The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s novel about the decline of a Southern family, has been enthroned in the pantheon of English literature, primarily because of Faulkner’s use of stream of consciousness.
By beginning with the mentally retarded Benjy as narrator, Faulkner assures that the reader has virtually no idea what’s going on (other than that Caddy smells like trees) for the first quarter of the book. Quentin’s section isn’t much better. In both cases, Faulkner jumps around chronologically with no regard for the reader. Faulkner makes it worse by giving each section a date, which in Benjy’s and Quentin’s cases only makes it more confusing, since he doesn’t adhere to it at all.
Is this stream of consciousness realistic? That’s hard to say. Certainly not for everyone. Even if it is, so what? It’s frustrating, and it isn’t particularly interesting. Even if one grants that Faulkner has masterfully displayed the way the human mind works, so what?
What Faulkner does well is emotions. This novel is filled with powerful displays of emotion, which Faulkner does an excellent job of showing rather than telling. As such the second half of the novel, which is for the most part straightforward and linear, is quite compelling.
So why is this novel considered so great? Because it’s so challenging and difficult? It’s much easier to defend The Sound and the Fury as a literary exercise than as a novel, as half of it is all but incoherent. Certainly it isn’t a novel for casual reading. There is some very worthwhile writing here, but for many readers, it just isn’t worth it.