, , , ,

It can be a challenge to portray mental health issues on the page. How can we illustrate it accurately and sensitively, without grasping onto stereotypes or using gimmicks? For this week’s post, I thought it would be helpful to examine how William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury created an authentic look into the minds of characters with a different mental health status. The two methods he used most prominently in this novel are time distortions and the stream of consciousness technique.

A (very) broad overview of the novel for those who haven’t read it or for those who need a refresher: TSATF depicts the downfall of a proud and once prosperous Southern family in the century following the Civil War. The difficult circumstances and, in some instances, choices that affect the Compsons consist of the death of the family patriarch from alcoholism, the matriarch’s hypochondriac personality, and the theft of money within the family. Two Compson sons wrestle with mental health issues: Benjy, who is suspected to have autism and requires constant supervision, and Quentin, the son sent to Harvard, whose obsession with his sister Caddy eventually leads to depression and completed suicide.

The novel is divided into four sections, each out of chronological order and with four different points of view. Benjy’s section is the first portion of the novel, which details April 7, 1928. However, the actual date is not as important as the numerous time jumps Faulkner uses to provide a convoluted sketch of the Compson family background.

One manifestation of Faulkner’s time distortions is to blend different periods on the same page with no more indication of the switch than varying the name of the servant who helps Benjy with his activities of daily living. (It is important to note that sometimes, and quite helpfully, a time jump is indicated with a few sentences in italics.)  These switches occur rapidly and without warning, thus portraying what one may believe to be the cognitive experiences of an individual diagnosed with autism. That the “help” would define a time period for Benjy is both logical and believable, given the amount of time he spent with these individuals. To illustrate this movement through time, the below section jumps from Benjy’s childhood around his grandmother’s death to present day, then back to his childhood again. Note that three different “helpers” are presented here: T.P., Versh, and Luster.

T.P. lay down in the ditch and I sat down, watching the bones where the buzzards ate Nancy, flapping black and slow and heavy out of the ditch.

I had it when we was down here before, Luster said, I showed it to you. Did you see it. I took it out of my pocket right here and showed it to you.

“Do you think buzzards are going to undress Damuddy.” Caddy said. “You’re crazy.”

“You’re a skizzard.” Jason said. He began to cry.

“You’re a knobnot.” Caddy said. Jason cried. His hands were in his pockets.

“Jason going to be a rich man.” Versh said. “He holding his money all the time.” (Faulkner 35-36)

Although this narrative discordance may be confusing to the reader, especially during the introductory read of this novel, it may be argued that presenting time in a more “normal”, logical, and linear way would detract from the presentation of mental illness and thus the characterization of Benjy. For instance, something as simple as adding thought tags would provide the reader a clearer view of what is happening and when an event is occurring.  However, such plainness was clearly not Faulkner’s intent and might take away from the artistic tapestry which Faulkner weaves. One may fairly assume that the average reader approaches this novel from a sound mental status, which may explain a portion of the difficulty in understanding Benjy’s narrative, thus indicating the efficacy of Faulkner’s technique.

In a similar fashion but using a different technique, Faulkner describes Compson family events through the lens of Quentin’s mental decompensation (i.e., depression and suicide). In the second section of this novel, dated June 2, 1910, the reader witnesses his final actions as he prepares to commit suicide. To showcase the disjointed thoughts and emotions that Quentin has, Faulkner uses the stream of consciousness technique.

The purpose of this technique is to illuminate the subconscious, preconscious, and conscious levels of the narrator’s mind, whose cognitions are said to teem with images, thoughts, and associations in a “stream of consciousness” (Harmon and Holman 529).  The stream of consciousness, in an effort to illustrate the workings of actual thought patterns, may be “disjointed”, “illogical”, and “unorganized” (Harmon and Holman 529). Furthermore, the use of punctuation and proper grammar may be forgone to reflect more accurately how one thinks (Harmon and Holman 529).

In Quentin’s story, there are large sections that take advantage of this writing choice, serving to bring the reader in close to what he is planning and why. We see that he is depressed and planning his suicide, often thinks of time, and is obsessed with his sister, her honor, and her sexual behavior. The below example highlights Quentin’s recollection of a conversation with his father during which he attempted to claim he and Caddy committed incest:

… and i you don’t believe me i am serious and he i think you are too serious to give me any cause for alarm you wouldn’t have felt driven to the expedient of telling me you had committed incest otherwise and i i wasn’t lying and he you wanted to sublimate a piece of natural human folly into a horror and then exorcise it with truth and i it was to isolate her out of the loud world so that it would have to flee us out of necessity and then the sound of it would be as though it had never been… (Faulkner 176-177)

Using the stream of consciousness here accurately captures the rambling nature of Quentin’s mind and one can pick up the near manic desperation he feels in regards to Caddy. To deepen the use of this technique, Faulkner did not use punctuation or even capitalize the pronoun “I”. These choices lend an authentic flow, and this piece can be read as though the reader were having the same thoughts themselves. To add punctuation would take away from the writing, as briefly demonstrated here:

“…and I, you don’t believe me? I am serious, and he…”

“I think you are too serious to give me any cause for alarm. You wouldn’t have felt driven to the expedient of telling me you had committed incest otherwise.”

“and I, I wasn’t lying, and he…”

“You wanted to sublimate a piece of natural human folly into a horror and then exorcise it with truth.”

“ and I, it was to isolate her out of the loud world so that it would have to flee us out of necessity, and then the sound of it would be as though it had never been…” (Faulkner 176-177)

While Quentin’s anguish can still be felt and his thoughts are still detailed, the added punctuation provides pauses that take away from his manic cognitions. Without punctuation the writing moves along at an intense, rapid pace, and the reader is carried away forcefully by this memory. With punctuation the passage lacks the desperate, depressive “punch” that Faulkner captured via the stream of consciousness technique.

Time distortions and stream of consciousness are only two techniques that a writer might experiment with to bring various mental health statuses to life on the page. Certainly it can be argued that Faulkner depicted this element successfully in The Sound and the Fury, so successfully in fact that the novel is a very complicated read. (It was for me, at any rate!)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this Faulknerian take on mental health. Feel free to sound off below with any other techniques you have seen used effectively, Faulknerian or not!


Julia Blake

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York City: Vintage International, 1990. Print.

“Stream of Consciousness.” A Handbook to Literature. Ed. William Harmon and Hugh Holman. 11th ed. 2009. Print.