Symbolism, Imagery and Allegory in The Sound and The Fury


William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury embodies the idea that “people constantly function symbolically” (Burroway 335). The book’s second chapter comes from Quentin’s perspective, which is less disorienting as Benjy’s perspective, but still very abstract. Quentin’s thoughts, in the form of stream of consciousness, as well as the actions occurring in the present moment, is representative of the “symbolic mind.” This stream of consciousness technique attempts to render the complex flow of human consciousness and to realistically show how symbols are imposed upon the mind when experiences and sense perceptions come together (Noble 1). Because of the difficulty in interpreting the narrative, he relies on allegory and the repetitive use of symbols as bread crumbs for the reader. But as Bonnie Friedman asserts, “before a thing can be a symbol, it must first be a thing” (qtd. 336), so for Faulkner’s strategies to be effective, he must acclimate the reader to these symbols. He understands that the symbol “must do its job as a thing in the world before and during and after you have projected all your meaning all over it” (qted. 336).

At the beginning of the chapter, Faulkner reveals this section of the book will be about Quentin’s impending death and how it is linked with his sister Caddy. It opens with Quentin listening to the clock ticking away. The clock and its ticking sets us up for the symbolism of time and memories:

You can be oblivious to the sound for a long while, then in a second of ticking it can create in the mind unbroken the long diminishing parade of time you didn’t hear. (Faulkner 77)

Quentin then remembers that St. Francis called death his “Little Sister” even though St. Francis never had a sister (76). Faulkner again connects the figurative with the literal. The abstract idea of death is now linked to his sister.

Later in the chapter, Quentin enters a bakery to find a “dirty little child with eyes like a toy bear’s” (125). Prior to this moment, he encounters three boys who are going fishing. While they talk freely and candidly with him, this little girl does not. She remains silent for most of their brief relationship. The three boys symbolize the brothers of the Compson family, of whom each has his own chapter with his own first person point of view. Although these perspectives are limited in varying degrees, like the boys Quentin meets, each brother has a voice. The little girl, like his sister, Caddy, who neither has her own chapter nor first person point of view, is silent and mysterious. And like Caddy and Caddy’s sexuality and womanhood, the little girl represents the mystery that is both death and life.

When Quentin greets the child, he calls her “sister” (125), and continues to call her this throughout his walk with her, as he tries to find her home. The symbolism of death is emphasized when he describes her face as “a cup of milk dashed with coffee in the sweet warm emptiness” (125). More symbols of death shows up when he describes the woman behind the counter as “neat gray face her hair tight and sparse from her neat great skull” (125). She looks like a librarian to him, as “something among dusty shelves of ordered certitudes long divorced from reality, desiccating peacefully” (125). We are then brought back to the little girl, whose “still and unwinking eyes, like two currants floating motionless in cup of weak coffee”, is a reminder of Caddy. Like this little girl who is seen as “secretive, contemplative” (126), Caddy “doesn’t tell things she is secretive you don’t know her” (103). During their brief friendship, the little girl never reveals where she lives, but follows Quentin like a little shadow (another word that is used repeatedly in this chapter), and memories of Caddy, who was vague about whether or not she loved the man who fathered her child and never quite identifying who he is, also follow him wherever he goes.

What is noticeable about the first section with Quentin and the girl, is that for a brief moment, the narrative’s use of interiority or stream of consciousness is suspended. This temporary suspension starts from their meeting in the bakery and ends after they eat ice cream at the drugstore. It is an allegory, which works as an “extended simile, with the original figure of the comparison suppressed….[and] people are never mentioned and the comparison takes place in the reader’s mind” (Burroway 332), so what had taken place in the Quentin’s mind, seen on the page as stream of consciousness, is now transferred to the reader. We look at the scene and fill in the blanks.

This moment informs us of Caddy and her relationship with her brother Quentin. When the woman at the counter tells him. “She’ll hide it under her dress and a body’d never know it”, she doesn’t specifically state what is the “it” she is referring to, but we get very clearly that she assumes that the child is untrustworthy or dishonest. The reader easily interprets her dialogue as to symbolically mean Caddy’s pregnancy and her hiding it from Herbert so that he will marry her. When the girl uncurls her fist to reveal a nickel, Quentin sees that her hand is “dirty, moist dirt ridged into her flesh” (126), reflecting how he sees his sister: dirty from her promiscuity and the impurity of the child in her womb. He refers to the coin as “damp and warm” and can “smell it, faintly metallic”, which evokes imagery and sensations of blood. This could be the blood that courses between mother and an unborn child or menstrual blood, a sensual mystery of being a woman, or the blood that they share as brother and sister, which he refers to a several pages later, when his stream of consciousness returns on the page, “Oh her blood or my blood Oh” (135). When he hands the little girl the change of “two coppers” (127) from his purchase, “her fingers close about them, damp and hot, like worms” (127). Again the reference to dampness and heat could refer to the womb, but because of the simile at the end of the sentence, it could also represent in some way the death and decay. Life begins as life ends. Quentin the brother dies and Quentin the daughter is born.

Before they leave the bakery, the woman at the counter, who is disdainful of the little girl, viewing her as a foreigner or alien, she hands her a “funny looking thing” [which] she carried it sort of like it might have been a dead pet rat” (127). This rat imagery is repeated later in one of Quentin’s stream of consciousness moments when he is remembering the night in the barn with Natalie, where they appear to almost have sex:

It’s like dancing sitting down did you ever dance sitting down? We could hear the rain, a rat in the crib, the empty barn vacant with horses. How do you hold to dance do hold like this? (135)

The cake, which appears to Quentin at first as a dead rat, that the woman hands to the little girl, connects to the rat in the crib. The rat represents the consequences of promiscuity, specifically Caddy’s, which are the family scandal and an illegitimate child.

Quentin then offers to buy the little girl ice cream. She responds with a “black still look”, referencing again death and silence. When they go to the drugstore and eat ice cream, the little girl holds onto the cake even after he suggests putting it down so that she could eat better. Symbolically, he is asking Caddy to put away her promiscuity, but like the little girl who “fell onto on the cake again” (128), she cannot help herself.

At this point, Quentin begins to ask the question, “Which way do you live?” (128), which represents the questions in his mind about Caddy’s life choices. Upon this question, the narrative’s suspension of stream of consciousness ends, and we are back into the symbolic, abstract mind of Quentin.

Outside of literature, symbolic imagery is created, rises and falls naturally in human consciousness. These symbols are not merely complex images which hold secrets of our deepest memories. They are active forces in one’s life, capable of controlling the mind of the individual. For Faulkner, the mind is subject to a multitude of symbols all arising out of the collision of sense perceptions and experiences. In The Sound and the Fury, he uses the strategies of allegory and symbolism to convey Quentin’s anxieties over sexuality, his sister’s promiscuity and the mystery of death and life. Once created, these symbols are powerful enough to manifest in Quentin‘s life in real time, and transfer to the reader, so that he or she can actively interpret the complex and disjointed narrative. Faulkner thus successfully mirrors the symbolic mind of his character with the symbolic mind of the reader to create a rich and engaging literary experience.


Copyright© 2010 Lisa Abellera