Essays and Criticism
Comic and Tragic Aspects of As I Lay Dying
As I Lay Dying, Faulkner's first published novel after The Sound and the Fury, is comprised of fifty-nine sections or monologues told from the perspective of fifteen different speakers. Every member of the Bundren family narrates at least one section, in addition to various members of the community and onlookers who witness the journey from a more objective position. Because there is no central, omniscient narrator to make easy transitions from section to section, the variety of narrative voices provide the reader with multiple, sometimes conflicting perspectives. The result is a novel that can, at times, leave the reader a bit confused.
The novel is outrageously funny, yet contains certain scenes that evoke feelings of disgust, sadness, and sympathy. This unsettling combination of humorous and tragic elements has been the focus of much of the criticism of the novel, with some critics arguing that Faulkner's tale is a tragedy, others perceiving it as a comedy. However, this debate just shows how the novel has defied and resisted any attempt to impose reductive explanations or categorizations.
The basic plot of the novel is, without question, tragic. A dying mother, lying on her deathbed, watches as her eldest son builds her coffin just outside her bedroom window. After she dies, her husband and five children load her corpse onto a mule-driven wagon. They travel in the summer heat...
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Complexities within As I Lay Dying
Addie Bundren, a farmer's wife from the backwoods hills of Mississippi, has just died, and in order to respect her last wish her family undertakes a long and perilous journey to carry her coffin to a distant graveyard at Jefferson. That is the story of As I Lay Dying. It appears simple. But such a summary of the tale leaves everything to be said about the novel. For what strikes us immediately is less the story itself than the way it is told, or rather the contrast between the tale and the telling, between the simplicity of the anecdote and the sophistication of the narrative method. To make something of the pathetic, macabre, or comic potential of his subject, Faulkner could simply have relied on the proven recipes of traditional narrative. He chose, however, a more adventurous and more difficult path, experimenting again—as he had already done in The Sound and the Fury and, more timidly, in his early novels—with new techniques. If, by its subject matter, As I Lay Dying belongs to the oral and literary tradition of folktales and tall stories, the novelist's approach to his art is definitely modern. As in The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner uses here James Joyce's "stream-of-consciousness" method: As I Lay Dying is presented as a series of interior monologues, and each one of these, as well as relating a moment in the action, shows us its refraction through an individual...
(The entire section is 2194 words.)
Blending of Extreme and Incongruous Effects in As I Lay Dying
A story of a journey, an account of adventures on the road—this may be the outward form of the novel, but the journey proves exceedingly curious and the adventures disconcert. Having died while a son sawed her coffin beneath her window, Addie Bundren is carted away in the family wagon through the back roads of Yoknapatawpha. The family thereby honors her reiterated wish that she be buried in the Jefferson cemetery. Unwilling adventurers, the Bundrens can do nothing well; their journey, like their spiritual life, is erratic and confused. Prompted by awe for the dead, and by a cluster of private motives, they plod through mishaps both comic and terrible—fire and flood, suffering and stupidity—until, at last, they reach the town. The putrescent corpse is buried, the daughter fails in her effort to get an abortion, one son is badly injured, another has gone mad, and at the very end, the father suddenly remarries.
Crossing farce with anguish, As I Lay Dying is a story of misfortune: the father Anse is certainly right, though hardly for the reasons he supposes, when he declares himself a "misfortunate man." There is a kind of story, like Leskov's "The Enchanted Wanderer," which heaps so many troubles on the back of its hero that the final effect is perversely comic; to this family of fiction As I Lay Dying is distantly related. Recalling the Dostoevskian novel in its coarse mixture of emotions, the book stumbles from...
(The entire section is 4853 words.)