Skip Navigation

Home / Graduate Conference

2013 Master's Level Graduate Research Conference

Session I - Session II - Session III

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Degeneracy in the New South

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury established the stereotypes of Southern degeneracy that followed the Civil War’s Reconstruction period. Not only does the text’s fixation on time and human abnormality fit the gothic genre, the book’s classical gothic genre fits into the definitions of degeneracy provided in Degeneration by Max Nordau, a text which attempted to turn vernacular ideas of degeneracy into a scientifically based argument against art at the turn of the century. While other critics have viewed Faulkner’s use of time as an attempt to grapple with psychoanalytic themes of regression, this paper sees the use of time as an attempt to ironize the South’s stereotypes, and thereby challenge socially constructed definitions of degeneracy and backwardness. According to Nordau’s definitions of degeneracy, Quentin and Jason Compson fit the different descriptions of possible manifestations of degeneracy just as well as their brother Benjy, who suffers from autism. However, each of the brothers cannot seem to move out of the past and into the modern world. The entire Compson family represents a group of people who have fallen from grace and exist within a stunted version of the past, unsuccessfully carrying out the morals and traditions of the Old South while unable to adapt to the expectations of modernity. These characters represent the stereotype of the economically, socially, and culturally backward state of the South at the time Faulkner was writing, as the characters are based on the concepts of degeneracy characterized in Nordau’s text and crystalized in the values of the early twentieth century. But just as the South has constantly stood as a magnified representation of America’s flaws, Faulkner’s characters and their degeneracy represent a national degeneracy within modernist America, trapped like the Compson’s between former ideals, economic promise, and the confusion of the modernist world.

Presenter: Rachel McCabe (University at Buffalo) -- rsmith22@buffalo.edu
Topic: English I - Panel
Location: 14 Hartwell
Time: 1:45 pm (Session III)