Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Benjy Compson: A diagnosis

To be truthful, though in earlier posts I used terms such as "mentally handicapped", "mentally challenged" and "retarded" for Benjy due to the use of the word "idiot" in "The sound and the fury" and I didn't think very much about Benjy's condition, he did remind me of 2 characters: the 1st of whom was Raymond Babbitt (played by Dustin Hoffman) in "Rain man", an autistic man,  and the 2nd was Christopher John Francis Boone in the book "The curious incident of the dog in the night-time" (Mark Haddon), who is said to have many traits of autists. The reasons are that Benjy has no ability for communication and social interaction but is immersed in his own world, his own mind, his own sense of reality, and that he clings to a pattern and bellows whenever things change or go out of order.
Below is an article which argues that Benjy's mental condition seems to be closer to autism than to mental retardation. 


(Sara McLaughlin)
    Although in William Faulkner's novel The Sound and the Fury "most of the characters view Ben as a disgrace, a menace, or at least as a slobbering idiot,"1 Benjamin Compson's behavior is incongruous with that of an idiot. "Idiot," a term now obsolete, was used during Faulkner's era to denote mentally retarded persons to whom experts refer today as "profoundly retarded." "Idiots" or the profoundly retarded are often, by definition, "completely inaccessible, do not feed themselves or help themselves in any way and are quite incontinent."2 Benjy's behavior varied throughout the novel, but despite inconsistencies, he was rarely, if ever, depicted as absolutely and totally helpless.  

    Critics themselves even disagree about Benjy's mentality; for instance, Frederick J. Hoffman describes Benjy as a "thirty-three-year-old idiot who stopped growing mentally in 1898 at the age of three."3 On the other hand, John Lewis Longley, Jr., comments that Benjy is a "thirty-three-year old man with a mental age of five."4 Another intriguing discrepancy can be found in the attitudes of certain characters in the novel who especially love Benjy. Characters such as Dilsey and Caddy, for example, insist Benjy has "certain particular and extraordinary powers of perception. As Roskus phrases it, 'He [Ben] know a lot more than folks thinks,'"5 There is sufficient evidence to believe Roskus was right: even though Benjy was retarded to a degree, he did not act consistently like an "idiot," by the accepted definitions. Moreover, Benjy displayed many characteristics that typify a person afflicted with autism.  

    Perhaps the supposition that Benjy is autistic is unique; however, the theory that he is not an idiot is not original. At least one critic agrees. Winthrop Tilley, Ph.D., commented: 

All things considered, Benjy seems to turn out a fabricated literary idiot whose correspondence to any idiot, living or dead, would be not only coincidental, but miraculous.6 

Tilley's conclusion is based on many episodes in the novel. One example is Ben's attempted sexual attack on a schoolgirl after which Benjy is castrated. Another manifestation of his sex drive is seen in his crying when he notices his testicles are gone, according to Tilley. Alley points out that "idiots are as low-geared sexually as they are intellectually," and "practically are incapable of sexual intercourse."7 Tilley further notes two inconsistencies in Benjy's behavior:  

He is referred to more or less indiscriminately as an idiot and a loony by a number of people. Most of me time he has to be fed, but at least once he can manage solid food pretty well. ... Sometimes he has to be carried, sometimes he can walk, and at least twice, he can run.8 

Also, Tilley believes it is difficult to "place credulity in other feats of memory and association he performs."9 For instance, Benjy's chapter in The Sound and the Fury involves remembering a great number of events. Similarly, Benjy's violent reaction to the carriage turning left at a monument one day results from his memory of turning left there the day of his operation fifteen years earlier, according to Tilley. For an idiot to remember such details is totally unbelievable.  

    Many of Benjy's reactions to particular stimuli as well as much of his behavior in general share striking similarities to the behavior of autistic individuals. "Autism" comes from a Greek word, autos, which means "self."10 The label, autism, is used because many autistic persons are withdrawn and overly self-centered, although these traits do not always appear as predominate ones. Autism has only been recognized since 1943 when Professor Kanner first described autistic children as a special group.11 Thus, Faulkner, writing in 1929, would not have been familiar with this condition. He, like countless others, would have been too quick to label peculiar individuals as mentally retarded or, worse, idiots. Autistic individuals vary greatly because their condition may range from mild to severe. Of course, because autistic persons are individuals, each case is unique. Nevertheless, one may examine several characteristic symptoms and pair them with Benjy's traits.  

    Regarding speech, for example, many autistic children are mute; they produce no recognizable words. Others' expressive speech is minimal.12 Benjy was mute, although the reader gets the rare opportunity to read Benjy's mind in a sense, in the chapter he narrates figuratively. This device enables readers to see how Benjy might talk if he could. One characteristic of autistic persons is that they seem unaware speech has a meaning.l3 The way in which Faulkner punctuates the quotes in Benjy's chapter leads one to believe that speech to Benjy was rather meaningless. Periods appear in place of commas after tags such as "Caddy said," and "Quentin said." This ploy creates the impression the speech is disjointed and fragmented. Benjy also "thinks" in choppy sentences with as few words as possible, as in the sentence, "The room went black, except the door."14 Normal people tend to use more words than are necessary while the autistic are economical.15 Autistic persons tend to be literal and concrete:  

The speech of autistic children has teen described as similar to that of a computer translating from a foreign language, and this does give an idea of the kinds of mistakes they tend to make.16 

For this reason, the autistic often make mistakes with words, such as the noun "sheet," which have two meanings. In the same way, Benjy understands words literally, the best example being the word "Caddy." To him, that word signifies his sister, and therefore, he cannot perceive what golfers mean when they use the word differently. Benjy seldom substitutes pronouns for names of speakers. He is incapable of ascribing identities to Luster's friends, also, and thus their speech seems to come from thin air.17 Lastly, a fascinating characteristic of autism in Benjy's speech is his refraining from telling lies: 
Autistic children never tell lies. They do not understand why it should ever be necessary to avoid the truth, and in any case, lack the skill with language and ideas needed to invent lies.18 

Autistic persons have excellent memories, in most cases. They usually have warped perceptions of reality, however.19 Benjy evidently has a good memory, certainly a much better one than any idiot would have, as Tilley pointed out earlier. Benjy reacts to sensory conditions which spark a memory of an earlier similar occurrence. For example, once Benjy snags his pants, and Luster says, "You snagged on that nail again. Cant you never crawl through here without snagging on that nail" (p. 3). This episode is followed immediately by Benjy's recollection of a similar episode in which "Caddy uncaught me and we crawled through" (p. 3). The past and present are inseparable in a way in Benjy's mind. The reader finds himself in a "curious kind of fixed world."20 Likewise, of the autistic, Bruno Bettelheim writes:  

Their thoughts move exceedingly slowly, without inherent connection. It is as if, in Piaget's terms, they view single frames one at a time, one thought at a time and not a comprehensive story.21

Autistic persons have trouble perceiving more than a small thing or a scene at a time; this problem explains why they remember one frame at a time. Elaborating on this symptom, Dr. Lorna Wing notes that autistic children tend to focus on one small piece of the whole while looking at picture books. They do this "because they cannot take in the meaning of the whole scene. Very complicated and rapidly changing, environments like crowded shops may upset a young autistic child , and bring on a temper tantrum."22 Many times in The Sound and the Fury, Benjy gets upset and cries; perhaps in some of these circumstances, he cries because he is overwhelmed by the complexity of a changing environment.  

    Overall, most autistic children are aloof and unaffectionate; however, the exception to this rule is that they will respond to a few special people in trusted environments.23 This trait is seen in Benjy: he is close to Caddy and a few others in his own home. Benjy does tend to be egocentric; everything described in his section is done so in relationship to him. Similarly, "(s)ince the autistic child is inhibited from acting on his own and hence from interacting with the world, he cannot leave his egocentric position."24  

    Another characteristic of autism is that autistic persons rely more heavily on sense data than do normal people, seeming "to recognize other people through these senses."25 Benjy repeatedly comments that Versh smells like rain and Caddy smells like trees. When Caddy ceases to smell like trees, Benjy howls - his way of registering a complaint.26 Autistic persons possess many acute senses, especially the senses of sight and touch. They are fascinated by light and by anything, that twinkles.27 The reader will note Benjy's preoccupation with fire and with the "sparkles" in this scene:  

Caddy got the box and set it on the floor and opened it. It was full of stars. When I was still, they were still. When I moved, they glinted and sparkled. I hushed. (P. 50) 

Benjy, like the autistic, also loves to feel of certain objects. The autistic, it has been noted, "loves the feel of smooth wood, plastic or soft fur."28 Benjy was furnished with:  

pleasurable moments of touching, tasting, smelling, seeing and hearing. She [Caddy] had often soothed him by calling his attention to the bright shapes of the dancing flames in the fireplace, and to the attractive colors of red and yellow in a cherished cushion, and to the soft texture of a satin slipper . . . and to the music of rain on the roof.29 

Benjy also exhibits a classic symptom of autism: that is, he is obsessed with a fear of change. Autistic persons insist on the repetition of routines, and if a "routine is upset, there are screams and temper tantrums."30 Caddy evidently recognized this characteristic, and she assured Benjy she would not go away (p. 51). In fact, Benjy's reliance on Caddy for a preservation of order and for sensual gratification may have been more important than his love for her. Olga Vickery theorizes, and perhaps correctly, that because Benjy  

is concerned with preserving the pattern, rather than any single one of its parts, there is little he can lose. Even Caddy has no existence for him except as she forms part of that pattern.31 

Luster, unlike Caddy, could not care less whether he disrupts Bets routine, and Luster hears about it in the scene in Which Luster changes the route to the graveyard. The route is important to Benjy, who is "overwhelmed with horror and agony when Luster takes the wrong turn only to subside the minute the mistake is corrected."32 Benjy becomes upset by Luster's removal of a bottle at a grave. Benjy's initial silence is "succeeded by a roar of protest. It is not that the bottle has any intrinsic value for Belay, but merely mat it forms part of the pattern which must not be disturbed."33 Benjy's rebellion against change is hard to miss in the novel. Likewise, the autistic place so much importance or resisting change that it seems as if change poses a threat to them:  

Without a concept of the permanence of objects and human relations, the universe lacks order and appears totally chaotic and unpredictable. The only principle by which order can reign is to make sure that everything always remains the same."34 

Ironically, the autistic feel threatened by things that are not dangerous: however, they are often unaware of real dangers, such as extremes in temperature.35 Benjy "lets his hands almost freeze, and burns them in the fire."36  

    In the novel, Benjy is depicted as a "big man who appeared to have been shaped of some substance whose particles would not or did not cohere to one another or to the frame which supported it" (p. 342). This description matches J. K. Wing's observation that the musculature of the autistic often seems very limp.37  

    A final parallel between Benjy and autistic children is that mothers of autistic children are often like Mrs. Compson. In one study, researchers discovered that many mothers of autistic children were  

silent, mechanical, resentfill, gloomy, and lacking in any spontaneity. Most significantly, there was a minimum of interest expressed in eliciting any emotional response from the children and a maximum interest expressed in keeping the child quiet and inactive.38 

Mrs. Compson continually insists that Benjy be kept quiet. For example, in one scene she says, "Why won't you let him [Benjy] alone, so I can have some peace" (p. 49). Mr. Compson says, "You all must be good tonight.... And be quiet, so you won't disturb Mother" (p. 76). Perhaps Mrs. Compson's uncaring, attitude brought out Benjy's autism and caused mental retardation.  

    Benjamin Compson is more complex to analyze than one quick reading, of The Sound and the Fury might suggest. He displays many different types of behaviour, some of which are inconsistent. Although Faulkner labels him an "idiot," the diagnosis cannot be correct; Benjy iust does not behave in a manner characteristic of an "idiot" or a profoundly retarded person. He instead behaves like an autistic person suffering from a milder degree of mental retardation than idiocy. Benjy looks, acts, thinks and "speaks" (figuratively in his narration) in a manner characteristic of an autistic person. Faulkner has unknowingly presented of the earliest pictures in American literature of the devastating effects autism can have on a human being Ñ Benjy Compson.  

Sara McLaughlin


1. LawranceThompson, "Mirror Analogues in The Sound and the Fury," in English Institute Essays, 1952 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1953), pp. 83-106; rpt. in William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism, ed. Frederick J. Hofflnan and Olga W. Vickery (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1963), p. 214. 
2. R.F. Tredgold and K. Soddy, Tredgold's Mental Retardation, 11th ed. (Baltimore: The Williams and Wilkins Co., 1970). p. 258. 
3. Frederick J. Hoffman, William Faulkner (New Heaven: College and Univ. Press, 1961), p.52. 
4. John Lewis Longley, Jr., The Tragic Mask (Chapel Hill: Univ. of H. Carolina Press, 1957). p. 221. 
5. Thompson, p. 214. 
6. Winthrop Tilley, Ph.D., "The Idiot Boy in Mississippi: Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury," American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 59 (1955), 376. 
7. Tilley, p. 376. 
8. Tilley, p. 375. 
9. Tilley, pp. 375-376. 
10. Lorna Wing, M.D., D.P.M., Autistic Children (NewYork: Brunner/Mazel, Inc., 1972), p. 4. 
11. Lorna Wing, p.7. 
12. Ivar 0. Lovaas, The Autistic Child (Hew York: Indng,ton Pub. Inc., 1977), p. 30. 
13. Lorna Wing, p. 15. 
14. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (New York: Random House, 1929), p. 92. Subsequent references to this novel will appear in parentheses in the text of this paper. 
15. Lorna Wing, p. 19. 
16. Lorna Wing, p. 18. 
17. Olga W. Dickey, The Novels of William Faulkner (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1961), p. 34. 
18. Lorna Wing, p. 27. 
19. Bruno Bettelheim, The Empty Fortress (New York: The Free Press, 1967), p. 390. 
20. Hoffman, p. 53. 
21. Bettelheim, p. 454. 
22. Lorna Wing, p. 19. 
23. J. K. Wing, ed., Early Childhood Autism (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1966), p. 14. 
24. Bettelheim, p. 453. 
25. Lorna Wing, p. 21. 
26. Hoffman, p. 53. 
27. Lorna Wing, p. 12. 
28. Lorna Wing, p. 21. 
29. Lawrance Thompson, Willam Faulkner, 2nd ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1963), p. 33. 
30. Lorna Wing, p. 25. 
31. Vickery, p. 36. 
32. Vickery, p. 35. 
33. Vickery, p. 35. 
34. Bettelheim, p. 453. 
35. J. K. Wing, p. 11. 
36. Tilley, p. 375. 
37. J. K. Wing, p. 12. 
38. Bettelheim, p. 397. 

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