My God, this is a depressing novel. Every word Faulkner writes, every memory that is explored, every action in the novel is distilled into a lingering, oppressive, sadness that is as omnipresent as the honeysuckle Quentin so hated.
I started off enjoying the novel; I liked the experimental way Faulkner tries to convey the confused mind of Benjy. As someone who grew up with and spent years working with severely mentally disabled adults, I felt Faulkner honestly captured the state of mind of someone who is almost totally unable to experience rational and unselfish thought.
The second chapter, too, was quite beautiful but at times was nearly impenetrable. Pretty much only the scene with the little girl, when his mind stops wandering and he focuses only on finding her home, really seemed to have much of an impact for me. Everything else – the broken watch, his drunken father’s philosophical ramblings, his time with Caddy – seemed … distant. Distant is the best way I can describe it from a reader’s point of view. I never felt like I was part of Quentin’s experiences even though we spend so much time in his mind. He was no Bloom.
The final two chapters were straightforward enough. We learn many of the previously mysterious details that Benjy’s and Quentin’s minds could not clearly articulate (or were unwilling to articulate). And Jason was a wonderful character – the best in the book. Faulkner certainly has created one of the great characters in literature with Jason.
But what does this all add up to? Yes, the novel is about the south and the south’s decline, but what South? Was there a time when people did not behave badly, were devious, cheats, liars, manipulators, and every other sin you can imagine? Maybe there were times in the Compson family when they were more outwardly respectable, but how do we really know those “better” people were actually any better? Is Faulkner so nostalgic for a long forgotten time that he actually believes we’ve all degenerated in our time?
I doubt Faulkner was so naive or sentimental. He write a book in which the main characters are all flawed and fallen ne’er–do–wells, who all long for a time when things were better and resent the present because it didn’t turn out the way they wanted it too. Adults who haven’t really ever grown up. In a way he wrote a warning against nostalgia, against seeing the past with thick rose colored glasses because if you keep trying to compare yourself against an impossible standard you will only disappoint yourself or, if you’re smart, just run away from your entire family.
From that point of view, then, this isn’t a “southern” novel bemoaning the end of one specfic time and culture of Faulkner’s love that will unfortunately never return, he’s trying to warn us from falling into the cycle of always going back to the past. If your mind is always full of how things were and how things used to be then you will miss every opportunity to better yourself tomorrow. The Compson’s totally fell apart because they could not come to terms with reality.
Yet even with such an analysis, I just could not get into this novel. I really wanted to, but you have to approach every work of art from the perspective of how it effects you personally and this novel just made me feel sad after having witnessed so much misery on every page.