The Sound and the Fury also foreshadows its theme by means of a literary reference it its title; in this case, Macbeth’s desperate testimony to the futility of life. Within this novel, William Faulkner expresses the dissolution of value for modern man and his descent into existential nihilism. By adopting the unique (and sometimes confusing) perspective of the mentally-handicapped Benjy, Faulkner explores life as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Time is a key motif within The Sound and the Fury. Benjy has no sense of it, Quentin is obsessed with it, and Mr. Compson seeks to explain it out of existence. Indeed, the nature and perception of time is probably the most important key to understanding the nihilistic concepts that permeate the book. Until the twentieth century (which brought Einstein’s relativity theory), Newtonian time was the great constant: linear, immutable, and persistent as it flowed like a river from past, present, to future.
Mr. Compson is the perfect representation of the modern undermining of traditional thought. At the start of “Quentin’s Section” of the book, we are presented with Quentin’s memory of his father glibly explaining “the position of mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial.” (Faulkner 77) In essence, Mr. Compson is stating that what we call “time” is nothing but human convention, a thing that we ourselves have invented measurement for and in which we anchor our daily existence. One can hear in his words the echo of the Logical Positivist’s of the day, as they dismiss God, morality, and all metaphysical inquiry as nothing more than ludicrous linguistics.
Quentin, the recipient of Mr. Compson’s doleful pontifications, stands in sharp contrast to his father. He represents the traditional values which have crumbled due to the influence of modern ideology. Quentin is quite obviously obsessed with time; he is a traditional moralist and must have an absolute standard to sustain his reality. However, he perceives that the world in which he lives does not conform to his ideals and (to his horror) neither does he, himself. In the end, Quentin smashes his watch in the morning and drowns himself in the afternoon. He believes that his view of reality is not feasible, but chooses to die rather than face a world that has failed to conform to his wishes.
Benjy’s character represents a chaotic fusion of the two aforementioned characters. He is the modern man who must face reality after the traditional views of it have been destroyed (Quentin’s suicide) and the modern views of it have been found wanting (Mr. Compson’s drinking himself to death). Benjy is neither obsessed with time, nor does he attempt to explain it away; he is simply oblivious to it. His section is a confused string of random memories and experiences without any consistent order or logical coherence. What does Benjy do? He moans. He moans in “utter horror; shock; agony eyeless, tongueless; just sound.” (320) He is a man drowning in the despair of nihilism, unable to assign any transcendent meaning to his suffering but feeling the harsh and visceral reality of it nonetheless.
Faulkner’s answers are elusive. Indeed, the only hint at a resolution is found in the final section of the book when Dilsey takes Benjy and Luster to church. There, while listening to the passionate Easter sermon of a visiting minister, Dilsey has a somewhat mystical experience and finds comfort in her troubles. Faulkner, by his reference to the Resurrection of Christ, is telling that a jettisoning of the past age and its truths is not the answer, but rather a realization of something worth keeping: namely, hope in redemption and new life.All quotations taken from: Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage. 1990