Loss, Immorality and Melancholy
When the Civil War ended, the Southern countryside and its people were crippled nearly beyond all hope. Of the most dramatic decline, Southern aristocrats took the cake. Before the war, the first half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of a number of prominent Southern families such as the Compsons. These aristocratic families embraced traditional Southern values. Men were expected to act like gentlemen, displaying courage, moral strength, perseverance, and chivalry in defense of the honor of their family name. Women were expected to be models of feminine purity, grace, and virginity until it came time for them to provide children to inherit the family legacy. The Civil War and Reconstruction devastated many of these once-great Southern families economically, socially, and psychologically. The Compson family in his novel The Sound and the Fury represents Faulkner’s acknowledgment of the interruption of Southern aristocratic values, triggered by economic, social and psychological devastation from the Civil War and Reconstruction Period. The Compsons represent a deviation from these old Southern ideals. Almost every main character depicts a loss of touch with reality, an emergence into immorality, and characteristics of melancholia and general disinterest.
One may see Quentin’s unarguable obsession with time in the novel in two lights: that Quentin cannot overcome the past and so becomes trapped in a perpetual, maddening cycle, or that Quentin’s obsession with time touches upon a larger sense of a loss of the old South. Quentin’s ongoing struggle to reconcile Caddy’s actions with his own traditional Southern value system reflects Faulkner’s broader concern with the then-present clash between the Old South and the modern world. Men and women like Quentin, who attempt to cling to these increasingly outdated Southern ideals, feel their grasp is slipping and their sense of order disappearing. Their reliance on a set of outdated ideals leaves them ill-equipped to deal with the realities of the modern world they live in. Mr. Compson, Quentin’s father, passes on to Quentin his vague acknowledgment of the importance of family honor, but he is hindered by his alcoholism and a defeatists belief that he has no control over what happens to his family. Quentin’s obsession with his moral code is just one indication of his overall inclination toward thought rather than action. Quentin is clearly very bright, but his mania over abstractions paralyzes his ability to do anything about it. He spends all his time mulling over unformulated concepts—time, honor, virginity, and so on—that have no physical presence. Existing only as words, these abstractions make it impossible to act upon. Quentin is largely incapable of effective action: he frequently comes up with ideas, but never carries them out successfully. Quentin devises the double suicide pact with Caddy as a means of escape, but Caddy rejects the idea and eventually leaves him behind. Likewise, Quentin talks frequently about confronting Dalton Ames and Gerald Bland, but his words win him nothing but two embarrassing beatings. This word without action falls short from the old Southern idea of defending yours and your family’s honor at all costs. The only actions we see Quentin take are meaningless and impotent, conforming to his Southern code but having no real outcome. In fact, the only real action Quentin succeeds to do in his section is a cowardly one, his own suicide, which most will agree is a weak “cop-out.” He dies without the honor the Old South once deemed so pivotal. And thus, Quentin is no more than a sterilizing, immovable character, largely cerebral and unsuccessful.
If Quentin has failed to establish himself as a man of action, courage and strength (or, for that matter, any man at all) his older brother Jason isn’t changing any minds about the Compson family heritage any time soon. Jason establishes himself as the most selfish, self-absorbed, lying and cheating offspring of the Compson family. He has no notion of a hard day’s work, nor is he interested. He is the most detrimental to the future of the Compson family name because he performs financial incest, stealing thousands of dollars from his sister and niece to fatten his own bank account rather than make his own money. There is nothing too honorable in an old miser who sits on his fortune and keeps to himself, but there is something even more sickening about a man who didn’t even earn the money he hordes. Although intelligent, Jason submits to his own hatred and wallows in a false sense of victimization. He resents his sister Caddy for costing him the job at her ex-husband Herbert’s bank, but fails to appreciate the fact that without Caddy he would never have been offered the job in the first place. “I wouldn’t lay my hand on her. The bitch that cost me a job, the one chance I ever had to get ahead, that killed my father and is shortening my mother’s life every day and made my name a laughing stock in the town. I won’t do anything to her” (205). He takes pleasure in tormenting everyone around him and takes strength from a conviction that, because he has been wronged, he is always right. Considering that Jason is the new head of the Compson household, this shows the family truly has sunk to new and unfathomable low. Whereas his ancestors had prominent positions in Southern society, his grandfather a Civil War general and his great-grandfather the governor of Mississippi, Jason works in a supply store and steals from his own family. He is hardly of the same material as the ancestors who built up the family name. Ironically, however, Jason is the only one of the Compson children to win Mrs. Compson’s love even though she is blind to his abuse of her trust. It is unclear why Mrs. Compson favors Jason so much, but perhaps it is because he shares Mrs. Compson’s tendencies toward misery and self-pity more than anyone else. One thing that sets Jason apart from his brothers Quentin and Benjy is that he is completely unconcerned with the past. Jason is wholly focused on the present and on manipulating the present for future personal gain. He does recall past events, but only concentrates on the effect those events have on him here and now. Jason dwells on Caddy’s divorce, for example, only because it has left him in a menial and unfulfilling job. However, despite Jason’s constant attempts to twist present circumstances to his own benefit, he does not really have any aspirations. He maintains overwhelming greed, selfishness, and focus on future gain, but does not use these to work toward any higher goal. This lack of ambition explains Jason’s disinterest in restoring the family name. He is not concerned with being a better person because he does not care about the reputation of the family in the past. Rather, he is concerned with manipulating the here and now, which only succeeds in sinking the Compsons into further regression.
At the conclusion of the novel, Dilsey is the only loving member of the household, the only character who maintains her values without the corrupting influence of self-absorption. She thus comes to represent a hope for the renewal of traditional Southern values in a pristine and positive form. The novel ends with Dilsey as the torchbearer for these values, and, as such, the only hope for the preservation of the Compson legacy. Faulkner implies that the problem is not necessarily the values of the old South, but the fact that these values were corrupted by families such as the Compsons and must be recaptured for any Southern greatness to return. It is also important to note that Dilsey is a black servant, and the irony here is the very person whose ancestors were once slaves plays the biggest role in restoring the very Southern culture that enslaved them. Though the Compson family has fallen, Dilsey represents a source of hope. While the Compsons crumble around her, Dilsey emerges as the only character who has successfully resurrected the values that the Compsons have long abandoned—hard work, endurance, love of family, and religious faith. “I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin” (302). Dilsey’s comment reveals her insight into the Compson family tragedy and her ability to see it in the context of a greater cycle. Dilsey has been present since the beginning, when the Compson children were only babies, and she is still here at the end, at the climax of the family’s disintegration. In this sense, Dilsey represents the only constant in the novel. She has maintained the pure Southern values of faith, love, and family that the Compsons have long abandoned. Dilsey also endures the test of time, surviving because she has faith in her own vision of eternity that is completely free of worldliness or petty human concerns, something pretty much all of the Compsons lack. Dilsey’s faith in a spiritual eternity enables her to see the tragedies of the Compson family with perspective and distance. Her acceptance of the passage of time makes her a calming and comforting presence. Dilsey accepts that she, like the Compson family, has a beginning and an end. She uses the time she is given to do as much good as she can, rather than wasting it on obsessions with the past. She treats Benjy as her own, and is not ashamed of him like the rest of the family is. She proudly takes him to church with her, and treats him as she would her own child. She does not see Benjy as a retard or a burden, and she does not claim defeat because of him. Rather, she treats him normally and with respect, because she sees he is still a human, and that his condition is only temporary. Although she works in chaos daily, this does not inhibit her from performing even one of her chores. She works on despite the disorder surrounding her, and proves to be about the only person in the novel to get anything done. With Dilsey acting as the unflinching, stable constant in the novel, it is Faulkner’s opinion that the Compson’s dysfunction is going to eventually follow Dilsey’s example and repair themselves. Although a lot of holes remain—Quentin and Jason Sr. are dead and Caddy and Miss Quentin have disappeared—Dilsey pays no mind to the things that are lost, and she does not believe any one else should either. There is some hope left for the Compsons, although they will bare some ugly scars.
The Compsons’ corruption of Southern values results in a household that is completely devoid of love. Both parents are distant and ineffective. Caddy, the only child who shows an ability to love, is disowned. Though Quentin loves Caddy, his love is neurotic, obsessive, and overprotective. None of the men experience any true romantic love, and are thus unable to marry and carry on the family name. Even though it is not Benjy’s fault he is mentally retarded, his condition is still crippling to the family’s future because he lacks the intellectual skills to advance it and also is physically castrated, therefore leaving no opportunity to produce offspring as well. Quentin’s obsession with old Southern morality renders him paralyzed and unable to move past his family’s sins, yet ironically makes him unable to find within himself the gallantry so typical of a man from the Old South. Jason’s self-righteousness sterilizes the opportunity for any advancement, even though he is the most qualified for the job. Yet the novel finishes not with these examples and images of complete decline, but with Dilsey. Indeed, Dilsey has, in effect, resurrected the original values of the Compsons’ ancestors. The Compsons become carried away with the greatness of their own name, neglecting the strength of family in favor of self-absorption. Dilsey, on the other hand, is the antithesis of self-absorption. She maintains a strong spirit and a profound respect for an unpretentious, unadorned, yet powerful code of values. Dilsey is the redeemer of the Compson legacy, and provides an almost graceful landing after the resounding fall of the once-great household. In some respects, Dilsey’s new role represents a reversal of the traditional Southern order: a black servant, once considered the lowest position in Southern society, is now the only torchbearer for the name of a prestigious white family. Faulkner’s alarming investment in Dilsey reflects that a bumpy road is ahead, as most diversions begin, but the journey will be half the fun, so to speak. His conclusion is that there are indeed some changes afoot, but the changes play into the very society they sprang from. Therefore, the conclusion of the novel pays no mind to the values of the past, but rather pushes itself toward the future, although dark and uncertain.
Minter, David. “Faulkner, Childhood, and the Making of The Sound and The Fury.” American Literature 51.3 (1979): 376-393.
Railton, Ben. “‘What Else Could a Southern Gentleman Do?’” The Southern Literary Journal. 35.2 (2003): 41-63
Williamson, Joel. Faulkner and Southern History. Oxford University Press: New York. 1993.
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