What exactly is the great American novel? It’s definitely a popular (and sometimes heated) point of discussion in literary circles. What even makes a novel “the great american novel”?
I think, overall, it’s pretty simple. The concept of the great American novel is one that captures the feeling and spirit of America. Generally by perfectly capturing a moment in time and how that moment has effected the country over the years.
There are a lot of titles thrown around for the title. Moby Dick. The Scarlett Letter. Catcher In the Rye. The Grapes of Wrath. On the Road. To Kill a Mockingbird. Slaughterhouse Five.
So what do I think is the Great American Novel. Well, read the title of the post.
It’s Faulkner’s compelling masterpiece The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner captured the south like no writer ever captured any location. Southern United Stated, post Civil war, is treated with a certain feeling of nostalgia, which blends and binds together with the heartache of a declining set of values and sophistication. In The Sound and the Fury, the Compson family represents all that. With its heavy use of time and memory, it captures the nostalgia perfectly. But with its mentally and emotionally destroyed characters, it portrays the traditional south’s downfall.
It’s certainly not an easy novel to get into. The first section introduces us to Benjy, the youngest Compson child. The story is narrated by him, and is fractured, sometimes frustrating and difficult to follow, with disorienting shifts in time and strange word associations that might take a while to really understand. But this is what Faulkner perfected. This isn’t just a character telling a story. We are truly and completely inside Benjy’s head. He’s mentally disabled, and Faulkner’s writing captures that beautifully. It’s interesting that Faulkner opens the book with Benjy’s POV. He is mentally disabled, by because of that he’s probably the most pure of the narrators. The way he sees the other characters, mainly his siblings, is probably the most accurate view of them we get. In this section, we get our first glances of Caddy, who is the true hero of the story, despite the fact that she doesn’t narrate any of the story herself. She is the protagonist of the story, but we see her constantly through the eyes of her brothers, the way they see her. Perhaps that’s why Faulkner opened with Benjy’s side of things. We need to see the truest and purest look at Caddy so we can truly believe and see her as the hero. Benjy witnesses Caddy’s faults and her promiscuity, which becomes the focus for much of the book, but most importantly, he witnesses her compassion. She is the only one who truly cares for her youngest brother. We see the conflict of Caddy’s behavior, which is further developed in the next section.
The second section takes place nearly 20 years before all the other sections, and is narrated by Quinten, the first born Compson child. The focus of this section is almost entirely on Quinten’s obsession with his sister and her promiscuity. His relationship with Caddy is extremely complicated. The two are best friends, but his fixation on her virginity drives him mad. He’s obsessed with keeping her pure, in line with his idea of the perfect Southern woman, even though his own father discourages the idea and seems unconcerned by his only daughter’s promiscuous ways. Caddy’s sexual activity leads to a pregnancy. Quinten fights the man who impregnated his sister, almost as though he believes fighting for her honor will make the shame and the unborn child go away. Then, in some idea of wiping away the shame of all the men Caddy’s had sex with, he tries to convince their father that it was he who took his sister’s virginity, that they’ve been involved in an incestuous relationship, but his father doesn’t believe him. This leads to a whole new layer in Quinten’s obsession with his sister’s virtue. He tells his father he wishes he was the one who took Caddy’s virginity, and it seems that it’s more than just a desire to remove her shame. He has the idea that if they confessed to a (false) incestuous relationship that they could leave town (with Benjy) and live alone together. Even years before Caddy’s pregnancy, we see a scene when Quinten is fooling around with his girlfriend. Caddy interrupts, and all of Quinten’s attention is on her. The siblings use their lovers to make each other jealous. There’s definitely a sexual tenstion between the two, which comes through clearly on two points: when they fight in the mud after Caddy has interrupted Quinten and his girlfirend, and when he suggest the kill themselves when he finds out she’s had sex with Dalton Ames. The two lie on the ground, with Quinten holding a knife to Caddy’s neck, saying he’ll kill her then himself, and Caddy numbly agrees. Their position on the ground, with Quinten laying on top of her, leading to him sobbing into her chest, makes the scene filled with sexual tension and frustration between the two. Even when Caddy finds a way to possibly remove the shame, by marrying a man and having him believe he’s the father of the baby, Quinten can’t accept it. He doesn’t approve of Caddy’s choice, despite her insistance that she has to marry somebody, because he wishes to be the one to remove her shame, just as he wished he had been the one to take her virginity. Eventually, Caddy’s husband discovers the child is not his, divorces her, and Caddy becomes estranged from the family. The entire ordeal of struggling over Caddy’s promiscuity, his incestuous feelings for her, and his heartbreaks of her being estranged from the family, drives him out of his mind and he eventually kills himself.
To Be Continued….