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The New Verisimilitude: Stylistic Experimentation and Narrative Fragmentation in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury

The New Verisimilitude: Stylistic Experimentation and Narrative Fragmentation in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Fionn Murray. Originally submitted for BA English with Film , with lecturer Fionnghuala Sweeney in the category of English Literature
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Fionn Murray. Originally submitted for BA English with Film , with lecturer Fionnghuala Sweeney in the category of English Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 30, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
The New Verisimilitude: Stylistic Experimentation and Narrative Fragmentation in
William Faulkner’s
The Sound and the Fury
 
While the prose modernists of the late 19
th
and early 20
th
century were known for their experimental tendencies, most of this experimentation came at the level of style and form rather than at the level of plot, character and theme. This paper examines in detail the experiments in form and style used in the novels of William Faulkner, specifically thosein the second section of his 1929 novel
The Sound and the Fury
 , entitled “June second 1910” and written from the
 perspective of the character Quentin Compson. The paper argues that, through the vast assortment of different registers, modes of representing speech & internal monologue, and highly disjointed, non-chronological form,
 Faulkner’s project in the chapter 
is based upon a formula of quite
deliberate
 , rather than accidental, fragmentation,in such a way as to frustrate and alienate the reader and force him or her to pay close attention to the narrative and  form of the chapter. But rather than this frustration and alienation being caused entirely for its own sake, the fragmentation in the narrative is used to create the effect of greater social and psychological realism than had thitherto been achieved in modernist and pre-
modernist literature. Hence, despite the experimentalism of Faulkner’s
style and form, the artistic goals and effects he was aiming for were more conventional than a reader might initiallybelieve.
Keywords:
Faulkner, modernism, Southern Gothic, American literature, psychological realismAt the level of plot, character and setting, the advances and experimentations heralded by the prose writers of themodernist movement were, in retrospect, less than enormously groundbreaking. While there were, of course,novelists, short story writers and playwrights who composed works with storylines and themes that seemidiosyncratic, eccentric and alien even to a modern reader encountering their work decades after it was firstcomposed, the modernists, as a whole, could not to be said to have revolutionized the ideas of plot or theme itself;they did not herald a sea change in what kinds of story one could write in the form of a novel. Even one of the most
critically acclaimed and respected novels of the modernist period (indeed, of the twentieth century), Joyce’s
 APortrait of the Artist as a Young Man
, ultimately fits rather neatly into the generic mould of the coming-of-age storyor
 Bildungsroman
. No, just as with most previous kinds of literary experimentation, the literary developments that
can
be credited to the modernists are principally ones not of content, but instead developments of style, narrativestructure and most especially form
; not the “what” but the “how” of storytelling
. Modernist writers may not havebeen writing a particular new
kind 
of story, or using this kind of story to address any particularly new themes, butthey composed these kinds of story in a fashion which was unambiguously creative and daring, using all manner of thitherto unheard-of stylistic devices. William Faulkner happens to be one of the modernists who was, in fact,experimental at the levels of both, but his experimentations with style and form were far more radical and extremethan his experimentations with plot, and hence it is these that I wish to examine in the course of this essay,
 particularly by way of reference to the second section of Faulkner’s
The Sound and the Fury
, “June second 1910”,
narrated by Quentin Compson.
 
T
HE
N
EW
V
ERISIMILITUDE
 
2
Faulkner has a reputation for impenetrability and, coupled with the strange way his narratives areorganized, his unusual writing style is a primary cause of the difficulty a reader faces when reading his books for thefirst time. As early as 1941, twelve years after the publication of 
The Sound and the Fury
, by which time one mightnaïvely assume the reading public might have grown used to the peculiarities of his narrative voice, Warren Beck noted
that “No other contemporary American novelist of comparable stature has been as frequently or as severelycriticized for his style as has William Faulkner.” (Beck, 34). So what is different about this style
, so much so that it issubject to such perennial disparagement? One might argue that, in
Quentin’s section at least
, a plausible answer mightbe the deliberate tonal inconsistency of the style; a sort of quite intentional decision
not 
to adopt any one particularnarrative voice in favour of alternating between several. As Quentin narrates, the style used jumps unpredictably andseemingly at random between crackpot philosophy (
as recounted by Quentin’s father Jason Compson I: “Quentin, Igive you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciati
ngly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto
[sic] absurdum of all human experience” [Faulkner, 63])
, a sort of disaffected vernacular with which Quentin narratesthe mundanities he encounters, and an extremely disjointed and jarring stream-of-consciousness narration whichmakes liberal use of paragraph breaks and italics. At the level of dialogue, speech is sometimes rendered in a styleessentially identical to that of the surrounding prose and at other times rendered loosely phonetically, whether in thecase of the black men Quentin meets
(“We done jest dat. I cleant dat lantun and me and her sot de balance of de nighton top o dat knoll back de graveyard.” [Faulkner, 96]) or that of the Italian immigrants in Boston (“Sure I
quit. I run. I
run like hell. Looka here, looka there, then man tella me he seen him giva her she eat. She go weetha.” [Faulkner,
121]). Narration is sometimes punctuated conventionally, sometimes not; the page will sometimes be broken up intoparagraphs every other line, sometimes left uninterrupted for pages at a time; dialogue is sometimes indicated withinverted commas and speech tags, sometimes not; sometimes there is a clear delineation between narration andinternal monologue via the use of italics and paragraph breaks, and sometimes the reader is left to make such
distinctions themselves. If a writer chose a single narrative voice, even a very “difficult” one, and stuck with
itconsistently, the average reader would surely get used to the demands of the style eventually, but
Faulkner’
s constantshifts in style
frustrate the reader and prevent him or her from “relaxing” into the style and hence the narrative.
 The inaccessibility of the style used (or rather the
styles
used) is matched by the unusual form andstructure of the narrative in this section. One could reductively describe the section as consisting of two parallel plotthreads: the first consists of Quentin reminiscing about the grim fate that has befallen his younger sister Caddy (withwhom he has, to say the least, a somewhat peculiar relationship), all of which is recounted in oblique, elliptical,disjointed language in non-chronological sequence. The second depicts Quentin wandering aimlessly around thegreater Boston area while these flashbacks are forever at the forefront of his consciousness, the misery and confusion
 
T
HE
N
EW
V
ERISIMILITUDE
 
3
they inspire in him so great that they ultimately result in him starting fights in the street and drowning himself in theCharles River. How peculiar: two simultaneous ongoing narratives, one of which that can scarcely be called a
“narrative” at all
. Faulkner said that
The Sound and the Fury
 
“began as a short story, it was a story without plot”
(Millgate, 89),
so a curious situation exists in that Quentin’s memories of Caddy s
eem to form a very definite
narrative, with a logical conclusion in the form of Quentin’s suicide; and yet most of Quentin’s section consists of 
him walking about, watching people
(indeed, Beck identifies Quentin as “the compassionate troubled observer”
(B
eck, 8), a kind of character which recurs with some frequency in Faulkner’s work)
, doing nothing much of anything, without any kind of apparent narrative drive at all. Surely the latter plot thread is entirely superfluous, akind of needless padding? Would
n’t it have been more effective to simply recount the story about Caddy and then cut
to Quentin drowning himself? Perhaps not, as we shall examine later.Certainly whatever else one wishes to argue about the use of these stylistic and formal techniques, theirunconventionality and experimental qualities cannot be disputed. But what function do they serve? Literaryexperimentation for its own sake, without any attendant narrative, aesthetic or sociological purpose, is meregamesmanship; as Millgate writes,
“[Faulkner] never lost sight of the essential fact that technique alone ismeaningless, that it achieves value only insofar as it serves to evoke, define and illuminate the human situation.”
(Millgate, 89). Thus, we must analyze the aforementioned techniques from this perspective, starting first with thestylistic aspects. To start with, it is interesting to examine
the disparity between the various “voices” employed in the
course of the section from a socio-cultural perspective. The cultural differences between the southern, post-Confederate states and the northern states is one of the many overarching themes of the novel; the plot point thatQuentin attends Harvard in Massachusetts, rather than in a southern university, exists mainly to highlight theseperhaps irreconcilable differences. Hence, it is possible to read the various disparate ways dialogue is rendered in
light of this. Quentin notes in his internal monologue that “I used to think a Southerner had to be always conscious of 
niggers... When I f 
irst came East I kept thinking You’ve got to think of them as coloured people not niggers,”
(Faulkner, 71)
 – 
it is obvious that he is constantly wrestling with how his upbringing has taught him to treat black people (and, to a lesser extent, foreigners) and how he is expected to treat them in the Northern states. It is noaccident that the only dialogue that is rendered phonetically is dialogue that comes from the mouths of black peopleor Italians
 – 
all dialogue spoken by white Northerners is rendered with judicious accuracy in grammar and spelling.Quentin is not actively racist (at least, not by the standards of the era), but he nevertheless sees white Northerners asbeing part of his own in-group, while foreigners and black people are something very alien to himself; they might aswell be speaking a different language.
To a lesser extent, one could read the philosophizing of Quentin’s father Jason
in a similar light. The ideological conflict between the romantic, idealistic South and the practical, down-to-earthNorth was a popular theme in Reconstruction literature (illustrated by one of the most famous novels on the topic,

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