Caroline Bascomb Compson [wife of Jason Compson III, mother of Quentin, Candace (Caddy), Jason IV, and Benjamin (Benjy; name changed from Maury), also grandmother of Quentin (daughter of Caddy)] is a selfish and self-centered narcissistic hypochondriac who is more concerned with appearances and class status than she is with caring for her children. She is shaped by and rigidly identifies herself with southern patriarchal ideals of woman: virginal before marriage and weak and powerless after, a proper lady. As the culture of southern gentility that she has internalized fades away, she is an anachronism who fails to adapt and fails to mother her children as they struggle to form their identities in this modernizing society. The lack of a mother is an important theme in the novel; each sibling is damaged by this loss. As his mind fragments in the breakdown that will end in his suicide, Quentin laments that things might have been different for him and for Caddy (and the family status) if only they had a mother: “My little sister had no. If I could say Mother. Mother” (95) and “if I’d just had a mother so I could say Mother Mother” (172). Throughout his work, Faulkner explores the relationship between the feminine and art/creativity, struggling, like Quentin, to find his way. For him, women often embody the tensions out of which art is made, and they are the disrupters in his texts where the mysterious struggle between language and truth is waged. Deborah Clarke notes that in Faulkner it is the mother who “exacts the price for the “Ode on a Grecian Urn’” (Clarke 50).

Caroline constantly declares herself sick, often seen with a camphor handkerchief, retreating to her bedroom, she is not “one of those women who can stand things” (8). Faulkner shows the contradictions within the stereotype of the frail, retiring Southern lady in the ways Caroline Compson controls her family through guilt and emotional blackmail. “Control is Caroline Compson’s ruling passion. She wishes to order her children and her life to suit some vision of the proper upper-class southern home (a spurious vision), but history catches up with her: the Compson lands are sold off, the house is crumbling, her husband is an alcoholic, her brother a sponger, her eldest son a suicide, her youngest son an idiot, her favorite son an avaricious miser, and her daughter unmarried and pregnant” (Roberts 195). Caroline laments only for herself and her status after discovering Caddy’s pregnancy: “what have I done to have been given children like these Benjamin was punishment enough and now for her to have no more regard for me her own mother I’ve suffered for her dreamed and planned and sacrificed … punishment for putting aside my pride and marrying a man who held himself above me … what sins have your high and mighty people visited upon me … I was taught that there is no halfway ground that a woman is either a lady or not” (102-3). Deborah Clarke investigates the ways that motherhood informs and shapes Faulkner’s work. Looking at the relationship between mothers and language, she locates the failure: “By accepting no halfway ground, Caroline Compson denies the grounding of motherhood itself, which is predicated on an essential duality … she refuses to let her motherhood get in the way of her ladyhood (Clarke 31). Interestingly, Clarke point out that, even though she is the “strongest proponent of the lady,” Caroline “rejects the Compson identity” and insists that she is a Bascomb, undermining the “patriarchal structure of marriage” (Clarke 31-2).

Cleanth Brooks describes Caroline as “not so much an actively evil and wicked person as a cold weight of negativity which paralyzes the normal family relationships” and cites her as responsible for Quentin’s “inverted pride” and lack of self-confidence, Caddy’s promiscuity, and husband Jason’s “alcoholic cynicism” (Brooks 334). The text often connects her with cold and death; her only ventures out of the house are to visit the cemetery. She is an emotionally cold and physically removed wife and mother, never demonstrating physical affection for her children and delegating the job of caring for them to Dilsey Gibson, the family’s black maid. Diane Roberts, calling Dilsey the “authentic mother,” finds that Faulkner’s portrayal of Caroline Compson “indicts the white mother for psychological cruelty, snobbery, and moral and emotional vacancy” constituting a “bitter rebuke and devastating response to the plantation angel-mother” (Roberts 194-5). When asked by Caddy to hold 5-year-old Benjy to calm him, Caroline refuses and, focusing only on how her children reflect on her in society, scolds Caddy not to damage her posture and disgrace the family by not looking like a lady: “He’s too big for you to carry. You must stop trying. You’ll injure your back. All of our women have prided themselves on their carriage. Do you want to look like a washerwoman” (63). Her world is divided into those who are ladies and those who are not, leaving no ground for a nurturing motherhood.

Caroline Bascomb Compson is extremely class conscious, clinging to the social caste system of the Old South. The Bascombs are from the lower middle class, ranking below the aristocratic plantation-owner upper class of the Compsons. Caroline manifests an inferiority complex throughout the novel and inculcates her children in the outdated values of this repressive antebellum society. She defends her Bascomb heritage and accuses her husband of acting superior to her and her hanger-on brother, Maury. Quentin remembers arguments between his parents where, “Mother would cry and say that Father believed his people were better than hers that he was ridiculing Uncle Maury to teach us the same thing” (175). Daniel J. Singal gives some historical context to Faulkner’s representation of Caroline, explaining that members of the lower middle class in the South had “long lived under the shadow of planter families like the Compsons” and were “[D]esperate for status in a culture weighted against them” and after the war “often became models of probity, populating the evangelical churches and grasping Victorian morality as their ticket to respectability” (Singal 117). Caroline Compson imposes a “repressive moral standard” on her children to compensate for her own sense of social inferiority (Singal 117). It is a burden that damages the ability of her children to define their identities and make their way in the modernizing world. Both Caroline Compson and her husband Jason are incompetent parents, unable to give their children what they need to adapt and move forward with changing times; they are all trapped in the past as the Compson family decomposes. Singal defines the Compson parents as Faulkner’s “literary incarnations of the two most powerful cultural forces in the South at the time—the intertwined Cavalier and Victorian legacies” that had “become so stifling to young southerners of his generation, cutting them off from the world of experience where they could begin to construct a new set of identities for their region” (Singal 118). Singal notes that Faulkner’s own mother, Maud Butler, was a “Victorian stalwart, determined to drum morality and culture into her four sons” (Singal 118). Jay Parini cautions autobiographical assumptions but finds that Faulkner’s mother is “imperfectly refracted in Mrs. Compson” observing that “both mothers were intensely class-conscious and held this awareness over (or above) their children—imposing on them an ideal of aspiration they might never quite achieve” (Parini 125).

Noel Polk writes that the children in Faulkner’s early work are “prisoners in the dark house of family dysfunction, houses whose darkness is rooted in fear and loathing of the life processes of sex and death, in denial and repression of desire” (Polk 29). Caroline Bascomb Compson is a product of the culture she was raised in, and that culture cripples her children. Quentin recalls a picture in a book he read as a child that scared him: “a dark place unto which a single ray of light came slanting upon two faces lifting out of the shadow … I’d have to turn back to it until the dungeon was Mother herself she and Father upward into weak light holding hands and us lost somewhere below even them without even a ray of light” (173). Polk observes that “Faulkner’s male narrators inscribe the language of domesticity and nurture” onto mothers who “become dungeons and jailors when they do not give what males demand of them” (Polk 74). Toward the end of the novel, even as she spends most of her time in her bedroom playing sick, Caroline maintains power and is the one who locks granddaughter Quentin in her room and holds the keys (even though some are for useless, rusty locks); searching for his stolen money, Jason must wrench them away from her: “he tugged a huge bunch of rusted keys on an iron ring like a mediaeval jailer’s” (281). Caroline is both prisoner and jailor.

Works Cited

Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha County. Baton Rouge: Louisianna State University Press, 1963, 1990.
Clarke, Deborah. Robbing The Mother: Women in Faulkner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.
Parini, Jay. One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004.
Polk, Noel. Children of the Dark House: Text and Context in Faulkner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
Roberts, Diane. Faulkner and Southern Womanhood. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Singal, Daniel J. William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.