The Sound and the Fury and the Economics of Failure
The Sound and the Fury is a story of failure. The novel’s intricate narrative structure, combining nonlinear storytelling with a stream-of-consciousness style, does an excellent job of framing the tale of the Compson family, demonstrating how they fall into complete ruin. Their familial legacy is defined not by a singular failure existing at one point in time, but as a pervasive atmosphere of failure existing at all points in time, which Sartre describes as a “fleeting and unimaginable immobility” (1). Said atmosphere, reflected in the novel’s non-linear storytelling, allows for many possible avenues of interpretation when it comes to untangling the Compson failure, be its sources biological, social, or cultural. In this case, however, there is one framework that is particularly helpful in framing the downfall of the Compson family: an economic framework. Viewing the Compson family through the lens of their financial decisions and material relationships with one another allows the reader to understand that their personal relationships with one another created a dark environment of animosity and envy, among other negative emotions and that this doomed them. In particular, the materialist lens provides a deeper understanding of Jason’s character, as his story is one that’s defined through a feeling of material deprivation and loss. This understanding, in turn, helps the reader understand yet another overarching narrative present within the novel that is embodied through Jason’s death, that being the symbolic death of the agricultural South as a result of the burgeoning industrial North.
In order to understand the Compson’s story through an economic framework, one must first have an understanding of both the material wealth they hold and how that wealth is transferred through their interpersonal relationships. To that end, it’s best to conceptualize the Compson family as the last members of the dying breed of “old wealth” still present in the American South at the advent of modernism. The majority of their wealth, rather than being derived from industry, is instead derived from the vast amounts of land they own, which the Compson Appendix notes was given to their family by a dispossessed American king, Ikkemotubbe. The Appendix also takes time to note that of the many anglicized translations of Ikkemotubbe’s title, the one he preferred was “Doom,” which in itself is a bit of humorous foreshadowing for the Compson family story (1).
To understand the beginning of the Compson family legacy, one must paradoxically start at the end. The Appendix to the novel, which Faulkner wrote over fifteen years after the book’s original printing, outlines the personal and economic failures of the family members that came before the more contemporary generation of the Compsons depicted in the story. In doing so, the Appendix further hammers in the legacy of ruin that encompasses the Compson family by showcasing just how far back in history their misfortune goes. Most notably, the Appendix relays the story of Jason Lycurgus II, who is responsible for both the initial gain of and subsequent loss of much of the Compson land. Despite starting out from a promising position, Jason is forced to sell off much of the land over the years to maintain a mortgage, as the several failed military campaigns he participated in as a brigadier decimate his finances. Eventually, by the time he died in 1900, the Compson estate had been reduced from a mighty domain to just a fair plot of land. The appendix, while not included in the original printing of the book, fleshes out the narrative arc of the Compson family. It provides extensive examples of how the Compson family name, particularly Jason’s name, is historically linked to failure, showing how the Compson family wealth was slowly dissipated over time. Furthermore, by linking the economic failure they experienced to the military failure that Jason Lycurgus II experienced, it allows the story of the Compson family to act as an allegory for, among other things, the death of the agricultural South, as both continue to deteriorate throughout the years.
Building on the mistakes of their forefathers, the most recent iteration of the Compson family also manages to squander a good deal of their remaining wealth. Said squandering is constituted mainly by a series of interpersonal decisions that the family makes over the years, turning the destruction of their relationships into the destruction of their finances. The most relevant example of this is Candace’s marriage. While Candace was by no means the most damaged or toxic member of the Compson family, her pregnancy, marriage,and subsequent divorce acted as catalysts for the accelerated deterioration of the Compson family. Her marriage set off the chain of events that would lead to her eventual exile from her family, and it stripped the Compson family of the sale’s value of the land they sold to help pay for the wedding. Furthermore, her actions had direct consequences for the other members of her family, both on a personal and professional level. For instance, her loss of virginity caused her brother Quentin such great distress that he ended up committing suicide becuase of it, further dividing the family and retroactively wasting the land that they had sold to pay for Quentin’s college tuition. In addition, Candace’s divorce also had a profoundly negative impact on Jason’s professional life, as he lost the job proffered by Candace’s ex-husband to work at his bank. Jason, in turn, develops a deep sense of resentment towards his family for their past financial missteps, which would affect his actions for years to come. Thus, by seeing how the complex, interpersonal relationships of the Compson family gave way to a series of rash, financial decisions, one can better understand how the destruction of their material wealth parallels the destruction of their family name.
While Candace’s divorce and the immediate fallout surrounding it showcase the degradation of the Compson family as it’s connected to their material wealth, it isn’t until Jason’s section of the book that that idea is truly solidified. From the very moment his voice is introduced into the narrative, a few things about Jason become abundantly clear to the reader. Firstly, he’s a bitter, resentful man, who holds a low opinion of his family members. He refers to his niece Quentin as a “bitch,” causes his mother to cry with his impudent remarks, and makes it clear that he thinks Benjamin should be sent to a mental institution (180). Secondly, it becomes clear that his bitterness springs from a larger feeling of financial impotence and deprivation. Specifically, he feels cheated by the fact that his family wasted all of their land and money on his siblings’ dreams while leaving nothing for himself, making it almost impossible for him to make his way up in the world. This holds particularly true in his opinion of Candace, whom he detests for ruining his chances at getting a bank job. He’s thus driven by his deep seated sense of resentment to get revenge on her by preventing her from ever seeing her daughter and embezzling her child support money for his own gain.
Jason’s feeling of being cheated places him in an interesting position with respect to the Compson family legacy. Rather than tacitly accept his family’s slow march towards oblivion, he takes it upon himself to carve out his own slice of financial independence. In doing so, he tries to adapt himself to the newfound needs and opportunities of modern industrial capitalism by selling out both his family and their legacy. On a financial level, this selling out occurs in the form of stealing money from both Candace and his mother. In turn, he uses this money to fund his various life expenses, such as his investment in the stock market. On a personal level, this act of selling out is achieved through literally selling out his brother, Benjamin, for his own benefit, by having him castrated and sent to an asylum. In doing so, Jason demonstrates his willingness to sacrifice the values associated with the honorable South, including familial obligations and genteel manners, in order to pander to the new values of industrialized North, such as opportunity and self-determination. To that end, he envisions himself to be a shrewd, self-made businessman who “[doesn’t] need any man’s help to get along” (206). And while this self-assessment is clearly wrong, the fact that he views himself in such a way is indicative of a changed mindset. Specifically, it marks a shift from the conservative, community-oriented mindset of the rural South to what Georg Simmel calls the “modern mind”: one that emphasizes both “money economy and the dominance of the intellect” above all else (2). To some extent, this mindset does end up working for Jason, as he is ultimately able to move away from his family’s home and divest himself of any ties to them, just as he always wanted. However, as we’ll soon come to understand, it is ultimately through his failure to fully assimilate himself with the metropolitan mindset that marks the death of both the Compson family, and the agricultural South as a whole.
Throughout the novel, Jason makes several risky financial decisions in an effort to reorient his life around the cultural values and standards of the metropolitan North. These decisions, while mildly successful in some cases, ultimately fail to bring him the promised wealth and opportunity of the industrialized world. And while this failure is rooted in Jason’s selfish desire to trade in his familial relationships for financial capital, it also has to do largely with the cultural incompatibility that exists between the American North and South. At several points throughout the novel, it’s demonstrated quite clearly that Jason’s Southern upbringing is holding him back from the metropolitan lifestyle that he’s trying to emulate. A good example of this is his car. While Jason’s choice to purchase a car was partially fueled by spite against his sister, he also modeled himself after the modern industry man. After all, what is a car but a symbol of industry? They’re mechanically complex, used primarily in cities, and function as a part of the larger innovations made in widespread transportation during the modernist period in America. However, while Jason’s decision to purchase a car may be seen as aspirational, it clearly didn’t benefit him in the way that he wanted. The very smell of gasoline makes him physically ill, forcing him to carry around a “handkerchief soaked in camphor” any time he wants to go anywhere in order to soothe his headaches (307).
Jason’s illness, while being important to the progression of his story, can also be read as a larger analogy for the cultural interplay between the North and South. Here, the fumes of Northern industry pollute and overpower the Southern landscape, much like they overpower Jason’s body, making the integration of the two impossible. The failure to integrate and adapt is also shown by the fact that, despite having a car, Jason seems unable to actually go anywhere throughout the novel. Not only does his ailment prevent him from driving for extended periods of time, but any time that he does drive in the story, he never seems to accomplish what he wants, which is usually just to catch Quentin ditching school. His inability to accomplish anything of note with the technology he’s acquired can be read both as a failure of Jason’s character, as his ambition and drive fail to overcome his moral and intellectual lack. This may also be read as a failure of Southern infrastructure, which can’t meaningfully make use of cars and other industrial technologies without the suburbs surrounding the same densely packed cities of the North.
Another example of Jason’s economic failures being emblematic of the overarching failures of the South can be found in his stock market investments. Despite trying his best to make a living for himself in the stock market, his investment strategy fails to yield him any meaningful returns for multiple reasons. For one, despite Jason’s conception of himself as a self-made businessman, the only way he’s able to get any initial capital for his investment plan is by stealing it from his mother and sister. His failures demonstrate a clear division between the utopian vision of the metropolitan North, which passes itself off as a place where anyone can make a living for themselves, and the material reality of the dying, agricultural South. Jason, by virtue of his circumstances, is placed in a constraining, financial liminal space, in which he wants to acquire some of the new wealth present in the North, but is inextricably tied to the old caste system of the South. The South, in turn, also exists within a similar state of financial entrapment. On the one hand, it no longer has the means of supporting a massive, agricultural economy in the wake of mass production and the dissolvement of slavery. On the other hand, it doesn’t have the means to adapt itself to the metropolitan structure of living which, as Georg Simmel puts it, has “always been the seat of the money economy” (2). This puts the South in essentially the same position as the Compson family: crushed underneath the heel of an ever-evolving Northern banking system which has greatly surpassed them.
Beyond just his lack of financial independence, however, there are other reasons why Jason’s investment plan failed him. For instance, the main commodity that he chooses to invest in, cotton, ends up doing terribly in the stock market, dropping thirteen points over the course of a single day. Here, it’s clear that the failure of the cotton market is linked to the greater economic failure of the South in the wake of modernism, with cotton being the crop most closely associated with slavery and Southern aristocracy. Jason, being the homebrewed Southern gentleman that he is, naturally invests in a crop that has served families like his well over the years. What he fails to recognize is that without a ready supply of slave labor to uphold it, or a steady influx of industrial machinery to maintain it, the Southern agricultural model is ultimately doomed to financial failure, much like his family. For all his proclamations of being clever, Jason is ultimately limited by his southern upbringing and overwhelming arrogance to recognize his shortcomings. Instead, he blames his failures on those “damn eastern jews” up in New York, who’re manipulating the stock market against his advantage (191).
His blatantly bigoted belief is important to note within the context of the story because it leads us towards the final, overarching failure of both Jason and the agricultural South when it comes to finances: an inability to adapt to the rise in POC and immigrant labor. Out of the many things that defined the Modernist period in American history, by far one of the most important ones is the massive influx of immigrants. These immigrants, who came to America in search of newfound economic opportunities, combined with the newfound influx of black laborers to the North in the wake of slavery’s end, create a whole new economic base for the industrialized North. The South, lacking the economic desirability of its competitor, was incapable of reaping the benefits of this newfound immigration wave due to the dissolution of most of the expansive labor pool needed for an agrarian economy as former slaves migrated to the North. As a result, the South was ultimately doomed to be forever outpaced by the financial successes of the North. The clear division in economic success between the two regions, as well as the POC and immigrant labor that fuels that division, is displayed in numerous ways in the novel.
The most obvious example of the novel mirroring the South’s inability to cope with the influx of POC and immigrant labor is through Jason and his worldview. Jason is a deeply bigoted and ignorant person. He holds low opinions of various racial and ethnic groups, frequently referring to them with slurs, and conceptualizes his identity as an American as being inherently intertwined with his whiteness. At one point, he even bemoans internally to himself about the rise in immigrant labor within the US, claiming that it’s reached a point where “any damn foreigner that can’t make a living in the country where God put him, can come to this one and take money right out of an American’s pockets” (192). Jason’s ignorance, which is itself representative of the overarching ignorance of the South, constantly keeps him from seeing the truth about his station in life. For example, as discussed earlier, he blames his failure in the stock market on what he refers to as the “damn eastern Jews,” who are rigging the market against him. In reality, his failure comes from his terrible investment strategy and the fact that, by virtue of living in the South, he’s constantly behind on the latest developments in the market, which is located in New York. Jason, along with the South, can’t accept the fact that the financial failure they’re experiencing is a result of their ineffective business model, and thus cope with that failure by doubling down on their antiquated cultural values and backwards views about race.
The most poignant example of the novel embodying the South’s contentious reaction to widespread shifts in racial and economic dynamics throughout the U.S, however, is found in the relationship that Jason has to the Black characters in the story. Being emblematic of the widespread cultural ignorance of the South, Jason naturally has a rather deplorable perspective on the Black people he interacts with in the story, viewing them as lazy and selfish. However, this prejudiced view is counterbalanced by the fact that, as much as he derides them, Jason frequently relies on the assistance of Black people throughout the story. Said assistance, coming in both big and small ways, complicates the many economic relationships that Jason undertakes throughout the story, shining a light on the exploited underclass that constitute those relationships in the first place.
The most relevant example of this kind of interaction occurs towards the end of the story. Jason becomes too debilitated with pain to properly drive his car back home, forcing him to hire a random Black person off the street to do it for him. Jason’s actions here, while seemingly inconsequential to the overarching narrative of the story, actually reveal two very important things about his character and, by extension, the South. For one, it demonstrates the failure of Southern society to adapt to the industrialized practices of the North. Jason, despite desperately striving towards the new wealth of the North, is incapable of emulating the lifestyle necessary to obtain it. As shown through the overwhelming nausea he experiences in his car, the symbol of the urbanized world, he physically rejects the imposition of industrialization into his life. Furthermore, the transaction that occurs between Jason and the random Black bystander is significant in that it embodies the economic relations of the South in post-slavery world. Before then, the economic structure of the South was built atop of a system of direct exploitation and subjugation, in which Black people were stripped of their rights and deemed property. In the time of modernism, however, those economic relations have shifted. While Black people still lived under a system of social and political oppression, the mere fact of being recognized as legal citizens with the right to be paid for their labor granted them a small degree of agency. An exercise of this agency is expressed in the scene by having the black passerby actively haggle with Jason, getting him to bump his payment from two dollars to four dollars. Thus, Jason gets the Black man to drive him back home, giving way to an image that is perfectly representative of both the economic and racial relations of the modern South: a harried, white businessman in deep over his head who is forced to rely on the cheap labor of a black men to keep himself afloat.
The thematic structure of The Sound and the Fury is so densely packed and so intricately woven in its overall structure that it gives way to several spheres of meaning which actively intersect with one another. To investigate the economic relationships present within the story is to investigate the familial relationships that constitute them, the individual characters present within them, and the larger systems of social and economic power that surround them. In this regard, the through-line of economic relationships is particularly helpful because it provides an interpretive lens to the Compson family. It gives a unique insight into the oppressive atmosphere of failure and ruin which surrounds the family and provides a more in-depth look into the motivations behind some of the characters, particularly Jason.
However, as helpful as this particular approach is, it does end up leaving certain character relationships unexplored. In particular, the relationship between Jason and Dilsey is ill-suited for this type of analysis because their relationship is defined by much more than an economic divide. It speaks to a greater moral and cultural divide that is emblematic of not only Jason’s character, or of the South’s inability to move beyond its checkered past, but with the novel form as a whole, and how white authors dealt with the concept of Black agency. The way Faulkner conceptualizes the role of Dilsey and her family within the story, in giving them a role without giving them a voice, is emblematic of the way that white people, especially authors, grappled with Black people as a reflection of themselves and of their values. This makes the lens of economic interpretation have mixed value in its relationship to the novel. On the one hand, it illuminates quite a bit about the Compson family, and the varying degrees to which their family succumbed to degradation over the years. On the other hand, it leaves little room for examining the intricacies of the Compson family’s relationships, both to themselves and to their servants, by reducing them down to matters of material exchange. In the end, it’s up to the reader to unravel these deeper layers of meanings through the use of other interpretive lenses and frameworks. Ultimately one lens will only capture a part of The Sound and the Fury because Faulkner wrote it using many different lenses, not only an economic one. Because ultimately, when approaching a work as varied and fragmented as Faulkner’s, one cannot expect to fully encapsulate the novel using only one perspective.
- Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. Vintage International, 1984.
- William Faulkner, “Compson Appendix,” in The Sound and the Fury (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.,), pp. 224-236.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. On The Sound & The Fury: Time in the Work of Faulkner. https://moodle.vassar.edu/pluginfile.php/895766/mod_resource/content/0/Sartre%20on%20The %20Sound%20and%20the%20Fury.pdf Accessed October 20, 2021.
- Simmel, Georg. The Metropolis and Mental Life. https://moodle.vassar.edu/pluginfile.php/895569/mod_resource/content/0/E-RES/Engl%20330/si mmel_the_metropolis_and_mental_life.pdf Accessed October 20, 2021.