Black Belt

“The Dixie Limited,” Part Two

(continued from an earlier post, “The Dixie Limited, Part One”)

As brother Jason Compson begins his narration in the third section, “April Sixth, 1928,” of The Sound and the Fury, the anger and resentment ooze off the page. By now we have heard from Benjy and from Quentin, and it is Jason’s turn to comment on the family’s ruination. What was once a great and prosperous family has been reduced to circumstances befitting an episode of  Dateline with that deep-voiced reporter Keith Morrison. Their terminally ill mother cannot control her son who has been reduced to working as a store clerk, her elderly black cook and housekeeper who makes pitiful attempts at her former stature in the household, nor her now-divorced daughter whose own daughter now lives with them— that is, if I understand what is going on. Though, having Caddy to name her daughter Quentin – obviously after her brother – has thrown me off in places, when someone named Quentin is referred to as “she.” Wait, I thought Quentin was a man . . . Oh, that’s a different person named Quentin . . . 

On one level, Jason seems like a real asshole, starting off his chapter with “Once a bitch always a bitch,” but when received differently, in light of his situation, maybe we can have some sympathy for this poor guy. His younger brother got sent to Harvard to get an education, his sister slept around and then got married to hide an unplanned pregnancy, his mentally deficient brother walks around the house and the property bawling and drooling, his cynical father drank himself to death, his sickly mother calls him her only real descendant, and here Jason is, a full-grown man with no opportunities befitting a Southern aristocrat, trying to raise an undisciplined niece who skips school— a dour blue-blood, a reluctant store clerk, living still on the family’s formerly great property, watching his ailing mother die a slow death . . . I’d be pissed off, too.

Yet, in more human terms, all of that still doesn’t excuse some of Jason’s overt cruelty. Yes, he is in a bad situation, and I don’t blame him one bit for chasing Quentin and the boy with the red tie into the woods, ostensibly to stop them from having sex, but the way that Jason burns his two complimentary tickets to the show downtown right in front of Luster, who is pleading with him to have one, is pretty sinister, the way that he casts a pall over Earl’s life in his own store with a constant barrage of negativity and ire, the way that he torments Dilsey at the end of the chapter by refusing to eat until everyone comes down for dinner . . . If Jason has any sympathy from the reader, he has lost it by the end of his narration. Personally, I began to lose sympathy for him during this exchange with Earl, after Jason has been gone from the store most of the afternoon, chasing Quentin:

“We were not busy much,” he says. “They all went to the show. It’s all right.”
“If it’s not alright,” I says, “you know what you can do about it.”
“I said it was alright,” he says.
“I heard you,” I says. “And if it’s not all right, you know what you can do about it.”
“Do you want to quit?” he says.
“It’s not my business,” I says. “My wishes don’t matter. But don’t get the idea that you’re protecting me by keeping me.” (245 – 246)

If a man can’t accept kindness, he makes it hard for anyone to show any to him. Yet Jason was also incapable of showing even basic kindness to Luster, taunting him about having to pay for the tickets that he had received free from Earl, then sadistically burning them one by one, while Luster begged. However, what showed me that Jason was irredeemable occurred near the end of his dinner conversation with his mother and Quentin, when the girl finally explodes at him:

. . . I wish I was dead. I wish we were all dead.” Then she ran. We heard her run up the stairs. Then a door slammed.
“That’s the first sensible thing she ever said, “I says. (260)

Pure hateful. To say such a thing at the dinner table, about his niece, about all of them, to his elderly sick widowed mother.

Thankfully though, Jason’s input clarifies some the overall situation in a way that the previous two narrators did not. Jason is the one who tells us what happened to his brother Quentin back in 1910, and why Quentin is not there with them, and what happened to Benjy. Due to the ephemeral nature of brother Quentin’s narrative, I did not understand that he committed suicide or that he drowned himself, which must have been what the weights were for. I understood that Quentin was preparing for something with a degree of finality – mailing the keys to his trunk home to his father and having Deacon deliver a letter to his roommate – but it took Jason’s statement about his siblings to make it clear: “one of them is crazy and another one drowned himself and the other one was turned out into the street by her husband . . .” (233). That pretty much sums it up. And we learn from Jason that Benjy was castrated after he got loose once and chased after a young girl whose father was nearby; Jason saw the logic in having him committed while he was still under the anesthesia from the operation, saying that Benjy wouldn’t know the difference once he woke up, but with the family Benjy remained.

Part Four, “April Eighth, 1928,” is set on Easter Sunday, though that fact is not overtly stated in the very beginning. I guess that if I was invested heavily and academically in this reading, I would take the time and use the mental energy to figure out the symbolism of having Jason’s narrative occur on Good Friday and this section occur on Easter, but frankly I don’t plan on going that far. We begin the day with poor overworked Dilsey, a skeletal shell of her former self, being badgered by Mother to fix her a hot water bottle, to cook breakfast and to attend to Benjy (because Luster is not doing his job), all at the same time. Dutifully, Dilsey is trying so hard to accommodate, though reminding her mistress that she can’t heat a water bottle without a fire and she can’t be in two places at once!

Dilsey’s becomes our prophet as the narrative goes on, leaving the Easter church service proclaiming, “I’ve seed the first en de last” (297). The end is coming. Caddy’s daughter Quentin will never be a Compson in the way that the elder Jason Compson was a Compson. She is too wild, perhaps too much like her disgraced mother. Jason will be unredeemed, everyone will remain unredeemed. Dilsey is there to foreshadow the end of a Southern dynasty.

In the end, Faulkner’s grim and dour brand of justice for Quentin was unsettling. I saw it coming that we would discover that Quentin had been climbing out the window and down the tree to resume the family tradition of sneaking off with her boyfriend, but I couldn’t have known, as Jason dropped his knife and fork and stormed upstairs, that she had broken into his room and stolen her money back. Quentin may not have been a saint, but Jason had no right to that money. A little part of me cheered for her, as I pictured Jason standing in his room shaking the papers out of his broken lock box, dumbfounded and appalled. However, even with the loss of his unjustly obtained gravy train, Jason will not change; we know this by the end when he comes out of nowhere to assault Luster and turn the wagon around to take Benjy home. What we do not know is what happens to Quentin and the boy with the red tie.

I got off to a slow start with The Sound and the Fury, and I haven’t forgotten that my initial impressions made me want to quit reading it. Our school librarian who loaned me the novel sent me a link to a teaching guide for it, but I wouldn’t wish this novel on a high school kid. Yet, by the end I was enjoying Faulkner’s lyrical and florid prose and was dying to know what would happen to the family. Each progressive section of the novel got easier to read, both in style and substance, with “April Sixth, 1928” being the most difficult and the latter two sections of the novel providing the most answers in a clear and beautiful style.

Of course, the title of the novel comes from the Macbeth’s act-five soliloquy about the futility of living, likening Life to “a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage,” but is actually only “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Having read, studied and taught “Macbeth,” I recognized immediately the significance of the obsession that brother Quentin Compson had with his shadow as he wandered around on what I later found out was his last day on Earth; everything he was doing seeming utterly futile. As we meet them, all of the comings-and-goings of the Compson family amounted to nothing more than despair, anger, rage, death, resentment, the same kinds of results that Macbeth got. For all of their “sound and fury,” the family’s greatness is little more than a “walking shadow,” something perceived and omnipresent that also lacks substance and worth.

To begin this two-part discussion of The Sound and the Fury, I mentioned the best-of lists that it appears on. Faulkner’s novels — this one, Absalom, Absalom!, and As I Lay Dying – are the Deep South’s connection to the greatest traditions of Western literature. Other than him, you won’t find many Southern writers on those lists, except for maybe Carson McCullers for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Some people want to consider Mark Twain a Southern writer, but despite his connections to the Mississippi River, he was from Missouri. And no, I don’t care if the SEC did let Missouri in to play football with us, it’s not a Southern state. Personally, I would add Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to more of those best-of lists, but that’s a-whole-nother discussion. Anyway . . . Faulkner, you Hollywood hack screenwriter, you write a pretty good novel, at least most of the Western world seems to think so.

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