What is an example of skillful artistry in William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying?

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William Faulkner is a writer who appreciated good writing. He wanted to be judged at least as much by the skill of his phrasing as by the themes or ideas dealt with in his works. He was, in fact, a stylistic innovator who paid very careful attention not simply to what he said but to how he said it.

Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying is innovative both in style and in structure. One could easily choose many passages from the book to demonstrate Faulkner’s artistry as a writer.  The following passage, written from the perspective of Dewey Dell’s point of view, is as good an example as any (the sentences have been numbered to make the analysis easier to follow):

[1] The crest, the trees, the roof of the house stand against the sky.  [2] The cow nuzzles at me, moaning.  [3] Then the dead, hot, pale air breathes on my face again.  [4] He could fix it all right, if he just would.  [5] And he dont even know it.  [6] He could do everything for me if he just knowed it.  [7] The cow breathes upon my hips and back, her breath warm, sweet, stertorous, moaning.  [8] The sky lies flat down the slope, upon the secret clumps.  [9] Beyond the hill sheet-lightning stains upward and fades.  [10] The dead air shapes the dead earth in the dead darkness, further away than seeing shapes the dead earth.

Here are some reasons that this piece of writing can be considered artistically effective:

  • In sentence 1, the list of adjectives adds to the rhythm of the sentence, while the delayed introduction of the verb creates a kind of suspense. The man-made house is juxtaposed here with the natural background.
  • Sentence 2 is quite short after the significantly longer first sentence. Faulkner thus creates variety in sentence length so that the writing does not seem monotonous and predictable. The verb “nuzzles” is vivid and evocative. The word “moaning” almost imitates the sound it describes.
  • In sentence 3, Faulkner uses another series of three linked words. In the first sentence, the sentence had consisted of nouns; here it consists of adjectives. The word “breathes” is a metaphor to describe the air and in fact it personifies the air.
  • In sentence 4, we move from a description of the external world to a statement of Dewey Dell’s inner thoughts. Her language is appropriately simple, since her character is simple.
  • Sentence 5 is a fragment and is thus appropriate to Dewey Dell’s fragmented thinking at this point.
  • Sentence 6, especially in the word “knowed,” is appropriately colloquial in its use of regional dialect.
  • Sentence 7 is the kind of Faulknerian sentence that sometimes puzzles critics.  Would Dewey Dell really know the word “stertorous,” or is this an example of Faulkner’s own learned, “poetic” language inserting itself inappropriately? Some readers enjoy this often lofty quality of Faulkner’s style; others do not.
  • Sentence 8 uses alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds) quite effectively to help create a very vivid picture.
  • In sentence 9, the very “stains” is very striking and memorable.
  • In sentence 10, the reiterated use of “dead” not only emphasizes a main theme of the book but also gives this particular sentence a kind of darkly lyrical quality, almost as if it were a chant.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
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