Queering Up Quentin: “The Sound and the Fury” and Muñoz’s queer world remaking

José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications is a noble but wrongheaded project. Its nobility lies in its bringing the stories of queer people of color to light, and more significantly, in its desire to escape heteronormative and racist phobias. Its wrongheadedness lies in its failure to sufficiently stress how the struggles of queer people of color are similar to those of everyone else—how these struggles are human struggles. Instead, Muñoz’s project emphasizes what he calls “queer worldmaking”: the creation of worlds in which the struggles of queer people of color can be expressed, understood, and used as material for the construction of individual identities. Disappointingly, Muñoz fails to emphasize the power of the narratives he rehabilitates, and of disidentification generally, to transform the world into one in which solidarity is fostered through a recognition of common aspects of disparate experiences. The social conventions that produce heteronormative and racist phobias should not be circumvented through the creation of new worlds; they should be assaulted and destroyed in this one.

World transformation is a part of Muñoz’s disidentification—disidentification labors, he says, “to transform a cultural logic from within” and enact permanent structural change,” “[investing] it with new life” (11-12). But this nod toward structural change seems disingenuous, for despite stringent denials of espousing a “separatist politics,” Muñoz goes on to elucidate a vaguely separatist politics of world creation, calling for us to “continue disidentifying with this world until we achieve new ones” (18; 200). Perhaps I am mistaking Muñoz’s sentiments, for he does talk much of things like “transformative politics and possibilities” (195). But a rhetoric of social change that denies espousing separatist sentiments while isolating and promoting separation as a positive technique of identity formation is tinged with separatism. A project of queer theory that strives for community through elucidating the universality of queerness is more useful and egalitarian than a project that creates “new worlds” for queers to inhabit. “New worlds” might be helpful if the ultimate goal is merely to deal with what Muñoz calls the “melancholia” of queer existence, but Muñoz’s call to disidentify with this world until we achieve new ones seems to me an abdication of the power to transform this world, a giving up of a greater hope for human decency, solidarity and love.

In place of Muñoz’s queer worldmaking, I want to offer a sort of queer world remaking. I want to demonstrate the possibilities of visionary world transformation through a revisionary transformation of what is traditionally cast as a radically racist, sexist and homophobic world: the antebellum American South of William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury. I want to show, through examination of the mind and memory of Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, that oppressive worlds can be remade as queer worlds. I want to show that this remaking is less a process of revision than of elucidation. And through this revisionary rereading, I want to provide a blueprint for a visionary reading of the world as naturally queer—a reading that blurs conventions governing gender, sexuality and race to the point of destruction and incoherence.



William Faulkner


The Sound and the Furyis rife with commentary on such conventions. The “June Second, 1910” section of the novel, narrated by Quentin Compson, is generally thought to articulate Quentin’s strange love for his sister Caddy, with whom he claims to have committed incest (Jones). Quentin’s love for Caddy can be seen through, among other events, his association of Caddy’s lover Dalton Ames with Quentin’s schoolmate Gerald Bland. For Quentin, both Gerald and Dalton are womanizers; it makes sense that they would be linked to one another in Quentin’s memory. I want to suggest, though, that Quentin’s mental move from Gerald to Dalton is not one of association but one of retaliation—Quentin returns to Dalton, who is characterized by color and ambiguity, in an attempt to deal with the hostilely genteel, white and cocksure Gerald.

But Quentin’s use of Dalton to repel Gerald is symptomatic of more than mere envy among schoolmates, of more even than a replay of Quentin’s quasi-incestuous defense of Caddy. I want to offer a queer reading of Quentin’s rejection of whiteness, and suggest that it reflects the extent to which Quentin’s sexuality is bound up with color, and, by extension, with Dalton, an embodiment of color. (By “queer,” I mean simply that which blurs boundaries both within and between monolithic sociocultural categories such as gender, sexuality, and race; that which causes us to reëxamine, redraw or abandon these boundaries. In The Sound and the Fury, queerness is accompanied by “color,” an indication that these boundaries are being dismantled—that which was seemingly simple and separate has mixed and become complex.) Connecting the contexts in which phallic imagery appears in the novel reveals links between color and Quentin’s sexuality. Quentin’s various phalluses are constantly being swallowed and dominated by color, which proves itself adept at manipulating the phallic to produce orgasmic effects. In all cases, color, both abstractly and through Dalton, controls Quentin’s sexuality. Quentin’s strange relationship with Dalton is mirrored in his relationship with his roommate Shreve, who is, in his own way, colored. Like Dalton, Shreve both opposes the whiteness and oppression of blandness and holds sway over Quentin’s sexuality through color. For Quentin, sexuality is immersed in color, and this immersion forces him to reject the white—the simple, the bland, the stereotypically beautiful and pure—in favor of the “dirty,” in favor of an uncomfortable, conflicted, queer relationship with the complex and the colored. In other words, Quentin’s world is a queer world.

Before continuing, I wish to situate my reading of Quentin’s world with respect to other gender-focused readings of The Sound and the Fury. Most readings of this sort seem to be androgynous rather than queer, by which I mean that they are limited to sexuality and depend too heavily upon a male-female dichotomy. Androgynous readings find almost endless support: in multiple forms of castration, in men constantly searching for “balls”; in Caddy’s masculinity; in Quentin’s fear of virginity as emasculating; and, hugely, in the ambiguity surrounding “Quentin”’s gender in the first half of the novel (Jones). But androgynous readings simply cannot do justice to the forces of radical decentralization and disintegration at play in the novel. Androgynous readings do not go far enough.

While my reading is in dialogue with the novel’s broad themes of androgyny, it is grounded in an analysis of the contexts in which phallic imagery appears; how these contexts are tied to sexuality and color; and how these ties blur boundaries of gender, sexuality and race to radically reshape the world of the novel. It is thus a thoroughly and distinctly queer reading. I purposefully resist making definitive claims about Quentin’s sexuality or the sexuality of others in his world. Instead, I aim to cast the entire world—the entire system—as queer, thereby making queerness universal. I aim to nullify Muñoz’s call to disidentify by writing queerness into the DNA of an ostensibly anti-queer world.

Gerald Bland, though at times feminized, is far from queer (105). Gerald is a young, aristocratic, Southern gentleman. His gentility is defined by his oppression, and as a “Bland,” he is characterized by a lack of color. Gerald is the son of a wealthy Kentuckian family that has bred him to have “princely” “attitudes” and “seduce duchess[es],” and he seemingly enjoys the protection of God (91; 106; 90). As “the unchallenged peripatetic john of the late Confederacy,” Gerald has “New York clothes” and his own “horses” “niggers” and “women”; and his wealth and popularity make him the envy of his schoolmates, who dwell, along with the rest of the world, “punily beneath [his shadow]” (106; 91; 101; 165; 121). When Gerald is associated with color, color is manipulated to become a tool of oppression—his “curly yellow hair” and “violet eyes,” for instance, are simply means of winning him “the prettiest girl” (91; 141). Gerald’s “gentility” is characterized by oppression—God protects him to the exclusion of others; he and his Confederate forefathers oppress colored people; he preys on and manipulates women; and he hovers maliciously over the puny world. If this is “gentility,” it is a hostile gentility characterized by monolithic oppression; Gerald has one mode: the oppressive. He is literally bland—devoid of complication, color and ambiguity.

In contrast to Gerald’s blandness, Dalton is “colored” in a way that blurs racial boundaries and challenges Gerald’s oppressive gentility. Quentin associates Dalton with people of color, suggesting that Caddy becomes a “nigger [woman]” by being with Dalton “like nigger women do in the pasture the ditches the dark woods” instead of bring[ing] him to the house” (92). Dalton’s khaki shirts—which would presumably be darker than the skin of most white people—make “his face so brown” and “his eyes so blue” (161; 92). Dalton is repeatedly described as “bronze,” a skin color that would fit well on an individual of mixed racial lineage (92; 105; 158). The power of Dalton’s khaki shirts to reveal him as colored is a focal point for Quentin, who begins recalling Dalton in relation to color shortly after seeing “a man naked to the waist…burned the color of leaf tobacco” (89). Perhaps most significantly, the agent that reveals Dalton’s color, his shirts, becomes Dalton’s family name in Quentin’s memory: “Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. Dalton Shirts” (92). For Quentin, the color implied by Dalton’s shirts is integrated with Dalton’s familial history: “Shirts” literally make Dalton’s lineage one of color.

Just as Dalton presents a colorful alternative to Gerald’s blandness, Dalton provides us with a benevolent form of pseudo-gentility with which to oppose Gerald’s gentility of oppression. After ostensibly impregnating Caddy, Dalton exhibits a gentlemanly desire to see and care for her, asking Quentin if Caddy is “all right” and whether she is being taunted, and offering himself to her “for anything” (158; 159). Though Dalton does make a disparaging remark about Caddy—indirectly calling her a “bitch”—he does so insincerely, only as part of a larger effort to expedite his confrontation with Quentin, who is intent on fighting him (160). After Quentin collapses, seemingly from nervousness, Dalton is kind to him, asking if he “feel[s] all right” and whether he can “make it home all right,” and offering him his horse and his gun for transportation and protection (161-162). And, to allow Quentin to save face with Caddy, Dalton tells Caddy that he hit Quentin, that Quentin had not “just passed out like a little girl” (162). Dalton, as Quentin puts it, “just misse[s] gentility” (92). Dalton certainly does ungentlemanly things, like sleeping with Caddy. But we can see from his benevolent treatment of Caddy and Quentin that Dalton is, at least in some respects, a gentleman.

Dalton is neither wholly white nor wholly genteel, but his departure from whiteness and gentility is never complete or extreme. Dalton is cast as a “nigger” in behavior, as not quite gentlemanly, as mediated by color, and as of mixed blood; but he is not entirely ungentlemanly or entirely black. Blandness is integral to Gerald’s identity; Dalton, in contrast, is associated with a haphazard mixing of social strata and races—with rampant ambiguity and color.

It is Dalton’s color that Quentin falls back upon when confronted with Gerald’s oppressive gentility and lack of color. Images of the bland, flat Gerald enjoying his princely privilege—his “oar blades winking him along” the river, his “motoring in England”—merge with the colorful Dalton until “they two [blur] within the other” (148). Quentin then moves into memories involving Dalton: a traumatic discussion with Caddy about pregnancy, Dalton and sex; and Quentin’s confrontation with Dalton on the bridge (149-164). Immersed in these memories, Quentin unconsciously and physically lashes out at Gerald, replaying his confrontation with Dalton in an effort to disturb Gerald’s whiteness—all while a parallel battle plays itself out in Quentin’s memory through imagery and color (164; 147-164). When Quentin learns that his efforts to fight Gerald were ineffective and that Gerald “boxed him all over the place” and “blood[ied him] up,” he laments that he has failed to mar Gerald’s whiteness, failed to “bleed on him a little, at least” (165).

Quentin’s failure to color Gerald is mirrored in his memory by the juxtaposition of honeysuckle and grayness, which stand as proxies for whiteness and color (147-164). From early on, Quentin’s lapses into the past include references to honeysuckle, a weed whose flowers, in the American South, tend to be white. Honeysuckle is mentioned six times prior to Quentin’s movement into memories of Dalton (95; 128; 129; 133; 147). But at the moment Quentin “quit[s] trying to stop” his memories from taking hold, at the moment Dalton enters, grayness—a literal mixture of blackness and whiteness, of the extremes of color—joins the white honeysuckle (147). As Quentin moves through his memories, color, “gray,” advances on honeysuckle, separated first by a few lines, then by a few words, then by a single, stifling space, when Quentin has “to pant to get any air at all out of that thick gray honeysuckle” [emphasis added] (147; 150; 151). Both in the present and in memory, Quentin relies on color in an attempt to fight whiteness. In each case, color assaults whiteness. Quentin’s attempt to color Gerald fails, but gray’s assault on honeysuckle succeeds—honeysuckle becomes gray, the white is made colored. Indeed, the colored eventually overtakes Quentin: the gray honeysuckle “com[es] up out of the darkness” and subsumes him (173).

Color and ambiguity swallow Quentin, and he gives himself and his sexuality over to them. The phallic images that occur in Quentin’s narrative are frequently controlled by color, which often manages to inspire states similar to orgasm. Color’s ability to manipulate Quentin’s sexuality indicates a tie between Quentin’s sexuality and color, and by extension, Dalton, the embodiment of color and ambiguity. Both in Quentin’s present and his memory, color overtakes the phallic. When Quentin is caught in memories of honeysuckle and grayness, his knife becomes a phallus with which he attempts to penetrate Caddy in a sexually charged moment of tension:

no like this youll have to push it harder
touch your hand to it […]
push it are you going to
do you want me to
yes push it (152)

Quentin, overwhelmed by “waves of honeysuckle,” fails to “push it” (152). Instead, he drops the knife into the night, which is permeated by grayness, and must “hunt all around for it” in “the gray…gray with dew slanting up into the gray sky” (152-153).

The cigar, the most popular of phallic images, is also controlled by color, and color can be said to bring the cigar to orgasm—in the French, le petit mort sense of orgasm—“a little death.” After Quentin buys a cigar and takes a couple of puffs, “two bootblacks” surround him on a street corner (83). Confronted with people of color, Quentin feels “caught” by them—they are, he says, “shrill and raucous, like blackbirds” (83). Quentin compulsively “[gives] the cigar to one of them [and gives] the other one a nickel,” after which the “bootblacks” leave him alone, so that “the one with the cigar [can try] to sell it to the other one for the nickel” (83). Quentin relinquishes a phallus to color, and color proceeds to circulate the phallus within itself. When a cigar next appears, it is in the hands of yet another person of color, as “a dead cigar stub” (86). The cigar has been exhausted, made flaccid, reduced to a stub. Color completely controls Quentin’s sex, swallowing it, buying and selling it on a street corner, and spending it to the point of (a little) death.

“Color” in the abstract is adept at capturing and controlling and satiating phalluses. Dalton, a symbol of color, is also deft with phalluses—namely cigarettes—and his handling of them simultaneously induces a “little death” in a phallus and instills in Quentin a complicated peace that can be described as orgasmic. Dalton is skilled at rolling and lighting cigarettes, doing so “quickly with about two motions” (158). During his confrontation with Quentin on the bridge, he handles a cigarette in a way that can be read as graphically sexual, “rak[ing] cigarette ash carefully off against the rail…slowly and carefully like sharpening a pencil” (160). Dalton’s “sharpening” the cigarette puts Quentin at surprising ease for a split second, causes his “hands” to “quit shaking” (160). Then, an explosion:

I hit him my open hand beat the impulse to shut it to his face his hand moved as fast as mine the cigarette went over the rail I swung with the other hand he caught it too before the cigarette hit the water he held both my wrists in the same hand his other hand flicked to his armpit under his coat behind him the sun slanted and a bird singing somewhere beyond the sun we looked at one another while the bird singing he turned my hands loose (160)

Quentin’s tone here implies that this dense series of events takes place in a single instant. This instant includes a “little death” for a phallus—the plummeting, submerging, dampening and extinguishing of the lit cigarette—and is characterized by sexual imagery independent of the cigarette, namely Dalton gripping Quentin’s wrists. Fantastic imagery, like “a bird singing somewhere beyond the sun,” joins this sexual imagery, and combined with the seeming simultaneity of the events, makes the instant one that can be read as an orgasmic transcendence. Dalton, an embodiment of color, makes this instant an orgasmic one in Quentin’s memory, tying Dalton and color to Quentin’s sexuality.

Dalton is not the only character that is sexually tied to Quentin through color. Shreve, Quentin’s roommate, is also “colored” in a way that ties him to Quentin’s sexuality. Like Dalton, the colorful Shreve rejects oppressive gentility and blandness. Shreve’s coloration also puts a queer spin on Quentin’s world through its association with the destruction of images of feminine sexuality, and the replacement of these images with phallic symbols. Finally, Shreve is cast as the endpoint for Quentin’s journey through a series of lies about incest—as the solution to a false sexual history.
Whereas Dalton is colored by an apparent mixed racial lineage, Shreve is colored—and tied to Dalton, the embodiment of color—through vividly colored glass. Shreve’s glasses, toward which the narrative gravitates nearly every time Shreve is mentioned, “glint rosily, as though he had washed them with his face,” and later appear to be “small yellow moons” (77; 167). Quentin’s colored glasses also tie him directly to Dalton, who is described as both being behind and looking through “colored glass” (161; 174). Dalton has his own imaginary pair of colored glasses to mirror those of Shreve, who is, like Dalton, colored.

The similarities between Shreve and Dalton do not end with glasses. The “colored” Shreve opposes oppressive Bland gentility and whiteness, and is thus able to influence Quentin’s sexuality through color. Shreve strenuously refuses to be thought of as a gentleman, but his conception of himself as “not a gentleman” is defined by an opposition to the pretentiousness and hostility of Gerald and Mrs. Bland, who inconvenience, marginalize and insult him (101; 148; 107; 146; 106). Shreve is repulsed by the Blands’ pomp and rudeness: Shreve labels Mrs. Bland, who refers to him as “that fat Canadian youth,” “cruel fate in eight yards of apricot silk” and “more…a bitch than any lady in these sovereign states and dominions” (106-107). And in calling himself as a “Canadian” rather than a “gentleman,” Shreve metaphorically and geographically distances himself from the Southern gentility of the Blands, removing himself even further from them than the “ignorant lowclass Yankees” that Mrs. Bland so virulently detests (148; 146). Shreve’s resistance to gentility is defined not by any ungentlemanly behavior. Indeed, Shreve is quite the gentleman: he cares for his roommate, “[makes] it a point never to speak harshly of females” and subscribes to gentlemanly notions of honor and justice (77-78; 107; 145). Shreve is thus not at all ungentlemanly—his resistance to gentility is simply a rejection of the oppressive gentility of the Blands.

Shreve’s rejection of blandness ties him to Quentin’s sexuality not just through color’s ability to control phalluses, but also through a complex, color-based network of imagery that links Shreve’s glasses to the favoring of phallic images over images of feminine sexuality, and to Quentin’s alleged incest with Caddy. Yellow and rose, the colors of Shreve’s glasses, link him to Quentin’s sex and posit his character as the conclusion to Quentin’s sexual journey through disingenuous incest.

Consider first at the “yellow moons” of Shreve’s glasses. Immediately after recalling an exchange with Caddy about the aftermath of her sex with Dalton, Quentin slips into a flashback, in which his father, Mr. Compson, interweaves yellowness, moons and female anatomy:

Seen the doctor yet have you
Seen Caddy
I dont have to I cant ask now afterward it will be all
right it wont matter
Because women so delicate so mysterious Father said. Delicate equilibrium of periodical filth between two moons balanced. Moons he said full and yellow as harvest moons her hips thighs. Outside outside of them always but. Yellow. (128)

“Yellow moons” are both Shreve’s glasses and Caddy’s hips and thighs (167; 128). When yellow moons next appear, they are being devoured in the form of baked bread, and their destruction is immediately followed by the erection of phallic symbols that are associated with Shreve. Quentin watches as “the damp halfmoon of…bread” is “gnaw[ed] into”; then he comes upon “flags, speared by fresh coarse blades of grass” growing about a house, beneath a “pink garment [hung] from the upper window” (131). As yellow images of feminine sexuality are being divided and destroyed, Quentin comes upon images of masculine sexuality—flags and blades of grass. And Quentin, who mentally jumps from a “pink garter” to “a man in glasses,” earlier in the narrative, associates the pink garment that overhangs these phalluses with Shreve (94; 131). In numerous ways, the yellowness of Shreve’s glasses binds him to Quentin’s sex.

The rosy glint of Shreve’s glasses has the same effect. Roses link Shreve’s glasses indirectly to Quentin’s sexuality through their “serene[ness]” (77). Within Quentin’s narrative, only two entities other than roses are associated with serenity: Shreve’s glasses and a little girl who follows Quentin around. Shreve’s glasses “[glint] beneath running leaves like little pools” “peaceful and serene” (101; 100). The little girl, for her part, is continuously described as serene and is conflated with Caddy by Quentin, who calls the girl “sister” (129; 163; 133; 135; 100-101; 125; 127; 130-131; 133-136; 138). The serenity shared by roses, Shreve’s glasses, and the little girl who is conflated with Caddy ties Shreve to Quentin’s sex.

Roses also tie Shreve to Quentin’s sex in a more direct way, in that they literally surround and frame—in multiple manners and contexts—the supposed incest that is constitutive of Quentin’s sexual identity. There are three principal instances of this “framing” of something by roses. In the first two instances, this something is conspicuously incest. In the final instance, Shreve is depicted as a terminus for Quentin’s journey down a “rock path” of “yellow” which is associated with incest through its links to Caddy’s female anatomy (77; 150; 154; 168). The first instance involves Quentin’s disingenuous confession of incest to his father and the associated repercussions of Caddy’s pregnancy: “Roses. Roses. Mr and Mrs Jason Richmond Compson announce the marriage of. Roses. Not virgins like dogweed, milkweed. I said I have committed incest, Father I said. Roses” (77). In the second instance, references to the siblings physically rising—Faulkner’s only use of the word “rose” to refer to something other than the flower—frame a sexually charged discussion of incest between Quentin and Caddy and Quentin’s loss of his phallic knife (150; 154). In the third instance, roses, instead of conspicuously framing incest, frame a path of rock and light that ends with Shreve, and with a transformation for Quentin:

A rock path went down to the road. Roses grew on both sides of the path. I went through the gate, onto the road…. I went up the hill. The light increased as I mounted…. Shreve was standing in the road…. Behind him the yellow light lay like a wash of paint on the roof of the house…. Then the house was gone and I stopped in the…yellow light…. As I descended the light dwindled slowly, yet at the same time without altering its quality, as if I and not the light were changing…. [emphasis added] (168)

Here, the yellow and the rose of Shreve’s glasses come together, cementing Shreve’s link to Quentin’s sexuality. Roses frame incest—incest as a word, incest as a discussion, and incest metaphorically—as a rocky path. Just as yellow moons of female sexuality transition to phallic flags and blades of grass, the yellow light of women’s hips and thighs transitions to Shreve, who stands at the end of the rose-framed path, the endpoint of Quentin’s rocky trail through false claims of incest (128; 168; 149). Colorful Shreve is the conclusion of Quentin’s sexual journey, and holds sway over his sexuality.

Through Dalton, Shreve, and phallic imagery, color strongly controls Quentin’s sex. In light of this, it is little surprise that Quentin reacts forcefully against the oppressive, bland, white Gerald. Quentin rejects him and invokes memories of the colored Dalton to fight him off (148). Quentin’s sexuality is so tied to color that he even rejects phallic symbols associated with whiteness, such as a cigar offered to him by Herbert Head. Like Gerald, Herbert is hostilely genteel, bland and white. Herbert is a northern gentleman who wields his wealth as bait for the Compsons, purchasing Caddy “the first auto in town” and promising to “be a big brother” to Jason (93). Also like Gerald, Herbert is thoroughly white: his entire face, not merely his mouth, is “full of teeth white” (93). Herbert’s whiteness is unconstrained; it overruns his mouth and overtakes him. Herbert is also posited as a white solution of sorts to Dalton’s color, in that Herbert’s marriage to Caddy is Mrs. Compson’s solution to the problem of Caddy’s pregnancy (93). Thus, when Herbert insistently offers Quentin an expensive Cuban cigar, Quentin unsurprisingly rejects it (107-109). Herbert is strikingly white, and color dictates Quentin’s sex.

Not only does Quentin reject the stereotypically attractive, the white and the bland, he also shows a conflicted sexual preference for the “dirty” and the impure. The young girl whom Quentin associates with Caddy is dirty—both racially “dirty,” or “colorful” in the Dalton sense, with a “face…like a cup of milk dashed with coffee,” and literally a “dirty little child,” with a “dirty dress” and “moist dirt ridged into her flesh” (125; 127; 126). In the throes of navigating through his memories of Caddy and guiding the little girl around town, Quentin recalls disingenuously insisting to Caddy that what she witnessed him doing with the “dirty girl…Natalie” was completely innocent and nonsexual: “I was hugging her I tell you” (134; 137). Quentin’s sexual fascination with Caddy is tied to dirt, too. During the tense exchange in which Quentin tries to penetrate Caddy with his knife, Quentin asks Caddy about her “muddy drawers,” an apparent non sequitur amid all the sex talk:

no like this youll have to push it harder
touch your hand to it…
Caddy do you remember how Dilsey fussed at you because your drawers
were muddy…
push it are you going to
yes push it
touch your hand to it (152)

As we can see in Quentin’s relationships with the little girl, Natalie and Caddy, Quentin is sexually drawn to the dirty, to the colorful.

The muddiness common to Natalie and Caddy even causes them to become confused in Quentin’s memory. Quentin recalls that Caddy “pushed me down the ladder and ran off and left me,” but a short time later gets mad at Natalie—who “bet[s] Caddy cant dance sitting down” like she and Quentin do—for pushing him down the ladder (134-136). Caddy and Natalie are distinct, but both somehow used their “nasty…hands” to push Quentin down a ladder. And when Natalie leaves him after he seems to evince a preference for Caddy, Quentin, deprived of both his dirty beauties, “jump[s] hard as he [can] into the hogwallow,” into “the mud” and “ke[eps] on plunging until [he] fall[s] down and roll[s] over in it” (136-137). Quentin loves the mud. Spoade, one of Quentin’s schoolmates, sarcastically captures Quentin’s uncomfortable longing for the dirty, saying, “He was trying to kidnap that little dirty girl, but [the law] caught him in time” (146). Quentin desires the colored, but societal conventions “catch him.”

Quentin consistently rejects the white and the bland in favor of the colored and the complicated, exchanging the simplicity of heteronormativity and whiteness for a chaotic queerness that muddies lines of gender and race. Through Dalton, Shreve, and multiple networks of imagery, Quentin’s sexuality is solidly connected to and dictated by color. Quentin is drawn to color and ambiguity—he loves the mud—but he is not happy about it.

Quentin’s method of dealing with this unhappiness—of dealing with the ambiguity and queerness of his world—can be seen in the physical aversion to color he manifests when his sexuality is involved. Quentin eventually rebuffs his “dirty girl” love interest, Natalie—“Get wet I hope you catch pneumonia go on home Cowface”—and insists that he would never “kiss a dirty girl like Natalie anyway” (136; 134). Quentin also orders the colorful Dalton to leave town, as a part of the jealous display Quentin seems to view as a defense of Caddie’s honor—the same scene in which Dalton brings both a cigarette and Quentin to a sort of orgasm (159-160). Quentin also recoils from Shreve just as he recoils from the “nigger” who holds the “dead cigar stub,” which has also been brought to orgasm (147; 89). When the “nigger touche[s] [Quentin’s] knee,” Quentin “[swings] his legs out to let him pass” (89). Later, Shreve touches Quentin’s knee twice, in succession. The first time, Quentin calls attention to it, but does nothing. The second time, Quentin says that he “[moves] his knee again” [emphasis added] (147-148). Because Quentin does nothing the first time Shreve touches his knee, his moving his knee “again” is anomalous, leading us to search for a time in the past when Quentin moved his knee for the first time—presumably, when the “nigger” touches his knee (89). Shreve and the “nigger” are connected through this physical contact, and Quentin recoils from both them much as he repels Natalie and Dalton: as representatives of color who influence his sexuality. Quentin’s world is queer, but he recoils from it.

Quentin both embraces and repulses the color and ambiguity that controls his sex. Though frightened of color, Quentin cannot escape it. His way of dealing with this contradiction is to fight color with color: specifically, to rid himself of color by clarifying and dissolving it, with the help of the vividly colored Shreve and his possessions. When Quentin cuts his thumb on fragments of glass from his watch, he goes “into Shreve’s room” to get “iodine and paint the cut,” stopping from bleeding—stopping the “red smear” that has colored the dial of his watch from spreading [emphasis added] (80). The blood that Quentin is not able to stop—blood that Quentin unsuccessfully tries to use to mar Gerald’s whiteness—stains his vest (165). In an equally unsuccessful attempt to expunge the bloodstain, Quentin uses vast amounts of gasoline that he takes, like the iodine, from Shreve’s room (172-179). And just before ending his narrative, Quentin finds his “toothbrush and [gets] some of Shreve’s” toothpaste to “[brush] his teeth,” ensuring that they are as clean and as white and as those of Herbert Head (179). Shreve and his room of cleansing tools is a resource for Quentin in his attempts to fight off color and forestall the ambiguity of queerness. Quentin is fighting color, but his assault is disorganized and ineffectual, waged with the arsenal of color itself.

Though the world of The Sound and the Fury is sexist, racist and homophobic, it is also distinctly queer. Color, both literally and metaphorically, controls sexuality, obscuring boundaries between race and sexuality and dismantling partitions within them. And though this ambiguity is not comfortably accepted by Quentin, the figure at its center, it makes itself undeniably manifest, perverting white and colored, conflating male and female, dissolving heterosexual and homosexual. Ambiguity—queerness—is a principal constitutive element of the world of The Sound and the Fury.

“Revisionary” though this queer reading of Faulkner may be, it has potential to serve as a blueprint for reënvisioning the world and mediating the identity conflicts within it. Muñoz’s disidentification—his charge to “contest social subordination through the process of worldmaking”—may be a useful mechanism for coping with “melancholia,” with “all the catastrophes” that are “an integral part of [the] everyday lives” of queer people (200; 74). But a theoretical framework that encourages queer people to “disidentify” with this world and “create” another into to which to flee is ultimately useless. It is a quick and impermanent fix. Action must be taken to eliminate racist and homophobic sentiments on a systemic level. Accommodating these sentiments in the name of individual “coping” is unacceptable and unnecessary. Muñoz’s “worldmaking” sends queers running from a world that needs desperately to be remade.

“If you cant be a Bland,” Shreve tells us, “the next best thing is to commit adultery with one or…fight him, as the case may be” (165). Both cases apply for Quentin, and so he does both—challenging and perverting blandness, besieging sexual and racial conventions, and in the process, exposing his world for the queer world it is. Queer theorists can do the same, effecting change by elucidating the queerness of the existing world, thus exposing prejudice against queers—exposing adherence to the boundaries that divide Quentin’s world—as baseless and useless. Revisionary readings of constructed worlds can and should serve as models for visionary readings of our world. With this vision, we can deter separatist impulses and engender human decency, solidarity and love based on our shared negotiation of a queer universe.


Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Jones, Gavin. Untitled Lecture. Masterpieces of American Literature. Stanford University. 31 May 2005.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999.


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