This is a pretty difficult book. It’s definitely what you would call ‘literary’. I have now read it twice and I’m still not totally convinced I get it, so if you give it a go, it will take a little perseverance. However I actually really like it.
The novel narrates the decline of the Compson family, an old aristocratic family from the American South, over two generations. It is divided into four sections which are characterised by different narration; the first is narrated by Benjy Compson, the second by his brother Quentin Compson, the third, by their other brother Jason Compson, and the last is largely narrated in third person but is often considered to be Dilsey’s section as her perspective comes across most strongly and she is the black help who works for the family. You can see how this is already a little confusing.
As the first section, Benjy’s is both the simplest section and also very complex and difficult to get your head round. Benjy is cognitively disabled and so his narrative is extremely literal, but it also means he has little concept of the difference between past and present – between his memories and what is happening now. Faulkner uses italics to indicate shifts in time but it is still hard to keep track of what is going on.
This is followed by Quentin’s narration which is equally cryptic but for different reasons. Although intelligent and supposedly of sound mind, he is stuck in the past and often relives memories as if they are happening in the present. His narrative is far more cerebral than Benjy’s and in some passages it slips into stream of consciousness. This technique can immediately put me off and in some cases – I’m thinking specifically of Joyce’s Ulysses – I just find that it’s basically pretentious bullsh*t that doesn’t really add any meaning to what is being written (I feel I’m entitled to say this as an English Lit student). However I admired the use of it in this novel and although it’s still tricky, I think it’s worth the effort.
Jason’s narrative is a relief as it is in a pretty standard first person narrative form. The catch is that he is possibly one of the most odious and misogynistic characters I have ever had the displeasure to read about. Dilsey’s narrative is similarly ‘easy’ but it is only once you have reached the end of the novel that you come to realise and understand some of the references and allusions made in the earlier sections. I liked this about the novel – there is definitely something satisfying about unravelling some of the things you didn’t understand before. This is particularly the case with Benjy’s narrative, which on second reading becomes much clearer and it makes sense in a marvellously lucid way that would not have seemed possible at first. It is unbelievably well crafted.
The novel explores the idea of time and, in a similar way to other modernist texts of the period, the relationship between, or differences between, clock time and our subjective experience of time. This comes across most obviously in Quentin’s section as he is completely fixated with clocks and the passage of time.
Father said clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.
Interwoven within this theme of time, is a critique of the stagnancy of the Compson family because of their refusal to accept change. Time stands still for no-one yet this seems to be a reality they cannot grasp. Dilsey is the almost the only character who understands that she cannot control the passage of time and that change is inevitable, so for me she was the only true symbol of hope within the novel in spite of her old age.
The novel is also unusual in the fact that arguably one of the main characters, Caddy Compson, the sister of the three Compson brothers, only appears through the memories in their narratives. Yet she is the focal point for each of the brothers narratives.
For me, the novel is a masterpiece and I feel like it’s a novel that you can get more from each time you read it. I think it requires patience, but nevertheless it is expertly written and the characters are unique and engaging. It reveals a lot about human nature and makes you think philosophically about the relative insignificance of human life.