I recently finished reading The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and haven’t stopped talking about it ever since. In my review, I promised that I’ll share my thoughts about how the book can be read.
Why does one need to know how to read a book, you ask. Umm, have you tried reading this one? Faulkner, the author himself, referred to this book as “a real son-of-a-bitch”.
The Sound and the Fury is the story of the fall of a southern family, told in four sections. The first three sections are told by the Compson brothers, Benjy, Quentin, and Jason. The final section is told by an omniscient narrator, but is frequently referred to as Dilsey’s section after Dilsey Gibson, the head of the black family that served the Compsons over the years.
This novel’s title is from Macbeth’s reflection about life:
It is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing.
When I first started reading this book, I did not understand a single word. That’s because the narrator of the very first section of this book, Benjy, is the “idiot”–he’s mentally challenged. Faulkner uses the stream-of-consciousness style to show how in Benjy’s mind time has no meaning–he constantly jumps between reality and memory, leaving the reader scratching their head, trying to figure out what’s going on.
I very badly wanted to give up on the book, but I persevered. I looked up the best way to read The Sound and the Fury, I asked around, and I continued on. And slowly I began to realize just how amazing this book was!
If you’re in the same boat as I was in the beginning, don’t fret! Here are 5 ways through which you can easily understand this award-winning book.
1. Keep track of the servants minding Benjy.
Faulkner scholars Stephen Ross and Noel Polk have identified 14 different timelines in Benjy’s section of the book. You didn’t notice that many, did you? The main thing you need to know is Benjy’s had three black servants so far–Versh, T.P., and Luster, in that order. Noticing who’s minding Benjy at the moment will help you place the timeline Benjy is thinking of in the first section.
If you don’t mind writing on your books, go ahead and annotate. This is one book that deserves to be annotated. Some people even recommend drawing lines between paragraphs where Benjy’s mind switches to a different time. This will help when you come back to this section and piece the story together (see point 4).
3. Take notes.
Write down any observations you have while reading. I made notes about events I thought were important in each section. Each section is its narrator’s point of view of the same story. Your notes will help you put together how different everyone’s reaction to the same set of events was.
4. Re-read, re-read, re-read!
Honestly, this is not a book you can read in one sitting. You have to do copious amounts of rereading to understand the story. This is where annotating helps–when you eventually go back to Benjy’s section from Quentin’s, you will understand exactly what Benjy was thinking. So don’t be afraid if you don’t understand something while you’re reading it the first time. Make a note and move on. You will come back to it a while later and understand the chain of events that took place.
5. Read the Cliffs Notes after each section.
This tip is not for everyone. If you’d like to read and understand the book with no outside help, feel free to ignore this. I did this for Benjy’s and Quentin’s sections alone. They’re the more complex parts of this novel and a little help from Cliffs Notes or SparkNotes hurt no one. Cliffs Notes, especially, has a scene-by-scene explanation of Benjy’s section that I found really helpful.
Remember, this book only gets better as you read it. The first few pages may make you want to throw it across the room, but once you understand the story, you’ll fall in love with it just like I did.