The Compson Brothers in William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”

Topics: Writer

In the novel “The Sound and the Fury,” William Faulkner conveys the story of the Compson family and their moral decline.  The members of the family have their respective problems and faults, and these are highlighted throughout the story.  The novel also highlights the distinct differences between the three Compson sons—Benjy, Quentin and Jason,—who narrate the first three chapters of the book.  These three characters are remarkably distinct from one another, but they also have a distinct similarity.  The Compson brothers are unique from one another in many ways, but all three are defined by their experiences with their mother and sister.

  This term paper aims to compare and contrast Benjy, Quentin and Jason and illustrate how their lives were greatly shaped by the women in the family.

In the novel, Benjy was the first Compson brother that the reader will encounter, as he narrated the first chapter.  His account was dated in the year 1928, on April 7th (Faulkner 1).

  Benjy was 33 years old during the time of narration.  However, he was mentally challenged.  His thoughts were disorganized.  His condition hindered him from really grasping what was going on around him and form it into a cohesive whole.  For Benjy, life can only be characterized through images and scents.  This was the reason why the narration had vivid spatial descriptions and specific references to smell, as he can only depend on what he sees and hears.  Throughout the first chapter, he consistently mentioned that “Caddy smelled like trees” (Faulkner 1).

One of the things which separated all three brothers from each other is the concept of time.

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  For Benjy, there was no such thing as time.  His mental condition prevented him from having such concept.  He did not grasp the sequence of events.  This posed a difficult problem for readers, as his side of the story was confusing.  The first chapter was not an account of events that all occurred in a single day.  It only appeared to be such because Benjy narrated everything as if they happened in order, even if he was going back in forth in telling his memories.  He jumped from the present to distant moments of his past, such as when he was five years old and 13 years old (Faulkner 1).

Just like his brothers, Benjy’s life was very much influenced by the two Compson women: their mother Caroline and their sister Candace, better known as Caddy.  In the novel, Faulkner illustrated Caroline as a negligent mother who was too preoccupied with herself to take care of her own children.  Though she was never absent from the household, she did not have a real presence in the lives of her kids.  Her failure as a mother was most striking to Benjy, as she was insensitive to his disability.  For Caroline, Benjy is both an inconvenience and punishment for her.  For instance, when Benjy was to be taken out of the house without his overshoes, her concern for her son was directed more on the company they had that Benjy’s health and well-being.  Caroline said, “Do you want to make him sick, with the house full of company” (Faulkner 1).  In Quentin’s account, this was what she said about Benjy: “What have I done to have been given children like these, Benjamin was punishment enough” (Faulkner 2).

Due to Caroline’s negligence and detachment, Benjy had come to rely on Caddy for love and attention.  Caddy played the role that was supposedly her mother’s.  Caddy was most patient with Benjy, and was also the most sensitive to his condition.  She once said to him, “You’ve got your Caddy. Haven’t you got your Caddy” (Faulkner 1).  Caddy was the central figure in Benjy’s life, and her departure from the Compson household proved to be very difficult for him.

It must be noted that due to his mental retardation, Benjy was unaware of certain concepts regarding human life and morality.  He did not know about life, death, marriage or family.  He also did not know the difference between right and wrong.  However, he did know about order and disorder, and he had the capacity to distinguish between these two.  Benji could easily sense if anything was amiss in his surroundings.   His condition had left him incapable of speech; his only means of communication are through moaning and crying.  Whenever he senses that there was something wrong, he would cry or moan.

For example, Benjy knew there was disorder when T.P. and Quentin were fighting.  He said, “I wasn’t crying, but I couldn’t stop.  I wasn’t crying, but the ground wasn’t still, and then I was crying” (Faulkner 1).  When Benjy was younger, he served as the messenger for the adulterous affair between Uncle Maury and Mrs. Patterson.  When he delivered one time, Mr. Patterson caught them and got the letter before the wife could get it.  Benjy said, “When I saw her eyes I began to cry” (Faulkner 1).  Benjy also noticed the passing of their grandmother.  According to Quentin, “Benjy knew it when Damuddy died.  He cried” (Faulkner 2).

However, Benjy’s sense was strongest when it came to Caddy’s affairs.  Faulkner only implied in the novel that time when Caddy lost her virginity, and Benjy was aware of that too.  He was aware of the difference in her sister from the moment she arrived.  He observed, “Caddy came to the door and stood there, looking at Father and Mother.  Her eyes flew at me, and away.  I began to cry” (Faulkner 1).  A younger Caddy once quipped, “I’ll run away and never come back” (Faulkner 1).  This declaration made Benjy cry.  He may have cried because he sensed that his sister’s words would come true in the future.  He was right; Caddy was disowned after her husband Herbert found out that he was not the father of her baby.

Another thing which set Benjy apart from his brothers was his objective narration.  Benjy was very fond of Caddy, but his feelings towards his sister never influenced the way his chapter was told.  He narrated his memories without his opinion for Caddy; he simply told the events as it happened.  His objectivity may be attributed to his mental condition, but his perspective was helpful in presenting the story without judgment or prejudice.

According to Quentin Compson, “Time is your misfortune Father said” (Faulkner 2).  Indeed, time became his misfortune.  Quentin was the eldest son, and it was from his point of view that the second chapter of the novel was written.  His story was dated on the 2nd of June, 1910 (Faulkner 2).  He was an intelligent young man; his father, Jason Compson III, was aware of this that he did not hesitate to sell property to send him to Harvard for his college education (Faulkner 2).  Time was his downfall because he clung to the past.

Unlike his brother Benjy who did not have a sense or concept of time, Quentin had it and was greatly preoccupied with it.  His awareness of time was so evident in the second chapter due to the continuous references to watches and clocks.  Though he had a concept of time, he sought to forget it, as advised by the elder Compson.  The watch that Quentin had was previously owned by his grandfather and was passed on to him by his father.  His father told Quentin that he gave the watch “not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breathe trying to conquer it” (Faulkner 2).  If Benjy was a man who confused everything as occurring in the present, Quentin was a man who clung to the past.

Quentin’s fixation with the past was most evident in his firm belief in the old notions of honor and morality.  It must be noted that Quentin was a character with an attachment to the traditional Southern values and ideals of the yesteryears.  He clung to the values and rules of conduct that dominated the old world, the same ones his family had disregarded.  For instance, Quentin upheld a specific and conservative view of women in general.  In his narration, it was stated that “she couldn’t be a lady no lady would be out at that hour of the night” (Faulkner 2).

Quentin’s preoccupation with the past and the beliefs that came with it had defined his relationship with his father.  Jason Compson III proved to have a strong influence on his eldest son.  It was apparent in the numerous times the phrase “Father said” was mentioned throughout the second chapter (Faulkner 2).  The influence was so strong that his father’s opposition to his ideals disappointed him.  The elder Compson did not have the same conservative views as his son.  On the topic of female purity, he said “men invented virginity,” as if to imply that virginity did not exist and was merely an invention of the male mind.  Mr. Compson III added, “Women are never virgins.  Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature.  It’s nature is hurting you not Caddy” (Faulkner 2).

Quentin’s conservative beliefs regarding women had caused this obsessive fixation over his sister Caddy.  As was mentioned above, he was extremely hurt by Caddy due to her promiscuity.  Caddy’s behavior had such a profound effect on Quentin, as she violated the traditional Southern rules he believed women should follow.  He asked her once, “Have there been very many Caddy,” and she replied “I don’t know too many” (Faulkner 2).  Like his mentally challenged younger brother, Quentin also had a firm sense of order and disorder.  The only difference was that Caddy provided the order in Benjy’s life through affection, while she caused disorder in Quentin’s life because of her impure ways.  This was because Quentin equated order with old traditional values he upheld, and disorder was anything in contrast to those.

Just like Benjy, Quentin did not receive love and affection from their mother.  Quentin thought, “If I’d just have a mother so I could say Mother Mother” (Faulkner 2).  This statement verified Caroline’s failure as a mother; her eldest son wished that he had a mother, though he did have one.  Caroline was so ineffective in raising her children that Quentin considered himself without a mother.  In addition, she was very partial to Jason, who was her favorite son.  In Quentin’s account, he had mentioned several references to her mother’s favoritism.  Caroline once told Quentin “Jason will make a splendid banker he is the only one of my children with any practical sense” (Faulkner 2).  She added, “Jason was the only one my heart went out to without dread” (Faulkner 2).  Hence, Quentin was similar to Benjy in the sense that their mother did not love them and ignored them because she preferred Jason.

Jason Compson IV narrated the third chapter of the novel.  His account was dated a day after Benjy’s narration.  The first line of his chapter said, “Once a bitch always a bitch, I say” (Faulkner 3).  That statement was a clear and accurate introduction of Jason’s character.  He was a bitter, cruel and selfish man, and his account revealed all his unpleasant qualities.  Though he was the meanest of the Compson brothers, he became their mother’s favorite.  Caroline told Jason, “You are my only hope…Every night I thank God for you” (Faulkner 3).   Though she loved only him, Jason never reciprocated that love.  In fact, he had no love for anybody, except for himself.

The Compson family servant Dilsey once said to Jason, “You’s a cold man, Jason, if man you is” (Faulkner 3).  Jason was indeed cold, bitter and self-absorbed.  He was full of hatred, too.  When he was scolding his niece Miss Quentin for her behavior, he said: “I don’t care what you do, myself…But I’ve got a position in this town” (Faulkner 3).  He was also insensitive to his Benjy’s condition; he considered his own brother a freak.  He said, “Rent him out to a sideshow; there must be folks somewhere that would pay a dime to see him” (Faulkner 3).  Also, he had a racist streak in him.  He said, “What this country needs is white labor.  Let these dam trifling niggers starve for a couple of years, then they’d see what a soft thing they have” (Faulkner 3).

However, the most distinct element of Jason’s character was his misogyny.  He did not regard women with much importance.  Unlike Quentin who placed women in high regard because of his conservative views of purity, Jason had extreme dislike for females.  He said, “That’s the only way to manage them.  Always keep them guessing.  If you can’t think of any other way to surprise them, give them a bust in the jaw” (Faulkner 3).  He also said, “I make it a rule never to keep a scrap of paper bearing a woman’s hand” (Faulkner 3).

Among all women, Jason most despised Caddy.  She was the most victimized of his misogyny, just as she was the reason for it.  Just like his two brothers, Jason also had a fixation with Caddy.  Jason was also similar to Quentin in the sense that he was constantly engrossed with the past, hindering any kind of personal development in the present.  His hatred for Caddy arose from the job that was promised to him by her husband.  When Herbert discovered that his wife was carrying another man’s child, he divorced her.  Consequently, the job offer was withdrawn.  This made Jason resent his sister.  He said, “You can’t beat me out of a job and get away with it” (Faulkner 3).  Jason failed to move on from that incident.  He believed it was his ticket to success, and Caddy deprived him of it.  Because of her, Jason only worked in a store which sold merchandise for farms and farming.  She already apologized, “I’m sorry about that, Jason” (Faulkner 3).  Nonetheless, he continued to hold a grudge against his sister, which eventually resulted in his cruel treatment of Caddy’s daughter.  Even though Caddy was banished from the Compson household, she still provided for Miss Quentin by sending financial aid to Jason.  He narrated, “I opened her letter first and took the check out.  Just like a woman. Six days late” (Faulkner 3).  Jason may have hated Caddy, but he lived on her money.  The only reason he was upset that the check was late was because he personally used money meant for Miss Quentin.  His grudge towards Caddy and selfishness forced him to steal from his own family.

In “The Sound and the Fury,” William Faulkner created three siblings which were very different from one another.  Benjy was a mentally challenged man who had no capacity for speech but had an uncanny ability to detect disruptions in his surroundings.  Quentin was an intelligent Harvard student who clung to the traditional and conservative values of the South.  Jason was the detached brother who was full of hatred and bitterness.  Their respective concepts of time also set them apart.  Nonetheless, they were all similar in their preoccupation with Caddy.  Caddy’s actions and decisions affected them all.  They were also all affected by their mother’s failures, even Jason who was considered the favorite.  Hence, the Compson brothers were distinct individuals who were united due to their experience with the Compson women.


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The Compson Brothers in William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”. (2019, Jun 20). Retrieved from

The Compson Brothers in William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”
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