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Robert’s Formal Blog Post on William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” – April 8, 1928

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The gown fell gauntly from her shoulders, across her fallen breasts, then tightened upon her paunch and fell again, ballooning a little above the nether garments which she would remove layer by layer as the spring accomplished and the warm days, in color regal and moribund. She had been a 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 the years had consumed until only the indomitable skeleton was left rising like a ruin or a landmark above the somnolent and impervious guts, and above that the collapsed face that gave the impression of the bones themselves being outside the flesh, lifted into the driving day with an expression at once fatalistic and of a child’s astonished disappointment, until she turned and entered the house again and closed the door.

– April 8, 1928

“I aint gwine let him,” Dilsey says. “Don’t you worry, honey.” 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 can’t tote off. She came hobbling between us, trying to hold me again. “Hit me, den,” she says, “ef nothin else but hittin somebody won’t do you. Hit me,” she says.  “You think I won’t?” I says. “I don’t put no devilment beyond you,” she says. Then I heard Mother on the stairs. I might have known she wasn’t going to keep out of it. I let go. She stumbled back against the wall, holding her kimono shut.  “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 dam little slut,” I says.

-April 6, 1928

Dilsey, matriarch of the Gibson family and caretaker of the Compson family, provides an interesting opportunity to analyze age, race, and disability in The Sound and the Fury. In the work’s final section, April 8, 1928, we read Dilsey’s perspective of the Compson family’s final disintegration. Unlike the previous three sections, though, Dilsey does not narrate directly to us in first person. The section is in third person; this indirect focus on Dilsey accomplishes several things. For one, it disempowers her; the previous three narrators were white and were given the opportunity to narrate, even though the first, Benjy, was mentally disabled. Dilsey is black, old, poor, and a woman; these three things combine to create a pseudo-disability for her. This indirect narration also creates a mystique around Dilsey. As a black woman and servant, her opinions have little social value; however, Dilsey’s opinions are somewhat prophetic, at least to readers.

Working for the Compsons, caring for Benjy, putting up with Caroline’s hypochondriacally inspired “spells,” and keeping up the Compson home have all taken their toll on Dilsey. She “had been a big woman once” but time has consumed her muscles, which were also her “courage and fortitude.” Here is an interesting association between physical strength and inner fortitude. The Compson family’s problems have devoured both Dilsey’s physical and inner power. Faulkner is implying here that the strength of a person’s character is related to their physical strength.

Jason, in the previous April 6 section, dismisses Dilsey as an “old half dead nigger” who “couldn’t do any more than move hardly.” To Jason and most of the family, Dilsey is simply a tool, a prosthetic device used to oil their squeaky wheels (Benjy, Caroline, and Miss Quentin), to soothe Benjy’s tantrums, and maintain the shrinking house’s beauty and power. Already disempowered, maybe even disabled, by her race and gender, Dilsey’s increasing age and decreasing physical strength are further disempowering her. For Dilsey, now “only the indomitable skeleton was left rising like a ruin or a landmark above the somnolent and impervious guts.”

These guts, however, do give Dilsey some power. This power is primarily literary and not literal; instead of influencing the other characters, Dilsey influences us, the readers, with her opinions. As an “other” many times over – in race, gender, class, age, etc. – Dilsey is somewhat odd. In the opening of the April 8 section, Faulkner describes her wearing “nether garments which she would remove layer by layer as the spring accomplished and the warm days, in color regal and moribund.”  Because she is such a unique other, when Dilsey speaks up, we find prophetic power in her words. For example, when Jason threatens Quentin with a whipping, Dilsey intervenes. Though Quentin has done wrong, Jason’s punishment is entirely out of line. Dilsey, powerless and feeble and disempowered as she is, comes to Quentin’s defense and tries to stop Jason. She tells Jason to hit her instead. Jason says, “You think I won’t?” Dilsey replies, “I don’t put no devilment beyond you.” Here is a good example of how Faulkner’s uses Dilsey’s disempowered status as a multiple “other” as a prophetic literary device. Dilsey condemns Jason’s character early on in this section; upon further reading, we find that Dilsey’s statement if quite justified.

Dilsey is used by the Compson family and Faulkner as a prosthetic crutch. The Compsons use her physical strength to care for their disabled family members, their crumbling power, and their shrinking estate. They give Dilsey little credit, especially when her disempowered status as a black woman is furthered by her increasing age and frailty. Faulkner capitalizes on this, too. Dilsey is an “other” in many different categories many times over; her numerous “other” labels almost outnumber her numerous undergarments. These multiple categories of “otherness,” combined with Dilsey’s appearance, give Dilsey’s words, at least, a little power.

Written by Robert

October 20th, 2010 at 12:40 pm