The Portrayal of Gender Role Defiance in The Sound and the Fury, a Novel by William Faulkner

The Sound And The Fury is a brilliant novel of chaos, tragedy, loss, and search for love. Mr. and Mrs. Compson live in Mississippi with their four children, Quentin, Candace (Caddy), Jason, and Benjamin (Benjy). The novel takes place in the early twentieth century where lots of changes are occurring in the South, one of the most prominent changes being that of gender roles.

Gender roles are simply the roles and attributes that are stereotypically placed with a specific gender. For instance, in the novel Caddy defies her roles as a young woman by having sex before she is married and have an illegitimate child.

Caddy is the only female character to push the boundaries of these gender roles, placing her self as the central focus of the novel. Caddy’s mother, Caroline Compson is the opposite of Caddy. Mrs. Compson is the stereotypical maternal figure when the novel begins but she slowly takes on the role of the “damsel in distress”, waiting for her son and her husband to take care of her and provide for her financially.

Caddy proves that she does not need a man and that she can provide for herself and her young daughter. By defying her roles as a young woman, Caddy emasculates her three brothers in various ways by proving that she can do what they could not do as the masculine roles in society. Caddy’s relationships with her three brothers reflect the view society has had of women, specifically in the South during the time this novel was written, using women as scapegoats and putting blame on them Benjy is Caddy’s youngest brother who also happens to be mentally retarded and significantly delayed because of it.

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The first section of the novel is told from his point of view in flashbacks that he recounts as a thirty-two year old adult. He is the one brother who looks at Caddy as a maternal figure because Mrs. Compson is so distant from her children. Caddy does a very good job playing the role of a friend and a mother at the same time, both of which Benjy so desperately needs. Caddy tries to treat Benjy as an equal and to not look down upon him as a invalid; “You’re not a poor baby. Are you. Are you. You’ve got your Caddy.

Haven’t you got your Caddy'”(Faulkner 9). Problems only arise when Caddy begins the process of maturing into a young lady and eventually a sexual human being. Benjy associate a certain smell of nature and cleanliness with Caddy when she is younger and he finds that very comforting, but when her scent of nature is masked by perfume, Benjy is somewhat frightened of the unknown and of Caddy becoming a woman. Literary critic John Longley describes Caddy’s maturing as, “simply the heartbreak of loss of innocence and the inevitable corruption that comes with growing up” (Longley). Out of all the characters in the novel, Benjy certainly has the most difficulty accepting Caddy’s loss of innocence simply because he cannot perceive time and therefore does not understand the idea of Caddy maturing and becoming a woman.

Benjy’s illness leaves him trapped in the mind of a toddler, because of this he requires everyone around him to stay as they have always been because his mind cannot process the change or aging. One instance of Benjy finding calmness in Caddy’s youth is when she says, ‘Hush now.’ She said. ‘I’m not going to run away.’ So I hushed. Caddy smelled like trees in the rain” (Faulkner 19). Benjy is unable to identify why the smell of trees and rain comforts him but it is clear that those scents are associates with cleanliness and purity, the way he wishes for Caddy to stay. As Caddy matures throughout Benjy’s narrative he struggles more and more and goes through many episodes of his bellowing and moaning, his only way of showing that the world is out of place and that something is off.

One of the most profound examples that Benjy’s life revolves around Caddy is that all of Benjy’s flashbacks take him back to a different milestone in Caddy’s life, rather than his own life. The most challenging event of Caddy’s maturing for Benjy is the day of her wedding to Herbert Head (Padgett). Caddy’s marriage is one of the last memories Benjy has of her, and the memory to him consists of her leaving him and no longer being his caretaker or his friend. This is a really traumatic experience for Benjy, he is losing the only person who ever viewed him with respect and dignity whereas his brothers treat him as a baby or an invalid.

Caddy was the only hope he had of having a motherly figure in his life and he does not understand that Caddy has grown up and has to be a mother to her own child. Benjy is stuck in his own mind and so desperately trying to keep things the way they are, he needs Caddy to stay young and innocent so that she can continue to be his caretaker (Longley). Benjy is emasculated by his sister, physically, when he is castrated by the schoolgirls he mistakes for his Caddy. Benjy cries at his loss of masculine parts as Luster says, “Looking for them aint going to do no good. They’re gone”(Faulkner 73). Although Luster is referring to Benjy’s manhood it has a much more significant meaning about Caddy being gone and never returning, leaving Benjy for good.

A major theme around Caddy is abandonment. Benjy experiences abandonment when Caddy gets married and leaves town. Quentin, Caddy’s older brother, also resents her for abandoning him, but in a much different way. Caddy lost her virginity before Quentin did, leaving him in a state of immaturity and childhood, almost as if she has moved past him by this stage of maturing. As Caddy’s eldest brother, Quentin feels a great sense of responsibility and humility when his younger sister loses her virginity and gets pregnant. Quentin thinks that he should lie and confess he committed incest. One of his thoughts, “If we could just have done something so dreadful that they would have fled hell except us. I have committed incest I said Father it was I it was not Dalton Ames” (Faulkner 79). Quentin wants to take “ownership” of his sister’s loss of virginity for many reasons.

Quentin is still a virgin and feels humiliated and emasculated by the fact that his younger sister has lost her virginity before him. Mr. Compson, Quentin’s father, explains to him, “In the South you are ashamed of being a virgin. Boys. Men. They lie about it. Because it means less to women,” he continues going on about the concept of virginity claiming, “it’s like death: only a state in which the others are left and I said, But to believe it doesn’t matter” (Faulkner 78).

Quentin was raised in a patriarchal society where men are expected to lose their virginity at a young age and women are supposed to stay pure until marriage. Women are physically objectified in many instances in this novel, especially Caddy when she loses her virginity and decides to have her illegitimate child. Quentin wants to keep Caddy safe from the criticism she will receive from those in town now that she is pregnant. Quentin believes that if the town thinks they committed incest they will be forced to run off together and Quentin will get to be with Caddy forever. Quentin is so desperate for Caddy’s love and when she is forced to leave town and never return, leading Quentin to his ultimate downfall, being his suicide.

Quentin feels as though he is driven to suicide being his only option. He cannot handle the sins his sister has committed and feels that his world has come to an abrupt end. Quentin contemplates what to do after his father says: You are contemplating an apotheosis in which a temporary state of mind will become symmetrical above the flesh and aware both of itself and of the flesh it will not quite discard you will not even be dead and I temporary and he you cannot bear to think that someday it well no longer hurt you like this now. (Faulkner 177).

Mr. Compson is trying to explain to his son that he is in a moment of extreme feelings and that with time his feelings will dwindle and eventually go away. Quentin would rather die at a point in his life of heightened emotion and remember things as they are, without having to learn what things will be like in the future. Caddy played such a crucial role in Quentin’s life that he could not imagine living without her having the role she always had. Caddy’s loss of virginity drives Quentin to these feelings, leading to his suicide.

Jason Compson is perhaps the most challenging character to analyze in this novel. He is ignored and neglected much of his childhood due to his retarded younger brother, boisterous older sister, and Quentin. Aside from those attributes, Jason is callous and unsympathetic to the women around him, but especially Miss Quentin, Caddy’s young daughter.

In Jason’s section of the novel Miss Quentin is a young woman following her mother’s footsteps in engaging in sexual activities at such a young age, an act that really defy the gender roles of the time (Wall). Jason has a lot of resentment towards his sister and takes it out on Miss Quentin by stealing the money that Caddy sends to her and actively trying to make her miserable. Jason resents Caddy for many reasons, one of them being that Caddy lost Jason his first job opportunity, preventing him from making money, the main gender role men were given, and emasculating him (Langley).

In addition to Jason’s emasculation, Caddy was also able to accomplish the one thing Jason never did; Caddy escaped. Jason was first jealous of Quentin’s opportunity to go to Harvard and then when Caddy got to run off and leave her responsibility for Jason. Jason’s misery revolves solely around Caddy and everything she has burdened the Compson family with, most important Miss Quentin (Wall). Being named after the head of his family, Jason feels a great deal of responsibility to be “the man” in the family and Miss Quentin often foes against his authority, reminding Jason of more and more of Caddy.

The end of Jason’s section when he is running around looking for Miss Quentin is essentially how he wanted to take care of the issue with Caddy. He wanted Caddy to be responsible for what she brought in the world and not try to run away. Caddy is the main cause for Jason’s struggles and his misery.

Caddy is the central focus, not only of the novel but more specifically of all her brothers lives. Benjy is trapped in his mind waiting for Caddy to return as a child again, not understanding that she has left for good. Quentin is so distraught by Caddy’s impurity that he cannot live with her as this new sexual being and he commits suicide. Jason is the only brother who can articulate his frustrations as being towards Caddy as a person and not just her actions. His main frustrations are taken out against Miss Quentin, his only way to spite his sister for “destroying” his life. All of the brothers share this common theme of somehow losing their masculine properties or attributes due to Caddy’s defiance of gender roles.

Caddy finds many ways to reject her role as a woman starting at a young age and continuing throughout her adulthood. Caddy’s loss of virginity before marriage was the ultimate defiance of what a young lady should be like in the South during the early 1900’s. This exemplifies a much greater theme in the South of women stepping away from their roles as housewives and moving towards the Civil Rights Movement, and event that occurred long after this novel was written. Faulkner was able to see far ahead past his future to a time where women would be able to be like Caddy and defy these gender roles. The change in the South allowed women to take on a greater role in society and move towards gender equality.

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The Portrayal of Gender Role Defiance in The Sound and the Fury, a Novel by William Faulkner. (2022, Dec 17). Retrieved from

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