„Man is a sum of his misfortunes“: narrating tragedy

“Time is your misfortune”, the head of the Compsons family from William Faulkner’s story of the Sound and Fury says. As if that was not enough of a bummer, he adds: “man is a sum of his misfortunes”[1]William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (New York: Vintage, 1990), 104., projecting it on the lives of his own relatives. And indeed, because the timeline throughout the story is kept under a veil of fog and vagueness, the reader is confronted not with the events but rather their impression, the very idea of deterioration – of time, of this faith, of this family. The resemblance with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is striking with repeating pattern of conflicts, plots and even with names of the characters. The whole tangle of memories, plans and opinions is a vital part of the real-time tragic, decadent present. It is essentially a story of trauma and includes overly dramatic characters (like Quentin, a quixotic defender of morality). There are resemblances to Shakespeare’s plays, with seemingly irrelevant characters or routines serving as a complement to the main characters. In a chapter on Shakespeare (“The Weary Prince”) in his “Mimesis. The Representation of Reality in Western Literature” Erich Auerbach mentions that Shakespeare only treats people of high rank as sublime and tragic, even if with a hint of comic to their exaggerated pathos: ”the Christian figural view of human life was opposed to a development of the tragic. However serious the events of earthly existence might be, high above them stood the towering and all-embracing dignity of a single event, the appearance of Christ, and everything tragic was but figure or reflection of a single complex of events, into which it necessarily flowed at last: the complex of the Fall, of Christ’s birth and passion, and of the Last Judgment.”[2]Erich Auerbach, Mimesis. The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), 317.

A broken watch from “The Sound and the Fury” symbolizes how hopelessly “cracked”, unnecessary and irrelevant time is. Normally, we are granted a beneficial position to take a look at all points of view and be the judge if we dare. Faulkner intentionally neglects straightforward storytelling so that it is hard to impossible to figure out the chronological order of events (a subject of a separate analysis). The audience is forced to discover the Compsons’ reality with the help of their flashing memories, delusions and second-hand opinions all put into a blender. Quentin confuses reality with a self-created delusion of having committed an incest, and the reader gets easily perplexed with this idea. Distinguishing illusions in the story is no easier than for him, and distinguishing past and present—for Benjy. Faulkner’s way of creating a literary reality resembles that of Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf, except for Conrad created a panorama with the details written out carefully, it seems more real than the actual reality, and like Woolf, Faulkner discloses the whole panorama from our sight, ignoring that a reader might not (or cannot possibly) know the references to all the different stories taking place in the same set of Yoknapatawpha, events never described or mentioned. Faulkner pretends that we know what he is talking about. In some of the modern drama and/or detective series the most important event (a murder, for instance) might be disclosed until the very end. The attention shift is essentially from an intriguing end-event to the processes which have led to a tragedy, following it and what the public opinion is, creating a picture of a society which is as tragic and pathetic as an ultimate event itself.  Some modern popculture examples include shows from “Big Little Lies” all the way to “13 Reasons Why”.

Narration-wise, the culmination, the “trauma” or “catharsis” of the story that a reader is trying to get through is omitted. It is unclear whether there exists a central event at all. As if it were a depiction of Bergson’s “la durée”, every event we discover in this maze of a story is present here-and-now in a form of how it has influenced the family members, or which side of them it has expressed or developed. A character becomes partially reduced to his past, to his defining misfortunes. They exist in memories and also in the character changes that were triggered. These assumptions also work for the form of the story: complicated syntax turns reading into hurdling, but it helps encompass maximum impression and not just information in a single sentence. This way, all the mentioned elements are present all at once. One of the ways to frame available information into a single narrative, collect random events into a whole panorama is through the title, which gives a couple of hints at once. It is no secret that Faulkner was exposed to Shakespeare long before “The Sound and the Fury” (the title already a hendiadys, a trope used by Shakespeare extensively) and was carrying a collection in his pocket with him.[3]Duncan McColl Chesney, „Shakespeare, Faulkner and the Expression of the Tragic,“ College Literature 36 (2009): 148. A reference to “Macbeth”, firstly, frames an emphasis on the deterioration of the Compsons family. Secondly, the quote at the beginning introduces, quite literally, “a tale told by an idiot”, Benjy:

“Life (…) is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing”. (Macbeth, Act V, Scene V)

The story is then given certain nihilism, meaninglessness and an intrinsic destructive force (of values, moral standards etc.). An omnipresent tragic tension of the past is juxtaposed with everyday microdramas, like Jason’s aggressive behaviour and oppression of Caddy’s daughter who follows the mother’s footsteps like an embodiment of some of his own misfortunes and repressed regrets. At the beginning of the 1st chapter and in its correlation with the 3rd one, these parts resemble Joyce’s “A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man”. It may first seem that like in “The Portrait”, the storyteller in the first part of the novel is a child, to some extent alienated. He stays in a childlike state despite being 33 years old, a deeply symbolic age, which could make his character Christ-like or ironic. Benjy lacks ability to perceive correlations and time at all. He imposes sensual memories like Caddy’s smell on current events. We know he is strongly attached to Caddy and gets nervous and hysterical when she is away. But isn’t she always? Caddy’s figure is ghostlike, told through other voices, with no mention of her appearance. In the last scene, he is irritated when Luster wants to drive around the monument in the other way than Benjy is used to, and through this scene we are ensured that Benjy is obsessed with past (like the whole family, frankly), and Caddy’s growing up traumatizes him. Meanwhile, Quentin is a “broken soul”, too feeble for the world he confronts, resembling desperate defending values and actions of such figures as Hamlet or Don Quixote. He is the one sent to Harvard, but because of mounting pressure, frustration and depressive nature takes his own life. In Auerbach’s chapter on Shakespeare, he says: “(…) transposition of the center of gravity from life on earth into a life beyond, with the result that no tragedy ever reach its conclusion here below. (…) this by no means signifies a devaluation of life on earth or of human individuality; but it did bring with it a blunting of tragic climaxes here on earth and a transposition of catharsis into the other world.”[4]Auerbach, Mimesis, 317. Quentin’s suicide is like a fact – there is never a doubt that he dies. From the first suicidal reflections one has a suspicion that the narrator is already dead. It was meant to happen just like the other central episodes of the story – Caddy’s pregnancy, revelation of her lies, Quentin leaving, Benjy attacking a schoolgirl and so on. These is a red thread that pierces through the Compsons’ history, their collective consciousness, a skeleton of misfortunes, frustrations and downfalls.

Faulkner makes the reader a co-author in the sense that we are forced to employ our own prejudices, experience and opinions. The author’s voice is only heard vaguely in the last chapter. Bakhtin once used the term “polyphony” on the example of strongly philosophical fiction of Dostoevsky, whose characters are not just the author’s own words put into their mouths, but rather representatives of different discourses without intrinsic unity within a novel.[5]M. M. Бахтин, Проблемы поэтики Достоевского (Москва Художественная литература, 1972), 3-8. Everything seems to have already happened, but is also present at this moment. This presence is objective and independent in a polyphonic fictional reality, where the author and the reader are equals. Because there is no “Solomon” figure of an ultimate judge, no author’s voice to put a full stop like in a make-believe, the conflict never resolves and the reality goes on “with its own life”.

For Faulkner, the depicted “Southern myth” is just a text, not reality. At times the characters speak in an exaggeratedly dramatic manner, with cinematic pathos. He “bans” the myth, revealing its fictionality, artificial nature, depriving of romantic sense that it doesn’t have outside of the myth’s concept. What comprises the tragedy in “The Sound and the Fury” lies beyond mere events, and that is one of the main reasons they are only described as such in the first chapter by Benjy, who cannot make any judgements for us. If man is a sum of misfortunes, life of Faulkner’s characters is basically an equation. And so, when added up, it makes no difference in which order to do so, how to combine or single out certain components, for the result stubbornly stays the same.


1 William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (New York: Vintage, 1990), 104.
2 Erich Auerbach, Mimesis. The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), 317.
3 Duncan McColl Chesney, „Shakespeare, Faulkner and the Expression of the Tragic,“ College Literature 36 (2009): 148.
4 Auerbach, Mimesis, 317.
5 M. M. Бахтин, Проблемы поэтики Достоевского (Москва Художественная литература, 1972), 3-8.

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