Critical Essays Faulkner's Style and Stream-of-Consciousness


The term "stream-of-consciousness" refers to a technique of narration. Prior to the twentieth century, an author would simply tell the reader what one of the characters was thinking. Stream-of-consciousness is a technique whereby the author writes as though inside the minds of the characters. Since the ordinary person's mind jumps from one event to another, stream-of-consciousness tries to capture this phenomenon. Thus, in the Benjy section, everything is presented through the apparently unorganized succession of images, and, in the Quentin section, everything is presented through random ideas connected by association. We have writing that jumps from one thought to another without any indication of a change. This technique is radically different from the older form of presenting the narrative through logical sequence and argument.

This technique reflects the twentieth-century development, research, and interest in the psychology of "free association." As a technique, stream-of-consciousness was first used in English by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. But Faulkner's use of this technique in The Sound and the Fury is probably the most successful and outstanding use that we have yet had.

Even while using this technique, Faulkner varies it with each section. For example, in the Benjy section, Faulkner's style is basically simple, which does not mean that the section is simple, but that each individual sentence is a rather simple and uncomplicated one. There are no difficult words because the vocabulary of Benjy would naturally be simple. Since his mind does not function logically, Faulkner records the thinking in terms of basic images. Thus, when Benjy sees the gate or the barn, he remembers another event that happened at the gate or the barn. Likewise, his thought can be interrupted halfway through a thought; sometimes he can return to it and sometimes the thought is lost forever. Stylistically, Faulkner has created a powerful tour de force by suggesting the functioning of Benjy's mind, but he has still brought enough order to that mind so that the reader can follow his thoughts.

Whereas Faulkner's style is relatively noncomplex in presenting the simple mind of Benjy, when he turns to the complex and intricate mind of Quentin, his style changes drastically. In Quentin's section, we find long, complex, and difficult ideas. Quentin is trying to solve complicated moral issues; therefore, his section is more complicated. Likewise, Quentin's mind is a more advanced mind and his thoughts jump from one idea to another very quickly. The technique that Faulkner uses to give order to Quentin's section is that of presenting this section on the day when Quentin is about to commit suicide. Therefore, Quentin's mind is concerned only with one or two ideas — the dishonor of his sister Caddy and the nihilistic philosophy of his father.

Whenever Quentin's mind jumps back to some thought of the past, it is to these two subjects. If Quentin had been concerned with other things, his section would be far more complicated. And as we reread the section, we realize that every scene returns to these events. For example, Quentin is riding with Gerald when he remembers his embarrassing talk with Dalton Ames on the bridge, and suddenly he asks if Gerald has a sister. The fight that occurs is a result of Quentin relating his past question and the consequent fight with Dalton to the present situation involving Gerald.

The style changes drastically again with Jason's section. Jason's mind is involved, but it is the mind of a monomaniac. He is concerned only with getting money and punishing others. Thus, his section flows along at a rapid pace because he is not troubled with the intricacies of life, and he is not concerned with images or impressions. The order and simplicity of his section is a result of his single-minded viciousness.

The final section offers us the first straightforward narrative. Here Faulkner adjusts his style to fit the character of Dilsey. We have a quiet, dignified style; the reader is presented the events of the fourth section without any comment or without any complicated sentence structure. And in the light of the other three sections narrated by a Compson, this final section has a strong sense of control and order.

Faulkner's virtuosity, therefore, is seen in the way he adjusts his style to fit the mind of each individual narrator. From Benjy's impressions and images to Quentin's obsessed concern with a single idea to Jason's monomania, Faulkner's style shifts in order to lend additional support to his subject matter.