Faulkner’s novel “As I Lay Dying” is a unique narrative about life, death, family, and character. The stream of consciousness style used by the author gives the reader the perspective of a direct onlooker who seems to be eavesdropping upon the most private thoughts and emotions of the characters. The clear and strong personalities created by Faulkner enable us to delve into the world of the Bundrens. The feelings, thoughts and interactions among the family are vividly outlined allowing the reader to step into their house and wagon and share in their feelings.
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The thread of the story is made somewhat extraordinary by the numerous points of view and differing narrations, as this enables the reader to make it their own. By being thrown into the dynamic and ever changing story the lector is forced to put together the pieces of the puzzle related to each of the characters and to structure the story according to individual perception. The experience obtained by the book depends largely on the involvement of the one who reads it, who is, in a sense, a juror with the right to form an individual and unique opinion of each of the characters. The unconventional and completely unbiased style in which the book is written presents the existential and emotional dilemmas of each of the characters without passing judgement from an external perspective. The story of the funeral procession of Addie Bundren, with all its obstacles and dramatic twists is presented in an almost purely factual manner. Everyone who was there had a unique individual experience complemented by their own character, understanding and relations to the others involved. After all, there is no better way to understand the dilemmas and inner nature of people than to look thorough their eyes. As the story progresses the characters present themselves through their narration and thoughts.
The Bundren family, despite all its problems and conflicts, is still functioning as a unit fused together by the common goal of laying the body of their mother and wife to rest in the city. However, it is doubtful whether this common goal manages to truly unite the members of the family (Lester, page 1). The interactions between the individuals and how they view each other, as well as the way external characters perceive them, give a fascinating perspective into the psychology of each individual. Each human being functions both separately and through social interaction. It is a common understanding that the inner world of people differs from that which they show to the world. This is also the case in Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”.
According to Cheryl Lester’s article “Fifteen Ways of Looking at the Bundrens” going to the town is an act of selfish desires rather than the fulfilment of the dying wish of Addie. The journey to Jefferson is undoubtedly an event in the life of the country family and it is being used both as an incentive to pacify the young Vardaman who stubbornly proclaims that “…I don’t want to go to town.” (Faulkner, page 26), and as a fulfilment of the clearly stated wish of Anse to buy a set of prosthetic teeth.
All characters view the trip as an opportunity to escape the mundane life they have in their home, but this is clearest when examining the motives of the father. In his narrative of his wife’s death he mentions the opportunity to get himself “them teeth” (Faulkner, page 45). The possibility of gaining another three dollars also seems more important to Anse than letting Addie’s children say goodbye to her. The external point of view of his daughter Dewey Dell reveals her indignation with his greedy nature when he tells Vardaman, in the eve of their mother’s death, that he should go and eat his supper before their dad eats his portion (Faulkner, page 25). Another opinion is that of the family friend Cora Tull who considers Anse to be a sinful man who is paying for his mistakes. All these perspectives on the head of the family are an excellent example of how Faulkner develops the characters in the novel. Each of the members of the family finds their own truth about the rest, and is subject to the judgement of external onlookers. This method of character development gives the reader a feeling of independence and autonomy when viewing the work. There is no invisible judge in the face of the author; there are simply points of view which can be agreed with or refuted.
Each of the actors in the story has both positive and negative traits and this is what makes them so vividly alive. Everyone, from the farmer Samson who lets the Bundrens stay with him and his wife on their farm, to Vardaman with his childish, and according to some analyses mentally retarded perception, has a say in the story. The accounts of the participants are sometimes sharp and judgemental and at other times offer sympathy and understanding for the predicament of the family. The Bundren’s doctor Peabody clearly expresses his resentment toward Anse, while Samson has a milder and more sympathetic view. The tapestry of emotions and characters is completed to a large extent because of the accounts of the participants in the story who are external to the family.
Given this fact it is remarkable that Jewel narrates only once in the whole novel even though he is a main actor in the story. This lack of verbal participation is partly a reflection of the nature of the character. He is a man of action and remains silent on many occasions throughout the story, which does not mean that he does not have an opinion. The point of view of the illegitimate child of Addie is made clear by his thoughts on Cash’s building of his mother’s coffin right under her window (Faulkner, page 5). He interprets this as a gesture of flaunting of the work he is doing for his dying mother.
Although Jewel’s silence may seem to express stubbornness it may be one of the attributes which his mother values him for. According to Novel Guide’s interpretation, words versus actions is one of the underlying themes in the novel. The fact that Darl is a man of many words and Jewel is one of few, who acts decisively, is also reflected in the attitude of their mother toward them. She herself is not fond of words. She states in her narrative that she learned that words are “no good” at expressing what they aim to(Faulkner, page 73). The theme of words without action is present throughout the story in the face of the two brothers Darl and Jewel as well as in Anse who does not do, but rater talks. This tendency is most vividly expressed by his idle standing by the river when the carriage and mules along with his wife’s coffin tip over. He is there rather to instruct his sons on what to do rather than to offer a helping hand. This is in sharp contrast with Jewel’s constant activity. He is always on the move and even managed to earn money for his very own horse without letting anyone know. (Novel Guide)
Another underlying theme in Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” is that of the epic journey (Novel Guide). The funeral procession of Addie Bundren is a journey of epic proportions for the family, but its outcome and nature remind us more of an ironic account of life’s ill fortune and people’s spiteful nature, so it might be more appropriate to call the journey a mock epic one. The various acts of bravery and sacrifice such as Cash’s heroic withstanding of the pain caused by his broken leg, or the ambiguous burning of the barn by Darl are testimony to the somewhat epic yet absurd character of the novel. Cash’s denial of his suffering turns somewhat ridiculous when it becomes clear that he is indeed very hurt and needs help. As for Darl’s burning of the barn this can be viewed from two perspectives, one being a heroic act of salvation for his mother’s body from the humiliation of the journey, and another being his trauma and loneliness due to the journey and the rejection of his mother. (Gradesaver, As I Lay Dying Study Guide) Another motive which supports the theme of the epic journey of the Bundrens is the role of Jewel in the quest to bury his mother. He appears to be the decisive and bold action taker, the knight in shining armour who Addie predicted would rescue her from the water and fire of her journey toward her final resting place (Novel Guide). Although Jewel’s mother views him as her saviour, it may be argued that his courage might have proven more respectful of his mother’s memory had he opposed the journey to Jefferson. The short temper of the young man is also a confirmation of the ironic shade of the epic travels of the Bundrens.
Each of the characters in “As I Lay Dying” has a unique social and internal personality, fascinatingly revealed by their own testimony as well as by the external judgment of those around them. There is, however, a unifying element in the approach toward the characters. Each of them has an internal existential dilemma which they seek to resolve. The relationship between the mother and father, which is based on a mutual need for companionship and meaning, defines the lives of the two characters as well as that of their offspring. The most vivid example of the perception of Addie of her own life is the way in which she views child birth. For her giving her husband children is a disturbance of her privacy and a way to make up for her extramarital affair after which she would be free to leave this world. This could be viewed as a resignation with the idea that her life did not turn out the way she had hoped it would, therefore she needs an excuse to leave it impatiently.
The novel looks also looks at the emotional predicament of most of the characters. One of them is Dewey Dell who is desperately looking for a way to terminate her pregnancy. Her lonely attempts to find a solution to her “female trouble” lead her to a further negation of her own better judgment as she allows herself to be taken advantage of in order to find a “cure” for her “condition”.
“As I Lay Dying” is a truly genuine story about a family who has reached one of the greatest dramas in their common life. It is often in the face of crisis that true feelings and self perceptions change and emerge. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Faulkner chose just this situation in order to describe the inner lives of his characters. The choice of the story, as well as the techniques used for telling it cause a strong impact on the reader. We are fully immersed into the world of the characters, which enables us to get to know them as if first hand. The most interesting part of the experience of reading the novel is the individual judgment and perception of the reader. This is where the messages of the invisible writer and story teller become apparent whit a unique twist for each reader.
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