American Literature books summary
some sarsaparilla to drink; they are both drunk. Quentin pushes T. P. into
the pig trough. They fight, and T. P. pushes Benjy into the trough. Quentin
beats T. P., who can't stop laughing. He keeps saying "whooey!". Versh
comes and yells at T. P. Quentin gives Benjy some more sarsaparilla to
drink, and he cries. T. P. takes him to the cellar, and then goes to a tree
outside the parlor. T. P. drinks some more. He gets a box for Benjy to
stand on so he can see into the parlor. Through the window, Benjy can see
Caddy in her wedding veil, and he cries out, trying to call to her. T. P.
tries to quiet him. Benjy falls down and hits his head on the box. T. P.
drags him to the cellar to get more sarsaparilla, and they fall down the
stairs into the cellar. They climb up the stairs and fall against the fence
and the box. Benjy is crying loudly, and Caddy comes running. Quentin also
comes and begins kicking T. P. Caddy hugs Benjy, but she doesn't smell like
trees any more, and Benjy begins to cry.
Benjy at the gate crying, 1910.
Benjy is in the house looking at the gate and crying, and T. P. tells him
that no matter how hard he cries, Caddy is not coming back.
Later, Benjy stands at the gate crying, and watches some schoolgirls pass
by with their satchels. Benjy howls at them, trying to speak, and they run
by. Benjy runs along the inside of the fence next to them to the end of his
yard. T. P. comes to get him and scolds him for scaring the girls.
Quentin's death, 1910.
Benjy is lying in T. P.'s bed at the servants' quarters, where T. P. is
throwing sticks into a fire. Dilsey and Roskus discuss Quentin's death
without mentioning his name or Caddy's name. Roskus talks about the curse
on the family, saying "aint the sign of it laying right there on that bed.
Aint the sign of it been here for folks to see fifteen years now" (29).
Dilsey tells him to be quiet, but he continues, saying that there have been
two signs now (Benjy's retardation and Quentin's death), and that there
would be one more. Dilsey warns him not to mention Caddy's name. He replies
that "they aint no luck on this place" (29). Dilsey tucks Benjy into T.
P.'s bed and pulls the covers up.
Benjy attacks a girl outside the gate and is castrated, 1911: Benjy is
sixteen years old.
Benjy is standing at the gate crying, and the schoolgirls come by. They
tell each other that he just runs along the inside of the fence and can't
catch them. He unlatches the gate and chases them, trying to talk to them.
They scream and run away. He catches one girl and tries to talk to her,
perhaps tries to rape her.
Later, father talks about how angry Mr. Burgess (her father) is, and wants
to know how Benjy got outside the gate. Jason says that he bets father will
have to send Benjy to the asylum in Jackson now, and father tells him to
Mr. Compson's death, 1912: Benjy is seventeen.
Benjy wakes up and T. P. brings him into the kitchen where Dilsey is
singing. She stops singing when Benjy begins to cry. She tells T. P. to
take him outside, and they go to the branch and down by the barn. Roskus is
in the barn milking a cow, and he tells T. P. to finish milking for him
because he can't use his right hand any more. He says again that there is
no luck on this place.
Later that day, Dilsey tells T. P. to take Benjy and the baby girl Quentin
down to the servants' quarters to play with Luster, who is still a child.
Frony scolds Benjy for taking a toy away from Quentin, and brings them up
to the barn. Roskus is watching T. P. milk a cow.
Later, T. P. and Benjy are down by the ditch where Nancy's bones are. Benjy
can smell father's death. T. P. takes Benjy and Quentin to his house, where
Roskus is sitting next to the fire. He says "that's three, thank the Lawd .
. . I told you two years ago. They aint no luck on this place" (31). He
comments on the bad luck of never mentioning a child's mother's name and
bringing up a child never to know its mother. Dilsey shushes him, asking
him if he wants to make Benjy cry again. Dilsey puts him to bed in Luster's
bed, laying a piece of wood between him and Luster.
Mr. Compson's funeral, 1912.
Benjy and T. P. wait at the corner of the house and watch Mr. Compson's
casket carried by. Benjy can see his father lying there through the glass
in the casket.
Trip to the cemetery, 1912.
Benjy waits for his mother to get into the carriage. She comes out and asks
where Roskus is. Dilsey says that he can't move his arms today, so T. P.
will drive them. Mother says she is afraid to let T. P. drive, but she gets
in the carriage anyway. Mother says that maybe it would be for the best if
she and Benjy were killed in an accident, and Dilsey tells her not to talk
that way. Benjy begins to cry and Dilsey gives him a flower to hold. They
begin to drive, and mother says she is afraid to leave the baby Quentin at
home. She asks T. P. to turn the carriage around. He does, and it tips
precariously but doesn't topple. They return to the house, where Jason is
standing outside with a pencil behind his ear. Mother tells him that they
are going to the cemetery, and he asks her if that was all she came back to
tell him. She says she would feel safer if he came, and he tells her that
Father and Quentin won't hurt her. This makes her cry, and Jason tells her
to stop. Jason tells T. P. to drive, and they take off again.
Roskus's death, later 1920s: Luster is old enough to take care of Benjy by
Dilsey is "moaning" at the servants' quarters. Benjy begins to cry and the
dog begins to howl, and Dilsey stops moaning. Frony tells Luster to take
them down to the barn, but Luster says he won't go down there for fear he
will see Roskus's ghost like he did last night, waving his arms.
Analysis of April 7, 1928:
The title of this novel comes from Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act five, scene
five, in Macbeth's famous speech about the meaninglessness of life. He
states that it is "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, /
signifying nothing." One could argue that Benjy is the "idiot" referred to
in this speech, for indeed his section seems, at first reading, to "signify
nothing." No one vignette in his narrative seems to be particularly
important, much of it detailing the minutiae of his daily routine. His
speech itself, the "bellering" with which me makes himself heard, does, in
fact, "signify nothing," since he is unable to express himself even when he
wants to in a way other than howling. However, Benjy Compson is not merely
an idiot, and his section is much more meaningful than it first seems.
When discussing Mr. Compson's death, Roskus states that Benjy "know a lot
more than folks thinks" (31), and in fact, for all his idiocy, Benjy does
sense when things are wrong with his self-contained world, especially when
they concern his sister Caddy. Like an animal, Benjy can "smell" when Caddy
has changed; when she wears perfume, he states that she no longer smells
"like trees," and the servants claim that he can smell death. He can also
sense somehow when Caddy has lost her virginity; she has changed to him.
From the time she loses her virginity on, she no longer smells like trees
to him. Although his section at first presents itself as an objective
snapshot of a retarded boy's perceptions of the world, it is more ordered
and more intelligent than that.
Most of the memories Benjy relates in his section have to do with Caddy,
and specifically with moments of loss related to Caddy. The first memory of
Damuddy's death, for example, marks a change in his family structure and a
change in his brother Jason, who was the closest to Damuddy and slept in
her room. His many memories of Caddy are mostly concerned with her
sexuality, a fact that changes her relationship with him and eventually
removes her from his life. His later memories are also associated with some
sort of loss: the loss of his pasture, of his father, and the loss
associated with his castration. Critics have pointed out that Benjy's
narrative is "timeless," that he cannot distinguish between present and
past and therefore relives his memories as they occur to him. If this is
the case, he is caught in a process of constantly regenerating his sister
in memory and losing her simultaneously, of creating and losing at the same
time. His life is a constant cycle of loss and degenerative change.
If Benjy is trapped in a constantly replaying succession of losses, the
objects that he fixates on seem to echo this state. He loves fire, for
instance, and often stares into the "bright shapes" of the fire while the
world revolves around him. The word "fire" is mentioned numerous times in
the memory of his name change. Caddy and the servants know that he stops
crying when he looks at the fire, which is the reason in the present day
that Luster makes a fire in the library even though one is not needed.
The fire is a symbolic object; it is conventionally associated with the
contrast between light and dark, heat and cold. It is a comfort, not merely
to Benjy because of the pleasure he receives in watching it, but because it
is associated with the hearth, the center of the home. As critics have
pointed out, it is often Caddy who places Benjy in front of the fire: "she
led me to the fire and I looked at the bright, smooth shapes" (64). The
fire is therefore tied in Benjy's mind with the idea of Caddy; both are
warm and comforting forces within a cold family. But unlike Caddy, the fire
is unchanging; there will always be a fire, even after she leaves him. The
fact that Benjy burns himself on the kitchen stove after Luster closes the
oven door reveals the pain - both physical and mental - that Benjy
associates with Caddy's absence.
Another object that provides comfort to Benjy is the library mirror. Like
the fire, the mirror plays a large part in the memory of his name change,
as Benjy watches the various members of his family move in and out of the
mirror: "Caddy and Jason were fighting in the mirror . we could see Caddy
fighting in the mirror and Father put me down and went into the mirror and
fought too . He rolled into the corner, out of the mirror. Father brought
Caddy to the fire. They were all out of the mirror" (64-65). The mirror is
a frame of reference through which Benjy sees the world; people are either
in or out of the mirror, and he does not understand the concept of
reflection. Like the mirror, Benjy's section of the book provides readers
with a similar exact reflection of the world that Benjy sees, framed by his
memories. Characters slide in and out of the mirror of his perception,
their conversations and actions accurately reported but somewhat distorted
in the process.
As the "tale told by an idiot," Benjy's section makes up the center kernel
of the story of the Compson family tragedy. And the scene of Damuddy's
death in many ways makes up the center around which this section and the
entire story revolve. Faulkner has said that the story grew out of the
image of a little girl's muddy drawers as she climbs a tree to look into
the parlor windows at the funeral taking place. From this image a story
evolved, a story "without plot, of some children being sent away from the
house during the grandmother's funeral. There were too young to be told
what was going on and they saw things only incidentally to the childish
games they were playing" (Millgate, 96). This original story was entitled
"Twilight," and the story grew into a novel because Faulkner fell in love
with the character of this little girl to such an extent that he strove to
tell her story from four different viewpoints.
If this one scene is the center of the story, it is also a microcosm of the
events to follow. The interactions of the children in this scene prefigure
their relations in the future and in fact the entire future of the Compson
family. Thus Caddy's soaking her dress in the water of the branch is a
metaphor for the sexual fall that will torment Quentin and ruin the family:
She was wet. We were playing in the branch and Caddy squatted down and got
her dress wet and Versh said, "Your mommer going to whip you for getting
your dress wet."
"It's not wet." Caddy said. She stood up in the water and looked at her
dress. "I'll take it off." she said. "Then it'll be dry."
"I bet you won't." Quentin said.
"I bet I will." Caddy said.
"I bet you better not." Quentin said.
"You just take your dress off," Quentin said. Caddy took her dress off and
threw it on the bank. Then she didn't have on anything but her bodice and
drawers, and Quentin slapped her and she slipped and fell down in the water
Caddy sullies her garments in an act that prefigures her later sexuality.
She then takes off her dress, a further sexual metaphor, causing Quentin to
become enraged and slap her. Just as the loss of her virginity upsets
Quentin to the point of suicide, his angry and embarrassed reaction to
taking off her dress here reveals the jealous protectiveness he feels for
her sexuality. Benjy, too, is traumatized by the muddying of Caddy's dress:
"Caddy was all wet and muddy behind, and I started to cry and she came and
squatted in the water" (19). Just as her sexuality will cause his world to
crack later on, her muddy dress here causes him to cry.
Jason, too, is a miniature version of what he will become in this scene.
While Caddy and Quentin fight in the branch, Jason stands "by himself
further down the branch," prefiguring the isolation from the rest of his
family that will characterize his later existence (19). Although the other
children ask him not to tell their father that they have been playing in
the branch, the first thing he does when he sees father is tattle. He is as
perverse and mean here as he is sadistic in the third section of the book.
His reaction to Damuddy's death, too, is a miniature for the way he will
deal with the loss that he sees in Caddy's betrayal of the family later on:
"Do you think the buzzards are going to undress Damuddy." Caddy said.
"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 rich man." Versh said. "He holding his money all the
Here Jason cries over the loss of Damuddy with his hands in his pockets,
"holding his money," just as later he will sublimate his anger at Caddy's
absence by becoming a miserly workaholic and embezzling thousands of
dollars from Quentin and his mother.
The scene ends with the image of Caddy's muddy drawers as she climbs the
tree: "We watched the muddy bottom of her drawers. Then we couldn't see
her. We could hear the tree thrashing . . . . the tree quit thrashing. We
looked up into the still branches" (39). This image of Caddy's muddy
undergarments disappearing into the branches of the tree, the scene that
prompted Faulkner to write the entire novel, is, as critic John T. Matthews
points out, an image of Caddy disappearing, just as she will disappear from
the lives of her three brothers:
What the novel has made, it has also lost . . . . [Caddy] is memorable
precisely because she inhabits the memories of her brothers and the novel,
and memory for Faulkner never transcends the sense of loss . . . . Caught
in Faulkner's mind as she climbs out of the book, Caddy is the figure that
the novel is written to lose (Matthews, 2-3). Thus the seminal scene in
this section of the story is that of the sullied Caddy, "climbing out of"
The scene of Damuddy's death is not the only part of this section that
forecasts the future. Like a Greek tragedy, this section is imbued with a
sense of impending disaster, and in fact the events of the present day
chronicle a family that has fallen into decay. For Benjy, the dissolution
of the life he knows is wrapped up in Caddy and her sexuality, which
eventually leads her to desert him. For his mother and the servants, the
family's demise is a fate that cannot be avoided, of which Benjy's idiocy
and Quentin's death are signs. This is what prompts Roskus to repeatedly
vow that "they aint no luck on this place," and what causes mother to
perform the almost ritualistic ablution of changing Benjy's name. It is as
if changing his name from Maury, the name of a Bascomb, will somehow avert
the disastrous fate that the Compson blood seems to bring. This
overwhelming sense of an inescapable family curse will resurface many times
throughout the book.
Summary of June Second, 1910:
This section of the book details the events of the day of Quentin's
suicide, from the moment he wakes in the morning until he leaves his room
that night, headed to the river to drown himself. Like Benjy's section,
this section is narrated in stream of consciousness, sliding constantly
between modern-day events and memories; however, Quentin's section is not
as disjointed at Benjy's, regardless of his agitated mental state. As with
Benjy, most of the memories he relates are centered on Caddy and her
The present day:
Quentin wakes in his Harvard dorm room to the sound of his watch ticking:
"when the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtain it was between seven
and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch" (76).
This is the watch his father gave him when he came to Harvard. He tries to
ignore the sound, but the more he tries, the louder it seems. He turns the
watch over and returns to bed, but the ticking goes on. His roommate Shreve
appears in the doorway and asks him if he is going to chapel, then runs out
the door to avoid being late himself. Quentin watches his friends running
to chapel out the window of his dorm room, then listens to the school's
bell chiming the hour (8:00 a.m.).
He goes to the dresser and picks up his watch, tapping it against the side
of the dresser to break the glass. He twists the hands of the watch off,
but the watch keeps ticking. He notices that he cut himself in the process
and meticulously cleans his wound with iodine. He painstakingly packs up
all his clothes except two suits, two pairs of shoes, and two hats, then
locks his trunk and piles his schoolbooks on the sitting-room table, as the
quarter-hour bell chimes.
He bathes and puts on a new suit and his (now broken) watch, puts his trunk
key into an envelope addressed to his father, then writes two noes and
seals them. He goes out the door, bumping into his returning roommate on
the way, who asks him why he is all dressed up. The half-hour chimes and
Quentin walks into Harvard Square, to the post office. He buys stamps and
mails one letter to his father and keeps one for Shreve in his coat pocket.
He is looking for his friend "the Deacon," an eccentric black man who
befriends all the Southern students at Harvard. He goes out to breakfast;
while he is eating he hears the clock strike the hour (10:00 a.m.).
Quentin continues to walk around the square, trying to avoid looking at
clocks, but finds it impossible to escape time like that. He eventually
walks into a jeweler's and asks him about fixing his watch. He asks if any
of the watches in the window is right, and stops the jeweler before he can
tell him what time it is. The jeweler says that he will fix his watch this
afternoon, but Quentin takes it back and says he will get it fixed later.
Walking back out into the street, he buys two six-pound flat-irons; he
chooses them because they are "heavy enough" but will look like a pair of
shoes when they are wrapped up and he is carrying them around the Square
He takes a fruitless cable car ride, then gets off the car on a bridge,
where he watches one of his friends rowing on the river. He walks back to
the Square as the bell chimes the quarter hour (11:15), and he meets up
with the Deacon and gives him the letter he has written to Shreve, asking
him to deliver it tomorrow. He tells the Deacon that when he delivers the
letter tomorrow Shreve will have a present for him. As the bell chimes the
half-hour, he runs into Shreve, who tells him a letter arrived for him this
morning. Then he gets on another car as the bells chime 11:45.
When he gets off the car he is near a run-down town on the Charles River,
and he walks along the river until he comes across three boys fishing on a
bridge over the river; he hides the flat irons under the edge of the bridge
before striking up a conversation with the boys. They notice that he has a
strange accent and ask if he is from Canada; he asks them if there are any
factories in town (factories would have hourly whistles). He walks on
toward the town, although he is anxious to keep far enough away from the
church steeple's clock to render its face unreadable. Finally he arrives in
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