The Sound and the Fury Is the Book for Our Political Moment

How Faulkner’s four narrators delineate Biden-era constituencies.

In the Trump years, Nineteen Eighty-Four was all the rage, but is there any book for the moment now? As a way into the zeitgeist, Nineteen Eighty-Four was a dubious choice.  Trump was the opposite of Big Brother, who, for better or worse, was interested in other people.

Here is a better take on our politics: William Faulkner’s 1929 novel The Sound and the FuryIt may be as good a guide as we have to today’s political landscape.

Do you remember the four parts of the book?  There’s part I, for the man-child Benji, then part II, for the anguished Quentin at Harvard, then part III, for the despicable Jason, and finally part IV, which belongs to Dilsey, the family’s Black employee.

Doesn’t this cover the four parts of the electorate?

In part I, you have the bawling man-child, unable to make sense of what is going on. Benji, mentally retarded, lives in the present, and only in the present—no sense of the past, or anything like the past. In the future he would be surfing the internet, in front of a TV, with no ability to distinguish between one thing and the next—the perfect dumbfounded audience that during the Trump era lived only in the present from tweet to tweet, taken in hand by friendly corporate giants.

Then there’s the Quentin of Part II, the ineffectual liberal, the Harvard undergrad who is about to drown himself in the Charles River. Today he would probably be on the Harvard faculty, making $150,000 a year teaching Faulkner and Critical Race Theory. His is the viewpoint of pure subjectivity. Quentin’s too absorbed in his own subjective world to take notice of the objective world outside it. Deep down he blames our political woes for screwing up his personal life as much as Quentin blames the South.

Then there is Jason, in Part III, the failed small businessman—the perfect Trump voter. He’s as incapable as Trump to manage even a lemonade stand, and Trump’s equal as a sociopath, foul mouthed, a total asshole. As those who read Part III will recall, Jason is obsessed that someone—you, me, or Biden—is going to rob him of his money. And, sure enough, he is, by his niece, who fleeces him, just for his being so much like Tucker Carlson.  Like the 75 million who voted for Trump, Jason knows damn well the election was stolen. Hell, he might have been inside the Capitol on January 6 looking for Nancy Pelosi’s office.

But there is also a part of the electorate that is Part IV, where Dilsey comes on stage—Dilsey, who is all that holds the dysfunctional Compson household together. Dilsey is the future as well as the past—that’s what The Sound and the Fury implies, whether or not Faulkner as private citizen would agree with Faulkner the novelist. As he writes: “Dilsey—they endured.” She lives in the real world. She prefigures—it is hard to resist thinking—that part of the electorate of older Black women who in South Carolina made Biden and not Sanders the nominee in April 2020 and in Georgia delivered two Senate seats to the Democrats this past January. In New York City, Eric Adams got her vote.

And because Dilsey and others did endure, they took in hand and brought people as clueless as Benji to the polls.  It is Dilsey whom the Jason types in the state legislatures recognize as the enemy, and whom they are out to stop.

Faulkner is such a puzzle—often denying in interviews what as an artist he put in his work, such as the fluidity of racial identity.  He might have also been afraid that he might be killed if certain of his neighbors were capable of reading such modernist literary works. Long after The Sound and the Fury, though, while accepting the Nobel Prize, Faulkner delivered that famous statement: “I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail.” Maybe this is a quiet shout out to the only character he ever said was capable of enduring. Maybe he believed, or wanted to believe, that Dilsey was going to win.

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Thomas Geoghegan

Thomas Geoghegan is a lawyer and author of the forthcoming The History of Democracy Has Yet To Be Written: How We Have To Learn To Govern All Over Again, to be published in October by Belt Publishing.