Sister’s Muddy Underwear Has Tragic Consequences in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury
The downfall of the Compson family is chronicled in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The novel depicts once prominent Southern clan as the members experience social, emotional, and economic decay.
The most tragic experience of the family stems from the first book, told from the point of view of the mentally-challenged son, Benjamin. He and his two brothers assist their sister Caddy up a tree to watch in a neighbor’s house. All three boys are troubled when they see underneath their sister’s dress.
“We watched the muddy bottom of her drawers,” Benjamin recalls. In the next sentence he adds, “Then we couldn’t see her.” This statement becomes evident throughout the rest of the book, as none of the three boys would ever see their sister Caddy in the same way they had prior to the muddy underwear.
Benjamin, who had adored Caddy more than anything except fire and the golf course that once had been the family’s pasture, senses there is something impure about his sister. “She tried to put her arms around me, but I went away,” he says about his sister, who had always smelled like trees to him. Her muddy underwear, though, causes him to say, “I couldn’t smell trees anymore and I began to cry.” Later in the novel Benjamin, probably in an effort to regain the loss of idolatry for his sister, sexually attacks a girl and is castrated.
Quentin, another brother, was also adversely affected by the sight of his sister’s muddy underwear. He becomes obsessed with Caddy’s virginity. He becomes extremely protective of Caddy, who rebels against him by becoming quite promiscuous. Quentin finally appeals to his father in hopes of stopping Caddy’s loose behavior. Mr. Compson tells him that virginity means more to men than it does to women, so he should not worry about his sister’s sexual activities. Quentin, however, continues to obsess over his sister’s purity, even when she conceives a child that is not her husband’s. Quentin tries to defend her by saying that he himself was the father, since he forced his sister to engage in incest. Caddy of course admits that Herbert Head is the father of her child, and she leaves town to live with him. Quentin is heartbroken after Caddy leaves, and he drops out of Harvard. He wanders aimlessly before loading flat irons in his jacket and jumping from a bridge to his death.
The sight of the muddy underwear also has tragic consequences for the third Compson brother, Jason. He begins to abhor his sister from that point, constantly criticizing her. “He don’t like that prissy dress” he explains to her while Benjamin is crying. “You think you’re better than anyone else, don’t you, Prissy?” he later asks her. After Caddy’s adulterous pregnancy Jason blackmails her into giving him power of attorney for the child. Jason uses that power to steal money from his sister and her daughter. When the child turns eighteen, she exhibits the same promiscuous behavior as her mother had. Jason becomes obsessed with protecting his niece’s purity, much like Quenin had done with Caddy, and with similar futility. Jason does not commit suicide, but he does quit his job and is pretty much broke at then end of the novel.
The ending implies that the plight of the Compson family will continue through future generations. Given its agricultural livelihood, the economic downturn could certainly have been inevitable. The poverty, then, would have led to the social decline. The only avoidable tragedies seem to have started with the brothers’ view of their sister’s muddy underwear that day when they helped her climb a tree.