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Amanda Gorman’s Class Summary for October 13

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After an incredibly long Fall Break, we reconvened on a Wednesday to talk about the first section of The Sound and the Fury, which is narrated in first person by a character with probable mental and emotional disabilities named Benjy.  Fruitful discussion concerning the details of Benjy’s name change, an inter-textual reading of the text with Wordsworth’s The Idiot Boy, Faulkner’s reference to Macbeth, and a general look at the textual representation of Benjy’s disabilities lead to the conclusions that whereas Faulkner does something very interesting stylistically with the character of Benjy, his representation of the him is less-than-empowering because the reader is made to pity rather than understand him.
Although most of us could hardly contain our enthusiasm for getting right back into the swing of things, Dr. Foss had to convince a few of us that we should in fact meet for the day.  To encourage us, he touted his internet-skills and showed us some really helpful web-resources. After a brief overview of “who’s who” in The Sound and the Fury, (complete with a reassurance that T.P.’s initials do in fact stand for Toilet Paper), discussion turned to the connection between the Compson family-tree and Benjy’s name change from Maury to Benjy.  Benjy was originally given the name Maury after his Uncle Maury on his mother’s side.  Once the family realized that the boy was disabled, he was given the name Benjamin.  As it was noted in class, there may have been two motivating factors for this name-change.  If Caroline had a disabled son that was named after a member of her branch of the family she would risk spoiling the good name of the family since having a disabled child was seen at this time in history primarily as a judgment from God.  Caroline might also have had psychological motivation to choose a biblical name like Benjamin in that she may have thought that it could help ensure that he would get to heaven.  This representation of the way that disabled children were viewed in the the time period is complicated by the fact that not all the characters approve of Benjy’s name change.  Roskus, for one, implies that the name change and its implications might account for the family’s bad luck: “‘That’s what I tell you.’ Roskus said. ‘They aint no luck going be on no place where one of they own chillen’s name aint never spoke’” (16.2 in hypertext version).  The reader is probably meant to disapprove of the name change, and so it becomes a tragic detail foreshadowing Benjy’s tragic existence.
After finishing up with looking at the online resources, we found Shakespeare to be an important source to look at inter-textually.  We discussed this as well as Faulkner’s general representation of Benjy in small group discussion. In my group, rather than split the questions of representation of Benjy’s disability and discussion of the title reference into two distinct conversations, our discussion bridged the gap between the two with the answers we provided for both questions strongly informing one another.  First, however, we examined the soliloquy in Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5) from which Faulkner derives his title. In order to answer the question that Dr. Foss posed about whether or not Benjy’s narration is in fact “a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing” and in what way, we focused on the way the concept of time is at work here.  It seems that Benjy’s narration is not a pre-planned reflective mosaic, but rather a stream of consciousness.  My group agreed that this indicates that Benjy does not himself know the order of events in a clear way.  Sarah R. brought up the point that if time is irrelevant in Benjy’s mind, he would be ultimately unable to make sense of his life.  Time would stretch on limitlessly through “to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow”. This kind of existence is certainly pitiable.  It’s the kind of existence Macbeth imagines after his wife dies, but for Benjy he would have known no other existence.  Julianna brought up the idea that when you’re younger you often remember odd details that do not quite make sense until you grow up and it all comes together.  For Benjy, things will never come together.  This example of infantilization of disability is a further vehicle for engendering pity from the reader as the reader is jarred each time s/he is reminded of Benjy’s age.
We then discussed in further detail the style of the text in Benjy’s narration.  I mentioned that unlike a book like Flowers for Algernon Benjy’s narration uses proper grammar, is clear, and sophisticated.  At first, this seems like a very empowering voice to give to a disabled character.  However, upon further inspection, we realized that Benjy is merely relating happenings rather than giving an emotional account of events.  For example:
“But when I tried to climb onto it…my throat made a sound. It made the sound again and I stopped trying to get up, and it made the sound again and I began to cry. But my throat kept on making the sound while T.P. was pulling me. It kept on making it and I couldn’t tell if I was crying or not, and T.P. fell down on top of me, laughing, and it kept on making the sound…and I began to cry” (11.5 in hypertext version).
In this quote and others, Benjy’s narrative is strangely depersonalized.  He is having emotional reactions, but they do not seem to truly belong to him, as if things are just blindly happening to him.  In the same vein, as Matt pointed out in discussion, Benjy is a static character, at least so far.  Rather than gain a perspective on Benjy’s emotional growth or lack-there-of, the reader is merely presented with an account of his plight, which forces the reader to view Benjy as completely unaware of the consequences of his memories on his psyche.  This, coupled with the fact that the reader is constantly presented with characterizations of Benjy by the other characters, takes away from the potentially empowering nature of a fictionalized firsthand account of life with a disability.
Although my group briefly entertained the idea that Faulkner did this intentionally to show how in society the disabled are characterized primarily by the nondisabled, we searched for other, potentially more exploitative, reasons Faulkner might have had for writing Benjy’s section in this style.  Benjy’s character allowed for a reason for de-chronologizing the events in the first section to interesting effect.  The other parts of the book make the first part clearer, so in this way, Benjy’s section being characterized by his disability supports the whole narrative structure of the novel.  We thought that Faulkner was probably interested in the potential of Benjy’s disability to support this structure, however, we thought Benjy was supposed to invoke a certain kind of emotion from the reader as well.  Andrew mentioned the influence of the Southern Grotesque on the novel, and the appeal of bluntly putting all the detail out there.  The way Benjy is described ultimately evokes a kind of sympathy from the reader, and he comes off as very likeable.  However, Benjy does not do anything particularly likable in any of the events related.  This likableness despite his not having actually accomplished actions that make him deserve praise, can only ultimately be read as pity for him and his condition.

Written by gormanda

October 19th, 2010 at 2:08 am

Posted in class summaries