Comic and Tragic Aspects of As I Lay Dying

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1633

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...

(This entire section contains 1633 words.)

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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 ant-hill."

Peabody's opinions of Anse are equally amusing. Examining Cash's broken and badly infected leg, he says: "I be damned if the man that'd let Anse Bundren treat him with raw cement ain't got more spare legs than I have." "God Almighty," he continues, "why didn't Anse carry you to the nearest sawmill and stick your leg in the saw? That would have cured it. Then you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole family."

However, considered from the perspective of the individuals undergoing the long and trying journey, putting up with intense heat and discomfort as well as with the scorn of passersby as they travel, the humorous scenes are suddenly less amusing. Moreover, while the scenes cited above intend to undermine the suffering of the family, other passages suggest that humor and laughter are not appropriate responses given the less than festive events that befall the Bundren family.

Just prior to the beginning of Whitfield's funeral service, for example, Tull, Armstid, Quick, Uncle Billy, and Peabody discuss the bridge that was washed away by the heavy rains. When Peabody makes a joke, the men "laugh, suddenly loud, then suddenly quiet again. [They then] look a little aside one another," realizing their slip. Suddenly, it seems as if the men realize the inappropriateness of their behavior.

Darl provides another example of a scene of inappropriate laughter. Moments after Addie is buried, Darl is ambushed by his sister and Jewel and handed over to two officials waiting to take him to a mental institution in Jackson. Initially surprised and hurt that Cash did not warn him about the ambush, Darl begins to laugh uncontrollably. To Cash, there is nothing funny about the scene: "I be durn if I could see anything to laugh at." Darl, on the other hand, sees plenty of humor in the situation. Of the Bundren children, only Darl sees the sheer absurdity of their journey; only he attempts to rescue his mother from the outrageous and disrespectful spectacles along the way. For this, he is considered mad by the rest of the family.

Darl has a privileged position among the novel's narrators: he has more sections than any other narrator and at times appears to possess an inexplicable gift of knowing things that he should not know. For instance, he knows that his mother has died even though he and Jewel are miles away in the wagon; in addition, he also seems to know, or at least suspect, that Anse is not Jewel's father.

Moreover, Darl's narrative role is special because he is the frequent subject of other people's narratives. Other characters notice that there is something different about Darl. As André Bleikasten has noted, there is little evidence in the early sections to suggest insanity and in the later sections his actions appear "rather more reasonable than those of the rest of the family." Even Cora and Vernon Tull agree that Darl simply needs a wife "to straighten him out"—evidence that not all who know him and watch him and talk about him agree that he is mad.

Consequently, Darl's capture and subsequent incarceration raise questions of the reliability of the novel's narrative. To Bleikasten, Darl's laughter at the novel's end makes it "hard to tell on which side lies sanity and on which side madness." To Cash, who for a moment thinks his brother did the right thing by trying to burn their mother's coffin, there "ain't none of us pure crazy and ain't none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way." He questions the right of one man to call another man crazy and concludes: "It's like it ain't so much what a fellow does, but it's the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it."

Darl is sent away to Jackson because a majority of people think him queer and because his family does not want to risk being sued by Gillespie. His feelings are never considered. Darl's disturbing laughter thus adds to the novel's unsettling ambiguity because it conflates further the comic and the tragic and makes us question the appropriateness of our own laughter.

By the end of the novel, however, laughter seems to be the only response. After nine days spent defying all kinds of adversities in order to bring Addie's corpse to its final resting place, the funeral procession climaxes in a scene that is described in less than two lines. All we hear of the actual burial is: "we got it filled and covered ...." The same sentence then describes how Darl is betrayed by his family and sent away to Jackson. The few remaining sections focus not the family's loss or on their sadness on burying the family matriarch, but on the individual motives that were the real driving force behind the journey.

The final section in particular—when Anse introduces the new Mrs. Bundren to his children— utilizes humor to underscore the outrageous nature of the situation. Underlying this humor is the pain and unsettling knowledge of what occurred in the sections leading up to this absurd ending: the brutal betrayal of Darl, news of Cash's serious injury, Dewey Dell's physical abuse, and Addie's final, humiliating journey. The introduction of the new Mrs. Bundren provides one of the biggest laughs in the novel—yet somehow such an ending hardly seems like a celebration of life's victory over death. Instead, this scene, like almost all of the novel's funny moments, produces an awkward laughter that is tinged with anguish and remorse.

Source: Jeffrey M. Lilburn, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000. Jeffrey M. Lilburn is a graduate student at McGill University and the author of a study guide on Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman as well as numerous educational essays.

Complexities within As I Lay Dying

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2194

Addie Bundren, a farmer's wife from the backwoods hills of Mississippi, has just died, and in order to respect her last wish her family undertakes a long and perilous journey to carry her coffin to a distant graveyard at Jefferson. That is the story of As I Lay Dying. It appears simple. But such a summary of the tale leaves everything to be said about the novel. For what strikes us immediately is less the story itself than the way it is told, or rather the contrast between the tale and the telling, between the simplicity of the anecdote and the sophistication of the narrative method. To make something of the pathetic, macabre, or comic potential of his subject, Faulkner could simply have relied on the proven recipes of traditional narrative. He chose, however, a more adventurous and more difficult path, experimenting again—as he had already done in The Sound and the Fury and, more timidly, in his early novels—with new techniques. If, by its subject matter, As I Lay Dying belongs to the oral and literary tradition of folktales and tall stories, the novelist's approach to his art is definitely modern. As in The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner uses here James Joyce's "stream-of-consciousness" method: As I Lay Dying is presented as a series of interior monologues, and each one of these, as well as relating a moment in the action, shows us its refraction through an individual consciousness.

But instead of arranging the monologues in large, compact sections as he had done in his previous novel, Faulkner fragments them with seeming arbitrariness. As I Lay Dying surprises one straightaway by its utterly disjointed composition. In fact, only in the epistolary novel could one find precedents for such extreme segmentation, and the brevity of the sections calls to mind the scenes of a play rather than the chapters of a work of fiction. Hence an impression of discontinuity, which is increased on reading by the almost kaleidoscopic rotation of the viewpoints. In each section the perspective shifts, the lighting changes, so that each time the reader is caught off balance and forced to make constant readjustments if he wants to follow the narrative through all its twists and turns.

To these breaks in the storytelling are added the equally puzzling switches in tone and style. They also derive to a large extent from the mobility of the point of view, since whenever that changes, the story assumes the voice of a different narrator. Almost all the characters of the novel, it is true, speak the same rural idiom, and their monologues often have the familiar ring of a straightforward oral tale. But Faulkner is not content simply to exploit the stylistic resources of this vernacular for humorous effects, by playing on the naive vigor of its diction and on the drollery of its unorthodox grammar. Nor does he merely vary its use according to the personality and mood of the speaker. On the earthy base of this rustic colloquial prose, he continually traces the startling arabesques of his own rhetoric. The author's presence is particularly obvious in the lyrical outbursts and metaphysical reveries of Darl, whose style is virtually indistinguishable from the writer's own. It is also to be felt in Addie Bundren's terse, impassioned eloquence in section 40. Yet this richer, denser, more freely inventive style is not restricted to any one character: even in those whose linguistic capacities seem severely limited—in Vardaman, for example, or Dewey Dell—language sometimes takes flight, and from the most halting prose suddenly springs, by virtue of an unexpected metaphor, a poetic vision which transfigures it.

Small wonder, then, that As I Lay Dying embarrasses critics who are hard put to define its genre. In its style as well as in its structure and significance, this will-o'-the-wisp novel seems to elude all attempts at classification.

Is it to be considered as a naturalistic novel, as a commentary on the economic deprivation and cultural illiteracy of poor whites? Faulkner's Mississippi hill-country farmers have been compared to Caldwell's Georgia sharecroppers; the odyssey of the Bundrens has been likened to the exodus of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. Yet even though Faulkner gives realism its due, nothing was further from his intentions than offering his readers an objective portrait of a family of poor whites: "it does sort of amuse me when I hear 'em talking about the sociological picture that I present in something like As I Lay Dying, for instance." Is it more relevant, then, to define the book as a philosophical novel? There is no doubt that moral and metaphysical concerns occupy—as in most of Faulkner's novels—a central place, but such a label, apart from recalling the lengthy arguments of the novel of ideas, tends to overlook the fact that the language of As I Lay Dying is the language of fiction, and it tells us nothing of the specific nature of the work.

If one tries to classify it according to mood rather than content, the same difficulties arise, and only at the cost of oversimplification can one manage to fit it into a recognized category. While allowing provisos, some have emphasized its comic elements, others its tragic aspects, and still others would make an epic of it. Does As I Lay Dying express Faulkner's "comic vision"? None would disagree that the novel lacks the sustained tension of The Sound and the Fury: there is humor in abundance, from the most innocent to the most macabre, and in all sorts of ways—in the grotesqueness of several characters as well as the extravagance of many an episode—it could be taken for a country farce. But there is too much grimness in the farce for the book to be considered as essentially comic, and the features relating it to tragedy are surely as significant: the story of the Bundrens, like that of the Compsons or the Sutpens, is the story of a family adrift, with all its tensions and conflicts; it begins with the account of a last agony, ends with scenes of hatred, violence, and madness, and the two most remarkable characters in the novel—Addie and Darl—are both, because of their tortured awareness of their destiny, purely tragic figures. Lastly, As I Lay Dying also has unmistakable affinities with the epic: the terrible ordeals undergone by the Bundrens in the course of their journey and their valiant struggle against the unbridled elements in evitably bring to mind the heroic exploits of myth and legend. And the very idea which, according to Faulkner, gave rise to the novel appears, in its sheer simplicity, as an epic idea: "I took this family and subjected them to the two greatest catastrophes which man can suffer—flood and fire, that's all."

Epic, tragedy, comedy? This is obviously not the right question to ask. To force the novel into the genres of traditional poetics is to ignore the dissonances from which it derives its originality. The distinctive aesthetic quality of As I Lay Dying is precisely that it is not an epic or a tragedy or a comedy, but, as it were, a gamble on being all three at once. It would perhaps be more worthwhile, therefore, to try another approach and see the novel through its narrative. What Faulkner is telling is the story of a journey. Now the journey is one of the narrative archetypes: from Homer's Odyssey to Joyce's, from the adventurous navigators of mythology and folklore to the restless wandering heroes of the modern novel and cinema, it has held its place through countless variations as one of the basic patterns of narration. On reading As I Lay Dying, one might almost think that the novelist sought to bring into play the different forms that travelers' tales have taken over the centuries, or at least to make echoes of them reverberate throughout. In the humble state of its protagonists, in the pithy vigor of its realism and the earthy tang of its humor, the novel—a story about people on the road—recalls the picaresque tradition (Anse would easily qualify for the role of the rogue). In the weirdness of its atmosphere and the often wildly implausible nature of the reported events, it makes one think of the marvelous or fantastic journeys of folktale, epic, and myth. Behind this polarity of the real and the imaginary, the distinction between "novel" and "romance" established by Simms and Hawthorne, and taken up by Richard Chase, will be easily recognized. On the face of it, As I Lay Dying may be taken for a rustic novel, but it is primarily a "romance" in the great symbolist tradition of American literature. If only in the motif of the strenuous journey, with all its wealth of connotations, it continues the exploration and illustration of a theme which, from the novels of James Fenimore Cooper through Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn, has been central to American fiction.

The baffling diversity of tones and moods which characterizes the novel goes some way towards explaining the variety of interpretations it has provoked. 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 epic. Is this simply the wry dialectic of humor, or is it not rather that the ruling force is irony? By thus forcing different genres to swallow each other, does one not end by clearing the way for absurdity? Judging by the closing pages, one might indeed think that absurdity wins the day. When Darl bursts out laughing at the monkeylike spectacle of his banana-munching family, it is hard to tell on which side lies reason and on which side madness. And in the final scene—which rings like a mocking echo of the recognition scenes one finds in the sentimental novels of the eighteenth century—when Anse, "kind of hangdog and proud too," introduces the new, duck-shaped and pop-eyed Mrs. Bundren to his perplexed children, the whole novel seems to tumble into sheer grotesque-ness. As for the journey itself, it may seem quite as preposterous as this farcical ending. The stubbornness of the Bundrens in pursuing their funeral task reminds one at times of the blind obstinacy of burying beetles, and the result of their undertaking is perhaps less a victory of willpower than the triumph of inertia.

Are we then to conclude that all the values traditionally associated with the perilous journey are here reversed for the purpose of travesty, and that the epic overtones of the tale are only intended to point up the utter incongruity of this funeral steeplechase? Or is the burlesque not aimed rather at masking the praise of that eminently Faulkner-ian virtue, endurance? That irony informs the whole design of As I Lay Dying is beyond dispute. The point is that it may be read in more than one way. There is little justification therefore in singling out one pattern of meaning and imposing it on the novel as the only valid interpretation. As a matter of fact, all attempts to date at explaining its metaphysics or codifying its ethics have been more or less arbitrary oversimplifications. As one critic very rightly notes: "The novel has a wonderful immunity to schematization; it is innocent of both a moral and a morality, and it seems to breathe out rather than posit a world view."

Faulkner here describes a world both absurd and living. He does not tell us whether we should reject the living as absurd, or accept the absurd as living. As I Lay Dying leaves its readers in a state of enthralled perplexity very similar to the stupor of the novel's characters in the face of what happens to them. This is not to say that the book cannot be discussed. To be satisfied with a single meaning, however, would be to misunderstand the subtle interplay of its ambiguities.

When Faulkner was questioned on As I Lay Dying, he invariably replied that it was a tour de force. As much by the speed with which it was written as by the audacity of its technique and the superb virtuosity of its art, the novel is precisely that. It charms like a brilliant impromptu, dazzles like a perfectly executed trapeze exercise. Of all Faulkner's novels, it is perhaps the most agile, the most adroit, the one in which the writer's mastery of his craft and the versatility of his gifts reveal themselves in the most spectacular way. It is also, beneath its guise of an improvisation, one of his most complex and most intriguing works. Faulkner no doubt wrote more ambitious and more deeply moving books: As I Lay Dying does not achieve the grandeur of The Sound and the Fury, the novelist's most "splendid failure"; it does not hold us under the same dark spell as Absalom, Absalom! nor does if offer the imaginative scope of Go Down, Moses. But only slightly below these peaks, it holds its place as a masterpiece.

Source: André Bleikasten, Introduction to Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Indiana University Press, 1973, pp. 3-9.

Blending of Extreme and Incongruous Effects in As I Lay Dying

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4853

A story of a journey, an account of adventures on the road—this may be the outward form of the novel, but the journey proves exceedingly curious and the adventures disconcert. Having died while a son sawed her coffin beneath her window, Addie Bundren is carted away in the family wagon through the back roads of Yoknapatawpha. The family thereby honors her reiterated wish that she be buried in the Jefferson cemetery. Unwilling adventurers, the Bundrens can do nothing well; their journey, like their spiritual life, is erratic and confused. Prompted by awe for the dead, and by a cluster of private motives, they plod through mishaps both comic and terrible—fire and flood, suffering and stupidity—until, at last, they reach the town. The putrescent corpse is buried, the daughter fails in her effort to get an abortion, one son is badly injured, another has gone mad, and at the very end, the father suddenly remarries.

Crossing farce with anguish, As I Lay Dying is a story of misfortune: the father Anse is certainly right, though hardly for the reasons he supposes, when he declares himself a "misfortunate man." There is a kind of story, like Leskov's "The Enchanted Wanderer," which heaps so many troubles on the back of its hero that the final effect is perversely comic; to this family of fiction As I Lay Dying is distantly related. Recalling the Dostoevskian novel in its coarse mixture of emotions, the book stumbles from catastrophe to catastrophe—a bewildering marathon of troubles. Suspense is maintained by the likelihood that still greater troubles are to come, while the ability of some characters to survive with equanimity becomes a wry celebration of mankind.

That As I Lay Dying is something more than a record of peregrine disaster we soon discover. As it circles over a journey in space, the novel also plunges into the secret life of the journeyers. Each of them conducts the action a little way while reciting the burden of his mind; the novel resembles a cantata in which a theme is developed and varied through a succession of voices. In As I Lay Dying the theme is death, death as it shapes life. The outer action, never to be neglected and always fear-somely spectacular, is a journey in a wagon; the inner action is the attempt of the Bundrens to define themselves as members of a family at the moment the family is perishing.

Neither fire nor flood is the crux of the novel, nor any physical action at all; it is Addie Bundren's soliloquy, her thoughts as she lay dying. Until that moment in the book, Faulkner lightly traces the tangled relationships among the Bundrens—the father, the daughter Dewey Dell, the sons Cash, Darl, Jewel, and Vardaman. It seems at first that Darl, the most introspective of the sons, is the cause and catalyst of family tensions. He guesses Dewey Dell's pregnancy and silently taunts her with his knowledge; he hovers over Jewel with eager at-tentiveness and broods upon the rivalry between them. But Addie's soliloquy makes clear that the conflicts among the children are rooted in the lives of their parents, in the failure of a marriage. It is Addie who dominates the book, thrusting her sons against each other as if they were warring elements of her own character. From her soliloquy until the end of the novel, the action is a physical resolution of the Bundrens' emotional troubles, a resolution which must be achieved if the body is to be buried in peace.

Dying, Addie remembers her youth. Always she had searched for a relation with people by which to impress her will; her energy had never found full release. As a schoolteacher she "would look forward to the times when they faulted, so I could whip them. When the switch fell I could feel it upon my flesh; when it welted and ridged it was my blood that ran, and I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me! Now I am something in your secret and selfish life." But when she married Anse she learned that, for all her fierce willfulness, she would never penetrate to his secret and selfish life.

First came Cash and then "I knew that living was terrible. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don't ever fit even what they are trying to say at … Love, [Anse] called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that word was like the others: a shape to fill a lack." Cash she cherished, for through his birth she reached understanding, both of Anse and herself. But when Darl came, "At first I would not believe it. Then I believed I would kill Anse. It was as though he had tricked me, hidden within a word like within a paper screen and struck me in the back through it." After Darl's birth, Anse seemed to die for her, though "He did not know he was dead, then. Sometimes I would lie by him in the dark, hearing the land that was now of my blood and flesh, and I would think: Anse. Why Anse. Why are you Anse." And then her moment of ecstasy: "I believed I had found it—that the reason was the duty to be alive, to the terrible blood." Sinning with preacher Whitfield, she bore Jewel. What came after that seemed unimportant: "I gave Anse Dewey Dell to negative Jewel—Vardaman to replace the child I had robbed him of. And now he had three children that are his and not mine. And then I could get ready to die."

The way in which the Bundren children are born, remarks Olga Vickery in a suggestive study of As I Lay Dying, establishes the "level of their awareness of [Addie] and the mode of their participation in her burial." Cash, the earnest and admirable carpenter, is the moral head of the family; reflecting Addie's strength and self-possession at the moment she first realizes that "living was terrible," he is free of the furies that torment his brothers. Too free, perhaps; his imagination limps behind his conscience, and he is so absorbed in the coffin that he does not notice a family crisis darkening about him.

Unlike Cash, Darl is capable of projecting himself into the feelings of his brothers; but he cannot establish a firm and distinct personality, one with which they can come to secure terms. Curious though the comparison may seem, this poor-white farm boy resembles one of those characters who prowl through Henry James's late novels, all prying awareness and no core of self. His eyes continually lighting on the family wounds, Darl speaks more frequently and in many more scenes than the other Bundrens. He senses that Jewel is the truly beloved son despite the fact that he, Darl, proffers and receives the gestures of love; and he knows, too, that the horse on which Jewel bestows such fierce care is a surrogate for Addie. Darl even hints that he has discovered the reason for Addie's violent love of Jewel:

She would fix him special things to eat and hide them for him. And that may have been when I first found it out, that Addie Bundren should be hiding anything she did, who had tried to teach us that deceit was such that, in a world where it was, nothing else could be very bad or very important, not even poverty. And at times when I went in to go to bed she would be sitting in the dark by Jewel where he was asleep. And I knew that she was hating herself for that deceit and hating Jewel because she had to love him so that she had to act the deceit.

It now becomes clear what Darl meant when he said, somewhat earlier, "I cannot love my mother because I have no mother. Jewel's mother is a horse." The motherless Darl must acknowledge, "I don't know what I am."

Jewel speaks only once, and then in a fantasy which aligns mother and himself against the Bundrens: "It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill at their faces ... by God until she was quiet." Dewey Dell and Vardaman, both the issue of Addie's indifference, are vegetable and idiot, the one concerned only with her ease and the other pure in feeling but unable to distinguish between dead mother and the fish he carries in his hand. The ineffectual Anse declaims in self-pity: "It's a trial. But I don't begrudge her it. No man can say I begrudge her it." Addie is right; in some deep sense her husband is dead.

Softened and dulled, Addie's emotional yearnings reappear among her children, as indeed they suffuse the entire novel. In their struggle for self-definition, her sons discover that to answer the question, Who am I? they must first consider, What was my mother and how did she shape me? The rivalry between Darl and Jewel, which recurs through the book like an underground tremor, is a rivalry in sonship, and it is Darl's sense of being unwanted which drives him to his obsessive questioning and finally his fall into madness. As the children try, each in his fumbling or inarticulate way, to discover the meaning of being a son or brother, Addie's authority persists and increases. And in this search for identity they demonstrate their mother's conviction that language is vanity which action is the test of life: "I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it." This sentence prefigures the Bundren history and announces the theme of the book.

Tyrannical in its edict of love and rejection, the will of the mother triumphs through the fate of her children. Cash, the accepted son, endures a preposterous excess of pain largely because of his own inattention and the stupidity of the others. Thereby he learns the meaning of kinship, his brothers impinging on him through the torment they cause him; and at the end he takes his place as the mature witness of the wreckage of the family. Jewel, by breaking from his violent obsession, fulfills his mother's prophecy: "He is my cross and he will be my salvation. He will save me from the water and the fire." Literally, that is what Jewel does, and when he parts from his horse in order to speed Addie's burial he achieves a direct expression of filial love. Dewey Dell, munching her banana, continues to move in an orbit of egoism; Vardaman, pathetic and troubled, is locked in his idiocy; and Anse gets himself another wife, "duck-shaped" and with "hard-looking pop eyes."

Darl is the family sacrifice. An unwanted son, he seeks continually to find a place in the family. The pressures of his secret knowledge, the pain of observing the journey, the realization that he can never act upon what he knows—these drive Darl to madness. Now he dares taunt Jewel: "Whose son are you? Your mother was a horse; but who was your father, Jewel?" From the sobriety of Cash he moves to the derangement of Vardaman; in a brilliant passage he and Vardaman "listen" to their mother in the coffin:

She was under the apple tree and Darl and I go across the moon and the cat jumps down and runs and we can hear her inside the wood. "Hear?" Darl says. "Put your ear close."

I put my ear close and I can hear her. Only I can't tell what she is saying.

"What is she saying, Darl?" I say. "Who is she talking to?"

"She's talking to God," Darl says. "She is calling on Him to help her."

"What does she want Him to do?" I say.

"She wants Him to hide her away from the sight of man," Darl says.

"Why does she want to hide her away from the sight of man, Darl?"

"So she can lay down her life," Darl says.

Betrayed by Dewey Dell and assaulted by Jewel, Darl is taken away to the asylum. Only Cash understands him; only Cash and Vardaman pity him. Referring to himself in the third person, a sign of extreme self-estrangement, Darl says: "Darl is our brother, our brother Darl. Our brother Darl is in a cage in Jackson where, his grimed hands lying light in the quiet interstices, looking out he foams. 'Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes'." To the end it is a search for kinship that obsesses Darl, and his cryptic row of affirmatives may signify a last, pathetic effort to proclaim his brotherhood.

Upon this investigation of a family's inner history, Faulkner has lavished a dazzling virtuosity. Like The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying stakes everything on the awareness of its characters. There is neither omniscient narrator nor disinterested observer at the rim of the story; nothing being told, all must be shown. But where The Sound and the Fury is divided into four long sections, of which three convey distinct and sustained points of view, As I Lay Dying is broken into sixty fragments in which fifteen characters speak or reflect at various turns of the action and on numerous levels of consciousness. The prolonged surrender to a few memories in The Sound and the Fury permits a full dramatic recall; the nervous transitions in As I Lay Dying encourage a sensitive recording of character change. It would be difficult to exaggerate the complexity of As I Lay Dying, or the skill with which Faulkner manipulates its diverse points of view. So remarkable is this skill, the critic runs a danger of regarding the novel merely as a fascinating exercise in dexterity.

Once it is agreed that in a final estimate the critical emphasis belongs elsewhere, this dexterity is a thing to enjoy and admire—particularly the way each Bundren, speaking in his own behalf, comes to illuminate the others. The first word of the book, uttered by Darl, is "Jewel," and it announces a major theme: Darl's fitful preoccupation with his brother. On the same page Darl quickly sketches Jewel: "Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides with the rigid gravity of a cigar-store Indian dressed in patched overalls and endued with life from the hips down." Several pages later Darl speaks again, describing Jewel as the latter caresses his horse with obscene ferocity. After these introductory glimpses, Jewel comes forward for one page, a page of fantasy concerning his frozen love for his mother. The perspective shifts to Cora Tull, a comically righteous neighbor who sees much yet not enough, and from her we learn that Jewel has been favored by years of Addie's "self-denial and downright perversity." Speaking for the first time, Dewey Dell remarks that "Jewel don't care about anything he is not kin to us in caring, not carekin." When Darl learns his mother is dead, he thinks immediately of Jewel: "I say, she is dead, Jewel, Addie Bundren is dead." Jewel has now been seen from several points of view, each different yet complementary to the other, and he has spoken once; but he is to be fully understood only when we reach the Addie section and discover the condition of his birth. "With Jewel—I lay by the lamp, holding up my own head, watching him cap and suture it before he breathed—the wild blood boiled away and the sound of it ceased." We can now surmise why it is he, and none of his brothers, who saves Addie from water and fire, why he consents to sell his horse, why he pummels Darl when they reach Jefferson. From a multitude of slanted impressions and remarks, an image of Jewel is slowly composed; but any final interpretation must be our own for there is no detached observer who speaks for Faulkner, not even to the extent that Dilsey does in The Sound and the Fury. The secondary characters surrounding the Bundrens as a chorus of comment and comedy never achieve more than a partial understanding. Faulkner presents; the reader must conclude.

The method of As I Lay Dying brings with it the danger that the frequent breaks in point of view will interfere with the flow of narrative. In a few scenes this does happen, particularly in those of Darl's reflections which become so densely "poetic" they claim more attention than they warrant. But once Addie's soliloquy is reached, the physical journey in the wagon and the psychological journey through the family closely parallel each other; and the first gains dramatic relevance and lucidity from the second.

Each character provides a line of action and impression, but not, of course, with the same sureness and plausibility. Picturesque as they may be, Dewey Dell and Vardaman are hardly bold originals; they serve well enough as foils and accessories, but they seem to have been borrowed from the common store of Southern fiction rather than created in their own right. One minds less their being measured from a ready-made pattern than the neatness and predictability of the measure—their very idiosyncrasies prove neat and predictable. Still, a distinction is to be made even among stereotypes; Vardaman has a kind of stock vividness, while Dewey Dell is the one Bundren who fails to emerge clearly.

Similar strictures might be made against the father but not, I think, with equal justice. Faulkner's critics have been very hard on Anse, cracking the whips of morality over his frail back. Poor Anse, he is hardly the man to support judgment; he is merely a figure to be watched, resourceful in exploiting his laziness, gifted at proclaiming the proper generalities at not quite the proper time, and in his shuffling sort of way, diffident and almost humble. In drawing Anse, Faulkner may have had in mind one or another important moral lesson; more probably, he had struck upon a universal comic type, the tyrannically inept schlemiehl whose bumbling is so unrelieved and sloth so unalloyed that he ends by evoking only an impatient, irritated sympathy.

But Darl raises problems. Because we quickly identify with him, and eagerly respond to his restless search for self-knowledge, Darl's sudden breakdown comes as a jolt; and while Faulkner's motives for introducing it may easily be inferred, I doubt that he has sufficiently prepared for it in the immediately preceding text. Darl's part of the novel is an instance of the "misplaced middle"; the introductory presentation bulks so large that there remains little space in which to prepare and justify the denouement. Given the large demands made on his vision, Darl's later collapse could be accepted only if Faulkner devoted more attention than he does to showing the boy's movement from sanity to madness. There are hints, of course: for the first time Darl dares taunt Jewel openly and Vardaman alludes to his knowledge that it is Darl who has fired the barn. But these intimations span a gap that needs to be filled. Darl's madness does not follow "inevitably" from what has preceded it; and, if only because our identification with him has been too sharply punctured, we are left with a surplus of unused sympathy.

Quite as excessive as Darl's fate is the burden of language Faulkner thrusts upon him. Between author and character there seems to be an unfortunate personal entanglement, certainly a lack of ironic distance—and in a way that recalls Faulkner's relation to Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury. When Darl is used merely to observe the other Bundrens, as in the splendid scene in which he remembers Jewel's sacrifice to buy his horse, the closeness between author and protagonist does not disturb, for then Darl is largely removed from our vision. But when he turns in upon himself, exploring his muddled consciousness, he is assigned reflections violently out of character. That he occasionally abandons Southern idiom for poetic reverie is in itself unexceptionable, a heightened style being as good a way as any to simulate the life of the inner mind. Nor is the difficulty merely that these reflections do not seem cognate to Darl; they would be as dubious from a philosopher as from a farm boy:

The river itself is not a hundred yards across, and pa and Vernon and Vardaman and Dewey Dell are the only things in sight not of that single monotony of desolation leaning with that terrific quality a little from right to left, as though we had reached the place where the motion of the wasted world accelerates just before the final precipice. Yet they appear dwarfed. It is as though the space between us were time: an irrevocable quality. It is as though time, no longer running straight before us in a diminishing line, now runs parallel between us like a looping string, the distance being the doubling accretion of the thread and not the interval between.

About the remaining Bundrens there can be no qualms. Jewel is done with harsh, rapid strokes, seldom brushed as delicately as in the portrait of Darl; but for a figure whose behavior forms a ballet of turbulence the harshness and rapidity are exactly right. Addie Bundren is a remarkable image of a passionate woman who, except for an illicit interval, has known only barrenness. Driven dark into herself, unable to express her love for her favorite son, and ending with a realism of attitude more stringent than her husband can imagine, Addie spends her years in loneliness and can bequeath her sons nothing but unfulfilled passion. In her desperation to preserve her family and to raise her children properly, she seems classically American. This harassed, angular and fervent woman—have we not met her in Willa Cather's novels of pioneer life and Sherwood Anderson's memoirs of his childhood? Long before we reach Addie's soliloquy we see her overbearing effect upon the children; and when she does speak, it comes as an explosion of ecstasy—a piece of writing that for emotional intensity may justly be compared with the great forest scenes of The Scarlet Letter.

It is on Cash, however, that Faulkner bestows his most admirable touches. Lacking the intensity of Jewel or the moody restlessness of Darl, he comes through with greater resonance and richness than the other Bundrens; he alone among the brothers is neither delusional nor obsessed; and he is one of the few Faulkner characters who are not merely revealed but also grow as a consequence of their experience. At the beginning he is lightly sketched into the story, with an affectionate mockery that hardly suggests his later importance. How far did you fall, Cash, that time you slipped off the church roof? "Twenty eight foot, four and a half inches, about," he solemnly replies. And when he speaks directly for the first time, it is to explain in thirteen marvelously adduced reasons why "I made [the coffin] on the bevel. 1. There is more surface for the nails to grip … 13. It makes a neater job."

Throughout the journey Cash says very little and suffers in quiet; but he is now watching the drama within his family, almost as if he were seeing it for the first time. Thereby he gains an understanding of the journey, implicitly taking it as a test of character and integrity. He matures in his feelings and in his power to express them. Sometimes, he says about Darl,

... I ain't so sho who's got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he ain't. Sometimes I think it ain't none of us pure crazy and ain't none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It's like it ain't so much what a fellow does, but it's the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.

This growth from unimaginative self-containment to humane concern appears again in Cash's musings over a phonograph:

I reckon it's a good thing we ain't got ere a one of them. I reckon I wouldn't never get no work done a-tall for listening to it. I don't know if a little music ain't the nicest thing a fellow can have. Seems like when he comes in tired of a night, it ain't nothing could rest him like having a little music played and him resting.

But surely the final emphasis belongs not to the novel's matter or technique; its claim to our affection rests on more than its study of family relations or its brilliance in handling points of view. Such things matter only insofar as they bring us closer to the book's essential insight or vision, its moral tone. Of all Faulkner's novels, As I Lay Dying is the warmest, the kindliest and most affectionate. The notion that Faulkner is a misanthrope wallowing in horrors is possible only to those who have not read the book or have read it with willful obtuseness. 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. Smaller in scope than Faulkner's other important novels, As I Lay Dying lacks the tragic consistency of The Sound and the Fury, the grandeur of Absalom, Absalom!, the power of Light in August. But it shines with virtues distinctly its own: a superb sympathy for the lowly and incoherent, an implicit belief that the spiritual life of a Darl Bundren can be as important as the spiritual life of a Lambert Strether, a readiness on Faulkner's part to immerse himself in people radically unlike himself. Look—he seems to be saying—look at the capacity for suffering and dignity which human beings have, even the most absurdly wretched of them! The book is a triumph of fraternal feeling, and because it is that, a triumph, as well, in the use of idiom. No finer example of American lyricism, that indigenous style stemming from Huckleberry Finn, could be found in twentieth-century writing than this passage in which Darl remembers….

When I was a boy I first learned how much better water tastes when it has set a while in a cedar bucket. Warmish-cool, with a faint taste like the hot July wind in cedar trees smells. It has to set at least six hours, and be drunk from a gourd. Water should never be drunk from metal.

And at night it is better still. I used to lie on the pallet in the hall, waiting until I could hear them all asleep, so I could get up and go back to the bucket. It would be black, the shelf black, the still surface of the water a round orifice in nothingness, where before I stirred it awake with the dipper I could see maybe a star or two in the bucket, and maybe in the dipper a star or two before I drank. After that I was bigger, older. Then I would wait until they all went to sleep so I could lie with my shirt-tail up, hearing them asleep, feeling myself without touching myself, feeling the cool silence blowing upon my parts and wondering if Cash was yonder in the darkness doing it too, had been doing it perhaps for the last two years before I could have wanted to or could have.

Or consider this passage in which Darl describes Addie's coffin being carried into the house:

It is light, yet they move slowly; empty, yet they carry it carefully; lifeless, yet they move with hushed precautionary words to one another, speaking of it as though, complete, it now slumbered lightly alive, waiting to come awake. On the dark floor their feet clump awkwardly, as though for a long time they have not walked on floors.

Almost as vivid is Jewel thinking of his mother as she dies:

... her hands laying on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and tried to wash and you couldn't get them clean. I can see the fan and Dewey Dell's arm. I said if you'd just let her alone. Sawing and knocking, and keeping the air always moving so fast on her face that when you're tired you can't breathe it, and that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less …

Because he writes of the Bundrens with a comely and tactful gravity, a deep underlying respect, Faulkner is able to blend extreme and incongruous effects—the sublime and the trivial, anguish and absurdity, a wretched journey through the sun and a pathetic journey toward kinship. An American epic, As I Lay Dying is country farce and human tragedy. The marvel is that to be one it had to be the other.

Source: Irving Howe, "As I Lay Dying," in William Faulkner: A Critical Study, Random House, 1951, pp. 127-42.


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