February 22, 2010

How to Read The Sound and the Fury - Part I

I've often thought there should be some kind of website that offers advice for readers, kind of like a literary "Ask Ann Landers," where they could write in and ask questions like: "Should I read Beckett's essay on Proust before or after I read Proust's writing?" or "I want to read Jame Joyce's Ulysses, HELP!" I'm sure there are a lot of reading guides available online, but I think most of them are intended for students who want to know what a work is about without really having to read it (CliffNotes/SparkNotes and all that Jazz) or summaries that tend to either spoil whatever surprises are lurking in the text, or already inject their own interpretation of the material into it.

It is with this thought in mind that I am going to write about my experience of reading William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. I'm not a scholar, I have not read a lot of Faulkner, and I'm certainly no Ann Landers, but I think that's all probably for the better since it would allow me to focus on the simple "What the hell is going on here?" aspects of the book, rather than try to voice some clever opinion on it. In this post I'll focus on the first part, which is the only one I've finished so far.

First, there are a few things it helps to know before you start reading (These do not, in my opinion, constitute spoilers):
  1. The first section (April Seventh, 1928) is narrated by Benjy, who is mentally retarded and does not have a clear grasp of time. Ergo, the narrative jumps around a lot between the present and past.
  2. Faulkner uses italics for a reason, pay attention to them.
  3. There are two Jasons and two Quentins, one of which is a girl. These are separate people, this is not a sex change story.
I think it helps to have a little cuecard where you can draw out the family tree and/or the relationships between the characters. I often do this when I'm reading; it can be helpful, and I also think it looks kind of nice (when I was reading Appointment in Samarra I drew a map of Lantenengo Street, where a lot of the main characters live).

With that in mind, I think the first section can be fairly readable, albeit a tad exasperating (at some point you might ask yourself, "does simply everything make Benjy cry?" to which the answer is, emphatically, "yes"). If you're a little confused as to when the action is actually happening, a good way to keep track (semi-spoiler alert) is to pay attention to which one of the black servants is taking care of Benjy - Versh is the earliest, followed by T.P., and Luster is in the "present" (i.e. 1928). If you're not sure what is actually going on, this summary from SparkNotes will clue you in, with a relatively small amount of conjecture and interpretation (just read the top half, not the analysis).

That's it for now, I'll write my thoughts about part II next week.


  1. I made a family tree for Absalom, Absalom while I was trying to figure out that book. I needed 15 different colored pencils and a poster-size piece of paper, and all the lines got tangled. It definitely helps!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks for posting this! I am onto the second part of the story now but this helped clear up the first part a bit!