It’s been a busy summer, full of many happy things, but especially books. When the humidity and oppressive heat and pestering mosquitoes roll in, I can’t help but want to dive into some Southern lit and hear the drawled out vowels lift themselves from the pages.
This summer I finally conquered Gone With the Wind (final thoughts: glad to cross it off the list, but ehhhh) and re-read Flannery O’Connor’s delightfully dark collection of short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find (highly recommend). I guess I’m just more of a Southern Gothic than magnolias-and-moonlight kind of girl.
Confession: Every time I read a Southern Gothic book, this is the setting I visualize: this is an old home near my hometown in Florida, and is now part of a state park (Eden Gardens in Santa Rosa Beach). I mean, just look at this property!
There’s just something about the racism, the crippling weight of tradition, the sweltering heat, and the unwavering pride that makes for some wonderfully brooding, depressing reading.
And nothing embodies that more than this book:
I’ve read a lot of Faulkner before — his short stories, As I Lay Dying (multiple times), Light in August (and wrote an in-depth analysis on unwed, pregnant Lena Grove I’m awfully proud of), and Go Down, Moses. These things happen when you go through your high school and college education in the South, and opt to take an honors-level Southern Lit class.
But somehow I’d never delved into that novel for which Faulkner is most known, his “magnum opus” if you will, The Sound and The Fury. I kept seeing it pop up on “100 greatest novels of all time” types of lists, like the one compiled by the Modern Libary. The Sound and the Fury is No. 6, and I’d read all of the books above it except No. 1, James Joyce’s Ulysses, which even I, a prolific reader, am quite intimidated by.
The most I knew about this book previously was the title was inspired by that quote from Shakespeare (Macbeth, I believe):
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing
So I started reading the Faulkner book, and get this: the first chapter is from the point of view of a 30-year-old mentally challenged man. It literally begins with a tale told by “an idiot.” This first chapter (of four) was my absolute favorite. Because Benjy, “the man-child,” has no concept of time, he flows through various memories, sometimes shifting time periods mid-sentence, as various sensory cues in his present-day environment — and later, visual images in his memories — bring other related memories back to the surface.
Like I said, I’ve read Faulkner before, but nothing like that. It was simultaneously very frustrating and deeply engrossing. Even though this chapter doesn’t make full sense until the reader progresses through the remainder of the novel and its other three perspectives, you instantly are overwhelmed with a sense of despair and hopelessness that continues throughout the book. Benjy is constantly wailing, and someone is always telling him to hush. At some point, you feel like you kind of need to wail in pain, too.
With patience and concentration, the puzzle pieces of the story fall together. (I once heard someone say everyone tells you Faulkner is like a puzzle missing a few pieces, but they believe it’s more like a complete puzzle, just with a completely different picture than you thought you were laboring over.) On one level, this is the story of the gradual decay and decline of a great “noble” Southern family in the grueling post-Civil War years. Surprise, surprise there, I know.
But I think on a greater level, this story is applicable to all of mankind as we become slaves to our own selfishness and that greatest, most heartless master of all, Time:
“A man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you’d think misfortune would get tired but then time is your misfortune.” –The Sound and the Fury
I don’t want to give too much away, but I was describing it to Sean and said, “It’s got everything depressing you can imagine — depression, alcoholism, suicide, bankruptcy, gambling, sexual promiscuity, illegitimate children, divorce, implied incest, castration, racism, mental retardation, you name it. And it’s amazing.”
I mean, there’s a part where the smell of honeysuckles is mentioned again and again in a very choking sense (“Liquid putrefaction like drowned things floating like pale rubber flabbily filled getting the odor of honeysuckle all mixed up … I had to pant to get any air at all out of that thick gray honeysuckle … Honeysuckle was the saddest odor of all, I think”). I mean, you could write a whole essay on the honeysuckle imagery in Quentin’s neurotic, pre-suicide chapter! English major alert, over here.
You could also write many papers about how the brothers’ glimpse of their sister Caddy’s dirty drawers in the childhood memory from the first chapter is incredible foreboding for her later promiscuity and the family’s corrosion. Not that I’d want to write a paper, buuuut my brain thinks these ways, unfortunately.
Anyway, this is just to say that The Sound and the Fury is well-worth its acclaim as a modern American classic. And it is definitively a part of the American South canon. It’s a book that demands to be read and re-read, processed, digested, manipulated.
But like I said, I’m a sucker for Southern Gothic. Sean’s waiting for me to just go ahead and get my PhD in the subject.