BOOK: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.

I read this novel for the first time when I was about fourteen years old. My mother was a Faulkner fan, and I wanted to be as cool as my moms, yo, so I picked it up and, lo and behold, devoured it in a single weekend. A year later, I read it again, much more slowly, gradually becoming more and more intoxicated by its language and its ideas. Over the next six or so years, I worked my way through every single Faulkner novel and short story I could find, and at this point in my life, I would be surprised if there is a single thing written by the man that I have not read. And read more than once, at that.

In college, I took a lit course in which we read Absalom! Absalom!, the novel I typically cite as my all-time favorite book, and most of the discussion that week focused on how everybody but me hated Faulkner with a vengeance. Personally, I attribute this to the fact they all had been forced to read The Sound and the Fury in high school. Of all the Faulkners, S&F is my least favorite, and it would never, ever be the one I suggested someone start out with. I assume teachers always pick it because the first section is such a shining example of the stream-of-consciousness style. But it’s also a total bitch to grasp and an INSANE downer (not that the others are cheery, mind you), and the combination seems to turn people off so fast they never go back and try anything else. A crying shame, I tell you. Because William Faulkner was a genius. Ain’t no bones about it.

For those that managed to escape this one in high school and therefore have no idea what it’s about, The Sound and the Fury tells the story of the Compson family and is split into four sections, each narrated by a different family member. The first section is told from Benjy Compson’s point of view — a 33 year old man-boy with fairly severe mental retardation. The second is set about 20 years earlier and is told from the point of view of Benjy’s brother Quentin, who is one of the most heartbreakingly broken people of all time. The third is told from Quentin’s brother Jason’s perspective — he’s an asshole. And the final section is written in the third person and focuses primarily on the Compson family’s black servant, Dilsey, who is, not-so-coincidentally, the only character in the novel who isn’t a total disaster.

These are all miserable, broken people, (except for Dilsey, who is a rock of awesome) and this novel essentially tells the story of the horrible sufferings and tragedies of each of their lives. In essence, if you get into this novel deeply enough to understand what’s going on, your reward for making all that effort is a steaming pile of misery. So you can see, then, why this might not inspire further exploration of Faulkner for many people.

But for me, at the maudlin age of 14, it was absolutely life-shattering. For one thing, it was the first time I’d ever read anything that attempted to take me into the mind of someone with mental disabilities (Benjy, obviously, but also Quentin in his own damaged way), and Faulkner was so effective at it I was utterly enthralled pretty much from page one. Damn. Brilliant.

The novel also serves, as all Faulkner novels do, as one giant metaphor for the deterioration and self-destruction of the South after the Civil War. The Compsons’ lives are constantly being intruded upon by the past (which, as Faulkner writes in Requiem for a Nun, “isn’t dead; it isn’t even past”), and no matter how they thrash and struggle, there is never any freedom from it. Even when the Compsons make sacrifices to try in some way to atone for their history, those sacrifices only come back to bust them in the chops in the most painful and tragic of ways. The Compsons are like a fish caught in a net — the more they fight, the more tightly they become bound. And their fate? Also that of the fish, I’m afraid.

This focus on the past, this need to subject it to constant scrutiny and never, ever unhitch it, is hallmark Faulkner, and it, more than anything else you will ever read or see or hear (in my opinion, anyway), will teach you everything you need to know about the impact of the Civil War on our nation. Faulkner’s novels were my first introduction to the Civil War as a actual force — a force that wrought upon this country some of the most completely irrevocable grief of all time. It has always felt to me like Faulkner’s entire works represent his attempt to tell the same story over and over and over, never being satisfied with the way it came out. Yoknapatawpha County, the fictitious setting of many of Faulkner’s books, is like an open wound that’s never allowed to heal. It is a thing that represents both excruciating pain and unfailing courage. It is a sad thing. And a beautiful one.

Oh, stop. I hate talking about Faulkner. I think I love it, and then I start doing it and I hate it. I feel like everything I say comes out wrong and sounds absolutely idiotic. And besides, you either love the guy or you hate him, and I’m pretty sure there is little I can say that will swing you from one side to the other. That said, if you’ve always wanted to try a Faulkner novel and never known where to start, the one I usually recommend is Intruder in the Dust, because it’s a courtroom drama and thus is sort of like Law & Order meets Dusty Old White Literary Dude With Chip on His Shoulder. It’s much more traditionally entertaining and accessible than many of Faulkner’s other novels, but it still gives you a solid introduction to his writing style and themes.

From there, if you want to know what I’d read next, you know where to find me. Someday, and I’ll make that someday soon now that I think about it, I hope that where you’ll find me is in Oxford, Mississippi, hanging out somewhere with a cup of coffee and a book while I breathe in the same air that went in and out of the lungs of Billy F.once not that long ago. And then set his heart on fire.

“Between grief and nothing, I’ll take grief.”  — Harry Wilbourne in Faulkner’s The Wild Palms.


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11 Responses to “BOOK: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.”

  1. Liz Says:

    DISAMBIGUATION! I learned that term from “Wikipedia.” I flashed on the quote at the end of this review, from a book by Faulkner called “The Wild Palms.” Now, I remember seeing a TV mini-series by that name, so I checked to see if it was based on the book. It wasn’t, but what I found out was that the title Faulkner had preferred for this book was “If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem.” Nowadays, this title is used, sometimes in conjunction with the “Palms” one, so knowing that should help with finding the book.

    That said, I continue to be very impressed with your reviews – especially some of the book ones, which, I must confess, I didn’t always read. I love reading, but I’ve always been a bit slow (my dumb eyes again!), so I give up before I even start some of the books that you make sound so interesting.

    I don’t think I’ve ever read any Faulkner, although of course I’ve heard of him, and of that “stream of consciousness” style. Now I think I’d really like to try. Lately, I find myself reading books I never read, but always thought I “should have,” when I was growing up. For example, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” – I was very surprised by how well it was written, and how totally mixed up I had been about the story!

    I just had an idea! What if your readers who care to form a sort of impromptu book club? We could write in our favorite books, and then other people could read them and comment. I think my 2 favorites are: “A Tale of Two Cities” – Dickens, and “The Stand” – Stephen King (shut up!). I’m currently reading “World War Z,” and I think it’s brilliant! I started “John Adams” by MucCullough (sp?), but since I saw the wonderful mini-series on TV, I have less motivation for finishing it.

    Anyway, I continue to be very interested in all your write-ups.

  2. megwood Says:

    “The Wild Palms” is one of the two stories that makes up “If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem.” Originally, the two stories were published under the one story’s name, is all. You do see it both ways, though, depending on the edition. The edition I have is the Jerusalem one, but the quote is from the story “The Wild Palms.” Does that make sense or did I just confuse matters further?

    “The Stand” is AWESOME. I’m still mad about that stupid miniseries. I loved “WWZ” too — they’re making that into a movie for 2010! I hear the audiobook version is great too, and is read by a bunch of different people, including Alan Alda (ex-Boyfriend!), Mark Hamill, Henry Rollins, Eamonn Walker, and John Turturro. Keep meaning to get it from the library, as while I don’t typically like audiobooks that much, that one sounds pretty entertaining!

    Thanks for what you said about my write-ups and reviews, Lizzie. You da sweetest.

  3. jo Says:

    The orignal Stand is awesome. The “author’s cut” edition is a perfect example of why God created editors.

    I love Faulkner, although I haven’t read any in a very very long time. In high school, they always had us read A Rose for Emily, which is a pretty cool introduction for a bunch of high schoolers.

    I heard that someone staged a musical version of As I Lay Dying. I think I would pay good money to see that.

    Speaking of awesome books, I just finished The Book Thief which is technically adolescent lit but one of the best books I’ve ever read. Highly recommended.

    By the way, I also love your book reviews. I have been using them for years to recommend books to my mom’s book club.

  4. megwood Says:

    I have “The Book Thief” but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Definitely will put it at the top of the pile now, Jo! I love “A Rose for Emily.” Ahhh, so great.

  5. alisaj29 Says:

    I been to afraid to tackle Faulkner. Fear of not understanding maybe or not being able to grasp what he was trying to tell in his stories, but I think I’ll give it a go.

    I think the book I was most fascinated by when I was a kid was Gone With the Wind. I saw the movie a bunch of times because it is my mother’s favorite movie. When I was 12 or 13 I decided to tackle the book head on, and I got so involved in the book that I took me 3days to read. But it’s no Faulkner either. 🙂 Once I finish the two books I have out from I’ll put Faulkner on my list.

    Liz – I love you idea of the book club.

  6. Bzirk Says:


    My mother was a major Faulkner fan and like you I read Sound and the Fury at a tender age. I was 15 and had to read it like four times to make sense of some of it. Then I read Sanctuary and then As I Lay Dying and then on from there. I even wrote my senior term paper on Faulkner and was way out of my league, but I’m glad it did. Despite that, I haven’t read all of his works, but I’ve read a lot of them. I think my husband has actually read all of his stuff.

    So I’m curious. Do you think Sound and the Fury is the best novel to read first?

  7. megwood Says:

    I definitely don’t think it’s the best one to read first, Bzirk. I think the fact it’s the one most people are forced to start with is probably the reason why so many people end up never trying anything else by him! I usually recommend “Intruder in the Dust,” as I said above. It’s more accessible but still gives you a really good introduction to the major themes of Faulkner’s work. Very cool you did your senior paper on Faulkner — ballsy! I’m impressed!

  8. Bzirk Says:

    My apologies, Meg. I just flat didn’t see the last two paragraphs. So much for my comment. LOL!

    I’m glad you’re impressed, but the truth is that I chose him because we had all of his books in the house and some literary criticisms of him as well as his biography and oh a few other things that I’m going blank on. I did get a good grade on the paper. But many of my thoughts were lifted from discussions my parents and their friends had. Sadly, hardly any thoughts were mine. I didn’t think my thoughts were interesting enough. Now I wish I had really written my thoughts. I love reading things I wrote years ago to get a little insight into how my mind worked.

  9. Bzirk Says:

    Sorry to double post.

    But I had to mention that reading these kinds of books at such a young age definitely colored my view of the world. That and being raised by a Southern Belle. One of these days I’m going to write about her. May have to be after she’s dead or then maybe not. 😀

  10. Kent Says:


    I just stumbled across your review of S&F, and I just have to say–it is one of the best short synopsis if the book I have heard! I am constantly trying to redeem the book from the bad early experiences people have with it. I think you are right on in that regard. But I am often at a loss as to how to disambiguate the book for potential readers without oversimplifying it or doing disservice to Faulkner’s genius. I’ll just have to point people to your review!

  11. megwood Says:

    Thanks, Kent — that just made my day.

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