As I Lay Dying

Reading Journal #1 William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying, from Novels 1930-1935 (The Library of America, 1985)

I’m deep-reading and annotating two novels per month and choosing a topic to discuss as a requirement for the University of Tampa MFA program. Since I’m often at a loss (for time) for blog content, it seems like a good idea to post the contents of my reading journal here.

The latest creepy novel I read was Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It struck me as a weird coincidence that I chose this book for the same month as Kiesbye’s Your House Is on Fire. The two have their similarities. I enjoyed Kiesbye’s novel much more than Faulkner’s. Yes, I said it, and it’s true. Some books you keep and read over and over. For me, As I Lay Dying isn’t one of those. Having said that, I did learn an effective and artful technique from Mr. Faulkner for character development. Here’s the spiel, which may not tell you much if you haven’t slogged through the book. (Spoiler Alert)

Topic:

    The Effects of Overlapping Narrators in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: Three examples of how showing the same scene from different points of view adds depth to the narrative.

Darl’s Departure

Excerpt A: Cora, p.17

“What you want, Darl?” Dewey Dell said, not stopping the fan, speaking up

quick, keeping even him from her. He didn’t answer. He just stood and looked at

his dying mother, his heart too full for words.

Excerpt B: Dewey Dell, p.18

“What you want, Darl?” I say.

“She is going to die,” he says. And old turkey-buzzard Tull coming to

watch her die but I can fool them.

“When is she going to die?” I say.

“Before we get back,” he says.

“Then why are you taking Jewel?” I say.

“I want him to help me load,” he says.

Comment:

According to Cora, Darl says nothing, whereas Dewey Dell’s is an account of a telepathic conversation between her and Darl that reveals the intimate nature of their relationship, Darl’s knowledge of Addie’s impending death, and a load of baggage about Dewey Dell’s sexual encounter with Lafe in the ‘secret shade’ of the cotton field, all communicated without spoken words.

Addie’s Death

Excerpt A: Peabody, p. 31

Behind us the girl says, “Paw.” I look at her, at her face.

“You better go quick,” I say.

When we enter the room she is watching the door. She looks at me. Her eyes

look like lamps blaring up just before the oil is gone. “She wants you to go

out,” the girl says.

“Now, Addie,” Anse says, “when he come all the way from Jefferson to git

you well?” She watches me: I can feel her eyes. It’s like she was shoving at me

with them…I leave the room. Beyond the porch Cash’s saw snores steadily into the board. A minute later she calls his name, her voice harsh and strong.

“Cash,” she says; “you, Cash!”

Excerpt B: Darl, p. 32

He [Anse] stoops laying his hand on hers. For a while yet she looks at him, without reproach, without anything at all, as if her eyes alone are listening to the irrevocable cessation of his voice. Then she raises herself, who has not moved in ten days. Dewey Dell leans down, trying to press her back.

“Ma,” she says; “ma.”

She is looking out the window, at Cash stooping steadily at the board in

the failing light, laboring on toward darkness and into it as though the

stroking of the saw illumined its own motion, board and saw engendered.

“You, Cash,” she shouts, her voice harsh, strong, and unimpaired. “You,

Cash!”

He looks up at the gaunt face framed by the window in the twilight. It is

a composite picture of all time since he was a child. He drops the saw and lifts

the board for her to see, watching the window in which the face has not moved.

He drags a second plank into position and slants the two of them into their

final juxtaposition, gesturing toward the ones yet on the ground, shaping with

his empty hand in pantomime the finished box. For a while still she looks down

at him from the composite picture, neither with censure nor approbation. Then

the face disappears.

She lies back and turns her head without so much as glancing at pa. She

looks at Vardaman; her eyes, the life in them, rushing suddenly upon them; the

two flames glare up for a steady instant. Then they go out as though someone had

leaned down and blown upon them.

Comment:

    From Dr. Peabody’s limited and reproachful point of view, his work as physician is finished the moment Addie banishes him from the death room. He is outraged that Anse Bundren waited until it was too late to call him and horrified that Cash would work on Addie’s coffin a stone’s throw from her bedside window.

Darl’s account, despite his physical absence, is full of his perception of the meaning of the scene to everyone present. He appears to know their hearts by the same preternatural power that allows him to see Cash’s reaction to Addie’s voice and the light snuffing from her eyes.

Carrying the Coffin from House to Wagon

Excerpt A: Cash, p.62

It won’t balance. If you want it to tote and ride on a balance, we will have–”

“Pick up. Goddamn you, pick up.”

“I’m telling you it wont tote and it wont ride on a balance unless–”

“Pick up! Pick up!, goddamn your thick-nosed soul to hell, pick up!”

It won’t balance. If they want it to tote and ride on a balance, they will have

Excerpt B: Darl, p.64

We carry it down the hall, our feet harsh and clumsy on the floor, moving

with shuffling steps, and through the door.

“Steady it a minute, now,” pa says, letting go. He turns back to shut and

lock the door, but Jewel will not wait.

“Come on,” he says in that suffocating voice. “Come on.”

We lower it carefully down the steps. We move, Balancing it as though it

were something infinitely precious, our faces averted, breathing through our

teeth to keep our nostrils closed. We go down the path, toward the slope.

“We better wait,” Cash says. “I tell you it aint balanced now. We’ll need

another hand on that hill.”

“Then turn loose,” Jewel says. He will not stop. Cash begins to fall

behind, hobbling to keep up, breathing harshly; then he is distanced and Jewel

carries the entire front end alone, so that, tilting as the path begins to

slant, it begins to rush away from me and slip down the air like a sled upon

invisible snow, smoothly evacuating atmosphere in which the sense of it is still

shaped.

“Wait, Jewel,” I say. But he will not wait. He is almost running now and

Cash is left behind. It seems to me that the end which I now carry alone has no

weight, as though it coasts like a rushing straw upon the furious tide of

Jewel’s despair. I am not even touching it when, turning, he lets it overshoot

him, swinging, and stops it and sloughs it into the wagon bed in the same motion

and looks back at me, his face suffused with fury and despair.

“Goddamn you. Goddamn you.”

Comment:

As he does in the one previous instance of his narration on page 53, Cash states the bare physical facts of the situation. He is establishing that he warned the others of the imbalanced state of the coffin, and that they ignored him. This short section under Cash’s name ends abruptly, mid-sentence, as though once the coffin passed the tipping point and fell, he simply moved on to the next problem to solve. This chapter reveals Cash’s mind as logical and methodical—in no hurry to rush to conclusions and unable to understand why others act rashly. He doesn’t comment on Jewel’s swearing, only on the inevitability of his prediction that his mother’s carefully crafted coffin “won’t balance.” Cash makes the point that the coffin is unbalanced because Addie’s body was wrongfully placed upside-down in the box to avoid crushing her dress. Perhaps he is upset and expressing it in the only way he can, by calmly stating one more fact.

Though in Darl’s account, he urges Jewel to wait, Cash isn’t aware of Darl’s attempt to help, only of Jewel’s angry impatience. It isn’t in Cash to think of the details Darl shows in his account of the same event.

 

The Takeaway:

Like the differently colored lenses of cinema 3-D glasses, each scene with narrator overlap creates depth. Faulkner’s maddening head hopping is the price we readers pay for such profound character development. By the end of the novel, we know each of the characters more thoroughly than some of our own family members.

In my opinion, Faulkner’s relentless changes of point of view were too much to endure for enjoyment alone. However, a deeper reading reveals the art beneath the confusion. I suppose there is no requirement for great art to be easily accessible, and I found this revered novel nearly unintelligible on the first reading. It was during a second trip down the road and across the river with Faulkner that I gained an understanding of the nature of each of the characters and their relationships.