Over the past few posts, I have been writing about Ernest Hemingway, modernism, the ways that language constructs meaning, and how authors such as Hemingway interrogated these constructions. Today, I want to look briefly at another modernist author who does the same thing in a slightly different manner than Hemingway. That author, of course, is William Faulkner, and the novel is The Sound and The Fury (1929).
From the outset, The Sound and The Fury disorients us as readers, leaving us dangling in the ether without much to hold on to. In the opening section, the constant shifts in time from the present to various scenes in the past, seemingly at random, occur within the head of the 33-year-old mentally disabled Benjy. He moves in time typically through associating a word, smell, sound, or other stimuli with a memory from the past, usually involving his sister Caddy.
The novel opens as such:
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower bed. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.
The opening paragraph contains eight pronouns that do not have a clear antecedent with a person. We do know that the “he” is one of the “they,” but we do not know who the “they” actually are. As well, we do not get a clear indication of what is going on in this paragraph. What are the unidentified individuals doing? Why is there a flag? What is the table? We find out, as we get further into the text, that the anonymous “they” are playing golf on land that Benjy’s family used to own and that Luster, Benjy’s young caretaker, is searching for golf balls to sell to the golfers.
This opening paragraph, in many ways, reminds me of Ernest Gaines’ use of the same pronoun, “they,” in a similar manner. I have written about this before, so I do not want to restate that discussion here. In Faulkner’s novel, the “they” are rich whites who have the luxury of leisure time to play golf while the Compson’s family fortunes dwindle and evaporate. These individuals, in many ways, are like the “idle white rich” in Gaines’ work who skim along the surface of the river in their boats while others work the land.
Suffice it to say, though, I see the “they,” in both authors, as a commentary on class. In Gaines, however, the commentary also includes race as the “they” in “The Sky is Gray” that segregate the bus, own the pool doos, and maintain control of the town are wealthy white landowners who implement racist laws that keep Blacks in a subservient position. In many ways, Gaines uses “they” to subvert and speak back to Faulkner, something I talk about in my research.
For now, just think about the ways that Faulkner discusses the Gibsons in the appendix to The Sound and The Fury that appeared in the 1946 Portable Faulkner. After spending a long time tracing the Compson family’s history from 1699-1945, he only has four paragraphs for the Black characters. He writes, “And that was all. These others were not Compsons. They were black.” For Dilsey, he merely writes, “They endured.” By using “they,” he denies Dilsey any individuality and humanity. She becomes lumped in with everyone else.
While all of this is important, Quentin’s section specifically addresses the ways that words create meaning. One such instance occurs when Quentin gets on the car and thinks about the Black passenger he sits beside. He thinks to himself,
When I first came East, I kept thinking You’ve got to remember to think of them as colored people not niggers, and if it hadn’t happened that I wasn’t thrown in with many of them, I’d have wasted of lot of time and trouble before I learned that the best way to take all people. black or white, is to take them for what they think they are, then leave them alone. That was when I realised that a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behavior; a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among.
Here, Quentin thinks about the ways that words and ideas construct meaning. Initially, he comments on how he had to learn to self-censor himself when thinking about Black individuals he encountered in the East. This self-censoring involves language and the ways that language constructs identity. He chooses “colored people” instead of “nigger,” shifting the meanings in his mind. This linguistic shift works similar to the narrator in Hemingway’s “The Battler,” and like Hemingway’s story, Faulkner’s novel does not introduce a new language to take the place of linguistic constructions that exert power over others.
Quentin continues by reflecting on being “thrown in with many of them” in the East. Like the appendix, Quentin denies the passenger or any of the Black individuals he has met in Massachusetts their humanity. They become lumped into a singular word, “them.” Quentin’s dehumanization of the Blacks he encounters appears through the capitalization of “You’ve.” Grammatically, this is the start of Quentin’s thoughts about the subject, so “You’ve” introduces the sentence. However, there is no punctuation (comma or quotation marks) separating it from the rest of the sentence. The omission of these punctuation marks places Quentin’s “You’ve” in a higher position than “them,” structuring him as superior.
Quentin gets to the point where he realizes the ways that language and culture construct the psychological aspects of racism. He essentially rephrases W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness when he thinks about Black individuals becoming of an “obverse reflection” of what whites think they are. As he thinks this, he drops it and moves to thinking about Dilsey, Roskus, and others back home in Mississippi. Initially, he did not think he would miss them, but he recalls encountering a man in Virginia that made him realize he missed being around subservient Blacks.
Quentin treats the man, who is sitting on a mule in the middle of the train tracks, in a paternalistic manner, throwing the man, whom he calls “Uncle,” a quarter to get him to move. He throws the quarter on the ground and the man picks it up. As the train speeds away, Quentin thinks about the subservient nature of the man and the way that he “evades responsibility and obligations.” In the train, he “thought of home, of the bleak station and the mud and the niggers and country folks thronging slowly about the square.” Even though he ponders the ways that language creates meaning, he reverts to thinking about the Black individuals in his own life in Mississippi not as “colored people” but as “niggers.” Even with his travels, Quentin cannot escape the deep seeded ideas rooted in his mind.
Next post, I want to continue this discussion by looking at another section where Quentin specifically refers to the ways that words make meaning. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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Sadly, women were often thought of as “inferiors” during this time period as well. Since I have never read this piece by Faulkner, I really can’t comment much. However, time periods in history held great influence over the minds that presided in them creating fixed and unconscious fantasies. Leaders are our patriarchal authorities on matters and, just like our parents create meaning for us. What it meant to be woman in 1929 means something a little different today. Just as being black means something a little different too. Women as well as blacks have more opportunity provided they are supported for those contingencies. But, yeah, the “language” we are taught to speak stays with us unless something foreign acts upon the mind to expand and change it.
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