Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

A Rhetoric for Benjy

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

A Rhetoric for Benjy

Article excerpt

When William Faulkner decided to filter Section I of The Sound and the Fury through the consciousness of Benjy Compson, he took upon himself as author the extraordinary task of improvising a language suitable to a mute, an idiot. The shape and size of his assignment in this regard are brought into focus when one considers the problem of language which confronts any author who undertakes a first person narrative. Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn offers a brilliant example. Twain's task, one can see, was to put into Huck's mouth words, speech patterns, images, and ideas which would be consistently appropriate to a pre-adolescent boy like Huck, who lived in a Missouri river-town during the late 1840's. Huck's vernacular language would have to be simple, natural, predominantly concrete. Besides, it would have to be literary enough, that is, flexible and subtle enough, to convey the complex meanings of the novel. How well Mark Twain fulfilled these diverse demands is not of moment here. What is important is the fact that the dimensions of his language problems are characteristic and clear. The resources upon which he could draw to help him solve them are obvious, too. As a pre-adolescent boy Sam Clemens had lived in a Missouri river-town in the late 1840's. He could depend confidently upon memories of his own boyhood, not only to supply suitable incidents for his narrative, but also to validate the vernacular language in which his story would be told.

By comparison, Faulkner's problems with Benjy were formidable. Whereas Huck is intelligent, trustful, charmingly loquacious, Benjy, the idiot, is mute. Thus the traditional first person point of view was closed to Faulkner, who had to resort to the more modern, more highly specialized perspective of the interior monologue. In theory it is all one to the omniscient author whether he monitor the stream of consciousness of an idiot or a genius, a mute or a spellbinder. So there is at least a technical plausibility in making Benjy a center of revelation in the novel.

But the problem of language remains. Though it is understood that an interior monologue is not actually spoken, but instead is thought or experienced by a persona; and though it is conceded that the omniscient author, as monitor, reports to the reader the flux of images and ideas which transpire; still, dramatic integrity demands that both the content of the monologue and the language in which it is recorded be peculiarly and consistently appropriate to that persona whose consciousness is being exposed. The author is merely the medium, the transcriber, who assists in the communicative process; and the freely ruminating persona becomes in fact a first person narrator, though once removed. Thus we may properly speak of Benjy, Quentin, and Jason as narrators in The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner was notably successful in distinguishing these three Compson brothers by attributing to each an appropriate manner of speaking or manner of thinking. In fashioning Quentin's and Jason's "language" his task was essentially the same as Mark Twain's had been in fashioning Huck's. But dealing with Benjy was something special.

Had thirty-three-year-old Benjy, though mute, possessed an average mentality, it would have required but a minor authorial miracle on Faulkner's part to discover a voice for him. The device of the interior monologue, which by-passes the spoken word and purports to set up communication directly with the uncharted and mysterious consciousness, opens the necessary channel. The characteristics of the "speech" of such a Benjy would have been assured. It is plausible to assume that the consciousnesses of intelligent persons operate in comparable ways. This hypothetically intelligent Benjy's "speech," then, would not have differed radically from that of his two brothers.

It is the fact of Benjy's idiocy which compounded Faulkner's problems and demanded that he effect the major authorial miracle of causing not only a mute to "speak," but a blithering idiot to narrate the first section of The Sound and the Fury. …

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