How does William Faulkner's use of stream of consciousness contribute to the tone of his novel As I Lay Dying?
William Faulkner’s decision to use the “stream of consciousness” technique in his novel titled As I Lay Dying gives the novel a number of different tones, since the separate consciousness of each single member of the Bundren family is represented in the book, including the distinct ways of perceiving of Addie, Anse, Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman, not to mention other characters, such as Cora, Tull, et al. Since these characters differ significantly from one another in their personalities, values, emotions, and outlooks, the tones of the novel – both separately and in combination – are exceptionally complicated.
Addie, for instance, has a generally strong and assertive personality; her husband, Anse, is somewhat shiftless. Cash, their oldest son, hardly talks, working mainly with his hands. Darl, their next oldest child, is in many ways the opposite of Darl. Jewel, another boy, is obsessed with his mother. Dewey Dell, a teenaged daughter, is worried about her secret pregnancy and her plan to abort the baby. Vardaman, the youngest son, seems mentally challenged. One of the chapters devoted to his consciousness -- the shortest chapter in the book -- reads simply:
My mother is a fish.
The novel shifts continuously from one perspective to another, creating a kaleidoscopic effect as it takes us inside the “head” of each character and allows us to see things as each character sees them. If there is any over-all tone to the novel, then, it might be called one of surrealistic disorientation. In a sense, each reader must construct the novel’s tone(s) for himself or herself.
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With the continuous flow of thoughts, feelings, and memories in the minds of the fifteen different narrators of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, the reader, albeit confused at times, is presented with what motivates each narrator as well as how each one faces misfortunes. And, since there are various perspectives presented by these differing narrators, the reader is presented with various tones that range from humorous to angry to insane, poignant to satiric and even morbidly ironic. Moreover, because the interior monologues do not mesh well with reality, there is a stagnation of movement in the narrative; the Bundren family really gets nowhere.
The tone of Faulkner's narrative is much like the progress of Addie Bundren's coffin: there are starts and stops and breaks in the forward motion. But, in his 1952 work William Faulkner: A Critical Study, Irving Howe states,
Of all Faulkner's novels, As I Lay Dying is the warmest, the kindliest and most affectionate…. In no other work is he so receptive to people, so ready to take and love them, to hear them out and record their turns of idiom, their melodies of speech.
However, there is also a merging of the comic with the tragic in this novel that creates an unsettling tone making for ambiguity and for black comedy. For instance, when Vardaman says, "My mother is a fish," there is instant laughter from the reader, yet there is pathos, too, as he drills holes in the coffin so she can breathe. When Darl is the narrator, Faulkner's technique is at its best as Darl is cerebral and intuitive, able to connect to different realities simultaneously. His perspicacity, then, points to the absurdity of the transporting of his mother. But, he fails to realize how crass others are as he is sent off to an asylum for having burned Gillespie's barn. He laughs at the absurdity of the majority who label him insane. However, seen from another perspective, the actions of the people in taking Darl are rational since he has burned Mr. Gillespie's barn and appears to be abnormal.
Certainly, the stream of consciousness technique transports readers through the thoughts of the many children of Addie Bundren as well as the other characters such as Dr. Peabody and Samson and Moseley, lending a myriad of tones to the narrative.
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