William Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’ tells the story of the death of Addie Bundren and her last journey to her hometown, Jefferson, Mississippi. The novel opens with the dying Addie watching her son Cash construct her coffin. The ominous sounds of his carpentry echo around the house, forming an aural backdrop to the family’s hushed conversations about their mother’s imminent death. The summer heat is oppressive, but the night after Addie dies the expected rainstorm breaks, washing out the bridges and fords that lay on the long road to Jefferson. Undetermined, infinitely stubborn, the family set out with Addie’s body on the back of the wagon. The journey is of biblical proportions, with the family having to overcome trials of fire and flood.
‘As I Lay Dying’ is Faulkner’s masterpiece, a virtuoso epic that is one of the most extraordinary novels I have read in a very long time. The task of doing it justice in a review is daunting, so rather than trying to explore every aspect of its astonishing variety and sophistication I am going to focus on two related aspects of the novel – Faulkner’s use of narration techniques, and the more general issue of complexity: in other words, how does the novel tell its story?
The narrative voice in ‘As I Lay Dying’ is highly complex. Ostensibly, the novel is constructed from a sequence of “stream-of-consciousness monologues, in which the characters’ thoughts are presented in all their uncensored chaos, without the organizing presence of an objective narrator” (SparkNotes). But that’s only part of the story. Underneath the naturalistic voices of the characters is another, insistent authorial voice. The narrative switches between these voices so frequently and seamlessly that it is often easy to miss the transition.
Here’s an example. The narrator here is ten-year old Vardaman. He is distressed because of his mother’s death, and struggling to process his reactions:
“I can cry quiet now, feeling and hearing my tears. It is dark. I can hear wood, silence. I know them. But not living sounds, not even him. It is as though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity into an unrelated scattering of components”.
The first sentences in this paragraph are short, child-like. Then in the sentence beginning “It is as though” another voice intrudes, and the repetition of the personal pronoun “him” is ambiguous – is this the “him” of the previous sentence, referring to one of Vardaman’s brothers that he can hear in the dark, or Vardaman himself. In other words this ultimate sentence can be read as being either by or about Vardaman. In any event, it uses a language and vocabulary that a ten-year old child would not be familiar with – it is another narrative voice.
Here’s another example from Darl, one of Vardaman’s older brothers:
“The horse moving with a light, high-kneed driving out…We go on with a motion so soporific, so dream-like, as to be uninferant of progress, as though time and not space were decreasing between us”.
Some critics have seen this change in voice, used throughout the novel, as an error. They have complained that Darl’s vocabulary, for example, is far more extensive than a Mississippi farm-hand would have known. I think it is reasonable to assume that these transitions are deliberate, which begs the question “So what’s going on?”
I can only describe the effect this technique had on me. The fragmented nature of the monologues causes the reader to concentrate to follow what is going on – no-one voice is telling us clearly what happens. Instead we slowly build up a picture of events from the thoughts and reactions of the characters. Some events are only referred to incidentally rather than directly described, and others are described from multiple, conflicting points of view. The characters’ back stories and the context of the family tragedy that unfolds has to be pieced together slowly. The presence of an ambiguous, unnamed authorial voice that intrudes into the narrative, using rich language and elaborate metaphor, gives an additional layer of complexity and opulence to the novel. The best explanation I can offer for this voice is that it is an articulation of the characters’ unconscious thoughts and feelings. This is why it invariably follows the initial, more straightforward thoughts.
The narrative voice can change within a sentence. This demands that the novel is read carefully. Another technique Faulkner uses to require this form of reading is his use of complexity. ‘As I Lay Dying’ has an ostensibly simple structure. The storyline follows the family’s journey to Jefferson. There were however points during the narrative where I found it hard to be sure precisely what was going on. The ford-crossing scene is a good example. The family attempt to cross a flooded ford with two mules and a wagon carrying the coffin and body. The stormy waters knock them off their feet, and while the coffin is saved the mules drown, and Cash, one of Addie’s sons, breaks his leg. This scene is narrated by Darl in the present tense – “Carl and I sit in the wagon; Jewel sits the horse at the off-rear wheel”. His descriptions range from the straightforward, as in this example, to ornate, elaborate sentences we have come to expect from the elusive authorial narrator “Above the ceaseless surface they stand – trees, cane, vines – rootless, severed from the earth, spectral above a scene of immense yet circumscribed desolation”.
Darl gives the initial description of the crossing, which is followed by a past tense description from ten-year old Vardaman, and another past tense version from the Bundren’s neighbour, Vernon Tull. It is not until the narration switches back to Darl that we learn that in the accident Cash has at some point re-broken his leg, and lost all his tools, but that he has somehow rescued his mother’s coffin.
The reader is able to follow what broadly happens – the crossing is perilous, a log smashes into the wagon, and the sons fall into the water. But some of the detail is elusive, and only emerges in the later descriptions. Darl’s present tense narration puts the reader directly onto the ford with the characters, struggling with the rising waters, scared, shouting but unable to make themselves heard. This is why the description is chaotic – to capture the sense of confusion and fear that the characters are feeling.
Darl is at the heart of the novel, narrating a third of all chapters, including the one describing his mother’s last moments, even though he is not present for these scenes. In post-publication interviews Faulkner insisted on Darl’s insanity but the textual evidence for this is limited – even his act of arson can be seen as a pragmatic response to the problems the family has faced in reaching Jefferson. In his last chapter Darl’s voice has progressed from present first person narrative to third person past tense – on other words he describes his actions as if he was another person observing them.
I have never really understood the stock reaction to a wonderful book – that the reader reached the last page, only to turn back to the beginning and start again. If I had just enjoyed a steak the last thing I would want is another steak straight away (some ice-cream, maybe?). But with ‘As I Lay Dying’ this phrase began to make sense – I really did want to re-read the novel and enjoy the skill with which it is constructed all over again, and to appreciate the subtle nuances and detail with a fresh pair of eyes.
‘As I Lay Dying’ is the 96th novel in my reading challenge. I have four left: ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce, ‘The Golden Bowl’ by Henry James, ‘1919’ by John Dos Passos, and ‘Tristram Shandy’ by Laurence Sterne. I haven’t got a particular reading order in mind – any suggestions?