William Faulkner's as I Lay Dying


William Faulkner is a novelist noted for his use of language and for his experimentation with language in his fiction. Point-of-view is of particular importance in Faulkner's works, along with a sense of time, both of which are expressed in the way Faulkner uses language.

A recurring theme involve the way the past impinges on the present or shapes the present by tying the contemporary Southerner to the slave era and to the damages that era caused for the South as a whole. Within a narrative, Faulkner will often show different attitudes toward time and specifically toward the past by whether or not a sequence is written in the usual third person past tense or is written in first person, shifting point-of-view from one character to another, in past tense or in present tense, suggesting the attitude of the individual toward time. That sort of linguistic shift was key in his book the Sound and the Fury, where time and point-of-view were strained for a mentally retarded character, given a past orientation for the member of the family most tied to the past, and given a present tense orientation for the character concerned only with commerce and his own ability to succeed. Shifting points-of-view are also central to understanding the complexities of the novel as I Lay Dying, a book with fifteen narrators and a mixture of time orientations to illustrate character and develop the theme, in this case suggesting a more central role for women in the family and the idea that women are sometimes able to overcome the strictures of time.

In this novel, the shifting points-of-view swirl around the central figure of Addie, the mother, and also the character who dies and so who would be "speaking" the title of the novel. Her importance to her children is the center of the story and is meant to provide an anchor of sorts by which character seeks to find his or her own identity. While family can be said to be central to as I Lay Dying, family must also be seen here as a burden more than a blessing. Addie believes that her father has never loved her, and her new family has served as an escape from the old. Addie also believes her own life has been a failure, though she has one last chance after she dies because her death serves as a means of bringing the family together. Her plan succeeds only slightly, for while the family does what she wants, this does not make the family closer or any more aware of their debt to her for what they are today. Relationships are seen as the central fact of life, though, and even though relationships may not work, they provide the individual with a sense of self and a place in the world. Darl is the only character who achieves an awareness of this and other facts about life, and he ends up in an asylum. This fate for Darl demonstrates Faulkner's pessimistic view of the family.

Cora speaks of Darl's nature as it relates to ddie: "I always said he was the only one of them that had his mother's nature, had any natural affection" (Faulkner 153). Tull speaks of Anse's reference to the dead Addie as if she were still alive and still in charge of the family: AShe=ll want to get started right off... Her mind is set on it (Faulkner 153). Tull further relates the commitment to work with keeping the family together, the task which marked Addie's life:

Worked every day, rain or shine; never a sick day since her last chap was born until one day she kind of looked around her and them... pulled the covers up and shut her eyes. You all will have to look out for pa the best you can, she said. I=m tired (Faulkner 153).

Addie speaks here in a way that shows her to be the center of the family and to realize that fact and to want to see that influence continue even after she dies.

One informed reader of Faulkner who notes how the novelist addressed issues of time was Jean-Paul Sartre, who referred to the way Faulkner treated past and present and states in a work like as I Lay Dying:

The past here gains a surrealistic quality; its outline is hard, clear, and immutable. The indefinable and elusive present is helpless before it; it is full of holes through which past things, fixed, motionless, and silent, invade it. (Tuck xiv)

This vision of the past is developed through its effect on family groups, and Faulkner uses linguistic devices and differing points-of-view to indicate the relationship between past and present showing how much the past still exists in the present.

Albert J. Guerard sees Faulkner as at least partially a misogynist (Guerard 69), though Faulkner's Addie can be seen as being both appealing and off-putting at the same time. Addie's life is a reminder of the secondary place women hold in society at large and how they make up for it, for good or ill, by taking a central place in the family. In Addie's case, she uses violence and anger as a way of making people recognize that she is alive, though in the end she also sees the need to do something else to make it clear that she had existed. Only one section in the novel is actually narrated by Addie, and this section occurs about halfway through the book. It also occurs after Addie has died, which again emphasizes her power as center of the family even after her death. It also makes her a real person instead of just someone about whom others speak, and in her own voice she both reflects much of what has been said about her and counters some of it by explaining her own attitude toward her life. The key to her character may come from what her father told her: "I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time" (Faulkner 169). At this point in the novel and in life, she has finished that struggle and is now dead, adding irony to the words.

Olga Vickery finds that Faulkner's women often have much in common with other non-white-dominant-males in society:

Women, children, and Negroes are not necessarily more limited in mental capacity than other people, but they are more interested, according to Faulkner, in practical affairs and in the non-verbal world of experience. (Vickery 244)

This trait can be discerned in Addie as she considers life after the birth of Cash:

That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don=t ever fit what they are trying to say at... I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride. (Faulkner 171-172)

The multiple points-of-view are seen as confusing by some critics and as a self-defeating technique, but it actually strengthens the focus of the story in several ways:

further focusing effect is achieved by the way in which the relationships within the Bundren family radiate about Addie, the mother, as both their physical and their symbolic core. Addie's powerful personality and the principle of family unity which she embodies have long held the family together and continue so to hold it at least until her body has been buried, and it is entirely natural that she should not only occupy the foreground of the novel throughout but become, in effect, the battlefield on which her husband and her children -- especially Jewel and Darl -- fight out their personal rivalries and antagonisms. (Millgate 107)

Faulkner shows women in this novel to be strong and dedicated to the unity of the family. The focus of Addie is not based on love but on her sense of self and of the need for that self to have an effect on the outside world. Addie wants people aware that she is alive, and she is not aboe using violence to achieve this. Having children is another way of showing this. Their actions will make Addie's presence felt long after she is gone, showing that she succeeds in overcoming time in that sense. Similarly, the South as a whole is tied to its past and the slavery that was its crime. Faulkner fragments time and uses differing points-of-view to fragment perception as well.

One critic sees the novel as "all but defined by its whimsical or grim humor and its suffering characters who are either inarticulate (Jewel), insane (Darl), or sadomasochistic (Addie)" (Merrill 403). Judith Lockyer points out that the value of language is a subtext throughout this novel and that Addie is the one who makes a case against language in her section halfway through the book, while Faulkner argues against her position in his writing at the same time. Lockyer writes,

While Addie is theā€¦