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IV. Regional Identities in Question

Southerners in the North. Destabilized Identities in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury

Aurélie Guillain
p. 209-219


Dans la lignée des travaux de John T. Matthews sur l'œuvre de William Faulkner, cet article se propose de souligner le caractère dynamique de l'identité régionale et ethnique des jeunes blancs du Sud telle que le romancier l'a représentée dans The Sound and the Fury. En effet, le récit faulknérien est bien loin de placer l'identité du jeune blanc du Sud sous le signe de la stase et de la paralysie : au contraire, il met en scène une identité blanche constamment déstabilisée. Il s'agit ici de dégager quelques moments cruciaux où le texte de Faulkner se concentre sur les contacts et les échanges entretenus par les blancs du Sud avec l'espace social et culturel du Nord. Le jeune homme blanc aperçoit, dans ce contexte, le caractère construit de son identité culturelle et raciale, même s'il met rarement à profit cette expérience plus sidérante que fructueuse. Plus généralement, c'est le sujet américain que l'œuvre de Faulkner semble associer à une occasion manquée : chez Faulkner, le sol américain semble donner, plus d'une fois, l'occasion de se définir et de se redéfinir sur un mode constructiviste et théâtral ; mais cette occasion sera, plus d'une fois également, une occasion manquée. C'est en ce sens que l'écrivain du Sud, revenant constamment sur une "seconde chance" que ses personnages laissent échapper, s'inscrit à sa manière, et dans le style endeuillé de sa lamentation propre, dans un espace culturel américain où le mythe de la deuxième chance joue le rôle d'un inaccessible horizon unificateur.

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  • 1 All references to the novel will be to the 1994 Norton edition cited in the bibliography.

1In The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner does not delineate the contours of southern identity by depicting a strictly southern experience.1 On the contrary he shows southern characters who are engaged in various forms of geographical mobility. Many of them are even exposed to characteristically northern experiences and I would argue that in Faulkner's novel, the journey North, or the character's stay in the North, epitomizes what we might call the "missed northern opportunity": the opportunity to define oneself as a performing self, engaged in acts of self-creation, an opportunity which Faulknerian characters usually fail to seize. Read from this perspective, The Sound and the Fury offers a dynamic portrayal of southern identities by defining them as complex processes in which a destabilized, theatricalized image of the self is indeed perceived and yet eventually rejected. Thus any exposure of the Southerner to the northern experience will be of crucial importance in this analysis. I will first concentrate on the representation of economic, geographical and social mobility in Faulkner's novel and then focus on Quentin Compson's stay in Massachussets, so as to highlight the importance of this "missed opportunity" motif in the definition of American identities.

  • 2 Contrary to the Agrarians who published I’ll Take My Stand in 1930, Faulkner never suggested that t (...)

2To many readers The Sound and the Fury may seem to portray collective regional identity in terms of fixity and arrested development. Because the Compson brothers tend to look back in bitter resentment or poignant nostalgia on what they have lost, the first three narrators in the novel have often been regarded by critics as living symbols of the postbellum South lamenting over the Lost Cause and defining itself by its denial of historical and social change. Indeed a sense of mental and emotional paralysis, as well as economic and social stagnation, pervades the four sections of the novel, so that Faulkner's text may appear to define the South as a "frozen" territory resisting the transformations of capitalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as the gradual homogenization of the American economy and culture. And yet Faulkner's method is deeply ironic as well as deeply lyrical, and his narrative constantly reminds the reader of the powerful historical changes and dynamic cultural forces which the protagonists are so intent on ignoring. Indeed, The Sound and the Fury bristles with details highlighting the economic integration of southern and northern states in the 1910s and the 1920s. Destabilizing economic forces clearly blur the boundaries which social and political forces strive to establish and preserve. For instance, although the impoverished Compson family is portrayed as metaphorically "buried" in the small town of Jefferson, the reader is constantly reminded that the Compsons still belong to a white elite which invests what is left of their capital in various sorts of market places. Either the Compsons invest their capital on the New York stock exchange market, as Jason Compson III does in a modern version of Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece, or they invest it in the youngest son's higher education by sending Quentin up to Harvard in the North. The fact that the Compson family had to sell Benjy's pasture in order to send Quentin to Harvard symbolizes the conversion of landed property into another form of capital. Once converted, the capital can be invested in a broader national market. Not only Quentin's move to Cambridge but also Jason's frequent trips to the post office, to check on the price of the cotton crop, are vivid reminders that southern capital, like southern individuals, is constantly moving from South to North during that period, not only from North to South.2 Thus Faulkner's fiction constantly undercuts the representation of southern identity as a cultural identity which would have been altered and sullied by the arrival of northern carpetbaggers and northern capital. This mythical representation involves a predatory northern intruder who comes to the feminized south. Faulkner's novels all resist this mythical pattern as they consistently recall the mobility of capital and economic agents from the South to the North, as well as from the North to the South.

3For instance, Quentin Compson remembers a trip which his father had taken to Missouri. The memory of this journey is encapsulated by a small object which Mr. Compson brought back: a watch-charm "from the Saint Louis Fair … a tiny opera glass into which you squinted with one eye and saw a skyscraper, a Ferris Wheel all spidery, Niagara Falls on a pinhead" (51). Now, the Saint Louis Exposition of 1904 commemorated the Louisiana Purchase and can be regarded as a celebration of the Union. The political union is metaphorically echoed by the physical connection between the three pictures in the optical device; the diorama symbolically unites two American states by juxtaposing metonymic signs referring to these states: the Niagara Falls function as a metonymy of New York State while the Ferris Wheel stands for the Missouri Fair, and thus for the state of Missouri itself. As for the Mississippi man who went to Saint Louis, he is a living illustration of the mobility of southern citizens between American states. In this brief memory cropping up in Quentin's monologue, Mr. Compson does not fit the weak father figure which he usually impersonates in his son's thwarted oedipal plot. In the realistic vignette, Mr. Compson is significantly characterized in economic terms: he is a tourist, a mobile consumer.

4More generally in Faulkner's novel, geographical mobility is connected with a subtle realistic presentation of the characters as economic agents. Black figures are often depicted as consumers (or would-be consumers) of goods which have not been produced in Mississippi, but also as workers who have moved or may move to Memphis. For instance Dilsey's eldest son, Versh, has left for Memphis and so has T.P. The narrative thus reminds the reader of the relative mobility of southern black labor, not only between southern and northern states, but also between Mississippi and neighbouring states such as Tennessee.

5Thus T.P. is depicted in the 1933 appendix as a man who has moved to Memphis. He wears cheap clothes which have been manufactured in the North specifically for southern black consumers: he "wore on Memphis's Beale Street the fine bright cheap intransigent clothes manufactured specifically for him by the owners of Chicago and New York sweatshops" (215). In this textual snapshot, it is obvious that the move to Memphis has endowed the black character with a complex, dynamic and divided identity. The epithet "cheap" echoes the relative clause "manufactured specifically for him by the owners of Chicago and New York sweatshops" as they both present the individual character as being literally fashioned by economic forces lying beyond his reach. And yet, the epithets "fine", "bright" and "intransigent" connote a theatrical impression which this individual intends to make on viewers. The hypallage, which transfers the epithet "intransigent" from the individual to his clothes, comes as a stylistic surprise and calls the reader's attention to the theatrical, self-defining gesture involved in the purchase of the clothes. This picture may be a comic and slightly sarcastic snapshot, yet it connects the exposure to northern commodities with an awareness that personal identity can be regarded as the performance of an act and therefore as a dynamic process.

6Quentin Compson's move to Massachussets could be interpreted along the same lines. Of course, one might think that in the case of Quentin Compson, geographical mobility is regarded ironically and is only meant to throw into higher relief Quentin's peculiar form of mental paralysis. This temptation is particularly acute when the memories of Quentin's southern past take on a hallucinatory quality and literally replace the northern scene. Then one might argue that Quentin literally fails to see the Northern territory, that the character never has any experience of it. Nevertheless, I would argue that many textual details suggest that Quentin does have a destabilizing and enlightening experience of the North - that the North cannot be reduced to the blank backdrop onto which the character's southern fantasies are endlessly projected. For instance, in the following scene, Quentin represents himself as a white southern youth sitting next to a black man in a bus: a characteristically northern experience in 1910, an experience which a southern youth would never have had access to in his home state of Mississippi:

I used to think that a Southerner had to be always conscious of niggers. I thought that Northerners would expect him to. When I first came East I kept thinking You've got to remember to think of them as colored people not niggers, and if it hadn’t happened that I wasn't thrown with many of them, I’d have wasted a lot of time and trouble before I learned that the best way to take all people, black or white, is to take them for what they think they are, then leave them alone ... I realized 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. (55)

Characteristically, the young man reflects that there is not as great a proportion of black men in Massachussetts as there is in Mississippi. The northern experience is connected with diminished tension between ethnic groups but also with heightened intellectual stimulation: in Quentin's internal monologue, the reader now feels some discrepancy between the narrator's obsessive and mechanical use of racist terms (such as "nigger") and his obviously altered approach to the question of race. Indeed he gradually relinquishes his essentialist notions about racial identity. A Southerner living in the North, Quentin thinks less of his own identity in terms of permanent essence, and more in terms of cultural expectation and social constraint: a Southerner is what "Northerners would expect him" to be. The notion of social expectation is then seamlessly transferred to another category of people who are also expected to behave in a certain way: "a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behavior"(55). Thus the narrator quietly achieves a genuine intellectual revolution, moving as he does from an essentialist to a constructivist vision of race - the constructivist view being based on the notion that someone's racial identity can be entirely conceived in terms of behavioural patterns following a behavioural code imposed by another social group; this group is dominant enough to function as the controlling audience, while the dominated group plays up to that dominant group. Interestingly, the drift of Quentin's stream-of-consciousness also shows how reversible such intellectual and ideological revolutions may be. Almost in the same breath, the narrator begins to recall an episode which took place on a train returning to Mississippi. Feeling some nostalgic longing for the black persons he grew up with, the narrator eases back into the behavioural and mental patterns which he seemed to be on the verge of repudiating:

there was a nigger on a mule in the middle of the stiff ruts, waiting for the train to move. How long he had been there I didn't know, but he sat straddle of the mule, his head wrapped in a piece of blanket, as if they had been built there with the fence and the road, or with the hill, carved out of the hill itself, like a sign put there saying You are home again. He didn't have a saddle and his feet dangled almost to the ground. The mule looked like a rabbit. I raised the window.
'Hey, Uncle,' I said. 'Is this the way?'
'Suh?' He looked at me, then he loosened the blanket and lifted it away from his ear.
'Christmas gift!' I said.
'Sho comin, boss. You done caught me, aint you.'
'I'll let you off this time ... I threw the quarter out the window. Buy yourself some Santy Claus.' 'Yes, suh', he said. He got down and picked up the quarter and rubbed it on his leg. 'Thanky, young marster. Thanky.' Then the train began to move. I leaned out the window, into the cold air, looking back. He stood there beside the gaunt rabbit of a mule, the two of them shabby and motionless and unimpatient. The train swung around the curve, the engine puffing with short, heavy blasts, and they passed smoothly from sight that way, with that quality about them of shabby and timeless patience, of static serenity: that blending of child-like and ready incompetence and paradoxical reliability that tends and protects them ... (55-56).

As we can see, this homecoming man is engaged in an ideological form of homecoming. He resumes a stereotyped behavioural pattern that seems to come with the southern territory and he simultaneously returns to his former view of racial identitydefining it in essentialist termsas he typifies the old black man as an eternal Sambo figure. The loose discursive form of the stream-of-consciousness technique allows Faulkner to dramatize internal contradiction as the very stuff and ruling principle of individual identity: in Quentin’s mind the constructivist view of racial identity and the essentialist view are held almost simultaneously, in spite of their logical incompatibility.

7In another episode, a similar sense of ideological contradiction is obtained: still in Cambridge, Quentin briefly meets with a man called "the Deacon", a versatile black man whom white men hire for a wide range of odd jobs: the Deacon can carry messages (he will take Quentin’s suicide note), he can appear in parades and marches as on Decoration Day for the Grand Army of the Republic, where he impersonates a Black Veteran of the Union although he has not fought in that war. Through his various occupations, the Deacon plays the parts that are expected of him, carrying the badges and the other symbolical attributes of the requisite persona, sening different messages to different audiences:

He was coming along between a couple of freshmen. He hadn't quite recovered from the Parade, for he gave me a salute, a very superior-officerish kind.
'I want to see you a minute,' I said, stopping.
'See me? All right. See you again, fellows,' he said, stopping and turning back; 'glad to have chatted with you.' That was the Deacon, all over. Talk about your natural psychologists. They said he hadn't missed a train at the beginning of school in forty years, and that he could pick out a Southerner with one glance. He never missed, and once he had heard you speak, he could name your state. He had a regular uniform he met trains in, a sort of Uncle Tom Cabin's outfit, patches and all.
'Yes, suh. Right dis way, young marster, hyer we is,' taking your bags. 'Hyer, boy, come hyer and git dese grips.' Whereupon a moving mountain of luggage would edge up, revealing a white boy of about fifteen, and the Deacon would hang another bag on him somehow and drive him off. (62)

The active, versatile Deacon is portrayed both as an economic agent and a performer. More than a trickster figure, he recalls a black actor in a minstrel show, in this case a black man performing the part of a black man and overdoing it, in his "Uncle Tom Cabin’s Outfit" (62). In this episode, as well as in Reverend Shegog’s sermon in the fourth and last section of The Sound and the Fury, the southern accent is one of the many accents which are within the black performer's range, be it a Missouri man like Reverend Shegog, or a Massachussetts man like the Deacon. Again, the narrative stages a typically northern experience: a state of heightened self-consciousness and increased reflexivity for the white man. In this northern context, the white Southerner can no longer ignore the theatrical nature of his own interaction with the black man. He cannot ignore the fact that the Deacon is not Sambo but a man wearing a Sambo mask; nor can he overlook that he is himself wearing the mask of the "young master".

8In an important article on Faulkner and national identity, John T. Matthews has argued that the black face in the minstrel show has functioned as an object of identification for those who were consciously engaged in the process of building an American identity, those who had to turn into an American and who felt they had to perform an American self. Matthews recalls that a black face act could be performed either by black actors or white actors, and that it could be used to stage the process of "Americanization", the very process of becoming an American, for recent immigrants:

One pattern for the use of blackface governs its significance as much in the 1830s as the 1930s: newcomers or outsiders to the dominant culture resorted to blackface to stage the process of Americanization. By masquerading as the disenfranchised and despised, working class immigrants could imaginatively enact their own freedom to recreate themselves and accomplish assimilation. (Matthews 2000, 78)

Indeed, in Quentin’s narrative, the obvious black face act of the Deacon is a powerful reminder that identities may be nothing but the products of an act: the mere outcome of a theatrical performance. As Matthews suggests, the mask of the black minstrel functions as the emblem of a national identity conceived as a void. American identity is thus defined as an essential lack, the lack of a substantial identity. Not being endowed with a substantial identity, the performer is able to create and recreate the self on a variety of stages and for a variety of audiences. This lack of a fixed identity—and the corresponding raw, aggressive energy of self-invention—was evoked by Ralph Ellison when he used the comic black mask as the emblem of a distinctive American self: "Here the darky act makes brothers of us all. America is a land of masking jokers. We wear the mask for purposes of aggression as well as for defence, when we are projecting the future and preserving the past" (Ellison 109). The power of Ellison's paradox lies in its inversion of the conventional political interpretation of the black-face act as the symptom of a restrictive and oppressive definition of the black man: when he turns the "darky act" into an open-ended, undetermined, self-defining act, Ellison inverts its usual political significance and makes it a common agonistic act in which all Americans participate: he turns it into defining feature of national identity.

9I would argue that in Faulkner's fiction too, the white Southerner staying in the North is exposed to an American experience defined in the terms which Ellison has proposed: the experience of the ethnic self is redefined as a theatrical performance, and Quentin Compson's stay in the North combines this consciousness with the awareness that the American self could well be defined as a void, as a lack of substantial identity, as the act of defining oneself. Yet Faulkner's fiction also shows that the Southerner has only a short-lived vision of the indeterminacy of the American self. While looking at the Deacon, Quentin Compson soon has the vision of a genuine face lying behind the mask of black minstrelsy: the face of Roskus, an old black servant who has always worked for his family, back home, and who is thus the epitome of the familiar black persona.

He was looking at me now, the envelope white in his black hand, in the sun. His eyes were soft and irisless and brown, and suddenly I saw Roskus watching me from behind all his whitefolks' claptrap of uniforms and politics and Harvard manner, diffident, secret, inarticulate and sad. (63)

In this passage, the face which is concealed behind the make-up of the black minstrel is supposed to express the eternal essence of the Black man: it is the silent, resigned figure who endures the follies of the white folks without protest. Faulkner ironically suggests that this is merely another mask which Quentin takes for a genuine face. It seems that the northern experience, in this respect, is utterly wasted on the young southerner who becomes the target of the author's irony. The opportunity to break free from essentialist definitions of ethnic identities will be perceived but will not be seized. More generally, Quentin Compson’s stay in the North provides him with several visions of an American identity which is still in the making. But none of these visions sink in.

  • 3 When Quentin takes the car back to Cambridge in the evening, he is about to commit suicide and meet (...)

10For instance, when Quentin Compson encounters a little Italian immigrant, in the Massachussetts countryside surrounding Boston, the southern youth is once again given an opportunity to escape from his incestuous obsession, which is only an extreme, hyperbolic version of the gyneolatry which W.J. Cash has described as a characteristic feature of "Deep South" culture. But the southern youth immediately calls the little Italian girl "sister" and this pun on the word "sister" suggests that he fails to perceive her as an immigrant with a story and a voice of her own: that he merely perceives her as an avatar of his lost sister. In this episode, the narrative is interspersed with obsessive memory scenes featuring the eroticized figure of Caddy. Quentin thus remains a Southern Galahad obsessed with the virginity of his sister while the little Italian, who is described as physically filthy, becomes a faded copy of Caddie, the metaphorically filthy, sexually tainted, little sister. In the episode throwing Quentin and the Italian girl together, the reader has a distinct sense of irony, a sense of overlooked possibilities and wasted opportunities. Instead of becoming a dynamic subject meeting another American in the making, the young man merely reenacts the drama of southern gyneolatry.3

11In Faulkner’s fiction, "being an American" may consist in getting frequent glimpses of the radical indeterminacy of the self. Such glimpses are presented as both wonderful and terrifying and they will be consistently and stubbornly overlooked by most Faulknerian characters, especially by the middle-class day-dreamers epitomized by Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury or by Gavin Stevens in The Town and The Mansion. Most of them will waste the opportunity to redefine their "act" in the theatrical sense which we have used throughout this analysis.

12Interestingly, Faulkner suggests that the failure to redefine one's act is not the sad privilege of Southerners: the tendency to waste this American opportunity is identified as a characteristic tendency shared by all Americans. In The Sound and the Fury, the pastoral landscape of Massachussetts hosts two northern characters who equally fail to welcome the little Italian girl as a fellow American in the making. The angry shop-keeper and the hostile sheriff repeat, in a parrot-like way, the same words of xenophobic abuse: "durn forriners". Obviously, these two Northerners do not define themselves as the descendants of immigrants but rather as natives who have a right to reject those whom they fear cannot be properly "Americanized". These two minoryet ideologically meaningfulcharacters are illustrations of the nativist ideology which was pervasive in the United States in the 1910s and 1920s. In this almost allegorical vignette, the shop-keeper and the sheriff symbolize the collusion of economic forces and official state policies which cooperated in the passing of the immigration quota acts in 1924. Here Faulkner clearly suggests that the American citizens who uphold a nativist view of American-ness are, like Quentin Compson, wasting a distinctly American opportunity: the opportunity to define the nation as a land of recreated identities. In this episode, not only does the novelist pass a sarcastic comment on the fact that Northerners are just as xenophobic as Southerners, but he also suggests that American-ness can be defined as this condition of constant betrayal. The American subject seems to have the privilege to perceive that no essentialist definition of American-ness is available. And yet, he or she consistently overlooks and betrays this vision, by eventually insisting on some essentialist definition of the self. In Faulkner’s fiction, both the vision and the betrayal of that vision seem to lie at the core of American identity.

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Primary Sources:

Faulkner, William, The Sound and the Fury [1929], D. Minter ed., New York, London: Norton, 1994.

Secondary Sources:

Bryant, Cedric Gael, "Mirroring the Racial Other: The Deacon and Quentin Compson in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury", Southern Review 29 Winter 1993, 30-40.

Cash, W.J., The Mind of the South, New York: Knopf, 1941.

Ellison, Ralph, The Collected Essays, John F. Callahan ed., New York: Modern Library, 1995.

Godden, Richard, Fictions of Labor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Kirby, Jack Temple, Rural Worlds Lost: The American South 1920-1960, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

Matthews, John T., Seeing Through the South, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2009.

Matthews, John T., "Whose America? Faulkner, Modernism and National Identity" in Kartiganer, Donald M. & Ann J. Abadie, eds, Faulkner at 100. Retrospect and Prospect, Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 2000, 70-92.

Michaels, Walter Benn, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, Pluralism, Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Sundquist, Eric J., Faulkner: The House Divided, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Waegner, Cathy, Recollection and Discovery. The Rhetoric of Character in William Faulkner's Novels, Frankfurt am Main, Bern, New York: Lang, 1983.

Wagner-Martin, Linda ed., New Essays on Go Down Moses, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Zender, Karl F., The Crossing of the Ways, William Faulkner, the South, and the Modern World, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

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1 All references to the novel will be to the 1994 Norton edition cited in the bibliography.

2 Contrary to the Agrarians who published I’ll Take My Stand in 1930, Faulkner never suggested that the post-bellum Southern economy had preserved some key elements from a pre-capitalistic system. On the contrary, Faulkner’s economic vision always emphasizes the relative homogeneity of American capitalism, as Richard Godden and John T. Matthews have consistently argued in their studies of Faulkner's fiction.

3 When Quentin takes the car back to Cambridge in the evening, he is about to commit suicide and meet Little Sister Death, one more avatar of the Caddy figure. Quentin remarks that he is not able to see the landscape of Massachussets out the window and that he can only see his own face: "The lights were on in the car, so while we ran between trees I couldn't see anything but my own face..." (107). The young Southerner will end as a young Narcissus, engrossed and enamoured with what he thinks is his self-image: he symbolically fails to see through the reflection of his own face; he fails to see the strange northern landscape, which in this case functions as a metonymy of the American continent. Just as Narcissus dies of self-love and remains to the last unable to relate to otherness and define himself in any other way than narcissistic self-absorption, similarly Quentin fails to be modified, altered by his encounter with other Americans.

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Bibliographical reference

Aurélie Guillain, « Southerners in the North. Destabilized Identities in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury », Caliban, 31 | 2012, 209-219.

Electronic reference

Aurélie Guillain, « Southerners in the North. Destabilized Identities in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury », Caliban [Online], 31 | 2012, Online since 16 March 2015, connection on 15 April 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Aurélie Guillain

Université de Toulouse, UTM, CAS.

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Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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