Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start. Unless, of course, you’re a reader of The Sound and the Fury. In that case, starting in Benjy’s world can be a bit of a nightmare. Don’t get us wrong – Benjy’s a nice enough guy (unlike some other characters that we can think of). He’s just not the easiest man in the world to follow.
Let’s start with the facts, then: Benjy’s thirty-three in 1928. As one of the neighbors sarcastically quips, however, it’s like he’s been three for thirty years. Benjy is mentally handicapped. He’s unable to talk, which becomes one of the most intriguing aspects of his section of the novel. How do we begin to enter the world of a character whose perspective on life is utterly unshaped by communication with other people? OK, we realize that’s an exaggeration: every now and then, somebody does pay attention to Benjy. Luster, for instance, whispers Caddy’s name just to get him upset. And when Benjy does get upset, he bellows. It’s actually one of his trademarks. And he does it very, very well.
Other than that, however, Benjy seems to live mostly in the past. It’s not too hard to understand. Who would really want to live with the other members of the Compson family? Any takers? We thought not. As he shuttles between different moments of his childhood and the sort of sad life that he lives in his present, Benjy actually sets up a dynamic that Faulkner plays with for the rest of the novel. Time shifts. Got it? It sounds so simple right now, doesn’t it? But shifting time becomes one of the most difficult aspects of the novel. Believe us, we’re there with you. It’s hard to read Benjy’s section.
OK, so Benjy’s difficult. But what else does this time shifting tell us about his character? Well, for one thing, it means that time is pretty irrelevant to him. Important things are always present. Caddy and trees and flowers occupy most of his waking thoughts…and that’s one way of making them always part of his experience.
There are a few things that remain stable for Benjy: he’s fascinated by the fire, he loves his slipper and his flower, and he loves his Caddy. In fact, stability might just be the name of the game for Benjy. He’s a big fan of order, largely because it’s often difficult for him to draw conclusions on his own. Remember learning about deductive and inductive logic? Benjy hasn’t figured out either. When Caddy was around, Benjy had someone to help make him sense of the world: "It's froze." Caddy said. "Look." She broke the top of the water and held a piece of it against my face. "Ice. That means how cold it is" (1. 236).
Without Caddy, however, Benjy just notices bright cold shapes. No ice. No recognition of the fact that it’s cold outside. This insistence on noticing only the impression that a person, thing, or sensation makes on Benjy has been lauded by critics as one of the high points of the novel. We know, it’s occasionally pretty confusing. But it’s also a rather brilliant exploration of how a character like Benjy might inhabit his own world.
If having things stay the same is what makes Benjy a happy camper, it’s probably because he’s not able to do much to communicate his opinions of change. Think about all the times that Benjy seems to be "trying to say" something: it only works when Caddy’s around. He gets Caddy to realize that he doesn’t like her perfume. He can’t, however, talk to the girls outside his gate without scaring the heck out of them. It’s worth pointing out that Benjy’s actually pretty scared about his gate being left open, as well. Notice how his language gets completely caught up in his failure to "try to say." Even his ability to perceive the world around him takes a nosedive in the section below:
I opened the gate and they stopped, turning. I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say, and she screamed and I was trying to say and trying arid the bright shapes began to stop and I tried to get out. I tried to get it off of my face, but the bright shapes were going again. (1.700)
As he tries harder and harder to communicate, the world dissolves into whirling shapes. His own perception gets caught up in his lack of language, and the whole thing goes down like a sinking ship.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t really get any better for Benjy as time goes on. In this particular insistence, his inability to say anything leads the girls at the gate to claim that he assaulted them. He’s castrated as a result.
Once Caddy leaves, he’s left roaming the grounds of the Compson house pretty much on his own. When the family sells his pasture land, it becomes a golf course. We’re almost thinking that Faulkner’s a bit too cruel with this one. See, there are caddies on golf courses. And, as we mentioned before, every time Benjy hears the word "Caddy," he lets out a loud moan of despair. It’s almost a conditioned response – and it’s the one sure-fire way that his family has of getting him to speak.
Unfortunately, no one seems to care whether Benjy speaks or not. Luster just uses Caddy’s name as a way to get a quick rise out of Benjy. Quentin (Jr.) and Jason only think about Benjy when they want to get him out of the way. Oh, and then there’s his mother. She takes the cake. We’ll get to her later.
Here’s the question with Benjy: is Faulkner creating the "idiot" that he needs just to experiment formally? Or is Benjy a character in his own right? It’s a big question, and it’s a tough one. Since we can’t exhume Faulkner to ask him his opinion on the subject, we’ll have to turn to our next best authority: the text itself. Does Benjy seem to be a fully rounded character? Well, compared to the other folks in Faulkner’s novel, he actually has quite a lot figured out. He desires things (Caddy, in particular) and he actually thinks about how to make those desires reality. We can’t come down with a definite answer about Benjy’s section for you. It could be that you find it disturbing – and that’s OK. Keep in mind, though, that Faulkner’s other characters are probably equally disturbing. More importantly, they’re much less able to think about the cause of their unhappiness/depression/all-around misery and despair.
The head of the Compson family, he is an intellectual whose alcoholism finally kills him. His wife Caroline is an ineffectual mother, and he does most of the parenting of the children when they are small. However, he is also not an ideal parent, too interested in intellectual, logical matters. His view on Caddy's precocious sexuality upsets Quentin, who takes his statements to heart and kills himself in order to make sure that his pain over Caddy's betrayal never wears away with time.
A neurotic and hypochondriac, she is unable to mother her children properly or give them any love, leaving them to mother each other under the guidance of their housekeeper Dilsey. She sees her son's retardation as a curse on the family and changes his name from Maury (her brother's name) to Benjamin to try to cleanse herself of this curse. She is passive-aggressive and manipulative, using guilt to force others to do her bidding. She sees Caddy, Quentin and Benjamin as having "Compson blood" and Jason as being a "true Bascomb" and loves him more than the other children.
Caroline's brother, he shares an unnaturally close relationship with her. He has an affair with a married neighbor when the children are young, drinks before his brother-in-law's funeral, and is a bad businessman, having to ask Caroline for money to make investments.
the oldest child of Jason and Caroline, he suffers from his mother's coldness and substitutes his sister's love for his mother's. He has romantic ideals about purity and virginity, repulsed by his own sexuality. When Caddy becomes promiscuous in her teens it shatters Quentin's world. He tries to tell his father that he committed incest with Caddy, but his father doesn't believe him. The family sells his brother Benjamin's pasture in order to send him to Harvard, and after his freshman year there he kills himself.
the only daughter of Jason and Caroline. She is kind and motherly to Quentin and Benjy and becomes the center of their worlds. Imperious and enthralling, she was also Faulkner's favorite character. She becomes pregnant at eighteen and marries Herbert Head, a wealthy banker who promises Jason a job in his bank. When he discovers that he is not he father of her child, he divorces her, leaving Jason without a job and her child without a father. She sends the child, Quentin, home to be raised by her parents, and sends Jason $200 a month to look after her.
an isolated and perverse little boy, he grows up to be an antisocial, sadistic, angry man who resents his sister for depriving him of a job. He views young Quentin as the cause of all his problems and is excessively cruel to her. He is the only character who is able to stand up to his mother, because he can be just as manipulative and passive-aggressive as she. He cashes the checks Caddy sends to him every month and brings home false checks for his mother to burn.
the youngest child, he is mentally retarded, unable to speak or take care of himself. He is also unable to distinguish between past and present, and therefore his section jumps around in time as he constantly relives his memories. He is attached to Caddy, who acts as his mother, and her sexuality and marriage shatter his life. He cries whenever anyone upsets the daily routine of his life. When his mother discovers that he is retarded at age five, she changes his name from Maury to Benjamin.
Caddy's illegitimate daughter, who may or may not be Dalton Ames's child. When Herbert Head learns that he is not her father, he divorces Caddy. Caddy is forced to leave Quentin with her parents, and after her father dies, Jason takes over as her primary caregiver. Convinced that she is "bad," Quentin is rebellious and promiscuous. Jason and Caroline think that she has inherited all the bad tendencies of the Compson family.
the Compson's black housekeeper, she is the only selfless and kind individual in the novel. She cares for the children as if they are her own and is protective of Benjy and young Quentin. By the time the novel ends she is very old and arthritic, and seems to think she is about to die. She will be the only witness to the beginning and the end of the Compson family.
Dilsey's husband and another servant to the Compsons, he is superstitious, and, like Caroline, thinks that there is a curse on the Compsons. When he becomes too arthritic to do any work, his son T. P. takes over for him, and his death is one of the memories that Benjy lives through in his section.
Dilsey and Roskus's son and Benjy's first caretaker. He is kind and responsible.
Dilsey and Roskus's son and Benjy's second caretaker. He takes over for Roskus when Roskus becomes ill, and gets drunk at Caddy's wedding.
Dilsey and Roskus's daughter. She has a minimal part in the story, but serves as a mirror to Caddy when she has a child by an unknown father.
Frony's son. He is Benjy's last caretaker, with a mischievous streak. He is a responsible baby-sitter, but also delights in making Benjy cry. Section one deals with his search for a quarter to go to the circus.
the town boy with whom Caddy loses her virginity. Quentin challenges him to a fight and calls him a "blackguard," but in fact he is kind and chivalrous, refusing to hit Quentin and sincerely concerned when he finds out that Caddy is pregnant. Quentin asks Caddy if she loves Dalton, and at first she says no, then later shows him that whenever she hears his name, her heart begins to pound.
the man Caddy marries. He owns a bank and offers Jason a job there. He makes an honest attempt at befriending Quentin, but Quentin is so rude to him that the two begin to fight. When Herbert discovers that he is not the father of Caddy's baby, he divorces her.
Quentin's roommate at Harvard. He is well-meaning, although he is from Canada, which makes him inferior in the eyes of his friend Gerald's mother. When Quentin begins acting strange he shows some concern, but is unaware that he is actually suicidal.
nouveau riche from Kentucky, Gerald and his mother put on airs like wearing the kind of caps that English rowers use and driving fancy cars. Quentin intrigues them because he actually is a member of the Southern aristocracy into which they are trying to insinuate themselves. Gerald is rather crass, and Quentin gets into a fight with him when he speaks badly of women.
another of Quentin's friends who joins Shreve, Gerald, and Gerald's mother for a picnic on the day Quentin kills himself.
Quentin meets "Sister" in a bakery outside Cambridge, and she follows him around. She may or may not speak English; she is an Italian immigrant. Her brother Julio finds them and accuses Quentin of kidnapping her.
a black entrepreneur from the south who is able to adapt to any kind of change. He lives in Cambridge and befriends all the southern boys who come to Harvard. At first he dresses in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" style clothing to make the boys feel at home, then eventually becomes more and more cosmopolitan.
Jason's boss at the farm store. He is loyal to Caroline and so he puts up with Jason's sullen and rude behavior. He knows that Jason spent the thousand dollars that Caroline gave him to invest in the store on a car instead. He is kindly and good-natured.