Reading The Sound and the Fury can be frustrating for the reader, particularly the reader who is used to the linear march of time and the orderly unfolding of the events. Classic chronology provides a sense of order and a sense of time for the reader. They can easily relate to their own experience and concept of the passage of time. Faulkner steps into an uncomfortable area for many readers, making his work difficult to follow in terms of linearity. It appears as if he is randomly leaping off in different directions with no sense of purpose or direction at time. However, if we look at the way in which time acts as a character one can glean a different perspective of time and gain a glimpse into the eternal nature of time. Jean-Paul Sartre explains that, "A fictional technique always relates back to the novelist's metaphysics" (Sartre). Such is the case with Faulkner's concept of time.
Time as a Binding Force
It is not the concept of time that presents a problem in Faulkner's work, it is the concept of chronology. The ordering of time is a human concept, a measurement that is imposed on the past, present, and future. However, it one considers our reality and our relationships with others, time is only a convenience that allows us to come to terms with the passage of time and our own mortality.
To demonstrate this point, let us explore the world of Benjy. This is the character that embodies the idea of timelessness the most. Benjy organizes his world differently, using contextual, rather than chronological clues. Benjy has set of memories, unrelated to the chronological order in which they occurred. He uses this set of memories to organize his world. One example of this is how he uses Caddy's scent of trees and leaves to compare how he feels about her to his pleasant memories of his mother. When Caddy begins to distance herself from him, he no longer uses this imagery to represent his feelings for her. Benjy's concept of time is not linear, but is spatial. He places each new experience that he encounters into its proper conceptual space. When his perceptions change, the perceptual space into which it is placed changes as well. This is not possible with a linear representation of time.
Benjy's perception of time can be compared to Quentin, who has no other means to order time other than the ticking of the clock. Quentin cannot change the march of time. He cannot change his perceptions of an event. Quentin's perception of time is objective and concrete, as opposed to Benjy's which is subjective and ethereal. By comparing these two characters and their perception of time, Faulkner forces the reader to step outside of the modern, linear perception of time and to consider that another way of viewing it may exist. This is one of he key points that he makes between the perception of time in the characters of Benjy and Quentin. Time binds these characters together, as it does with all of the characters in the book. Time is constant, only the character's perception of it changes.
A key moment in time for Benjy was when they changed his name from Maury to Benjy. Mrs. Compson thought that changing his name would change his luck. She carefully chose a name from the Bible.
"His name's Benjy now, Caddy said.
How come it is, Dilsey said. He aint wore out the name he was born with yet, is he.
Benjamin came out of the bible, Caddy said. It's a better name for him than Maury was.
How come it is, Dilsey said.
Mother says it is, Caddy said.
Huh, Dilsey said. Name aint going to help him. Hurt him, neither. Folks don't have no luck, changing names. My name been Dilsey since fore I could remember and it be Dilsey when they's long forgot me.
How will they know it's Dilsey, when it's long forgot, Dilsey, Caddy said.
It'll be in the Book, honey, Dilsey said. Writ out.
Can you read it, Caddy said.
Won't have to, Dilsey said. They'll read it for me. All I got to do is say Ise here.
Your name is Benjy, Caddy said. Do you hear. Benjy. Benjy.
Don't tell him that, Mother said. Bring him here.
Caddy lifted me under the arms.
Get up, MauN I mean Benjy, she said." (Failkner, p. 58)
This short passage gives the reader many clues as to how the various characters view time. Although this scene centers around Benjy, it reveals much more about Mrs. Compson. It demonstrates that she is concerned about the future of the family and wishes to take action to change it, even it changing Benjy's name would seem a bit superstitious. Dilsey shows common sense in this scene and also references the past and future. Many times throughout the novel Dilsey demonstrates her realization of her place in time eternal. Mrs. Compson starts to calls Benjy by his old name, an illusion to her inability to forget the past and to move on. This subtle clue indicates that she is still living in the past.
Twice more, other characters see Maury's name change to Benjy as a bad omen for the future of the Compson family.
"They ain't no luck on this place.' Roskus said. 'I seen it at first but when they changed his name I knowed it.'" (Faulkner, p. 29).
This reaction demonstrates that the community sees the downfall of the Compsons as well.
"They aint no luck going be on no place where one of they own chillen's name aint never spoke.'" (Faulkner, p. 31).
The repetition of this theme solidifies the eventual downfall of the Compson family. These quotes allude to the level of family strife that is present in the Compson family. It also alludes to their hand in their own downfall, through their lack of ability to show love to one another.
Faulkner employs the use of "cognitive maps" creating a "land" against which the voices of his characters are juxtaposed (Baldwin, p. 2). In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner creates an imagined county in Mississippi. The county of Yoknapatawpha never actually exists in life, nor does real map exist of it. Yet, Faulkner is able to provide clues that allow the reader to gain a sense of place and time.
Faulkner's use of time suggests that there is no past and no present, because the events of the past have a direct impact on the events of the present (Baldwin, p. 3). Time is a part of the human geography of which Faulkner suggests. Time is simply another layer imposed on the mental geography constructed by Faulkner. Faulkner does not specifically divide time into past, present, and future. His use of time suggests that what happened in the past continues to exist by the way of memories. These memories are real and have an impact on the way the world is interpreted in the present.
The character that most exemplifies this concept is Benjy. In Benjy's world, his memories form a solid framework for interpreting the present. Benjy integrates his perceptions into a framework that is built on the memories of the past. However, Benjy has no concept of the future. He can only perceive what he has experienced in the past and what is happening in the present. For the rest of the characters, memories of the past influence the present, but they use them to try to interpret what will happen in the future. The future is an unknown. Only the past and the present are knowns. Benjy differs in that he ha no concept of the unknowns and can only relate to life with his set of knowns.
If one considers how the past influences the present and our expectations of the future, Faulkner's presentation of time as an entity without a past, present, or future is easier to understand. Faulkner's tendency to jump between the past and present without warning and in what seems to be a disjointed fashion makes more sense to the reader if they understand that chronology is not what is important, but the connection between the past, present and future.
Faulkner's concept of time transcends chronology and considers relationships and how they affect the characters. The dates, times, and sequences of events in the novel are not important, it is how the actions and relationships formed in the past affect the present and future actions of the characters in the future. Each character has their own set of relationships and past experiences that will have an impact on their actions in the future. They all have a connection to the past and the future that exists within their present circumstances.
Dilsey is one of the more interesting characters in terms of time construction. She is a black person living in the dying remnants of the old South. Her world is one of the competing ideologies…