“Obverse Reflections” in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury
Born in 1897 in Mississippi, William Faulkner knew black people as servants and laborers, not as equals. Yet, sharing the same space with blacks led him to a deeper understanding of their plight and circumstances. Despite his negative view of black society, in The Sound and the Fury Faulkner reverses the classic allegory of “black = bad” and “white = good.” The blacks represented in the novel are generally more concerned with self-respect and morality where the whites are preoccupied with self-absorption and overwhelming pride. As a result, the representation of the black community in the novel serves as a contrast to the representation of the deteriorating Compson family. As described by Quentin, the black characters are simply “obverse reflections” of white society (86). Likewise, Dilsey, Roskus, and the Deacon are used by Faulkner to accentuate the corrupt and nefarious values of their white counterparts.
Of these characters, Dilsey is especially important. Throughout the novel, Dilsey upholds a moral standard that sharply contrasts the prideful and self-absorbed nature of Caroline Compson. Similarly, she proves to be more of a mother to the Compson children than their own mother. Although she does significantly more work than any other character and remains dedicated to the Compsons despite their lack of appreciation, she is reduced to an “old half-dead nigger,” according to Jason (185).
If Quentin claims blacks are simply “obverse reflections” of their white counterparts, then it can certainly be said the parallels between Mrs. Compson and Dilsey are undeniable (86). While Mrs. Compson is a self-pitying hypochondriac, consumed with pride for her Bascomb family name, Dilsey is a genuinely noble woman who seeks neither the title of a lady or of a servant. Interestingly, although Mrs. Compson strives to preserve her family name and their traditional southern values, it is in fact Dilsey who comes the closest to representing a southern lady despite her skin color. Where Mrs. Compson fails as a matriarch, Dilsey steps in to care for the Compson children as well as her own. For example, moments before Quentin’s suicide, Quentin wails, “if I had just had a mother so I could say Mother Mother” (172). Yet, instead of reflecting on his own mother’s reaction to his death, he instead anticipates “what a sinful waste Dilsey would say.” Even in a moment of severe distress, Quentin returns back to the comfort of Dilsey. Conclusively, it is particularly interesting how Faulkner reverses the traditional expectations of white and black women. Where white southern women were historically expected to care for their families unconditionally and uphold a standard of womanhood, Caroline Compson fails miserably. It is instead the female black servant who chooses to take the Compson children into her loving care. In short, Faulkner uses Dilsey to highlight the corrupt and deteriorating Compson family values. Despite her skin color, by the end of the novel she becomes a symbol for the renewal of traditional southern values and the Compsons’ only hope for familial preservation.
Although the novel only briefly involves Dilsey’s husband, Roskus, the few instances in which we encounter him are sufficient to provide an indication of his entirely different character from Mr. Compson’s. While Mr. Compson lavishes himself with “a decanter of whiskey and a litter of dog-eared Horaces and Livys and Catalluses,” Roskus remains humble, hopeful, and genuine (330). Despite having “the rheumatism too bad to do more than he have to,” Roskus perseveres and, like Dilsey, does the majority of the work for the Compson family (9). But unlike Dilsey, Roskus acknowledges the inevitable disintegration of the once aristocratic Compsons. Repeatedly mentioning “there ain’t no luck in this place,” Roskus is consistently disgusted by the Compson family’s behavior towards the Compson children. Prompted by the birth of their mentally handicapped son, the Compsons become increasingly worried about the preservation of their family name. For instance, the decision to change their son’s name from Maury to Benjy only further proves to Roskus that the family is doomed; once again he repeats that “there ain’t no luck in this place… I seen it at first but when they changed his name I knowed” (29). In Roskus’s mind, God will soon repay the Compsons for their sins. Although Roskus’s preoccupation with bad luck and superstition plague his mind, he ultimately ends up predicting the Compson family decline long before any other character. A loving and god-fearing father, Roskus resents the way both Compson parents are “raising [children] not to know [their] own mammy’s name” (31). Where Mr. Compson is an unsuccessful parent, Roskus is caring and forgiving towards his children. Unfortunately, Mr. Compson is no more fit for the head of a household than his deplorable wife. He is a weak man, entirely oblivious to the needs of his family as a result of his constant drunken stupor, too preoccupied with day-dreaming of the life he did not achieve. Much like his wife, Mr. Compson wallows in self-pity, regarding himself as a victim of his circumstances that he feels he has no control over. Yet, Roskus, a black male servant crippled by genuine physical ailments, continuously works toward and hopes to improve his life. Where Mr. Compson is passive in his suffering, Roskus rises above his situation and works to better himself. Once again, stereotypical male roles of the period have been reversed by Faulkner. Although the white male is traditionally anticipated to live up to patriarchal expectations, in this case it is Roskus who exceeds the capabilities of Mr. Compson.
While the previously mentioned parallels highlight the differences between two characters, the relationship between Quentin and the Deacon accentuates their similarities. Despite the Deacon attempting to project a pseudo self-image, Quentin works to see beyond his projections. Both outsiders within their society, Quentin and the Deacon are attracted to the “otherness” in one another, eventually leading Quentin to come to the conclusion that “a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behavior; a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among” (86). Forced to re-evaluate his traditional southern values while away at Harvard, Quentin gains a new perspective on the Compson family’s deterioration. Beginning with Gerald Bland’s “nigger” stories, Quentin slowly starts to discern the unfavorable similarities between his own family and the Blands, as well as the harsh treatment of their “niggers.” On page 99, Quentin confesses he sees glimpses of Roskus in the Deacon and begins to feel a tinge of guilt for the South’s injustices towards the black community. Despite the Deacon’s obvious lies about attending divinity school, during the conversation Quentin notes the “worn, gentle quality of his nigger hands” and dismisses his lie because “he had been a guide, mentor, and friend to unnumbered crops of innocent and lonely freshmen… he stank no higher in heaven’s nostrils than any other” (98). This is one of the most important moments in The Sound and the Fury because Quentin is able to create a genuine bond with the Deacon despite his skin color. Quentin is finally able to rise above his family’s hateful and racist world views and, in the words of the Deacon, “you and me’s the same folks, come long and short… I draw no petty social lines. A man to me is a man, wherever I find him” (100). In short, Quentin’s relationship with the Deacon summarizes what he has learned (or previously failed to learn): what it means to be “other.” By referring to the Deacon as a “natural psychologist,” Quentin realizes the inherent interdependence between the white and black communities (97). Coming to the conclusion that both he and the Deacon are part of a socially constructed hierarchy, he sympathizes with the Deacon for having to assume various roles based on white people’s desires. All in all, Quentin learns identity is defined by the social expectations of others. His interactions with the Deacon lead to his chief realization that a “nigger” is an abstract, mental construct created and perpetuated by white people. On that note, it is this realization that leads him to conclude his southern heritage, and family traditions, are based on corrupt and despicable values. In this way, the Deacon helps to reveal to the audience (and Quentin) one of the most prominent reasons for the Compson family deterioration.
The Sound and the Fury thus reverses the traditional Southern allegory of “black = bad” and “white = good.” By drawing parallels between the novel’s black and white characters, Faulkner uses Dilsey, Roskus, the Deacon, and other members of the black community to highlight the Compson family’s deep-rooted corruption and inevitable deterioration. In a broader sense, the “obverse reflections” of the Compson and Gibson families shed light on the downfall of the entire Antebellum South, a society that relied on the exploitation of slaves and, more generally, the entire African American population.
Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. Toronto: Random House, 1984. Print
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