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William Faulkner’s fourth novel, The Sound and the Fury, which chronicled the decline of a once-esteemed Louisiana family, the Compsons, might have been a commercial failure after its 1928 release, but was always affectionately referred to by the author as his “most splendid failure” (Cape and Smith 1929). The Compsons illustrate the way in which a highly respected clan of the Southern aristocracy can, through a chain of unfortunate events, orchestrate their own fall from grace. Faulkner also uses the characteristics of the individual family members to illustrate the varying ways in which our search for self-worth in society at large can go awry.
The title of the novel is a reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth:”And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury Signifying nothing” (Shakespeare, Macbeth, V.v.23-29).This is symbolic of the Compsons' displacement in the Southern society of the 1930s. Prior to the Civil War, they meant something.However, after the war, their aristocratic world was never the same, and as the South moved into the twentieth century, their airs and graces and heritage signified nothing.
In fact, the Compsons' life in the 1930s made a mockery of their history a century past. Southern families of the antebellum period were, like European nobility, obsessively concerned with breeding and lineages and "marrying well". In the twentieth century, however, the Compsons breed a retarded child; two of the siblings have an incestuous affair; one conceives a child out of wedlock; and, in the words of John K. Roth, the Compson family "ceases finally to be a place where love is sustained" (Roth, 214).None of these things, in and of themselves, are clear indications that a famil…