Time In The Sound And The Fury


One of the main realities of human existence is the constant, unceasing passage of time. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner explores this reality of time in many new and unexpected ways as he tells the tragic tail of the Compson family. The Compsons are an old Southern aristocratic family to whom time has not been kind. Years of degeneration mainly stemming from slavery have brought them to the brink of destruction. Most of the story focuses on the Compson children who are undergoing the worst of the social and moral decay. Each of the four children perceives time in a much different way but by far the strangest and most bizarre attitude toward time that is given in the text is held by one of the three male children, Quentin. He is totally consumed with his past and at times can think of nothing else. He also becomes determined to stop time itself—a futile effort that will eventually force him to take his own life. Quentin’s obsession with the past and with the passage of time is a central theme of not only the Quentin section but of the entire book, and it is the key to understanding what Faulkner is trying to say about the decay of Southern culture and traditions.
To fully understand the motif of time in the Quentin section it is first necessary to compare it with the different ways in which Faulkner uses time in the other three sections. The first section is narrated by the mentally retarded brother, Benjy, who has absolutely no concept of time whatsoever. He simply drifts back and forth through time as if the past were no different from the present to him. Benjy constantly thinks of his sister Caddie who has long since left the family home but because he has no concept of time, he has no idea that she has been gone for many years. The third section is narrated by the greedy and neurotic brother, Jason. To Jason time is all about the present and he grabs every second as it goes by much as he does with the money that his sister Caddie sends to him in order to provide for her daughter who is under his care. The fourth and final section in the book, unlike all the others, is not told by one of the children but rather by an unspecified narrator. In this section time is shown as much closer to what ordinary people perceive it to be.
More than any of the other sections, the Quentin section sees time as the enemy. Quentin himself is in a constant struggle to escape time. The first evidence of this attempt to stop time is seen when he symbolically breaks the hands off his pocket watch. But to his dismay he can still hear it running even without the hands, a sign that time is inescapable. Indeed everywhere he goes he can see and hear clocks constantly reminding him of the passage of time. Quentin’s distortion of time is further shown by his total obsession with the past and his sister Caddie in particular. Caddie has just married several months before and Quentin has numerous flashbacks about her. In his mind this fixation on his sister is an attempt to protect her. It is a kind of distorted Southern chivalry but instead of it protecting the honor of the Southern woman, the distorted chivalry is destroying him because he is unable to let go of the past. As Quentin continues to try to stop time from progressing it is obvious that it is an impossible task. The only true way for him to stop time so that he does not have to forget and let go of the past is for him to take his own life. Ironically, he views it as an honorable act of Southern dignity but once again his perceptions are distorted. His act is merely one of cowardice that cannot stop time the way he hopes it will.
But what is Faulkner trying so say with these unusual pictures of time? His work The Sound and the Fury is actually a micro view of the South itself.