AMST 246: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner

Lecture 8

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


Professor Wai Chee Dimock discusses Jason’s section of The Sound and the Fury with reference to Raymond Williams’s notion of the “knowable community.” Jasons’s narrative is characterized by the loss of that knowable community, by his pointed rage against his family and servants, as well as his diffuse anger against larger, unknowable entities like the “New York Jews,”  Wall Street, Western Union, and the United States government. Professor Dimock reads this anger as a harbinger of the modern condition: a threatening world in which strangers and impersonality reign supreme. In her reading, she shows Faulkner expressing qualified sympathy for Jason, whose loss of a utopian model of community is represented with sadness and pathos in the final sections of the novel.

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 8 - Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Part III

Chapter 1. Kinship and Variation as Brotherhood [00:00:00]

Professor Wai Chee Dimock: I just wanted to start with two announcements. One is that I told you guys last time that we’re trying out the new technology, the course-capture technology, and it’s working out very well.  The recorded lecture has been posted to Classes*v2. And it really is great, so check it out. The PowerPoints are there front and center, so I won’t be posting my own PowerPoints. And I would just refer you to the course-capture feature of Classes*v2. If you go to Classes*v2, on the left, near the bottom of all the options, you’ll see that there’s a course-capture feature. And it really is a wonderful technology.

The other announcement that I’d like to make is that we’ll have a screening of To Have and Have Not next week, Wednesday, 7:00 PM. And To Have and Have Not is almost made for our class. As you know, the novel is by Hemingway. The screenplay is by Faulkner. You can’t get much better than that. So we’ll have a screening. Not in this room. This room is taken at 7:00 PM, it will be in Room 211. And I’ll send you an email to remind you to go to that screening. So this is it, I think, for the moment in terms of announcements.

I’d like to refresh your memories by going back to talk briefly about the two classes last week on Faulkner. And we looked at Faulkner’s remark at the Nagano Seminar in Japan, when he claimed that The Sound and the Fury is the same story told four times.  In light of that claim, we looked at the relation between Benjy and Quentin as a relation of kinship and variation. The two of them are obviously brothers, but they can also be seen as brothers in more than just a biological sense.

So let’s think about kinship and variation as the most fundamental structure of The Sound and the Fury. And so far, what we can see is that this structure of kinship and variation is pivoted on some kind of battle with time. As we know, Benjy wants Caddy never to grow up. He wants her always to be an innocent young girl, never to become a woman. He wants her always to “smell like trees.” That’s the signature line from Benjy.

In many ways, it is a battle for an impossible, unchanging innocence. And we know that the nature of the battle is such that Benjy is destined to be a loser. There’s no way he can win that battle. But we also know that the very fact that this is an impossible battle, that Benjy is destined to be a loser, also means that it’s going to be a narrative challenge for Faulkner. He has to do something about this. If you are a good author, you want to do something for the loser. And so one of the challenges for Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury is to do something for Benjy.

If we turn to Quentin, we see pretty much the same pattern repeated, the same battle with time. Quentin is exactly like Benjy in that he also wants Caddy never to grow up. He wants her always to be an innocent young girl, never to become a grown woman with her own sexuality. And so in that way, it’s an almost complete replay of that impossible demand from Benjy.

But Quentin has an additional battle with time, a more abstract battle. And we see that in the opening of the Quentin section, he takes out his watch, he smashes the crystal, and then he twists off the hands of the watch. And he injures his hand in the process. So right then, we know that it’s a losing battle for him too. But he twists off the hands of the watch, and the watch ticks on. That’s a little local allegory for the entire course of Quentin’s section.

At the end of Quentin’s section, we know that the most offending word, and that he calls the saddest word of all, is the word “temporary.” And by “temporary,” he has one particular context in mind. His tragedy, as we have seen, is basically a second-hand tragedy. It is not his own tragedy. It is the second-hand tragedy of Caddy losing her virginity. But Quentin is embracing it as his own tragedy, and is finishing, wrapping up his life as a response to that tragedy.

But the fear is that that tragedy is going to pass, that it’s not going to be a permanent tragedy for him. Everything is temporary. Even the sense of devastation will go away. So because “temporary” is the saddest word of all, the only way Quentin can get around that word is to have a preemptive strike against that word. His suicide is a preemptive strike against the word “temporary,” so that it will have an artificial permanence in his own life, because his life is ended at that moment, and there’s no possibility for it to fade away, to become less devastating. So in those ways, Benjy and Quentin are very much brothers in a spiritual sense, a metaphoric battle with time.

Chapter 2. Scale Enlargement in the Jason Section [00:05:09]

Today, we’ll move on to Jason. And it’s a bigger challenge to think of Jason as the brother to Quentin and Benjy. Jason seems very different on the face of it. But I’d like to suggest that in at least one way, Jason can be seen as a brother to Benjy and Quentin, in that he also has his own battle with time. And it is a battle with a larger constellation of forces.

So we are seeing scale enlargement in a significant way in the Jason section. We’re seeing a much bigger picture of the United States. And that scale enlargement has to do with a tug of war between the yesterday of the United States and the tomorrow of the United States and Jason wanting very much to cling to the yesterday. It’s more congenial to him in every way.

But at the same time, he knows that the tomorrow is already here. In fact, the tomorrow is encroaching on the present. There’s nothing he can do about it. He just has to learn to cope with that tomorrow, very uncongenial, very threatening tomorrow. He has to learn to come to terms with that. So the basic dynamic of Jason’s section is the battle between yesterday and tomorrow. And I think that we know that it pretty much is a losing battle for Jason as well.

Because we’re talking so much about yesterday and tomorrow, I want to bring back that very important passage from Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5, that Faulkner took the phrase “the sound and the fury” from. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” So Faulkner is really getting the maximum mileage from that passage. He’s taking out the entire scaffolding of his novel from that Shakespeare passage.

I’d like to give you a brief overview of the basic structure of today’s lecture, the various terms that come into play in this tug of war between yesterday and tomorrow. We know that the horse is actually still a presence in The Sound and the Fury. Queenie, the horse, will have a starring role at the very end of the novel. We don’t see her quite in the foreground yet, but I promise you she’ll have a starring role. We know that the automobile is very much here.

And I would like to think of those, the horse and the automobile, as two directional arrows. So the horse is a vector, is a directional arrow pointing back to the 19th century, a very genteel world where to own a horse makes you a part of the gentry as well as civility of social distinctions. The automobile, as we already have seen in The Great Gatsby, is a vehicle that to some extent breaks down or complicates social distinctions. It also brings in strangers.

The phrase that I would like to use to think about that transition from the past to the present is the concept that I’m taking from the literary and cultural critic Raymond Williams, the notion of the knowable community and how that’s receding into the past, that’s breaking down, to be replaced by an unknowable world of strangers.

And on that basis, I’ll talk about the basic structure, really, in the Jason section as two patterns of grievances, two patterns of injury. As we know, Jason is someone who feels grief all the time. He feels that the whole world has done him an unpardonable wrong. So he’s complaining all the time. That’s his mode.

But given that this is the baseline for Jason, he has two different targets, two different kinds of people, that he’s complaining about. One is the known parties, people in his immediate environment, people he knows very well. And then there are total strangers who are also doing him a wrong, that he knows nothing about, but he’s convinced are out to get him.

The idea is that there are strangers somewhere to get you, versus people right here who are doing you in right on the spot.  The people who are right there are his family, his servants, his father, his niece, Quentin. And the unknown parties include the usual suspects, New York Jew, US government, Western Union Telegraph, and of course Wall Street.  So again, familiar to us, quite similar to our current situation, actually.

Chapter 3. Jason and His Car [00:10:30]

But this is the image that I find in some sense is a capsule summary of the dynamics in the Jason section. You see the horse and cart, the nineteenth-century relic, and then the automobile coming right– almost going to run it over, we fear. And that’s the situation that we get in The Sound and the Fury in the Jason section.

We know that Jason actually is part of the future, he’s part of tomorrow, in the sense that he owns a car. And he’s very proud. He’s seen in his car a lot, and he’s very proud that his is a relatively expensive car. It’s not a Ford. He makes a point that there are people who own Fords, but his car is not a Ford. We don’t know what kind of a car he has, but it’s a car that he’s proud of and he spends a lot of time in.

But there’s a basic incompatibility between Jason and his car. And this comes back to the Compson curse. It turns out that Jason’s faculty of smell is as highly developed as his two brothers’. In his case, the smell that gets to him isn’t the smell of trees or the smell of honeysuckle but the smell of gasoline. He can’t stand the smell of gasoline. It gives him a tremendous headache. The only way he can drive is by putting a handkerchief soaked in camphor over his nose. That’s the only way he can drive his own car.

So this is his complaint about this vehicle that belongs to him, that he wouldn’t dream of getting rid of, but is a burden to him.

“And now I reckon I’ll get home just in time to take a nice long drive after a basket of tomatoes or something and then have to go back to town smelling like a camphor factory so my head won’t explode right on my shoulders…  I says you don’t know what a headache it.  I says you think I’d fool with that dam car at all if it depended on me.”

Of course, he’s complaining that it’s not by choice that he’s in this car, but we also know that he’s proud of his car. So this is just to lay out a basic difficulty in Jason’s situation. It’s that there’s a tension, a conflict between his own physical well being and the most basic ingredient of an automobile, of structural incompatibility between Jason as a biological human being and the mechanical workings of a car.

But beyond that, there’s also something else that makes the automobile a terrible threat to Jason, which is the kinds of people who come with automobiles. And already, we’re beginning to see a world of strangers opening up right there in Jefferson, Mississippi. So here’s Jason.

“I had just turned onto the street when I saw a ford coming helling toward me.  All of a sudden it stopped.  I could hear the wheels sliding and it slewed around and backed and whirled and just as I was thinking what the hell they were up to, I saw that red tie.  Then I recognized her face looking back through the window … I saw red.  When I recognized that red tie, after all I had told her, I forgot about everything.   I never thought about my head even until I came to the first forks and had to stop.  Yet we spend money and spend money on roads and dam if it isn’t like trying to drive over a sheet of corrugated iron roofing.  I’d like to know how a man could be expected to keep up with even a wheelbarrow.”

In the space of two paragraphs, we see that Jason has shifted his attention from his niece, Quentin, to the government who’s not keeping up the roads. So the first thing that we can say about this passage is that the word “temporary” isn’t just a curse for Quentin. It is also a curse for Jason. He has a very short attention span. He can’t really keep his mind fixed on the thing that he’s going to complain against.

And that’s just a little aside. It’s not something that Jason himself notices. But we can say that for him. That’s one strike against him in his battle with time, that he has such a short attention span and that he can’t hold onto what little time that he has, or that he can’t make that time last longer, can’t make his grievance last longer. So not being able to make something last longer is one of the problems with Jason.

And that’s a long-term, generic, constitutional problem for Jason. But the most immediate problem for him is that his niece, Quentin, the daughter of Caddy, is running around with total strangers. And we don’t know who this man is. Jason is not telling us, because he doesn’t know. All he can see is that this is a man with a red tie, and that tells him that this man is no good and that Quentin shouldn’t be hanging out with this man wearing a red tie.

And he comes with a car that’s a relatively– I don’t myself consider a Ford a cheap car, but Jason considers it a cheap car, and therefore that’s another strike against the stranger that he’s no good. In the next– so this is on Page 238– next page, we know who this stranger is. Not really what kind of a person he is, but what kind of occupation he has.

“I says far as I’m concerned, let her go to hell as fast as she pleases and the sooner the better.  I says what else do you expect  except every dam drummer and cheap show that comes to town because even those town jellybeans give her the go by now.”

And that shows how far the Compson fortune has fallen from being the town gentry. Quentin has fallen so low that even the town jellybeans won’t touch her. The only way she can have some company is to hang out with strangers coming to town for the first time.

Cheap shows– it’s confusing to see the drummer in the context of a cheap show. We might think that the drummer is someone who plays the drums. But actually, no, this is a specialized, late nineteenth-century, turn of the century, early twentieth-century slang word for the traveling salesman. So Jason is using that very distinct period usage. The drummer– this is a traveling salesman. We know that he’s going to be there probably just for a day to keep Quentin company, and then he’ll be gone.

Jason in that way is an entry point for us to that nineteenth-century world, the changing world of salesmanship, of marketing. That’s very important, that we have traveling salesmen who drive around in cars, fast-living traveling salesmen. All of those are new developments.

And the other thing we can say about this drummer is that he’s known to Jason, to the extent that he is known at all, primarily because of two attributes. One is the thing that stands out from him, is the fact that he’s wearing a red tie. That’s a giveaway for Jason. And the other thing is that his occupation is written on his face. The fact that he’s a traveling salesman is clear – anyone can see that that’s what he is.

Jason’s knowledge of the drummer doesn’t extend further than that. It is a very superficial knowledge of this man. Not because Jason doesn’t want to know him – well, maybe Jason doesn’t– in any case, that knowledge will never extend further than the color of his tie and occupational label that Jason can pin on him. It is a world that is by definition made up of our superficial knowledge of total strangers, people we see once and never again. That is the world that is opening up in front of Jason.

We can decide whether or not this is a world that we like or not. We have no choice. I think that this is also the world that we are in. Quite often, most of the people that we meet actually are people we see once and never again, that we know just by those two attributes, what kind of clothes they wear and our surmises as to what kind of occupations they have.   Jason’s tomorrow is in many ways our own present.

Chapter 4. Raymond Williams and Knowable Communities [00:20:25]

And here, I want to mention the work of one of my heroes, Raymond Williams, an important literary and cultural critic.  He died some time ago. His classic work, The Country and the City, in that work, Raymond Williams coins the phrase “knowable communities.” In fact, one of the chapters of the book is called “Knowable Communities.”  

And this is what Raymond Williams says. “A country community, most typically a village, is an epitome of direct relationships: of face-to-face contacts within which we can find and value the substance of personal relationships ….  As the scale and complexity of the characteristic social organizations increased… a whole community, wholly knowable, became harder and harder to sustain.”

Raymond Williams’ idea is that modernity is defined by the breakdown of that unsustainable utopian ideal, knowable communities.  And he really reads almost all– he was English, so he reads almost all of English literature using that concept, and I’m extending his insight to American literature.

And here I want to stop very briefly and say a word about plagiarism. I know that the first paper is coming up for you guys. And I just want to emphasize how important it is to acknowledge where you’re getting your ideas, where you’re getting your wording from. “Knowable community” is a phrase that I could have made up myself, but it is really important to acknowledge the book or the article that you got the concept from.   Very important for two reasons.

One is that it is just a courtesy, needed recognition to the person who came up with the idea. If you were to come up with a great phrase, you’d want people to acknowledge you. But I think that more than that, I think that citational practices are not just a technicality, are not just a way to get ourselves out of trouble. It is a way to show that we’re in dialogue with someone else. And because Raymond Williams is such a hero for me, I actually take a lot of pleasure in thinking that even though he didn’t write about Faulkner, that actually his insights apply so well to Faulkner. So it is the pleasure of having a long and extended conversation with people that you admire, whose work you enjoy reading. So for both those two reasons, please acknowledge where you’re getting your ideas from.

Using Raymond Williams’ idea of the knowable community, I want to think about Jason’s structure of injury, his pattern of injury. And I’ll be looking at two passages that suggest that he’s still in a knowable community, and then we’ll move on to that much more pressing, the world is going to win out, the world that is made up of unknowable strangers.

Chapter 5. Knowable Community in Jefferson [00:24:16]

But first, knowable community based on Jefferson, Mississippi. This is Jason at breakfast.

“Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say.  I says you’re lucky if her playing out of school is all that worries you.  I says she ought to be down there in that kitchen right now, instead of up there in her room, gobbing paint on her face and waiting for six niggers that cant even stand up out of a chair unless they’ve got a pan full of bread and meat to balance them, to fix breakfast for her.”

So one of the basic problems for Jason that we noticed earlier, the very short attention span, is very much in evidence here. He starts off complaining against his niece, Quentin. By the end of that passage, he’s complaining about the “niggers” in his household. So he can’t hold onto a grievance for very long. The word “temporary” is definitely a curse for him.

But even though the word “temporary” is a curse for Jason, he actually aspires to permanence. And we see that in the opening line of that passage, “Once a bitch, always a a bitch.” It is not a proverb. There’s no such proverb in the world. But it has the feel of a proverb. It has the feel of a proverb-like permanence.

And this is the small-town Jason who is speaking, finding enormous satisfaction from making pronouncements that sound like proverbs. This is his take on the world, and he’s able to sum up the entire world just using seven words. You can’t really do better than that, a seven-word summation of the entire world.  Just enormous satisfaction.

So we can say that even though Jason is complaining nonstop, even though that’s his mode, this is one instance where complaining is actually a very pleasurable activity for Jason. He’s getting a kick being able to say that his niece is a bitch, and she’ll always be one. And he’s getting a kick out of talking about the thickness of her makeup and everything that is objectionable about her gives him enormous pleasure.

Complaining in a world of known quantities– and Quentin is very much a known quantity to Jason– complaining about people right around you, people in your immediate family, that’s a really fun thing to do. And Jason is having fun doing that. He’s having fun complaining about the black servants.

And in his mind, as far as he’s concerned, Quentin, his niece, and those black servants are exactly alike. They are all good for nothing. They are all a trial for him. They’re all wronging him in some fashion. They’re a drain on his financial resources, a drain on his patience. It’s just a burden that he has to carry through life, that he happens to have a niece like that and to have servants like that. And he can go on and on. He can go on all day like this. And it would be a very happy life for him to be able to go on like that. So this is the pleasure that one gets from a knowable community.

And I’ll just give you another instance of that, very much in the same vein. “Like I say, if he had to sell something to send Quentin to Harvard we’d all been a dam sight better off if he’d sold that sideboard and bought himself a one-armed strait jacket with part of the money.  I reckon the reason all the Compson gave out before it got to me like Mother says, is that he drank it up.  At least I never heard of him offering to sell anything to send me to Harvard.”

Two complaints here, both centered on his father, Mr. Compson. One is that his father drinks. And in fact it is true that one of the many metaphoric punctuation marks in The Sound and the Fury, Mr. Compson making the trips to the sideboard to get the booze, that’s one of the punctuation marks in The Sound and the Fury.  Jason isn’t wrong that his father drinks and probably is squandering away the whole Compson fortune, to the extent that there is one now. He’s squandering away the whole fortune by drinking, so Jason has a legitimate complaint.

But a deeper complaint that goes along with the fact that his father drinks is that Quentin, his brother, was his father’s favorite, that his father, as much as he loves drinking, he probably loved Quentin better than he loved alcohol. And he would go so far as to sell the pastures, Benjy’s pastures, so that Quentin would go to Harvard. Of course, he killed himself after one year, so all of the money was wasted, and that is just even more grounds for complaint for Jason.

Once again, I have to say, it’s a very understandable grievance, the sense of not being loved, the sense that nobody has ever done anything for him, that everything that could be done in that family was being done for Quentin, who wasted everything. I wouldn’t say it’s an entirely legitimate grievance, but it’s a very understandable grievance of why he’s someone that nobody thinks about. Nobody ever gives a thought to the well-being of Jason. And what kind of a monster do you get when nobody ever gives a thought to his well-being?

So in many ways, Faulkner– and I’m just preparing you for the ending of The Sound and the Fury, where I do think that even though Jason is a loser, once again, Faulkner does something for that loser. He’s a very sad loser. And here we see some of the reason for that sadness. It’s that people turn into monsters when they feel that they’re completely unloved. But still, right now, along with the self-pity, along with the constant complaining, Jason is getting some satisfaction from the fact that he’s complaining against his father, once again, a known quantity to him, known all too well in this instance.

Let’s look at the breakdown of that knowable world, because it’s satisfying to Jason. That’s the thing that’s going to be taken away from him. The last thing that gives him satisfaction is going to be taken away from him. And the breakdown of the knowable community comes with the automobile, as we have seen, and all those things that are intimated by the arrival of the automobile– the New York Jew, the US government, Western Union, and Wall Street.

Chapter 6. Unknowable Communities in New York [00:32:10]

Let’s look at one instance of Jason’s sense that he’s wronged by unknown parties. And all of a sudden, we see that the world has expanded tremendously, that even though Jason is still in Jefferson, Mississippi, that all of a sudden, New York City becomes his horizon, becomes his reference point.

“Well, I’m done with them.  They’ve sucked me in for the last time.  Any fool except a fellow that hasn’t got any more sense than to take a Jew’s word for anything could tell the market was going up all the time, with the whole dam delta about to be flooded again and the cotton washed right out of the ground like it was last year.  Let it wash a man’s crop out of the ground year after year, and them up there in Washington spending fifty thousand dollars a day keeping an army in Nicaragua or some place.”

Incredible scale enlargement in the world of Jason, not only New York City, but Central America as well. So we have to figure out why it is that the world is suddenly opening up in this drastic fashion. And it turns out that actually closer to home, there’s actually a significant Jewish population, Jewish community, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. So Jason could have seen these people, he could have socialized with his Jewish neighbors, but he’s not thinking about his Jewish neighbors.

Because he’s talking about New York City, he also could have been talking about Lower East Side and Hester Street. And this is a picture of Hester Street, turn of the century. These are not very threatening people. Jason could have been talking about those Jews, those New York Jews. He’s not thinking about those. Instead, the New York Jew that he has in mind is very similar, is a kind of transnational Jew.

This is a picture by the French painter Degas. I think that we know him probably from all his paintings of the ballet dancers. So we think of him as a painter of very graceful bodies in motion. But he actually also has a whole range of paintings about social portraits. And this is a painting of a French Jewish banker at the French Bourse–stock exchange–in Paris and the machinations engaged in by the proverbial, I guess, transnational Jew, always scheming and conspiring for no good. Jason’s image of the New York Jew has everything in common with this anti-Semitic image in Degas’ painting. And so we can see that really the whole financial world is really opening up in the Jason section.

But there’s one other detail that we get. And in this way, Jason’s also a guide for us to the world of the 1920s, basically the whole of the early twentieth century, because of his mention to Nicaragua. And it turns out that that’s actually an accurate mention. The United States was in Nicaragua from 1909 to 1933. In 1916, getting closer to the date of The Sound and the FuryThe Sound and the Fury, let me just say, was published in 1929. So keep that date in your mind, 1929.

But in any case, in 1916, there was the Chamorro-Bryan Treaty. It was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1916, and it gave the United States exclusive rights to build an inter-oceanic canal across Nicaragua. The Panama Canal was already in existence, but there was some thought that maybe another canal might be useful. And the United States was claiming exclusive rights to build that canal. And that treaty also turned Nicaragua into a near U.S. protectorate, so that’s Jason’s complaint about the $50,000 every day spent to keep an army in Nicaragua.

Jason is someone who reads the newspapers, clearly. He’s a good newspaper reader. He’s up on the news. He has almost legitimate complaints against the U.S. government and the foreign intervention of the US government and the drain on the finances of the United States. And so all of a sudden, there’s a conflation of the New York Jew, the U.S. government, strangers at a distance, up to no good. So people who are far away, you never set sight on them, they are harming you in some fashion.

Let’s look at another way in which– and here, in the earlier passage, when the U.S. government is just spending $50,000 a day in Nicaragua, Jason himself claims to be completely innocent. He’s just harmed by the foreign policy of the United States government. But in the next passage, we see that actually Jason is in some sense a willing party to the harm that is coming to him in the sense that he is complicitous in the world that he’s complaining about. And this is also the second instance of injury from unknown parties.

Chapter 7. Western Union [00:38:57]

“Dam if I believe anybody knows anything about the dam thing except the ones that sit back in those New York offices and watch the country suckers come up and beg them to take their money… Only be damned if it doesn’t look like a company as big and rich as Western Union could get a market report out on time.  Half as quick as they’ll get a wire to you saying your account closed out.  But what the hell do they care about the people.  They’re hand in glove with the New York crowd. Anybody could see that.”

Why is Jason so obsessed with Western Union and with the telegraph as a newly developed instrumentality of communication? Well, it turns out that he’s a small investor, and he wants to find out exactly how his stocks are doing. He wants to be able to invest or withdraw his money. So the Western Union is crucial. His relation to Wall Street is crucial, but the Western Union is crucial in getting those reports to him on time and allowing him to change his investments on time.

And it turns out that the Western Union was in fact a very common sight in the South. There were many telegraph offices in the South. And this is the main Western Union office in New York City. So once again, Jason really knows what he’s talking about. He’s naming entities that actually were real historical entities. And here’s a bank. This is a historic bank on the historic Oxford Square in Oxford, Mississippi– that is Jefferson, Mississippi– and this is the main square in town, so banks were also a very important presence in Oxford, Mississippi.

And it’s really Jason’s relationship to the banks, both the local banks and also the national banks on Wall Street by way of the mediator, by the Western Union, that really is the main relation in his life. Yes, he has a relation to his niece, Quentin. He has a relation to his mother. He has a relation to his black servants. He hates them all. And the most significant relation that he has is to his money, held in jeopardy now by the national banks on Wall Street.

And it is in that context that all of a sudden the proverb-like phrase reappears, but in a very sad, almost a plea from Jason. “Like I say once a bitch always a bitch.  And just let me have twenty-four hours without any dam New York Jew to advise me what it’s going to do.  I don’t want to make a killing; save that to suck in the smart gamblers with.  I just want an even chance to get my money back.”

I think that that is the very small hope on the part of Jason. He’s not asking to make a huge sum of money. He just doesn’t want to lose all his money. And it’s such a modest hope that we know it’s bound to be defeated. Because of course, in such a world of long-distance action and a world operated by total strangers with huge, large-scale, impersonal institutions, small investors are the ones who lose out. So it’s a phenomenon that we recognize very well.

Chapter 8. Faulkner’s Sympathy for Jason [00:42:30]

In that way, I think that we shouldn’t forget that just as Faulkner has a lot of sympathy for Benjy, Faulkner also has a lot of sympathy for Jason. It’s very hard for us as readers to have any sympathy for Jason at all. He’s just such an offensive, off-putting character. But I think that that very resonant, small plea– “I just want an even chance to get my money back”– in that one phrase, Jason in many ways speaks for all of us. And Faulkner knows it, that that is in many ways the most important phrase in the Jason section.

And as it turns out, the irony of history is such that the history of the United States turns out to be a corridor to The Sound and the Fury. Because the same year that The Sound and the Fury came out was also the year of the crash. And here is an image of the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange and two more images, the crowds outside the New York Stock Exchange.

All those people are probably much bigger investors than Jason. They’re right there on the spot. They’re probably big investors. They’re the traders, actually. A lot of them were traders. So they were insiders on Wall Street. But even the insiders had the illusory sense that if you could just be there physically, that that would make a difference.

This suggests that Raymond Williams’ idea of the knowable community is actually a psychological need from all of us. All of us want to know the people we’re having transactions with. All of us are creating knowable communities right around us, even though the actual, historical circumstances are making those knowable communities an impossible ideal in the present.

We know that those people are there on the spot trying to recreate in vain a utopian ideal from the past. And even though they’re not country suckers like Jason, in the sense that they are not from Mississippi, they resemble him in more ways than one. So in that sense, the Jason section represents the largest possible scale for Faulkner. It really is about the entire world captured by Jason’s dealings and his failed attempt to come to terms with the future. The tomorrow that he’s guiding us to is really no place to be, but I think that for him and for lots of other people, that is the present.

But for Jason, it’s the problem of trying to find a resting place, a sustainable or some kind of bearable place in that tomorrow. That’s going to be the challenge for Faulkner in the last section of The Sound and the Fury. So we’ll come back to an alternative to the automobile at the very end of The Sound and the Fury and Jason’s satisfaction with that.

[end of transcript] 

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