Book cover. COURTESY
It is a dramatic presentation of the decline of the once-aristocratic Compson family of Yoknapatawpha County, in northern Mississippi. Divided into four sections, the history is narrated by three Compson brothers — Benjamin, Quentin, and Jason — followed by a section by an omniscient narrator.
Section One is seen through the sensitivities of Benjamin (Benjy), Compson, on April 7, 1928, when Benjy is thirty-three years old. The youngest of the Compson children, Benjy was christened Maury in honor of his uncle, but by the time he reached the age of five, it became apparent that he was retarded. Out of the family's respect for his namesake, he was thereafter called Benjy.
The eight scenes that comprise the Benjy section jump about in time, from one of his earliest memories (when, in fact, he was still called Maury) and extend to the present (1928). Because of his impaired mental facilities, Benjy is literal, simplistic, and sensual. This section of the novel centers on his impressions of his sister Candace (Caddy), the only one in his family who was truly solicitous of him, and arguably one of the most significant characters in the novel.
Benjy's earliest depicted memory, from 1898 (when he was three years old), establishes the essence of Caddy's character. This early appearance of Caddy introduces two major themes — Caddy's mud-soiled underwear, and water — that will replay through the novel.
The Compson children are ignorant of the death of their grandmother. Caddy is the only one of the Compson children brave enough to climb the pear tree and look through the window to "spy" on the visitors who have come to attend what she realizes is the funeral wake. While Caddy does this, her brothers stand below, gazing up at her muddy underwear, which were soiled earlier when they were playing in a creek adjoining the Compson estate. Faulkner uses the muddy underwear as an emblem of Caddy's incipient sexuality; he frequently introduces bathing scenes in which water is used as a cleansing and purifying agent.
Many of Benjy's other memories focus on Caddy, including when she uses perfume (1905), when she loses her virginity (1909), and her wedding (1910). Benjy also has impressions of his name change (from Maury to Benjamin) in 1900, his brother Quentin's suicide in 1910, and the horrific sequence of events at the gate that lead to his being castrated, also in 1910.
Section Two is seen from Quentin Compson's mind on June 2, 1910, the day he prepares for and eventually commits suicide. Alone in his regard for the illustrious history and tradition of the Compson family, Quentin's reflections on time introduce another significant theme. Just as Benjy did, Quentin reflects on Caddy, her emerging sexuality, and the mortification he experiences at the implications of her unwed pregnancy. In many ways, Quentin represents pre–Civil War views of honor, Southern womanhood, and virginity. He cannot accept his sister's growing sexuality, just as he cannot accept his father's notion that "virginity" is merely an invention by men. Just as many of Benjy's flashbacks directly concern his involvement in Caddy's sexual maturation, so do Quentin's. The flashbacks dramatize just how ineffectual Quentin is in his dealings with his family, his Harvard studies, and his belief that the Compsons can return to their earlier days of Southern tradition.
Section Three is told by the third Compson brother, Jason, a day before Benjy, on Good Friday, April 6, 1928. Unlike his brothers, Jason is much more focused on the present, offering fewer flashbacks — though he does have a few, and he refers frequently to events in the past. The tone of Jason's section is set instantly by the opening sentence: "Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say." A redneck and a sadist, Jason serves to demonstrate how low the Compson family has descended from its former stature, specifically illustrated in the comparison between Quentin's obsessions over heritage, honor, and sin to Jason's near-constant cruelty, complaints, and scheming.
Also present in this section is another ironic comparison: In residence in the Compson home is another Quentin, Caddy's daughter, who appears to be heading in the same direction of sexual freedom as her mother. Jason is, in his way, as preoccupied with young Quentin's emerging sexuality as his brother Quentin was with Caddy's. Among the surprises and revelations in this section: Quentin drowned himself (the suicide itself was not depicted in Quentin's section); Benjy is brutally castrated to prevent him from fathering any impaired children"; Caddy has been divorced. Banished from the family home, she has taken up residence in a neighboring county and has been sending money to her daughter. Because Mrs. Compson has forbidden Caddy's name from being mentioned in the house, she has likewise forbidden her money from entering the house. To overcome this hurdle, Jason forges copies of Caddy's checks sent to cover expenses and treats for Miss Quentin. Jason gives his mother the forgeries, which Mrs. Compson ceremoniously burns. Meanwhile, Jason cashes the actual checks and pockets the money, giving little or none of it to his niece.
Section Four has an omniscient or authorial viewpoint. The time is the present, which, in terms of the novel, is Easter Sunday, April 8, 1928. All traces of Caddy, including her daughter and even the very mention of her name, have been removed. Jason pursues his niece, Miss Quentin, who has discovered his ongoing use of the money sent for her support and has managed to steal $7,000 from him. Jason pursues her, hopeful of recovering some of the money she has taken from him.
The section is sometimes referred to as "Dilsey's Section" after Dilsey Gibson, matriarch of the black family that has served the Compsons over the years, because of her prominence in this section. The Dilsey Section focuses on Dilsey's attendance at an Easter church service, at which a preacher from St. Louis, Reverend Shegog, delivers a sermon that stirs in Dilsey an epiphany of doom for the Compson family. After the sermon, Dilsey says, "I've seed de first en de last . . . I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin."
In this omniscient fourth section of the novel, the two narrative lines of Benjy and Jason converge to produce the ending when the two brothers meet outside the town hall and Benjy experiences a sense of elation he'd first known when he was only three — a time when everything seemed returned to its proper order.