Quentin’s Erotic Consciousness
As Quentin Compson travels through the countryside with his college friends, the reality of the situation becomes terribly confused by memories and past feelings. After a little girl follows him for miles around town, his own sexuality reaches the forefront of his consciousness and transforms itself into disjointed memories of his sister Caddy. Quentin’s constant obsession in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, surrounds a defining sexual act with his sister. Though the physical act never appears in plain language, Quentin’s apparent lapse into an inner monologue demonstrates his overwhelming fixation with Caddy as well as a textured representation of their relationship. Sexual language pervades his inner consciousness – scents, sounds and colors represent his passion and desire. Elements of nature, when associated with his sister, become erotic; the tiers of description, no matter how seemingly mundane, tend to be steeped in sexuality.
Quentin’s lapse into past events with Caddy begins in the midst of typical conversation with his friends as they drive through town. His attention to reality is shattered by an unconscious slip into thoughts of his sister. As the eyes of the little girl snap Quentin into a reverie of sexual exploration, his words wander haphazardly, even before the image of his sister, prone on the banks of the river, comes to mind. “If I tried to hard to stop it I’d be crying and I thought about how I’d thought about I could not be a virgin, with so many of them walking along in the shadows and whispering with their soft girlvoices lingering in the shadowy places and the words coming out and perfume and eyes you could feel but not see?” (93). Although this roaming sentence refers to “girlvoices” – the womanly wiles that haunt Quentin – his words move into a new realm of conscience that solely focus on his sister.
Faulkner uses a system of italics to show Quentin’s innermost revelations; as he shifts from thoughts of virginity to more personal memories, the language changes from an encompassing statement about women to a singular elucidation of his sister. The first piece of italic language punctuates a piece of dialogue and immediately implies a question of virginity. “ever do that Have you ever done that In the gray darkness a little light her hands locked about” (93) is the repetition of Caddy’s question to Quentin on whether or not he had ever had sex. Faulkner continuously inserts the image of Caddy sitting on the ground next to her brother with her hands locked around her knees. Strangely, the image brings a sense of chastity to a sexually charged situation, as if she is locking her knees together to insist against any improper movements towards the contrary. The next piece of language, again interrupting a friendly dialogue between friends, has “her face looking at the sky the smell of honeysuckle upon her face and throat.” Faulkner sets the reader up for the continuation of a few themes be these beginning interceptions into normal conversation. Her face looking up at the sky, the smell of honeysuckle, the gray darkness or light – all these descriptions continue to be executed in the remaining consciousness language. Moreover, honeysuckle and gray light continue to be used as markers for sexual language. Though these natural elements seem innocuous, they elicit a visceral response from Quentin; he immediately turns the natural into the erotic through his association of nature with passion for his sister.
The image of “running” recurs many times in Quentin’s memories of his sister. Running with her, running after her – both descriptions follow each other over and over, whereas the most indicative eroticization of this theme is Faulkner’s Shakesperean allusion to lovemaking, “running the beast with two backs.” After the sexual moment with Quentin is over, Caddy finds her lover, Dalton Ames, and blends into his tall shadow. Quentin insinuates their connection at the very beginning of his stream of consciousness, “and they two blurred within the other forever.” He is smitten with pain and jealousy, observing his beloved sister with another, stronger man. However, the overwhelming sense of guilt about his own actions most likely fuels the jealousy. Although his words are constantly stained by inklings of sexuality, he maintains an almost overt religious confession immediately after his Shakespearean metaphor. “There was something terrible in me terrible in me Father I have committed Have you ever done that” implies an act of contrition, a supposed repentance for his incestual act, to his own father and to a higher power. His focus on virginity remains, as he repeats the phrase “Have you ever done that” as Caddy’s constant question. “There was something terrible in me” has the figurative sense of a mental incapacity to follow a moral path as well as a more grotesque literal interpretation of a physical loss of virginity or release of burning desire.
Caddy’s words combine with Quentin’s thoughts in many tiers of understanding. The constant reference to his virginity, “Poor Quentin you’ve never doe that have you” continues to solidify the sexual act in his mind. Repetition of certain concepts and phrases cement the moment for Quentin and haunts him dramatically. The ramifications of the event, the feelings and passions involved, repeat themselves endlessly in a cluttered internal monologue. He understands disgust and veritable evil surrounding his deeds and again refers to the punishment of his father. Sexual language, at its most transparent point, erupts in Quentin’s self-revelatory statements. “Ill tell Father then itll have to be because you love Father then well have to go away amid the pointing and the horror the clean flame?I fooled you all the time it was me you thought I was in the house where that damn honeysuckle trying not to think the swing the cedars the secret surges the breathing locked drinking the wild breath the yes Yes Yes yes.” The honeysuckle terrorizes Quentin to such a point that it is irredeemably connected to his own sexuality and his attraction to his sister. His inclination to confess confuses itself with the lie and the punishment; he does not know whether to admit to incest or let the family believe that Caddy was impregnated by another man. The overt sexual language at the end of the passage takes over rationality as metaphor to orgasm. The acts are thoroughly secret, but become more frenzied and physical as the words continue to the culmination of “yes Yes Yes yes.” Just as Caddy’s throat and face so affected him, the wild breath, the locked breath drives him to utter distraction.
The italic inner monologue shifts to a flow of disjointed, unpunctuated prose at a point where Quentin asks Caddy if she loved any of the men she was involved with. Quentin comes upon her “lying in the water her head on the sand spit the water flowing about her hips there was a little more light in the water her skirt half saturated flopped along her flanks to the waters motion in heavy ripples going nowhere renewed themselves of their own movement I stood on the bank I could smell the honeysuckle on the water gap the air seemed to drizzle with honeysuckle and with the rasping of crickets a substance you could feel on the flesh.” This interminable sentence, so rife with sexual innuendo and erotic signals, demonstrates Quentin’s unnatural and undying obsession with his sister. Her body, lying prone in the water while it washes over her hips, gives the reader an odd sensation of a birth metaphor as well as a complete concept of freedom. The sounds of water, constantly gurgling and bubbling in the background of Quentin’s thoughts indicates his connection of water and sexuality. The scene of Caddy in the stream is so erotically inviting, so full of the undeniable scent of honeysuckle, that Quentin can barely suppress his desire.
The wetness, the gray light, the water and honeysuckle permeates the atmosphere to such an extent that Quentin must act. The phallic scene with his pocket knife is the moment where life and death meet in a climax of the senses. Caddy’s face reaching up to the sky, his knife upon her neck, his body braced over her – taught and ready to combust – combine in such a way to make Faulkner’s metaphorical usage of the knife as a sexual act to overwhelm the scene entirely. “don’t cry Im not crying Caddy push it are you going to do you want me to yes push it touch your hand to it dont cry Quentin but I couldn’t stop she held my head against her damp hard breast.” The knife against her neck is a deadly substitution for his sexual act. To Quentin, passion shared with his sister is essentially a death sentence. He dies by committing suicide as if sex was an allegorical act. As Caddy holds his head against her breast, she becomes a protecting mother figure to a boy who has overcome his boundaries. Her heart doesn’t beat in the same way as it does with Dalton Ames; her blood pumps surely and calmly rather than pounding through her arteries when she asks Quentin to touch his hand to her neck and speak the name of her lover. The eroticism that pervades the movement of his pocket knife to her neck in a double metaphor of death and sex that combines with the environment to evoke such passion. Although Faulkner rarely refers to sexual acts directly, the use of language through Quentin’s consciousness and internal monologue is so rampant with erotic metaphor and passionate depth, that a simple object, such as a pocket knife, transforms into the most vital of symbols.
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