Quentin Compson III

Character Key Number: 
Display Name: 
Quentin Compson III
Sort Name: 
Compson, Quentin III
Ever Present in Yoknapatawpha?: 

Quentin Compson is a major character in two of Faulkner's greatest novels, The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, and the narrator of four early short stories. He is also the oldest son in one of the most prominent Yoknapatawpha families but born after the South's defeat in the Civil War and at the end of the 19th century, and so has to try to grow up in a modern world that that has no place for him. At the beginning of his section in the first novel he wakes up in his Harvard dorm room remembering his father handing him his grandfather's watch, symbol of what "Compson" and tradition are supposed to mean. That watch is still in his pocket at the end of his section, still ticking though he's pulled the hands off it, as he leaves that room to commit suicide - because death is the only way he can escape time as an ongoing series of wounds and losses. The past that haunts him in that novel is personal, the list of his failures - as the son of a mother who is incapable of loving him, a father who tells him that nothing means anything but a Compson must nonetheless be a gentleman, and especially as the oldest brother who cannot protect his sister - that constantly replays in his mind as he wanders in exile through the streets of a northern city. In Absalom! the past that haunts him is cultural: the legacy of an Old South, as manifest in the character of Thomas Sutpen, that can neither be recovered nor escaped. Absalom! takes place in the interval between Quentin leaving Yoknapatawpha for college in 1909 and killing himself in 1910. Since in the larger canon his future is already in the past when Faulkner makes him the vehicle by which to "tell about the South," as his roommate puts it (142), any hope that knowing the sins of the fathers might provide a way to move forward beyond them is stillborn from the start. Quentin's larger story takes the futility of Horace Benbow's character (in Flags in the Dust) to what Quentin himself beautifully and terribly calls "an unvarying nil: stalemate of dust and desire" (124). And yet it's easy to understand why Faulkner himself did not easily give up on Quentin's character, even though chronologically the short stories he narrates are incompatible with his biography in the novels. In them he resurrects Quentin as an imaginative resource, a way to explore the parts of 'Yoknapatawpha' that lie outside the bounds of the aristocracy. In "That Evening Sun" it's the experience of a black woman. In "A Justice," it's the experience of slavery and race as expressed by a biracial Indian, a member of the culture that was dispossessed decades before the plantation South lost the War. In "A Bear Hunt" and "Lion" Quentin even allows Faulkner's imagination to take its first steps into the big woods, a world that (like death in The Sound and the Fury) seems to lie outside time itself. As his career goes on, Faulkner will go further in each of these directions, though without Quentin. The two later texts that mention him ("Appendix Compson" and The Mansion) briefly repeat his story but don't develop it.