When The Sound and the Fury first appeared, the most frequent criticism was that the four sections were arbitrarily and capriciously distorted. A number of critics and readers were confused by Faulkner's decision to begin the novel with the Benjy section. Many critics felt that this section of the novel, narrated through the mind of a thirty-three-year-old boy-man, presented an insurmountable obstacle to the reader. Some critics thought that the novel should begin with the final section; others suggested that Jason's section should come first.
Some of these objections are still offered. It is indeed a difficult task to get through the Benjy section without throwing up one's hands in despair. The opening section of this novel is so different from anything else that has been written that readers can hardly be prepared for the difficulty facing them. And perhaps some other order would have been more effective on the first reading. But a novel can never be judged by a first reading. It is on subsequent readings of this novel that we realize Faulkner presented the story in its most effective order.
Faulkner once said (see Faulkner in the University, p. 1) that the novel "began with the picture of the little girl's muddy drawers, climbing that tree to look in the parlor window with her brothers that didn't have the courage to climb the tree waiting to see what she saw. And I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn't enough. That was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn't enough. That was Section Two. I tried with the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody's else's eyes, I thought. And that failed, and I tried myself — the fourth section — to tell what happened, and I still failed." By failure, Faulkner means that he tried to achieve something much greater — that he aimed higher than he could achieve. But the significant thing is that Faulkner did achieve, or create, one of the world's greatest novels.
But why must the Benjy section come first? First, all of the themes and ideas of the novel are presented in miniature in this section. If some other section came first, these ideas would lose their power. In addition, this section presents the earliest scenes, chronologically, of the novel. Benjy can record for us scenes occurring in 1898 with the vividness and freshness of their having just occurred. In the scenes at the branch (or stream), we see the muddy drawers, we see Quentin's attempt to protect Caddy, we see Benjy's ability to sense deviations, and we see Jason's isolation and dastardliness. These are characteristics that become the prominent traits in the characters as they grow up. Were this section to appear later in the novel, such scenes would lose their effectiveness.
Benjy's section presents the idea of the whole novel in miniature and also gives us a glimpse of the character traits of each of his brothers and sisters. If we had one of the other sections first, then it would be an afterthought to return to Benjy's section and hear about Mrs. Compson's whining neuroticism. Furthermore, Faulkner achieves a more powerful emotional impact by presenting Benjy's section first. For example, readers are aware of certain things through these scenes, but they don't fully understand them as they go through the section. Later, in one of the other sections, there is a sudden and overwhelming realization of what was actually happening in the Benjy section. This impact would lose its intensity if Benjy's section were not presented first.
There have also been some unusual justifications for the appearance of the Benjy section first. Among these is Carvel Collins' interpretation that Benjy represents the Freudian id of the family, and since the id is the most fundamental aspect of one's personality, it must come first.
But what about Quentin's section as the second one? Since Benjy's section is first, it follows that we must see the results of the ideas presented in Benjy's section. The character who is most directly affected by the actions of the novel is Quentin. Therefore, his section must logically come second. Note also that it is set in 1910; therefore, chronologically, it follows in the correct time sequence since the third and fourth sections are essentially concerned with events of 1928.
Quentin's section focuses on the idea that modern people cannot exist long enough to see the end of the tragedy. For example, in classical tragedy, the hero (or protagonist) is killed in the final scene of the tragedy and has suffered for his mistakes. In contrast, in the modern world, humanity is not capable of existing throughout the entire tragedy. Therefore, even though Quentin might be considered the central character, his life must end halfway through the work. As a consequence, the question arises as to why the novel should continue if the main character is dead at the halfway mark. The answer lies in the fact that the remaining sections illustrate, support, and justify Quentin's decision to commit suicide. If he had lived, we see in the last two sections the unbearable world that he would have had to face. Essential to Faulkner's structure is the fact that Quentin represents the modern person who cannot cope with the problems that have to be faced in the course of a tragedy; he must end his life by merging with his shadow in the water beneath him.
Jason's section, the third section, is told in the simplest prose of the novel. Whereas Benjy's section presented the confusion of time and Quentin's presented the intricacies of the mind, Jason's section races along as it records the simple thoughts of a mean, nasty, amoral man — a man who makes no attempt to disguise his ulterior motives. Thus it is in Jason's section that some of the hints and suggestions about Faulkner's themes and motifs begin to be clarified for the reader. Structually, it is ironic that the meanest character in the novel is the one who offers us the clearest and most vivid account of the Compson family that we have yet seen. And, as a lesser point, if Jason's section had been presented before the other two, our view of Caddy would be distorted. Since Jason sees Caddy as evil and since Mrs. Compson won't allow Caddy's name to be spoken (see Jason's section), the reader might possibly get the wrong view of Caddy. But after seeing Jason's personality as presented by both Benjy and Quentin, we are not deceived by his presentation of Caddy.
The final section is narrated by the author, but the central figure is Dilsey. Structurally, the key question here is why Faulkner leaves the mind of his individual characters and changes to the omniscient author. The first three sections were presented from within the mind of one of the Compson children. There is still a fourth Compson child — Caddy — so why not let her tell the final section? Faulkner's own justification is that Caddy's story gains in beauty by seeing it through the eyes of the other characters. Of equal importance, however, is the fact that since we have been so intimately inside the minds of Caddy's three siblings, we can now step back from the immediacy of the situation and view it on a grand and tragic scale. Furthermore, by telling the last section himself, Faulkner can present the interrelationships between the characters more objectively. It is here in the final section that Dilsey emerges as the strong character who is able to bring order out of the disorder created by the Compsons. Here we see the entire novel in its largest view, the Compsons playing their roles without the benefit of having their actions interpreted by some other member of the family; that is, the final scene is so objective that we see the family as though they were actors on a stage rather than seeing them through the mind of another character.
The first section (Benjy) gives us the themes in miniature, the second section (Quentin) shows us the end result of the Compsons' acts, the third (Jason) presents to us the horror of living in the present Compson world dominated by Jason, and the fourth (Dilsey) gives us a large, objective, and panoramic view of this world that previously had been presented so intimately through the minds of three very different individuals.