Launches Faulkner’s Career Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although not widely appreciated at the time of its publication, The Sound and the Fury was William Faulkner’s breakthrough novel, launching both his own career and modernist fiction in the United States.

Summary of Event

In 1928, when he completed The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner was a struggling, relatively unsuccessful writer working at odd jobs in Oxford, Mississippi, his hometown. Although his first novels, Soldiers’ Pay (1926) Soldiers’ Pay (Faulkner)[Soldiers Pay] and Mosquitoes (1927), Mosquitoes (Faulkner) had been well received in literary circles, they had not sold well, and Faulkner was unable to support himself by writing, as he wished to do. Publishers continued to reject his short stories and what he believed his best novel, Flags in the Dust, Flags in the Dust (Faulkner) the manuscript title for what became Sartoris (1929). Sartoris (Faulkner) Flags in the Dust was finally published uncut in 1973. [kw]Sound and the Fury Launches Faulkner’s Career, The (Oct. 7, 1929) [kw]Faulkner’s Career, The Sound and the Fury Launches (Oct. 7, 1929)[Faulkners Career, The Sound and the Fury Launches (Oct. 7, 1929)] Sound and the Fury, The (Faulkner) [g]United States;Oct. 7, 1929: The Sound and the Fury Launches Faulkner’s Career[07320] [c]Literature;Oct. 7, 1929: The Sound and the Fury Launches Faulkner’s Career[07320] Faulkner, William Smith, Harrison

William Faulkner.

(The Nobel Foundation)

Faulkner later stated in interviews that he had composed The Sound and the Fury in a mood of despair. Doubting that he would have a successful publishing career, he felt freed to write what was closest to his heart in the way that seemed best to him. He often said this novel was his favorite, calling it his “most splendid failure.” In the book, he tried to capture those things that were most important to him personally, culturally, and artistically. In a 1933 introduction to the novel, Faulkner indicated that being able to write without the objects of publishing and selling led him to discover what became fundamental to him in storytelling and led to his thinking himself worthy to be among the writers he considered great: “The writing of it as it now stands taught me both how to write and how to read, and even more: It taught me what I had already read, because on completing it I discovered, in a series of repercussions like summer thunder, the Flauberts and Conrads and Turgenievs which as much as ten years before I had consumed whole and without assimilating at all, as a moth or a goat might.”

When The Sound and the Fury was completed, Faulkner was complexly involved with two publishers, Horace Liveright and Harcourt Brace. Faulkner’s friend Harrison Smith was an editor for Harcourt Brace and had offered the manuscript to that publishing house, which was bringing out Sartoris. Harcourt Brace showed little interest in this strange, almost incomprehensible book, however. Although there are hints in Faulkner’s earlier work of what he would do in The Sound and the Fury, it breaks decisively with the readability of his previous novels. Sartoris was the first novel to make full use of Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional version of northwest Mississippi, the “postage stamp of native soil” that became the setting of Faulkner’s great series of novels. The Sound and the Fury, set in Jefferson, a fictionalized Oxford, Mississippi, presents a composite portrait of a decayed aristocratic family in the latter stages of its destruction, of a southern culture in the painful throes of transition from the Victorian era to the modern age, and of an American society undergoing a parallel, if more diffused, transition. What makes the novel seem unreadable is the unusual mode of representation that most visibly identifies Faulkner as a modernist writer.

The novel developed as a series of experiments to capture in a moving way the reaction of the family of Caddy Compson, a daughter, sister, and mother who makes a modern woman’s choices at the beginning of the twentieth century. Caddy struggles to liberate herself from family and male domination. In doing so, she removes herself from a family so heavily dependent on her that the suffering proves unbearable. Her pregnancy leads to a forced marriage that ends in divorce. Unable to make her way easily, she abandons her daughter to her family’s care. Faulkner finally chose to tell the story mainly from the points of view of Caddy’s brothers, who feel abandoned and betrayed by her. One brother, Benjy, is developmentally disabled, his mental growth arrested before he learned speech. His section of “narration” opens the novel, plunging the reader into perceptions of a character who cannot make judgments, who can feel but who cannot comprehend or explain the loss of the one person who has mothered him. Nearly as difficult to read as Benjy’s section, the next part shows brother Quentin’s activities and thoughts on the day he commits suicide. Quentin is a sensitive and disturbed young man who finds that the values he wants to use to order his world and keep Caddy with him—values inherited from his family—repeatedly betray him into paradox and helplessness. The third section presents the internal monologue of Jason, a violently angry materialist who believes his sister’s divorce has ruined his chances for wealth and power. The final section tells about Dilsey, the black servant who becomes mother to the family after Caddy departs. This section and Jason’s give indirect expression to the point of view of Caddy’s daughter, also named Quentin, who has been abandoned to a painful life in the suffering and vindictive family.

Although the story is comprehensible with patience and considerable rereading, it clearly was not, in 1929, the sort of novel to be accepted easily by a commercial publisher. Harcourt Brace was glad to be able to turn it over to Cape and Smith Publishers. Upon the book’s publication, the initial reviews were very positive, especially among academics and intellectuals. During the two decades after its publication, a fairly steady trickle of highly laudatory reviews identified The Sound and the Fury as a great novel. During this period, Faulkner produced the series of novels that extended his literary experimentation and his presentation of Yoknapatawpha County as a microcosm of the modern world. Among his great novels of this period are As I Lay Dying (1930), As I Lay Dying (Faulkner) Light in August (1932), Light in August (Faulkner) Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Absalom, Absalom! (Faulkner) and Go Down, Moses (1942). Go Down, Moses (Faulkner) This series, which begins with The Sound and the Fury, constitutes the accomplishment for which Faulkner was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature. Nobel Prize recipients;William Faulkner[Faulkner] Literature;Nobel Prizes


The immediate impact of the publication of The Sound and the Fury is difficult to measure. For the general reading public, the novel was not accessible and thus not widely read; the book sold fewer than two thousand copies in the first two years after it appeared. Sales were not helped by the stock market crash that occurred two weeks after publication and the Great Depression that followed. For general readers, the more significant event was Faulkner’s 1931 publication of Sanctuary, Sanctuary (Faulkner) with its treatment of the sensational subjects of flappers, rape, and gangsters. Sanctuary tended to define the general view of Faulkner until after his Nobel Prize, bringing him the notoriety that allowed him to earn a living writing Hollywood screenplays.

The more important immediate impacts of The Sound and the Fury were on Faulkner’s own conception of his writing career and on the literary and artistic intelligentsia who became his admirers and who followed his career. These readers tended to ensure that Faulkner’s works would continue to be published, that he would receive prizes and honors, that his works would be translated, especially into French, and that they would be studied and read in colleges and universities. In this way, Faulkner’s literary reputation was sustained until a complex series of events, beginning perhaps with Malcolm Cowley’s publication of The Viking Portable Faulkner (1946) and the Nobel Prize, established Faulkner as a world author.

Faulkner’s career can be seen as one flowering of the literary tradition of modernism. Literature;modernism Modernism Modernism;literature may be defined as the Western world’s attempt to create a culture viable in the face of almost universal disbelief in traditional Christianity among intellectuals and a parallel secular, commercial materialism in popular culture. Faulkner’s novels embody many of the problems and conflicts that result from this attempt to re-create culture in an age of religious doubt. That he was aware of himself as involved in this project is clear in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which he affirms that humanity as a whole possesses a soul, as evidenced by the human capacity for love, compassion, sacrifice, endurance, and other “universal truths of the heart.” He also asserts that literature is among the activities that can fill some of the former roles of religion, by lifting people’s hearts and by reminding them about the soul’s needs and yearnings, so that “the poet’s voice . . . can be one of the props, the pillars” to help humanity “endure and prevail.”

Modernism appears in almost every aspect of The Sound and the Fury. The worldview of The Sound and the Fury echoes, sometimes in direct paraphrase, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), Waste Land, The (Eliot) with its vision of the modern West as a spiritual desert. Faulkner follows Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and James Joyce in the use of complex subjective points of view and stream-of-consciousness techniques to render the sense of being imprisoned in a culture no longer able to believe in an objective reality that possesses absolute truth. Faulkner’s main answer to this sense of isolation is his belief in the community of humanity that he sees in the struggles of the human heart for communion and love. The central theme of the novel is loss, and although it centers on family breakup as a cause of loss, larger causes of the family’s disintegration are shown in the shift from the Old South, with its emphasis on traditional, Christian values, to a New South, with an emphasis on secular and commercial values. The novel’s attitude toward this shift is ambivalent; much of good and evil is lost, and much is gained. A meaningful and moral life is not easy in either world. In worldview, technique, and theme, Faulkner illustrates a modernist point of view, bringing to completion in American fiction the influences of his great precursors and contemporaries in Europe, including Joyce and Marcel Proust.

The influence of The Sound and the Fury and of Faulkner’s whole career pervades modern culture, not only in the English-speaking world but also in Europe, Japan, and Latin America. Like Mark Twain, Willa Cather, and other important American writers, Faulkner made a microcosm of his home region and wrote to a world audience from that base. Thus he helped to inspire writers such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Flannery O’Connor. Jean-Paul Sartre was among the European writers to express admiration for Faulkner. Among Latin American writers in Spanish, Gabriel García Márquez is only one of many to name Faulkner as an important influence. The continued study of Faulkner in colleges helps to prepare readers for difficult modernist and postmodernist fiction and helps them to develop the intellectual and emotional tools for understanding and dealing with the complexity of contemporary Western culture. Sound and the Fury, The (Faulkner)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bassett, John Earl. William Faulkner: An Annotated Checklist of Criticism. New York: David Lewis, 1972. Excellent tool for surveying published responses to Faulkner’s work and career, arranged by subject and then chronologically within subjects. Includes brief summaries of and quotations from most of what was written about The Sound and the Fury from 1929 to 1971.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. William Faulkner: An Annotated Checklist of Recent Criticism. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1983. Supplement to Bassett’s earlier volume, cited above.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bleikasten, André. The Most Splendid Failure: Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.” Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976. Provocative study of the novel examines Faulkner’s writing before The Sound and the Fury and discusses each character and each section of the novel in detail, offering structuralist and psychoanalytic interpretations of Caddy, Benjy, Quentin, Jason, and Dilsey. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”: A Critical Casebook. New York: Garland, 1982. Gathers selections from Faulkner’s own commentary on the novel and adds eight interpretive essays on subjects such as Faulkner’s composition process and the structure of the novel. Special emphasis on recent literary theory. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1974. Massive, highly detailed account of Faulkner’s life and works. Somewhat reticent about the less savory aspects of Faulkner’s life out of deference to Faulkner’s family; presents the facts but does not interpret them. Includes many photographs, chronology of Faulkner’s life, genealogical chart, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. Norton Critical Editions. Edited by David Minter. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. “Authoritative text” presents the full novel along with background materials (including Faulkner correspondence), essays that provide cultural and historical context, and critical essays on the novel from a wide variety of authors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kinney, Arthur, ed. Critical Essays on William Faulkner: The Compson Family. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. Contains twenty-three critical essays, selections from early reviews, and related materials by Faulkner. Deals with all of Faulkner’s fiction about the Compson family, and so sheds light on The Sound and the Fury from several interesting directions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matthews, John T.“The Sound and the Fury”: Faulkner and the Lost Cause. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A solid and useful interpretation for those familiar with the novel. Includes a brief presentation of the literary and historical context followed by careful studies of the main characters, the setting, the technical aspects of the novel, and the various commentaries, including the appendix, that Faulkner constructed for the book. Also includes annotated bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Minter, David. William Faulkner: His Life and Work. 2d ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Biography useful for general readers wishing to examine how Faulkner’s life is reflected in his work, especially his major novels. Provides especially good analyses of the novels. Includes genealogy, chronology, map of Yoknapatawpha County, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parini, Jay. One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Draws on materials unavailable to earlier biographers and on interviews with Faulkner’s daughter and some of his lovers to place Faulkner’s work in the context of his life and times. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.

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