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Quentin Compson's Dilemma


Quentin's dueling conscience

In William Faulkner's “The Sound and the Fury,” Quentin Compson lived by the Old Southern Code of Pride and chivalry. In reading his chapter, the reader encounters a man in the midst of a psychological breakdown, which culminates in his suicide. Quentin’s obsession with family pride, the past, and Caddy’s downfall leads to what one might see as a form of schizophrenia. His inability to face change, refusal to give up on the old Southern code, and obsession with time and chivalry, make his the collective conscience of both the old and new South. The state of affairs surrounding Quentin’s life, his upbringing, and relationships with his father and sister together played on his mind in such a way, that he did not want to commit suicide, but rather, believed it was his only option.

In order to understand Quentin’s death, one must first be familiarized with his life. His mother Caroline is a hypochondriac, and father Jason an alcoholic. This combined with a mentally challenged brother, a cynical brother, and a sister seems to rebel against all of his expected codes is the model for the perfect dysfunctional family. Gary Storhoff explains the family as such, “In Faulkner's ‘family-centered literature,’ we discover the ravages of alcoholism and its effects on the family, miserable marriages that lead to spousal abuse, threats of sibling incest and sibling violence, violence against infants and children, and violence of adult children against their parents. In short, Faulkner's families are (to use the popular term) a ‘dysfunctional’ lot indeed!” (Storhoff 465). Jason Compson’s drinking had a direct effect on Quentin’s state of mind. Growing up, being the oldest child, Quentin had only his father to look up to as a male role model. Storhoff continues:

The core dynamic of the Compson family is the preservation of Mr. Compson's drinking, since it has by the time of the children's adolescence achieved a homeostatic purpose within the closed family circle--that is, his alcoholism is a noxious glue that holds the family together, apart from the world, in a bond of manageable misery. It is important, however, that no family member recognizes this, nor does any member criticize Mr. Compson for his substance abuse, since this might jeopardize family unity” (Storhoff 469).

Quentin’s mother added to the problem by living in complete denial of the family realities through her perceived illnesses. Storhoff explains the effect this might have through a definition of Systems Theory: “Systems theory conceives of the family as a complex, organic whole, in which an individual member's aberrant behavior is seen as a consequence of an interplay of emotional forces operating to maintain that family's system”(Storhoff 467). In relation to the Compson family, he continues, “This critical perspective works from the premise that a troubled person cannot be understood until his/her place within the family as a closed system is acknowledged and addressed directly” (Storhoff 468). Hence, Quentin was the by-product of his mother’s hypochondria and father’s alcoholism combined. Caroline could not address his problems because she was fighting her own imaginary demons, and Jason, his father, could not acknowledge them because he did not believe in their existence.

Growing up Quentin’s relationship with Caddy, while loving, was an unhealthy relationship as well as it was founded on his own allusions of what was supposed to be. Nathanial A. Miller takes in hand this account of Quentin’s state of mind, “Firstly, he is deeply desirous of a chance to live by an Old Southern honor code, though this historical force is encountered somewhat mythically (putatively traditional values, in 1910 and 1928, just as now, were bandied about as ideological currency). Secondly, he associates Caddy simultaneously with an older, mythic, pre-industrial social order and with a quasi-Edenic pre-history” (Miller 39).

Quentin, without proper upbringing, had to create his own set of values to live by, and chose the most convenient one he could find, considering where he lived, that of the old southern aristocracy. Here he saw honor, family pride, chivalry, and tradition, all things he saw as noble traits. Unfortunately, for Quentin, Caddy had a vision of her own and he falls into his own trap. Miller continues, “When Caddy fails (from Quentin's perspective) to fulfill her role, Quentin must affectedly attempt to fill an archaic role of masculine honor, and when still this fails, he then attempts to fill Caddy's role himself as demure virgin” (Miller 39).

It is at this point that Quentin starts to fall apart. Miller notes, “Caddy and Quentin play reversed cultural roles: she, the sister, plays the sexually active role and he, the brother, plays the demure virgin” (Miller 7). Quentin’s uncertainty takes on more serious psychological consequences when he goes up North to Harvard, “Quentin does not have Caddy at Harvard, but the essential lack that defines his personality remains, and he replaces her by projecting a certain reality onto his shadow-double, which, like Caddy, is both internal and external” (Miller 44). Quentin is falling out of touch with reality, or rather; reality is encroaching on what his perception of reality should be. At Harvard, he is out of place. He is, in his mind, a representative of the old South, but he finds himself to be a stranger in a strange land, the very land that had brought down the Southern aristocracy be believes himself to be defending.

Now, being at Harvard, in the North, Quentin finds himself to be out of place. He suffers the prejudices of the north or, at least their unshared sense of values as he possesses, He also finds that his virginity has become a source of ridicule. Another student, who happens to be a southerner himself, who refers to Shreve, Quentin’s roommate, perpetrates this ridicule, describing Shreve as Quentin’s husband. This gets Quentin to remember what his father said about virginity in the south, “In the South you are ashamed of being a virgin” (Faulkner 78). Quentin justifies his virginity with what he deems to be a defense of Caddy, “Did you ever have a sister? Did you? Did you?” (Faulkner 78). The fact of the matter is, as Cedric Gael Bryant suggests, is that by being in the situation he is in, Quentin has become the “Other’ In the social paradox of the Self/Other state of being. The one person he seems to find that shares this otherness, he believes, is Deacon.

Quentin sees Deacon as a reminder of home, and observes how he handles himself in this Northern setting. What he fails to realize is that through Deacon’s many costumes and personalities, he is doing what it takes him to survive. Quentin, however, perceives Deacon as a representative of the old South as he perceives it. Deacon reminds him of Dilsey and Roskus. Through Deacon Quentin is able to grasp an idea of the nature of people. Bryant explains, “On an epistemological level, Quentin has learned that identity is mediated by the perceptual categories, expectations, and illusions of others. Quentin's resolution to try to ‘take them [people] for what they think they are’ acknowledges the complexity of selfhood” (Bryant 32). Quentin looks at the way Deacon greets the people at the station, or marches in the parades, and sees the chameleon effect in him when having to deal with different types, “If it hadn't been for my grandfather, he'd have to work like whitefolks" (Faulkner 94). Bryant continues, “Quentin's thinking has led him to a crucial revelation about perception and social behavior: namely, that a "nigger" is an abstraction, an idea or mental construct created by white people and, in a peculiar sense, abetted by the black people Quentin knows”(Bryant 32).

Quentin reconnects with his Southern roots through Deacon; he needs him. Deacon is the only connection with the only sense of stability Quentin had ever known growing up, namely, the Gibson family.

Quentin's reflections on the Deacon suggest that he, like many other young southerners, was tricked by the Deacon's masquerade--particularly by the ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin outfit, patches and all’--when he first came North. Despite the Deacon's duplicity, Quentin feels a sense of closeness to him that is unequaled by any other relationship he has in the North. Their friendship is possible not so much in spite of, but precisely because of their mutual recognition that the Uncle Tom mask is meaningful to Quentin. Through this mask, Quentin can touch a vanishing reality that is represented in the modern world only in a few persons like Dilsey, Roskus, and a trickster/illusionist like the Deacon.” (Bryant 34).

Quentin is still having trouble accepting the reality of the present. He still is interpreting people and happenings around him as he perceives them to be, not as they actually are.

The telling of Quentin’s story is interrupted with a lot of flashback, as Benjy’s chapter was. However, while Benjy’s chapter was told from the perspective of one who has no concept of time, Quentin’s is less sporadic, and through events and characters, the reader is able to get an idea of events taking place, and the time they are happening. It is the placement of these memories, and the erratic way in which they are presented to the reader that signify that Quentin is suffering from a neurosis of his own.

Ineke Bockting observes that, “When one reads the first two pages of the text, it becomes clear that Quentin's language is full of abstract terms: time, hope, desire, experience, needs, folly, despair, victory, illusion, mind, habit. Close reading will reveal, however, that these terms are almost all his father's words, repeated by Quentin and presented without quotation marks” (Bockting 37). Here the reader sees the rejected ideals recurring in Quentin’s mind while he goes throughout the course of his day. His obsession with time , in contrast to his Mentally challenged brother who has no conception of it, is leading him down the path of ruin.

Quentin has tried to save Caddy’s reputation by remaining a virgin in her place. He falsely admitted to an incestual relationship with her for the same reason. These attempts failed. He knows that he cannot turn time back, so he smashes the watch his father gave him and realizes that he cannot stop it either. In his mind the only alternative he has left is to eliminate time all together, he decides to kill himself. Bockting explains, “Quentin, it seems, cannot face his own world. Throughout the text one can find instances in which he abruptly turns the "raw" material floating through his mind into rationalizations that are more manageable” (Bockting 39).

Now, his conscious and subconscious, his past and present are clashing. He goes about his day having planned out his suicide buying flat iron weights, mailing letters, and unknowingly even getting into a fight to protect Caddy’s honor. His actions throughout the day are quite normal; however, these are not the actions of a conscious mind in possession of all its faculties. Bockting uses a psychological study to illustrate:

By studying the linguistic choices of a speaker, his mind-style, one can understand this particular individual's conception of the world: an organizing of experience that fills his need for order. All of the children of The Sound and the Fury are very interesting in this respect. Circumstances have forced them to create unusual worlds for themselves, worlds that deviate from one another in such a way that they seem very far apart yet tangled through mutual needs. The worlds of Benjy, Quentin, and Jason Compson, as reflected in their mind-styles, are deviant because as fictional persons they are disturbed or impaired. Mind-style only shows this indirectly because it focuses not so much on the impaired functions as on what is left, that is, on how the impaired person presents himself as a fellow human being, as a `single organism, the human subject, striving to preserve its identity in adverse circumstances,' (Bockting 36 qtd. McKenzie, qtd. in Sacks 4).

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Quentin is trying to preserve his identity as well as Caddy’s reputation, however Caddy has already moved on from that. Caddy confesses to Quentin that she was responsible for her father's latest bout of drinking, “Father will be dead in a year they say if he doesn't stop drinking and he wont stop he cant stop since I since last summer and then they’ll send Benjy to Jackson…”(Faulkner 124). Caddy is feeling the effects of guilt laid on her by young Jason and her mother by stating that her pregnancy is he reason that her father is drinking, and will eventually die. She begs Quentin to stay at Harvard otherwise Benjy’s future had been sold in vain. This further contributes to Quentin’s impaired state of mind.

Ricky Floyd Dobbs refers to Quentin’s dilemma as the “Lost Cause” effect.”Understanding Quentin, however, demands an understanding of the social and historical conditions which produced this ‘half-baked Galahad.’ Quentin's time and place exposed him to two powerful leavens which consumed his thoughts and helped destroy him: the Lost Cause and his father's cynicism. Of these, the least explored in critical writing is the Lost Cause's impact upon the young man” ( Dobbs 366).

The Lost Cause effect, Dobs explains, came decades after the Civil War. It represented the South’s efforts to come to terms with their defeat by the North while still maintaining their Southern identity. It was a celebration of the Confederate past that grew popular in the 1890’s, and where it should have faded with the passing of a generation, it carried on in some social and political circles providing unity for Southern whites. Dobbs considers it a new identity based on the past championing social order, white supremacy, and moral purity.

Dobbs explains how Jason’s refusal to acknowledge Quentin’s ideals aided in his neurosis, “Quentin entered life a child of the Lost Cause, and he left a casualty of the same. His anxieties over Caddy's promiscuity, his father's philosophy, and his own inability to impose--beyond mere affectation--the patriarchal code of the defeated South on a changing world resulted from his infection with a social disease. Quentin's time and place immersed him in the Lost Cause and gave him a father/mentor who rejected its values” (Dobbs 391). Quentin felt alone, abandoned by his father, and adding to the confusion was his relationship with Caddy and the virginity issue, “These tensions touch Quentin most forcefully when he witnesses gender rivalry as a child, in facing sexuality, and in his worries over his own ineffectuality (Dobbs 371 qte.Foster 26-30).

Still, while Jason did not share the same set of values as Quentin, he fed into Caroline’s need for the old Southern esteem. Dobbs uses a Karl Zender argument to show how Quentin was used as a chess piece to placate Caroline’s wishes, “Karl Zender argues that Quentin resents his parents, alluding to gender rivalry within the Compson family as a source of resentment. Mr. Compson uses his oldest son to appease Mrs. Compson's "neurotic demands" for respectability. For example, Quentin's year at Harvard comes as a response to his mother's desires, despite his own wish to remain in Jefferson” (Dobbs 371 qte.Zender 111-12).

Quentin could not win, his father, who did not share his belief’s, sent him to Harvard to satisfy his mother, who at the end, denied him, until all he had left to fall back on were his outdated beliefs, the Lost Cause. As Dobbs notes, citing Eric Sundquist, “Quentin Compson, like millions of other Southerners, groped backwards for his homeland's ‘debilitating golden age.’ He found a ‘stability’ grounded on shifting sands of denial and pride which composed the Lost Cause” ( Dobbs 368 qte.Eric Sundquist).

Quentin tried to exist in the past while living in the present. As I stated, he tried to make his, the collective conscience of both the old and new South. With the insinuation that his education will be the cause of Benjy being committed to the hospital in Jackson, Caddy having him believe, wrongly, that she was the reason for the drinking that would kill their father in a couple of years, and the final insult of his own mother’s rejection, his world was crumbled. The foundation of his very existence was, like his beloved Confederate South, in ruins. His father, the patriarchal symbol of pride was dying, his mother, the dignity of the old Southern tradition, denying him, and Caddy, his ideal of love and honor, disgraced. In time, he will have to face all of these realizations, unless he can stop it, and so he did. The only way Quentin Compson could save the world he believed in and preserve its dignity was to destroy it; it was his only option.


Bockting, Ineke. "The Impossible World of the 'Schizophrenic': William Faulkner's Quentin Compson."Style 24.3 (1990): 136-149. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 16 Nov. 2010.

Bryant, Cedric Gael. "Mirroring the Racial 'Other': The Deacon and Quentin Compson in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury." The Southern Review 29.1 (1993): 30-40. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

Dobbs, Ricky Floyd. "Case Study in Social Neurosis: Quentin Compson and the Lost Cause." Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature 33.4 (1997): 366-391. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Random House, 1984

Miller, Nathaniel A. "'Felt, Not Seen Not Heard': Quentin Compson, Modernist Suicide and Southern History." Studies in the Novel 37.1 (2005): 37-49. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 29 Nov. 2010.

Storhoff, Gary. "Faulkner's Family Crucible: Quentin's Dilemma." Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures 51.3 (1998): 465-482. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 29 Nov. 2010.


Leaidan on February 16, 2015:

Inentligelce and simplicity - easy to understand how you think.

M.M.Ghanbari on December 16, 2011:

I'm going to write an article about "Quentin Compson." I read this paper attentively. I've got many profitable points and ideas for my own. On the whole your investigation has been a good attempt. I wish you the best for your next tries.

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