William Faulkner is certainly one of the best American writers of the 20th century. His ability to capture the zeitgeist of the American South contributes substantially to the cultural understanding of that specific time and place.
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However, his narrative style has always been characterized as notoriously difficult, and for that reason, most readers can enjoy his splendid language and cultural imagery but remain unable to grasp the key messages of his texts. In this paper, I will try to present Sartre’s view that Faulkner’s narrative technique illustrates his idea about time and Doreen Fowler’s Lacanian interpretation of the character of Caddy in Sound and Fury.
To grasp the significance of Faulkner’s work for the 20th-century literature, one only needs to consider the fact that one of the best-known philosophers of that century, Jean-Paul Sartre, was profoundly interested in the novel Sound and Fury and wrote a very influential piece of criticism on it. Sartre’s thesis is in that essay is that the non-chronological narrative in the Sound and Fury is not merely a matter of style or aesthetic preferences but the fundamental elements of the novel’s content (Sartre 229).
The broken chronology is not how Faulkner delivers his vision of the world – it is his vision of the world. In other words, according to Sartre, Faulkner is trying to break out of the artificially created the illusion of linearity of time (Sartre 229). The existence of clocks and other forms of measuring time perpetuate this illusion. The following quote from the novel illustrates this quite well, “time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels, only when the clock stops does time come to life” (Faulkner 104).
Faulkner tries to dismantle the distinction between the past, the present, and the future. He disturbs this temporal structure by removing the future completely and blurring the boundary between the past and the present. The events of the future fly into the characters in a completely deterministic fashion. Even events like suicide that often seem well-contemplated are completely fixed.
Sartre (230) writes, “all Faulkner’s art aims to suggest to us that Quentin’s soliloquy and his last walk are already his suicide” (Sartre 230). By removing the possibility of the future from the novel, the present itself becomes completely confusing as the events of the present keep the protagonist in a state of surprise. Ironically, the past is the only domain in which the character has any freedom as he or she can recreate it and reinterpret it. A person only lives in their memory.
Sartre’s view of the novel is very profound and useful as a tool for interpreting, sometimes very confusing, narrative in the text. For instance, the first part in which the reader is presented with the thoughts of Benji becomes truly clear and effective once one takes this perspective advocated by Sartre. In this part of the book, the events from the present are narrated in such a way that they resemble purely sensory experience, something that does not truly enter Benji’s mind.
In parallel, Benji’s thoughts about some of his memories appear, and Beni seems to be living through his past rather than the present events. Again, this idea of the present merely falling upon us while the past remains open for our reappraisal and reinterpretation plays the key role.
Next, different theoretical perspectives that inform literary critics have also produced very interesting interpretative insights about Faulkner’s writing. Coming from a Lacanian perspective, Fowler (34) argues that the character of Caddy is the key to understanding the novel Sound and Fury. Even though there is no separate section that is devoted to presenting her thoughts and her perspective on the events in the family, Caddy is certainly the thread that ties the other narratives together.
According to Fowler (35), Caddy slips through these different stories and is constantly on the move. There is no way for other characters to take hold of her even though Jason attempts to do so quite aggressively. In this poststructuralist theoretical strand, Caddy would be the perfect example of an entity whose presence is crucial to give meaning to the text, and yet, it is absent.
In much the same way as Lacan thinks that alienation from the mother is crucial for the child’s identity formation, mother’s presence is also necessary as a reference point for the child to know about what is his or her identity defined. In other words, to understand the meaning of anything, we need something that is at the same time present in the defined thing and absents from it. Fowler (35) argues that Caddy’s simultaneous presence and absence in the novel defines its meaning.
Caddy’s is also the central figure of all three individual narratives as she is the object of this presence/absence ambivalence that defines the lives of all three male figures. Caddy plays the role of the displaced biological mother of all three characters – the mother that is both intrusively present with her demanding character and completely absent in her emotional alienation. Caddy, on the other hand, is the desired mother-like figure to all three characters. Fowler (40) illustrates this quite well about Quentin.
Quentin’s desire for Caddy is the defining tension of his identity; however, the consummation of that desire negates his identity, and he ends up committing suicide. Fowler (40) writes, “This equation of sex and death is extended to include Caddy because for Quentin sex with Caddy, a displaced mother figure, images a return to an imaginary unity before the onset of alienation and identity.” In other words, the moment Caddy becomes radically present in his life, he, paradoxically, loses her and, consequently, loses himself as well.
The analysis offered by Fowler is very interesting and elegant one. In particular, the explanation for, seemingly unmotivated, Quentin’s suicide is truly enlightening. Also, the reader does have the sense that Caddy is somehow the key to the understanding of the novel as the image of her is constantly in the background of the story, and only rarely does it come to the forefront.
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However, without these theoretical insights from Lacanian psychoanalysis, one cannot have a framework within which to try to explain her status. Fowler’s success is in unifying the Lacanian theory and Faulkner’s mysterious style and thereby showing the brilliance of both.
In conclusion, Faulkner’s narrative technique is in the service of portraying his philosophical view about the nature of time. The complete disregard for the future and focus on the past is the reflection of Faulkner’s belief that the events of the present and the future are completely fixed, and we can only experience the past.
Next, the character of Caddy is the key to understanding many events in the novel if it is analyzed from the Lacanian perspective. Caddy’s absence is necessary as a reference point for the identity formation of each character. The negation of that absence, as is illustrated by the case of Quentin, results in the character’s self-annihilation.
Faulkner, William. The sound and the fury: the corrected text, New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.
Fowler, Doreen. Faulkner: the return of the repressed, Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1997. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Time in Faulkner: the sound and the fury.” William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism. Ed. Frederick Hoffman and Olga Vickery. Harcourt: Brace & World, inc., 1939, 225-32. Print.