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In The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner draws attention to Benjy’s ability to watch through his inability to speak. His character tends toward omniscience, as he constantly stumbles upon (or takes part in) various clandestine acts but does not have the power to articulate these events. Through these situations, Benjy emerges as a weakened representative of Jesus, able to see a great deal, but powerless to impact the immoral doings he encounters. The parallels between Benjy and Jesus seem clear; the reader first meets him on his thirty-third birthday, the day before Easter, etc. However, Benjy represents an extremely diluted version of what Jesus “ought” to be, only able to change events through his watching eyes, and even then on only the vaguest of terms, unable to make any real difference in characters’ lives. He discovers both Caddy (seemingly the least corrupt Compson) and Quentin in the woods with lovers, making both girls run away from the situation. Even so, in both cases Benjy merely delays the inevitable: Caddy gets married at fourteen, and Quentin elopes the next morning with her lover. Benjy thus plays the contradictory role of a moral “voice” without a voice, making others uncomfortable with their immorality by watching them rather than scolding them. With Benjy as the symbolic Jesus in the novel, it seems that the greater implications are for the seemingly inescapable decay of any concrete human values, with only a vague paranoia regarding the “wrongness” of one’s actions replacing true religious feelings. Faulkner does offer a sort of racialized alternative to the Compsons in Dilsey by demonstrating her stronger sense of spirituality. Dilsey’s family, though, merely delays the decay of humanity, and if Dilsey represents a moral authority with a voice, hardly anyone listens to her.
Most of the significant moments in Benjy’s narrative arise from him innocently encountering some sort of immoral undertaking that he would not have access to if he were not mentally disabled. Either other people force Benjy to take part, or he genuinely stumbles upon the situation. One of the first such instances occurs when he acts as a messenger between Uncle Maury and the adulterous Mrs. Patterson (which he botches by giving the note to Mr. Patterson) and promptly runs away (9). T.P. and the male Quentin also force him to participate in their drunken “sassprilluh” session, which they give to him in part because they want him to “hush” and not give them away to the rest of the wedding (14). In both these instances, others sort of coerce Benjy into these acts, and he manages to disrupt them in some way. When he finds Caddy and the female Quentin in the woods, however, he does so independently and even against his caretakers’ commands. Benjy thus seems to have a “nose” for uncovering the shamefully hidden, acting always as an innocent witness, producing a sense of guilt in Caddy and at least interrupting Quentin’s tryst with her lover. He comes between the girls and their immoral sexual relationships outside marriage, but only on the vaguest of moral ground-their discomfort with continuing in front of the innocent eyes of Benjy.
When Benjy catches Caddy with Charlie in the woods, she originally tries to make him go home, and it seems that only in the course of her encounter with her brother does she realize the fault of her actions. She “confesses” to Benjy, and he confers upon her a sort of revelation regarding her promiscuity. Faulkner writes,
Charlie came and put his hands on Caddy and I cried more… “Are you crazy.” Caddy said. “He can see. Dont. Dont.” Caddy fought…Caddy and I ran…I could hear her and feel her chest. “I wont.” she said. “I wont anymore, ever. Benjy. Benjy.” Then she was crying, and I cried, and we held each other. “Hush.” she said. “Hush. I wont anymore.” So I hushed and Caddy got up and we went into the kitchen and turned the light on and Caddy took the kitchen soap and washed her mouth at the sink, hard. (31)
Here, Faulkner clearly highlights Benjy’s role as a watcher in what drives Caddy to take him home. She tells Charlie, “he can see” as the only reason why he should not touch her in Benjy’s presence. After Caddy and Benjy make it to the house, her guilt overcomes her, and she cries, repeating both Benjy’s name and her promise, “I wont anymore.”
It seems that with such a silent, innocent witness nearby the immoral act of promiscuity simply cannot continue; indeed, Benjy’s watching eyes make Caddy realize the error of her ways. In this way Benjy continues his “Jesus” role by being the person to whom his sister sort of “confesses” in her realization of shame, and even, perhaps, undergoes penance in front of by washing her mouth out with soap. However, this newly installed morality eventually fails; Caddy goes on to lose her virginity a few years later, and gets married the following year, after she sullies herself by having sex before marriage. Even so, it is because Caddy exists among the less corrupt Compsons that she feels any sort of morality through Benjy-her daughter, Quentin, only allows Benjy to interrupt her rendezvous with the man from the show, and does not seem to gain any greater moral insight, however fleeting it may be.
Quentin, as Caddy’s offspring, represents the next generation of Compson in a more corrupt version of her mother. Through Benjy’s consciousness and his concurrent remembrance of Caddy, the reader realizes Quentin’s parallel situation, caught by Benjy on the swings with her lover. Rather than his eyes producing moral shame like Caddy’s, Benjy only makes Quentin and her lover somewhat uncomfortable. The impact of his watching is thus diluted as the Compsons decay, moving away from a spiritual, morally concrete world where “good” and “bad” are pre-arranged for people by a society or religion. In a paragraph neighboring Caddy’s escape with Benjy, Faulkner writes,
You old crazy loon, Quentin said. I’m going to tell Dilsey about the way you let him follow everywhere I go. I’m going to make her whip you good… “You were snooping around after me. Did Grandmother send you all out here to spy on me.” She jumped out of the swing…[Quentin’s lover] struck a match and put it in his mouth…I opened my mouth. Quentin hit the match with her hand and it went away…Quentin ran on the house. She went around the kitchen. (31-32)
A few paragraphs down, Luster gives Benjy the contraceptive labeled “Agnes Mabel Becky,” which provides the initial evidence that Quentin indeed has sex in that area, a problem worse than her mother’s, who loses her virginity years after Benjy discovers her in the woods. Once again, though, the watching eyes of Benjy produce Quentin’s initial strong reaction, asking, “Did Grandmother send you all out here to spy on me.” Her worry does not result from Benjy’s innocent gaze, but from a more paranoid, morally bankrupt view of a world that assumes a bad intention behind even Benjy’s actions. Faulkner further reveals her separation from her mother when she runs “around the kitchen,” the very place Caddy finds her moral ground with Benjy. As mentioned earlier, Benjy manages to delay Caddy’s corruption a few years, but Quentin leaves home the next morning with the man from the show. Thus, the intensification of Compson promiscuity also comes with a diluted ability to find any sense of moral concreteness through the innocence of Benjy.
The lack of a moral-spiritual basis for the Compson family becomes clear in a number of ways throughout the book; aside from their ability to ignore Benjy’s omniscient gaze, none of them seem to change their schedules on Easter Sunday. Mrs. Compson only complains about how she cannot get rest even on a Sunday, Jason goes so far as to gripe about letting the servants visit church, and Quentin sees no problem in running away with her lover. The Compson decay and lack of moral center coincides well with a lack of spirituality-Faulkner seems to ask whether one can have a sense of moral concreteness without a spiritual center. Through the Compsons, Faulkner documents the retreat of religion in a modern society. Jesus, or Benjy, is quasi-omniscient but not omnipotent or capable of affecting the spiritless world in any significant way.
Faulkner offers a problematic possible counter to the Compsons’ lack of a spiritual center in Dilsey, the old black servant who fervently believes in Jesus, even proclaiming “I’ve seed de first en de last” (185), a statement similar to one made by Jesus himself in Revelation 22:13. She uses her voice in the Compson house to defend those who need it, most particularly the female Quentin from Jason’s irrational rages, thereby demonstrating an altruism absent in most Compson actions. Faulkner clearly sets her up as a romanticized character, able to “feel” religion through the Easter church service, resulting in her proclamation above. She exudes an aura of odd dignity in Faulkner’s first “objective” description of her in chapter four:
She wore a stiff black straw hat perched upon her turban, and a maroon velvet cape with a border of mangy and anonymous fur above a dress of purple silk, and she stood in the door for a while with her myriad and sunken face lifted to the weather …She had been a big woman once but now her skeleton rose, draped loosely in unpadded skin…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…(165)
In this passage, Dilsey’s worn, but once impressive, costume of velvet and silk represents her status as a sort of aged queen, forced into years of hard labor. All the fabrics and their colors named evoke this reading: purple silk, maroon velvet, and fur, which are hardly the kinds of things even the wealthiest person wears without a certain pomposity involved. The turban serves to add exoticism, though covered by her banal black straw hat-doubtless the imposition of America upon her African past.
However, Dilsey’s outfit, like the survival of her spirituality in later generations of her family, seems doomed. Her fur is “mangy,” and her skeleton seems to rise out of her flesh as a sign of impending death, the “courage and fortitude” in her body consumed until she looks like a “ruin or landmark,” objects which represent a fallen civilization or way of life. The spirituality and moral concreteness Dilsey’s “ruin” represents indeed appears diluted through the generations of her family, though to a lesser extent than in the Compsons. Although the whole family goes to church together, one can detect signs of Compson-like decay in Luster, Dilsey’s grandson. He seems to take pleasure in torturing Benjy by saying “Caddy” in his ear or shutting the fireplace from Benjy’s view, offenses heightened by the notion of Benjy as a representative of Jesus. Dilsey’s admonishing, moralistic remarks have little effect on Luster’s activities.
The fact that even Dilsey’s family remains subject to the spiritual vacuousness so prevalent in the Compsons doubtless holds importance. No one, it appears, can retain a moral compass through the assault of time, moving the families swiftly into the depths of the modern age. One might question Faulkner’s motivations in presenting the black servant family as less subject to this problem; he seems to exoticize Dilsey at least, his description of her outfit certainly corresponding to the way one might picture African royalty, with their “animal nature” represented in her furs. Perhaps Faulkner sees the only alternative to modernity’s moral flexibility in another, more “primitive” culture. The comparison of the spiritually successful, black St. Louis preacher to a “small, aged monkey” (182) fits with this interpretation. The author excuses himself from a totally romanticized, racist view of blacks in the fact that Dilsey’s family decays, too, but the use of her as a black counterexample to the white Compsons feels problematic. In any case, if Dilsey and the voiceless Benjy-Jesus represent the last bulwarks of Christian belief in the novel, the “days or years” which consume her body illustrate Faulkner’s belief in the inevitability of the Compsons’ moral crisis and its extension to every social niche. It is impossible to shield forthcoming generations from such problems just as it is impossible to shield one’s body from the onslaught of time.
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