Summary and Analysis
The Quentin Section - June 2, 1910
This entire section is told from within Quentin's mind on the day that he commits suicide. Like Benjy, Quentin constantly returns to memories of scenes from the past. Quentin is at Harvard, but his mind, like Benjy's, roams in memory around the Compson place. But Quentin's mind is more intricate than Benjy's. Whereas Benjy's section only recorded sense impressions that had symbolic significance, Quentin's section plunges into the depths of motivation and into the causes and effects of certain actions. Throughout the section, Quentin's chief concern is with Caddy's sins and her loss of virginity.
The section opens with Quentin's concern over time and his remembrance of his father's comment about time. Interestingly, the entire section is interspersed with various comments that Mr. Compson makes about many aspects of life. Mr. Compson's philosophy is couched in terms of cynicism and determinism. He believes, for example, that there are no significant values in life and that time cures all things. This is the philosophy that Quentin strives to deny but is unable to do so. Quentin's concern with time and with his father's cynical view of life will become clearer as the section progresses.
Though Mr. Compson is not particularly upset when he discovers Caddy's pregnancy, Quentin is horrified. He cannot understand Compson's pragmatic view that virginity is an "invention" of men and of very little concern to women. Quentin, still a virgin himself, is hurt by his father's attitude.
Quentin cannot accept what he feels is Caddy's dreadful sin, and neither can he accept his father's indifference to it. His father believes that all human experience is absurd and therefore Caddy's sin and Quentin's grief are both absurd. If this is so, then all of Quentin's values are meaningless, and Quentin cannot live without a system of values.
In truth, Quentin wants to remember his horror; he is afraid he will forget — his father has said so. If Quentin can forget, then his horror has no meaning, and the passage of time will wipe it out. He feels that he must stop time. To do this, Quentin is constantly trying to escape from time, as represented by his act of tearing off the hands of his watch. Symbolically, this will stop time before it (time) allows him to forget his bereavement. Ironically, however, even though Quentin is trying to escape from time, he constantly inquires about the correct time and is pleased to see that the watches in the window lie about the correct time (p. 85). Ultimately, suicide becomes his only means of stopping time and escaping from the absurdities of life. Suicide, in his father's view, will be the final absurdity.
While he is riding on the streetcar (pp. 86-112), Quentin's memories of his family cause him to begin to evaluate the various relationships between members of the family. For example, he cries out in distress because he could never say "Mother, Mother." He knows now that his mother had a false pride that never allowed her to fulfill her function as a mother. Quentin later thinks that if Caddy could have said Mother, could have had a true mother to whom she could turn, Caddy would not have committed the sin that disturbs him so much. Remembrances of the family relationships, then, strongly contribute to Quentin's desire for suicide. Mrs. Compson's selfishness and her ignorance of the feelings of her children are proof that she is a rather horrible person. These memories convince Quentin that his values have little chance in the nihilistic worlds of his parents.
In remembering his talk with Herbert Head (pp. 107-11), Quentin's strong sense of honor and his high integrity do not apply only to Caddy and her sins. Quentin is cursed with high principles, and his dilemma is that the world he lives in is too corrupt for any code of principles.
Constantly, Quentin's thoughts are interrupted by remembrances of Mr. Compson's statements. He can find no answer for some of his father's negative comments about life. Mr. Compson's view that virginity and purity are negative states and therefore contrary to nature causes Quentin to experience a dark sense of tragedy. However, his father's view won't even allow Quentin to feel tragedy since Mr. Compson believes that man can experience tragedy only through someone else. All of these cynical remarks that Mr. Compson makes are in support of Caddy's sins, but Quentin still objects. His dilemma is that while rejecting his father's point of view, he cannot argue effectively against his father's views. Quentin knows that his father is partly correct since he himself feels someone else's sin (or tragedy) more than he feels his own plight.
The meeting with the little Italian girl (pp. 125-33) evokes many more memories of Quentin's relationships with Caddy. All through these scenes, the little girl remains perfectly quiet and accepts Quentin's gifts. The pathetic condition of the little girl also makes Quentin recall many of his father's disparaging remarks about women. Furthermore, the presence of the "little dirty girl" recalls to Quentin his first innocent encounter with a girl. Caddy called her a "dirty girl." The implication here is that even though Caddy is promiscuous, she is also jealous of any girl who is attracted to Quentin in the same way that Quentin is jealous of the men who are attracted to Caddy. Thus, there are implications in the actions of both Caddy and Quentin that each wants the other to feel a sexual jealousy over their individual escapades. The mud that Quentin smears all over Caddy suggests, as it did in the branch episode, that Quentin is partly responsible for Caddy's sexual promiscuity.
For most of the day while Quentin is with the little Italian girl, he thinks about Dalton Ames, who has no sister, and Gerald Bland, who has no sister. Then, suddenly, Quentin is exceptionally kind to a little girl, and he is accused by her brother of molesting or kidnapping her. The irony of it makes Quentin laugh. Here, among poverty and ignorance, he finds the loyalty and love for a sister that he has always felt. But among his own class and relations, Quentin's feelings are ridiculed.
While riding through the country (pp. 146-168), Quentin's thoughts continually return to Caddy's sins. His thoughts and remembrances give us clues to the motivations behind Caddy's promiscuity and reveal Quentin's desperate love for his sister. Caddy feels the need to reject all that the Compsons stand for, especially the world of Mrs. Compson and Jason IV. Even though she loves her father, his cynicism and nihilism are destructive to any type of significant relationship. Therefore, in order to reject everything connected with the false Compson world, Caddy commits acts of sexual promiscuity. She is searching for ways of rejecting and escaping from this awful world. Her method is to enter into sexual relationships with various men; to her, her sins are only more forms of disorder. In contrast, Quentin's driving impulse is to bring order into the world and into his life. Later in this section, we discover that he thinks that if he can convince his father that he, Quentin, committed incest with Caddy, the disorder of Caddy's sin will fade away. Ultimately, however, he realizes that incest would only contribute to the disorder rather than solve it.
Quentin's memory of the other branch scene (pp. 155-96) connects his section with that of Benjy's. Again, Caddy's lying in the branch, letting the water run over her, is her symbol of purification. Since her sexual indulgences are all forms of rejection, she feels the need for cleansing or purifying herself after each encounter. Then each new encounter is a new rejection.
The latter part of the scene is significant since Quentin is offering Caddy a double suicide pact. Caddy is quite willing because suicide would be a complete rejection of her parents, but finally it is Quentin who cannot bring himself to complete the pact.
The knife is also a Freudian phallic symbol. Consequently, on a symbolic level, we may say that Quentin is suggesting incest and that Caddy is again quite willing, but it is Quentin who is unable to carry through the plan. Caddy, who believes that there is a curse on the entire Compson family, is quite willing to commit either suicide or incest since both acts would be violent rejections of the Compson world. But for Quentin, who searches for a meaning in life through an ordered existence, both acts would only lead to further disorder by being violations of accepted behavior.
While Quentin is riding with the Blands, he remembers all the episodes involving Caddy and Dalton Ames. In Quentin's futile encounters with Dalton Ames in the past and with Gerald Bland in the present (pp. 158-68), we see that everything Quentin attempts to do results in failure. Quentin is disturbed by the response of both men when he asks whether either of them has a sister, but he is too weak to handle Dalton Ames and is soundly beaten by Gerald. Gerald's beating is the final indignity of the day. Now Quentin is ready for his final act of suicide.
As Quentin prepares for his suicide (pp. 169-79), the memories become more devastating and horrible. The neurotic mother, the bellowing brother, the fatalistic father, and the sinful sister all combine with Quentin's futile and ineffective attempts to restore order to make him realize that suicide is the only way in which he can escape from himself.
Faulkner ends the Quentin section on an ironic note. The fact that Quentin is so terribly concerned about the order of things in life is the main cause of his present dilemma. His attempts to put life in order have failed. As he goes to his suicide, he makes sure that all the little, insignificant aspects of his life are in order. Mr. Compson said earlier that man is incapable of tragedy. By the same token, man is also incapable of putting his whole life in order. Therefore, all that man can do before he commits suicide is to see that his hat and teeth are brushed.