The Necessity of Benjy as an Opening Narrator in The Sound and the Fury by Alana Rome
A modernist writer, William Faulkner wrote one of the most complex novels in America's literary history: The Sound and the Fury. The work chronicles the decline of the Compson family, a group of prominent southerners, through four narrators. Readers are introduced to the tale through Benjy, a 33-year-old, nonverbal invalid. Next, they encounter his brother, Quentin, a Harvard University student. The narration continues then through the mouthpiece of another brother, Jason, and finally, an omniscient narrator focusing on the activities of the Compson's maid, Dilsey.
Although one may expect a comprehensive, well-rounded account as a result, it is these narrators and their sequence of introduction that make the work a seemingly insurmountable read. In interviews, Faulkner repeatedly mentions his attempt and subsequent failure of "ideal communication." According to William Benjamin, most modernist authors similarly strived to "convey an incommunicable experience" (Kuminova 41). Communication, as Olga Kuminova defines it, stands for the "transmission of information or content by means of a shared code" (44). Most early critics of Faulkner's work, however, saw The Sound and the Fury as a violation of that shared code, neglecting traditional writing conventions and creating an inaccessible piece of literature. Their biggest problem lies with the sequence of narrators, with invalid Benjy as the novel's opener. Still, many argue that this particular opening was not only deliberate, but necessary for its overall message. Faulkner purposefully chooses to begin The Sound the Fury with Benjy's narration, largely to demonstrate his opinion regarding the impossibility of ideal communication; simultaneously, he wishes to create suspense, break literary traditions through modernism, and create the most authentic reality he could within the confines of pen and paper.
In his 1929 Providence Sunday Journal review, Winfield Townley Scott commented on modernist writers’ fatal flaw: "their utmost complete lack of communication….His [Faulkner’s] novel [The Sound and the Fury] tells us nothing." He also goes on to say that novel is "rambling, often capital-less or periodless or punctureless…. [a] jumbled, confused and wandering" text" (Kuminova 44).
It is hard to fault Scott’s analysis of the confusing text. Readers are presented first with Benjy, a mentally handicapped character with no sense of time. Benjy presents myriad events in the Compsons’ lives with no reference to time or sequence. In one section, the past is separated with italics: "'Wait a minute.' Luster said. 'You snagged on that nail again. Cant you never crawl through here without snagging on that nail.' Caddie uncaught me and we crawled through…" (Faulkner 4). In this excerpt, which initially takes place in 1928, Benjy snags himself on the fence; this event conjures up a memory from Christmas 1902 when he, again, snags himself on the fence and his sister, Caddie, lets him loose. Later on in the section, however, the italics become indicative of the present, instead of the past: "We passed the carriage house, where the marriage was. It had a new wheel. 'Git in, now, and set still until your maw come.' Dilsey said. She shoved me into the carriage" (9). Again, an event in the present, passing the carriage with Luster, brings Benjy's memory to 1912, when the family takes the carriage to visit Mr. Compson and Quentin's graves. In addition to confusing italics, the conventional, initial description of characters and setting is largely absent in Benjy's prose.
One reviewer suggests a solution to Faulkner's supposed narration problem: "[L]et the reader start the book on page 93 [Quentin's narration] putting off the introduction to the end" (Kuminova 45). This idea, however, although making the novel more digestible to readers, would negate Faulkner's primary reasons for his particular sequencing: to make use of literary devices like suspense and foreshadowing; to challenge his readers; and to comment on the insufficiencies of verbal communication. In all three ways, Faulkner breaks the tradition of the conventional author.
Although confusing, Benjy's narration creates a sense of suspense through the novel’s first section, which would be lost if the novel began with a more coherent narrator. The prose becomes a puzzle that the reader must sort through to solve the Compson family mystery. Readers begin to see a pattern between events Benjy recalls and his cries: "Caddy was all wet and muddy behind, and I started to cry" (Faulkner 19). Readers, thus, can deduce that the muddying of Caddy's dress will be symbolic. Roskus' comment also foreshadows the Compson family’s fate, although Benjy does not fully explain the comment: "They aint no luck on this place. I seen it at first but when they changed his name I knowed it" (29). Readers do not yet know that the "his" is Benjy, whose name has been changed from Maury, and that the change symbolically indicates the fall of the Compson family. By going from least to most comprehensive narrator, Faulkner sets up the reader as a scientist with a microscope, starting with a blurry picture that gradually becomes more focused.
Faulkner also uses his Benjy opening as a way to challenge his readers, one that could only come through showcasing Benjy first. Kuminova argues against other critics' suggestions to change the sequence, saying such a reworking would "constitute a betrayal of the innovative, challenging, heteroglossic way in which the novel is written" (45). It is the narration’s difficulty that helps weed out the average readers from the "exceptional readers…to be able to do without what it positions as 'common' and 'vulgar pragmatic props that regular communication requires" (43).
Going even further, Kuminova theorizes that Faulkner separated his readers into real and imaginary. Through this separation, Faulkner gives his actual readers an even harder time navigating through the text, because he is not actually writing for them. Kuminova describes Faulkner's ideal, imagined reader as someone "assumed to be already familiar with all the members of the narrator's household" (47). This theory is easy to accept, given the novel's stream-of-conscious writing, unassigned pronouns, time shifts and lack of punctuation. The real reader of the novel cannot have such intimate knowledge of the text's characters and events, especially through their first read. This challenge also serves as Faulkner's further commentary on the problem of communicating through words.
Kuminova proposes that the real and imagined readers are represented through Dilsey and Caddie, respectively. All the narrators, save the omniscient fourth narrator, are obsessed with Caddie. Benjy counts on her to take care of him and is obsessed with her purity; Quentin, likewise, has an obsession with her purity, which facilitates a borderline incestuous desire; and Jason becomes obsessed her, as she is the reason he loses his brass-ring job at the bank. It would only make sense that each narrator would be telling his story to her, as almost every event inadvertently involves her. Dilsey, moreover, is assigned the role of the real reader because she "is not a blood-relative of Benjy's and [her] life only accidentally crosses his." She embodies what Faulkner hopes his real readers will do: "generously and selflessly do the best he or she could to take care of the text, give it full affective attention, reading and re-reading, to make sure its communication is received" (Kuminova 56).
More than just what is shown on the page, however, is the readers' challenge of personally molding the text. Plato likened a written text to a helpless orphan, "thrown on the unfamiliar and unpredictable world after the author's "death" (passing the text on to the readers)" (Kuminova 41). In the any child must be molded through his/her parents, readers must mold the meaning of the text through their own experiences, values and biases. By making the text one that needs to be revealed and reconstructed, Faulkner challenges readers to find meaning not only within the text but within themselves. Conversely, the sequence and difficulty of The Sound and the Fury invites the reader to mold themselves through the text. As one reviewer writes: "Never had I adequately known the meaning of pathos until I read the first part of the book" (51). Kuminova expounds on this sentiment, explaining that the Benjy and Quentin sections of the novel are not accessible to the reader in regular cognitive ways; the reader, instead, is left with myriad inexplicable emotions, ones that she will have to work through and discover the meaning of with the help of the text. In this way, Faulkner, again, challenges the reader to not only read, but feel; this challenge can only be presented to the reader by introducing the book with Benjy.
Faulkner's challenge to sift through the multiple times and narrations of The Sound and the Fury also elicits an additional message: the insufficiency of verbal communication. His point is most shockingly presented through the novel's introductory narrator: an invalid who cannot actually speak out loud; in reality, Benjy's stories and ideas could never be heard. As Kuminova explains, "The figure of Benjy as an impossible narrator both sets and figuratively represents the whole novel's communicative plight" (Kuminova 42). In Benjy's case, words are literally insufficient, as he does not possess them; even within the confines of the characters lives, Benjy remains the closet to the truth about the Compson family's decline, yet he cannot verbalize it. The reader, as well as the characters, can only go on Benjy's sounds and cries to know something is wrong. Therefore, Benjy’s section comes to represent the "communicative failure" Faulkner believes words produce (46).
Benjy is not the only narrator, however, to represent Faulkner's opinion of words. Quentin's narration becomes equally impossible, as it is written the day he commits suicide; no one would have actually been able to hear his story. The outright subjectivity of his narration, moreover, would make it difficult for readers to even trust his version of the tales. The narrators' subjectivity, a telltale sign of the novel's modernist influences, confuses the reader through biases, lies and varying perspectives. Jason, moreover, does not suffice as an adequate narrator, as he is the most untrustworthy Compson. "'Don’t you trust me?' I [Jason] says. 'No,' she [Caddie] says. "I know you. I grew up with you" (Faulkner 204). While readers cannot trust Caddie in her accusation, they can later catch Jason in a lie, when he tells Dilsey that Miss Quentin is at school, when really she has run off with a boy (236). While the narrations become more clear and coherent as the novel progresses, the narrators themselves become less and less reliable, again creating a challenge for the reader to discern fact from fiction and again proving Faulker's theory against words.
Kuminova sums up Faulkner's idea of ideal communication in one word: fusion. Through his works, particularly The Sound and the Fury, he blurs the boundaries between reader and character, words and sounds, present and past, in an attempt to create an ideal form of communication that best represents an ultimate truth. As he often views ideal communication and the total revelation of truth impossibilities, he instead showcases this failure through his novel. The only way to properly present this failure, although dismissed and disapproved by critics, is to allow the most incoherent, yet most objective and insightful, narrator to introduce the Compson family to readers. The literary decision presents a risky attempt on the part of the author to present an authentic world through words. The Sound and the Fury would seem much less real if Benjy spoke with the eloquence and clarity of Jason; and it only stands to reason that the stream-of-conscious thinking of someone like Quentin, who is on the brink of suicide, would be jumbled and harried (Kuminova 49). The challenge to readers to find the truth for themselves becomes clear, while also teaching them a lesson in the insufficiencies of verbal communication that Faulkner so desperately tried to convey throughout his career.
Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.
Kuminova, Olga. "Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury as a Struggle for Ideal Communication." Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 21.1 (2010): 41-60. Print.