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Comic and Tragic Aspects of As I Lay Dying

(Novels for Students)

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 for nine days, hoping to bury her in her family's burial ground. Along the way, the mules drown, one son breaks a leg, one goes mad, the daughter is taken advantage of by a lecherous drugstore clerk, and the widowed husband—having stolen his children's money and traded his son's horse—buys himself a new set of teeth, remarries, and obtains a record player. Despite these tragic elements, the story exhibits traces of humor as well as pathos.

One critic to downplay the humorous elements of the novel is Robert Merrill. He asserts that to read As I Lay Dying as tragic is "to experience the novel as Faulkner conceived and wrote it." The comic moments in the book are, Merrill concedes, "genuinely amusing," but they almost always "merge with events of a truly compelling terrible-ness." In short, he describes As I Lay Dying as "Faulknerian tragedy in its most radical and original form."

On the other hand, Patricia R. Schroeder emphasizes the novel's humorous elements, contending that Faulkner's grotesque and black humor contribute to a comic framework that celebrates "the indefatigable in man." Schroeder views the novel as comedy that is the "inverse of tragedy: it celebrates community survival, applauds the status quo and affirms life in the face of death."

Schroeder also discusses the novel in relation to the "frustrated funeral," a type of Southwestern story that used humor to reduce death to comic and manageable proportions. The end of the novel is a modern example of the comic vision: "a vision capable of presenting the necessary darkness of human travail and then celebrating man's ability to overcome it." When the Bundrens begin their journey home, they do so with a new team of mules, a new set of teeth for Anse, a new wife and mother, and Dewey Dell's yet unborn child—evidence, Schroeder suggests, that "even when confronted with the death of an individual, life will prevail."

Although Merrill underscores the novel's tragic aspects, he does acknowledge that As I Lay Dying contains many memorable comic moments. He also observes that many of these humorous moments result from the removed position of the "non-Bundren narrators who think the Bundren odyssey a bizarre joke or a tawdry sacrilege."

Indeed, many of the novel's funniest moments are found within the sections told by Samson, Moseley and Peabody. When Moseley describes the arrival of the family in Mottson, for example, his "version" of the journey reveals what the Bundrens themselves refuse to admit: "It had been dead eight days," he says. "It must have been like a piece of rotten cheese coming into an...

(The entire section is 8,680 words.)