Essay Faulkner: Time and the Self

Submitted By joshtruel
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Faulkner: Time and the Self
Jean-Paul Sartre describes time in William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury with the image of a man seated backwards in a speeding car, the future unseen, the present blurred by motion, the past solely in focus (267). He compares Faulkner’s concept of time to Proust’s in his Search for Lost Time (268), suggesting that time is only interacted with in retrospect, while critic Peter Swiggart condemns this association as limited, and claims that Faulkner’s time is much more dynamic, that it “transcends Quentin’s temporal dilemma” and proposes instead a more conglomerate perspective (221). All of the characters in the story are defined largely by their relationship to time. Even Faulkner’s form reflects this theme. Cleanth Brooks points out, in “Man, Time, and Eternity,” that we as readers are “traversing the same territory in circling movements” (290) as we are moved from confusion and disorientation into a more objective and tangible world. It is the concept of time stood still, of eternity, that unites yet defines the characters’ struggles and consequently, their selves.
Benjy is locked into a timeless and associative present; for him there is no past and no future, but an ever present flow of sensations and associations. His eternity is largely unbiased. The observations that he makes and the dialog that he reiterates are not slanted by the past as they are with Quentin, or overpowered by the future as with Jason, but seem to be of a truth grounded more in actuality than his brother’s sections; a truth, despite its disorientation, more close to the objectivity and impartiality of the final section. He is however, able to jump from one present to another. Benjy’s mind is transported backwards and forwards four times in the first three pages of the novel through association; prompted by getting snagged on the fence (3), by the cold (4), and by a question (5). His being bound to the constant flow sensations and associations of the present, deprives Benjy of his ability to fully understand the consequences of his actions, which leads ultimately to his castration (34). It is his entrapment in the present that causes Benjy’s demise.
Where Benjy is locked into an eternal present, Quentin lives in the past, in an eternally fixed moment, changed only by his relation to it. His eternity is not something which enfolds or fulfills all time, but simply a particular segment of time, “like one note of music infinitely sustained” (Brooks 291). Quentin smashes his father’s watch and is annoyed that it keeps ticking, but ironically, he still carries it around with him, useless and broken, serving only to remind him of the “long diminishing parade of time” (49). Quentin wants to destroy the flow time. He abstracts it into its “component parts,” and attempts to dramatize it as “remember reality in the mausoleum of the present” (Swiggart 222). His father also uses this unfamiliar word when describing time as the “mausoleum of all hope and desire” (48). The OED defines mausoleum as “A stately or imposing edifice erected as a commemorative burial place…” (2.a) This image of a stout and unmovable recollection of the past is representative of not only the moral death of Caddy in Quentin’s eyes, but also the pasts eternal hold on his mind. Quentin like Benjy is under the hold of time, but where Benjy is bound by a lack of reason and social boundaries, his captivity is due to an excess of logic and idealism.
Jason, like his brothers is also dominated by time. He seems to break Sartre’s mold, however, in that he looks forever forward, he is largely defined by events that took place in the past, but his focus is on the future. He steals from his sister (120), works a job he hates (123), and almost gets himself killed (193) trying to build a future for himself. Brooks describes Jason’s eternity as an “empty mirage of an oasis toward which he is constantly flogging his tired camel and his tired self” (292). He has…