Calvinistic Visions of Time and Humanity in The Sound and the Fury
Helen R. Atsma, Willamette University
It has been persuasively argued that a heavy dose of Calvinism runs through Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha saga, though The Sound and the Fury is perhaps the most underused novel in this strain of criticism. Influenced by the Calvinistic South that surrounded him, Faulkner created a Compson clan that reflected basic Calvinistic tensions that Faulkner saw. However, more than just effectively demonstrating those moral tensions, Calvinism in The Sound and the Fury gives each Compson brother, as well as Dilsey, a different time structure in which to live. The three Compson brothers and Dilsey each have an individual vision of humanity closely linked with their sense of Calvinism and time.
As has been noted by numerous critics, including Harold J. Douglas, J. Robert Barth, and Mary Dell Fletcher, a distinction must be made between theological Calvinism and pragmatic, Southern Calvinism. Theological Calvinism traditionally presents a vision of humanity that is depraved, destined, and dealing with the ramifications of Original Sin. Perry Westbrook, in his book Free Will and Determinism in American Literature, sums it up well:
Man after the fall is evil. He is not deprived of will; he simply is incapable of willing anything but evil. He wills as he chooses, but his choice is determined by his sinful nature…man sins willingly through his corrupt nature, not by exterior compulsion. The corrupt will, indeed, creates its own necessity. (5)
This does not mean, however, that humans should not struggle to lead godly lives or pursue conversion in themselves or others. Indeed, the outward fight for godliness is a sign of being of the elect, and the effort of the will is necessary for conversion (Westbrook 7). Life, then, becomes a constant struggle to bring one’s own will in accordance with the will of God, though He is seen as having controlled the ultimate decision regarding one’s destiny.
American Calvinism, while keeping traditional Calvinistic principles at its core, modified its tenets to stress conversion more than predestination, grace more than punishment. And while Calvin’s teachings were preached emphatically from the pulpits, its greatest influence was in the culture it created, one where God was seen as having blessed the Chosen by giving them earthly gifts, where defiance of moral codes (especially in a sexual manner) resulted in social castigation, and where the sins of the fathers did, indeed, rest on the third and fourth generations. Society determined what, exactly, these sins were.
Scotch-Irish settlers and Northern American migrants readily grafted Calvinism into the American South. Baptist and Methodist denominations adopted the notions of free will held by their Presbyterian counterparts, in part because it allowed them to justify slavery, as the absolute power of God meant that slavery was “His will and His responsibility” (Fletcher 201). Many Southern churches severed ties with the North (some did so because of the slavery issue), creating an even stronger strain of Calvinism in the South. Fletcher writes that the
typical southerner saw his position as one providential trust, analogous to that of Jehovah, who had become a God of battle with a flaming sword. The doctrine of the elect, when projected into the secular world, meant that these southern Protestants were the Chosenᾰthe instruments to carry out God’s plan for instructing black men in the Gospel. (201)
Though the Enlightenment modified Southern Calvinism (much to the church’s chagrin), the notions of original sin and depravity were never allowed to leave the Southerner’s framework. Grace was believed to be able to cleanse one’s sins, thus making salvation desirable, but the belief that few would ultimately benefit from this grace led to a focus on the vengeful God of the Old Testament in place of the God of mercy and love of the New (202).
Though Faulkner was ambiguous about his personal faith, he was raised in a fairly religious family, with his great-grandfather expecting him to have memorized a new Bible verse each morning. He was linked to many different denominations, having been baptized into the Methodist church, married in a Presbyterian chapel, and buried by the Episcopal church (Johnson 68). Faulkner’s literature seems to reflect the world he saw around him (of his writing about the South, Faulkner said “I have tried to escape and I have tried to indict”), and the South was a place that was heavily influenced by Calvinism (Fletcher 230).
In literature, Calvinism traditionally stresses external law (most notably, the Ten Commandments), portrays a struggle between the flesh and the spirit, and contrasts free will and destiny (Fletcher 204, 212). Harold Douglas and Robert Daniel believe that incidents of violence are common in Calvinistic literature as they show the degeneracy of man, and that Faulkner’s “ambivalent attitude towards slavery” is a sign of Calvinism (5). In addition to violence, sexual sins are often portrayed as meriting severe punishment, as in the Old Testament they are among the most unclean of sins (Fletcher 204). Besides listing specific actions and deeds that merit a work of literature being noted as Calvinistic, Douglas and Daniel note that Faulkner’s overall “saturnine tone that characterizes [his literature] except when it is grotesquely humorous” gives it a distinctly Calvinistic feel (5). It is not surprising that Calvinism, a highly individualistic theology, is so prevalent in The Sound and the Fury, a novel that essentially presents a story through the eyes of four very different people.
Perry Westbrook believes that the fundamental Calvinistic point in The Sound and the Fury is that we find, in each of the main characters, a soul that acts in free will on its perverted desires, though it is impossible to imagine them doing something else (177). Douglas and Daniel focus more on the clear divisions in the novel of the elect and the damned, noting that Dilsey belongs to the former category and the Compsons to the latter. They argue that Faulkner’s Calvinism reflects his belief that “human life [is] perpetually meaningful and interesting,” as the Calvinist creates tragedy by showing how far from the ideal humans can fall (12). The notion of progress, so important in traditional American society, becomes meaningless when presented in a Calvinistic framework, because the state of the soul is the only thing that can have purpose. Faulkner’s use of a Calvinistic framework thus imbues the text with meaning that it would otherwise lack, as it forces the reader to look at the individual soul of each character rather than judging them by worldly standards. “It provides the conditions for tragedy,” Douglas notes, quoting Yeats when he continues, “We begin to live when we have conceived life as tragedy” (12).
Faulkner’s Calvinistic bent has been carefully examined. However, his use of Calvinism extends beyond thematics in The Sound and the Fury. The story of the degeneration of the Compson family passes through one crazed, streaming mind into another, until we reach the fourth and final section, where the reader is given a glimpse of the life of Dilsey on Easter Sunday. Each major section of the novel is distinguished by how time is perceived by the narrating character, leading to remarkably different views of humanity and the future.
Cleanth Brooks, in his book William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country, comments that unless each male Compson “can look ahead to the future, he is not free. The relation that the three Compson brothers bear to the future and to time in general has everything to do, therefore, with their status as human beings” (329). Thus the Compson brothers’ relationship to the future, to the world around them, to their concepts of freedom, and to the way they view themselves is related to their sense of time. More precisely, their sense of time is related to their vision of humanity, and it is this vision that reflects various specific degrees of Calvinism.
Benjy’s section, the first of four in The Sound and the Fury, is the most confusing and difficult for the reader. For Benjy, time exists not in the traditional states of past, present, and future, but rather as a chaotic mix of those states, creating the sensation that his life progresses in a cyclical, rather than linear, motion. And while time is of great concern to the reader in Benjy’s section (we do, as Sartre claimed, want to place all of the events of Benjy’s life in order, though we know this is then not the same story that Faulkner wrote), Olga Vickery has persuasively argued that Benjy exists outside of time, removed from the limits of this world.
Benjy’s place in time is very defined, however, when studied in the context of the family’s relationship to him. When Benjy is four, the family finally accepts the fact that he is mentally handicapped. For Caroline Compson, this marks the beginning of the family’s doom, so much so that her son’s name must be changed from Maury, a Bascomb family name, to Benjamin, the Biblical lastborn son of Jacob. Faulkner intentionally mixed up several Old Testament stories in referring to Benjy’s name, taking “Benjamin the child of mine old age” from the story of the birth of Isaac, and “Benjamin the child of mine old age held hostage into Egypt” from the actual story of Benjamin, beloved son of Jacob, who was kept from his father by his brother Joseph in Egypt when there was a famine in Canaan (56, 108).When asked by a student at the University of Virginia if the mistake was Faulkner’s or Caroline’s, Faulkner answered the question with “Is there anybody who knows the Bible here?” The response indicated that the student “looked it up and Benjamin was held hostage for Joseph.” Faulkner replied with, “Yes, that’s why I used them interchangeably,” indicating that he wished for the weight of the Old Testament combined, rather than individual stories, to rest upon certain elements of The Sound and the Fury (Gwynn 18).
Just as Faulkner wished for Benjy’s name to indicate a mixture of love and sorrow, joy and grief, Benjy becomes for his mother a symbol of his fallen family, a once-loved last son turned into a measure by which the outside world can see the family’s doom. Indeed, Benjy is Caroline’s “punishment,” and he represents the end of prosperity and social standing for the Compsons (65).
The lastborn Compson, the very symbol of his family’s doom, is in fact the least cursed in the Calvinistic sense, for he has no sense of impending destruction or future calamity. Benjy can neither be saved nor cursed, for his present is the past and his future is simply not thought of. Faulkner constructed a place for Benjy that exists without the sense of time. Just as Benjy has no knowledge of the progression of time, he is “incapable of good and evil because he had no knowledge of good and evil,” as stated by Faulkner in an interview with Jean Stein vanden Heuvel (233). Thus Benjy is ultimately neutral to Calvinism, though he is surrounded by a world that insists upon it. He does not adhere to the Southern social norms, has no sense of destiny, cannot progress financially or otherwise, and is, quite simply, a stuck cog in the Compson family wheel. Because he has no sense of the progression of time, he is bound to the same stories, repeated over and over, and neither he nor his family can ever progress to an ending, a resolution of past problems.
As the reader searches to make sense of Benjy’s garbled thinking, it becomes obvious that Benjy struggles in telling the story not only because of his mental capacity, but also because of the story he has to tell. His section is a warning of the rest of the story to come, telling us of the irresolution of the Compson family and the lack of ending that each section brings. Because of this, it is even more difficult for Benjy to tell the story in a linear fashion. Benjy’s section is repetitive in word choice and thematics, which hinders progression, if not making it impossible.
For the Compsons, Benjy represents degeneration, a regression that cannot be overcome. As long as Benjy is alive, he is reminder to his family of their fall. During the Easter weekend in which most of the novel takes place, Benjy turns 33, the age of the crucified Christ. In the traditional Christian view of salvation, one must recognize that Christ came to save sinners, and that all are sinners. In accepting salvation, Christians recognize that they are in need of such a thing. Though Benjy does not act as a savior to the Compson family (indeed, we learn from the appendix that he spends the remainder of his life locked up in a mental hospital), he is at once both innocent of sins and a constant reminder of them. Benjy’s role as being simultaneously outside of time (in his concept of reality) and a static reminder of it (in his family’s concept of reality) is similar to the role of Christ.
Though Christ-like in being both transcendent and bound by time, Benjy does not adhere to the Christian notion that all are sinners. Through his eyes, we see that Caddy can be both stained and pure, “smelled like trees” and not, for he does not perceive her as progressing linearly down a path of destruction. She is complicated, mixed up, and his past remembrances of her purity are just as strong as those where he notes that she is impure. Benjy’s sense of time allows Caddie to be both fallen and saved, and this contrasts strongly with the rest of the family’s Calvinistic rigidity, which rests on binaries: saved/fallen, good/bad, clean/stained. Caroline Compson obviously subscribes to this line of thought: Jason is viewed as her “salvation” from Benjy’s “punishment,” and she states that “there is no halfway ground that a woman is either a lady or not” (65). Both Mr. Compson and Quentin, as Warwick Wadlington notes, “tend to experience difference as contradiction, multiplicity as a stalemated war between ‘impure properties.’…A universe of antagonisms is formed, all divided and subdivided, as awareness focuses on each, into further bifurcations of ‘A and not-A’” (362). Quentin, Caddy’s daughter, tells Jason that “I’m bad and I’m going to hell” (119). She has already decided that she is not a lady (proving Mrs. Compson’s binaries correct), and she will follow the path of her sinful mother.
Benjy’s vision of humanity allows for the unallowable in the Calvinistic society in which the Compsons live. Benjy does use binaries in terms of making distinctions between Caddy and not-Caddy, but his binaries do not rest on simple moral judgments. Though Caddy does smell like trees and then not, it is important to note that these two distinctions are mixed up in Benjy’s mind: Caddy never exists only as a bad girl, for his sense of time allows him to remember her as one who didᾰand who does, for Benjyᾰsmell like trees. He sees that people are not simple binary opposites, and he doesn’t view life as a simply moving forward to progressions or damnation, but he instead attempts to view the whole picture. Though he is concerned with Caddy’s blatant sexual misconduct, he does not damn her to hell for it. He is an idiot, and yet he is possibly the sanest Compson, capable of viewing people holistically.
However, it is important to remember that Benjy does not (and cannot) see himself as a savior or view his family as needing such a thing. He views people through the eyes of innocence, and his discernment of his family’s action is limited. Even when he can perceive, he can only remember having “tried to say,” and not actually saying (33). Benjy can hear of the family’s doom through the comments of others, and when Roskus says that “Taint no luck on this place…I seen the sign and you is too” one wonders how much of that Benjy understands (19). Benjy sees the mud that is staining his family, but he cannot articulate what that mud is, nor can he tell the family of his complete picture of Caddy. In the end, Benjy’s message is muted.
Faulkner carefully places Quentin, perhaps the most seemingly Calvinistic character of all of the Compsons, right after the doomless and timeless Benjamin. Rather than being indifferent to time, Quentin is obsessed with it, watching shadows, breaking watches, dividing his day into clear sections. Moreover, Quentin is obsessed with what time brings, reflecting heavily on the doom time carries for his family and the inevitable suicide time will lead him to commit.
Quentin’s section is less difficult than Benjy’s, but it has its own unique challenges for the reader. Quentin is not waiting for a story to unfold or to happen, he is merely going over the things in his life that have caused him to decide to kill himself. For Quentin, there is no more choice, no more action, only the need to fulfill some pre-decided destiny. As Sartre states,
The coming suicide which casts its shadow over Quentin’s last day is not a human possibility; not for a second does Quentin envisage the possibility of not killing himself. The suicide is an immobile wall, a thing which he approaches backwards, and which he neither wants to nor can conceive. (269)
Time is both obsessed over and useless in Quentin’s framework, as he has already found a method by which he can transcend it. Once he hit upon his solution, suicide, there is no possibility that he can conceive of an existence that would force him to linger in time any longer. Escaping time allows him to enter an eternity he has constructed for himself using Calvinistic principles.
Cleanth Brooks notes that Quentin could be called one of Faulkner’s Puritans, and certainly there is no doubt that his rage at Caddy’s sexuality appears quite puritanical (Brooks 331). Calvinistically, there are few greater sins than that of sexual immorality, and his strong reaction is in keeping with the Old Testament (and Old South) notions of family honor. Indeed, in the appendix to The Sound and the Fury, Quentin is one “who loved not his sister’s body but some concept of Compson honor” (207).
But we also know that Quentin Compson is more complex than a Calvinistic figure who desires punishment for his sister. Quentin is not content with simply condemning Caddy to hell for eternity because of her sins. Moreover, Quentin desires permanent unity with Caddy, rather than separation. By constructing an almost plausible story of incest, Quentin is able to use the very Puritanism that sustains his sense of order into a thing that will jointly condemn his sister and himself to hell for eternity. In the appendix, we learn that Quentin
loved not the idea of the incest which he would not commit, but some Presbyterian concept of its eternal punishment: he, not God, could by that means cast himself and his sister both into hell, where he could guard her forever and keep her forevermore intact amid the eternal fires. (208)
Quentin longs for resolution, for ending, and for a future unity with his sister. His sense of Calvinistic doom allows him to live June second as a day that has been already resolved, and his Puritanism almost convinces him that an eternal hell will be waiting for him.
However, as John Matthews comments, Quentin’s very actions destroy any sense of resolution in his section. Matthews states, “The suicide is the great unspoken fact of his monologueᾰa finality important because it eternalizes the present by ‘unthinking’ the future” (385). Though his physical life has found an ending, his future spiritual life, one that he has pinned all his hopes upon, will remain forever unknown to the reader. We wonder if his ending was merely that, an ending, or if he somehow found the hellish existence he was longing for. Moreover, Quentin’s suicide drives his family to further despair and decay. For Caroline, and the rest of the Southern world, it is yet another indicator that the Compson family is on a downward spiral. Rather than creating a sense of resolution, Quentin’s suicide is one more sign of the growing dispersion of the family.
It is important to remember that Quentin’s fabricated Calvinism is one that can create a timeless order out of the chaos of his life, not one that is tied to religious faith. He lacks a personal relationship with God, any notion of the redeeming qualities of Christianity (he is, after all, only using it to damn himself to hell), and there is no sign that Christian rituals play a part in his life. However, he is well versed in the Bible (much like Faulkner), and different Biblical passages randomly stream in and out of his head throughout his section.
Most of Quentin’s thoughts on religious figures are wrapped up in how they affect time. He repeats his father’s notion “That Christ was not crucified: he was worn away by a minute clicking of little wheels,” implying that time wears away everyone, though, ironically, time itself is eternal (49). Quentin ponders the second coming of Christ, thinking that “the Day when He says Rise only the flat-iron would come floating up. It’s not when you realize that nothing can help youᾰreligion, pride, anythingᾰit’s when you realize that you don't need any aid” (51). And perhaps his vision of the inept Christ that ultimately cannot save him is the most telling of his spiritual situation, as there was only “sawdust flowing from what wound in what side that not for me died not” (111).
Quentin’s vision of humanity is one of continual loss with no hope of recovery. His thoughts continually return to his childhood, and it impossible not to notice that the only happy memories Quentin has are from playing with his siblings and black friends (later servants) as children, as Irving Howe notes (272). Quentin’s childhood is an Eden of sorts, complete with a tree, a serpent, and a pastoral setting. The struggles between the races are not yet very evident, and Benjy’s idiocy is not acknowledged. Caddy’s muddy drawers make a large impression on the mind of the young Quentin, and when she becomes “stained” sexually, Quentin’s edenic youth has become a descent into hell. Quentin relies heavily on the Christian plan of purity, fall, and punishment without the hope of salvation, redemption, and a place in heaven. His life can only be one of loss, never again of gain, and his only escape is suicide.
Quentin’s modified Calvinism causes him to see people as either cursed or blessed, with no room for change. His doomed family, and the cause of this doom, is a cause of preoccupation, as he repeatedly tells and asks Caddy “theres a curse on us its not our fault is it our fault” (100). The “fault” of the family, which on the surface is Caddy’s sexual promiscuity and his feigned incest episode, seems to also rest on possible past sins of the family, such as slavery.<![endif]> For Quentin, time has become representative of a declining morality. However, Quentin’s father constantly berates Quentin’s moralizing, telling him not to fight against time as “no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools” (49). Ultimately, Quentin chooses not to fight his own battle, leaving his confusing Calvinistic construct for the “clean flame” he hopes awaits him.
Benjy is outside of time and therefore has no internal struggle with his destiny. Quentin is so bound by time that his future is nothing but unavoidable horror, and he seeks to transcend it. Jason, the final Compson brother, is the only character truly struggling with the Calvinistic notion of fate and free will, and it is this struggle that causes Jason to spew his caustic bitterness on the people that surround him.
The stream-of-consciousness technique that Faulkner uses in Benjy’s and Quentin’s section is once more at work in Jason’s part, though it is as different from the first two as they are from each other. Jason’s telling of the tale is more straightforward, with less diversion to side stories and less movement around in time. Jason’s assessment of his family is much clearer than Quentin’s: Caddy and Quentin (her daughter) are bitches, Caroline is a sniveling pushover, Dilsey is a lazy maid, Benjy should be locked up, and his brother and his father both drowned in their liquid of choice. Jason’s problems do not rest in his ability to see the world around him clearly (albeit viciously); they lie instead in his reaction to this imperfect world.
Though Quentin is the figure who commits suicide, Donald M. Kartiganer believes that Quentin is only neurotic, though Jason is psychotic. The difference lies in their ability to interpret the world around them: Quentin fabricates a fable (incest) “in order to deal with a reality he cannot face. That it is a fable is something he himself insists on. Jason, however, confuses the real and the illusory, and is quite unaware of the way he arranges his own punishment” (336). Jason’s struggle between free will and predestination ultimately causes his psychosis, for “standing between him and reality is his need to hold on to two opposing views of himself: one is that he is completely sufficient, the other is that he is the scapegoat of the world” (336). Jason’s belief that he alone is his own master, coupled with his sense of complete victimization, leads to an unresolvable tension.
A man who tries to be both victim and bully at once can never succeed at both, and Jason’s life falls apart because he is ineffective in each role he tries on for size. He cannot be the controlling person he wants to be, but neither can he accept what fate has handed him. Indeed, when Jason realizes that his niece is outside of his control, he “could see the opposed forces of his destiny and his will drawing swiftly together now, toward a junction that would be irrevocable” (191). Quentin has taken away the only thing that compensated for Jason’s lost job: his hoarded money. Originally promised financial gain through his sister’s wedding, Jason’s lost job represents the fate of being a Compson. His cache of money represented his attempt at changing that fate. Though time moves linearly for Jason, he is still dwelling on the lost job of 15 years past. He cannot move forward until he deals with this, and Quentin’s act of thievery forces him to bring together his notion of fate and will.
Quentin Compson’s relationship to time is one of a longing for dispossession: he wishes for nothing more than to exist in a timeless state. John Matthews argues convincingly that Jason, on the other hand, wants to possess time and claim it for its intrinsic financial value. For a man who cannot find an intrinsic value in life, the only value he can place on it is one of money. He is obsessed with obtaining, hoarding, and gambling with money, for there is no other means by which he can prove his humanity. As Matthews comments, “Surely once source of Jason’s commitment to his work is that it protests against suicides’ announcement that time is worth nothing” (377).
Jason is not unlike many social Calvinists of his day. Not knowing whether they were saved or damned, it was believed that God would show His personal approval by granting them material things. In this way their community, their family, and themselves would know that they were blessed by God and thus saved. W. J. Cash asserts in his book The Mind of the South that in the South was the doctrine “which has always moved along with Calvinism everywhere: that Heaven apportions its reward in exact relationship to the merit and goodness of the recipientᾰthat both the mill-owners and their workmen were already getting what they deserved” (358).
Financial gain is a tragic, if easy, way to assess the value of one’s life, but for Jason it becomes the only way. He sees humanity as being worthless, without redemption (nor requiring it), and lacking morality. Ironically, while Jason obsesses about the sexual sins of Caddy and her daughter, Quentin’s suicide and his father’s alcoholism, he sees nothing wrong in the cruel way he treats the remainder of his family. Those who lack morals are wrong not because of their particular crime, but because in each of the instances Jason is left to pick up the pieces: he must raise Caddy’s Quentin and then attempt to keep her off the streets in order to preserve the Compson name, he must assume the role of eldest son after Quentin kills himself, and he is all his mother feels she has left after her husband drowns himself in liquor. While the reader (and Dilsey) can see that Jason is alienating those that surround him because of his actions, he thinks that he is attempting to save his family.
Jason struggles with understanding how fate and free will works in the lives of those who surround him: Quentin is at once a product of being Caddy’s daughter (she is, in Jason’s eyes, “just like her mother”) and is, at the same time, a girl who makes awful choices (135). Thus, the only objective way to assess people (and himself) is by the money they have. Ironically, Quentin, the niece he so despises, comes out on top.
Thus, among the Compson brothers, Faulkner has moved from Benjy, who merely lived in a Calvinistic world, to Quentin, who created a Calvinistic world, to Jason, who cannot understand how that world works and who chooses to seek meaning for his life outside of himself, through financial gain, rather than from within. The only Compson that truly struggles with the notion of free will versus destiny, Jason’s quest for resolving the two opposing forces results in him judging humans solely by their productivity. Humans are only worth the air they breathe only if they are able to prove to society that they deserve that air. Benjy is obviously just taking up space on earth, Quentin threw his chance at Harvard away, and Caddie not only lost her chance at a good life but she lost Jason’s as well. Jason feels that he is cursed by the family into which he was born and is responsible to. When he scrounges for some sense of self-worth through his hoarded money, he is able to live, but when he loses his money he has nothing. Jason has lost his self-worth, and his attempt to try to beat the fated path he was placed on is thwarted, once more, by fate in the form of Quentin. Caddy has defeated him twice.
Written in Faulkner’s jarringly normal third-person voice, the fourth section portrays the life of Dilsey on Easter Sunday. Dilsey, in all of the other sections, seems to be the only sane person in the novel, and Faulkner affirms her saneness by writing of her day in a smooth, linear fashion. Olga Vickery writes of Dilsey’s organizational abilities in the midst of chaos:
By working with circumstance instead of against it she creates order out of disorder; by accommodating herself to change she manages to keep the Compson household in some semblance of decency. While occupied with getting breakfast, she is yet able to start the fire in Luster’s inexplicable absence, provide a hot water bottle for Mrs. Compson, see to Benjy’s needs and soothe various ruffled tempers. All this despite the constant interruptions of Luster’s perverseness, Benjy’s moaning, Mrs. Compson’s complaints, and even Jason’s maniacal fury. (Vickery 288)
The order Faulkner gives to the fourth section is marked by a characteristic that all of the other sections lack: the act of choosing to live in the present. Benjy’s section is fuller of past remembrances than it is of present-day occurrences. Quentin is constantly recalling his life with Caddy, and he longs to change the past in order that his future will be with her, in “the clean flame the two of us more than dead” (74). Jason does not waste his time longing to change the past, but he carries his bitterness over his lost job to the present.
Dilsey, however, does not spend much time recalling past occurrences. She lived with the Compsons through all of their struggles, and indeed, she notes that she has “seed de first en de last” (185). The past is not something Dilsey has forgotten, but it is not something to be dwelled upon. She must live in the present, for nobody else in the Compson family is willing to do so. As the Compson clock moves three hours behind, it is Dilsey who always knows the exact time.
Her ability to live in the present is possible by the fact that her scope of time is so much larger than the rest of the Compsons. The Compsons are bound by the finite limits of life and death, and even when Quentin wishes to escape those limits and descend to hell, he doesn’t really believe that this is possible. Dilsey’s past, however, is defined by the “ricklickshun of de lamb” (185). The lamb is the only thing she needs to remember, and the blood of that lamb will atone for all of her past sins. Her future is also already known, for she is certain, as she tells Quentin, that her name is in the book of life (38). With her past sins and doubts and worries given to Christ and sanctified by his blood, and her future only bringing her closer to Him, Dilsey can live in the present with grace and peace.
Dilsey’s faith is the true Christianity of the novel. If she were to articulate it in theological terms (which she never would do), her faith would come across as being very Calvinistic as well. Dilsey recognizes her sins and the sins of those around her, which is exemplified by her participation in the Easter Sunday church service where Rev. Sheegog repeatedly calls out “po sinner” and “O sinner” to the congregation (185, 185). She lives with the assurance that she is one of the chosen, even telling Caddie that her name will “be in the Book, honey…Writ out” (38). She knows that not all are chosen, and she believes in a hell, spoken of as the “darkness en de death everlastin upon de generations” in the church service (185).
However, the most important Calvinistic characteristic that Faulkner gives Dilsey is a belief in grace. Harold Douglas and Robert Daniel rightly point out that American Calvinism does not conceive of humankind as doomed to sin, as the path to redemption is always open (2). It is this road that Dilsey thinks about during her church service, as she ponders the paths each Compson took away from that redemption. The point Faulkner makes, however, is clear: there is redemption, and one need not be a hero to obtain it. In the midst of the Old Testament lined South, the New can prevail, and it is this story of Christ’s love that we see in Dilsey’s church.
As Douglas and Daniel write, Faulkner’s use of Calvinism creates “a creature alienated from his Creator by his own choice,” and Dilsey sees this choice clearly in the sermon Rev. Sheegog preaches (12). Sheegog moves deftly between the Old Testament and the New, bringing stories of slavery in Egypt to the enslaved, of the newborn babe Jesus to the children, of the redemption of Christ to the sinners. The Compsonsᾰand all of the Negroesᾰare in this last lot of people: they are the thieves, the murderers, the women in labor, the people weeping over death, and the greedy souls awaiting salvation. Eternity is presented clearly here:
Dey kilt me dat ye shall live again; I died dat dem whut sees en believes shall never die…I sees de doom crack en de golden horns shoutin down de glory, en de arisen dead whut got de blood en de ricklickshun of de Lamb! (185)
Depravity is the state of all souls, but redemption is a possibility for all. Dilsey can see that the Compsons (excluding Benjy) have no desire to obtain this redemption, and this makes their future (eternity in hell, which she believes in) all the more sad. However, she merely wants to survive and bring the comfort to them in their present, though she realizes that their present is all they have, while she awaits eternity. She disapproves of the renaming of Benjy, as it is a sign that he is not good enough for the Compsons, though she feels he is the only Compson who will transcend the boundaries of life. Dilsey creates order in the household, and she protects Caddy’s daughter Quentin, inwardly glad when Quentin finally escapes.
Just as her sense of time is much larger than that of the Compsons, Dilsey’s notion of family is a larger one as well. She is not bound by mere blood, for her family is made up of her Christian brothers and sisters. Indeed, her own blood relations are a bit ambiguous, leading us to wonder if Frony is Dilsey’s daughter, as some have claimed, or not. She does not often speak affectionately to her family that surrounds her, for they are not her real kin, though they are unified by their last name. However, she finds her true family as she sits in the midst of the church service, in the group of “breddren” and “sistuhn” that Rev. Sheegog calls out to, becoming unified through Christ with those who surround her (184). Benjy is part of this family as well, the sole white man in the group of blacks, as Dilsey knows that “de good Lawd dont keer whether he bright or not” (181). Her black friends whisper about Benjy’s presence in the church, and a concerned Frony inquires why Dilsey must bring him along. Aware that Benjy doesn’t belong anywhere (“Trash white folks…thinks he aint good enough fer white church, but nigger church aint good enough fer him”), Dilsey knows that God will accept him into His family (181). Dilsey’s worldview allows her to transcend normal boundaries set by time, family boundaries set by humankind, and social boundaries set by the different races around her.
Her vision of time and humanity is wrapped up in her own words: “I’ve seed de first en de last,” Dilsey tells her daughter, “I seed de beginning, en now I sees de endin” (185). Dilsey’s faith allows her to live in the present, for she knows from where she came, and her future is clear. Her clear vision allows her to penetrate almost any situation in the Compson family, and her foresight especially pertains to Jason: she knows he will burn up his free ticket long before he actually does it, and she sees that his niece will be safer if she escapes from him. Her omniscient knowledge is perhaps most obvious when, after discovering Quentin’s absence, she tells Mrs. Compson “Dar now…Didn’t I told you she all right?” (176). The meaning is lost on Caroline, but Dilsey understands that Quentin has left for a place where her family can no longer hurt her. Dilsey is able to cope with all of the tumult because of her faith, and this allows her to endure, as Faulkner writes in the appendix.
* * *
In Benjy, Faulkner has created a world that is the antithesis of Calvinism: there is no concept of destiny or free will, no notion of man’s sinfulness, no idea of grace. There is acceptance, love, and a lack of decisive judgement. The lack of analysis of the problems of humankind translates freely into a lack of coherency.
Quentin’s section moves beyond this, creating a world in which damnation becomes the only solution to his problems. Quentin’s life is one of binary classifications, in which people are good or bad, clean or stained, saved or damned. His family belongs to the latter category, and the only way he can think to reunite with Caddy is by making sure he is damned as well. Quentin’s constructed Calvinism allows him to envisage a world with Caddy, a paradise in the midst of the burning flames.
Jason’s place in the novel marks the turning point, Calvinistically, from mere acceptance of destiny to a desire to change one’s fate. He is the Compson who is truly struggling with his destiny versus his free will, and his inability to accept his situation creates the unresolvable tension that leads him to insanity. In having no sense of intrinsic self-worth, however, and no notion of grace in his framework, Jason can only find value in his life through financial pursuits.
And, finally, we approach Dilsey, who in seeing the beginning and the end, has the only rational time structure of the novel. Her Christianity is not constructed, is not a method for escape, and brings a larger scope of time to her rather than narrowing it. While she does not view life around her with an air of naivety or a sense that good will always prevail, she has honest compassion for others in her soul. However, the ending of the fourth section does not leave us with the hope that Dilsey feels.
The troubling thing about the ending of The Sound and the Fury is that, apparently, Jason wins. He takes control of the horse, turns the carriage around, and once more establishes his headship of the Compson clan. In the final sentence we see Benjy, calm as the “cornice and façade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place” (199). Under Jason’s command we see order restored to chaos, Benjy’s crazed vision of life reduced to smooth linearity.
This linearity is not without its price, however. We know from Jason’s thoughts that his vision of the world is not a kind one, and we have reason to believe that his sense of time, order, and humanity will lead to harm. Indeed, when we find out in the appendix that Benjy was sent to an asylum, we are not surprised. In Dilsey, the prevailing figure of the fourth part of the novel, we saw a glimpse of grace, of atonement, of wholeness, and of peace. Yet she is but one figure in a slew of many, and while she brings order to the Compson clan, she cannot affect their hearts. Her Christianity is enough for her, but not for others, and this is tragic. While Jason prevails over the last page of the novel, a sense of humanity is lost. For the Christian, the question is asked: why does Christ not prevail? Why is Dilsey’s faith ultimately inept in the world surrounding her?
These questions can be answered on a number of levels. First and foremost, Faulkner was not interested in presenting a story of Christian salvation. While his own remarks about the novel tend to be convoluted and contradictory, it is apparent that the Christian walk was of interest to him, but not to an extent that he felt it need prevail over all other beliefs. Indeed, in his lectures at the University of Virginia, when asked, “would it be true…that you favor strongly individual rather than an organized religion?” he answered, “I do, always” (Gwynn 73). Christianity was Dilsey’s method of finding meaning, but for Faulkner, it was not the only way.
Yet it is apparent that, for a number of reasons, Faulkner was not content with the original ending. He tinkered with the story for years afterward, adding two introductions four and five years after publication, and a detailed appendix 16 years after the writing of the original novel. After all these changes, he still insisted that he was not satisfied, telling Jean Stein vanden Heuvel that The Sound and the Fury is “the book I feel tenderest towards. I couldn’t leave it alone, and I never could tell it right, though I tried hard and would like to try again, though I’d probably fail again” (233). Faulkner also makes it clear that Jason was “completely inhuman,” whereas Dilsey “was a good human being. That she held that family together for not the hope of reward but just because it was the decent and proper thing to do” (Gwynn 132, Faulkner 237).
His clarifications of the novel lessened Jason’s control and gave power to Dilsey. In the second introduction written for the novel, Faulkner alludes to Dilsey’s strength: “There was Dilsey to be the future, to stand above the fallen ruins of the family like a ruined chimney, gaunt, patient and indomitable; and Benjy to be the past” (231). Though the reader receives a vision of Jason dominating the final scene, Faulkner saw Dilsey as being the true victor. And in his appendix, where Caroline dies five years after the end of the novel, Caddy is left to the Nazis, her daughter Quentin simply “vanished,” Benjy is committed to an institution, and Jason is “emancipated” from all who surround him, left only with his money, Dilsey and her family are the only people who “endure” (215). In Faulkner’s revisionings, Dilsey is left standing as all others fall away.
However, apart from all of Faulkner’s additions and comments, we are ultimately left with the novel alone. Here it is possible to differentiate between the story the text presents and the story the reader removes from that text. Jason’s apparent victory is neither desired nor enjoyed by the reader. Perhaps, in the midst of this tragedy, we infer the real meaning of life: that Dilsey’s view of society is the one we would want. It is also important to remember that, without Dilsey, we do not know where the Compsons would be. Though Jason dominates the ending, Dilsey (and her family under her command) brings order to the Compson household from the opening of the novel. Faulkner’s literal ending allows Jason to take control of the household, but the reader can lift from that a construct of hope more powerful than Jason could ever hope to have.
Like Quentin, Faulkner has constructed a reality for us: one that is devoid of hope, full of suffering, and that gives humanity no future. We are left watching the Compson family burn in their own clean flame, their livelihoods, compassion, and humanity gone. The temporal time that succeeds for Jason ultimately fails. Faulkner once stated that he wanted the appendix to be simply entitled “COMPSON. 1699-1945,” because it was to be an obituary of the clan (SF 203). Ultimately, by only bringing death to the Compsons, Faulkner has shown us that the Compsons’ vision of humanity has no hope for a future. Much like Quentin, he has constructed a reality for a family where no one can possibly survive. However, whereas Quentin’s reality (and the Compsons’) has no hope or desire for hope, Faulkner does. Though Jason has a momentary victory at the end of the novel, he is doomed, and we know from Faulkner’s speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize that he does not envisage doom for humanity.
Faulkner declined “to accept the end of man…I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail…He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance” (Faulkner 121). In the end, Dilsey, with her vision of eternity, not only endures, but also prevails.
 In speaking of his upbringing, Faulkner said “The Christian legend is part of any Christian’s background, especially the background of a…Southern country boy…I grew up with that, I assimilated that, took that in without even knowing it…It has nothing to do with how much of it I might believe or disbelieveᾰit’s just there” (Gwynn 86).
<![endif]> Ironically (and intentionally, given Faulkner’s command of the Old Testament), the Biblical Benjamin underwent a name change as well. “Benjamin the child of my sorrowful,” is a line that streams through Quentin’s head in his section, referring to the Biblical Benjamin’s name given to him by his mother, “Ben-Oni,” or “son of my trouble” (Gen 35:18), which was then changed by Jacob to Benjamin, “son of my right hand” (109).
 When asked at the University of Virginia how the family sins had affected Quentin, Faulkner replied: “The action as portrayed by Quentin was transmitted to him through his father. There was a basic failure before that. The grandfather had been a failed brigadier twice in the Civil War…The first Compson was a bold ruthless man who came into Mississippi as a free forester to grasp where and when he could and wanted to, and established what should have been a princely line, and that princely line decayed” (Gwynn 3).
<![endif]> Faulkner used stronger language in describing Jason at times, once responding to a question that asked if Jason was a literal bastard. “No,” Faulkner said, “not an actual oneᾰonly in behavior” (Gwynn 84).
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