Food and Faulkner: Stability and Nourishment Amidst Chaos in The Sound and the Fury


First edition of The Sound and the Fury, Photo courtesy of Between the Covers, Rare Books, Inc.

There’s a lot of instability in the texts of William Faulkner, and anyone who has ever taken a stab at one of his works knows the feelings of confusion, frustration, and sometimes downright vertigo they might encounter upon trying to simply figure out what on earth is going on. His narratives are scrambled and distorted, alternating between scenes of action and stream of consciousness, with bits and pieces of dialogue interrupting throughout. On a first reading of many of Faulkner’s works, you’re not even sure at times which character is narrating. And when you do know who’s narrating, it’s hard to tell what they’re saying. For instance, parts of The Sound and the Fury are told from the point of view of Benjy, a severely retarded thirty-three year old male. Benjy has no understanding of the concept of time, so his narrative jumps from scene to scene, from backflash to present.

In many ways, the form of Faulkner’s works reflects the content. Just like the actual texts, the stories and characters are scrambled and distorted, ambiguous and chaotic. The Sound and the Fury tells the story of the post- Civil War Compson family and how it crumbles: how each member of the family deteriorates under the weight of its own honor—and lack thereof.

Jason Compson III is the head of the Compson family, a once well-respected man who has become burdened by his nihilistic outlook on life. Despite his insistence on the meaningless of life, he is still obsessed with notions of family honor, and puts his entire family’s financial security in peril in order to fund his oldest son Quentin’s Harvard education. Quentin too inherits his father’s obsession with honor, which is why he falls into such a deep depression when he feels that he fails in upholding the family prestige. Another “failure” is Caddy, the only Compson daughter, who becomes pregnant with an illegitimate child whose father she is not sure of. Then there is Benjy, whose retardation is seen as a punishment for the sins of his parents, and Jason IV, whose bitterness and hatred towards women further separates him from his family. Jason IV is overcome by self-pity and despair—not a surprise since he witnesses such from his own mother Caroline. Caroline is a negligent mother who is self-absorbed in her own self-pity and her tendency to view her children merely as burdens and nuisances. Caroline is also overcome by the insecurity she feels because her own family does not have as prestigious a bloodline as the Compson bloodline. This is another source of self-pity for her, a self-pity that becomes overwhelmingly self-indulgent.

Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1954

Thus, it is clear from only a very quick look at these characters that the Compson family is crumbling: slowly but surely losing its prestige, honor and stability. Everything is a mess and everyone is a mess.

That is, almost everyone. The one beacon of light and fortitude in this novel is Dilsey, the Compson’s loyal black servant, cook, and nanny. Dilsey is there to witness the Compsons in their glory as well as their deterioration, and it is Dilsey who preserves the last morsel of sanity and goodness in the family. Ironically, Dilsey’s philosophy on life also includes a focus on honor—just like the Compsons. But unlike the Compsons, Dilsey’s sense of honor is other-centered rather than self-centered. She takes pride in her service towards others and does not let this pride consume her. In the absence of Caroline as a mother, it is Dilsey who nourishes and truly cares for the Compson children.

Now, what does any of The Sound and the Fury have to do with food? It’s hard to tell on a first reading of the novel, since food is not a major motif like it is in other Southern novels like To Kill a Mockingbird, Delta Wedding, or The Help. But a careful analysis of the characters and what they represent reveals something quite telling about the role of food imagery in Faulkner’s novel.

Throughout the novel, there are constantly images of food, feeding, and nourishment associated with Dilsey. It’s obvious that Dilsey signifies a new generation of stability amidst the crumbling and corruption of traditional Southern aristocratic values. Furthermore, the tables have turned as far as race is concerned: while Dilsey’s traditional place as a black woman is as a subservient maid, she is actually the moral “master” of the house. And in a sense, she’s also a sort of “bread-winner.” There’s a scene in which Dilsey bakes a cake with ingredients that she insists were purchased with her own money. Arguably, Dilsey is now the pillar of the family: a bastion of true honor that stands strong while the rest of the Compsons crumble.

It’s clear that Faulkner is saying a lot about the South, and a lot about Southerners in The Sound and The Fury. Through his tragic characters he shows the death of an old civilization, one that will never be again. But it’s also true that through Dilsey—stationed steadfast in the kitchen—Faulkner shows what traditions have remained stable in the South: undeniably, one of those is food and its propensity to nourish and preserve.

One thought on “Food and Faulkner: Stability and Nourishment Amidst Chaos in The Sound and the Fury

  1. Even when I’m reading a Faulkner story that I may not resonate with, I still love his writing. His prose are like the sweet and savory of my literary appetite. With Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor, I don’t have to like the story to like the way they tell it.

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