AMST 246: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner

Lecture 7

 - Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Part II


Professor Wai Chee Dimock continues her discussion of The Sound and the Fury by juxtaposing Quentin’s stream-of-consciousness to his brother Benjy’s narrative subjectivity. Professor Dimock argues that Faulkner uses stylistic parallels between the two sections to communicate “kinship” and “variation” between the two narrators. In her readings, she focuses on their relationship with the black characters in The Sound and the Fury, as well as their reactions to Caddy’s loss of sexual innocence. She concludes with a discussion of Quentin’s suicide as a reaction to the “second-hand tragedy” of Caddy’s pregnancy.

Warning: This lecture contains graphic content and/or adult language that some users may find disturbing.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner

AMST 246 - Lecture 7 - Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Part II

Chapter 1. Kinship: Theme and Variation [00:00:00]

Professor Wai Chee Dimock:  Let me start with Faulkner. This is an interesting image of Faulkner in Japan. We think of Faulkner so much as associated with Oxford, Mississippi. But he actually traveled quite a bit under the sponsorship of the State Department. He was in Japan because the State Department asked him to travel around and to give talks.

And what’s interesting about Faulkner in Japan is that some of the most interesting things that he says about his own novels were said when was in Japan, in the course of the Nagona seminar, 1955. And this is what he says about The Sound and the Fury. “This is how the book grew. That is, I wrote the same story four times. None of them were right, but I had anguished so much that I could not throw any of it away and start over, so I printed it in the four sections.”

This is obviously tongue in cheek. He’s saying that he’s written so much in four different ways, that he can’t bear to get rid of any of it. So he’s keeping all four, and it’s the same story told four times, it’s tongue in cheek. But there’s also an element of truth in it. So let’s try out, follow Faulker in that thought. And think of The Sound and the Fury, the four sections of The Sound and the Fury as theme and variation.

It’s an interesting, musical structure – theme and variation. Basically it’s really the same story, but told from four different points of view using four different narrative techniques, and so producing different effects, but really they are all rooted in the same phenomenon, which makes sense. I mean it’s really the same story.

Another way to think about this– and this is kind of adding on to a sense that this is theme and variation– is the notion of kinship.  This is closer to our thematic understanding of the novel that the three brothers each gets to tell his story in one section, and then the final section is told by an omniscient narrator. But the first three sections are told by the three Compson brothers as brothers.

So there is kinship among them.  And we’ll think about the extent to which they are brothers. They are kin, in both a biological sense, but perhaps also in more than just a biological sense. So let me just lay out the three ways in which Benjy and Quentin might be seen as kin.  This is very much using the three analytic registers that we’ve been using all the way through.

The three analytics scales– the largest scale the shared macro history.  In one sense, this is commonsensical. They live in the United States after the Civil War.  That is the common ground between them. And in fact, it doesn’t take brothers to have that common ground – especially  if we think about race relations, the future of race, the “tomorrow” that Faulkner gets from Macbeth Act V, Scene Five.

That’s the broadest ground for kinship between them. And then there’s another ground for kinship, which has to do with Faulkner’s narrative experimentation and the traumatic loss of Caddy that we saw last time. That’s being repeated in the Quentin section. Likewise, the incomplete syntax that is so striking in Benjy will also be repeated in Quentin. And finally, the importance of the sense of smell that is in Benjy will also be repeated in Quentin.

We’ll look at the kinship first. And then we’ll look at variation. Even though they’re brothers, they’re different as well.  Basically today’s lecture is about kinship and variation. But let’s start with the kinship. And here I want to talk a little bit about race after the Civil War, especially Faulkner’s understanding of that.

Chapter 2. The “Tomorrow” of Race: Luster [00:04:58]

In his 1956 interview with the London Sunday Times, Faulkner has this very interesting thing to say. “And the negro won’t come out on top, because of anything to do with race, but because he has always gotten by without scope. When they’re given scope, they use it fully. They are trained to do more than a white man can do with the same limitations.”

I have a little bit of a cold, so. This should be fine.

One way to think about race, is by going back to Macbeth, Act V, Scene five. And the first line of Macbeth, Act V, Scene five turns out to be  ”Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”   Let’s think about that, mapping that onto race relations. We see that Benjy is 33 years old. What kind of a future does he have? And what kind of future do the other black characters have?

Let’s look at Benjy first. And thinking about what future, what tomorrow holds for Benjy. And this is very early on, the opening of the Benjy section.

“‘Listen at you, now.”’  Luster said.  “‘Aint you something, thirty three years old, going on that way.  After I done went all the way to town to buy you that cake.  Hush up that moaning.  Aint you going to help me find that quarter so I can go to the show tonight.’”

Benjy can’t talk. So Luster is the one who is doing all the talking. But I think that Faulkner seems almost to be emphasizing that Luster is the player in the present. And he’s going to be the player in the future. And everything that is being done by Benjy, is being done by Luster, and  by Dilsey to some extent, the two black characters. His mother isn’t doing anything for him. Quentin is dead. Caddy is gone.

So Luster is Beny’s only significant other at this point.  If for no other reason, the future that belongs to Benjy – to the extent that Benjy could have a future – that future can come only from Luster.   It’s a really interesting way to think about the future as being race mediated and race dependency. Benjy is completely helpless. Only Luster can give him a future.

And Luster is doing that. All the things that Caddy used to do, Luster is doing. He’s telling Benjy to hush. He’s gone all the way to town to buy a birthday cake for Benjy because Benjy is 33 that day. And so in that sense, he’s a very good significant other to Benjy.  But he is also more.   We see that Luster actually has a life apart from Benjy.

The last sentence of that passage, “Ain’t you going to help me find that quarter so I can go to the show tonight?” Luster wants to go to the show completely independent of Benjy. He has his own desires, he has a life apart from Benjy. And Benjy is really just an aside, an appendage, and in this case, someone who should help him to find that quarter, so he can pay for the show and go to the show.  All this is to suggest that the playing field has been reconfigured.   Who is at the center, who is the main player, who is the protagonist in this drama that is unfolding into the future? That really is an open question. And there’s a strong suggestion that the playing field has been so re-constituted that black characters would be the protagonists.

Let’s think more about the tomorrow of race, but going off in a slightly different direction. This is the very end, towards the very end of the Benjy section.  Basically, we’re looking at the two moments that bracket the Benjy section. Once again, Benjy is with his significant other, Luster.

“He put my gown on.  I hushed, and then Luster stopped, his head toward the window.  Then he went to the window and looked out.  He came back and took my arm.  Here she come, he said.  Be quiet, now.  We went to the window and looked out.  It came out of Quentin’s window and climbed across into the tree.  We watched the tree shaking.   The shaking went down the tree, then it came out and we watched it go across the grass.  Then we couldn’t see it.  Come on, Luster said.  There now.  Hear them horns.  You get in that bed while my foots behaves.”

OK, this is ungrammatical, but that’s just fine. The future can belong to people who don’t speak Standard English, it’s not a problem.  But what is interesting here is that we are seeing something that only one person understands. We are actually in exactly the same position as Benjy. We have no idea what’s going on. The meaning of what they are watching, whatever it is that’s coming out of Quentin’s window– and this is the female Quentin, the daughter of Caddy– whatever is happening, whatever’s coming out of Quentin’s window, what’s going to come after that, what occasions that movement out of that window – all of this will not be disclosed to us until section three, when we get to the Jason section.

So there’s a really interesting differential of knowledge in this moment. Benjy obviously doesn’t know what’s going on. We, the readers, also don’t know what’s going on. The only person who’s fully in command of the requisite knowledge is Luster. I think this is very deliberately set up by Faulkner to highlight the extent to which black characters have knowledge and agency.

And Benjy is a part of the black world.  I think that maybe we should even suspend some of our racial categories – I mean, Benjy looks white, he is pasty, actually – but we can think of him as really part and parcel of the black world. And his well-being is completely dependent and, of a piece with the well-being of the black world.

Chapter 3. The Tomorrow of Race: The Deacon [00:12:37]

But that is not the case with Quentin. Although Quentin also has very important, nontrivial relations to black characters. And one black character who’s following him around is the Deacon.  This is a black man in Massachusetts. And this is what the Deacon says to Quentin.

“‘Yes, suh.  Right dis way, young marster, hyer we is,’ taking your bags…From then on until he had you completely subjugated he was always in or out of your room, ubiquitous and garrulous, though his manner gradually moved northward as his raiment improved, until at last when he had bled you until you began to learn better he was calling you Quentin or whatever…”

So this is a black man who is definitely not the same as the Lusters and the Dilseys who have stayed on in Mississippi. This is a black man who has moved north.

And here it’s important to have some sense of the historical background that Faulkner is alluding to. A black man going north, this turns out to be one of the key episodes in African-American history, which is the Great Migration. In fact it happens in several waves. What we’ve seen here is the first wave of Great Migration. Roughly from 1910 to 1930, two million African-Americans went out of the south to the north, to the midwest and the west.

And here’s one image of the Great Migration, the train station almost completely filled with black people.   Here’s a wonderful painting by the painter Jacob Lawrence. If you are in D.C., make sure to go to the Phillips Collection. It’s a really interesting collection. It’s just a private collection of great paintings. And they have the Jacob Lawrence, The Great Migration series, is almost 40 or 50 drawings. So it’s really a wonderful thing that they have. So check this out when you’re in Washington, D.C.

As you can see, the people are going to Chicago and New York and St. Louis. But some of them also end up in Boston, Massachusetts. And the Deacon ended up in Boston, Massachusetts. And once again, he starts out sounding not only black, but Southern black, calling Quentin “young master.” But then he actually, in the course of one conversation, he can actually metaphorically move north, just in the space of that one conversation.

There is something else that happens between Quentin and the Deacon. And this is actually yet another allusion to Macbeth, Act V, Scene five, because the word tomorrow is repeated about eight times in this little passage. This is something that happens that, when Quentin is thinking about his future, and we sort of know that he has no future, right? So this is someone with no future talking to someone with a future.

“‘Take this around to my room tomorrow and give it to Shreve.  He’ll have something for you.  But not till tomorrow, mind.’ He took the letter and examined it.  ‘It’s sealed up.’ ‘Yes.  And it’s written inside.  Not good until tomorrow, mind.’…He was looking at me now, the envelope white in his black hand, in the sun.  His eyes were soft and irisless and brown, and suddenly I saw Roskus watching me from behind all his whitefolks’ claptrap of uniforms and politics and Harvard manner, diffident, secret, inarticulate and sad.  ‘You ain’t playing a joke on the old nigger, is you?’ ‘You know I’m not.  Did any Southerner ever play a joke on you?’ ‘You’re right.  They’re fine folks.  But you can’t live with them.’ ‘Did you ever try?’ I said.  But Roskus was gone.  Once more he was that self he had long since taught himself to wear in the world’s eye, pompous, spurious, not quite gross. ‘I’ll confer to your wishes, my boy.’ ‘Not until tomorrow, remember.’”                             

The letter is not going to be delivered to Shreve until Quentin is no more. And the Deacon will still be there to reap the benefit of delivering that letter. What is interesting here is the very compressed time scale that is packed into this little exchange. In the course of one conversation, the Deacon can slide back into someone just like Roskus, still in Mississippi from sometime back, with the manner and the diffidence and the fear. And lack of self-assurance from some time past. He can slip back into it. But he’s secure enough in the present, in Boston, Massachusetts, that he can get out of it, just also in the space of one conversation. So the Great Migration is not just geographical migration, but also psychological migration as well.  In his own mind, the Deacon can move very, very fast from the south to the north. And that agility of movement is partly what gives him a future. And there’s something else about the slightly ungrammatical and not quite perfect command of English. “I’ll confer to your wishes.” He means to say, I’ll defer to your wishes.

But actually “confer” is the more appropriate word. Because he’s not actually deferring to Quentin anymore. Deference is a thing of the past, a thing of the geographical south, and now in Massachusetts, he’s actually conferring something. It is up to him to be the agent and to confer something on Quentin.  The re-composition of the playing field is dramatized in some sense through that imperfect command of the English language. And so in this sense, Faulkner is rewriting not only the future of race, but also the future of the history of the United States.  In both these ways, Benjy and Quentin are really kin. They have a lot in common in the very facts, relations, to black characters.

Chapter 4. Benjy’s Caddy, Quentin’s Caddy [00:20:14]

And another connection – I think this is something that you already know, but I just wanted to refresh your memory, they also are kin in the very dramatic reaction to this loss of innocence on Caddy’s part. So this is something that we looked at last time. Benjy, the moment when Caddy can no longer go to the bathroom and wash herself clean.

“We were in the hall.  Caddy was still looking at me.  Her hand was against her mouth and I saw her eyes and I cried.  We went up the stairs.  She stopped again, against the wall, looking at me and I cried and she went on and I came on, crying, and she shrank against the wall, looking at me.  She opened the door to her room, but I pulled at her dress and we went to the bathroom and she stood against the door, looking at me.  Then she put her arm across her face and I pushed at her, crying.”

We remember this very well, a moment when suddenly, Caddy is not putting her arms around Benjy, but across her own face. And it is telling that is almost completely reproduced and repeated in Quentin’s section.

” …one minute she was standing in the door the next minute he was pulling at her dress and bellowing his voice hammered back and forth between the walls in waves and she shrinking against the wall getting smaller and smaller with her white face her eyes like thumbs dug into it until he pushed her out of the room his voice hammering back and forth as though its own momentum would not let it stop as though there were no place for it in silence bellowing.”

It’s exactly the same episode. Except that now, all of a sudden, we hear that sound, that bellowing, that Benjy is making, that of course is invisible and inaudible when Benjy is telling the story. We know exactly what that sound is doing. Caddy seems to be shrunken. She’s getting smaller and smaller. She’s so pushed around by Benjy, that she’s getting smaller and smaller, until she has no place to go.

And we really haven’t thought of Benjy as being aggressive. But that’s really what he is. Innocence is aggressive in its demand that the world should completely conform to his dictates. And Benjy is relentless in demanding that Caddy should conform to his dictates.  The bellowing is the weapon that he uses to make sure that she does that.  When she cannot, he just keeps on doing it.

So from Quentin, we have this added perspective of what Benjy is doing to Caddy. But otherwise, it’s exactly the same moment. The same Caddy, occupying the emotional center.  It’s an unbearable place for her two brothers to be. It’s not surprising then, that the consequence of that traumatic loss should be articulated in the same way. In Benjy, it’s articulated as incomplete syntax and the consequences of that incomplete syntax–

“I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say, and she screamed and I was trying to say”– and the frustration would come after that.  Here’s Quentin exhibiting the same symptom, the same incomplete syntax in reaction to the loss of Caddy. And it is surprising, because we can say that Benjy has an incomplete syntax because he’s an idiot. He’s clinically retarded. Quentin is not retarded. But, he also doesn’t speak in complete sentences when he’s very agitated.

“Because women so delicate so mysterious Father said.  Delicate equilibrium of periodical filth between two moons balanced.  Moons he said full and yellow as harvest moons her hips thighs.  Outside outside of them always but.  Yellow.  Feet soles with walking like.  Then know that some man that all those mysterious and imperious concealed.  With all that inside of them shapes an outward suavity waiting for a touch to.  Liquid putrefaction like drowned things floating like pale rubber flabbily filled getting the odor of honeysuckle all mixed up.”

It is stream of consciousness. It is completely internal to Quentin. And the logic of association is also peculiar to Quentin. So that it would be very hard for us to understand completely. All we can say is that this is both a point of commonality between Quentin and Benjy. And also the point of departure or deviation.

From Benjy, we never get the sense that women are filthy, that there’s something repulsive and abominable about women. That just having the menstrual cycle is in itself filthy.  But this is really what Quentin is fixated on, is this kind of revulsion by female sexuality in its most elemental form. In a sense that it doesn’t really take any action, just in its state as femaleness there’s something repulsive about them.

This form of narration – this stream of consciousness– is Faulkner’s way of getting us to get into a mind that is very different. In some sense, as different from us as Benjy’s mind is.  Let’s think about this, by way of the one thread that Faulkner is giving us. In the case of Benjy, we see that the guide that is taking us through the various salient moments in Benjy, is the phrase, “Caddy smelled like trees.”

And in the case of Quentin, the phrase that will perform a comparable function is, “getting the odor of honeysuckle all mixed up.” We see that, that’s the last sentence in that very strange passage. And that phrase will appear again and again in the same manner as “Caddy smelled like trees.” So let’s use that as a way to try to understand Quentin. I don’t think that we ever will, completely. And that probably is a good thing, that’s really the effect that Faulkner wants to cultivate.

So this is moving away from kinship to thinking about variation, the ways in which Quentin is different from Benjy. And one way in which Quentin is different from Benjy, is that “sister” is basically very clear, very straightforward, uni-vocal meaning for Benjy. It only has one meaning. “Caddy smelled like trees.” She’s the source of everything that is wonderful and comforting and good for Benjy. The word “sister” has a much more complicated meaning for Quentin.

Chapter 5. “Sister” as a Semantic Field [00:28:22]

We can think of it not just as a word, but as a very complex semantic field.  What I’d like to do today is to follow the trajectory of that word “sister,” and the phrase “honeysuckle all mixed up.” Follow that to try to get us from the beginning of Quentin’s chapter, not quite as linear as I would like, but I’ll try to get us from the beginning of Quentin’s section to the end of Quentin’s section. And I think that we all know that he kills himself, right? He kills himself by jumping into the Charles River in Cambridge.

How does he get from one to the other – and it’s just one day, it’s the space of that one day– how does he get from the beginning of that day, that morning, to the end of that day?  We’ll begin at the point when Quentin is closest to Benjy. And follow him in the ways in which he gradually moves away from Benjy.  This is a moment when we begin to know why it is, when we’re learning more about why it is that Caddy’s loss of sexuality is so traumatic to Quentin.

“Caddy you hate him don’t you she move my hand up against her throat her heart was hammering therepoor Quentin her face looked at the sky it was low so low that all smells and sounds of night seemed to have been crowded down like under a slack tent especially the honeysuckle it had got into my breathing it was on her face and throat like paint…. I had to pant to get any air at all out of that thick gray honeysuckle yes I hate him I would die for him I’ve already died for him I die for him over and over again everytime this goes when I lifted my hand I could still feel crisscrossed twigs and grass burning into the palm poor Quentin.”

It’s a weird moment. Caddy is the one who is going to be pregnant because of this out of wedlock affair with men — in fact, she might not even know who the father is. So she is the last person to be in a position to say, “Poor Quentin.” But Faulkner’s understanding of the situation is that even though Caddy is in a dire situation at this moment– and it’s a much worse thing, back in the 20s for a young lady to be pregnant out of wedlock– but in spite of that dire situation, Caddy still has a better life than Quentin.   It is dramatized by the complete incomprehension of Quentin for Caddy’s life. So in that sense too, we can say this is the common ground between Benjy and Quentin.  Benji doesn’t understand Caddy because he doesn’t have the mental capacity for it.  And Quentin doesn’t understand Caddy because he’s never had the experience.   We know by the end of section two, that he never will have that experience – what it means to have that particular sensation, and to have gone through that, even though the consequences are terrible.  So we can see another way in which there’s actually a point of intersection between The Sound and the Fury and The Great Gatsby. And there’s a lot in common between Quentin and Gatsby, as well. The intense desire for the love object to deny that she has any relation to anyone other than yourself. This is what unites Quentin and Gatsby. Gatsby can’t stand the thought that Daisy might have been in love with Tom at one point. And Quentin can’t stand the thought that Caddy might actually be in love, just at that moment, when she’s having sex with this guy. He can’t stand that thought.

This inability to face that thought says something about a lack in Quentin’s life. If he had had that experience, he wouldn’t have hated it so much. It wouldn’t have been so unbearable for him. And Caddy completely understands that. So that’s the background for that repeated phrase, “Poor Quentin.” And so this is the point where Benjy and Quentin are really kin. The two brothers are as one.

Chapter 6. Conflation of Sisters [00:33:38]

And now we begin to move away from that point of unity between Benjy and Quentin. Because we also know that, unlike the Benjy section, Caddy is a very fleeting presence in the Quentin section. The person who’s there a lot is actually the little Italian girl.  This a very odd choice on Faulkner’s part – that for a good part of the Quentin section, Quentin is actually walking around with the little Italian girl that he calls “sister.” So we’re starting to get the different permutations of the word sister in this very complex, semantic field.

“Hello, sister’… She extended her fist.  It uncurled upon a nickel, moist and dirty, moist dirt ridged into her flesh… I handed [the buns] to the little girl.  Her fingers closed about them, damp and hot, like worms … I went on.  Then I looked back.  She was behind me, under my elbow sort of, eating.  We went on.  It was quiet, hardly anyone about getting the odor of honeysuckle all mixed  She would have told me not to let me sit there on the steps hearing her door twilight slamming hearing Benjy still crying Supper she would have to come down then getting honeysuckle all mixed up in it.”

Here we started to get the conflation of the two sisters.  In the italics, he’s going back to that traumatic moment, still. Caddy not been able to wash herself clean, Benjy bellowing, doors slamming, Caddy’s still up in her room.  Still that moment.  But that moment – that moment from the past – is bleeding into Quentin’s current walk with the little Italian girl. And that accounts for the images of dirt and filth that are being projected onto the little Italian girl. She’s just a little girl, eating buns. But the images of her are actually of a much older woman. Moisture and dirt ridged into her flesh.

So at the very least, we can say that Quentin’s experience of the entire world is channeled through, mediated by, and contaminated by, his sense of the loss of sexual innocence on the part of Caddy. So that every single woman that he’s going to encounter is going to carry some attributes of the Caddy who’s lost her sexual innocence. And the word “sister” also carries the weight of that contamination.

Chapter 7. Saint Francis and Little Sister Death [00:36:45]

But there are other interesting permutations of the word “sister.” And I just want to take us back now to the very opening of the Quentin section. And this is something that is once again, very peculiar, a kind of logical association not entirely clarified for us.

“I don’t suppose anybody ever deliberately listen to a watch or a clock.  You don’t have to.  You can be oblivious to the sound for a long while, then in  a second of ticking it can create in the mind unbroken the long diminishing parade of time you didn’t hear.  Like Father said down the long and lonely light rays you might see Jesus walking, like.  And the good Saint Francis that said Little Sister Death, that never had a sister.”

The last line probably makes no sense to us on page 76, and it’s probably still not making a whole lot of sense to you right now.  We know though, that the watch is very important. And he steps on the watch and breaks the face of the watch. So he seems to have some quarrel with that watch. And we’ll come back to this in plenty detail at the end of the Quentin section. What is it? Why is it that he’s so angry at the watch? But for now, let’s think about that last line. “And the good Saint Francis that said Little Sister death that never had a sister.”

We’ve just seen the mapping of the word sister on to the little Italian girl. And now the word “sister” is mapped on to death.   What is it that enables that mapping to take place? And here, I should say something about the way of reading Faulkner.   On the whole, I don’t really think that we need to do a lot of research to understand Faulkner. He’s hard to understand. But actually, it takes more reading than doing a lot of outside research.

But here is one moment when actually, some outside research would cast light on this particular logic association. So I just want to bring up this very strange possible reference for Faulkner. And that is, it has to do with Saint Francis and he’s telling us that Saint Frances is important to him for some reason. This is Saint Francis, Canticle of the Sun, which turns out to be pivoted on the word sister.

“Praised be my Lord for Sister Moon, and for the stars… Praised be my Lord for Sister Water, who is very serviceable unto us, and humble and precious and clean… Praised be my Lord for our Sister the death of the body, from whom no man living can escape.”

At the very least, we can say that those different mappings that we’ve seeing in Quentin seem to bear a very close correspondence to this particular logic of association that we see in Saint Francis. Of course, even though the two logics are similar, it’s for different reasons that Quentin would have that kind of clustering of terms.

Let’s move on now to see what sister water means for Quentin. And this is once again going back to Caddy. But suddenly water is coming into play in his relation to Caddy.

“…Got to marry somebody Have there been very many Caddy I don’t know too many will you look after Benjy and Father You don’t know whose it is then does he know Don’t touch me will you look after Benjy and Father I began to feel the water before I came to the bridge.  The bridge was of gray stone, lichened, dappled with slow moisture where the fungus crept.   Beneath it the water was clear and still in the shadow, whispering and clucking about the stone in fading swirls of spinning sky.  Caddy that I got to marry somebody.”

The most obvious, clearest fact is that Caddy is pregnant, and that she needs to marry somebody. And she’s about to marry somebody.  This is about the only thing we know. But what is interesting here is that, when she’s about to be married and leave the Compson house, what she says to Quentin is, “Will you look up after Benjy and Father?” It is something that someone who’s about to leave will say, someone who’s about to get married and leave will say.  But it could also be said by someone who is about to kill herself. I’m going to be gone. There are two possible meanings for “Look after Father and Benjy.”  Someone who’s no longer going to be around anymore for two different reasons: marriage and death.  Right now, she’s going to do the marriage option. That’s the way in which she’s not going to be around anymore.

But in Quentin’s mind, there’s already that alternative option that he’s toying with. It would be very nice if Caddy were to kill herself, by drowning herself.  It would be one way. The water this time is not something in the bathroom.  It would be this gigantic body of water.  And she would indeed wash herself clean in that body of water. So this is one way in which sister and water constitute a potential mapping in Quentin’s mind.  But Caddy is not going to do it.  She’s just going to get married. She’s going to be alive.  This is the problem for Quentin – that Caddy is not going to clean herself by killing herself and by jumping into the water.  He’s furious.  Nothing is right when she refuses to clean herself as he demands her to be clean.

Chapter 8. Second-hand Tragedy [00:43:49]

So this is his conversation with his father.

“And father said it’s because you are a virgin: don’t you see?  Women are never virgins.  Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature.  It’s nature is hurting you not Caddy and I said That’s just words and he said So is virginity and I said you don’t know.  You can’t know and he said Yes.  On the instant when we come to realize that tragedy is second-hand.”

It would have been the right kind of tragedy if Caddy had just killed herself by jumping into the water. It would’ve been an appropriate, cleansing kind of tragedy.  But she’s not killing herself. Somebody has to kill himself instead, in order to perform that needed action.   Quentin’s father is completely disapproving; in fact, making fun of that whole operation. That it’s right that Caddy shouldn’t be too upset about her pregnancy. Women are never virgins to begin with, never. They’re never virgins. Interesting interpretation of virginity.

It is an interesting scenario – that the person who is– both on the part of Mr. Compson, but also on the part of Faulkner– the person who ought to be most upset by all of this is actually not the most upset about it.   And that’s what happens when tragedy becomes second-hand, becomes vicarious tragedy.  Quentin is reacting to this tragedy on the part of his sister, and making it his own tragedy. Because in some sense, that’s really the only thing that he can call his own.

The problem with second-hand tragedy is that it really is somebody else’s tragedy. It is not Quentin’s own. At the moment, he’s been devastated by it. And he likes to be devastated. He likes to be heroic, and devastated, and to be devastated on behalf of his sister. And to feel that he’s the one who’s going to make everything right. But there’s always the danger that a second-hand tragedy will very soon fade out, and become a non-tragedy.

And that’s why the word temporary is such an unbearable word for Quentin to contemplate.

“and i temporary and he you cannot bear to think that someday it will no longer hurt you like this now… and I temporary and he it is hard believing to think that a love or a sorrow is a bond purchased without design and which matures willynilly and is recalled without warning to be replaced by whatever issue the gods happen to be floating at the time… and i temporary and he was the saddest word of all there is nothing else in the world it’s not despair until time it’s not even time until it was.”

So the tragedy isn’t even that Caddy is pregnant. That’s really nothing. The tragedy is the fact that, even though Quentin is devastated now, that wouldn’t keep forever. He’s going to lose. He won’t be able to hold on forever to that sense of devastation. And that is the tragedy that he’s going to fight to put an end to claim, once and for all, by doing what he does at the end of the novel. And this is where he jumps off from, this is the bridge that he jumps off from in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

And it seems there’s some British reader had gone there. We know it’s British because of the spelling of the word “odour.” But at that bridge, there’s actually a plaque saying, “Quentin Compson drowned in the odour of honeysuckle. 1891-1910.”  This is a very good reader of Faulkner, knowing exactly what is central in Faulkner’s mind.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]