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One way to simplify this novel is to suggest to your students a set of themes that As I Lay Dying explores. Reading the novel thematically can help to organize a reading response to a novel that is rather intricate and impressionistic.
Two themes that might serve this purpose are Modes of Love and Loyalty and Duty. Though these themes are not entirely distinct from one another, they each present a kind of organizing principle that can help to negate any difficulties students have with the plot/action of the story.
The most important stylistic element of this novel, I think, is the way that subjectivity is presented in the prose. This is a psychological novel exploring an idea (attributed to modernism) that the world is not a single, objective reality which is the same for everyone. This notion is carried out by Vardaman's belief that his mother is a fish and by various other perspectives offered by the characters in this novel. (In his reality, she is a fish and according to others she should be buried immediately instead of stinking up the countryside.)
The idea that the world is different for everyone is built into the prose and built into the structure of the novel with chapters being separated according to narrative perspective, as each chapter is presented in the first person.
Paralleling this, we can say that the idea of the subjective or individualized world is also built into the character relationships. Every member of the family has a different relationship with Addie Bundren. That relationship is a first definition of their world.
Also, the microcosm of the family holds to a very different view of its quest than the larger world of the community and the town. So, we see again the underlying notion of a world that is subjectively defined offered in the novel via a number of literally differing perspectives.
Along with the vocabulary list from post one, you might try having the students keep a timeline as they read. With all the flashbacks, a timeline will help to clarify when events are taking place in time not just in the story line. If you reading during class, you might try having the students read aloud or in groups; if a different person reads for each character that is speaking, it might help the students keep track.
I agree with the excellent suggestions above. I also think an historical and social context is useful for understanding the motivations of each character. It is essential too that students understand the linear story alongside the use of flashback narrative construction.
I have not taught the novel for a number of years, and your posting has just reminded me of the value of this great text: thanks!
For a novel such as As I Lay Dying, giving the students an overview is important, as well as providing them some insight into the methods that Faulkner uses in his novel. Often reading the first chapter together in class with instruction and discussion is helpful.
I think one of the challenging aspects of studying this novel is, as #2 says, just keeping track of who is talking and what they are saying. There are also a number of flashbacks, so helping students to identify who is talking and when they are talking should help. Also, a major part of this excellent novel is the journey that the family make, and a number of people have different motives for making this journey, or, interestingly, do their best to obstruct it. Focusing on such general questions as these for each chapter should help students understand and keep track of what is going on.
This is a stream-of-consciousness novel. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a particular character, and the syntax of the sentences, the words they choose, the voice of each character makes this book a wonderful study in language and characterization. When I teach this book, we keep a running chart of character traits revealed by each chapter for each character.
I also use this novel to help students find and identify the following literature terms:
c. stream of consciousness
h. interior monologue
m. point of view
I haven't taught AP Language, but you might want to consult other AP teachers who have taught this novel for more specific strategies such as writing prompts, language study, rhetorical devices, multiple choice practice questions, etc. to help you help your students prepare for the AP test. Good Luck!
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