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Sanity and Insanity in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury
Quentin Compson, the oldest son of the Compson family in William Faulkner's novel, The Sound and the Fury, personifies all the key elements of insanity. Taking place in the imaginary town of Jefferson, Mississippi, the once high class and wealthy Compson family is beginning their downfall. Employing a stream of consciousness technique narrated from four points of view, Benjy, the "idiot child," Jason the cruel liar, cheat, and misogynist, Quentin the introvert, and the author narrating as a detached observer, Faulkner creates the situation of a completely dysfunctional family. Faulkner shows that failure to cope with the natural changes in the passage of time will drive one out of his mind. Despite what many critics believe, Quentin is indeed insane, as well as every other member of the Compson family, with the exception of Benjy.
Quentin is seriously mentally ill and does many stupid things to lead up to "serious harm," his suicide. His inability to live normally in society results in the drowning of himself. Quentin is an anachronism; he is out of his time and place. His passion in upholding the purity of womanhood is ironic in his questionable incest with his sister. Incest, notwithstanding, simply trying to make his father believe that such actions did occur is pure madness. Quentin is disgusted with life and feels that nothing can help anyone. He says, "It's not when you realise [sic] that nothing can help you- religion, pride, anything- It's when you realise [sic] that you don't need any aid" (80). When Quentin uses the word aid, he is referring to the daily things in life that help make life bearable. Things like: friends, family, compliments, and self-esteem. These are all types of aid. To think that no one needs any of these things to deal with the hardships in life is senseless. Certainly one must be lunatic to believe that nothing can help someone, that life is simply a free for all. As a Harvard student, Quentin should at least have some pride in his accomplishments. Certainly it was no accident for Faulkner to choose a suicidal man as the most psychopathic character for his novel.
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In order to create a totally dysfunctional family, there must be more than one deranged member. Faulkner depicts five of the six family members as in some way preposterous. Mrs. Compson is a neurotic, half-pathetic, half-comic mother. She is always whining and always seems to be too ill or poor to pay attention to her children's needs. She also likes only one of her children, Jason, who of all her children should be hated the most. Jason gradually becomes more and more deranged as time passes. He is a misogynist. He ends up stealing and cheating money out of his own family, and is responsible for Benjy's castration and placement in an insane asylum. Caddy is the "fallen woman" of the family; she is also conspicuously attracted to her lunatic brother, Quentin. Mr. Compson is a raging alcoholic, detached from his family, and has crazy cynical views. Upon giving Quentin a watch passed on from generations, Mr. Compson explains (from Quentin's point of view),
I give it [the watch] to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools (76).
Mr. Compson has no hope in his life and should have committed suicide with his son. His radical ideas should make anyone in his right mind laugh. To try and forget time is thinking irrationally. No matter how much someone would desire to forget the fast paced time of our lives, it is impossible to forget it all together. He is saying that no matter what challenges people find themselves in, they only end up in despair. In fact, he says that there are no real challenges. He basically tells Quentin that succeeding in life is only "an illusion of philosophers and fools." Undoubtedly these are the words of an extremely mentally ill person. Deranged people often see strange illusions throughout their lives, and Mr. Compson is saying that anything good in life is an illusion. He should not be alive during the novel in the first place; if he thinks that there is no real purpose in life. Clearly Faulkner chose to make all of the seemingly sane people exactly to the contrary, and make the presumably insane person the only mentally healthy one.
As the "idiot child," of the novel, Benjy draws sympathy from the reader. As a result, Benjy can be considered the protagonist of the novel. Indeed, Faulkner made no mistake in having the sane protagonist struggle against his inane family members. Who other than the "Christ figure" would be chosen by Faulkner to portray the only right-minded main character? Luster states, "He [Benjy] [sic] thirty three" (17). Of the many different years Faulkner could have chosen for Benjy's age, he chose thirty-three. Obviously it was no mistake for Faulkner to choose Benjy's age to be the same age as Christ's age when he died. Roskus reveals more about Benjy when he tells the reader, "He [Benjy] know lot more than folks thinks [sic]. He knowed they time was coming, like that pointer done [sic]" (31). Who other than Christ himself can know when someone's "time is coming," meaning his time of death. Benjy is the only family member with a reasonable perception of good and evil. Just as Christ, Benjy is the ultimate judgment; and he is even able to sense when Caddy has lost her virginity. As an outcast of the family, his name is changed and eventually he is placed in an asylum. This status is symbolic in that he is disowned from a seriously mentally ill family, showing that he is the only one with some sense. Benjy is not suicidal; he is not a misogynist, and he is not interested in having incest with his own sibling; he is the only sane family member.
In conclusion, Benjy is the only rational member of the Compson family. Quentin is indeed insane. He is not able to cope with society and eventually kills himself. He is an anachronism, and also believes that there is no hope with life. Every other member of their family has their horrible issues, and each one is unable to cope well in society. Benjy is the only one with a straight perception of good and evil, and was chosen by Faulkner to be the Christ figure of the novel. It is difficult to believe that a person, considered "mentally retarded," could be the only right-minded one in his family. In our society today, the "simple-minded" are barely considered whole people because of all of the sympathy that they draw from society. Which begs the question, who really needs the sympathy, the "mentally-retarded" or those who are regarded as "sane" by society?