Gender Roles of a New South in The Sound and the Fury by Lisa VillaMil

 Class: English 319, Hemingway/Faulkner

Major: English, Class of 2013

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury presents the death of its central Compson family as caused by insurmountable internal conflicts that characterize the relationships of the novel’s three brothers. These conflicts, however, are brought on by the one sibling in the novel who does not have a voice, save in the memories of other narrators. Caddy Compson operates in the novel as the ever-present force of change  that leads to the destruction of the Compson family. She does this unwittingly, in emasculating each of her brothers, and consequently takes on attributes of the masculine, herself. When Caddy is finally banished from her household, after achieving the full concept of “female masculinity,” readers come to understand one commentary of the novel: that a masculine nature is, perhaps, one not easily upheld in a place where ideas of the “female” (purity, chastity, passivity) and gender identity are so strenuously enforced – in the “Old South,” whose very downfall is exemplified in the dissolution of the Compson family. Caddy’s emasculation of her brothers stems from her internal strength and external volition, which overpowers the thoughts and, most importantly, the sexuality of her brothers, and is reflected in the theme of castration prevalent throughout the text. Her association with nature also reveals a sense of her thought-encompassing character and serves as a frame for the actions of her brothers, as well as a reminder to them of her primal, masculine, aggressive, sexual identity. Caddy’s most powerful blow to the Compson legacy is in her indirect desexualization of her brothers, which ends the family bloodline –something already portrayed as diluted in the symbolic drowning of Quentin. It is through her transgressive behavior, though, that Caddy acts as an even greater literary force that redefines gender roles in a “New South.”

According to John T. Matthews, president of the William Faulkner Society and prolific Faulkner critic, Faulkner was a writer “in constant negotiation with massive historical and social upheavals” (Knights, 834). One social upheaval in The Sound and the Fury is the shift in perceived gender norms of the Old South to those of a new generation. Caddy realizes such a change herself, but too early for the rest of her family and the society that operates on the still-influential ideals of the Old South mentality. Faulkner uses his writing to witness the death of Southern gentility, not only in Caddy, but also in the rest of her family as caused by her social deviance. His writing, too, displays a “rhetoric of containment” (835), meaning that topics such as the “restlessness of women” (835) are reflected in the very syntax and circumstances of the works in which he presents them. Caddy, for instance, is never given a narrative of her own; as would be considered typical of an Old South female, the men in her family do the speaking for her and tell her story. It is in this way that Faulkner undermines the intention of his novel. He cannot wholly depict Caddy’s deviation from a feminine ideal without giving her the ultimate tool of deviation: a voice. However, the text’s denial of Caddy has a way of illustrating that the masculine nature she realizes does not grant her, a female, a masculine presence in a male-centered world – she receives no voice in this male-centric novel because she is too quick to achieve that masculine presence.
The first brother through whom Caddy realizes a sense of masculinity is Benjy, whose mental retardation affords readers an unbiased sense of Caddy’s sexuality and strength. Benjy’s attraction to Caddy stems from both the maternal bond she develops with him, and from a sense of sexual awakening that Benjy achieves abstractly through his interactions with her. Caddy is maternal of Benjy because she is his caretaker, one of only two in the Compson household who are not cruel to him. Yet there is a masculine side to this care-taking attribute she embodies, mostly due to Caddy’s acting as protector of Benjy as well. This is a more paternal role that is especially explored in the relationship that Caddy has with Jason in her young age. Where Jason is a whiner and a crier in the face of insults (“Jason cried. His hands were in his pockets” (36).), Caddy is aggressive and defends herself and Benjy from them (“’You’re crazy’” (35); “’You’re a “knobnut’” (36); “’Now you’ve got him started. Hush up, Jason’” (36).). This protective belligerence reveals that Caddy can overpower the budding masculinity of her brothers with her own. Further, Benjy’s narrative foretells of Caddy’s verbal, perpetual power over her brothers after the elder Jason Compson, the children’s Father, says that the boys have to “mind” (24) Caddy’s “authority:” “You have to . . . . Come on now. You have to do like I say” (Caddy, 27). The Father places young Caddy in an influential position above her brothers that she does not relinquish even in adulthood.
The sexuality of Caddy is eluded to in the incident with her dirty drawers. Benjy seems to be the only brother initially interested in this sexuality, although as readers later find out, Quentin bears a near-incestuous regard for Caddy that eclipses even that of Benjy. The “muddy bottom of her drawers” (39) and the image of “the tree thrashing” (39) (being as Caddy is associated with the smell of trees for Benjy) foreshadow the sexual promiscuity with which Caddy will lead her later life. The placement of this sexual identity within a tree, a place where none of her brothers can reach her or even attempt to, not only puts Caddy in a place above her brothers physically and definitively – another image of puissance – but insinuates a private sexuality that the boys will never understand themselves. Overall, Benjy is emasculated because his mentality does not prevent such emasculation. Caddy is clever and has an agency Benjy does not possess.
If it is Caddy’s elevation above her brothers, so far as strength of character is concerned, that is explored in Benjy’s narrative, it is her sexuality that is emphasized to an unnerving degree in Quentin’s narrative. In this section readers once again notice how the Compson Father is the entity that places Caddy in a position that would be desirable in a male, while negative in a female. He gives her power when he is talking to Quentin about the ideal for a male, and readers cannot help but compare Quentin’s life experiences to those of Caddy. Quentin is, as is a male-enforced mindset, “ashamed of being a virgin” (78) for a portion of his life, while Caddy, who is “unvirgin” (78) before him, is presented in retrospect as a “little dirty slut” (78), for females are expected to protect their virginity. Juxtaposed against the prude, weaker, defective protector Quentin, Caddy’s overt sexuality, aggression and influence make her undesirable as a female. The fact that she portrays a masculine attitude that is greater than that of Quentin’s seems, in large part, to be a reason for his suicidal demise. Furthermore, Quentin’s narrative is characterized by a constant reference to his Father, what his Father said or suggested or felt about certain issues. For Quentin, his life is decided by the whims of his Father, and a need to uphold the standards by which his Father defines a “man.” Caddy lives of her own whims – again, a concept that is more masculine. It is a woman, in this Southern microcosm, who should depend on a masculine provider, when Quentin either depends on his Father for advice, or on Caddy for her strength. He desires to run away with her when problems arise for them, but Caddy, akin to the idea of “a man,” stays to suffer the consequences of her actions – her extramarital pregnancy, for example.
Quentin’s insufficiency as a male is depicted most clearly through the scene in which he attempts to kill himself and Caddy as a way to escape their perceived world evils, but he cannot go through with the act. Assumedly, this is a time by which they have both been fully sexually awakened and Quentin is appalled and confused by his sister’s sexual escapades, upset that he could not be the protector of Caddy’s virginity. It appears throughout the text that Quentin has viewed his main role as “protecting the purity” of his family, a purity that he would have had incarnate in Caddy. Here, Quentin also shows himself to be emotionally relative to the female rather than the male, while Caddy remains cool: “dont cry poor Quentin . . . but I couldnt stop she held my head against her damp hard breast I could hear her heart going firm and slow now not hammering” (152). Strangely, the text supports that Caddy’s complete realization of female-hood (in losing her virginity) is also her graduation to manhood, and subsequently Quentin’s demise from it. The convictions of Quentin’s mantra, “I’m stronger than you” (163) and his self-inflicted purpose that his “Father and [he] protect women from one another from themselves” (96) throughout his section are corroded in his eventual suicide. Feeling that he has failed in his purpose and been reduced to “incestuous” thoughts about his sister (“I have committed incest I said Father it was I . . .” (79)), Quentin becomes “the sum of his misfortunes” (104), a “half-baked Galahad” (110). He is not capable of being the Southern gentleman he needs to be in order to defend the honor and now religiously compromised constitution of Caddy.
The final brother to be fully emasculated is Jason, who is also emotionally inadequate as a male in his childhood. In his youth he is often crying, a snitch who is utterly disgusted by Caddy’s foretelling, “dirty drawers” and, therefore, is appalled by her yet-to-develop-sexuality. It is perhaps his hatred of Caddy, which grows as his life progresses, that prevents him from being able to make any meaningful connections with women. He can only sexually perform himself if he has paid them. A permanent reminder of Caddy’s emasculation of him can be found in her bastard daughter, Miss Quentin. At times it feels as though Jason bears a too-sexual, sadistic regard for this girl, perhaps unconsciously desiring some reaffirmation of his own manhood over this neo-Caddy figure: “I dragged her into the dining room. Her kimono came unfastened, flapping about her, dam near naked” (184). When Miss Quentin escapes from the Compson household in the final section of the novel, however, Jason has once more been frustrated by a woman, as she has succeeded in stealing back thousands of dollars from him. Jason is outwitted by a girl he had attempted to degrade verbally, with titles such as “slut” and “whore,” as Caddy once degraded him with comments on his snitching and sniveling behavior. Since Caddy becomes the only Compson child in the novel to procreate, readers can see her final success as the masculine character of the novel. She removes the masculinity of her brothers, and thus their ability to continue the Compson bloodline, but retains it within herself, even if her progeny is “lost” when Miss Quentin runs away.

Virginity is portrayed in two ways in The Sound and the Fury. One way is through Quentin and his desire to preserve Caddy’s chaste femininity. As stated before, virginity, for Quentin, is at the heart of what could be considered the Compson’s collective “purity.” In preserving this, Quentin embodies the old fashioned “Southern gentleman,” and the values of the Old South, established sometime before the Civil War. This virginal ideal also enforces the female gender role as defined by the Old South. Caddy does not easily fit this mold, but represents the coming of a “New South.” Quentin wants to protect the women of his family from “one another and themselves” (96), as well as the world around them; in doing so he fails to notice Caddy’s indelible connection to nature, a thing that negates an obligation in her to uphold such chaste concepts for herself or her family.

The second way that virginity is presented in the novel is as a “state” that is unnatural, and this idea is set forth by the elder Jason Compson, whose words give Caddy a freedom in the novel many times over that her brothers lack. According to her Father, “Women are never virgins. Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature. Its nature is hurting you [Quentin] not Caddy . . . ” (116). Because Caddy is so closely affiliated with nature by smell (trees for Benjy, honeysuckle for Quentin) and also in repeated instances of her being dirty or soaked in some sort of natural water, virginity is consequently proven to be unnatural, for every other part of Caddy is associated with the natural. Her “unvirginity” must then be natural as well, and not a corruption of her soul, or the image of her family. Yet Caddy’s succumbing to nature is still what leads to the downfall of the Compsons. In this case, the text implies that to go against one’s nature is to remain socially secure in the Old South. For the society in which these characters live, it is unnatural for a female to exemplify a male quality in the ways Caddy effectively does: agency, intellect, aggression, curiosity, and sex drive. Therefore the novel does not merely illustrate a struggle between male and female gender norms, but between the natural world and the socially constructed world that imposes a structured nature on its citizens. Proving that a drift from the ways of the Old South is inevitable, in addition to exclusion, conformation to this world leads to a severe, potentially lethal depression. The Compson family is located at the heart of this conflict, whether its members stand for or against society’s nature. It is Caddy’s gender deviance, irrevocably initiated through the loss of her virginity, that exclusively leads to the internal social conflict the family must then face – the “secondhand tragedy” (116) to which her Father refers. It is ironic that Quentin (who recognizes that “the best way to take all people,” is to “take them for what they think they are” (86)) cannot take the very essence of Caddy for what or who she is.
Drawing further on this idea of feminine states, Dana Medoro, another Faulkner critic, examines the biological symbolism of menstruation within The Sound and the Fury. Her argument that “the Compson household collapses around its inability to keep women. . . in their place” is reflected in both Caddy and Quentin’s “break[ing] out of [their] role[s]” in an otherwise “self-serving narrative.” Despite the fact that Faulkner keeps them in rhetorical constraints, as mentioned earlier, Caddy and Miss Quentin do break free of Southern masculine suppression in fleeing the novel and, thus, Faulkner’s constraining syntax. Leaving in their wake a destruction that labels the novel a tragedy, the trials of Caddy and Miss Quentin give a new connotation to the motif of blood (“we couldn’t hear anything but the roof and if it was my blood or her blood” (134); “her blood surged steadily beating and beating against my hand” (164); “she dont object to the fighting, it’s the blood that annoys her” (165)) within the text. As Caddy and Quentin are the only two females in the text to menstruate – as is noted in the dirty drawers that are observed regarding both, the idea of blood-flow becomes more than an allusion to the seeping bloodline of the Compsons. From the masculine perspective, represented by Caddy’s Father, menstruation is the “delicate equilibrium of periodical filth” (128), “liquid putrefaction like drowned things floating like pale rubber flabbily filled getting the odor of honeysuckle all mixed up” (128). Medoro places the whole of the novel in a female context that aggrandizes the feminine and negates the elder Jason Compson’s lurid explanations. In this female context, bleeding represents the removal of the old, and the absence of life – yet also the promise of new life to come. Symbolically, the Old South is bleeding out in The Sound and the Fury, and the “absence of life” is associated with the novel’s other theme of castration.
If the brothers of the Compson family can serve as “Christ figures,” regardless of their failures in this role, perhaps the women of the novel – Caddy in particular – can serve as another type of religious figure: Eve. By climbing into the tree in which her brothers see her drawers, Caddy aligns herself with Eve’s transgression at the biblical Tree of Knowledge, Medoro suggests. She enters into a new state of being in the same way that the South is entering into a new era where the “old gentry” is a dying breed. As Medoro states, Caddy’s refusal to leave the tree when admonished by her brothers mimics Eve’s “refusal to transmit the law of the Father . . . [and] marks woman’s expulsion from the garden, her fallen status, and her threat of polluting the patronymic identity.” This patronymic identity Medoro references is something Caddy contests in emasculating her brothers, and taking on the New South gender role of a masculine female. She goes against the rules of her male-constructed society. Adding to this comparison, it would seem that the Compson brothers, who can neither save their family through protecting or reforming either Caddy or Miss Quentin, fail as Christ figures. They cannot redeem the mistakes of their sister, cannot take back the “fall” of the south as is symbolized in her realizing her new sexual role.
The theme of castration prevalent in The Sound and the Fury offers the most compelling evidence of Caddy’s emasculation of her brothers. The first time that readers encounter this theme is in Benjy’s narrative. Castrated himself for molesting one of the girls who frequently walks by the Compson fence, Benjy becomes the first victim of this theme because of his insufficient sexuality; that is to say, because the girls remind him of a young Caddy, Benjy’s attempt to sexually overtake them (whether with full knowledge of the meaning behind his act or not) is, in a sense, an attempt to overtake Caddy sexually. Benjy’s failure in his assault of a Caddy “figure” is symbolic of the sexuality that Caddy now holds over him. Literally and physically, Benjy loses his ability to reproduce at the indirect hands of Caddy, as a cause of her influence that has held sway throughout his life. Similarly, in Jason’s life, is a surrogate Caddy established: Caddy’s daughter, Quentin. Quentin manages, in place of Caddy, to emasculate Jason despite his demeaning of her through verbal, physical and, at times, sexually transgressed means. Quentin’s “castration” comes in the form of a story told to him by the Compson servant, Versh. The memory of this story is triggered by another memory of Caddy’s statement that she has “got to marry somebody” (115), which leads readers to think that Quentin views himself as being castrated through a sense of dejection on part of Caddy. The idea of Versh’s story, that a man could castrate himself, with “a broken razor flinging them backwards over his shoulder” (116), is violent and gruesome, and once again points to changing gender roles of the South. “Men” are losing their “manhood,” the control that they would have over the typically complacent women of the Old South. Caddy “castrates” Quentin in being the object he cannot control. If he has no control, he is not a man. And if not a man, that leaves in him only “the woman” side of nature. As Quentin explains to readers, “women . . . do have an affinity for evil, for believing that no woman is to be trusted, but that some men are too innocent to protect themselves” (105). Quentin becomes this “too innocent” man who cannot protect his own masculinity any more than Caddy’s virginity. Becoming something more akin to a woman –in part because of this innocence, a quality he would rather his sister obtain — Quentin’s demise is similar to his brothers’. They cannot survive in the world of the Old South as feminine males any more than Caddy in her masculine femininity.
“Caddy’s a woman to remember. She must do things for women’s reasons too” (92). Caddy’s fall from familial and societal grace marks the end of a Southern era and sets it in the context of a potentially biblical reading, somewhat insulting the Christian influence that formed the Old South. Strangely enough, for all the emasculation and promotion of the masculine in Caddy, the novel does not suggest the “death” of the “female,” but merely points to a reconstitution of the gender. Caddy never denies her female self. In accordance with her being’s acute ties to a “human nature,” she takes on what “naturally,” she feels, is the proper character. Consequently, her coming to terms with more masculine attributes is not the “masculinization of the female,” but the “feminization of a masculine female,” an eventual collective character who will usher in a New South fueled by modern expectations.

Works Cited

Knights, Pamela. JOHN T. MATTHEWS. William Faulkner: Seeing through the South.. The Review of English Studies, Volume 60, Number 247 (November 2009), pp. 833-833, <;

Medoro, Dana. (2000). “Between two moons balanced”: Menstruation and narrative in The Sound and the Fury. Mosaic : a Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 33(4), 91-114. Retrieved March 10, 2011, from Research Library. (Document ID: 65106287).


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