So, this is one of those classics that if schools didn’t force students to read it, hardly anyone would pick it up on their own. The issue isn’t that it isn’t an interesting story (I suppose this is an arguable point), or that the topic isn’t relevant to modern audiences (the struggle between southern ideals amidst modernization seems to be a universally appealing plot device), but instead the writing style. The first chapter is famous (infamous?) for its incomprehensibility, so I wasn’t surprised when I still didn’t know what was happening as I was reading. But what no one I know talks about is that the second chapter is almost equally as illegible. Neither chapter is quite Finnegan’s Wake un-followable, but it’s a close call if Ulysses makes for easier reading (shout-out to high school for all the James Joyce we struggled through). So, while the story is compelling, you have to put in a lot of up-front work to get to the good stuff.
Let me break it down: Chapter 1 is narrated by Benjy Compson, who has no concept of the past tense. Because of this, as he remembers things he assumes that they are happening in the moment. While this kind of narration is thought-provoking in theory, it makes for some very involved reading. I’m usually a quick reader, but the first chapter alone took me maybe three days to slog through. To make it worse, Benjy had previously been named Maury, a name he shared with his uncle, and there are two Quentins, so good luck trying to figure out who’s who or what’s happening. Then, the light at the end of the tunnel: Chapter 2! Or so I thought. This chapter is narrated by Quentin Compson and is stream-of-consciousness, and boy does Quentin get sidetracked. It didn’t take me as long to work through, but it is a bit of a drag as it goes on and on and on. Part of the problem for me was that Quentin is a deeply philosophical character, and his deeply held beliefs and attitudes are not super relatable.
But now that I’ve talked about the things I didn’t like as much, let me say that the third and fourth chapters do a lot to make up for the sins of their precursors. Chapter 3 is narrated by the third Compson brother, Jason, who’s got a firmer grip on reality, but is a terrible human being. To finally have some light shed on the Compson family, but to have the reveal come from a truly vile man, really shows off Faulkner’s skill as a writer. But the genius move is made in the final chapter, narrated not by the only Compson sister, Caddy, but by an omniscient presence whose insight far exceeds that of any of the Compsons. By excluding Caddy Compson from what is a story that largely hers, Faulkner weaved a complex web of relationships that we as an audience can never fully understand, and created characters that are as nuanced and unknowable as real people. Dilsey, the Compson family’s cook, is especially important in the fourth chapter (and the novel as a whole) as the only character who is both close enough to the family to understand, but removed enough to see their flaws. I won’t say much more to save a few secrets for those who haven’t read it yet, but overall I was impressed with the end result, even after I complained my way through the first half. (You, Jason!)
AND WHAT ABOUT THE MOVIE? There are two versions of this movie, one from 1959, and the other from 2014 and helmed by James Franco. I’ll admit that I’ve seen neither, and I have no plans to do so. Normally I’m a huge fan of comparing written works to their silver screen counterparts, but in this case I’m going to make an exception. Too much of the story is interesting because of how it was written, not because of what happens from a plot perspective. Plus, James Franco. Need I say more?