Unreliable Narrators and Internal Voice – A Post on Faulkner’s Sound and Fury

(written as a participant in the Rainier Writing Workshop)

William Faulkner

             I re-read The Sound and Fury in an attempt to think about the voice of Benjy and how to incorporate some of Faulkner’s techniques regarding Benjy into my own writing. I am writing a novel that is narrated in the first person by a boy with Asperger’s syndrome, and who thus has some of the alienation and disconnection from the “normal” human world that Benjy demonstrates in Sound and Fury. My ostensible purpose in reading the Sound and Fury was to understand better how Faulkner treated the character of Benjy, yet I found myself also thinking about time and narrative as well, and I include some insights about time in the latter portion of this paper.

The primary insight I gained from re-reading Sound and Fury was the fact that external characters describe Benjy’s behavior when he is unaware of his own activity and how it impacts the rest of the human world. This idea that Benjy himself – or in my book, my protagonist March – are themselves incapable of observing their own behavior and describing it accurately is critical. Because both our stories are written as first person stories from characters who are unreliable in their knowledge about themselves. So if Benjy sees nothing interesting in the fact that he is continuously moaning, or if my main character sees interesting in the fact that he is scratching himself to watch the patterns of blood, then how is the reader going to know that this behavior is even going on?

The solution that Faulkner presents is to have external characters voice objections or observations that clue in the reader on what is happening in the story. For example, early on in the first section, Luster says to Benjy: “Shut up that moaning…. If you dont hush up, mammy aint going to have no birthday for you. If you dont hush, you know what I going to do.”

Luster’s external description does three things at once: first, it informs us that Benjy is oblivious to his own behavior and how it impacts the rest of the world; second, it demonstrates precisely what that behavior is, and describes it in the way that Luster sees it; and third, Luster’s dialogue provides the emotional reaction that makes this behavior inimical and offensive to Luster (and potentially, to other “normal” humans in the story). If Luster’s dialogue left out any of these elements, it would be less effective. Let me use short-hand to describe these three characteristics as Observe (the main character’s lack of knowledge of what they are doing), Describe (the behavior), and Emote (in reaction to it). I took notes to ensure that most often when external characters are interacting with my main character, that they also try to communicate each of these attributes in their dialogue: Observe, Describe, and Emote. An effective dialogue with an unobservant first-person narrator should ideally have all three attributes to be effective.

Yet it is also possible, as Faulkner adroitly demonstrates, to simply have characters take action or react to the main character’s behavior, and therefore to allow the reader to sketch in what that behavior might be, by observing the characters around them. This is similar to having an invisible cue ball on the table, and seeing – through the motion of the other balls bouncing – where the cue ball might be, and what it is doing. For example, only a few pages later in the first section, Benjy’s behavior isn’t even described overtly, and his actions and sounds come through in the action of the characters surrounding him:

“It’s too cold out there.” Versh said. “You dont want to go out doors.”

“What is it now.” Mother said.

“He want to go out doors.” Versh said.

“Let him go.” Uncle Maury said.

“It’s too cold.” Mother said. “He’d better stay in. Benjamin. Stop that, now.”

“It wont hurt him.” Uncle Maury said.

“You, Benjamin.” Mother said. “If you dont be good, you’ll have to go to the kitchen.”

In this section, it is interesting to note that although the three attributes I described above (Observe, Describe, Emote) are not overtly present, they are implicitly present. The fact that Benjy does not observe – to the reader – what he is doing to try to go outside, this lack of observation and description is in itself the “Observe” moment that should be present.

When Mother says “Stop that, now” she is describing behavior that she wants to cease (although we don’t know precisely what the behavior is – we can deduce from earlier scenes it is probably moaning). This is the “Describe” that I believe is present here.

Finally, the “Emote” moment comes out when Mother finally threatens Benjy by saying “if you dont be good” – implying that in some fashion his activity is not perceived as “good” at all. This scene also functions as a synecdoche for many other potential scenes in which Benjy is “bad” without ever knowing that he has been “bad,” and thus gives the reader a glimpse into the confusing world of a half-knowledgeable man-child who perhaps had a form of Autism or Asperger’s syndrome.

The situation Benjy finds himself in is never fully described by him. In fact, the degree to which he is viewed as nearly a monster – or non-human – can be seen in later interactions with other characters, who describe, observe and emote about him, in his presence. Later in the first section of the novel, other characters view Benjy as almost a caged beast:

“He cant get out. He wont hurt anybody, anyway. Come on.”

“I’m scared to. I’m scared. I’m going to cross the street.”

“He cant get out.”

I wasn’t crying.

“Dont be a fraid cat. Come on.”

They came on in the twilight. I wasn’t crying, and I held to the gate. They came slow.

“I’m scared.”

“He wont hurt you. I pass here every day. He just runs along the fence.”


Here, looney, Luster said. Here come some. Hush your slobbering and moaning, now.

In this scene, it is interesting to note that Benjy has some degree of Observation about his own behavior. He repeats in this passage (and in surrounding sentences, not quoted here), the phrase “I wasn’t crying” or “I wasn’t even crying” – to demonstrate that he is at least in some regard self-aware and attempting to show what his behavior was like, and how it could be perceived by other people. Yet when Luster speaks up, at the end of the scene, to overtly describe the scene by saying “Hush your slobbering and moaning,” it becomes clear to the reader that in fact Benjy was engaged in activity that could be perceived as “crying” or as “moaning.” Again, the external voice “Described” Benjy for us, and showed us (as readers) what was going on, which was again the “Observance” of Benjy being unreliable in his self-description or self-knowledge. Finally, the Emote clearly comes across in the fear of the “Other” and the “Monster” seen in the dialogue of the people avoiding Benjy, who is trapped behind the fence.

What’s really interesting about Faulkner’s treatment of Benjy in this book is that he continues this technique, even when Benjy is no longer the first person narrator. Later in section three, this sentence stands out as almost a casual aside: “ ‘I’ll feed him tonight.’ Caddy said. ‘Sometimes he cries when Versh feeds him.’”  In this bit of dialogue, we again have this distance from Benjy – no one really knows what Benjy is feeling or thinking when he cries. But there is the description of his behavior, and action that is taken to move around that behavior (change the feeder). Yet no one asks why Versh might make Benjy cry, or why Benjy would react in this fashion. I intend to use the similar moment in my book, to show that no one is really paying attention to my main character’s obvious emotion.

Benjy also lives in a different time than the rest of the characters: his observance of time is different, and he does treat time passing in the same manner. I was interested in this because my novel is also a coming of age novel, and the coming-of-age means that the past (of childhood) changes in some regard into the future (of adulthood). Human beings constantly reference the past (even if on an unconscious level) in order to understand the present. The past gives us context. To cite on example, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is structured as a simultaneous narrative in terms of “actual” action. Each character begins by describing their actions before the funeral trip with the coffin begins. However, each character’s internal psycho-drama rapidly moves into the past to contextualize and to understand their action in the novel’s “present.” Faulkner’s Light in August is even more of a backward-looking narrative, telling the complete back-story behind one man’s “present” actions. Faulkner adroitly describes his own best fiction when he says that (in his work, as in life), “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

As we grow older (and if we are not trapped in the present, like Benjy), our lived experience informs our decisions in the present. This truth is part of the reason that the Harry Potter books shift over time to a narrative that is broken up by interpolations from Dumbledore’s past – and this past informs Harry’s present.[1] It is important – as a side observation – to note that this maturation of Harry is a true “coming of age” in terms of this central character coming to understand who he is in the world and coming to see other human beings (like Dumbledore) as fully human and fully flawed. This “coming of age” has a deeper and more lasting reality for the reader than a surface action or physical maturation. As an example of the latter, I think especially of sexual coming of age that ends Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The final sexual experience in the novel has little relationship to how the characters see themselves in the world and is basically a shallow and vapid cop-out by the writer. In the end, I despised Pullman for being a lazy writer who created an artificial “coming of age” moment that was not true to his characters. In contrast, I admire Rowling for having the guts to put the effort in to create a mature Harry Potter.

Staying inside a character’s head is one way of providing a valid justification for reaching into the past – for it is natural for any person to delve into their past to explain themselves.[2] So this method works well with a first person voice or a very close third person voice. However, if I as a writer want to have an omniscient perspective or a more removed third person voice, it becomes a little more difficult to show a character musing on their past in a way that is justified (or realistic) within the bounds of a written narrative. So often writers turn to artificial framing devices to allow this motion into the past. Telling someone else the story is one such framing device. I’ve seen it in use in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimeus books and in the movie The Usual Suspects, both of which feature spectacularly unreliable narrators, and thus, the device serves two narrative purposes (exposing the past, and creating suspense about the future). This approach might work in my novel – and are reflections of the same technique used adroitly in The Sound and the Fury.

Just as a side note, the recent hit vampire novel The Historian deployed this device in spades, functioning as an interlocking set of stories told in nested layers, like a Russian doll.  Another way of framing is thru reading the past in a text embedded within the current “present” text. Both The Historian and Dracula use texts within a text to tell the story. Yet I frankly I find both devices a little bit attention-seeking and too obviously artificial.[3]

I would prefer to write a novel that includes both an emphasis on how the past informs our present action, as well as a novel that includes some sense of time passing. As Faulkner has shown me, the timing (within the narrative) in which I reveal information is critical to make the story move forward, and to keep my reader engaged.

In the interest of space and time, I’ll bring this quick reading of Sound and Fury to a close. Through this look at a single technique – at a cursory look at Faulkner’s treatment of time – I believe I have gained much from reading the book through a new and different lens.


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Works Cited

Faulkner, William. As I Dying. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

Faulkner, William. Light in August. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Kostova, Elizabeth. The Historian. New York: Back Bay Books, 2009.

Memento. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Summit Entertainment, 2000.

Pullman, Philip. His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter  & the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter  & the Deathly Hallows. London: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Stround, Jonathan. Bartimeus Trilogy (boxed set). New York: Hyperion, 2010.

The Usual Suspects. Dir. Bryan Singer. MGM Studios, 1995.




[1] An even neater trick – and one that would have worked within the establishing narrative arc, instead of outside it – would have been if Harry’s youthful experience (from Book I and Book II) had been re-interpreted or re-imagined in the later books – allowing us to understand this central character in a deeper way (much as our own understanding of our early lives ideally deepens in “real life” as we grow older. Sadly, that didn’t happen. Maybe J.K. Rowling didn’t plan ahead enough?

[2] This is part of the reason that characters “without a past” – such as Jason Bourne or the central character in the movie Memento, are so fascinating to us. And both characters are concerned, entirely, with their pasts.

[3] Of course, we know written narrative is in itself artificial, but I don’t think there’s any need to draw overt attention to the artifice. I find books that do so, such as Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night, to be disgusting and annoying. Story is holy: don’t mock it or fuck with it.

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