Order And Chaos In ‘The Sound And The Fury’ And ‘Heart Of Darkness’

The two extremes of order and chaos; perhaps more specifically the acceptance of a change in, or in some cases, the absence of order, are defining themes in both Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” and Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. As the slow decay of the once proud Compson family is revealed, and Marlow finds himself the liberator of a horrifying truth, the reader, along with the central characters, attests to a final vision- that the world and its people in each novel has changed irrevocably, and they are helpless to halt it.

The character who arguably embodies the strict sense of order that the Compson family are desperately attempting to maintain is ironically, Benjy, the severely mentally challenged youngest brother, who, with the exception of his sister Caddy and Dilsey the servant, is an outcast of his own family, a source of not only shame for his mother, but also quite possibly her hypochondria, whilst his brother Jason, upon becoming the leader of the household plans to send him to a mental institution in Florida. Through close analysis of the complex narration of Benjy, it is clear that any, even subtle changes to his environment or people to which he is unaccustomed will cause him to cry, and in some cases, howl. It is this response that causes the denouement of the novel to be significantly less uplifting than it would be otherwise. After the church service, and Dilsey’s proclamation that “I see’d de beginning, en now I sees de endin”, which could well symbolize the death of the Old South many of the Compsons tried to save, and the birth of the new, more progressive and less hierarchical South, Luster, the boy driving the cart, makes a different turn. The subsequent “bellow” from Benjy is unquestionably the most vividly described in the novel; it is “horror, shock; agony eyeless, tongueless; just sound”. Equally arresting is Jason’s reaction to the animalistic bellows- he sprints across the square and violently beats the horse before striking both Luster and Benjy. The flower frequently given to Benjy as a means to placate him during a crying or moaning outburst us tightly held, though now significantly “broken”. Despite Benjy having absolutely no comprehension of the principles that formed the Old South, the imagery of the broken flower could represent the Compson’s futile attempts to keep hold of these values, even after they have been broken beyond repair. Caddy, the only sister of Benjy, Quentin, and Jason, has not upheld the values of virginity or responsibility, while their parents bring eventual financial ruin upon themselves by selling a great deal of land for the prestige of Quentin’s Harvard education. Jason meanwhile, is revealed to have been regularly stealing payments from his sister and bed-ridden mother, and having lost hope of economic advancement, plans to use the cash on a trip to Memphis to see a prostitute. The reason for the destruction of the southern code the family once stood for is simply that they do not realise the impending before it is inescapable. Vanity and self-absorption are allowed to corrupt their principles, whereas central principles such as familial love are nurtured only by Dilsey, forgotten long ago by the Compsons. However, while the family appear to forget the values essential to sustaining their established sense of order, in “Heart of Darkness”, many of the characters pretend a sense of order remains, in what Conrad himself described as the “vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience”.

The Company describes its dealings with the natives of the Belgian Congo as “trade”, and while Marlow may have initially believed so at the beginning of his story, having formed a more complete depiction of Kurtz and his acceptance of the chaos resulting from the lack of an authority higher than himself, the reader sees with disturbing clarity that the apparent madness of Kurtz is only relative, and that in context with The Company, whose quest to “civilise” the Congo through ironically inhuman means, the full extent of insanity described in the novel is almost impossible to discern. The Chief Accountant, whom Marlow meets at the Outer Station, asks him to tell Kurtz “that everything here…is very satisfactory”, despite Marlow’s horror at the “objectless blasting” of the cliff he witnessed upon his arrival, and that “everything else in the station was in a muddle”. It is worth noting that the greater source of horror for Marlow is the disorganized nature of the exploitation, rather than the exploitation itself, which seems to always end in death for the native labourers. This attitude is epitomised by the image of the “flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly”, which would suggest that Marlow does not view the true evil of colonialism as the death it perpetrates , nor the greed that motivates it, but rather its ineffective and foolish methods of accomplishment. In fact, the only thing in order that Marlow respects, is ironically the “unexpected elegance” of the accountant’s clothes, although he somewhat darkly admits that despite “ a distaste for the work”, he has “taught”, quite possibly through violence, one of the native women to iron and press them. That he is afraid to send a message to Kurtz upriver lest it be intercepted by what he views as untrustworthy elements “at that Central Station” shows the paranoia, even amongst employees of the same company, that has taken hold of him, as the doctor in the city of the “whited sepulchre” forewarned, even at the outer station, still a long distance from Kurtz and the “heart of an impenetrable darkness” in which he resides.

Marlow arguably shares the most in common of all the characters of “The Sound and the Fury” with Quentin Compson, particularly in the way that their former sense of order has been so fundamentally damaged by past events. As Caddy has done with all three of her brothers, her actions have unknowingly impacted heavily on them: Benjy senses her promiscuity and becomes increasingly upset, her divorce costs Jason a job with her former husband, and her sexual activity stains the southern code Quentin was brought up on from his father’s fatalist musings. However, it is upon the discovery that his father, though very articulate, is in fact rather cynical and ambivalent towards the ideas with which Quentin has become obsessed, when he dismisses the concept of purity as “a negative state and therefore contrary to nature” and that virginity is “just words”. The day described in Quentin’s narration is forever haunted by both the above crushing revelations and his impending suicide, just as Marlow is seemingly almost cursed a la “Ancient Mariner” to recite his tale wherever he goes. However, due to Quentin’s assurance that he will die that day, he does not shy from the truth that has formed from the desecration of his Southern code, although he is of course tormented by the truth and his past, shown by numerous references to time- he visits a watch shop to ask if any are right but does not wish to know what the time is. Despite still being a part of the process of time, Quentin absolves himself of the knowledge of time in order to distance himself, before finally escaping it altogether, in death. This is reinforced by the imagery of his shadow, which could again represent his desire to escape time; “I walked upon the belly of my shadow”- as his shadow is caused by the sun moving across the sky in the passage of time- or it could also be prescient of his death, a constant reminder that in order to flee time, one cannot flee death. Marlow, on the other hand, is not quite ready to confront his fears of the savage absence of order he has witnessed- he, at least explicitly, has no plans to kill himself, but he cannot bring himself to reveal the awful truth to those closely affected by the company’s work, most conspicuously, Kurtz’s “intended”, to whom he lies that “in his hour of moral victory”, Kurtz’s final whisper was her name, when in fact, upon glimpsing the true, inexpressible and terrifying reality of the human heart, it was the haunting cry of “the horror! The horror!” Although Marlow is one of literature’s most notorious unreliable narrators, we have little reason to doubt that after witnessing the two horrifying extremes of attempting to continue with the established order, as The Company do, and accepting the chaos of the darkness for what it truly is, as Kurtz does, Marlow’s own principles have been severely distorted, no matter if he told the entire truth about his involvement or complicity in the Congo.

To conclude, the theme of order and chaos in the two novels is the most intriguing they share. Conrad was one of Faulkner’s major influences, and so to see the tragic degeneration of the Compsons which culminates in Caddy’s daughter, who shares her mother’s promiscuity but not the guilt aroused with the reaction of Benjy, eloping with a mysterious “man in a red tie” and Jason’s –mostly stolen- savings actually evokes a positive response in the reader, as there appears to be little option other than to let go of the rotten values kept alive out of misplaced, hypocritical pride, and embrace the new south, as Dilsey does. In “Heart of Darkness”, Marlow suggests that the imperial practice of “civilising” native people in colonies is misinformed, not because the native cultures may already have a viable, though radically different, structure of civilisation in place, but that the actual practice of imperialism dehumanizes Europeans, as they are removed from their own structures of order. This idea is foreshadowed by the mysterious death of the mild-mannered Fresleven before Marlow sets out to Africa, but the reason Kurtz embodies this idea so well is that he embraces the chaos, without attempting to keep the old structures in place, which, as proven by the disorganization at the Outer Station, and the dilapidated Central Station, results in the “flabby devil”, and severe inefficiency. Unlike “The Sound And The Fury”, the pivotal event is not the acceptance of a new order, but rather that of the chaos epitomised by the darkness that is everywhere in the novel, but the character of Kurtz, even more so than Dilsey, echoes through the reader’s mind. He is not depicted solely as one figure, but an amalgamation of images created by different characters each for their own purpose, as demonstrated by Marlow’s meetings with his fiancée, cousin and the inquisitive journalist. Kurtz would have been “a splendid leader of an extreme party”, “a great musician”, and was a man who “drew men towards him by what was best in them”, all of which jar with Marlow’s own experience of the man, his “vile desires”, the “tempestuous anguish of his soul”. Kurtz, then, in living as a cipher upon which people could portray their own visions of him, in dying, becomes an enigma.

© Finn Maunder and “Finn.” 2013. This content is protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Finn Maunder and “Finn.” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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