In Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, we find out that Quentin is intensely concerned over his relationship with the past and with the reasons for modern man’s present predicament. He is constantly contemplating what his important ancestors of the past meant to him. Furthermore, he is similar in many ways to the young Henry Sutpen. Both had sisters who were so close to them that the subject of incest was predominant to both characters. And both had fathers who directly affected their destinies.
But of more importance is Quentin’s role in this individual novel. It is through his eyes that the largest segment of the novel is presented. And it is from Quentin that the reader draws his final impression.
As a narrator, Quentin possesses the sensitivity and intelligence necessary for narration. As stated above he is intensely interested in his subject matter. This interest makes him better as a narrator than Mr. Compson, because Mr. Compson has only a mild and sardonic interest in the subject matter, whereas Quentin presents his narration with great passion.
The meaning of the story comes through the character of Quentin. Miss Rosa was too deeply involved to be objective and was also too bitter and warped by being connected with Thomas Sutpen. Mr. Compson had too little concern about the story and tended to view it only as support to his own view of life. He does not feel that the story has any meaning except to illustrate that all men are victims of a hostile universe. But Quentin is far enough removed from the Sutpen myth so as to view it more objectively. He knows that it is a part of his life and a part of his heritage. Therefore, he investigates to see how much responsibility he feels toward the South and toward his own past.
But why do we need Quentin? Without Quentin as the central narrator, what would we have? We would have only the bizarre and somewhat romanticized story of the rise and fall of an unusual man. But with the addition of several narrators, particularly Quentin, the story takes on added levels of meaning. With Quentin, we are able to investigate man’s relationship with the past and his obligations to this past. And we will also investigate man’s efforts to determine the causes which influence man’s present actions, and try to determine whether or not these causes stem from the old virtues.
Quentin’s investigations lead him to believe that Sutpen’s defeat and the South’s defeat are correlated to each one’s lack of a firm moral standard. Likewise Henry’s sanctioning of incest and his crime of fratricide both suggest the most extreme perversion of values — a perversion that is only equaled by the South’s willingness to fight with great chivalry for such a perverted system of values as those embedded in the concept of slavery.
The question of the responsibility that the modern Quentin must feel for those evils committed by his predecessors is left partially undetermined. An answer may be found by resorting to another novel (The Sound and the Fury), or by turning to the appendix of the novel and noting Quentin’s suicide. Apparently, Quentin’s failure to solve the dilemma contributed to his suicide. That he does feel some responsibility is indicated by the fact that he chose to tell the myth of Sutpen and in telling it probed deeply into its significance. If he cannot determine the exact relationship he should hold with the past, he can at least realize that the old South was not built on a firm moral basis. That he doesn’t entirely reject or accept the present South is indicated in his terribly tormented and ambiguous answer to Shreve’s question: “Why do you hate the South?”; that is, in Quentin’s tormented and violent denial that he hates the South lies his dual view of the South which he admires and the South which he castigates.
The meaning of Sutpen’s story becomes clear to Quentin as he tells it and as he realizes that no man and no section can set its personal aims above those of another man or above that of humanity in general.