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  • William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying - critical review: a novel about narration

Faulkner's 1930 novel 'As I Lay Dying' uses narration to create a novel not based on a plot of action, but of characters. Faulkner's experiment with narrative and stream of consciousness technique confronts the importance of narration in and outside literature. The book is encapsulated with the unreliability of narration as well as the constructive nature of literature. Faulkner explores narrative and dialogue to show the relationship between language and the perspective of a character and uses time to comment on Bergson's distinction between phycological and objective time. From the 59 sections, with 15 different narrators, Faulkner demonstrates the common idea that reality is created in the eye of the beholder. However, Faulkner adds to this idea by questioning how far language can be used to show this subjective nature of reality, as well as how distinct literature and reality are.

This unreliability is first shown through contrast in dialogue. Stephen M Ross highlights that people should recognise that recorded dialogue (for example "where's Jewel" Pa Says) is equally unreliable as regular narration of an event. This idea addresses the clear distinction between reality and literature, in that in literature, speech can only be expressed through a different medium: language. Necessarily, therefore, even if the characters of Jewel and Pa were not fictional, it goes through a sense of fabrication: it is affected by 'material embodiment.' Faulkner displays this idea, arguably suggesting that the reader cannot count any of the narratives as objective truths: but all have been altered in its conversion to language in light of that specific narrator's consciousness. Peabody's recording of Anse's speech as "Hit was jest one thing and then another [..] that ere corn me and the boys was aimin to git up with [..] good keer of her, and folks comin [..] a-offerin to help and isch, till a jest thought" juxtaposes Darl's recording of Anse's speech as "she'll want to start right away. I know her. I promised her I'd keep the team here and ready, and she's counting on it." The Phonetic spelling of "Hit [..] jest[..] ere corn me [..] keer" shows an awareness of writers trying to imitate the sound of dialogue in reality. However, what is more interesting is the juxtaposition between Peabody's and Darl's display of Anse's speech. It shows that the recorded language of dialogue is not an imitation of how someone spoke it, but an imitation of how someone heard it. For Peabody, as someone not from the same rural area, he hears Anse's "it" as "hit" and "just" and "jest", but Darl does not. This contrasting representation of how someone sounds when they speak comments on the fact the narrator unconsciously influences the presentation of an event. The multiclausal long sentence that Peabody presents us with contrasts with Darl's presentation of clarity in Anse's speech shown through monosyllabic short sentences "I know her." One could argue Peabody's phonetic presentation of the speech echoes his feeling of detachment and lack of understanding of Anse. Through the two contrasting representations, Faulkner addresses the reader's job at not only being aware that representations of what would seem futile to fabricate (regular speech of another character) will be unconsciously influenced by that narrator, but the fact that with that a reader should always be aware of who the recording is derived from, and what that shows about the character.

This subjective view of reality is consistent throughout the book through the contrasts between the fifteen different narrators in the book. The contrasting syntax and language used in similes and metaphors highlight this contrasting perception of reality, as the reader often seems the same event from different narrative angles. Many have been critical of the plausibility of the framer using the language chosen. The most prominently used example in this criticism has been Vardaman, a young child, who describes the horse as "an unrelated scattering of components" "snuffing's and stampings; smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair; an illusion of a co-ordinated whole of splotched hid and strong bones within [..] detached and secreta and familiar". The sibilance "snuffing and stampings", the noun phrase "ammoniac hair" and phrase "an illusion of a co-ordinated whole" points to this case that Vardaman would have not constructed this description himself, and is inconsistent with Vardaman's plausible and basic phrases such as the monosyllabic "Cash is sick. He is sick in the box." and single line chapter in present tense "My mother is a fish." However, Stephen M Ross' distinction between 'the voice' and the character of Vardaman is useful in an arguable purpose of this complicated narrative. The idea that Faulkner is not displaying what Vardaman would say out loud, but rather the state of his consciousness, is plausible in this case. It is not Vardaman's 'voice' in terms of what he would speak, but this narrative is his consciousness and its experience of reality. As R.W Franklin puts it, "each of the minds is its own persona telling its part of the story through unconscious, involuntary narration." However, I don't think when analysing this one should use the verb "telling", but instead the narrative from the perspective of Vardaman is the involuntary recording of Vardaman's experience of the world, instead of how he would tell it. In this way, we could explain the individual chapters from different characters as not monologues but recordings of that character's experience of the world around them. In this reading, the adjective choices "unrelated", "illusion" and "detached" are not a reflection of how Vardaman would choose to describe the horse to someone else, but instead is a reflection of Vardaman's detached conscious experience. However, the issue with this interpretation is that it takes away the idea that the sections are really being narrated by each person, and instead of going back to an omniscient writer who chooses which words to best represent his character's consciousness. Overall however, this is a plausible view of the sections and urges the reader to pay close attention to syntax and form to understand the experience of that subject.

This idea that the different chapters are involuntary narrations of each character's consciousness may conflict with Darl's narration. His narrative of events he wasn't at possibly conveys an active creation of Darl to try and become connected to his family. Darl's reliability as a narrator is questioned at the end of the novel as he is sent to a mad asylum, but also from other character's ideas about him that he is described as "the one folks talk about". However, Darl's narration is even further reinforced through his descriptors of events he is not present at. These descriptions of events are an echo and illusion of omniscient narration, but one could argue it conveys something about the character of Darl, arguably detachment, more than the event he is describing. Particularly noteworthy is when Darl is absent but narrating Anse's reaction to Addie dying, as he describes "Pan stands over the bed, dangled-armed, humped, motionless. He raises his hand to his head, scouring his hair, listening to the saw. [..] touches the quilt [..] tries to smooth it again, clumsily, his hand awkward as a claw." The detailed asyndeton narration and simile "awkward as a claw" is interesting in that Darl's narration is not merely what is happening, but what it is like. This is also used when he describes Cash to be building the coffin (he is not there) and he reflects that "the air smells like sulphur." This simile questions if he is describing the smell of his air at the time of writing or Cash's. This further creates the idea that Darl is a representation of omniscient narration, as both scenes are theoretically all imaginary: as he is not present. The fact Faulkner chose Darl to narrate these scenes, despite his absence, possibly shows Darl's longing to be included and close to his family, as well as omniscient about their intentions and character traits. Darl won't admit this detachment and wish for acceptance himself, so it is shown through these theoretical imaginings. He wants to breathe the same air as them ('the air smells like Sulphur'). Just as all the descriptions come back to the teller of the stories individual phycological state, it arguably points to a sense of unwanted disconnection: as he tries to create a closeness to the rest of his family by creating the illusion he is present at events which he is not and is aware of experiences he is not having.

With this importance of narrative displaying something about the character, what is also interesting is the similarities and differences between more than one narrative of the same event, object or experience. This can be seen through the description of Cash' face, in which Dewey Dell describes it as "his pale empty sad composed and questioning face" and Tull's "look in his eyes like he was figuring on whether the planks would fit'. The paradox between 'empty' and 'composed and questioning' hints that Dewey Dell's consciousness is disordered and incoherent, unlike Tull's simile "like he was figuring", which fits with Dewey Dell's second idea that he was "composed and questioning". The ultimate similarity between the two references that people see many things in a similar way, but the way this image of Cash' face as calculating is expressed highlights the nuances from one perceiver to another while also explaining things about that perceiver's consciousness. The clear simile that Tull may echo his past-tense narration, in which is writing reflectively and therefore more coherently, becoming a writer himself, rather than the seemingly rushed and incoherent present tense recording of "pale empty sad composed and questioning" which makes the image of Cash' face unimaginable. This may be a comment on past and present narration, in which one can only gain clarity of a situation after they have experienced, but at the same time, the commonality of present-tense narration within the novel echoes that it may more be showing the incoherence of Dewey-Dell compared to Tull. This links back to the idea of the recording of dialogue being shaped through the context of the character: as the reader does not receive a true answer on whether Cash' face is "empty" or "composed" just as how they would hear Anse's voice to be. The similarity and simultaneous difference between narrations of experience are also shown through the description of Cash' sawing. Cora's simile that "it sound's like snoring" is also adopted by Peabody: "Cash's saw snores steadily" and Darl "the saw begins to snore again." The connection between all these three descriptions make readers notice their differences. The contrasting subjects "it", "Cash's" and "the" highlights Cash' responsibility in this noise, as Peabody is the only one who recognises that the sound ultimately comes from Cash as he is the owner of the Saw. A further echoing narrative of events is echoed in Tull and Darl's description of the river, as Tull's description that the water "was thick [..] only it kind of lived" echoes Darl's narration that "the thick dark current runs. It talks up to us." The parallel use of the word "thick" comments on the fact that each individual's view of reality is not completely juxtaposing, but Darl's adjective "dark" to accompany it creates a more threatening tone than Tull, possibly being a mirror of his own darker consciousness. Moreover, the hesitant anthropomorphism of "kind of lived" compared to a more definite personification of "it talks" confirms Darl's relation to nature as something more alive and threatening than Tull. Overall therefore, the narratives of the same event conform to this idea that reality is on a subjective basis. Although Faulkner suggests individuals see similarities in reality, the clear differences between them suggest that what we see is an echo of our own conscious experience and state of mind. The reader is never able to access an objective view of reality. In this reading, the arguably futile plot is not an issue as the novel is not focused on the plot of a journey to Jefferson but instead, it is centred on reflections on each of the character's experience of reality.

This idea of the novel as based on an individual's experience of reality echoes the conflicting use of tenses and time throughout the novel. R.W Franklin's idea that the narration is "inconsistent" and "faulty", displaying that the novel was written in "great haste" can be countered through the idea that the incoherent tenses reflect Faulkner's focus on the human experience of reality, instead of the plot itself. Faulkner addresses Bergson's distinction of objective and subjective time, in which arguably the novel focuses on subjective, human time throughout. The complex relationship with human time is also shown through Darl's reflection that "since rain and wind are was, it is not" and that "when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be" and that "I do not have a mother [..] Because I had one, as it was. And if it is was, it can't be is". Darl's idea of a clear distinction between past and present is countered in the novel by Faulkner's flexible uses of the two. Faulkner's views himself is seen in the novel as although he agrees with the fictional character of Darl that "There is only the present moment", he goes on to say that that moment includes "both the past and the future". This combination of the two is shown through Vardaman's reflection that "She was under the apple tree and Darl and I go across [..] Dewey tell says [..] then I waited". All characters adopt this switch between present and past in between different sections, and in this way, Faulkner arguably is not showing objective time but subjective time: it represents the intensity or disconnection characters experience with events. Stephen M. Ross' idea that "Faulkner alters literary and grammatical time to achieve phycological verisimilitude" corresponds to a more convincing explanation of the variation of tenses used. For example, Vardaman's incoherence within his passages of past and present tense corresponds not only to a lack of understanding of time, but a sense of disconnection with the event of waiting for Dewey Dell at the abortion clinic (I waited) as he doesn't understand what she is doing. This is echoed in Tull's narration, as different tenses are used to correspond to the proximity he feels to the Bundren family, as he uses past tense when he is not with them: "after they passed I taken the mule out" and present when he is, "we watch the log". The inclusivity he feels is emphasised through the collective pronoun "we". What is most interesting, however, is the correspondence between the present tense title 'As I Lay Dying' and the fact that Addie dies in the middle of the novel. The present tense "I Lay" therefore creates ambiguity with who the speaker. It may reflect all the characters, as well as the reader since when one is alive one is in the process of "dying". It suggests that throughout the novel, the "dying" of the "I" never ceases to exist: they never reach death. It could also convey the intensity of the experience that Addie felt as she "lay dying", and how that overshadows the tone of the novel. Overall, however, Faulkner embraces the ability of language to use tenses to present humanities experience of time, as the past presents a sense of disconnection and the present a more intense experience of reality.

In summary, despite the title 'As I Lay Dying' being an echo of the classical, eventful and purposeful tale of Homer's Odyssey, it is instead an illusion of it. The novel's plot is not the journey to bury Addie, but a study into the characters. Through the novel's inconsistent recording of events and use of time, all the narrative comes back to a reflection on the character whose consciousness it is based around. The fact, as readers, we know we can't believe not only any description or event as objective truth, but anything as truth at all, confronts the nature of fiction. However, this lack of truth in events and reflections of reality does not mean the novel holds no truth at all in it. The novel, through embracing this experimental form, imitates more successfully an accurate representation of the human experience of reality. The stream of consciousness created through different characters demonstrates humanity's subjective view of reality, the inconsistent tenses reflects humanities complex relationship with time, and the unreliability of creating objective truth echoes the fact that ultimately humans are trapped in their own consciousness, and with that, their view of the world. It confronts the fact that there are alternative views of the world, and through Faulkner writing this novel, and us reading it, we can both try to break out of, or expand, our own consciousness.


Useful articles I read after reading the novel:


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