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A Psychological View of Benjy’s Mental Retardation

Benjamin Compson, a character from The Sound and the Fury, is the youngest child of Jason and Caroline Compson who has round the clock supervision. His keepers say, “he been three years old thirty years” (Faulkner 17). Mental retardation is a condition that is associated with a person who develops slowly. “The label mentally retarded is applied when someone is significantly below average in general intellectual functioning (IQ less than 70) and has significant deficits in adaptive functioning (American Psychiatric Association, 2000)” (qtd. In Huffman 306). Benjy’s character matches this definition of mentally retarded perfectly. In order for psychologists to recognize persons’ with mental retardation, they use the Standford-Binet Intelligence Scale to test their intelligence level. If an individual score a 70 or below on the IQ test the person is incapable of functioning properly and is referred to as mentally retarded. He is thirty-three years old with the mind of a three year old because he suffers with mental retardation. In the book, The Sound and the Fury, Benjy’s mental retardation can be defined through his language development, cognitive development, and family impact.

Benjy cannot communicate with others because of his premature language development. Since he is incapable of talking to express himself, others view Benjy as an idiot. Contrary to popular belief, “he know lot more than folks thinks” ( Faulkner 31). According to the stages of language development in psychology, Benjy is at a stand still

in the prelinguistic stage. In the prelinguistic stage, “at about 2 to 5 months babies begin cooing and babbling” (Huffman 295). Even though Benjy has the mind of a three year old, he exhibits the behavior of a five-month-old baby in terms of his language capabilities. He bellows all the time for one reason or another as a way to express himself. Luster, one of his keepers, constantly tries to figure out “what [Benjy is] moaning about now” (Faulkner 16). This seems to be the unanswered question on every characters’ mind in the book.

The story of the Compson family is told through Benjy’s eyes. “He observes scenes that subtly explain many secrets to the reader” (Everett 102). For example, Benjy was there when Caddy got her drawers dirty with mud. The mud stain in Caddy’s drawers was a foreshadow of doom she was due to experience in her life. Also, Benjy can see how some of his family members will be as adults just by observing certain details from when they played together as children. Out of the whole Compson family, Faulkner chose Benjy as the one to know all of the family secrets on purpose. The idea of exposing all kinds of things to a mentally retarded person, which in this case is Benjy, made perfect sense. He does not understand the significance of what he sees nor can he talk to someone about it. Therefore, the likelihood of anyone ever knowing all the things that Benjy sees is slim to none.

Benjy’s sense of smell and hearing is a vital part of his existence. “He does not understand all he hears, but he can comprehend certain things, chiefly names” (Everett 102). Benjy understands Caddy’s name whenever he hears it. When she left Jefferson, he did not hear her name spoken in the house anymore. In order to heat his sister’s

name, Benjy began to watch golfers because they said caddy quite often which excited him. “But it is with the sense of smell that Benjy discriminates and makes judgements, even though he himself does not understand why he reacts as he does or what he is implying with his reactions” (Everett 103). For example, Benjy knows when Caddy has been being permiscous because he notices that she does not smell like trees but perfume. As a result, he does not want to be around her until she smells like trees again. A psychological way to examine Benjy’s senses would be through “Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences” (Huffman 300). Gardner believed that people come to know their world through separate intelligences. According to his theory, Benjy has naturalistic intelligence because he is in tune with nature. This goes hand in hand with his heightened sense of smell.

Unfortunately, Benjy’s cognitive development was stunted at the second stage. According to Jean Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development, Benjy is in the preoperational stage of development which is from the ages of two to seven. During this stage a child thinks symbolically and cannot perform basic operations on their own. His “mental images are internal representations (symbols) of objects and past perceptual experiences, although they are not accurate copies of those experiences” (Wadsworth 73). For example, “as Luster and Benjy go through the fence to the golf course, Benjy snags himself on a nail and remembers a similar experience in the past” (Tucker 192). “Caddy uncaught me and we crawled through” (Faulkner 4). Symbolically, the nail reminded Benjy of a time when he was with Caddy in the past even though he is with Luster in the present. His past remembrance of Caddy also illustrates that he cannot

perform operations on his own. In order to crawl through he needed Caddy’s help because he could not get through on his own.

Benjy’s character is egocentric. The preoperational stage also includes egocentrism. “That is, the child cannot take the role of, or see the view point of another” (Wadsworth 81). In Benjy’s mind only his thoughts are correct because that is all he knows. Everything must happen his way of he will go into panic mode. An example of this would be when Luster drove to the left side instead of to the right side of the Confederate monument in Jefferson’s town square. Benjy felt like Luster was wrong when he turned left because in his mind Luster was supposed to turn right.

He is incapable of transformational reasoning. This means that “the child moves from a particular perceptual event to a particular perceptual event, but cannot integrate a series of events in terms of any beginning - end relationships” (Wadsworth 83). Faulkner uses the stream -of - consciousness writing technique to illustrate this in Benjy’s character. “Present events evoke memories by association, in no logical sequence; they enter his consciousness and are recorded as if they were occurring at the moment” (Tuck 23). To Benjy, the order in which things are happening makes sense. So the reason why Benjy cannot determine the beginning or end to an event is, because he cannot make transformations.

Benjy’s condition has a severe family impact. “First - generation research on the impact of child disability and mental retardation on families (usually mothers) presented a bleak picture of stress, burden, depression, social isolation, and psychological dysfunction (Shapiro, 1983)” (qtd. In Burack, et al 606). Benjy is the first member of the

Compson family to be mentally retarded which put a lot of stress on his family. Mr. & Mrs. Compson assigned people to take care of Benjy so that they would not have to. Even though he had his own set of keepers, he was still a burden on his family because they were responsible for making the right decisions in terms of Benjy’s well being. His condition brought out the psychological dysfunction within the Compson family. Mr. Compson becomes an alcoholic, Mrs. Compson suffers from depression, Caddy is rebellious and permiscous, Quentin is obsessed with Caddy, and Jason is evil. After a while, Benjy is sent to a mental institution near Jackson because his family can no longer handle his condition.

Caroline Compson was a pathetic mother during Benjy’s upbringing. She could not deal with the fact that she gave birth to a mentally retarded child. Throughout Benjy’s life she suffered from depression. She was not a competent wife to Mr. Compson nor mother to Benjy. “In her attempt to maintain her sense of dignity in the face of Mr. Compson’s imperious remarks that his family is better than hers, Caroline B. Compson becomes excessively egocentric” (Everett 107). Benjy remains egocentric his whole life because of his mother. Since they are similar in this way, perhaps Benjy inherited the gene for mental retardation from Mrs. Compson while she was pregnant. This may explain why Mrs. Compson treated Benjy the way she did. Everyone else was more of a mother to Benjy except for Mrs. Compson which was his biological mother.

Caddy was Benjy’s mother figure. Unlike Mrs. Compson, Caddy offered intimacy to Benjy in many ways. In Erik Erikson’s sixth stage of development, intimacy versus isolation, “young adults form intimate connections with other; if not they face isolation

and consequent self absorption” (Huffman 359). Caddy would show Benjy affection by hugging him which he liked very much. Up until Benjy was 13 years old they were allowed to sleep in the same bed together. This satisfied Benjy as far as intimacy was concerned. When they could not sleep in the same bed anymore, he became upset because he no longer had companionship. In fact, as soon as Caddy left Jefferson Benjy’s world was shattered into pieces. Caddy had been the center of his world for years, but now that she is gone Benjy is faced with isolation and loneliness. Benjy suffers on the inside because he no longer has a mother.

In conclusion, Benjy was a misunderstood individual because he was mentally retarded. “For Benjy, the world is sensuous; he hears, he smells, and he sees” (Everett 102). Unlike his family members, Benjy does not take for granted the limited abilities that he has. He relies on his hearing, sight and sense of smell to get through life because he is unable to talk. Even though Benjy has the mind of a three year old, he had enough sense to be in the right place at the right time which enabled him to be aware of everything going on around him. Maybe if the other Compsons’ had this type of advantage, certain events that took place in their lives would have been avoided.

Works Cited

Burack, Jacob A., Robert M. Hodapp, and Edward Zigler, eds. Handbook of Mental Retardation and Development. Rev. ed. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

.

Everett, Walter K. Faulkner’s Art and Characters. Woodbury: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1969.

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

Huffman, Karen. Psychology in Action. 7th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004.

Tuck, Dorothy. Crowell’s Handbook of Faulkner. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1964.

Wadsworth, Barry J. Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive and Affective Development. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Longman, 1984.



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