The OF Blog: William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Friday, October 26, 2012

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Jewel stops at the spring and takes the gourd from the willow branch and drinks.  I pass him and mount the path, beginning to hear Cash's saw.
When I reach the top he has quit sawing.  Standing in a litter of chips, he is fitting two of the boards together.  Between the shadow spaces they are yellow as gold, like soft gold, bearing on their flanks in smooth undulations the marks of the adze blade:  a good carpenter, Cash is.  He holds the two planks on the trestle, fitted along the edges in a quarter of the finished box.  He kneels and squints along the edge of them, then he lowers them and takes up the adze.  A good carpenter.  Addie Bundren could not want a better, a better box to lie in.  It will give her confidence and comfort.  I go on to the house, followed by the
Chuck.           Chuck.         Chuck.
of the adze. (Darl, p. 4)
It's because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn box.  Where she's got to see him.  Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and sawing where she can see him saying See.  See what a good one I am making for you.  I told him to go somewhere else.  I said Good God do you want to see her in it.  It's like when he was a little boy and she says if she had some fertilizer she would try to raise some flowers and he taken the bread pan and brought it back from the barn full of dung. (Jewel, p. 11)

William Faulkner polarizes many readers these days.  There are those who hear how brilliant his works are, yet are baffled by the experimental prose in several of his novels, notably his 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury, which I plan on covering late this year.  Or maybe their first exposure is through his short fiction, such as "A Rose for Emily" (1930) or "Barn Burning" (1939) in a high school or university American literature anthology and they struggle to understand the techniques and motifs Faulkner employs, needing guidance from instructors who often use a checklist to denote what Faulkner is doing here or exploring there.  I once was that 18 year-old university freshman who had to endure the instructor telling us what Faulkner was doing rather than being able to decide for myself what it was about his fiction that might appeal to me.  I chose to devote the Fridays of 2012 to discussing Faulkner's fiction, both novels and short stories alike, because despite being considered one of the 20th century's greatest writers, relatively little is said about him in a non-academic setting.  As I Lay Dying (1930) was chosen to lead off this commentary series because its structure, characters, and themes provide an excellent point of entry for those readers who have either never read Faulkner before or they found other works, possibly the ones listed above, to be incomprehensible or not what they expected.

As I Lay Dying was one of the first novels to utilize heavily a multiple point of view, stream of consciousness narrative approach.  For readers accustomed to a primary narrative voice, this switching back and forth between 15 different narrators over 59 short chapters was a novelty unlike most anything they had read.  This continual switching of narrators, however, is essential to making As I Lay Dying work as a narrative.

The story revolves around the death of Addie Bundren, the matriarch of a Mississippi farming family in the early 20th century who struggles to make a hardscrabble life.  Addie is dying of a long-term ailment and she makes her family of four sons and one daughter and her husband to promise to bury her in the town of Jefferson, a few days' horse travel away from their farm.  Although this request, mysterious as it is to characters and readers alike at first (we soon learn the reasons behind this dying wish), is on the surface a straightforward plot (get Addie where she wants to rest for eternity), Faulkner's use of multiple points of view, replete with their own passing thoughts and conjunctures, turns this novel into a tragi-comedy that reveals much about ourselves.

In the passages quoted above, we experience two of the Bundren children's (the second son Darl and the third son Jewel) thoughts on what the third son, Cash, the eldest, is doing as he joins and sands the boards that will constitute their mother's coffin.  Darl's slightly detached narrative is the one that is repeated most, as he is the one who is simultaneously closer to the other characters and most distant from their mother.  His is the voice that grounds the narrative in the difficult, trying times where despite the toils and pains of subsistence farming, families there tried to honor the wishes of the deceased.  We see through him the narrative equivalent of a cinematic pan-out, with his brothers', sister's, and father's actions placed in a larger perspective.

Despite Darl receiving the most point of view chapters, the key passages in As I Lay Dying turn around the "close ups" of the other characters.  As Addie is dying, we see the youngest son, Vardaman, a mere lad of around seven or eight, thinking of the fresh-caught fish that had just been gutted and skinned.  His reaction to his mother's death is the short but resonating observation, "My mother is a fish."  This observation, when combined with Darl's earlier observation of Cash's dedication to building the best coffin for their mother and Jewel's irritation that Cash is doing so where Addie can hear (and if she is able to move, see) the coffin making, creates a memorable composite experience.

Faulkner easily could have settled for just making a strong statement on familial bonds, but in the second half of the novel, as the family is moving Addie's body to Jefferson, we encounter more.  Peering into thoughts of Addie's husband, Anse, and their daughter Dewey Dell, we see ancillary concerns that help recast the events transpiring into something more universal than just a single family's honoring of the dead's request.  It is here where the stream of consciousness, with Anse thinking of his desire to pick up some false teeth and Dewey Dell's fretting about the pregnancy that she has not revealed to the other characters, that we see the petty concerns and desires of humans even when tragedy is unfolding around them.  It would have been easy to condemn these characters (or the sons for their conflicted attitudes toward bearing their mother for days toward her grave site) for being self-centered, but Faulkner instead presents these as common, perhaps typical responses to such events.  In doing so, the narrative opens up and as we experience a few key point of view chapters near the end of the novel, we begin to see that in letting us believe that one sort of tale was unfolding, Faulkner actually is telling a second composite narrative behind the first.

As I Lay Dying works because the characters construct a narrative that is deceptive in its simplicity.  We are not "told" about the characters' qualities, but instead through the views of others and then their own self-images, we begin to get a composite portrait of each character, including Addie, who is the heart of this tale.  As I Lay Dying reveals a host of truths to readers, some of them comic in the classical sense of commedia, others more tragic, but what Faulkner accomplishes here is creating an epic tale in the space of barely 170 pages through a masterful manipulation of character perspective.  Here he has refined the stream of consciousness approach that he utilized in his previous novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929), and he makes it more "personal" and yet more universal through the seemingly simple decision to let the characters speak for themselves and through them allowing readers to take from the narrative what they may.  The result of this is a brilliantly-constructed story where each character point of view joins tautly with one another to create a complex, composite narrative whose appeal ranges far beyond the early 20th century setting to move readers over eighty years later.

Originally posted in January 2012 on Gogol's Overcoat as part of a weekly "Faulkner Friday."  Novels reviewed from January-April will be reposted here on Fridays, while the short stories will appear on Wednesdays.

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