her car along with the other boys, and she scolds him as they drive. Quentin thinks again about virginity, and he watches the shadow of the car move along a wall. Mrs. Bland boasts about her family and Gerald, and in between her dialogue Quentin remembers confronting Caddy after discovering she had sex with Dalton Ames, and the smell of honeysuckle on her, and Benjy wailing when she came home.
Quentin conflates Gerald Bland with Dalton Ames, the man who first slept with Caddy. Quentin keeps returning to that fateful moment when Caddy came home and Benjy sensed her changed state, the moment Quentin’s idea of the Compson family honor was irrevocably stained.
Quentin remembers desperately offering to kill himself if Caddy would kill herself too, and talking about Caddy’s muddy underwear on the day of Damuddy’s death, and offering to run away with Caddy and pretend that it was he, Quentin, who took her virginity. Caddy agrees numbly to Quentin’s suggestions, but does not act on them.
Quentin recognizes the foreshadowing of Caddy’s muddy underwear. Quentin comes up with ideas that conform to his code – death over dishonor – but he cannot act on them, and Caddy passively rejects them.
Quentin then remembers confronting Dalton Ames and ordering him to leave town. Dalton Ames is totally unafraid and treats the enraged Quentin like a child. Quentin asks if he has a sister, and Dalton Ames says no, “but they’re all bitches,” and then Quentin hits him and threatens to kill him, but Dalton Ames easily overpowers him and sends him home.
The narrative returns to the present, where Shreve and Spoade are tending to a wounded Quentin on the side of the road somewhere – earlier on the car ride Quentin asked Gerald Bland if he had a sister, and when Bland said no, Quentin hit him. Gerald then beat Quentin up and gave him a black eye. Shreve sympathizes, saying he would have liked to hit Bland himself, as Bland was telling such cruel stories about girls he had slept with.
Quentin connects Bland with Dalton Ames so much that he imagines he is fighting Ames as he is fighting Bland. But either way, Quentin’s attempt to defend female honor and his idealized sister is a failure, and he is easily beaten.
Quentin tells Shreve and Spoade to go on without him, and they take a trolley back to Cambridge. Quentin walks around aimlessly and then takes the next trolley, thinking about the river as he passes it. He gets off and goes up to his room, which is empty and dark, listening to the chapel clock chiming as he walks. Quentin cleans the bloodstains from his vest and thinks about his mother, again wishing she had been a better support for him.
After this last encounter and his memory of other ineffective confrontations, Quentin seems resolved that the only way to save his pride and honor – to actually act instead of just think – is to go through with his suicide. In terms of positive action, however, suicide is the ultimate act of impotence, negating the Compson family line rather than restoring its honor.
Quentin thinks about his family and his parents’ pride in their bloodlines, and he thinks about death, which he imagines as appearing like his grandfather. Quentin thinks again of telling his father that he had committed incest with Caddy, and he remembers how Mr. Compson did not believe him. Mr. Compson told him that Quentin’s despair over Caddy would soon disappear, and that he would feel better when he went to school, and that it was always his mother’s dream for him to go to Harvard.
Quentin recognizes that his despair over the family honor and Caddy is not going away, so he feels his only way out is suicide. His last thoughts grow more tragic and emotional, thinking of his mother and father and wishing someone could have been a better support or comfort for him. But his parents could only offer corrupted Southern pride in their blood and social status.
A bell sounds again, and Quentin puts on his vest and puts his watch into Shreve’s desk drawer. Then he brushes his teeth, puts on his hat, and leaves the room.
Presumably Quentin goes to perform his final act, finally going through with his musings. He leaves the watch behind, but it has already left its mark on his soul in driving him to such despair.