The Sound and the Fury discussion prompts:
Part One: April 7, 1928
1. With his title, Faulkner alludes to a monologue in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In the play at this point, Macbeth has learned of Lady Macbeth’s suicide. His soliloquy: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/ Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/ To the last syllable of recorded time/ And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!/ Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more. It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.” Why did Faulkner choose such a phrase for his title? How is this passage applicable to the story? Do you find the novel as dark as this monologue?
2. The book challenges us right off the bat, with the first section narrated by Benjy despite his idiocy, and with Faulkner’s interspersal of stream-of-consciousness storytelling. How do we find our way in Benjy’s chapter? How many time periods are interspersed? What are some of the events Benjy is remembering? If Benjy is the “idiot” of Macbeth’s speech, can he still be regarded as a sentient and reliable observer of his family?
3. Crucial events are recounted in Benjy’s section, and later clarified or amplified by other narrators (Quentin in Part 2, and Jason and an omniscient narrator later on). Does Benjy strike you as a central narrating consciousness? Does his voice seem authentic to you? If he is voicing another’s thoughts, how does this affect the impact of his narration?
4. Regarding Benjy, Faulkner once commented: “To that idiot, time was not a continuation, it was an instant, there was no yesterday and no tomorrow, it all is this moment, it all is [now] to him. He cannot distinguish between what was last year and what will be tomorrow, he doesn’t know whether he dreamed it or saw it.” Why would Faulkner use such a character to introduce the Compson family story? How does this attitude affect your experience of that story? In a story more about memory than action, what is Benjy’s significance?
Part Two: June 2, 1910
5. Which characters might represent emotional or moral value? Who reflects love, or honor, or loyalty? As we get to know Quentin better through his narration of Part 2, how does he fit into Faulkner’s scheme? What about Jason, or Caddy’s daughter Quentin, or Caddy herself? Collectively do they seem to you simply one tortured family, or do you detect a broader allegory? And how do Mrs. Compson and her husband fit into the scheme?
6. Each section of the novel is headed with a date. Note that three of the narratives (1, 3 and 4) are on dates in April 1928 (April 7th, then the 6th, then the 8th), while Quentin’s narrative is on June 2, 1910–perhaps the end of his life after his freshman year at Harvard. Why does Faulkner present the story in this order? For now, we stop after Quentin’s narration–what are your hopes or guesses about what’s coming in Parts 3 and 4, in terms of connections to what we’ve just read, or in terms of sheer coherence?
7. Why does Faulkner have Quentin narrate his own section despite being dead for almost a generation–a long flashback of sorts? What’s the significance of his dual obsession with Caddy’s virginity and the loss of family honor? What do you make of his false confession of incest?
8. Caddy is at the center of her brothers’ experiences and narratives. She is presented as maternal, promiscuous, erotic, at times domineering–and perhaps unknowable, given the unreliable narrations of her brothers. Does she appeal to you as a sympathetic character? Is her downfall more of a cause of the family tragedy, or an effect? Why does each brother have a narrative voice while she has none?
As I Lay Dying discussion prompts:
For all October meetings:
1. Which are the most intelligent and sympathetic voices in the novel? With whom do you most and least identify? Is Faulkner controlling your closeness to some characters and not others? How is this done, given the seemingly equal mode of presentation for all voices?
2. What is the effect of each chapter being in first-person narration? For Mission Impossible veterans, how does this compare with the narrative voice(s) in the other books we’ve read?
3. Faulkner allows certain characters–especially Darl and Vardaman–to express themselves in language and imagery that would be impossible, given their lack of education and experience in the world. Why does he break with the realistic representation of character in this way?
4. What are the distinctive characteristics of each character that have been revealed thus far? What is the importance of the order of characters telling their stories? (For example, Cash is part of almost every chapter and yet does not have his first say until chapter 18.)
5. What is your response to the section spoken by Vardaman, which states simply, “My mother is a fish”? What sort of psychological state or process does this declaration indicate? What are some of the ways in which Vardaman insists on keeping his mother alive, even as he struggles to understand that she is dead?
6. What are some of your favorite passages thus far?
November / December meetings:
7. What makes Darl different from the other characters? Why is he able to describe Addie’s death [p. 48] when he is not present? How is he able to intuit the fact of Dewey Dell’s pregnancy? What does this uncanny visionary power mean, particularly in the context of what happens to Darl at the end of the novel? Darl has fought in World War I; why do you think Faulkner has chosen to include this information about him? What are the sources and meaning of his madness?
8. Anse Bundren is surely one of the most feckless characters in literature, yet he alone thrives in the midst of disaster. How does he manage to command the obedience and cooperation of his children? Why are other people so generous with him? He gets his new teeth at the end of the novel and he also gets a new wife. What is the secret of Anse’s charm? How did he manage to make Addie marry him, when she is clearly more intelligent than he is?
9. Some critics have spoken of Cash as the novel’s most gentle character, while others have felt that he is too rigid, too narrow-minded, to be sympathetic. What does Cash’s list of the thirteen reasons for beveling the edges of the coffin tell us about him? What does it tell us about his feeling for his mother? Does Cash’s carefully reasoned response to Darl’s imprisonment seem fair to you, or is it a betrayal of his brother?
10. Jewel is the result of Addie’s affair with the evangelical preacher Whitfield (an aspect of the plot that bears comparison with Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter). When we read Whitfield’s section, we realize that Addie has again allied herself with a man who is not her equal. How would you characterize the preacher? What is the meaning of this passionate alliance, now repudiated by Whitfield? Does Jewel know who his father is?
11. This is a novel full of acts of love, not the least of which is the prolonged search in the river for Cash’s tools. Consider some of the other ways that love is expressed among the members of the family. What compels loyalty in this family? What are the ways in which that loyalty is betrayed? Which characters are most self-interested?
12. The saga of the Bundren family is participated in, and reflected upon, by many other characters. What does the involvement of Doctor Peabody, of Armstid, and of Cora and Vernon Tull say about the importance of community in country life? Are the characters in the town meant to provide a contrast with country people?
13. Does Faulkner deliberately make humor and the grotesque interdependent in this novel? What is the effect of such horrific details as Vardaman’s accidental drilling of holes in his dead mother’s face? Of Darl and Vardaman listening to the decaying body of Addie “speaking”? Of Vardaman’s anxiety about the growing number of buzzards trying to get at the coffin? Of Cash’s bloody broken leg, set in concrete and suppurating in the heat? Of Jewel’s burnt flesh? Of the “cure” that Dewey Dell is tricked into?
14. Even the reader of such an unusual book may be surprised to come upon Addie Bundren’s narrative on page 169, if only because Addie has been dead since page 48. Why is Addie’s narrative placed where it is, and what is the effect of hearing Addie’s voice at this point in the book? Is this one of the ways in which Faulkner shows Addie’s continued “life” in the minds and hearts of her family? How do the issues raised by Addie here relate to the book as a whole?
15. In one of the novel’s central passages, Addie meditates upon the distance between words and actions: “I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words” [pp. 173-74]. What light does this passage shed upon the meaning of the novel? Aren’t words necessary in order to give form to the story of the Bundrens? Or is Faulkner saying that words–his own chosen medium–are inadequate?
16. What does the novel reveal about the ways in which human beings deal with death, grieving, and letting go of our loved ones?