AS I LAY DYING (1930)
WILLIAM FAULKNER (1897-1962)
1897 Born near Oxford, Mississippi (Jefferson in his novels, the capital of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County). He came from a distinguished Mississippi family (His great-grandfather, Colonel William Falkner (sic) was also a 19th century writer, a man of action and a public figure, and he became the model for one of his characters, Colonel Sartoris).
1918 Enlisted in the Canadian RAF. Began to write, mainly poetry.
1925 In New Orleans, Sherwood Anderson encouraged him to use prose and material from his own region.
1929 Sartoris. His first novel about Yoknapatwpha and about the Sartoris family.
1929 The Sound and the Fury. A novel with four sections, each with a different narrator and supplying a different part of the plot. A condemnation of the ‘aristocracy’ of the South, the Compson family.
1930 As I Lay Dying
1931 Sanctuary. He called it a ‘pot-boiler’, but it made him a popular figure.
1932 Went to Hollywood to work as a scriptwriter (again in 1942-45, 1951 and 1954). He liked to work with Howard Hawks. Wrote the scripts for The Big Sleep (based on Chandler’s novel) and Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.
1932 Light in August. A penetrating story of racial conflict. It interrelates individual psychology and sociological analysis.
1936 Absalom, Absalom! The story of Thomas Sutpen, the founder of a Southern dynasty after the Civil War. Told by four different speakers. A work about an individual, about the South and about itself as a work of fiction.
1942 Go Down, Moses. A collection of short stories. In many of these stories and novels the same characters and places appear again and again to make up a complete fictional world of mythical proportions.
1949 Nobel Prize.
1962 Died of a heart attack.
The book is divided into 59 sections narrated by 15 different characters. This is how Faulkner himself described the structure of the plot: “I simply imagined a group of people and subjected them to the simple universal natural catastrophes, which are flood and fire, with a simple natural motive to give direction to their progress”. The book then describes the journey of the Bundren family (father and 5 children) to bury their dead mother in Jefferson. In order to do that, they must overcome two threats: flood and fire. Faulkner also uses a prophecy to structure the different sections: the mother predicts that her son Jewel will save her from water and fire, although, ironically, what he saves is just her dead body.
Technique and Style
This book is a very good example of modernist formal innovations. The system of multiple narration (called humorously ‘ventriloquism’ by a critic) has a triple function:
It increases the reader’s involvement. The reader has to make an effort not only to visualize the action (as in a traditional novel) or to interpret that action (as in Hemingway or in symbolist works) but just to know the nature of the action, to find out what is going on.
It allows the writer to get deeply into the minds of the characters and to show their complex personalities through techniques that reproduce their ‘stream of consciousness’.
The reader is able to see each event from multiple perspectives.
Besides, these sections fulfill another function: they have to advance the plot in an understandable manner, since there is no ‘outside narrator’. This is why they can be considered as ‘soliloquies’ rather than ‘interior monologues’.
As I Lay Dying uses soliloquies that reproduce the stream of consciousness of the 15 different characters as a way both to tell a story and to tell us more about each of them. We have unreliable narrators (like Vardaman, the retarded son who becomes so confused that he says ‘My mother is a fish’), dead narrators (the mother they are going to bury), and more reliable narrators (the Bundrens’ neighbors that help the reader to make sense of the incoherent thoughts of the Bundrens). The style of each of these narrators varies according to their own personality. For instance,
Darl is a complex character, and therefore his style is complicated and full of poetic imagery.
Cash is an extremely simple person, so his narration is simplified and very down-to-earth. For instance, one of his sections describes the 13 steps he is following to build his mother’s coffin (while his mother is still alive).
Dewey Dell’s sections are incoherent (like herself) and they jump from one thought to another.
Vardaman is a retarded boy, so he narrates his sections with very simple vocabulary and associating ideas in a rather strange manner. His emotions and thoughts are so confused after his mother’s death that he ends up identifying his mother and the fish.
Another technique worth mentioning is the use of what has been called ‘continuous present’: past, present and future events are mixed. Everything seems to happen at the same time.
As we can see, one of the main themes of this novel is the characters themselves. In one sense, then, this is a psychological novel which tries to show the way in which the minds of these very peculiar characters work. The reader has to find out the real motives of these characters that apparently go to Jefferson in order to keep a promise they made to their mother. In fact, the husband wants to go there to get a set of false teeth, Dewey Dell wants to get an abortion, Vardaman wants to get a toy train, Carl wants a phonograph... This presents another theme suggested by the novel: the contrast between the dead and the living, between the apparent reason for this crazy journey and the wishes of the living. Other themes are religion (contrast between Cora, the conventional village woman, and the dead mother, who had had sex with a priest), family relationships, social relationships in the deep South, ...
In this work, Faulkner seems to have a very pessimistic view of human nature and a very peculiar sense of humor. The book has been called a tragicomedy, and certainly the juxtaposition of tragic events with grotesque episodes (the son making the coffin while the mother is dying, the identification of mother and fish) or the comments about the smell of the corpse are examples of ‘black’ humor coming from a writer who doesn’t really seem to sympathize with his characters.
In general, this is a very open novel, subject to different interpretations. Some events are deliberately unclear, so that each reader can interpret them in different ways. For instance, when Darl burns the barn where her mother’s corpse is lying, the reason could be a desire to stop the crazy journey and let her mother finally rest, but it could also be a desire to punish the rest of the family who are going to Jefferson for selfish reasons. We never know, because he doesn’t explain it. Likewise, we cannot be sure if Darl is crazy or sane at the end of the book. He is a strange character, able to narrate events where he is not present (a suggestion of something akin to magic realism?), but is he really crazy?