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Notion of Time in Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” Research Paper

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Updated: Jan 15th, 2022

Time is one of the main realities of human existence which leads our life. The life of the mankind depends on time. Time may heal and time may destroy human fates. William Faulkner’s treatment and representation of time is considered to be revolutionary in the American literature. It is quite complicated for an ordinary reader to comprehend the stream of time in Faulkner’s works. Faulkner represents time from different points of view. It is not understood as a constant and linear entity by William Faulkner. The past, the present and the future have fuzzy boundaries. Faulkner aims at the representation of time as a human mind perceives it. Many people confuse time with chronology. Time is associated with clocks and calendars which are invented by man. What is time in a real life? How does it influence our life? Time is perceived by every man in a different way. Old people who count every latest second of their life appreciate time more than young people who scatter about the invaluable minutes of their life.

Faulkner’s representation of time is characterized by the inconclusiveness of the chronicle. The readers know about Benjy’s institutionalism, Quentin’s suicide and the daughter’s theft only from the appendix to the novel (Mainar, p. 68). Generally, the action in every classical novel has the focus. It is senseless to look for such kind of focus in Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury. Each episode represented by the narrator invokes another one in his memory. In fact, most episodes refer to the past. The present is not sharply defined as the boundary between the past and the future. It is presented as the thief who comes upon us and disappears. The present is helpless before the past. It is full of holes through which past things invade it. The future doesn’t exist at all in Faulkner’s works. The past destroys all hopes for the future. In The Sound and The Fury “everything occurs in the wings; nothing happens, everything has happened” (Sartre, p. 227). The statement of Jean-Paul Sartre, characterizing the essence of Faulkner’s heroes is: “I am not is, I was” (p. 227). They are people without future. The future is already the past. The Compson are condemned to failure. The story is not in progress, each word is presented as an oppressive and hateful presence.

It is a misfortune for every character to be confined in time (Sartre, p. 226). As William Faulkner states in The Sound and The Fury: “…a man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you’d think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune…” (p. 123). These words cast light upon the sense of time in Faulkner’s novel. Time is one of the main reasons of the destruction of the Compson family.

The notion of time in The Sound and the Fury is characterized by a subtlety. The actions of the present are depicted as scattered fragments: “I went to the dresser and took up the watch, with the face still down. I tapped the crystal on the corner of the dresser and caught the fragments of glass in my hand and put them into the ashtray and twisted the hands off and put them in the tray. The watch ticked on” (p. 99). While time is passing, nothing happens. Jean-Paul Sartre considers suspension as one of the main characteristics of Faulkner’s present (p. 227). This suspension is not presented in abstract terms. It is perceived in the things: “The train swung around the curve, the engine puffing with short, heavy blasts, and they passed smoothly from sight that way, with that quality about them of shabby and timeless patience, of static serenity…”(Faulkner, p. 106). Moments burst forth and freeze than fade and diminish, staying motionless: “Beneath the sag of the buggy the hooves neatly rapid like the motions of a lady doing embroidery, diminishing without progress like a figure on a treadmill being drawn rapidly offstage” (Faulkner, p. 143).

There is a wide range of writers who have tried to mutilate time in their literary works. Proust, Joyce, Gide, Virginia Woolf, Dos Passos and others play with time in their works. Some of them deprive it of past and future presenting only present as the pure intuition of the moment; others make it a mechanical and limited memory. The nature of Faulkner’s time resembles Marcel Proust’s time with his lost and recaptured present. According to Proust, salvation is in time itself, a total recovery from the past. On the contrary, Faulkner’s past is never lost, it is like an obsession which is always there (Sartre, p. 229).

Faulkner presents time in each chapter of his work in a different way. Every Faulkner’s character has his own sense of time. The Compson are an old Southern aristocratic family to whom time is not very kind. Each of the four children Benjy, Quentin, Jason and Caddy perceives time in a different way. The most chaotic and fuzzy sense of time is observed in Benjy’s narration. William Faulkner introduces the Compson family with Benjy’s narration. He has chosen Benjy, mentally distorted member of the family, to express the decline of the Compson. Carolyn Denard in her essay The Long, High Gaze: The Mythical Consciousness of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner points out that William Faulkner often gives “voice to the ‘discredited’ within the South – the alienated, the insane, the idiosyncratic – Ike, Benjy, Darl. These nationally and locally discredited get Faulkner’s gaze… He does not simply praise these characters—the gaze is not applause; it is a sincere, lingering consideration of their place in the universe—how they fail and how they triumph, but always how they matter” (p. 22). For Benjy, the present triggers thoughts and memories from the past. It is quite difficult to grasp the concept of time for mentally retarded Benjy. Time does not exist in his mind; he is unable to distinguish between the past and the present. Benjy constantly thinks about his sister Caddy, who has left their family long time ago. Although, she has been gone for many years, it seems to him to be a recent event. He doesn’t have the notion of time at all. Benjy cannot distinguish the events that happened only hours ago and events from remote past. He stands at the gate waiting for Caddy to return in 1928 only because he has waited since 1902. These years of waiting don’t exist for him, he remembers only those events from the past which gave him pleasure. Benjy remembers all events connected with Caddy. He with his brothers saw Caddy on the tree with muddy drawers, which predicted her future promiscuity. He always remembers that she smells like “trees in the rain”. His memories concerned with Caddy are all his life. But when Caddy becomes a young woman and starts wearing a perfume, Benjy ceased to trust her because of his memories. Faulkner plays with time. He is writing about Benjy in 1928, the events remembered by Benjy belonged to 1898 and these memories occurred in his mind in 1906-10.

The title of this literary work is taken from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Shakespeare’s words help fully understand the idea of The Sound and The Fury:

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. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s just a waking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing (p. 179).

Benjy’s narration is like “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury”. This narration depicts the decline and “the way to dusty death” of a traditional upper-class Southern family. Our life is just a shadow of our past according to these words.

In contrast to Benjy, Quentin has an obsession of time. He tries to understand time. His past totally immersed him. Time ruins all his life. There are a lot of references to the clocks and dates in Quentin’s narration. Quentin’s life is presented as a struggle with time. Death is a means by which he thinks he can get out of time. He hopes to escape into a timeless world (Miyauchi).

The symbol of clocks plays an important role in The Sound and The Fury. Quentin’s recollections of receiving the watch as a gift from his father are connected with these words: “I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it” (Miyauchi). These words express the futility of trying to keep up with time. All our feelings and anxieties are forgotten with the course of time. But Quentin’s problem is that he doesn’t want forget all these feelings. If everything will be forgotten, it doesn’t have meaning and a human life is meaningless at all. That’s why he tries to stop time from passing committing a suicide. Men struggle against time all their life. Faulkner’s typical hero is a creature deprived of potentiality and explained only by what he was. Man is not the sum of what he was but the totality of what he does not yet have, of what he could have (Sartre, p. 231).

People begin fully understand the notion of time without clocks and dates. Quentin breaks his clocks and Benjy doesn’t need any one, because he doesn’t understand them.

As for the third brother, Jason who is the most straightforward and mercenary member of the Compson family, time plays an important role. He perceives time as a great chance to make fortune here and now. Time for Jason is the present. He grabs every second of his life. From his narration we have Caddy returning from a five-second glimpse of her child, and we see Jason watching the clock and timing every moment. Jason doesn’t see any importance in the past except those situations which deprived him of a position in Herbert Head’s bank. He rejects the past and he lives only for his selfish aims at the present moment.

Time in the final section is presented by the clock hanged on the kitchen wall. When the clock strikes five times, Dilsey knows that it is eight o’clock. This clock helps her to keep order in the chaotic and fuzzy world of the Compson family. She takes Benjy to the sermon which is about the beginning and the end. This symbolic sermon expresses her life. She has been with Compsons since their beginning and now she becomes the witness of their end. Dilsey is the only character who has a continuum and chronological sense of time. It is a kind of a healthy sense of time. The understanding of time by other characters expresses their disturbances.

Faulkner succeeds in presenting thirty years of history in a three-day period. One moment in present tells much more about the past that the present does. Small periods of time cast light upon large periods of the past.

There are so many writers who use such depiction of time. The reasons are in the social conditions and real absurdity of the surrounding world. All our every day troubles and anxieties incite us to say: “It can’t last much longer” (Sartre, p. 232). The instability of our life and uncertainty in the future make us the people without future. We don’t know what happens tomorrow. Time has a power above us. We can’t control the course of time. People can’t stop it when they are happy or hasten when they are miserable. We live in time of incredible wars and revolutions and William Faulkner uses his extraordinary art to describe a world dying of old age, with us gasping and choking in it (Sartre, 232). In fact, our life becomes “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury”.

Works Cited

  1. Denard, K. “The Long, High Gaze: The Mythical Consciousness of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner”. Unflinching Gaze: Morrison and Faulkner re-envisioned. Ed. Kolmerten C., Ross S. USA: The University Press of Mississippi, 1997. 17-29. Print.
  2. Faulkner W. The Sound and the Fury. Canada: Vintage, 1991. Print
  3. Miyauchi, H. The Sound WITH the Fury: Quentin’s words in the Sound and The Fury. Miyauchi Hina, 2008.
  4. Mainar G., Luis M. “William Faulkner’s the Sound and the Fury: The Status of the Popular in Modernism”. Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses 12, 1999. 61-73. Print.
  5. Sartre, J.P. “Time in Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury”. William Faulkner. Three Decades of Criticism. Ed. Hoffman F., Vickey O. New York: A Harbinger Book, 1963. 225-232. Print.
  6. Shakespeare W. Macbeth. Washington: Washington Paper Press, 1992. Print.
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