Faulkner and Issues on Race in The Sound and the Fury

In William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”, the first three sections on the novel focus on three different days, while the fourth section focuses on Dilsey, the Compson family’s black servant.  Her role is to oversee their family and be the ultimately be the caretaker of the Compson children.  The final section of the novel is the first time Faulkner utilizes a black character as the main focus.  While this is a major milestone in modern literature, Faulkner refuses to allow Dilsey to voice her own thoughts and beliefs.  Faulkner gives the fourth section to Dilsey in an attempt to make an argument for racial equality and in doing so, for the first time, allows the other characters fail to recognize.  The way Faulkner illustrates the black characters is derogatory and the black dialect he uses is an exaggerated form, making them seem ignorant.  He emphasizes black characters as a lower social class compared to their white counterparts. It is apparent in the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha that blacks are treated as sub-human by whites. The word “nigger” is used repetitively throughout the entire novel, and is used in a way that belittles African Americans.  Faulkner uses Dilsey as a key component to merge the division of the two races. 

Dilsey is the center of sanity and moral constancy. She continues to prove to be more of a mother than the Compson children’s mother. She is used and viewed as a savior and a slave. She is savior because despite all the pain the Compson’s put her through and responsibility they give to her she still goes to church with the thought that the family can one day be saved. She also intervenes on behalf of Caddy and Quentin, Caddy’s daughter, with the intention of protecting them. She is basically treated as a slave at the Compson’s.  Although she does more work than the Mrs. Compson by taking care and raising Benjy, as well as, the other Compson children, she is the least appreciated of the characters. Dilsey’s work goes unnoticed, but she is by far the most patient character Faulkner created in the novel.  Her opinions are deemed as useless and ignored. Her labor is taken for granted at best, and denigrated at worst. We can see this lack of appreciation and disrespect by the way Jason treats her and speaks about her. In Jason’s section of the book Jason is rough handling his niece Quentin. Dilsey attempts to intervene between the two.

            “She held to my arm. Then the belt came out and I jerked loose and flung her

            away. She stumbled into the table. She was so old she couldn’t do any more

            than move hardly. But that’s all right: we need somebody in the kitchen to eat

            up the grub the young ones cant tote off. She came hobbling between us, trying

            to hold me again.

‘Hit me, den,’ she says, ‘ef nothing else but hittin somebody

            wont do you. Hit me,’ she says

            ‘You think I wont?’ I says

            ‘All right,’ I says. ‘We’ll just put this off a while. But don’t think you can run it

            over me. I’m not an old woman, nor an old half dead nigger, either. You damn

            Little slut,’ I says” (116-7).


She is reduced to in the words of Quentin and Jason as “a damned old nigger”.  Regardless of how much Dilsey has done for the Compson children, when it comes down to how they truly see her it is obvious racial boundaries supersede over the friendships and relationships.  Dilsey goes from a maternal figure to a less than human figure that is only good for work.  However, Faulkner still presents her as a woman with strength, and although she always puts the Compton family first in her life she has still a strong attachment to her African American heritage.  This key component is apparent in the Easter Sunday service.

Faulkner’s language reveals the old fashion misperception of blacks by whites. Throughout history it is apparent that there is inequality, but aside from inequality is a blatant ignorance due to the environment in which a person is raised. During the Quentin section this is especially prevalent. Mr. and Mrs. Compson’s treatment of blacks is repeated through the actions of their children.  Quentin is not one who appreciates or welcomes modernism and the progression of the world, as a whole, but he is a great reflection of the white’s views of the blacks. Quentin explains his perception of blacks in general when he says on page 55 that, “a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behavior; a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among”.  Quentin cannot see how blinded he is toward the issues of race.

The first way Faulkner demonstrates the racial boundaries is through distinctive vocabulary that is stereotypical “Black English.”  The dialogue Faulkner provides for Dilsey when speaking to other blacks is a prime example. In section four, on page 181 of the text, the reader experiences Dilsey and Frony discussing Reverend Shegog’s Easter sermon.   

            “Rev’un Shegog gwine preach today,” Frony said

            “Is?’ Dilsey said. “Who him?”

            “He fum Saint Looey,” Frony said.  “Dat big preacher.”

“Huh,” Dilsey said.  “Whut dey needs is a man kin put de fear of God into dese here triflin young niggers.”

The conversation between Dilsey and her daughter is difficult to comprehend due to the “improper” English spoken by the characters.  While the Compson’s speech is not completely grammatically correct due to the Southern dialect it is apparent they are better educated than the Gibson’s.  Faulkner uses this type of speech to emphasize the idea that blacks are seen as inferior to whites, and also less intelligent.  While Dilsey’s character is a major contributor to this stereotype, Faulkner uses other black character to validate his point. 

Another instance where this occurs is the dialect of Reverend Shegog during his sermon.  Shegog begins by speaking to the congregation similar to how a white man would speak, “His voice was level and cold.  It sounded too big to come from him.  They listened at first through curiosity, as they would have to a monkey talking…They even forgot his insignificant appearance in the virtuosity in which he ran and poised and swooped upon the gold inflectionless wire of his voice” (183).  The congregation was illustrated to seem as though they were incompetent to understand the level of vocabulary he uses.  It is not until later when Shegog reverts to an exaggerated form of “Black English” that the congregation responds to his message.  The people begin to shout out praises to the Lord saying, “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm.  Jesus! I sees, O Jesus!” (184). 

Faulkner distinguishes the two races is the description of what the black characters in the novel look like. Not a single black character in the novel is depicted as being a beautiful person. Dilsey is actually described as being very unattractive.  Faulkner gives the reader a description of her as a woman with a “sunken face”.  Also,

             “She had been big woman once but now her skeleton rose, draped loosely in

             unpadded skin that tightened again upon a paunch almost dropsical, as though

             muscle and tissue had been courage or fortitude which the days or years had

             consumed until only the indomitable skeleton was left…… and above that

             the collapsed face that gave the impression of the bones themselves being          

             outside the flesh” (165).


The second character Faulkner describes the external appearance of in extremely racist terms is that of Reverend Shegog. Faulkner describes him on page 182 as having “a wizened black face like a small, aged monkey”.  All the characters in the book are not dressed very well the Reverend was dressed in a “shabby alpaca coat” (182). Dilsey’s dress and cape was described as “mangy” (165). All of these visualizations of the bodies they belong to emphasize Faulkner’s view that blacks are lower class.

Faulkner is very effective in enabling the reader to experience the feelings blacks were having during this time through Dilsey.  He silenced her voice in the fourth section similar to how blacks were silenced as a whole during this time period.  Faulkner also gave white readers insight to see how the behavior of whites during that time affected blacks.  Often whites are blinded to people other than themselves because they are used to being the superior and sometimes disregard feelings of others.  Faulkner creates a different outlook as to how the actions of whites directly influence the treatment of blacks.

Published on May 5, 2009 at 6:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

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