Quentin’s Tortured Psyche: A Critical Look at the Mind of the Narrator of The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! When Sigmund Freud wrote about the play, Oedipus Rex, it seemed to him that he was answering a literary query. When Sophocles first adapted the myth into a dramatic representation, it was a metaphor for the struggle between fate and will. Oedipus, it had been decreed by the Oracle, was to kill his father and marry his mother. By fleeing the place where he was raised, Oedipus hoped, through free will, to counter the demands of fate. As it turned out, he was unable to do so, and the dramatic telling of this story has lasted for over two thousand years.
To Freud, writing in the late nineteenth century, the struggle between fate, as foretold from a high power, and free will, was no longer interesting, nor did he think the audiences of his era were interested in such a subject either. Yet, the play continued to be performed, continued to be studied. Freud theorized that some other aspect of the play was necessary to have the dramatic impact it was having on modern audiences. In studying this quandary, he developed one of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis: the Oedipal Complex.
It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this so,1
wrote Freud in his Interpretation of Dreams. This was the building block of the Oedipal Complex; the idea that need that the mother’s breast fulfills provides us with our greatest desire at a time when all we encompass is desire, and that the presence of the father, taking away the breast, prompts our first feelings of envy and hate.
Even from the first development of the theory, it was the evident that the Oedipal Complex did not simply apply to the traditional family unit of father/mother/child. Indeed, in the case of Oedipus himself, the killing of his father and the sexual relationship he enters into with his mother are with his biological parents, whom he was not even aware existed rather than the people whom he believes to be his parents. For the Oedipal Complex to actually apply to Oedipus himself, it would have to be at a very subconscious level However, in later writings about the Oedipal Complex, Freud wrote that the subject could identify with someone other than the parents and the Oedipal Complex could still apply. “Identification endeavors to mold a person’s own ego after the fashion of the one that has been taken as a model,”2 Freud wrote, helping to make the case that the Oedipal Complex could be transferred from the parents if the subject had other models for molding his ego.
A good example for this kind of identification would be someone who was raised by a self-centered mother who provided no nurturing and an ineffectual father who would never dare to take the mother away (and of course, with a mother who does not care, it makes it easier for the father to be irrelevant to this equation). One classic literary example of this altered family structure can be found in the Compson family and specifically within the character of Quentin Compson, the tragic young man whose brooding voice takes us on the path through The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom.
Though most of the action in Absalom, Absalom takes place long before Quentin is born and three quarters of The Sound and the Fury is set eighteen years after his death, his presence lays like a shadow over both novels, and the tragic love he bears for his sister, Caddy, forms an underlying theme that helps to connect the two novels.
To come to an understanding of Quentin Compson and how the Oedipal Complex can be applied to him, we first must get an understanding of the Compson family itself and how it came to place Quentin in such a psychologically demanding position. Quentin Compson is the oldest of the four children of Jason Compson III and Caroline Bascomb Compson. At the time of Quentin’s birth, the Compsons are still one of the most important families in the town of Jefferson, Mississippi. He is the grandson of Jason Compson II, a Confederate General from the Civil War. When Quentin is born in 1891, the family still has strong standing in the area, although throughout his life, this status sinks lower and lower. Quentin is forced to watch as his family slowly slides out of Southern society, raised by a mother who believes the Compsons are no better than the Bascombs, the family from which she has a come, and a father who does nothing to stop the decline. While still children, the younger Compsons find themselves detached from their parents, neither of whom has much to do with any of their children (with the exception of Jason IV, who is looked fondly upon by his mother as a child as being ‘a true Bascomb’). As a result, Caddy, who is a year younger than Quentin, takes over the role of mother, Benjy takes on the role of the child, and Quentin seems to alternate between the roles of father, brother and son, never certain which role he truly wants. This new family dynamic is what leads to the development of Quentin’s Oedipal Complex.
In the Quentin section of the novel (June Second 1910), we are allowed access to Quentin’s internal monologue. On the last day of his life his thoughts drift back through all his years and he focuses on certain incidents in his life which have come to have meaning for his whole life. All of these scenes, in one way or another, focus on his relationship with Caddy, his sister, his surrogate mother, and the one love of his life.
The earliest chronological sequence of Quentin’s life that we see is from 1898, when he is seven and Caddy is six (because the story is told out of sequence, it is not the earliest scene in the book, but as I shall endeavor to discuss the story chronologically and thus come to a conclusion about Quentin Compson, this is the order in which I shall discuss his life). While their parents are attending to the death of their grandmother, the Compson children are sent away with their servant Dilsey. While playing down in the creek, Caddy manages to get her underdrawers dirty, a metaphor for the staining of her purity that would last through all of Quentin’s life. While they play in the creek, Caddy takes control of the situation and begins to order people about. She is able to do what she wants and get away with it and she is able to convince everyone that she is in charge. When the four children return to the house, Caddy asks her father that she be placed in the charge and that the others must mind her, and their father, tired from his mother-in-law’s funeral, and not caring about what happens, agrees. This is a power over Quentin and Benjy that Caddy never relinquishes. This is where the family dynamic changes for Caddy and she transcends the place of sister and becomes the mother. When Quentin identifies with her as a mother figure (in Benjy’s attachment to Caddy, he has always viewed her as his mother figure), it begins the confusion in identity that only ends when Quentin loves his sister and what she represents more than he cares about life.
What made this all the more precarious, was not just that he loved Caddy as both sister and mother (and wife, in a sense), but that she had come to represent everything about the society in which he was being reared. He “loved not his sister’s body but some concept of Compson honor precariously and (he knew well) only temporarily supported by the minute fragile membrane of her maidenhood.”3 He grows up with a love for his sister that supports his view of his culture. When he gets older and Caddy can not live up to the standards which he needs her to live up to, his life falls apart and he takes his own life.
The next time we see Quentin is in his young teenage years. He comes upon Caddy’s friend Natalie in the barn after Natalie and Caddy have had a fight. When Quentin helps Natalie up, he finds himself aroused. They play at lovemaking and they are kissing when Quentin notices Caddy standing in the door and stops. The presence of his sister has an immediate effect upon Quentin. He stands up and starts to talk to Caddy and keep her from understanding the situation. When Caddy walks out, he leaves to go after her. Natalie, suddenly spurned, leaves, and Quentin watches “Natalie going through the garden among the rain. Get wet I hope you catch pneumonia go on home Cowface.”4 The arousal he had been feeling is gone now that Caddy has discovered him. He leaves Natalie, who disgusts him now, and goes after his sister. When he catches up to her, he tries to convince her that he was only hugging Natalie and that Caddy was misinterpreting the events she witnessed. When Caddy tells him “I dont give a damn what you were doing,”5 he becomes angry, precisely because he does want her to care. It is vitally important to him that she care about him, not just as a brother, but also as a son and a potential lover. They fight and Caddy scratches him, trying to get at his eyes. After the fight, they lie on the ground and Quentin asks her if she cares now. Caddy firsts to learn of Quentin’s devotion to her and apologizes for scratching him and they lie in the creek and wash the mud from their bodies.
While Caddy has long before taken upon herself the role of mother, it is only now that she is learning the other things that Quentin has come to expect of her. It is, however, in the next two chronological sequences that Caddy begins to realize the importance that Quentin has placed upon her.
The next chronological sequence is in 1907, when Caddy has been kissing a boy and this has clearly upset Quentin. At dinner, he can’t bring himself to hardly eat anything and later, when alone with Caddy, he slaps her. She berates him for being mad, commenting “I didnt kiss a dirty girl like Natalie anyway.”6 By this time, she understands what is going on, and knows that Quentin’s kissing of Natalie was really a desire for Caddy herself.
The next chronological sequence is perhaps the most important of the novel, and certainly the event that Quentin harkens back to on the day of his death. Sometime in the late summer of 1909, Caddy loses her virginity to Dalton Ames, a stranger in town. The family learns that she has been seeing someone in town and Mrs Compson asks Jason to follow Caddy. Later, when Quentin finds out, he is upset. The entire family has become upset that Caddy is running around with a boy that she will not bring home. Things reach their climax one night at the dinner table. Caddy comes home and walks past the open door and Benjy, who has an acute sense of smell, especially where his sister is concerned (earlier in the novel, he becomes extremely agitated when she puts perfume on and he can not discern her natural scent), smells that something is wrong and tries to get her to go to the bathroom and wash. When Benjy continues to be upset and follows Caddy upstairs, it becomes apparent to Quentin that Caddy has lost her virginity and that the smell of sex is what is upsetting Benjy.
Caddy comes downstairs after washing up, but Benjy is still upset and he howls when she touches him. Caddy runs out and quickly after, Quentin follows her. Quentin goes down to the creek and finds her lying in the water. This same creek which was where Caddy got her muddy drawers on the night of their grandmother’s death and where she and Quentin lay down after she caught him kissing Natalie is also the setting for their passionate argument and confrontation.
When Quentin first comes down to the creek, he wants to know if it is true:
do you love him
her hand came out I didnt move it fumbled down my arm and she held my hand flat against her chest her heart thudding
Quentin can not believe that this is true as he stands there with his hand upon his sister’s heart (and her breast). He then asks her if Dalton had made her do it and threatens to kill him. When he asks Caddy if she hates Dalton, all Caddy can do is move his hand to her throat, where he can feel the pounding pulse of her heart and she whispers “poor Quentin.” Caddy understands what this betrayal has done, not only to Benjy, but also to Quentin. She finally begins to understand all the things that she has come to represent to her family. Long ago, she had given up on her parents (her mother had worn black the first time Caddy was seen kissing a boy and their father has always allowed Caddy to do whatever she wants). She now has her surrogate family to worry about and they can not understand why she has done this.
When Caddy tries to make Quentin understand the situation, she questions him about his own experience:
youve never done that have you
what done what
that what I have what I did
yes yes lots of times with lots of girls8
This is a lie and both Caddy and Quentin know it from the minute it is said. Caddy wants to give Quentin the chance to deny her and he takes the chance, but it is unsuccessful, because both of them know how he feels about her. Quentin then takes out his knife and threatens to kill her and then commit suicide. She agrees to the plan, but then Quentin lacks the courage to carry out his convictions. He stands there with the knife to her throat, but can not bring himself to cut her. The dialogue between them carries an extra sexual overtone:
push it are you going to
do you want me to
yes push it
touch your hand to it
dont cry poor Quentin9
The way they discuss the knife, it could just as easily be Quentin’s penis that they are discussing and the act is incest rather than murder / suicide. A few days later, when he is talking to his father, Quentin lays a claim to incest, telling his father that he has committed it with Caddy. His father dismisses this claim as untrue because he tells Quentin that it is obvious that Quentin is still a virgin. Mr. Compson also tells Quentin about how virginity is only important to males, and to females (like Caddy) it has no meaning. It is at this point that Quentin begins to realize that he not only wishes to have his sister as his lover, but also that he has begun to see her as the culmination of the entire culture he has been raised in. If her purity is gone, then the purity of the entire South is gone.
In the end, Quentin is both unable to consummate his love for his sister and unable to kill her. His father tells him “you wanted to sublimate a piece of natural human folly into a horror and then exorcise it with truth.”10 Quentin replies “if i could tell you we did it would have been so and then the others wouldnt be so.”11 Quentin wants to correct everything at once. He wants to save the culture he can feel slipping away. He wants to save the life he feels slipping away. He wants to save the purity of his sister which is so important to him but not to her. He even goes to threaten Dalton Ames and tell him to leave town. The threat is not taken seriously and Quentin, when he attempts to fight Dalton, is humiliated, and finds himself unable to fight. He is not only unable to alter what has happened to Caddy, he is even unable to do anything about it afterwards. His father tells him that he should simply leave for Harvard early and try to forget what has happened. Before he can leave for Harvard, something happens which will later make Quentin examine his history more carefully.
In September, Quentin is called to the office of Rosa Caulfield. From Rosa, and later, his father, Quentin learns the history of Henry Sutpen and what befell his family. Sutpen had a son named Charles Bon, who had negro blood. Later, Sutpen has two more children (Henry and Judith) by a different wife. In 1859, Charles and Henry become friends, and through the friendship, Charles meets and becomes engaged to Judith. Sutpen is opposed to this and tries to get Henry to stop it. Henry goes off to fight in the Civil War with Charles at his side and gradually becomes accepted of the idea of incest. Near the end of the war, Sutpen reveals to Henry that Charles has negro blood, and Henry, enraged rides off and kills Charles. This story is told to Quentin just before he sets off for Harvard.
The story parallels Quentin’s own life in some ways. In January, when he receives a letter from his father telling him that Rosa has died, he and his roommate, Shreve, piece together the entire story and chronology of the Sutpen clan. Sutpen had come to Mississippi in an effort to form a Southern dynasty, and wanted his son to be the head of a great family. In the Sutpen story (detailed in Absalom, Absalom), there are three connections to the story of Quentin’s own life: first, a brother who willingly commits incest; second, a man who in defending his sister’s honor, actually goes through with the threat of death; third, the downfall of Southern society.
In the Sutpen story, Quentin is forced to come to terms with people who were able to do what he was not. Yet, in the end, the Sutpen story was still symptomatic of the general decay of the South, which Quentin has been witnessing. After the story has been told, through a long evening, Shreve says “Now I want you to tell me just one thing more. Why do you hate the South?”12
Quentin is quick in his denial of this and he pants in “the cool air, the New England dark: I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!”13 These are the final words of the novel and the last we hear from Quentin until he receives the invitation to his sister’s wedding.
When the envelope first arrives, Quentin can see on the cover what it says: “Mr and Mrs Jason Richmond Compson announce the the marriage of their daughter Candace.”14 Quentin has no choice but to accept the fact that his sister has left his control.
This is the beginning of the end for Quentin. In his examination of the history of the Sutpens, he has not only come face to face with people who were capable of acting in ways that he has proven that he has cannot, but the Sutpen story also confirms the decay of the Southern society in which Quentin has been raised. Caddy has not only lost her virginity and stained the purity of herself, but also of the culture which has raised them and there is nothing that Quentin can do to stop the decay.
When Quentin comes home for the wedding, in late April, he makes one last attempt to confront Caddy on the subject. He first gets angry with Caddy’s fiancee, Herbert, and tries to force him into a fight. When he is unsuccesful at that, he attempts to blackmail Herbert by revealing that he knows that when Herbert was at Harvard he was known as a blackguard and a cheater at cards. Herbert tries to bribe Quentin into not saying anything to Caddy, but before the conversation can go any further, Caddy comes into the room and asks to speak to Quentin alone.
Herbert leaves, and Quentin and Caddy are alone together for the first time since the problems of the previous summer. Caddy tells Quentin not to interfere, commenting that he has done enough of this during the previous summer. Quentin tries what he can to keep Caddy from going ahead with the marriage, but to no avail. Even when he tells her that Herbert is a blackguard who cheats at cards, it makes no difference to her.
The next night, 23 April 1910, Quentin and Caddy sit in Caddy’s room and listen to the people arriving downstairs. This is the final moment together for the siblings. Caddy talks to her brother in quiet tones, trying to get him to agree to watch over Benjy and their father. Quentin, in true Oedipal style, cares nothing for his ineffectual father. All he cares for is the mother figure in his life, who he feels he is losing. He tries everything he can to convince her that she should not marry. He reaches out to touch her and she draws away, telling him that she is sick. When he asks her how she can marry the next day when she is sick, she finally is forced to tell him that she is pregnant.
At first, Quentin chooses not to believe the news. He starts to ask her questions about her lovers, trying to pry information from her, but he is finally forced to concede as she again pushes the need for him to look after Benjy and their father. Again, however, Quentin cares nothing for Benjy and his father and only has concern for Caddy. To Quentin, it is bad enough that Caddy is getting married, but the fact that she is forced to marry because of a pregnancy is too much for him. He refuses to accept the news.
This is the final straw for Quentin. While it is difficult to understand what Quentin is thinking at any one moment because his monologue goes in and out of the present, it is clear that at the moment when he hears of her pregnancy, he is thinking back to the moment when he first learned that Caddy lost her virginity. He is brought back to the fight they had in the creek the summer before and how Quentin had tried to convince her that he could cancel his matriculation and they could take the money and run away. She had refused his wish, thus prompting him to pull his knife upon her. He is forced to relive this moment again and again through her wedding and through the remaining five weeks of his life.
The “present” of the Quentin section of the novel is 2 June 1910. This is the final day of Quentin’s life. Quentin has long been looking forward to this day as being the last of his life. The previous summer, when talking to his father after the loss of Caddy’s virginity, in the same conversation in which he attempted to convince his father that he had committed incest, he tried to convince his father that he was going to commit suicide. His father tells him that he will only commit suicide when he realizes that Caddy is not worth the despair that he is putting himself through. After Caddy’s wedding, Quentin decides that, since his family has gone through hardships, including selling Benjy’s beloved pasture, to pay for a year of Harvard for Quentin, that he will finish his year at Harvard. After all, his father told him in that same conversation, “no compson has ever disappointed a lady.”15 It had been his mother’s wish for him to go to Harvard and he can not disappoint her. He can afford to disappoint Caddy now because he knows that she is no longer someone that can be a part of his life. He has lived beyond his despair and can no longer go on living.
It becomes readily apparent that this conversation with his father has become one of the most important things in his life. This conversation is the last aspect of his past to go through Quentin’s past before he leaves his dorm room and goes to the Charles River where he drowns himself.
Quentin’s father, who has been so ineffectual during his life, only helps to bring on his death. It is his father who makes Quentin understand his own Oedipal Complex. Quentin finally comes to an understanding of how important Caddy has become to his life, and how his feelings for his sister not only encompass her, but also all of his feelings for the society that has produced him. She is his mother in the sense that she has cared and nurtured him for all of these years, and she is his mother because she has stepped in to represent the society that has produced him. She embodies everything he feels about the South, the South that he so desperately hates for the thoughts it has produced in his head, but that he can not bring himself to admit his hatred for.
Quentin can not live with all of the contradictions that have been brought to the forefront of his life. His father has never had any feelings for him, has never helped to raise him, yet it is his father who sees straight through to Quentin’s core. His sister he loves as a mother, but also as a lover and he wants to possess her. Yet, he also hates his sister for everything she represents about the culture that has crippled him emotionally. He has become the product of a dying society that has burned its stamp into him, yet he hates that society more than life itself. He desperately wants to possess his sister but she is denied to him both in emotions (for being married) and in body (for being pregnant). He has been told that no Compson has ever disappointed a lady, but Quentin is not only forced to disappoint Caddy, but also to disappoint the entire South. He has been unable to live up to the standards of his society in the way that the Sutpens were. He has become a failure to his society, a failure as a brother and a failure as a potential lover. Worst of all, he realizes that his sister and the South, the two ladies that he has brought himself to the depths of despair over, are not even worth the despair he has brought upon himself. In the end, Quentin can not bring himself to hate his father. He can not bring himself to love his sister. He can not fulfill any of the potential of his troubled psyche. He can only die.
Works Cited and Other Sources
Butery, Karen Ann. “From Conflict to Suicide: The Inner