The Shift in the Shadow’s Distance: William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury

Clarity of voice and clarity of detail are at odds in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, a novel that tackles the complicated and desperate lives of a family living in the South in the first part of the twentieth century. The narrators struggle to grasp reality and to make sense of their experiences and so readers are transported into a confusing jumble of memories, observations, descriptions, and associations. Remembered dialogue appears in italics, sometimes in context but often in half-sentences. But this lack of clarity provides contrast for a section in the novel which Caddy’s brother Quentin veers from associative memory to lucid observation to frenetic, frenzied emotion in a dizzying stream of consciousness. In this section Faulkner sets up the idea of lives moving in parallel—public lives and private lives, two lives in relationship with one another, the lives people hope for and the lives people are forced to live.

Brooding Quentin takes the trolley from his dorm room through town and then walks to the water’s edge. Quentin’s observations tell the reader who he is and signals imagery that remains important for the rest of the section:

“N— say a drowned man’s shadow was watching for him in the water all the time. It twinkled and glinted, like breathing, the float slow like breathing too” (102).

In the next paragraph, Faulkner allows Quentin to describe Gerald, who will row down the river, which in turn begins to allow the reader to see a different side of Quentin’s unruly brain:

“His mother came down in a hired auto, in a fur suit like an arctic explorer’s, and saw him off in a twenty-five miles wind and a steady drove of ice floes like dirty sheep. Ever since then I have believed that God is not only a gentleman and a sport; he is a Kentuckian too. When he said away she made a detour and came down to the river again and drove along parallel with him, the car in low gear. They said you couldn’t have told that they’d ever seen one another before, like a King and Queen, not even looking at one another, just moving side by side across Massachusetts on parallel courses like a couple of planets” (103).

The image of two things moving parallel to one another is a powerful one, and echoes the imagery of the shadow on the water. Quentin goes on to describe how Gerald moves as he rows, how Gerald’s mother approves of Quentin because he is a Southerner, and then the description in the present of the story is interrupted by remembered dialogue, in italics, about his sister Caddy, and the reader begins to understand how Caddy and Quentin’s lives have moved. Then Quentin returns to his shadow: “I walked along the rail, but my suit was dark too and I could wipe my hands, watching my shadow, how I had tricked it” (105).

Quentin continues to walk and for five pages he meditates on his sister and the man she has brought into the family—a stream of thought that explains Caddy’s marriage, that highlights the family’s place in “country” Southern culture and Quentin’s move to Massachusetts. The veering, frenzied line of thought also reveals Quentin’s anger, sense of betrayal and the tactics he pursues to get his sister back (105-110). Quentin’s shadow stays with him as he moves, like Gerald and his mother moving parallel to one another.

In the next pages, Quentin’s encounter with the Deacon show the reader both how lucid Quentin can be and how desperate he has become. Quentin describes the Deacon’s descent into a different kind of dissociated madness, one that is both socially and spiritually motivated. Quentin records a glimmer of the Deacon’s own momentary rise to the surface, and return to “that self he had long since taught himself to wear in the world’s eye” (114). In the exchange between the two men Quentin appears positively sane, but it’s to the Deacon that Quentin entrusts the letters he needs delivered after his suicide. And when the chimes ring out, Quentin “stood in the belly of [his] shadow and listened to the strokes spaced and tranquil along the sunlight” (114)—the chimes and the shift in the shadow’s distance tells the reader that time has passed and that something in Quentin has shifted as well.

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