Athenaeum Meeting Minutes – March 8, 2003 – Dog & Duck Pub

Attending:  John Mays, Jimmy Martin, Alan Hunt, Bob Hardister, Pete Hansen, Skip Mencio, Eli Pickering

Welcome to new Athenaeum Member Paul Johnson

Book for Discussion:  The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

Secretary’s Corner: One of the great things about Athenaeum is the diversity of our reading selection.  We draw from a wide cross section of the Western Cannon, and not just the easy books!  No one can accuse us of shying away from difficult material.  But inevitably reading a wide variety of great books takes us out of our element, into literature we would never otherwise read, and sometimes we may not like them.  But that shouldn’t stop you from FINISHING THE BOOK.  Do not be hasty to cast judgment on a book before you have completed it.  It is better for the discussion, and better for us as individuals if you get to the end.  Thus endeth the sermon.


Jimmy: What just happened?  The second reading made it a little simpler, but it was still tough to follow.

All: The stream of consciousness was confusing, the names were confusing.  The entire first half of the book is confusing.

John: Furthermore, the first narrator, Benji, is an idiot with no sense of time.  The reader does not know whether Benji is thinking about present of past experiences.

Pete: At least past events are written in italics, which helps orient the reader.  The stream of consciousness from Benji is quite remarkable, and shows tremendous insight on Faulkner’s part.

Jimmy: It was contrived.

All: Not at all.  It makes the novel more authentic.  It is brilliant.

Alan: The point of view is a little different in all four sections of the book.  Each is different.  The last section is written in the omniscient view.

Eli: From an article written by Leon Edel in Contemporary Literary Criticism, “The editors of the Modern Library Series rightly feared that frustrated readers might hurl the book away in anger, but when they asked Faulkner to write an explicatory preface, he wrote an Appendix instead….If we read this appendix, where one usually reads a preface, we enter the book so to speak by a back door.”

Pete: As difficult as Benji’s section is, Quentin’s section is more obtuse.

Skip: Sometimes there is a temptation to call books “great” simply because they are difficult.  Is this book truly great, or is it just overly difficult?

Pete: The Deep South black dialect was very well done, and not offensive.

John: The blacks in this novel are depicted as the last bastion of sanity left in a crumbling South.  The decay of the Compson family emblemizes the entire South.

Eli: The word nigger appears throughout the novel.  This does not necessarily make Faulkner a racist.  “Nigger” is a word many Southerners used, and one the Compsons, being low life degenerates, would certainly use.  It is a sign of the times, and lends itself to the realism of the dialog.

Bob: What is the contemporary view of Faulkner’s work?

John: Reads from Imitation of the Classics, in which Faulkner is praised as powerful and accomplished writer and the most celebrated American author of the 1950s.

Bob: Harriet Beecher Stowe is considered today as naïve, and not a particularly good writer.  The importance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not its literary value, but that it rode the crest of change American culture’s popular opinion of slavery.

John: Faulkner is writing about the end of the South.  The Sound and the Fury tells the last chapter of the Compson family.  The Compsons represent the old South, the noble South, and when it is gone it is replaced by a new South, the Snopes family, which is base, and ugly, and ignorant.  The story of the Snopes family begins with As I Lay Dying.

Pete: Reads the text of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech.  Faulkner states the duty of the writer is to write about the problems of the heart, the truths of the heart.  The poet’s duty is to the virtuous noble aim of man.

Skip: Where is that stuff in The Sound and the Fury?

John: Well in this novel he is writing about the absence of virtue.  We are shown lives devoid of virtue.

Pete: It is a tragedy, and the purpose of tragedy is catharsis.  But it is still ennobling because the Compsons stand in contrast to right living.  We recognize the noble in the ignoble.

Alan: Do we consider Hamlet a hero?  No!  Quentin is like Hamlet.

Eli: What about the incest?

Secretaries Note: Here starts the fight over whether Quentin shagged his sister.  I am sorry to say the dialog came too fast and passionate for me to record.  I’ll try to hit the highlights:

Pete: Reads from The Quentin’s section of the Appendix, “QUENTIN III.  Who loved not his sister’s body but some concept of Compson honor precariously and (he knew well) only temporarily supported by the minute fragile membrane of her maidenhead as a miniature replica of all the whole vast globy earth may be poised on the nose of a trained seal.  Who loved not the idea of incest which he would not commit, but some Presbyterian concept of its eternal punishment:  he, not God, could by that means cast himself and his sister both into hell, where he could guard her forever and keep her forevermore intact amid the eternal fires.” (italics mine)  Clearly it says he doesn’t do it.

Skip: The text of Quentin’s section suggests otherwise.

John: The Appendix is misleading, and doesn’t mean what it implies.  There are too many references in Quentin’s book.  Also the scene with the Italian girl, in which he acts honorably, is a literary mirror for his incestuous conduct with Caddy.  The entire episode appears out of place, so why is it there?  It serves as a foil for his conduct with Caddy.

Eli: The incest is reminiscent of Marques’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the incest of the Buendia family.  In both novels incest is a mark of a doomed and unhealthy family.  It means the family is no longer able to expand outward, to engage the outside world.  Instead it collapses on itself, unto its last generation.

Secretary's Note: Here ends the fight over whether Quentin shagged his sister.  Now discussion returns to the other unresolved issue, whether there is anything redeeming in the novel.

John: Classical literature showed virtue and fault together.  In this manner virtue is illustrated in contrast to men’s faults.  Modern literature feels no obligation to such a standard.  Often there is a complete lack of redeeming or virtuous quality within the characters, and therefore it is left to the reader to recognize virtue through its absence.

Skip/Jimmy: But Faulkner must somewhere demonstrate that he is interested in communicating the nobler aspect of life. Where does he do so?

John: In his Nobel Prize speech.

Skip/Jimmy: But what about the reader who has never seen the speech?  The book must stand on its own.  Where does one go in this novel to glean the sentiments Faulkner expressed in that speech?


John: With the Bible we hold to the hermeneutical principal that ‘scripture interprets scripture”.  The same holds true with Faulkner.  To understand him, to glimpse the tenants of his Nobel Prize speech, one must take him in his totality.

Skip: But what are we to do with that?  Why should we read The Sound and the Fury?

Pete: The fall of a family is a powerful picture with powerful lessons.  And the decay of the old South is the backdrop.  That is why we read the book.

Skip: The book was called earlier, “a tragedy”.  Tragedy is characterized by a specific fault.  But when we say modern, 20th Century literature has no obligation to illustrate virtue, that is not a flaw but a doctrine.  That is unacceptable.

John: There are several categorized modes of literature.  In one, the hero is extraordinary.  Another, call it low realism, is characterized by a hero who is on the same level as the reader, a common individual the average person can identify with.  In the 20th Century, the dominant mode is the ironic mode in which the protagonist is beneath the reader.  Faulkner’s work fits the ironic mode.

Jimmy/Eli: The scene in the black church is tremendous.  The preacher begins much like a “white” preacher and Faulkner does not write him using a black dialect.  At some point in his sermon his speech becomes “negroid”.  “Breddrin and Sistuhn…I got de ricklicksun en de blood of de Lamb!”.

Pete: After the service, Dilsey is moved by the sermon and comments,  “I seed de beginning, en now I sees de endin.”  It is a reference to the Compsons.

John/Pete: Jason is a rational character.  He is saner than the rest of the crazy Compsons.

John: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”  This is a quote from Shakespeare, from which the title of the book is taken.  It also describes Benji’s book.

Pete: The ending is terrible.  There is no resolution, no closure, just a crazy random episode.  It is as if the novel just evaporates rather than ends.

John: The end is excellent!  The final scene involves Benji, thus tying the story back to its beginning.  Furthermore it is a scene ‘full of sound and fury” but it finds resolution in the last sentences, “Ben’s voice roared and roared.  Queenie moved again, her feet began to clop-clop steadily again, and at once Ben hushed.  Luster looked quickly back over his shoulder, then he drove on.  The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and façade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its own place.”

Skip: It seems Benji is the only Compson that finds any peace.

John: Here is the book’s redemption.  All these things, representing nature and human endeavor are left in order “each in its own place”.

Bob/Eli: What does that mean?  In the first 300+ pages nothing appears to be “in order”, including the literary style.  Is Faulkner supposed to be juxtaposing all that to the last sentence on the last page?

Alan: Dilsey is the most moral character in the entire book.  She defends her decision to take Benji to church, “I wish you wouldn’t keep bringin him to church mammy,”  Frony said.  “Folks talking.”  / “What folks?” Dilsey said. / “I hears em,” Frony said.  /  “And I knows whut kind of folks,” Dilsey said.  “Trash white folks.  Dat who it is.  Thinks he aint good enough fer white church, but nigger church aint good enough fer him.”

Eli: Dilsey may be the moral standard for the novel, and the black characters may be far more sane than the Compsons, but Luster is an ass.  He is intentionally cruel to Benji.  He takes him around the golf course because when the golfers call the caddy, Benji remembers his sister Caddy, and starts bawling.

Pete: There are existential themes brought out in the beginning of Quentin’s book.  He is handed a watch by his father that belonged to his grandfather.  “It was Grandfather’s and when he gave it to me he said ‘I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experiences which can fit your individual needs no better than it fit his or his father’s’….Because no battle is ever won he said.  They are not even fought.  The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”  This is nihilism.  Quentin follows his father’s advice, and it leads to his suicide, but not before the watch stops working.  In this way, Quentin’s death is prefigured in the watch.


Eli: Another article from Contemporary Literary Criticism written by Jean Paul Sarte comments on how Faulkner uses time in the book, “Faulkner’s real metaphysic is time.  Man’s misfortune lies in his being time-bound….Such is the real subject of The Sound and the Fury.  And if the technique Faulkner has adopted seems at first a negation of temporality, the reason is that we confuse temporality with chronology.” 

Skip: Quentin’s piece stands alone.  The rest of the book is trash.  Quentin is dealing with his sin.  He is dealing with his lust for Caddy, but fails to cope with it.  He sees no redemption…no way out.

Pete: Not just for himself.  He sees no redemption for THEM.  He is obsessed with death, and wants Caddy and he to go away together.

John: Benji encapsulates all of human suffering.  Caddy’s slipper torments him, and its yellowed appearance is yet another symbol of the decay of the family, and thus of the South.  Faulkner also uses dreary weather to encapsulate decline.

Jimmy: The opening prose in part four is a good example of weather creating a foreboding mood, “The day dawned bleak and chill, a moving wall of gray light out of the northeast which, instead of dissolving into moisture, seemed to disintegrate into minute and venomous particles, like dust that…needled [Dilsey] laterally into her flesh…”

Eli: Honeysuckle is another symbol of the South.  The smell makes Quentin sick.

Pete: Percy wrote about “noxious particles” in his novels.  This is surprising since Percy was a fan of Faulkner.

Skip: Is there a subtle anti-Semitic message in the novel?  Jason is agitated by the New York wall street types he feels are bent on milking him from his cotton futures money.

Eli: Some of those scenes where Jason is venting over his lost money are just hilarious.

Voting for May:

Blood Meridian
Philebus / Phaedrus
To Kill a Mockingbird
Paradise Lost

Next Meeting:

April 12th at the Dog and Duck Pub

April Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Prisig

May Phaedrus & Philebus, dialogues by Plato

Athenaeum Meeting Minutes