A Brief Analysis of The Sound and the Fury's Namesake

-Joel Deshaye

"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow"

This triplet might suggest past, present, and future. It is a lament, complete with tragic overtones, about the indefatigable advancement of time; as such, it is problematic, since the passage of time is inevitable and might therefore be inappropriate subject matter for tragedies, which are often avoidable. However, if time passing is tragic, then the ideal is static, and our lives are necessarily imperfect and dystopic.

"Petty pace"

Besides describing time as something that "creeps", Macbeth further disparages it by calling it a "petty pace". The pace could be our daily lives, measured by a sequence of tomorrows, which are characterized as cheap, mean, ungenerous, inconsequential, and insignificant. The pace is a moment or measurement of time, such as the ticking of a clock or the tolling of a bell, which are important images in Quentin's section (June 2, 1910). The word "pace" suggests a repetition of something that does not have individual value.

"The last syllable"

This is a paradox: it implies death - the subjective end of time - but it is also a narrative invocation that belies fatalism. The syllable is a component of language, the basis for the communication of the stories Quentin finds so enthralling and that shame his family so much. Although the syllable is only a part, like increments in the pace, it nevertheless builds the whole of language and our communication. If language transmits the worth of our narratives, then the last syllable is an end to the telling of stories, a vital activity for human beings. But this end does not necessarily diminish the value of the story that precedes it. Furthermore, if the story is painful and torturous, as it is to Macbeth, then the "last syllable" may be the only moment of respite in the entire soliloquy - it suggests that peace, an escape from the cycles of time, is available at the moment of death.


Time and fate are linked in Macbeth. The woods of Birnan are fated to approach Macbeth at Dunsinane and doom him. The time that passes before the advent of that day obsesses Macbeth, who no longer believes he can alter the chain of events his betrayal of Duncan set in motion. As Frank Kermode notes in the introduction to Macbeth in the Riverside Shakespeare: "The suffering of the Macbeths may be thought of as caused by the pressure of the world of order slowly resuming its true shape and crushing them. This is the work of time; as usual in Shakespeare, evil, however great, burns itself out, and time is the servant of providence." Although time can be redemptive, in The Sound and the Fury time is a component of entropy, the increasing chaos of the universe. The Compsons' lives become less stable in every generation, so that the Southern ideals of a strong and landed nuclear family come apart. The first Quentin, for instance, kills himself while at Harvard; the second Quentin, whose name - the same name as her uncle's but for a different person - emphasizes the departure from the earlier generation. She runs away in estrangement, unable to cope with a family that constantly upholds the honor of the name (or signifier), despite its tenuous hold on reality (the signified). Chaos and confusion ensue when the name has too many complex referents, just as the burden of a history that contradicts the present is too much for both Quentins.

"Lighted fools"

The past we dwell upon, our "yesterdays", has guided ("lighted") us to death. Or, the guidance might be less direct - it may not be our attention to the past, but simply the advancement of time, that will result in death. In the context of Macbeth and The Sound and the Fury, however, the past engrosses several characters who can be called "fools". Shakespeare's typical Fool is outwardly incompetent or insane but inwardly nearly prescient. Macbeth is both: he is so stricken by guilt from his betrayal and murder of Duncan and Banquo that he hallucinates; and he is aware of the future fortold to him by the witches. Lady Macbeth's death furthers his guilt and prompts his soliloquy. He finds that his struggling conscience does not enable him to alter the tide of events caused by his evil actions. Similarly, in The Sound and the Fury, almost every character begrudges some past event, which in itself foreshadows future misery: Mr. Compson and Jason resent the sale of their land and their declining prosperity; Quentin envies Caddy's sexual transgressions and, like Benjy, prefers a time when his family was landed, reputable, and capable of sustaining the myth of their dynasty; Benjy, though apparently ignorant of the Compsons' social affairs, is stuck in a time when his first memories were formed. He clearly recognizes and fears change, as change removes him from the "ordered place" of the past and affronts him with an uncertain world that becomes less coherent as time passes.

"Dusty death"

"Dusty death" is reminiscent of the Biblical "from dust to dust", which again implies cycles of time. In Quentin's section (June 2, 1910) of The Sound and the Fury, Mr. Compson (or Quentin's interpreted memory of Mr. Compson) delivers a very bleak speech that contains many themes similar to those in Macbeth's soliloquy. Shortly after remembering this speech, Quentin kills himself. Ironically, his drowning is anything but dusty, at least in a literal sense. If we take "dusty" to mean neglected, then both Lady Macbeth's and Quentin's deaths could be considered under that term: at Lady Macbeth's death, her husband is not by her side, and Quentin dies estranged from his family and most of his peers. This neglect upsets the normal sleep rhythms (circadian rhythms) of both characters prior to their deaths. Lady Macbeth is tormented at night by the "slumb'ry agitation" (V, i, 11) of sleep-walking episodes, and on the day Quentin dies he is late rising from bed, not because he slept too long, but because he could not stop listening to his clock: "You can be oblivious to the sound for a long while, then in a second of ticking it can create in the mind unbroken the long diminishing parade of time you didn't hear." (47)

"Brief candle", "walking shadow", "poor player"

The images of the candle, the shadow, and the player all suggest a similar despondency or fatalism. The fragile candle, insubstantial shadow, and inconstant player suggest the insignificance of the human being in the greater scope of the universe. The candle compares to the sun, the shadow to the material being, and the player to the character. These comparisons imply a subjugation of one thing by a more important thing, as perhaps our lives are in the context of the universe. The actor, in particular, suggests deliberate disguise or impersonation and falsity, especially considering that the character played can be a complete fiction, so that the actor is twice removed from substantiality. As a player in a game, the actor becomes even more transient, more contrived, and better suited for entertainment than for more important pursuits. That this player "struts and frets" emphasizes a theatrical characteristic and the fact that people worry; our worry, too, is unimportant, considering it is for a game that only lasts an "hour upon the stage."

"Told by an idiot"

The idiot in Macbeth may be the same idiot as in The Sound and the Fury, and that idiot is not necessarily Benjy. All the Compson brothers are incapable of rational conduct at some point, although it is arguable that Quentin's death is the result of his father's too-rational fatalism. Regardless, it is clear that Quentin, Jason, and Benjy all misrepresent the world in their minds: Quentin exaggerates, perhaps, the importance of his sister's virginity; Jason is angry, bitter, and accusatory of everyone but himself; and Benjy is unable to reconcile the past, the present, and the dubious future. Macbeth and Mr. Compson share a similar fatalism, since they both demean important narratives (subjectively important, at least) by considering them idiots' tales. Furthermore, there is a twist on the Shakespearean representation of the Fool. Arguably, the Fool typically embodies, at times, an unnaturally clear knowledge of the present or future. In The Sound and the Fury, the idiots narrate the tale as they are guided ("lighted") by their past, so that they appear destined to repeat past mistakes.

"Full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing"

This is the climax of the soliloquy and also the hinge on which some interpretations of The Sound and the Fury turn. Faulkner does not include "signifying nothing" in the title of the novel, although its despondency and fatalism, especially in Quentin's section (June 2, 1910) and even Dilsey's (April 8, 1928), may counterbalance this point. The question then becomes: did Faulkner intend to write a fatalistic novel? Or is his constant rewriting of the Yoknapatawpha narrative evidence of an external, extra-textual redemption for the novel and for art in general? To "signify nothing" contradicts, in some ways, much of contemporary language philosophy, which contends that words signify something, regardless of whether they do so arbitrarily. In the context of Faulkner's many novels, then, he may be suggesting, however consciously or unconsciously, that time and effort will create a more coherent system of signs that is more resonant than a single sign. Again, history and the future must interplay to produce this resonance, so that the individual may be mindful of past and future without disregarding the here and now.