When it comes to story-telling, many people emphasize the story part, instead of the telling one. Nevertheless, the manner in which a story is told can be very influential in its reception. In fact, many people would say that the story itself changes depending on the discourse that presents it.
This came to the limelight in the end of the nineteenth century with the Modernist current. Authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf deliberately modified the way that stories were told. They utilized many techniques that allowed them greater range of expression, many of which were not even contemplated before. One of the greatest modifications was the use of interior monologues, which allowed the reader a glimpse into the characters’ mind.
William Faulkner was one of America’s greatest storytellers, and one can see the way in which he took this into account when presenting his novels. Deeply influenced by these trends, he employed many different techniques, including stream of consciousness narration, differing viewpoints, changes in font, etc. In part, this is why many people regard him as one of the most complex writers of all time.
Nevertheless, when attempting to undertake the comprehension of one of his novels, the complicated structure is only one of the difficulties that readers are faced with, with the themes usually being profound as well. He often discusses universal human problems, like meaning, reality, fate, existence and death.
These two aspects, form and content, are not dissociated in his narratives; in fact, they frequently enter into a dialogue in order to shape and echo each other. Such is the case of As I Lay Dying, one of his most-lauded novels. It has a very simple plot, in which a family is in charge of moving the matriarch’s remains in a hazardous and complicated journey. Nevertheless, what elevates the story is the manner in which it is told, as it has many modern technical flourishes in its complex discourse. This leads the reader to question many aspects of the human experience, including reality, meaning, fate, family and death. As in other Faulkner novels, such as The Sound and the Fury, these disruptions and distortions of linear time help augment the force of his themes, making for some of the best American novels of all time. The discourse complicates the rather simple story, effectively turning it into a masterful meditation on subjectivity, reality and time.
A Simple Story
The story that the novel tells is rather plain. Addie Bundren dies and her family takes her remains to her hometown, Jefferson, Mississippi, in order to fulfill her last wishes. In other words, it is basically just an adventure story from one point to another, the type of tale that people have been telling for years, from the Bible and The Odyssey to the present day.
The first events of the plot occur while Addie is still alive, yet very sick. Every conscious person around her realizes that she will pass away soon, and one can see her, as one would see a specter, at a window looking out. Creepily, she is watching Cash, her oldest son build her coffin. Her husband, Anse, and daughter, Dewey Dell, are also present in this grim tableau.
The night she finally passes away, there is much rain, reminiscent of the floods in the Bible. The rivers flood and damage the bridges that the humble family will need in order to honor this lady’s last wishes. The family decides to go through with this endeavor anyways, and they face many challenges along the way, including a broken limb, a fire, hunger and a wild river. As Campbell states, “there is no want of action as these depraved hill folk surmount almost unbelievable difficulties in taking Addie Bundren’s corpse thirty miles away from home for burial” (305). Even though they do not have to go a long way, the characters’ psychological profiles and their lack of money make this distance seem insurmountable.
Finally, they arrive at Jefferson, Mississippi all beat up, yet do not readily proceed to fulfill their mission. Dewey Dell asks to go to a pharmacy in order to have an abortion done and Cash needs to have his broken leg fixed. Furthermore, Darl, the second-eldest son, is sent to a psychiatric hospital because they believe him to be the culprit for the fire. Anse finally buries his wife, only to get married to the woman that lent him the spades.
As one can see, the actions themselves are rather simple. It is an adventure tale that many people would not take a second look at. There are many tales of families attempting to go from one place to another, while suffering many hardships. However, what makes it interesting are the psychological profiles of the characters and the way that the story is told.
A Complicated Discourse
Even though the plot is simple, the manner in which William Faulkner presents these events is not as easy. As stated above, he employs many modern techniques, including stream of consciousness narration, various narrators and unbalanced chapter lengths.
One of the first aspects that one can note by just leafing through the book is its structural division. “The fifty-nine sections of Faulkner’s polyphonic novel, each headed by the name of one of the fifteen first-person narrators, exhibit a striking variance in tone” (Ross 300). It has many sections, with each one titled by a character’s name. Furthermore, they are uneven, with one section calling particular attention. “The sections range in length from one sentence (‘My mother is a fish’) to ten pages; one section is a numbered list of reasons for building a coffin ‘on the bevel,’ another a reminiscence by a rotting corpse” (Ross 300). The sections in general are not long at all, yet there is a five-word chapter that is likely to puzzle anyone. The different points of view that Faulkner presents in the novel lead to wild and sometimes bewildering results.
One can find it to be a cacophony of voices, all seemingly speaking at the same time. “No formal center, organizing principle, or ‘point of view’ seems to link in unity its component parts” (Bradford 1093). The novel does not seek to present the reader with a coherent unified whole. On the other hand, it sometimes represents the same event more than once in different manners, which sometimes even lead to contradictions.
The experimental techniques even affect the temporality through the verb tenses that the author uses. According to Ross, “the book’s temporal structure appears to break down badly, as Faulkner mixes past-tense and present-tense narration, even switching from one to the other within certain monologues” (723). Thus, one can see that As I Lay Dying not only presents different glimpses into the minds of its characters, but reconstructs reality and time, as well.
Relationship between Story and Discourse
Obviously, the main feature of the discourse in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is the use of stream of consciousness and interior monologue. This leads to the display of many important themes of the novel, including the intimate urgency that pervades throughout it. According to Bradford, this narrative technique was fueled by the “discovery that consciousness and not occurrence is a proper subject for the modern novelist” (1093). This narrative tool allows the reader to be inside the character’s head, which is about as intimate as it gets.
This is in part due to the influence that Sigmund Freud and psychoanalytic theory had at the time. “The characters in As I Lay Dying reveal themselves and other characters in soliloquies, sometimes like diary confessions, which form the framework of the whole book” (Campbell 305). Intimacy and personal testimony were starting to become extremely important at both a scientific and artistic level. Before, most learned people were interested in universals, objectivity, standards, etc. However, the Modernist movement heralded a change in this perception, leading to the exaltation of the subjectivity and the intimate.
In this sense, individual existence was becoming one of the most important aspects of the human experience, which even allowed the author to move away from chronological order. The epitome of this, expressed in Existentialism, forced people to attempt to make meaning of their own existence through whatever means possible. “Human confrontation with reality, then, is primarily an epistemological one in which the mind seeks control by signifying” (Urgo 11). The existentialists found the search for meaning in a meaningless universe to be a great part of the true human dilemma.
Faulkner was interested in portraying the suffering that existence implied for man, which made him focus on the drama of the human condition. As Handy states, “the emphasis on inner awareness reflects an interest in the intensity of human experience, not in its order of succession” (437). This meant that he could even do away with temporal constraints, presenting a novel in which time is more of a disperse gas than an arrow.
One of the greatest ways in which society’s perception of reality and time had been affected was through the Great War. This was the biggest, international combat that many people had ever seen, and it led to many lives being lost and atrocities committed. “Soldiers and journalists who had experienced the war returned home with the sense that the world had changed; men could be killed in huge numbers by efficient weapons, though there was little gain for any of the warring parties” (Osborne 3). Sigmund Freud himself analyzed some of these veterans, as they started to develop what is now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. These patients would remember vividly experiences that they lived in the war and would recall them suddenly, many times against their will. Reality and temporal solidity were changed forever, and the artistic circles made sure that it was felt.
In thematic terms, Faulkner had to let time go in order to explore the way people create their own existences, betraying objective reality. This first-person narration from the mind of the characters led the author to free himself from the chains of what actually happened, in order to focus on how the people that were involved in these events perceived them and made them meaningful. “In moving from the consciousness of one character to that of another, Faulkner is concerned not so much with a pattern of events as he is with a pattern of individual existences” (Handy 437). The sequence of events that actually happened is not what calls the author’s attention, but the way that they affect the existence of those that were involved. Therefore, stream of consciousness, interior monologue and changing narrators all serve as tools for Faulkner to represent this shift in society from the objective and the common, to the subjective and the particular.
Faulkner, as a whole, was a very avant-garde and pioneering author, yet this novel is particularly incoherent. “Among Faulkner’s many experiments with narrative technique, As I Lay Dying seems in certain respects the most puzzling” (Ross 723). There are many anachronisms in the tale, and in many parts seem to contradict each other.
Even though some critics believe this to be a fault on the part of Faulkner’s, others point to it as a conscious decision to explore the faulty and subjective construction of reality. “In Faulkner, meaning must continually be either accepted or made by the human mind” (Urgo 11). As stated earlier, the characters in the story tell the tale through the use of interior monologue and stream of consciousness. This forces the reader to perceive the plot through the eyes of the character, and receive his side of the story, which may not coincide with that of others.
The contradictions in the story could thus be interpreted as a way for Faulkner to establish that subjectivity leads to a construction of reality which is always subjective. “The rather simple plot is sometimes delayed considerably when the same parts of it are reported, in contrapuntal fashion, by several different witnesses” (Campbell 305). When witnessing the same event, two people may experience it in a completely different manner. Furthermore, a person may not be present at an event at all, yet be able to narrate it using the data that he has collected from others who were supposedly there.
One must remember that another important part of the discourse is that it has multiple narrators: fifteen, in fact. This means that there are more than a dozen different constructions of reality at play, and the reader is bombarded with all of them. Although one could regard the contradictions in the story to be mistakes on Faulkner’s behalf, one could also interpret them to be deliberate, in order to establish the lack of objective reality in the human experience.
Comparison with The Sound and the Fury
It is important to note that this is not just exclusive of As I Lay Dying; Faulkner’s other stories also tackle these subjects employing technical prowess. The author seems more interested in grandiosely telling stories than telling grandiose stories. This is also notable in The Sound and the Fury, another of his masterpieces.
In this novel the reader is also confronted with different viewpoints through interior monologues. The text follows four characters in their attempts to understand the reality that they are faced with, arguably to no avail. Here, there is even more temporal dislocation than in As I Lay Dying, and the author originally wanted it to be printed in different colors that would represent the different temporal changes. This is important to note, because it supports the reading that Faulkner did not make his novels difficult just for the sake of them being complex. On the other hand, he was attempting to present something important about the human experience.
Even though The Sound and the Fury is somewhat more eventful, including a suicide; “Faulkner’s formal plots and storylines often emerge as secondary to this epistemological drama” (Urgo 11). Quentin’s decision to take his own life, while an important action, is still grounded in the psychological, not the outwards, visible plot. As Urgo states, “the conflicts that provide tension and suspense in the typical Faulkner novel are as likely to be conflicts of meaning and epistemological projection as they are likely to be conflicts of will, or intention” (11). The important part of Faulkner’s novels is not what the characters do, but what goes on between or within them.
Faulkner is interested in presenting a society broken up by the lack of objective reality and a common good. He uses these different narrative techniques in order to portray the break in reality that the world has suffered, and that lead people to have to grapple with the meaning of existence by themselves. This is why it is important for him to present them in a stream of consciousness fashion, as it directly confronts the reader with the character’s subjectivity and their search for meaning.
In conclusion, the complicated discourse that William Faulkner uses in As I Lay Dying serves to elevate a rather simple quest tale to an analysis of subjectivity, reality and time. In the novel, the Bundren family attempts to take the corpse of the recently-deceased mother some three hundred miles to her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi. Along the way, they face many challenges, including broken limbs and a fire; they finally reach their destination in an anticlimactic fashion, with the burial not even presented.
Even though this may not be too exciting or evocative, Faulkner presents it in such a way that has made it one of the most lauded American novels of all time. Through the use of Modern techniques, such as interior monologue and changing perspectives, he presents a meditation on reality, time, death, subjectivity, existence, and many other preoccupations of the twentieth century.
In fact, this is not the only novel in which the author examines these important subjects of contemporary life; in The Sound and the Fury he also attempts to tackle these tragic aspects of the human experience. It is important to not just see a novel as being complicated and dismiss it, but also to attempt to tackle what the author is trying to transmit through this difficulty. It is amazing how a story can change completely depending on how it is told.
Bradford, M. E. “Addie Bundren and the Design of ‘As I Lay Dying’”. The Southern Review6.4 (1970): 1093. Web. 02 Feb. 2016
Campbell, Harry M. “Experiment and Achievement: As I Lay Dying and the Sound and the Fury”. The Sewanee Review 51.2 (1943): 305–320. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.
Ross, Stephen M. “‘Voice’ in Narrative Texts: The Example of as I Lay Dying”. PMLA 94.2 (1979): 300–310. Web. 02 Feb. 2016. 02 Feb. 2016.
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Urgo, Joseph R. “William Faulkner and the Drama of Meaning: The Discovery of the Figurative in as ‘As I Lay Dying’”. South Atlantic Review 53.2 (1988): 11–23. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
William J. Handy. “As I Lay Dying: Faulkner's Inner Reporter”. The Kenyon Review 21.3 (1959): 437–451. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.