Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury: The Fragmentation of Motherhood

1st edition, 1954 cover
1st edition, 1954 cover

In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, there are two matriarchal presences: Dilsey, the black mammy, and Caroline Compson, the white mother. While portraying Dilsey as a saint and a mother-mammy, Faulkner also reveals that the role of the mammy negatively affected both black and white families and disrupted natural, maternal behavior. Caroline Compson is portrayed as an incompetent mother and is often disliked very much by readers because of this portrayal; however, Caroline physically, emotionally and mentally represents the fragmentation of the concept of southern, post-Civil War, middle-class motherhood. This fragmentation occurred because of the history of slavery and the implementation of the mammy figure, which continued post-slavery. By fragmentation, this essay is referring to the opposing societal ideals of motherhood: to become a mother, a woman must be sexually active, yet the sexuality is suppressed by government control of dissemination of knowledge: As Jill Bergman notes: “Motherhood, in both the South and the North, became linked, paradoxically, with chastity and served as a means of containing and denying female sexuality. The attempt to suppress birth control information, then, complements the more insidious and less overt effort to contain and suppress female sexuality, properly channeling it only to procreation.” (Bergman 399). Even if Caroline believes her only purpose of existence is procreation, she is robbed of the opportunity to enjoy and even experience this social role.

The opposing concepts of white motherhood also lead to a fragmentation of the maternal: a middle-upper class white woman was supposed to produce children, yet let the black “mammy” raise and care for the children. The patriarchally enforced notion of the mammy provides for a chasm between white mothers and their children, mentally, physically and emotionally. White men often thought it necessary to place black women in the motherhood role within the home to relieve their wives of such trivial duties. The role of the mammy produces difficulty in white mothering and/or establishing close connections with their children. For Caroline Compson, this emotional lapse is not only postpartum depression, but is because the “mother” space is filled by another.

Her alienation from her children is further described as stemming from an alienation from herself by Philip Weinstein in “‘If I Could Say Mother’: Construing the Unsayable About Faulknerian Maternity”; Weinstein claims that Caroline is “alienated from the powers of her own body, deprived by male scripts of any language of access to her bodily desires, she is the prisoner of her own womb. The dungeon is not mother but motherhood,” and that Caroline is a sort of “jailor, but she is also the jail and inmate” (440). The dungeon is the lack of motherhood—women are forced into a social role of staying home, looking pretty, maintaining emotional and physical distance from their own children, entertaining guests, instructing the “help” on what to do, etc… The Southern middle-class white mother’s entertainment is reading, sewing, perhaps painting. Close emotional relationships are stifled by the role of the mammy, who, while completely capable of raising and caring for the children, is placed in a confusing family role.

This maternal problem is a descendant of slavery (slave women as mammies) and keeps disparity between white/black in place (white women mothers look down on the black mammies, yet are also jealous, which fuels hatred). Mammies become a threat to the white mother’s concept of motherhood, yet the patriarchal culture insists that this social structure is appropriate. The trauma of the cycle of slave mammy-transferred-into-servant mammy, takes away from the white mothering experience and the black mothering experience. Both black and white women suffer from this institutionalized practice. The black mother must put the white children’s desires and needs before her own. Dilsey’s son, Versh, must complete his servant role before he can eat his own dinner: “‘Take this tray up.’ Dilsey said. ‘And hurry back and feed Benjy'” (Faulkner 45).

The conflicting roles of mother vs. mammy produce a fragmented understanding of family relationships for the children as well: children are supposed to respect, and listen to their mammy, yet also know that, as they are white, they are societally more powerful than the black mammy. The white child is supposed to love their mother, even though it is the mammy who is rearing them. As Bart H. Welling notes about Faulkner’s personal life: Faulkner wrote a eulogizing, emotional letter about his own mammy that “helps us to see today…how desperately the white child tried to say, not Mammy, but Mother” (Welling 542). The child is also aware that the mammy is paid and could easily be taken away if the parents so wish. A child’s emotions are suspended between two women—two races. This confusion becomes internalized in the Compson children, and their confusion is produced in odd relations with their siblings and their mother. Caroline notes that, “They [Caddy and Quentin] deliberately shut me out of their lives…It was always her and Quentin. They were always conspiring against me” (Faulkner 161).

Caddy and Quentin form a close relationship separately from both the mother and the mammy, and use this relationship to lash out at Caroline for being absent. Sibling rivalry ensues, as Jason fuels the chasm between Caddy and Caroline by telling Caddy, “…if she tried Dilsey again, Mother was going to fire Dilsey and send Ben to Jackson…” (130). Jason will not fire Dilsey, because she is too much of a mother figure to him—and he fears and respects her, so he claims it will be Caroline who fires her. He uses the roles of the mother and the mammy to maintain control over Caddy. Even Quentin (Caddy’s daughter), raised by Dilsey, has an empty, confused space of what/where a mother is: “‘Dilsey,’ she says. ‘Dilsey, I want my mother'” (117). Even as Dilsey tries to comfort her, Quentin rejects the motherly gesture: “She [Dilsey] put her hand on Quentin. She knocked it down” (117). Quentin wants her mother, whom she has never truly had. Quentin is not accepting of Dilsey as a mother figure. Dilsey is subject to this treatment because of her race. All of the children are allowed, in fact, entitled, to treat her as a subordinate, even though she raised them as her own children, and along with her own.

While Dilsey should be praised for her maternal care of the Compson children, Caroline should not be a scorned character because of her weaknesses; instead, her weaknesses should be reassessed in light of historicizing the socio-cultural role of the mammy. The detrimental effects of this dynamic, while sometimes obscured in The Sound and the Fury, need to be examined.

Works Cited

Bergman, Jill. “‘this was the answer to it’: Sexuality and Maternity in As I Lay Dying.” Mississippi Quarterly 49 (Summer 1996): 393-407. Print.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. David Minter. 2Nd ed. New York: Norton, 1994. Print.

Weinstein, Philip M. “‘If I Could Say Mother’: Construing the Unsayable About Faulknerian Maternity.” The Ink of Melancholy: Faulkner’s Novels from “The Sound and the Fury” to “Light in August.” Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990: 41-55. Print. Rpt. in The Sound and the Fury: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. David Minter. 2Nd ed. New York: Norton, 1994. 430-442.

Welling, Bart H. “In Praise of the Black Mother: An Unpublished Faulkner Letter on ‘Mammy’ Caroline Barr.” The Georgia Review: 536-542. MLA International Bibliography. 13 Oct. 2013. Print.

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  1. Francis

    The Sound and the Fury was a very enjoyable read. I breezed through it long before finding out that it was labeled as “difficult”. We could say that this is one of those examples of forced perceptions. If a person begins to read a novel when knowing it is “difficult”, the person will find it to be difficult. The “difficulty” assumption is also based on mixing up a reading of the book – which always comes after the reading of said book, and which may be very complex (but then you’ve already read it and can make it as complex as you like) – with reading the book – which is a pleasure.

    • Andre H.

      I did not experience the book too difficult to read through. Yes, it requires effort on the reader to unravel its various threads, both character and narrative, but that is the fun of reading is it not?!

      • Nilson Thomas Carroll

        I’m not sure if this is a fair perception (and this novel is one of my favorites). You say that it requires effort, and that it’s not difficult, but that’s exactly what difficult is. This is strangely related to an argument about a video game, Dark Souls, I was having elsewhere. People who have already beaten the game several times say the game is rife with “artificial difficulty” whereas people new at the game say it’s too tough. Obviously, if you’re a fan of “tough” novels, you’ll find the book fun, but that doesn’t make it any less dense…

    • Hugo Jordan

      I agree. I sympathise with students who are assigned this (incredible) novel.

    • The same logic applies to other adjectives such as ‘great,’ ‘light,’ ‘mind-blowing,’ ‘boring,’ etc.

  2. MarshaWarren

    I remember reading somewhere Faulkner stated he wrote the book in six weeks while working night shifts at some power plant. Whether that is true or not, this is a great book and this is a great article.

    • Thank you for the compliment. It is true that Faulkner wrote the novel in a short time. He often stated that it was his favorite work, which keeps it near to my heart!

  3. Nelliez

    This book has haunted me ever since I read it. Let me explain. You know the feeling you get when you hear a song or see a face that sparks a vague memory? That memory could have been a dream, or maybe have been something you watched in a film. Or it could have been something that never happened, but was some fantasy you had ages ago. There is this connection but you can’t put your finger on it. This is what I get from this book. Trying to find this connection.

    • Your comment is very poetic and thoughtful. I know what you mean; there are moments in the novel where I feel like something Caddy and Quentin thought, said, or did was something I did also. I think this type of connection to a novel you are reading makes a great author. It speaks to the universality of human connection.

  4. This is a very good piece. I wonder how this analysis would relate to some of Faulkner’s other novels, say, “Absalom!, Absalom!”

  5. I love symbolism that Faulkner use in this one.

  6. Stormy Skies

    Great symbolism in Faulkners’ works, esp. Sanctuary.

  7. I enjoyed this article. I especially like the analysis of the mother/mammy role as portrayed by Faulkner.

  8. kreiman

    The concept of female sexuality/motherhood and chastity is not new to America or the South. This issue figured prominently in British Victorian Literature and Victorian life. It has even been suggested that that particular cultural stereotype is responsible for the high venereal disease rate at that time (use of prostitutes was extensive in Victorian England leading to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases).

  9. When it comes to putting yourself in another’s shoes, it is naturally difficult. The difficulty is insurmountable when one must imagine being in another’s shoes in another place and time. I can’t imagine what it was like in 1928 and not being able to be connected sexually to my own body, being connected to my husband sexually, being viewed as a baby maker and not much else – as you quoted Weinstein: ““alienated from the powers of her own body, deprived by male scripts of any language of access to her bodily desires, she is the prisoner of her own womb. The dungeon is not mother but motherhood.” I imagine times were immensely formidable for any woman in any circumstance in this time. However, the role of the ‘mammy’ was to help alleviate the trivial duties of the biological mother by changing diapers, bathing, feeding, etc. It is hard for me to believe that jealousy of the mammy by the biological mother was a notable characteristic in the bio mom/mammy relationship. The father of the home hired help for the mother, firstly, so that she could bond with each child without having to be interrupted by poopy diapers and snotty noses; secondly, so she could have some ‘me time’. The father’s main goal in doing this was to keep the peace in the household by preventing the mother from getting overworked and stressed out. Everyone knows that when mom is stressed, the whole balance of the household is conflicted, and that daddy can’t get any nookie if mommy is too tired (contradictory to the idea that daddy just wants nookie for babies and not pleasure but that is another issue). When the patriarch of the house is away, then the matriarch is in charge of the household, not the servants – the servants were only ever in charge if both were away. If the biological mother wanted to change her own baby’s diaper then nobody could stop her. If the mother of the children wanted to feed and bathe them, then mammy could not tell her that she was not allowed too. No one, at any time could dispute the mother spending time or doing things for or with her child. Again, I do not feel that jealousy of the mammy is a notable quality in the relationship between the two – more specifically for Caroline Compson. In this specific case I think Mrs. Compson was just bitter, lazy and held no apparent affection for her children. I Love this article and think it was very beautifully written and while I support your ideas that women were basically at war with themselves internally because of many social and political ideas of the time, I cannot see Caroline Compson, specifically, being jealous of Dilsey’s relationship with her children. I do not think she was FORCED into distance from her children –she alienated herself from her children and created the distance on her own. I think she was a pathetic mother and that she would use any excuse in the book to get out of spending time with any of her children except Jason. There may have been many mothers that mirrored Mrs. Compson and her outlook on motherhood but I think for the most part, good mothers took a very active role in raising their children because they wanted to. Thanks for the article. I enjoyed it thoroughly!

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