Two Sides of the Same Coin: Jason Compson & Dilsey in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury

In Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, Jason Compson and Dilsey, the subjects of the third and fourth sections respectively, are at once paired and contrasted: they are the two opposite sides of the coin that is adulthood. As in the earlier sections, Faulkner once again presents us with a world linked a stage of development in each of his last two sections. However, whereas Benjy’s section was tied to childhood and Quentin’s to adolescence, both Dilsey and Jason’s sections deal with adulthood, though they present radically different pictures of it. Jason’s world is one governed by time, anxiety, power and control, insecurity, and, above all, money, while Dilsey’s is a mature world of age governed not by nouns, but verbs: Dilsey’s world is one of action; she protects, consoles, defends, and provides without rest.

This contrast between the inaction of the third section and action of the fourth is particularly poignant because Faulkner gives us two characters who, on the surface, appear to be the opposite of their actual states. Jason is unable to keep still. He spends half of the time the novel allots to him zipping about in his car, the other half flitting from place to place. However, despite all his actual movement, he never achieves anything or moves forward one bit. Jason is simply spinning his wheels, completely ineffective, something which is highlighted the moment his literal wheels are taken from him: he becomes absolutely ridiculous when Quentin and her paramour let the air out from his tires. He is forced into stillness and he can no longer hide his helplessness with random, distracting movement.

Jason’s inability to achieve anything or to move forward through real action is epitomized in his mental maturity level. Late in his section, Jason takes to riling Luster up over a quarter for a ticket to the show simply because he enjoys the feeling of power it gives him, insecure as he is. Dilsey reprimands him, telling him to leave Luster alone and implying that he should be ashamed: “A big growed man like you,” (255). But while Jason may be physically grown, he is almost as emotionally stunted as his brother Benjy. Legally and mentally he is an adult, but his drives operate like those of a child: he thinks in terms of possessions and his world is entirely centered around himself, just as any child’s world is. His teasing of Luster is the action of an insecure child, attempting to demonstrate his power: the bully stealing the smallest boy in the class’s lunch money.

It is made clear in Jason’s section that he is a petty man governed by avarice and selfishness, who feels completely out of control in his life and cheated by life (for instance: his bitterness over not getting to go to college (196)) and so displays excessive aggression and sadism in order to try and gain some small power over whatever he can. This sadism and urge to destroy manifests itself in every aspect of Jason’s life: even as he watches sparrows in the square, he muses that “if they’d just put a little poison out there in the square, they’d get rid of [the sparrows] in a day,” (248). Similarly, Jason’s greed very obviously controls his life in that he thinks almost entirely in terms of costs: thinking on the parson, he relates that it costs 45 dollars to clean the courthouse clock so that it’ll run (a waste in Jason’s opinion) (247) and in the passage above regarding the birds plaguing the square, he rejects the idea of shooting   all the pigeons because “it would take a millionaire to afford to shoot them at five cents a shot,” (248).

The shift in tone from the Jason section to the Dilsey one is extreme, despite the fact that the cadences of their speech are actually remarkably similar, especially compared to the first two sections. The tone of Jason’s section, though, is one of total spite and agression, evident from his first sentence  (“Once a bitch always a bitch, I always say” (180)), whereas the tone of Dilsey’s section is calm and forthright. While Jason’s makes all the appearances of movement, all of his zipping about is entirely show and nothing but bluster, whereas Dilsey, old and slow-moving as she is, is a force of constant, unstoppable forward motion.

Dilsey is the central person who keeps the Compson family from descending into “rack and ruin” as she says in “That Midnight Sun.” Without her, the family would have disintegrated long ago. She is mother, grandmother, and substitute mother: she is the ultimate provider (which Jason, as head of the family, should be and isn’t). Following Caddy’s departure, she is the one who cares at all for Benjy, despite the fact that he still lives with his own mother; it is Dilsey who buys the birthday cake for Benjy and she does so with money from her own pocket, since Jason is too mean to give it to her for the purpose. Dilsey provides for and protects both the Compson family and her own and she is completely confident in herself and her abilities to do so (whereas Jason’s confidence is all a show to mask deep insecurity).

The day of Dilsey portrayed in the novel is, for her part, an ordinary one, defined by set tasks with shallow futures, which ground her firmly in the present, in opposition to all three of the previous sections, which have irremovable ties to the past, keeping them locked in a past-present flux. Dilsey begins her day withe the small actions required to make breakfast and get the family moving. While they appear to be small, they are essential to keeping the family running and Dilsey, old as she is, does them steadily, because she knows that no one else will.  Dilsey’s chapter, which unlike the first three is not told in a first person stream of conscious style, opens not only in third person, but in a style completely reliant on images.

We do not listen to Dilsey’s thoughts as she performs all the tasks to begin the day, we watch: “Dilsey emerged once more, this time in a man’s felt hat and an army overcoat, beneath the frayed skirts of which her blue gingham dress fell in uneven balloonings, streaming about her as she crossed the yard,” (266) and “soon Dilsey’s skin thad taken on a rich, lustrous quality as compared with that as of a faint dusting of wood ashes” (274). Nowhere else in the novel is as much attention paid to the way people dress and look as in Dilsey’s section. It is in Dilsey’s section that we get our first real picture of what Benjy actually looks like (“a big man who appeared to have been shaped out of some substance whose particles would not or did not cohere to one another… with a shambling gait like a trained bear” (274)), which is simultaneously a result of the presence of the omniscient third person narrator and Dilsey’s very nature in that she sees things as they are, simply that and no more or less, and she accepts them and forges ahead.

Dilsey’s strength is in her endurance, which may sound like a passive quality, but is in fact the thing that allows her to climb both the literal and figurative staircase every morning to ready the family for the day. It is her constant forward motion (a forward motion not moving towards a future, but simply moving) and attention to detail in doing small things correctly with patience that grounds her in the present allows her to be the steadfast, unmoving rock of the Compson family (in direct contrast  to Jason’s frantic movement and inability to stay still).

Having established that while Dilsey and Jason both represent the world of adulthood (and so are loosely paired), they represent that world in such different ways that they can be seen no other way than as contrasting one another, it remains to examine their larger role in the structure of the novel. The Jason section serves to round out the portrayal of Caddy through her brother’s eyes. With each new section, we get a new angle on Caddy, though Jason’s is largely qualified by what we have already read of her in the earlier two sections. Jason’s section is also tragicomic: Jason’s tone is dryly humorous (“The only thing I couldn’t understand was why it was just poison oak,” he says after falling into a patch of it while pursuing Quentin, “and not a snake or something,” (241)) and we cannot help but laugh at the ridiculousness of this grown man running about after a young girl, completely incapable of controlling himself or performing any useful action.

However, it is the Dilsey section that has the most interesting structural function. Dilsey’s section is something of a condemnation of the earlier three sections, all of which operated on a stream of consciousness formula. Dilsey’s section condemns the novel of consciousness as represented in the other three sections for its narrow view of persons and situations, as well as allowing us to understand the antidote: through the third person narration of Dilsey’s section, we take a step back from the immediacy of the earlier sections and are able to get a full picture not only of the Compson family as a whole, but of Caddy.

Logically, the fourth section seems as if it should rightfully belong to Caddy, the fourth Compson child and the subject of the book. Hers is the only perspective we have not heard. But to hear directly from her would have been to reduce her to her own stream of consciousness and set her equivalent to her brothers. Without hearing from her, she is allowed to remain larger than life. As beautiful, unattainable, and mysterious as her brothers hold her to be. But in Dilsey’s section, we do get an objective portrait of this degenerating family, which, to an extent, includes Caddy. In terms of time, only Dilsey’s section seems to be in its rightful chronological place, underlining that Dilsey is wholly situated in her present (hence her section is not plagued by flashbacks) and also putting her method forward as the best way to experience time and life. Also, Caddy does not get to have the last section, because though Caddy is the central figure in the thoughts of her three brothers, the central woman in their lives is not Caddy, but Dilsey. Caddy is absent, though she is ever present in their thoughts, and it is Dilsey who preserves the family life of the Compsons and of these three brothers, while they’re at home. Little though they think about her, they rely on her entirely as their anchor.

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