Caddy Compson is a tragic character, and the heart of her tragedy is revealed in two soul-baring conversations with Quentin. The second, the night before her wedding to Herbert, is suffused with intense despair and unbearable anguish. The only way Caddy, a girl who can never forget her family’s pride and the social code by which she has been raised, can escape her impossible situation is by marriage to a man of respectable family, even if that man is unworthy of her. Caddy is sick with her pregnancy, sick with worry about Benjy and Father, sick at the prospect of marrying a man she can never respect for the sake of preserving appearances and placating social convention. But in that conversation she alludes to an even more important side of her character when she says to Quentin, “since I since last summer” and “I died last year.” Although she cannot bring herself to finish the first sentence, her words suggest that the key to understanding the hell on earth in which she has lived for the last year and from which she must escape at all costs lies in the events of the preceding summer.
Caddy’s first conversation with Quentin, crucial to our full understanding of what happened to Caddy that summer, took place one evening at the branch where she and Quentin have played since childhood. Like their brother Benjy, Quentin has somehow intuited Caddy’s loss of virginity, and to Quentin’s obsessive regard for family pride and the social codes of the old South, the knowledge is horrifying, undermining the very foundations of his identity. But Quentin’s understanding is limited by his inability to accept the passing of time or his sister’s growing womanhood and the changes both have wrought in the idyllic and idealized version of Caddy he carries within himself. Therefore his whole being yearns to deny what has occurred, his every thought becomes a desperate attempt to make the horror vanish, by falsely claiming incest so he and Caddy can be sent away together, by running away and taking Benjy with them, even by a mutual suicide pact.
What Quentin cannot understand or acknowledge, however, is that what has happened to Caddy is not only a social disgrace, anathema to his code of honor, but also something rare and magical and wonderful. For Caddy—passionate, headstrong, courageous, willful, maternal, devoted and defiant, to whom young men have been attracted since she was fourteen—has found with Dalton Ames the most mysterious and precious and powerful force in human life. She has discovered the dizzying passion and desire of love. And because she has fallen in love with Dalton Ames, because the mere sound of his name makes her blood race, she has given herself to him, body and soul, and the resulting explosion destroys her entire family. Because Caddy falls in love, Mother rejects her, despises her, and spies on her; Mother and Father argue bitterly about her; Father drinks more and more heavily; Caddy and Dalton are somehow torn apart; Caddy’s emptiness and despair lead her to promiscuity, pregnancy, marriage to a despicable man, and exile from her family; Quentin’s life becomes unbearable and ends in suicide; Benjy is left to endure a lifetime of inexhaustible grief and loss; and her daughter Quentin is raised in a house where she will know neither mother nor father—all because a vibrant, radiant, passionate girl of seventeen fell in love.
The Sound and the Fury is a modern Southern tragedy, and like all tragedies, the suffering and destruction it portrays spring from the most fundamentally human qualities of its characters. Of these characters, by far the most human, the most fully alive, and, in the end, the most utterly betrayed by life, is Caddy Compson (625).