The term "motif" refers to recurring ideas or thoughts that act as a unifying idea, and it sometimes develops as a commentary on characterization or on the central ideas in the work. Sometimes motifs recur so frequently that they enhance the meaning of the novel and often rise to symbolic importance. The recurrence of a motif also acts as a unifying idea in the work. Each reading of the novel should suggest additional motifs for the experienced reader, but the purpose here is to suggest only a few of the most dominant motifs.
One of Faulkner's chief concerns in all his works is that of time and timelessness. Often this concern is connected with his view of how often and how much of the past intrudes upon the present. Faulkner's use of time in this novel is startling, new, and highly effective. Essentially, time concepts are used differently in every section.
In Benjy's narration, clock time is almost totally disregarded. Benjy is completely oblivious of time. Events of the past are constantly juxtaposed with various events in the present or some other time in the past. For Benjy, all time blends into one sensuous experience. He makes no distinction between an event that happened only hours ago and one that occurred years ago. The memory of the episode at the branch (1898) is as recent and as vivid as an episode in 1914 or the morning of April 7, 1928. For Benjy, there is no distinction between the past and the present and there is no such thing as future time. If he stands at the gate waiting for Caddy in 1928, it is because he has performed the same act since 1902. He is as anxious for Caddy to return in 1928 as he was years earlier. The many years that he has waited in vain are non-existant to him because he remembers basically only those events that gave him pleasure. Faulkner violates traditional time narrative in order to emphasize Benjy's rejection of the distinction between various times and, more important, to show how actions of the past are important to Benjy because they gave him pleasure. The involved use of time is highly stimulating when we realize that Faulkner is writing about Benjy in 1928, and the event that Benjy remembers in 1898 foreshadows events that occur in 1906-10. That is, in the present time, Benjy remembers a past event (Caddy's getting her drawers muddy) that foreshadows a future event (Caddy's promiscuity in 1906-10).
Whereas Benjy is completely oblivious of time, Quentin expends all his energy trying to understand time. As the section opens, he is remembering his father's comments about the futility of trying to keep up with time. One of his first acts is that of tearing off the hands of his watch. By this act, Quentin hopes to escape into a timeless world. But he cannot remove himself from time. At the jeweler's, he sees a whole window full of watches. He constantly hears his own watch ticking even though it has no hands. He asks the boys at the river if they know where a clock is. And in the midst of all these connections with time, Quentin is constantly remembering various cynical comments that his father made about time.
The time motif carries significant implications about Quentin's character. Whereas Benjy made no distinction between time past and time present, Quentin is more concerned with trying to understand how time in the past can influence time in the future. His major problem is that his father has told him that time will make a person forget all sorrow and remorse. But Quentin's problem is that he does not want to forget. He must remember his present feelings of bereavement because if he forgets them, the feelings will have no meaning and, as a consequence, Quentin's life will have no meaning. Thus, Quentin tries to stop time from passing, and the only way he can do this is by committing suicide, which he does at the end of his section.
For Jason, time plays such an important role that every second counts. In his section, we have Caddy returning for a five-second glimpse of her child, we see Jason watching the clock and timing his every act, and we have undelivered telegrams, wild chases, and various assignations. Unlike Quentin, Jason sees no importance to the past — except that certain events occurred that deprived him of a position in Herbert Head's bank. Jason's world is in the immediate present. He has rejected all ties and allegiances to the past; he exists only for his own selfish aims in the present moment.
The final section uses time by emphasizing the clock that Dilsey keeps on the kitchen wall. When the clock strikes five times, Dilsey knows that it is eight o'clock. She is able to bring order out of the confusion and chaos of the Compson world. When she takes Benjy to the church, she hears a sermon about the beginning and the end. She returns home, feeling that she has been with the Compsons since the beginning and now she has seen evidence that the end is coming very soon. Dilsey, therefore, is the only character who functions within the continuum of time. Her present care of, and loyalty to, the Compsons is a result of her past association with them.
Faulkner's use of time as a motif is probably one of his main concerns in the novel. Much of the meaning of the novel evolves through an understanding of each character's reaction to time.
Faulkner once said that all he wanted to do in The Sound and the Fury was to tell the story of a little girl who fell down and got her drawers muddy. The use of water in one way or another plays an important role throughout the novel. In chronological time, the earliest event in the novel involves the Compson children playing in the branch. Both Benjy and Quentin return to this scene several times. It is here that Caddy fell down and got her drawers muddy. This act symbolizes her later promiscuity and sexual acts — that is, Faulkner is correlating her muddy drawers of one age with the sexual act of a later age. The water here is an ironic reversal of the traditional use of water as a symbolic baptism, as a cleansing and purifying agent. Here, water offers a baptism that foreshadows a life of sin.
Later, when Caddy is fourteen to sixteen years old, Benjy follows Caddy up the stairs and tries to force her or push her into the bathroom in order to wash away her perfume, or sin. Here, water, functions as the traditional cleansing or purifying agent. Later, when Caddy has lost her virginity, Benjy tries to push her into the bathroom because he senses that something is wrong. Caddy cringes because she knows that no amount of washing can purify her. We find out later, however, in Quentin's section, that Caddy goes down to the branch and lies in the water, letting it run over her hips. This act symbolizes her desire to be pure again.
But water is also a "return-to-the-womb" symbol, as well as a death symbol; Quentin's suicide by drowning symbolizes both. This particular death also fits Quentin's personality. He is only a shadow of a true character, and as he leaps into the water, his own shadow from below rises up to meet him. Thus, suicide by water cleanses Quentin of all responsibility of having to live with the knowledge of Caddy's sin; it is also a type of return to the womb since Quentin has never been able to establish a meaningful relationship with his mother. And, furthermore, it was on a bridge overlooking the branch that Quentin had his disastrous talk with Dalton Ames. Clearly, water, as a motif, is important to all the Compson children — except Jason. But remember that Jason does not feel or sense sin or shame or the need to be purified.
The shadow motif refers chiefly to Quentin and, to a lesser degree, to Benjy. It refers to the events of the past that are only vaguely understood. As a person, Quentin is obsessed with both the past and the significance that the past has for him. But these actions of the past appear to him only in shadowy form. Thus we return to a Shakespearean line that occurs in the passage in which the title was taken: "Life's but a walking shadow." One critic of Faulkner's writings has pointed out that the word "shadow" appears at least forty-five times in Quentin's monologue (See Carvel Collins, "The Interior Monologues," English Institute Essays, 1952, pp. 29-56). Quentin senses all through this section that he is only a shadow of his ancestors. There are no more generals and governors left among his family. Furthermore, when Quentin tries to accomplish something, the act always seems ridiculous. For example, he tries to make Caddy commit a double suicide, but it is Quentin who fails to bring the act to completion; he tries to make Dalton Ames leave town but, instead, he faints; he tries to convince his father that he committed incest with Caddy, but his father merely laughs at him. All of Quentin's actions are only shadows of real actions, and unlike a tragic protagonist who loses his life at the end of the drama, Quentin takes his life at the mid-point in the novel. The implication is that modern man cannot bring himself to cope with the problems of the final act of the drama and destroys himself in the middle of the drama. Quentin's final act is that of jumping into the river, where his shadow rises from the water below to meet him.