I’m going to start off by saying that I’m going to try to keep this essay sane and rational. Which might be hard, because Caddy Compson is my favorite character of all time. Not just in books, but in television, movies, plays, everything. I think she’s the most fascinating, beautiful, heartbreaking thing that a writer has ever managed to create. So I apologize if this starts to sound mildly insane. I just really love Caddy.
It’s not an abnormal thing for an author or filmmaker to make its central character appear only in flashbacks. But what William Faulkner did with Caddy Compson, the most important character in The Sound and the Fury was rather unique. Not only is Caddy a character who only appears in flashbacks, but these flashbacks are told through the eyes and minds of her brothers, perhaps the three most Unreliable Narrators ever. Caddy only appears in the three sections of the books that are told in the first person perspective by her brothers. In the third section, told from a third person point of view, Caddy is absent entirely. While there are many time periods on parade in this book, and the story shifts through time without much warning. But the present of the book is 1928. And when the storyline is entirely bound to that present, Caddy is gone entirely. She’s merely a thing of the past.
So how can a character who never appears in the present, who’s only a memory, be one of the most amazing, beautiful, heartbreaking, and tragic characters of all time?
The Sound and the Fury is meant to be about the downfall of a Southern family (symbolizing the downfall of the South in general), much of that downfall is because of Caddy, and it soon becomes clear that this book is about Caddy. About who she really is, who her brothers see her as, and the difference between those two things. But Caddy never is able to speak for herself. She never appears in the present to dispute or confirm the things her brothers think about her. We only see her through three very biased eyes. But at the same time, they are her brothers, so they do know her. Trying to figure out Caddy really is the key of the book, but stop trying. You’re never going to do it. Through the narrations of Benjy, Quentin, and Jason, we get ALMOST everything we need to know about Caddy. ALMOST. But there’s a tiny piece missing. And it always will be.
It’s important to look at her brothers’ narrations not only as what they saw her as, but what they forced her to be, unwittingly. Benjy, receiving no affection from anyone in the family other than Caddy, pushes her into the position of mother from a very young age. Quentin hangs all of his hope for the honor of the Old South on her virtue. The face that he’s OBSESSED with her sexuality in some very complicated ways can’t help matters. And Jason, cold and mean from childhood, sees her less as a sister and more as a way into a better job. All we see from the brothers’ perspectives is Caddy failing miserably in their expectations of her. None of them realize that part of the problem was that they were forcing her to be something she wasn’t.
At the same time though, it is hard to tell if her brothers entirely forced her into those roles. We see through Benjy’s memories Caddy as the strong willed little girl who wanted to be in charge of her brothers and who broke the rules without fear of punishment. From childhood she insinuated herself into the role of her brothers’ controller. That desire, in the end, only made them the controllers of her destiny. Her declaration that she be in charge of the three boys during her grandmother’s funeral is almost as dooming as her dirtying her drawers in the mud, foreshadowing her impurity.
In the end, Caddy rebels violently against her brothers’ expectations of her. Desite the love and affection she feels for Benjy and Quentin, she acts out with her sexuality (despite promising Benjy she wouldn’t after an early encounter), which confuses Benjy and frustrates Quentin (for so many reasons). The only one she doesn’t overtly and intentionally act out against is Jason, who hates her the most for her actions. He loses a potential job because Caddy’s husband finds out their daughter is not his. Jason loses a chance at a job (which he never would have had if Caddy hadn’t needed to marry Herbert Head in the first place) because Caddy was actually trying to fix the mess she had made. Jason has the least cause to detest his sister, but he hates her the most.
With all that messy psychological stuff getting all tangled and entwined in everything, it’s easy to miss the gigantic heart that Caddy has and her capacity to love unconditionally. Her bond with her father is very strong, despite he never once attempts to curb the issue of her promiscuity, even though he seems to be aware of it. They stay in contact even after she is banished from the family home, much to the dismay of Caroline and Jason. She loved Benjy no matter what, even when nobody else seems to care about him. And even after Quentin tries to fight Dalton Ames and then tells their father that he and Caddy had committed incest, she adores him. She has a huge heart that’s capable of the deepest love. If you deserve it.
She may not be present during the narrations. but her absense is almost as strong as, if not stronger, than her presense. Were she around to tell her own tale, she’d seem quite different. Her brothers probably wouldn’t dwell on her. But because she’s not there, they are obsessed with her. Every thought they have is connected with her in some way. Even when she’s not there she’s the most important thing in their lives.
Benjy, the mentally impaired youngest Compson child, doesn’t understand Caddy’s absence. He has no concept of time, so while he’s aware of the fact that, in the moment, Caddy is not there and that he misses her, he doesn’t understand that she is gone for good, and has been gone for years. Because of this, the shifts in time in his sections are sudden and without much warning.
His attempts to understand why Caddy isn’t there (usually triggered by the calls of “caddy!” on the golf course that’s now on land that used to be his) consume his thoughts. His memory is triggered by single words, and he, like his brothers, is focused on her sexuality as the reason for her absence. He recalls her muddied drawers, her affairs with local boys, and how upset those things made him. While he can’t grasp the concept of her absense, he seemed to be able to foresee it as a child.
There’s a noticeable hole in Benjy’s life without Caddy in it. In Benjy’s memory, Caddy was his voice. She asked him questions, even though she knew he couldn’t answer. She’d tell their mother what he wanted, and even though he couldn’t actually speak to communicate those things, she was always right. Without Caddy, Benjy loses the ability to communicate with the world in a way that anyone can understand.
While Benjy appears to be the “idiot” of the story, his view of Caddy is actually the most objective. He’s unable to form complex prejudice or affection for her. All he knows is that she’s his sister who takes care of him and he loves her. He sees her as something like an angel, while still being able to witness, and even understand, her sexual indiscretions. But his perception is still slightly skewed by his dependence on her.
For Quentin it’s much more complicated and messy. He’s much more preoccupied with Caddy than either of his brothers, because she represents so much more to him. In Caddy, he’s trying to understand the concepts of family, of honor, and of sexuality. It’s impossible for him to look at Caddy objectively because all of those things are tangled up in his mind. At one moment she’s a Madonna, the next she’s a whore. She’s simply too many things to Quentin, and it drives him insane.
So Quentin’s image of Caddy is incredibly muddled. Above all things his version of her is extremely tragic. A poor fallen girl who’s dying inside. He wants her to stay a little girl, yet he forces his sexual issues onto her. Even when he’s not overtly thinking about Caddy, she’s always present for him, especially when he comes upon a little Italian girl. He carts her around town, calling her “little sister”. Every woman her meets, no matter her age, will always be placed beside Caddy, as he tries to force them to be what he thinks she should have been.
Caddy’s sexual promiscuity is a problem for Quentin on two fronts. First, it highlights the way the honor of the Old South is dying, something he cannot come to terms with. He’s very fixated on the old ways of chivalry, and more importantly, the purity of the Southern woman. Caddy’s pregnancy means that neither men nor women behave the way Quentin thinks their supposed to.
Most importantly, though, it makes Quentin confront his own sexuality. He himself is a virgin, something that’s actually quite troubling to him. Of course, it really doesn’t help that he has his dad basically telling him that virginity isn’t something that remotely matters. Quentin is a virgin who doesn’t really understand sexuality. He has nothing to base his thoughts and opinions on outside of Caddy, who he’s already obsessed with.
In a severly twisted show of chivalry, Quentin tries to save Caddy’s honor by attempting to convince their father that she didn’t sleep with Dalton Ames, but that he and Caddy had committed incest and that the baby was his. There’s been a lot of debate about whether or not Quentin really wanted to have sex with Caddy. I think the answer, as always with this book, is a lot more complicated than yes or no.
There are two scenes that are extremely important in the argument. First is a flashback to when Quentin and Caddy were several years younger, and were just starting to find the opposite sex interesting. They both have their own encounters, which leads to an argument. An argument clearly borne of jealousy. The second scene is one that’s not quite as overtly about sex, but which is written pretty much as a sex scene without really being one. Quentin tries to convince Caddy to run away with him, and then to enter into a murder-suicide pact, anything to save her honor, and anything to keep her with him. He has an obsessive need to possess her in every way. Faulkner wrote the scene to be fraught with sexual tension, the two of them laying on the ground, Quentin with his knife, a phallic symbol, ready to slit her throat.
It is about more than sex for Quentin though. He wants Caddy to be only his in every way. That just happens to include sex. His entire life is consumed by her. When it comes out that her daughter is not her husband’s and she’s dishonored, something in his brain truly breaks. He’s simply unable to understand that his sister has been entirely dishonored, that he couldn’t save her or that, at the very least, it wasn’t him. The thoughts lead him to suicide.
Jason is less complicated. We see from an early age that he’s self involved and incapable of even liking, much less loving, anyone but himself. By the time he’s an adult, he thinks he deserves pretty much everything, and he blames Caddy for not having it, despite the fact that he never would have had the opportunity were it not for Caddy. When she married HErbert HEad, JAson was offered a job at a bank, a job that was taken off the table when Caddy’s lies were revealed. Jason ignores the first part and focuses on the second part. It’s a grudge that he lets boil into hatred for nearly 20 years, and it’s something he constantly goes back to.
But really, I can’t help but feel a little sad for Jason, and I’ve written about that topic before. Quentin’s dead, Caddy’s as good as to the family, all the money the family had went into those two children and they, as far as Jason is concerned, wasted it. He’s left with a crappy job, and he’s saddled with the job of raising Caddy’s bastard daughter.
While there’s still plenty of flashback in Jason’s section, it’s not as heavy in it as Benjy’s or Quentin’s. But his mind is always on Caddy. When he’s not flashing back to screwing her over after their father’s death, he’s thinking about how he’s screwing her (and her daughter) over now, by pocketing the money Caddy sends for Miss Quentin for himself. And when he’s not thinking about how much he hates Caddy, he’s thinking about how much he hates Miss Quentin. Which basically is thinking about how much he hates Caddy, because he basically sees Miss Quentin as Caddy.
Miss Quentin is the most overwhelming reminder of Caddy in both Benjy’s and Jason’s sections. But Miss Quentin is really not like Caddy very much at all. She is promiscuous (but, with it now being 1928, isn’t quite as scandalous as it was when Caddy was doing it), but she lacks Caddy’s heart and her ability to love. Benjy recognizes this because he was able to see Caddy mostly as she really was, and he knows Miss Quentin is not that. And his recgnition of this fact is extremely upsetting, another devastating reminder that Caddy is not there. Jason, on the otherhand, sees Miss Quentin as being exactly like her mother, because he never experienced Caddy’s unconditional love. So when he sees Miss Quentin and her behavior, he simply thinks “like mother, like daughter”, not being able to recognize the fact that she’s the way she is because she was raised by him, with his harshness and coldness, and not by her mother who, despite her flaws, had a huge amount o warmth and heart. Miss Quentin is the strongest image in the book of both Caddy’s constant presence and her absence.
The fourth and final part of the book is told from a third person perspective, so there are no flashbacks, which means no Caddy, which is startling. Her absence is completely felt in this section because we’re not inside of anybody’s heads. We never get to see how a moment reminds one of them of Caddy. For the first time, we’re not so wrapped up in everyone’s feelings about Caddy that we finally get to see how bad things are without her. The Compson house is an extremely sad place, without any warmth or love. It’s genuinely upsetting to read. And, no matter how little we really knew her, it makes us miss Caddy.
So how do you reconcile this character, who was seen as both so perfect and so tarnished? Caddy never gets to tell her side of the story, so all we have is her brothers’ imperfect recollections. How do you even start to understand a character like that? You don’t. You simply recognize the warmth, the complexity, the free spirit, and the broken soul of a beautiful character, and recognize that the fact that we’ll never truly understand her just adds to the tragic beauty of Caddy Compson.