The shadow motif refers chiefly to Quentin and, to a lesser degree, to Benjy. The shadow refers to the events of the past which are only vaguely understood. As a person, Quentin is obsessed with both the past and the significance that the past has for him. But these actions of the past appear to him only in shadowy form. Thus we return to the Shakespearean passage from which the title was taken:
Life’s but a walking shadow.
One critic of Faulkner’s writings has pointed out that the word “shadow” appears at least forty-five times in Quentin’s monologue. Quentin senses all through his section that he is only a shadow of his ancestors. There are no more generals and governors left among his family. Furthermore, when Quentin tries to accomplish something the act always seems ridiculous. For example, he tries to make Caddy commit a double suicide but it is Quentin who fails to bring the act to completion; he tries to make Dalton Ames leave town but ends up by fainting like a girl; he tries to convince his father that he committed incest with Caddy but his father merely laughs at him. Thus all of Quentin’s actions are only shadows of real action. And unlike the real tragic protagonist who loses his life at the end of the drama, Quentin takes his life by the mid-point in the novel. The implication is that modern man cannot bring himself to cope with the problems of the final act of the drama and destroys himself in the middle. And Quentin’s final act is that of jumping in the river, where his shadow rises from the water below to meet him.