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when the slave-based wealth of the upper-class whites was destroyed, but old families like the Compsons still clung to outdated systems and traditions.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
Decline and Corruption Quotes in The Sound and the Fury
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.