Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, in his excellent literary study titled A Scream Goes Through the House: What Literature Teaches Us About Life, sees Quentin Compson as one of the “progeny” of Hamlet, literary characters who can help us understand, through their creators’ imaginations, the mental state of depression. What follows are some of Prof. Weinstein’s thoughts on the significance and meaning of Quentin’s despair. All are direct quotes from his book.
•Quentin’s dilemma is that of manifold impotence: son of a decaying Southern family, he is himself powerless to prevent its decline, to stop his father from drinking himself to death, and, above all, powerless to protect the honor/chastity of his sister Caddy in accordance with the chivalric code he has inherited.
•Yes, Quentin is depressed. Further, he seems exiled in his own mind, and this matters for two reasons: (1) it is what makes the interior monologue so riveting, for it convey’s Quentin’s consciousness with a rare immediacy, and (2) being exiled in the mind is the very signature of depression.
•Expected to protect the honor/chastity of his sister Caddy, Quentin finds this to be difficult for many reasons. The external obstacle is Caddy herself, a feisty, strong-willed girl who is not to be stopped in her hunger for sexual freedom; but there are internal problems also, notably that Quentin himself harbors sexual desire for Caddy, and, if this were not enough, Quentin also happens to be deeply fearful about sexuality.
•[On the final conversation between Quentin and Father]: Faulkner is spelling out the consequences of the view that nothing lasts, that our loves as well as our hates are invisibly time-bound, can be “called” and “replaced” by “whatever issue the gods happen to be floating at the time,” with the result that you wake up and simply discover, one fine day, that it is all over, it just was, although you said, thought, and needed it to be eternal. All is temporary, including self. . . . Quentin Compson chooses to commit suicide precisely in order to avoid the shameful metamorphosis that has been prophesied here. He fights “temporary” the only way he knows how. He kills himself to remain faithful to his deepest feelings, to remain himself. He acts on the famous “to be, or not to be” in the name of self-preservation.
•Faulkner’s genius consists in finding a new narrative language for [the mind-induced disorder that robs us of strength and the power to act], the incessant thinking that can be a feature of depression. Hence, the Shakespearean device of the soliloquy, brought in to cargo the thoughts of the mind in a shockingly direct way to a Renaissance audience, now becomes precisely the interior monologue, the stream of consciousness, in which the repressed thoughts, damning affective material, and general garbage of one’s past rise to the surface and to language. I am saying that Faulkner may indeed be difficult but that you should listen in because you could well be eavesdropping on the very music of your own mind.
Weinstein, Arnold. A Scream Goes Through the House: What Literature Teaches Us About Life. New York: Random House, 2003.