In his defining novel The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner explores the role of racial superiority, chivalry, and purity in the South during the 1920s. Following the dramatic upheaval of the Civil War, citizens attempted to define their identity by clinging tenaciously to Old South values. Specifically, Faulkner extensively uses symbols to explore how the social issue of female purity represents a fixation on archaic values that invariably resists change. Primarily, Faulkner symbolizes this purity as water.
Throughout the novel, water serves paradoxically as both a cleansing and sinful agent. As a young child, Caddy climbs a tree and the three brothers notice her muddied drawers. Faulkner challenges the traditional symbolism of water as cleansing, which foreshadows that Quentin’s and Jason’s ideals of purity will likewise be seriously challenged by Caddy’s actions.
Unable to stop her ascent into the tree, the situation foreshadows their impotence at influencing her actions later in life. In addition, Benjy cries out when he smells Caddy’s perfume and recognizes her transition into adulthood; she rushes to wash it off, yet in the end her maturation is inevitable.
Similarly, after she loses her virginity to Dalton Ames, she bathes in the river near the Compson’s home in an attempt to purify herself. Quentin finds her there and threatens to commit a double suicide, but can not go through with the act. Again, water is used to wash away the sin and guilt of lost values, yet it ultimately fails.
Quentin and Caddy’s conversation, fragmented and desperate, parallels the fragmentation of the contemporary South. The water’s failure to alleviate the tensions of the Compson family foreshadows the failure of the South to adapt to shifting norms.
Water symbolizes purity for Quentin as well, who commits suicide by drowning himself. His shadow in the water haunts him, and his corporeal body and shadow only merge at the moment of his death. He drowns himself as a twisted rendition of baptism, that purifies the participant. After Benjy discovers Caddy kissing a boy named Charles, she washes her mouth out with soap. Notably, Quentin drowns himself in the Charles River. The first washing, by Caddy, superficially cleanses the external; Quentin’s “washing” destroys it. His absolute fixation on Old South values prevents him from considering any other option, as he believes immersing himself in the river is the only way to gain back the purity that Caddy lost. His antiquated views are incompatible with the emerging South and his death parallels the eventual death of the old that must occur for the new to develop.
Throughout the novel, Faulkner appropriates water to sexual purity. The contemporary social issue of purity is a double-edged sword that leads to Caddy’s fall from respected society. The Compson’s fragmentation caused by the conflict between traditions and redemption represents the Southern society’s inflexibility as a whole. Specifically, Quentin’s actions are stark reminders of the crumbling of Southern values and culture and the family’s complete incapacity to accept change in any form. The resistance that comes from clinging so desperately to outdated notions of femininity and honor leads only on a path to destruction. In an ironic twist, only Dilsey, the family’s black servant who is alternately belittled and undervalued, is able to accept this shifting landscape and persevere. The Sound and the Fury serves as an ominous warning to the dangers of this stagnation, yet simultaneously it represents the hope that some, like Dilsey, will learn to adapt and endure.