Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899

After its publication in 1930, As I Lay Dying garnered several positive critical reviews in America and Britain. The American reviews were generally more favorable than the British, but this early critical commentary touched on issues that were to become pronounced in later, more substantial critiques of the book.

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In those early reviews, critics recognized Faulkner's talent but remained suspicious of As I Lay Dying. Many commentators questioned the novel's controversial subject matter—such as abortion—and its emphasis on the grotesque and violent. Some critics derided As I Lay Dying as tasteless and immoral. Faulkner's style and narrative method, of course, received much critical attention. In general, his use of the vernacular was praised, but his more complicated and elusive passages were deemed confusing. Social-minded critics condemned Faulkner for his lack of overt social commentary.

Most of the early reviewers questioned both Faulkner's tone toward his characters and the genre of the work, issues that recur in later critical commentary. French critics provided Faulkner with his most enthusiastic early notices, although the novel was not translated and published in France until 1934.

After 1940, more substantive critiques of the novel began to appear. A major reason for the renewed interest in As I Lay Dying was the publication of The Portable Faulkner in 1946. The editor of the volume, Malcolm Cowley, was a seasoned literary editor who contended that Faulkner had successfully developed a distinctive Southern mythology based on his fiction set in and around Yoknapatawpha County. In his influential introduction to the book, Cowley advocated reading all of Faulkner's works as a collective project or, in his words, "part of the same living pattern." Cowley's opinions influenced Faulkner criticism in the following decades.

Critics began to take a more universalistic approach to Faulkner's fiction, viewing his Southern world as representative of the modern world and as a means of exploring timeless human dilemmas. Many commentators began to read As I Lay Dying as affirmative and even moral.

Irving Howe, in his 1952 work William Faulkner: A Critical Study, clearly articulates this stance: "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."

Other prominent critics, such as Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, focused on the family's heroism in the face of many obstacles. Brooks's William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963) was, in fact, the most influential critical work on Faulkner for many years. It still holds a prominent place in Faulkner studies today.

These favorable views of the Bundrens did not go unchallenged, however. In her chapter "The Dimensions of Consciousness: As I Lay Dying," from The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical Interpretation (1959), Olga Vickery contends that the Bundren family's journey is not heroic. She focuses attention on the character of Addie and her relationship with her children. For Vickery, Cash becomes the most ethically reliable character since he matures during the journey.

Vickery's views proved highly influential. Other critics followed her lead and continued to debate the tone of the novel. Many rejected the notions that Faulkner is sympathetic to his characters, the Bundrens heroic, and the novel essentially moral. These commentators focused attention on Faulkner's comedic elements and satiric stance. Even the critics who explored Faulkner's journey motif and its connections to myth, Christian symbolism, or existential philosophy disputed the tone of Faulkner's treatment of these issues.

Questions surrounding Faulkner's technique, style, form, and use of genre continued to garner comment. Many commentators discussed his relationship to modernist writing and experimental painting, particularly cubism. In a 1967 essay, "Narrative Management in As I Lay Dying," R. W. Franklin criticized Faulkner's stylistic technique for its inconsistencies in tense and strategy. Franklin's reading has since been effectively challenged by more careful treatments, such as Catherine Patten's "The Narrative Design of As I Lay Dying." Various critics have viewed the novel as epic, tragic, comedic, farcical, or absurd.

André Bleikasten investigates these issues in the first book-length study of the novel, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (1973). Like some critics before him and many after, Bleikasten contends that As I Lay Dying defies genre distinctions because it fuses multiple approaches to its subject. In summary, Bleikasten asserts, "As I Lay Dying offers us at once a comedy and the reverse of comedy, a tragedy and the derision of tragedy, an epic and the parody of an epic."

Recent critics have expanded on earlier treatments by integrating new theories in psychology, linguistics, gender relations, and cultural studies. Some scholars, for instance, examine the novel in light of Freud's psychological concepts, such as the Oedipal theory. Scholarship in gender construction has placed important emphasis on the female characters in the book. A few critics investigate Faulkner's linguistic constructs, such as Stephen M. Ross in Fiction's Inexhaustible Voice: Speech and Writing in Faulkner (1989). In addition, sociological critiques have recently been revived in more complex forms.

Critics have detailed the effects of economics, politics, religion, and technology in the novel. Warwick Wadlington's 1992 book As I Lay Dying: Stories out of Stories is the most comprehensive of these studies. Almost all of the recent treatments view the work favorably, appreciating, if not always celebrating, Faulkner's ability to make the misadventures of the haggard, unfortunate Bundrens such a potent subject for critical scrutiny.

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