In an interview in the spring of 1956, Southern Gothic author William Faulkner was asked to advise readers who remained unable to understand his writing after two or three attempts.
His response was simple: “Read it four times.”
“I am trying to say it all in one sentence,” he continued, “between one cap and one period.”
Within these loose, grammatical confines, nothing in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) is incidental. There is importance in every choice of word, every repetition, the uncommon syntax, and untraditional symbolism, in the deconstruction of the very language itself. Join Generally Gothic as we search for understanding, between the caps and periods of As I Lay Dying.
~ As a relatively in-depth literary analysis, spoilers are impossible to avoid. If you’ve yet to read As I Lay Dying & wish to remain unspoilt, bookmark this article for future indulgence! ~
Narrated by a variety of friends and relations, As I Lay Dying follows the Bundren family’s journey to bury their matriarch, Addie, in her pre-marital family plot, across the Mississippi countryside.
The novel’s opening paragraph is narrated by Addie’s second eldest son, Darl, whose voice is the strongest throughout the tale. He begins with a description of himself and his bastard brother, Jewel, as they return home from work in the fields. Appearing initially as mundane scene-setting, closer reading – as per Faulkner’s advice – reveals three separate perspectives contained within Darl’s description.
Firstly, there is what he knows to be true based on active experience:
“Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file.”
This image of the two siblings walking one after the other is representative of Faulkner’s narrative style – each chapter is narrated by a different character offering their own account of their own journey, along a single, unified path.
The second sentence of this short paragraph, offers the final two perspectives. Despite admitting that he is “fifteen feet ahead of” Jewel, Darl can perfectly describe his brother’s “frayed and broken straw hat”. This is the second perspective; what Darl accepts, or believes to be true.
And, finally, he imagines what “anyone watching [them] from the cotton-house can see”.
Projection, or speculation, is the third perspective.
Following Darl’s lead, Generally Gothic would like to offer three separate ways of reading As I Lay Dying as a whole.
Firstly as the story of a singular, family unit.
Secondly, as a collection of personal, individual accounts.
And, finally, as representative of a larger picture, within which we all reside.
You are welcome to offer a fourth.
As a story of the loss shared by the family that she leaves behind, on its surface the novel revolves around the death of Addie Bundren. The focus of the plot is the surviving Bundren’s continuing struggle to fulfil Addie’s dying wish and lay her to rest alongside “them of her blood” in Jefferson County, Mississippi.
Addie narrates a single section in which she discusses her relationship to the children she taught in the local school.
“I would have to look at them day after day, each with his and her secret and selfish thought, and blood strange to each other blood and strange to mine.”
Obsessed with family blood, Addie considers not only the school children unsettlingly different and separate from herself, but also her own children. She distances herself from her family and they, in turn, are in discord with one another. This, however, she explains, “seemed to be the only way I could get ready to stay dead.”
The cause of Addie’s death is shrouded in complete vagueness; death is presented as a life-long preoccupation, inherited from her father, which eventually consumes her. In the timeframe of the novel, she neither seeks solace in her family, nor expresses sadness at her departure from them. The distance which she creates between herself and her family is echoed both in their relationships with one another and also in the narrative style.
On his own work, Faulkner stated:
“I am convinced that the story you tell invents its own style, compels its own style.”
– Faulkner’s Narrative Poetics Style as Vision, Arthur F. Kinney, 1978)
This may explain Faulkner’s decision to divide the narrative amongst the Bundren’s, and a select number of their family friends. The stream-of-consciousness narration allows each character to offer a personal account, whilst still following a singular plot line. The result is a collective yet divided narrative flow, exploring the shared and the personal, affording the reader an honest insight into each character’s perceptions of themselves, whilst breaking up the family unit.
Addie’s death is at the heart of the plot but her passing allows for the real, present action of the novel, which is the journey. The title of the novel is taken from Homer’s The Odyssey; Faulkner’s novel may thus be viewed as the ‘Bundren Odyssey’ as this, rather than Addie, is what binds them together. For each of the Bundren’s the journey into town offers an opportunity to obtain something that they personally desire… be that a set of teeth and a new wife, an abortion, a graphophone, or a toy train. You know, the classics.
The full quote from The Odyssey from which Faulkner’s title derives reads:
“As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades.”
In relation to this line, the ambiguous “I” of Faulkner’s title could be Darl. His mother, then, becomes the woman who “would not close [his] eyes” or, in the context of the novel, who will not protect him from the morbid fascination with death that becomes his to inherit.
Darl’s is the dominant voice of the novel, whereas Addie’s is the dominant presence. Her influence upon him – upon his thoughts – increases as the novel progresses and as Darl reaches his climactic exit from the family. The funereal journey then, becomes shared for Addie and her son, as each of them steadily approach their ending.
Unlike his siblings and father, Darl is on a philosophical journey. He provokingly asks his pregnant teen sister, Dewey Dell: “You want her to die so you can get to town: is that it?”
Rather than anything physical, Darl is seeking a sense of self. Increasingly, his wish is to detach himself from Addie, to whom he becomes a sort of double.
“It [a water bucket] would be black, the shelf black, the still surface of the water a round orifice in nothingness, where before I stirred it awake with the dipper I could see maybe a star or two before I drank. After that I was bigger, older.”
This early memory offers insight into the character’s outlook on life. The water bucket may be representative of the world, or, rather, Darl’s world. It is dark, unilluminated, and “in nothingness” it is detached. The stars are glimpses of clarity – little rays of ‘knowing’ – but as he focuses too much upon them and tries to capture them with the dipper they are lost. His final statement (“After that I was bigger, older.”) on one hand, refers to his literal growth and first experiences discovering his own body. On the other, it confirms the importance which a greater understanding has to his personal development. For Darl, As I Lay Dying is a Bildungsroman. Whilst he feels disassociated from the others, he cannot escape his connection with his mother and so, his journey of mental growth becomes infected with death.
Throughout the novel, Faulkner adopts the use of powerful metaphors and imagery, enabling his characters to discuss the death of their mother, which they cannot or would rather not do, directly. Water, often in the form of rain, is introduced perhaps simply as pathetic fallacy, perhaps foreshadowing future events.
In the early sections of the novel, almost every character predicts that rain is imminent. After Addie dies, everybody speaks of the effects of the rain, which lead to the flooding of the bridge causing the Bundrens a great deal of trouble, just as Addie’s dying wish does. Water within the novel can be read not as the precursor to or dramatisation of death, but as representative of the effects which it has upon those left behind in life.
Darl supports this in his account of the struggle with the cart and coffin in the river. Referring literally to the distance between his brothers Cash, Jewel and himself, within the water and his father Anse, sister Dewey Dell, youngest brother Vardaman, and neighbour Vernon, all of whom are on the bank, he describes his position as:
“…the place where the motion of the wasted world accelerates just before the final precipice.” (133)
Water is portrayed as this great, terrifying maelstrom, which is teetering on the brink between life and death. Conversely, though, in the previous passage where Darl enjoys a night-time drink of water, in private, the water is still and calm and, whilst unfamiliar and dark, it’s not chaotic – it is his secret pleasure. Perhaps Darl shares this memory with the reader to suggest the influence which his mother’s death and before that, her obsession with being dead, has had upon his outlook of the world. If the water in the bucket does signify his world, as he ages, it becomes, in the river, something to be feared.
In the same 1956 interview referenced at the start, Faulkner stated the following:
“Since people exist only in life, they must devote their time simply to being alive. Life is motion, and motion is concerned with what makes man move.”
Anse, despite numerous physical and financial struggles is able to survive the experience, to even profit from it, by simple acceptance. In reference to his wife’s impending death, he ominously repeats the phrase:
“Her mind is set on it.”
As in all aspects of his family’s hardships, Anse chooses to do nothing actively to alter this situation. Darl, on the other hand, is unable to simply accept his mother’s decision. His resulting and continual questioning and attempts to rid himself of Addie’s dead presence are what cause his surviving family to have him removed. In conversation with Vardaman, whose narrative sections are beautifully poetic and emotive, Darl says of his mother:
“If I had one, it is was. If it is was, it can’t be is. Can it?”
Faulkner italicises the verbs, ‘was’ and ‘is’ to highlight Darl’s fascination with time parameters. He continues, concluding that “[t]hat is why I am not is[,]” placing himself outside of the present, active world, which Faulkner described. As I Lay Dying is presented, in a broader sense, as a continual struggle – the fractured, multiple hardships of a group, underpinned by a shared suffering. The present tense narrative style highlights the ongoing state of this suffering. This may be the greatest gothic element of As I Lay Dying – the universality of the Bundren’s plights, the inability to escape from the influence which death has upon life.
“It is as though time, no longer running straight before us in a diminishing line, now runs parallel between us like a looping string.”
This looping string runs parallel between us all, highlighting the eternality of the morbid themes of As I Lay Dying within Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha county and beyond into the world of his readers, and you, and I.
For the duration of July, a Southern Spell is upon Generally Gothic, wherein we will be exploring the whats and whys of the Southern Gothic…