Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Faulkner and the Three Forms of Storytelling

hannahgisele's picture

In this course, The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories, I’ve learned about what could be considered the three main types of stories: there are non-narrative foundational stories, which are static, hierarchical in nature, eternal, and have no segmentation. There are narrative foundational stories, which are time sensitive, segmented, and there is a sense of movement away from the past towards the future. Third, there are emergent stories, which lack a hierarchy, have no segmentation, and are more explanatory. Each type mirrors the ways in which we have attempted to explain our presence on this earth. The Great Chain of Being closely resembles a non-narrative foundational story telling while the tree of life is similar to a narrative foundational one. Thirdly, evolution is a real life example of a functional emergent story. While most literature is written in a narrative foundational format, we can also track the evolution of our usage of these different types of stories.

Classically, the ‘story’ we use to describe this progression involves our evolution from narrative foundational to non-narrative foundational and on to emergent stories, but there is one novel I’d like to focus on that encompasses all three, and interestingly, they are depicted in the reverse order. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is the Southern gothic tale of the incredible social, economic, and biological downfall of the once highly distinguished Compson family. Faulkner’s novel is segmented into four distinct narratives and as the novel unfolds, it becomes evident that the first three narrators are brothers while the fourth section is told by an omniscient, neutral narrator (possibly Faulkner himself). Each brother’s narration can be shown in relation to our three types of story telling.

The first brother is Benjy, a mentally impaired 33–year-old who requires constant care and whose narration is distinct in its lack of lucidity. His narration oscillates uncontrollably between the past and present because he has no sense of time, or cause and effect. His narrative voice could be equated to an emergent story telling. The second narrative voice is that of the oldest brother, Quentin, whose narration presumably occurs on the day of his suicide. His narrative voice is befuddled and neurotic, and his actions, often aimless. While he is lucid enough to describe his whereabouts, his inability to remove himself from his past and his obsession with time imitate a non-narrative foundational structure. The third narrator is Jason, who is cruel, contemptuous and completely lacks remorse. As a narrator, he is emotionless, criminal in his actions, and brutish. Nevertheless, his depictions of his surroundings and the events of the novel are reminiscent of a classic narrative foundational account as he touches upon the past of his family and the stark lack of a future for the Compson family’s cursed bloodline, while acknowledging his life on the spectrum of time.


Given that most stories are narrative foundational, this novel transcends the norm and introduces the reader to new ways of reading. We struggle to make sense of what we are unfamiliar with, and the emergent way of story telling is both alienating and intriguing. As is evident in the name itself, the non-narrative foundational narration is the second most complicated to understand. In Quentin’s account, we can recognize some classic story-telling tropes and indicators, but we are also perplexed by his erratic and sometimes frightening spontaneity and detachment from his surroundings as he undergoes a rare experience: that of choosing one’s own death, and living in the world right before making that ultimate choice. Lastly, Jason’s narrative foundational story is complicated by his sociopathic tendencies. While we can easily comprehend the events due to his straightforward manner of narrating, his character traits are so disconcerting that the clarity with which he speaks feels unnatural and haunting in relation to the subject matter.


 Since we view the world through a completely different lens than Benjy, we have to work harder to gain meaning from his narrative voice. Faulkner’s decision to write from Benjy’s physical and memory oriented viewpoint gives the reader a unique opportunity to experience a world in which concepts of time, and cause and effect are nonexistent. The reader cannot help but try to make sense of the shifting world that seems to whirl around Benjy as he fumbles through time without warning, but the reader is denied the reasoning behind the train of thought of each narrator. Faulkner denies the reader of a specific way in which to more clearly comprehend Benjy’s narrative. Still, the chaos depicted remains consistent with what one might imagine of the events within the mind of a retarded person. He as a narrator cannot make sense of what he’s experiencing, and so the reader is deprived of the same privilege. In this way, we can once again refer back to the story of evolution: we are merely cogs in the greater past and future of the world. There is no segmentation, and randomness is the prevalent reasoning behind most things. Furthermore, we cannot make sense of what we cannot understand, so while Benjy understands less of the world around him than we do, he has learned to interact with his own version of the world as we grapple to keep up with his descriptions of day-to-day activities and sights. Faulkner works to draw the reader closer to their “idiot” narrator, bridging the gap between a world governed by rules and hours with one in which knowledge is absorbed through a heightened awareness of the senses. Although his explanations of his surroundings are sometimes nonsensical or confusing, we get the sense that we as readers are being served a realistic view through a retarded man’s eyes. In relation to the author, he, like Benjy, is leading his audience through an unexpected and incomprehensible experience. In removing all classic tropes, descriptions, and laws of nature, the reader is left to experience the observations of an author and his retarded character as they depict the world in a new way.


The moderately confusing form of story telling is non-narrative foundational, which links nicely with Quentin and his narration. In his last day of life, he is viewing the world around him with a different sense of ownership and place. His sense of time is the absolute opposite of Benjy’s: his life revolves around the hands of his pocket watch. Just as a non-narrative foundational story is considered static, so is Quentin as he enforces the day of his narration as his last day of life. In keeping with this sort of story telling, Quentin (like Benjy) moves uncontrollably between his memories and his present self. Unlike with his retarded brother, whose narrative voice employs italics to alert the reader, Quentin gives the reader no notice as to when he is about to shift in time. In this way, the reader cannot specify any beginning, middle, or end to his narration, because it moves so randomly within the scope of time.


Lastly, Jason’s narrative voice (albeit disconcerting and sadistic) is easy to read and keeps perfectly in line with a narrative foundational story. As an extraordinary narcissist, he easily finds his place within the greater community and has an accurate sense of time. Furthermore, his unnatural inability to look to the past shows a movement forward, to the future, despite the fact that his lineage is extinguished by the extraordinary downfall of himself and his brothers. Faulkner ensures that Jason uses plain language, proper grammar, and that he articulates what he sees in a matter-of-fact way. While the content matter is disheartening, there is a sense of relief when reading his narrative voice since this is the format we are used to reading.


In utilizing all three ways of story telling, Faulkner ensures that his reader is interpreting and comprehending in a new and profound way. Rather than easing his readers into his complex and creative work, he asks them to read beyond the words and to learn from his narrators and their lives of strife. While most authors cater to their reader’s desire for clear, expressive, comprehensible literature, Faulkner incites in his reader an ability to read between the lines and to move away from the safety of full sentences and chronological order. In pulling away from the canonical novel structure, the reader is given the opportunity to read in a new way that both complicates the comprehension, and asks for a closer, deeper, more personal reading experience.


Work Cited:

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Random House, 1956. Print.