Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

In the second section of William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, as Quentin Compson walks out of his home, a fleeting moment almost tricks him into forgetting about time; but the sun hanging in the sky soon reminds him that time is always present. Wishing to know the exact time in spite of the sun, he looks into the window of a clock shop, only to see: 

…a dozen watches in the window, a dozen different hours and each with the same assertive and contradictory assurance that mine had, without any hands at all. Contradicting one another. I could hear mine, ticking away inside my pocket, even though nobody could see it, even though it could tell nothing if anyone could. (Faulkner, 78) 

By depicting Quentin’s experience of time as different from the natural rhythm of the sun or the pointers of clocks, Faulkner presents time as a subjective embodiment of lived experience rather than a universal measure, revealing how notions of normalcy and able-bodiedness are often embedded in the imagination of a singular, linear temporality. Disability scholar Alison Krafer is among the few who introduce the notion of “crip time,”1 suggesting that disabled people often experience time differently from able-bodied people, including needing “extra time to arrive or accomplish something,” along with having different views of “what can and should happen” in a given period of time (27). Krafer argues that thinking about crip time can open up new avenues for considering time and futurity. Frustratingly, disabled people are often precluded from projects that orient oneself towards the future—such as to reproduce, to seek cures, or merely to have a sense of progression of life in any aspect (Krafer, 29). Crip time encourages a reappraisal of “futurity” as a social imperative and critiques the medical model of disability’s insistence on a “cure” without sealing off the doors to the possibilities of imagining a future for the crippled ones. In The Sound and The Fury, Quentin’s “personal clock,” impacted by his mental illness, manifests a different orientation towards time that deviates from those linear and progressive ones usually experienced by able-bodied people. Not only Quentin, but also each member of the Compson family—including mother Caroline, father Jason, and their children Quentin, Caddy and Benjy—embodies alternative temporalities that account for their failure to fit societal expectations of progression. Furthermore, the family as a whole is similar to a body made paraplegic by a dozen internal clocks chiming in cacophony to one another, or a clock whose cogs’ inability to produce a harmonious voice prevents it from moving forward in time —fulfilling the purpose of an able-bodied family, either those old honorable southern families or those new family models in the north. Departing from previous scholarship’s focus on disabled individual characters in this novel, this essay intends to examine the interconnectedness among different family members and address the materiality of disabled bodies by regarding the whole Compson family as a disabled body and analyzing its crip time. I propose four ways of looking at Compson’s crip time—narrative time, incest time, displaced time, and spatial time—which all challenge ideas of compulsory able-bodiedness by providing alternative views towards temporality and futurity. 

Literature Review: Benjy, and Three Models of Disability  

The Sound and The Fury has garnered critical attention in disability studies, as Benjy Compson, a character entitled with strong narrative power, is intellectually disabled, behaving like a child while over his thirties, literally referred to as an “idiot” and a “fool” throughout the novel (Faulkner, 7). The medical model of disability, which sees disability as having “lack, excess, or flaw located in bodies,” reflects how Benjy was treated by his family and how people viewed disability in the early twentieth century (Garland, 591). S.A. Larson suggests the Compson family often renders Benjy into the “animal other,” associating his acute sense of smell with those of dogs, and his later castrated body as akin to a castrated horse (“gelding”) (204). A co-existing, similarly dehumanizing belief they hold is that Benjy possesses certain supernatural, prophetic and contagious power, therefore Benjy is a “curse”/”penalty” that accounts for their family’s degeneration (Loftis, 102). In criticizing the medical model, recent scholars in disability studies propose to see disabilities as conditions created by an inaccessible society rather than inherent defects of individuals, known as the social model of disability (Garland, 591). An example of such a model sees Benjy as potentially neurodivergent,1 having the conditions of autism and Down’s Syndrome. For example, Benjy has an extraordinarily strong perception of smell, sound and light; adherence to routine; and inability to think beyond the literal meaning of words or to speculate beyond the literal meanings in social interactions (Loftis, 102). Benjy is therefore not an “animal other” or “curse to the family,” but is discriminated against because he lives in a society in which his brain developmental patterns are less than welcomed. Faulkner’s treatment of Benjy as the first and the primary narrator of this novel invites readers to take these “tales told by an idiot” seriously. His use of stream-of-consciousness style in representing Benjy’s often disjointed and immature thoughts evokes the appreciation of the beauty and value in neurodiversity. The social model of disability offers valuable insights in understanding Benjy’s disability and its relation to the entire book. Though liberating, however, this model restricts itself in assuming all disabled bodies can dematerialize so that disability can disappear with the complete removal of social barriers, while ignoring conditions such as chronic pain that continue to create disabling experiences regardless of how accessible a society may become (Garland, 594). The theory of “misfit,” which states that disability exists when an environment “does not sustain the shape and function of the body that enters it,” complicates the former two models (Garland, 594). Theory of misfit both acknowledges the materiality of the body and emphasizes the need of providing an accessible environment, by showing how a body is always simultaneously a being of its own and a being in the world and situating the body in temporal and spatial lenses. Aligning my analysis to this model, I see the Compson family as a disabled body that navigates itself in time and space, and its disability as a “misfit.” While some societal changes are conducive to better accommodations of the family, some traits of an ideal able-body are still untenable for the Compson family, and those traits relate to how its material body interacts with temporal and spatial lenses.   

Compson Family’s Crip Time

Narrative Time

The Compson family’s temporal orientation deviates from the able bodied, linear progression of time, and this deviation is revealed firstly through the crippled experience that readers have when attempting to apprehend Faulkner’s non-chronological, multi-narrator style. The book is divided into four sections, the first three narrated by the three Compson sons (Benjy, Quentin, Jason) and the final section by a more detached third-person narrator, Dilsey, who works for the Compson family. The presence of multiple narrators hinders readers from grasping a linear storyline or achieving an omniscient perspective. The reading difficulty is intensified by Benjy’s disjointed account of events he only half-comprehends, and Quentin’s long-winded soliloquies drenched in subliminal melancholy. Both Benjy and Quentin’s narrations keep jumping back and forth in time, slipping from one event to another through random associations (change in time is indicated through alternating between normal font and italics). Upon hearing the word “Caddie,” the phonetic association with “Caddy” prompts Benjy to narrate his memory of waiting for his sister Caddy to return from school years ago (11). Similarly, Quentin’s thoughts are often directed by seemingly arbitrary stimulants, most famously the smell of honeysuckle that compels him to think of Caddy, his incestuous desire for her, and death (85). The Compsons’ narrative time is a scattered agglomeration of segmented times that disables a linear reading of events. 

Repetitive scenes and simplified expressions in Benjy’s narrative further signify the stagnant and inward-locking time that the Compson family experiences. Benjy’s narration is characterized by significant use of phrases such as “Hush,” “I hushed,” “cry,” “cried” and “[I was/am]trying to say,” indicating he has a monotonous life in which being silenced by others, having meltdowns and failing to communicate recurs and constitutes the most part of life. Benjy’s observation of other events similarly features an abundance of simple, repetitive phrases. In describing how the family prepares to get on a carriage in attending Quentin’s funeral, Benjy mostly notes down words such as “turn around,” “can’t you turn,” “whoa” and “yessum,” reflecting not only his cognitive limitations but also the inert nature of the Compson family’s life that remain motionless in time (15). The Compson family’s embodiment of crip time is therefore evident through these temporal deviations. 

Incest Time

The anti-futuristic aspect of the Compson family’s incest time is portrayed through Quentin and Benjy’s incestuous desire towards their sister Caddy and doubleness among characters. From the very literal and metaphorical senses incest is anti-reproductive and thereby anti-futuristic. A family with full ability often extends its existence in time through renewal brought by marriage and reproduction, but those possibilities are often prohibited if the desire is incestuous, and even if by allowance, what has been created can’t be seen as “new blood” to the family, but rather a sign of gradual familial decay. 

Notably depicted through the symbol of water, Quentin’s incestuous desire towards Caddy is interchangeable with his desire towards death, which also echoes how the Compsons’ incest time is anti-futuristic. Caddy’s sexuality is frequently associated with water, as the most memorable childhood scene of all the Compsons’ sons is about how Caddy gets wet in a river as the rest of them look upon the “muddy seat of her drawers” when she climbs to the top of a tree (3). Additionally, Quentin directly describes Caddy’s sexuality as “the swine untethered in Paris rushing coupled into the sea” (3). Upon learning about Caddy’s loss of virginity and her intention to marry Dalton Ames, Quentin claims he wants to kill Caddy and then himself, and attempts to push his knife inside her body (123). During this intense fight on a muddy grassland, Quentin sees “water flowing about [Caddy’s] hips,” her skirt “half saturated” (123). Given Quentin’s intense attention to Caddy’s body and the previous association between water and Caddy’s sexuality, water stands for the erotic symbol of their relationship; yet the sexual connotation underlying “pushing inside” of the knife also indicates how Quentin’s incestuous desire towards Caddy is interchangeable with his desire towards death—both hers and his. Later, when Quentin looks upon the water which he will throw himself into, he makes another association of the river with Caddy, further proving how this unstoppable turbulence, the forbidden incestuous desire, largely drives him towards death. By characterizing incestuous desire as driving force or equivalence to death, Faulkner shows how incest serves as a culmination of life, signaling the cessation of time. Instead of envisioning a future for the Compsons, incest results in a cripple time, a time that halts its normal progression.  

The incest time for the Compson family is also evidenced by doubleness among family members, as seen in their repetitive names and the assumption of hereditary suicide of Mr. and Ms. Quentin. The Compson family’s genealogy tree is one with significant repetitions: Benjamin (Benjy’s full name) was originally named Maury, the same as his uncle; Quentin is the name for Mr. Quentin and his niece Ms. Quentin; Jason is the name for both the father and the son. The presence of incestuous bonds indicated by repetitive names have thereby created a cyclical, self-locking time for the family, which differs from a progressive time for an able-bodied one. In addition to sharing the same names, the doubling between Mr. Quentin and Ms. Quentin also reveals the mother’s assumption of hereditary suicide, reinforcing the association of incest as something that culminates over time. When discovering that Ms. Quentin has disappeared, mother Caroline instinctively searches for suicide notes, believing Ms. Quentin will follow the pattern of Mr. Quentin, who kills himself and leaves a note (217). This assumption, coupled with the fact that Caddy gives birth to Ms. Quentin shortly after Mr. Quentin’s death, reinforces the belief of the second Quentin as a reincarnation of the first, underscoring the family’s lack of new creation and inability to progress in time. 

Unlike Quentin’s desire for Caddy that is closely associated with death, Benjy’s desire for Caddy represents a rejection of sexual maturity, thereby rejecting the usual turning point in able-bodied lives. Benjy’s famous description of how Caddy “smells like trees” suggests his innocence, along with how he regards Caddy as a nurturing, nature-related figure, who can be his mother, lover, sister, and friend simultaneously (11). However, when Caddy’s body odor is concealed as she applies fragrance on her wedding day, Benjy fails to sense the “smell of trees” on Caddy and cries out in despair (38). The fragrance of the wedding day signifies how Caddy has now become a sexually mature woman, ready to enter the cycle of marriage and child bearing which follows gendered social expectations of how life should progress. Despite being unaware of the connotations, Benjy instinctively feels the loss of Caddy’s familiarity from his childhood memory, prompting him to reevaluate his desires and confront his maturity. Benjy refuses to delineate boundaries between self and others and maintains an indistinct type of desire for Caddy, thereby resisting his transition to sexual maturity. Much like how disabled individuals may be perceived as old while young or vice versa, Benjy exists outside the conventional assumptions regarding age and bodily development, rendering his being at odds with the expected progression of time (Ellen, 2). 

Displaced Time

The Compsons’ crip time is also displaced time, as family members frequently take up roles contrary to their assigned ones. Mr. Compson is a silent, alcoholic father, even showing tacit permission when hearing Quentin’s confession of incestuous desire (84). Caroline, the mother to Quentin, Benjy and Caddy, is therefore left to take on a strict paternal role, insisting on calling Benjy by his full name and monitoring Caddy’s sexuality (64). Caddy in turn assumes a maternal role, upholding more maternal experiences in care-giving for Benjy, and becoming entangled with her brother’s Oedipus complex, wherein he desires Caddy and wants to kill any paternal romantic rivals (12). The son Quentin disrupts traditional roles on gender and sexuality, fearing his loss of virginity as well as incapability of losing virginity; facing the fact that he may also have homosexual desires; and adopting a strict maternal stance towards Caddy’s chasteness by attempting to monitor and restrict her sexual encounters even to the point that Caroline thinks he is overly strict (73, 139). These members all exhibit displacement of normalized familial roles, deviating from the usual family structure in a kind of time jump—traveling forward in excess so that the child becomes the parent, and backwards as the parent acts like child; or, traversing across traditional gender roles. None of them, whether considered individually or as part of a system, follow the regulated and clockwise progression of non-crip time. 

Spatial Time

The Compson family’s spatial immobility corresponds to their crippled relationship with time because their inability to move outward from South to North parallels the inability of transitioning from the old world to the new orders after the devastating effects of the American Civil War. The disability of the Compson family, who is situated in the American South, is established in relation to two potentially abled family models: the old Southern family that focuses on maintaining honor, order, morality, and kinship ties within a slave plantation; and the new Northern family that emphasizes individualism and self-reliance in a modernized metropolitan setting (Miller, 6). The South is defeated after the war, and gazes at the North with pain and unwillingness to assimilate into the new Northern world. The American South-North tension signifies not only spatial differences and therefore the difficulties of traversing the geographical boundaries, but also embodies conflicting ideologies brought by different economic systems and societal structures. The South is historically reliant on stationary plantations, and the North has been characterized by industrialization and increased mobility of labor. Moving from South to North therefore represents an attempt to progress in time by embracing industrialization and modernization along with obtaining greater spatial freedom. 

The limited mobility of the Compson family, symbolized by their deteriorating vehicles such as an old carriage, a dysfunctional road and the loss of a horse, reflects their experience of crip time. After being refilled with a new wheel, the Compsons’ carriage remains functionally impaired, as T.P. criticizes Jason (the youngest son of the Compson family) for not getting a new carriage, and angrily predicts that this carriage is “going to fall to pieces under you all some day” (14). Just as the carriage continues to deteriorate despite the new wheel, so too does the family, despite the fact that there are new members such as Ms. Quentin. The family’s immobility is compounded by the deteriorating road in front of their house, left unrepaired for years due to their declining financial status (16). The state of the road leads to T.P. whipping their horse a few times, but he still finds the carriage moving slowly until they enter the road on the other side (15). In another conversation, T.P. mentions that Benjy used to have a pony but could not afford one anymore as the family degenerates (16). The carriage, the road and the horse as vehicles or the site of transportation are all damaged, resulting in transportation difficulties, suggesting the impaired mobility of the Compson family. The spatial to temporal connection is also evident: on one hand, there are often comparisons of “old time” with “new time,” indicating the family now is worse than what it was before; but also the carriage and horse, both as old ways of transportation, are representations of old Southern values. Therefore the way the family sticks to those vehicles are indications of their inability to move into the new world, equivalent to transition to north, signifying their position in crip time. 

Different from the deterioration of vehicles and sites of transportation and in contrast to other character’s unsuccessful attempts at mobility, Jason possesses greater potential of movement towards the North because he owns a car; but his relationship with the car shows such mobility is also largely limited. Most characters in this novel possess very limited geographical, physical, and symbolical mobility. Benjy’s activity is confined to a few places: the inside of the house, the brook near the house, the golf court nearby, and the gate of Caddy’s school. His caregivers are often afraid of moving him, thinking it may expose him to more danger or let his idiocy be seen by more people, thus bringing shame to the family (13). When Benjy still comes to the gate after Caddy’s marriage, he thinks: “I came to the corner of the fence and I could not go any further” (48). The fence here signifies the spatial and metaphorical barrier that he cannot trespass. During a time when he is escaping from home and trying to talk to another school girl on the street, he is seen as a sexually threatening villain (49). He is then castrated because of this act, as a punishment for his attempted movement (49). Father Compson confines himself to the office and eventually dies of alcoholism. Mother Caroline has hypochondria and appears mostly either as lying in bed or going to bed. Quentin’s attempts at mobility also become futile: his enrollment at Harvard should be an honorable movement, and brings potential for education and upward social mobility, but it ends tragically by his suicide. Quentin also has a brief encounter with an Italian girl at the bread shop, but his action is perceived as sexual harassment, possibly due to language and cultural barriers (116). His movement in entering metropolitan space and especially in interacting with immigrants ends in misfortune, indicating that his attempts to possess a progressive stance in time encounter a backlash. He cannot enter those times ahead of him because of his experience of crip time. 

Differing from the many other family members, Jason embraces more of the Northern values, and actively attempts to make great movements through purchasing an expensive car, but soon becomes sick at the smell of gasoline, almost as if his attempted integration to the more industrialized, fast paced world goes against his nature (139). In addition to his subsequently limited chance to drive, when Jason is in the car and on the way, he often fails to reach his purpose of driving, such as failing to catch Ms. Quentin who was ditching school to spend time with a showman, and presumably failing to catch Miss Quentin when she runs away with all his money (184, 204). Caddy, the only one who moves away from the rest of the family, is never mentioned by the family after leaving, despite her financial support of them (177). Erasure of her name symbolizes her exclusion from family. Therefore, no matter if it is being trapped in place in the first place, or making failed attempts to move out, the Compson family’s immobility is interconnected with how they experience time in a non-linear way. 

Conclusion

Overall, the Compson family’s temporal experience is intertwined with their disability. Not only are individual members of the family disabled but also the family moves like a disabled body in time. The narrative structure, the themes of incest, the displaced familial roles and the spatial immobility all reveal how the family has alternative temporal experiences compared to the abled body. The discussion on the Compsons’ crip time circles back to the question: must a disabled body desire a future? Sartre criticizes the characters in The Sound and The Fury for being immersed in their past with no prospects of future, asserting the importance of looking ahead to “what one does not yet have” and “of what he might have,” as one is defined not by the past but by future (1). But Krafer points out how current discourse on futurity is often limited to imagining a future with erasure of disability; the proliferation of prenatal testing and the belief of solving disability through selective abortion are just a few cases of such notions (30). Admittedly, my approach of treating the Compson family in a symbolic way cannot fully speak to the challenges of lived experience of disabled people, but a parallel question can be asked: should the Compson family, as claimed to be trapped in time and lost in past, strive to assimilate into an able-bodied paradigm and desire a future in which its “disability” can be “cured?” The idealized forms of able-bodied families, such as the South’s and the North’s, can be mere social constructs as well, as disability-ability always exists in relations and ability itself is an imagination. In line with the theory of misfit, disability can be perceived as a manifestation of a body that does not seamlessly integrate with its temporal and spatial context. In such circumstances, instead of privileging the desire for a future devoid of disability, crip time can provide itself as an alternative, in bending the clock to meet disabled bodies, rather than bending itself in meeting the clock (Krafer, 28).

Works Cited

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[1] I use “crip” in this article as a synonym for “disabled/disability.” I refer to “Ability” as having “full range of ordinary physical or mental abilities” (Campbell, 13) and “Disability” as having “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities [or] the fact or state of having such a condition” (Adams et al. 7). Disability is defined in relation to ability, as the opposite or negative side of ability. “Crip” is the shortened, informal form of the word “crippled”. “crip/crippled” used to have negative connotations and were often offensive, but have been reappropriated by disabled community as “an informal, affectionately ironic, and provocative identification” with the emergence of the disability rights movement (Lewis, 46). I use the word “crip” as an appreciation of the act of reclaiming this word in making new meanings.

[2] “Neurodivergency” (nouns of “neurodivergent”) typically refers to the qualities of individuals with ADHD, Autism, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, and Down’s syndrome, and attributes these qualities as a result of different neurological patterns. “Neurodiversity” refers to the belief that people with these different brain developments should be viewed as natural variations in human beings, rather than humans with illnesses (“strength of neurodiversity”).

[3] From Macbeth final verse: “Life is but a walking shadow… it is a tale/ told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ signifying nothing, which is how this novel gets its name.

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