Tag Archives: Time

Elements of Time Among the Compson Brothers


An obscurity of time and the disordered chronology in The Sound and the Fury* is a structural tool which William Faulkner uses to articulate a sense of disconnect. That is, he uses the example of the Compson family’s decent from affluence as an analogy for the decay of social order in the American South. He does this using the mangled narratives of the three Compson brothers Benjamin, Quentin, and Jason. Each struggle profoundly in their awareness of time, and a shared, interdependent past. Benjamin has no concept of time, Quentin is obsessed with time’s limit, and Jason is compelled by the future but is shackled to the past. Each brother is dedicated a chapter to recount the events of a particular day. However, the order in which the chapters are placed challenges conventional notions of linear time. This is Faulkner’s way of challenging society to reassess its decisions given each generation’s limited range of time.

Benjamin, or Benjy for short, opens the book with his account of April 7th, 1928. The audience is immediately faced with a stream of consciousness which seems to be, if not completely unfocused, free of any sense of linear direction because of his mental handicap. Events and interactions between characters seem to happen in no particular order and thus seem to be completely unrelated to each other. Events are often interrupted by other events, and the narrative makes no distinction between consecutive occasions. Though it may be deduced from Benjy’s narrative alone, it’s not until having the benefit of Quentin’s perspective does the audience understand that Benjy is mentally handicapped, or retarded. Benjy’s narrative is, then, justifiably considered as though Benjy himself is the constant, is static, and it is time which whirls around him, and the obscure fragments of both past and present blend into each other.
Benjy exists in a kind of timelessness both mentally and physically. From the onset of the chapter he is said to be thirty-three years old, “‘Listen at you, now,’ Luster said. ‘Aint you something, thirty three years old, going on that way…'” (3), “going on that way” referring to Benjy’s crying for attention, but meant to imply that even though he is a grown man, he is perpetually a child, stuck in a particular time. Benjy is, then, completely unable to comprehend, much less clearly articulate his understanding of chronological events within his family. Instead he relies on simple physical stimuli to contextualize the workings of his family, and he is entirely dependent upon others to verify him. In other words, events merely happen to him and he cannot necessarily react, thus cannot interact. This is important to the nature of his narrative in that he attributes the same amount of intellectual weight to each occurrence (intellect being relative to his mental capacity), and thus favors no detail, regardless of how consequential it may be.

The audience is cued to Benjy’s disconnect from linear time by whomever his caregiver, or chaperone is. By the end of the novel it is clear he has had three in his lifetime, Versh when he was a child, T.P. when he was a teenager, and Luster as an adult. He freely navigates through his memories and present events, and the audience can keep relative track of when he is referring to by his caregiver. For instance, he narrates a moment from his childhood when, after supper, he, his sister Caddy, and Versh walk to the servant’s cottage on the family property, “We went down to Versh’s house. I liked to smell Versh’s house. There was a fire in it and T.P. squatting in his shirt tail in front of it…Then I got up and T.P. Dressed me and we went to the kitchen and ate” (28). The memory of the smell of the servant’s cottage triggers yet another memory from adolescence of waking in the cottage next to T.P., which takes place several years later, and he continues the narrative down this train of thought without ever having made a distinction between the two events.

A few particular events do seem to carry some emotionally traumatic weight for him. He remembers Versh helping Caddy climb into a tree wearing nothing but her muddy underwear, “Then we couldn’t see her…The tree quit thrashing. We looked up into the still branches…I saw them. Then I saw Caddy, with flowers in her hair, and a long veil like shining wind. Caddy Caddy ‘Hush.’ T.P. said” (39). This is a particularly vivid, and largely painful memory which all three brothers share of Caddy disappearing into an apple tree. For Benjy this triggers another memory of Caddy’s wedding, after which she essentially disappears from the family, and as far as Benjy is concerned, leaves him. This upsets Benjy greatly because Caddy was particularly sentimental and loving towards him, which is in sharp contrast to the rest of the family who seem only to tolerate him at the most. In an other instance he remembers finding the ever promiscuous Caddy sitting on a swing with a neighbor boy, “‘I’ll have to take him to the house.’ she said. She took my hand. ‘I’m coming.’ she whispered. ‘Wait.’ Charlie said…Caddy and I ran. We ran up the kitchen steps, onto the porch, and Caddy knelt down in the dark and held me…Caddy smelled like trees…They sat up in the swing, quick. Quentin had her hands on her hair. He had a red tie” (48). Benjy associates his sister’s promiscuity with that of his niece, Miss Quentin, when he discovers her in almost the exact same circumstance on the swing. Because he has no working knowledge of logical time these events happen in a relatively disproportionate succession to him as a result of association.

Benjy’s brother, Quentin, on the other hand, is acutely, almost manically aware of time. Yet, paradoxically, as much as he is immersed in his awareness of it, not only does he have a skewed, or erroneous sense of time, but he seeks to exist outside of it, and to remove himself entirely from it; thus, his commitment to self-destruction. Quentin is obsessed with what he sees as his family’s failing sense of virtue and honor, and he is particularly affected by Caddy’s behavior. He sees her as a harbinger of shame to the family, and is keenly aware from childhood, specifically since the incident of Caddy climbing the tree, of faults within the family. He harbors a contritely, and almost incestuous interest in his sister, and is traumatized by her promiscuity as she grows older. That, combined with obligations he has to his family to finish a year at Harvard, along with having been treated as an outcast, being disenfranchised by his own family for the entirety of his upbringing drive him to commit suicide.

Quentin’s narrative occurs on June 2nd, 1910, eighteen years before Benjy’s chapter. This alone is a structural tool Faulkner presents to further attenuate the audience to the complexities of these characters’ stream of consciousness. Quentin, having resolved to commit suicide, realizes that he has very little time to live, and is thus hyperaware of time. The very first sentence in his chapter illustrates his manic infatuation with time, “When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtain it was between seven and eight o’clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch” (76). He even takes something as abstract as time and internalizes it as physical using the example of the sound of the watch his father gave to him. He ironically recalls that, after giving him the watch, his father also warned him that “…speculation regarding the position of mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial…is a symptom of mind-function” (77), that he should not take time too seriously. However, Quentin us unable to heed this advice and becomes a desperate slave to the relative position of the hour.

Quentin, in some respect, is almost accepting of his place in time because he is aware that it will end soon. Still, time continues to haunt and taunt him. Much like flowing water can slowly smooth a stone, he feels each passing moment to be one less proverbial grain of sand in the hour glass of his life, “That Christ was not crucified: he was worn away by a minute clicking of little wheels” (77). In a fickle attempt to rebel, and in some way control time he breaks the watch, “I went to the dresser and took up the watch, with the face still down. I tapped the crystal on the corner of the dresser and caught the fragments of glass in my hand and put them into the ashtray and twisted the hands off and put them in the tray. The watch ticked on…There was a red smear on the dial. When I saw it my thumb began to smart”  (80). He breaks the watch in attempt to deny and refuse time’s progression. But while he feels slightly vindicated as he discards of the allegorical “fragments” of time, he discovers he is not only tragically unsuccessful, as with most everything in his life, he is also further wounded by time as the watch has cut his thumb. The wound in this case is a metaphor for the suffering the emotional wounds, in his subjective perspective, of his family’s fall from grace.
Throughout his narrative Quentin refers to his shadow. On these occasions he says, “I stood in the belly of my shadow” (100), his body like a sundial, always attached to the hour. That is, until sundown, when a shadow, an allegorical symbol of time, is no longer articulated, and he walks into the river to drown himself. Quentin is ultimately unable to come to terms with the inevitable decay of his family, and so resolves to cheat time, its inevitabilities, and cuts it short.

The third brother, Jason, is the only one to have a sense of the future. He is afflicted by, what he considers to be, his victimization by past events. A begrudging, bitter, and spiteful young man, his narrative focuses on the present as the circumstances of decay that have resulted from those past events, which he alludes to, but rarely describes. He is intent on a future life away from his obligations, the family he sees as a burden, yet it is because his actions are precariously compulsive that he is always behind current events, and thus he is trapped in a constant state of reaction. His future is entirely dependent on his finances, which he works in vehemently, and monstrously dishonest ways to ensure security of. All his affairs revolve around the thin possibility of fortune, or as far as he is concerned, reinstating the association of his name with wealth, though with no regards to his family. He holds stock in cotton trade, works in farm equipment retail, and pockets child support Caddy sends for her daughter, Miss Quentin, whom he is legal guardian of. Still, for as forward thinking as he is, in all these affairs he is always, without fail, hazardously late.

Jason’s chapter is narrated on April 6th, 1928, in contrast to Benjy’s chapter which is narrated the day after, the 7th. However, Jason’s chapter is placed later in chronology of novel, thus hinting at his characteristic tardiness, that he is already behind current events in the context of the story. Ironically, and in contrast to his brother Quentin, he is almost oblivious to, and ignorant of time. Early in the chapter he drives his niece, Miss Quentin, to school to be sure she will not ditch classes, and will be on time, “I stopped in front of the school house. The bell had rung, and the last of them were just going in. ‘You’re  on time for once anyway…” (188). The irony is that he is certainly not on time. The bell has already finished ringing before he pulls up to the school, and the straggling students he is referring to are late for class themselves.

At one point he is in the telegram office and discovers a missed opportunity to act on his stocks, “‘Smart, hell,’ Doc says. ‘It was down twelve points at twelve o’clock. Cleaned me out.’ ‘Twelve points?’ I says. ‘Why the hell didn’t somebody let me know? Why didn’t you let me know?’ I says to the operator” (217). This happens in all his interactions with his niece, Miss Quentin, “…I was looking at my watch. It was just two thirty, forty-five minutes before anybody but me expected her to be out. So when I looked around the door the first thing I saw was the red tie…But she was sneaking along the alley…I went on to the street, but they were out of sight” (231-232). Much like Wiley Coyote and the Roadrunner, Jason constantly finds himself one step behind, and out witted by Miss Quentin. In the end, she steals back the money which Jason had withheld from her and skips town with a musician. Jason tries in vain to find her and get, what he considers to be, his money back, and solicits the help of the Sheriff, “…‘But you don’t know they done it,’ he said. ‘You just think so.’ ‘Don’t know?’ Jason said. ‘When I spent two damn days chasing her through alleys…and you say I don’t know that that little b–’ ‘Now, then,’ the sheriff said. ‘That’ll do…’” (303). Jason never seizes the right moment, and thus remains bitterly at odds with his circumstances.

These three brothers represent both the timelessness of their family struggles to coexist, and the period of the fall of the traditional social order in the American South. The images of their sister, Caddy, haunts these brothers and challenges theirs, as well as the audience’s presumptions of this timelessness. They are the ageless metaphor of something that is not timeless– mortality.

*Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York, NY: Vintage International Edition, 1956.