Autistic expression in “The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner (1929)

Faulkner, William - The sound and the fury“The Sound and the Fury” is typically viewed as a difficult book, involving a stream-of-consciousness style and multiple perspectives to explore events the final throes of a plantation family in Mississippi just 30 – 60 years after the abolition of slavery in the United States. One of these perspectives is that of Benjy, a character usually described as an ‘idiot’ in the words of the twentieth century. He might now be termed ‘proundly intellectually disabled’. Some authors have identified traits they recognise as autistic. His correct diagnosis is not relevant to the depth that Faulkner brings to the character’s own mind and perspective in the first section of the book, written in the first person as the consciousness of an adult man who has no spoken words.

Benjy is introduced to us without any label, “He thirty three. Thirty three this morning,” said Luster, the boy currently caring for him. “You mean, he been three years old thirty years” replied another boy. He has been most intimately cared for by three generations of the black family who have lived in the last shack left in the former slave plantation, attending to Benjy’s family’s household care. Benjy reports the speech of others within his stream of consciousness, but never replies in words, only communicating through degrees of moaning and his behaviour. Other people decide what he wants or needs, without much obvious effort to understand the meaning of his moaning. They also dismiss him as ‘that damn looney’ and an ‘idiot’. The three later sections of the book, from the perspective of two brothers and an omniscient narrator, broadly confirm the events within Benjy’s perception.

Sensory continuity

Benjy’s narrative is often described as chaotic, lacking in substantial description and impaired by his limited intellect. Read as the perspective of a nonverbal autistic adult, however, Benjy relates a lyrical flow of experience with a narrative that is strongly driven by his senses. Without words to bind him into a linear chronology, Benjy ties events into streams of sensory connection. His sister Caddy (Candace) is intimately bound with the smell of trees and sleep, his father and brother Quentin with the smell of rain.

The family who care for Benjy recognise his ability to sense events that have been kept secret from him, claiming that he can smell death, sickness, family tragedy and even the shame that leads his mother to rename him Benjamin (‘son of my pain’, because his imperfection is unfit for the memory of her brother Maury, after whom he was first named).

Benjy’s perspective takes on a great deal more structure when interpreted as a sensory narrative and could raise the question of how disorganised and chaotic it must feel to be faced by the ‘linear’ narratives imposed by language acquisition for a person living in a sensory stream. The smell of trees or rain bring Caddy or his father into immediate proximity, wherever they are.

Social discontinuity

Benjy’s parents hand him over to the care of housekeeper Dilsey as his impairment becomes apparent. She dresses, feeds and entertains him and passes this task through her children Frony, Versh and TP, then to Frony’s son Luster. His vocal expressions are described as a meaningless nuisance, “hopeless and prolonged. It was nothing. Just sound. It might have been all time and injustice and sorrow become vocal for an instant by a conjunction of planets.” Much of his care is aimed at ‘hush’, to protect his fragile mother from him and him from his volatile brother Justin.

This places Benjy in a social limbo, between the world of his own family and the world of Dilsey’s family who care for him:

“I wish you wouldn’t keep on bringin him to church, mammy,” Frony said. “Folks talkin.”
“Whut folks?” Dilsey said.
“I hears em,” Frony said.
“And I knows whut kind of folks,” Dilsey said. “Trash white folks. Dat’s who it is. Thinks he aint good enough fer white church, but nigger church aint good enough fer him.”
“Dey talks, jes de same,” Frony said.
“Den you send um to me,” Dilsey said. “Tell um de good Lawd dont keer whether he bright er not. Dont nobody but white trash keer dat.”

Benjy is the only member of his family to recognise beauty and value in those around himself and Dilsey’s community are the only characters to recognise Benjy’s humanity and value. His mother sees shame in his impairment and the rest of the family use him as a lightning-rod to ground the various tragedies and scandals that unfold. Benjy not only grounds the lightning strikes of scandal, he is also the moral and emotional grounding of the book.

Shakespeare’s wise idiocy

Macbeth, shortly before his defeat and death proclaims that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The telling of the tale of life and the beauty of Shakepeare’s language tell us that the idiot story-teller revealing wisdom through “sound and fury”. Benjy as idiot story-teller can sense things, using his senses (particularly odour) to bind a narrative observation that the other three perspectives lack.

Faulkner, in a later description of Benjy, said “To that idiot, time was not a continuation, it was an instant, there was no yesterday and no tomorrow, it all is this moment, it all is [now] to him. He cannot distinguish between what was last year and what will be tomorrow, he doesn’t know whether he dreamed it, or saw it.” (Meriwether & Millgate (1980) “Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962”). This has parallels with the concept of living in a nonverbal sensory stream described by Olga Bogdashina in “Autism and the Edges of the Known World”.

Is this autism? And does it matter?

I have no diagnostic training, so like others I am sure that I could pick over elements of the text and find attachment to objects or routine, lack of social reciprocity and other traits of something that might be autism. The same traits also exist at the same level in people without autism who are have the intellectual expression that Benjy exhibits, so he might have autism or some autistic traits. There is certainly enough to include “The Sound and the Fury” in any list of early depictions of (possible) autism.

His correct diagnosis really does not matter. As an adult who does not speak, whose attempts at communication are always hushed as an irritation, whose wants and needs are decided by the capricious forces of the household he lives in, he is a well-portrayed character. Benjy effectively conveys a first-person account of life without spoken words.