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Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying 98

3.0. Preliminaries
As I Lay Dying, originally published in 1930 has been acclaimed as

one of the greatest novels as well as a self-proclaimed "tour de force"

by Faulkner himself It is one of the most vivid testaments to the power

of his new style. Few novels in fact, penetrate into the depths of the

human psyche as effectively as William Faulkner's novel As I Lay

Dying. It is told in stream-of-conscious fashion by fifteen different

speakers in 59 chapters. It not only reflects the religious and moral

values of a family torn by the death of its matriarch, but it shows the

innermost thoughts and feelings, suspended in a timeless setting where

past, present, and fiiture fuse together to create a journey, an odyssey in

which there is one destination, but many different routes. Above all, this

novel is about how the conflicting and individual problems of a family

tear it apart.

It presents the physically, emotionally, and psychologically stressful

funeral journey that takes place in the novel; the Bundren family

traveling in isolation, torn apart by broken-down values, selfish motives,

and silently bred grief in their attempt to complete the journey.

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying 99

3.1. Plot Overview

3-1-l.Addie's Death

As I Lay Dying chronicles the dark, comic story of a Mississippi

family's long journey to bury Addie, the family's mother. Respecting

Addie's request to be buried in her family's burial ground in Jefferson,

Anse Bundren and his five children disregard the advice of friends and

neighbors and start a forty-mile, nine-day journey.

The story of the journey is presented by a variety of narrators:

family members, friends, acquaintances, and objective onlookers. Each

narrator provides a different perspective on individuals and events.

When the novel begins, Addie is on her deathbed. Outside her

bedroom window. Cash slowly and meticulously builds her coffin. On

the front porch, Jewel and Darl confer with their father about taking a

job to make a bit of money. Anse reminds his sons of his promise to

their mother but agrees to let them go, even though he knows that Addie

may die before they return.

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying 100

When Peabody, the local doctor, is finally summoned to the

Bundren home, he predicts that it will be too late to do anything for

Addie. Sure enough, she dies shortly after Peabody's arrival at the

Bundren farm. After sending Dewey Dell away to prepare supper, Anse

stands over his dead wife, listens to the sound of Cash's saw as he works

on the coffin, and says: "God's will be done. Now I can get them teeth."

3.1.2.The Journey Begins _ ,. „ „

Cash finishes the coffin later that night in the pouring rain. Addie is

kept in the coffin for three days before Darl and Jewel return home with

the wagon. On the first day, when the family wakes finds that Vardaman

has bored the top of the coffin fiill of holes — two of which bored

straight through Addie's face.

By the time the family finally gets the coffin on the wagon, the

bridge to town has been washed away by heavy rains, adding several

days to their journey. Jewel, refiising to travel with the family, follows

some distance behind on his beloved horse.

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^101

Just before sundown they complete the first eight miles of their

journey. They spend the night in a neighbor's bam and start off again

early the next morning, trying to find a bridge that has not been

completely destroyed by a recent storm. They finally find one near

Vernon Tull's farm.

After consideration, it is decided that Anse, Dewey Dell, Vardaman,

and Vernon TuU will walk across the remains of the bridge and that

Cash and Darl will lead the wagon across the river at the ford. Jewel

crosses ahead of them on his horse. Halfway across the bridge, the

wagon is hit by a floating log and is dragged off by the current. The

wagon and Addie's coffin are recovered, but the mules drown and Cash

breaks his leg.

The narrative action pauses as Addie narrates a section in the novel.

She describes her youth, her miserable life as a schoolteacher, and her

decision to marry Anse. Unfortunately, her marriage is an unhappy one.

After giving birth to Cash, she suffered from depression; after

giving birth to her second son, Darl, she makes Anse promise to bury

her in Jefferson when she dies. Her revenge, she says, would be that
Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^102

Anse would never know that she was taking revenge. Addie also reveals

her secret affair with Reverend Whitfield — a union that produced

Addie's favorite child. Jewel.

3.1.3. From Bad to Worse

After the disastrous river crossing, the Bundrens spend the night at

Armstid's farm. In the morning, Anse rides off on Jewel's horse to

purchase a team of mules. During his absence, the heat intensifies the

already putrid stench of Addie's corpse.

When Anse finally returns, he announces that he has traded Jewel's

horse for a team of mules. The family's journey resumes the next

morning with Cash lying on a pallet placed atop Addie's coffin.

Like Anse, Dewey Dell has personal reasons for wanting to go to

town. She is pregnant and her boyfiriend, Lafe, has told her that she

would be able to "get something at the drugstore" to induce an abortion.

When the procession passes through the town of Mottson, Dewey Dell

speaks to the druggist but is told that she will not get what she wants in

his store.
Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^103

Meanwhile, Darl buys cement for Cash's leg at a hardware store.

Anse, waiting outside in the wagon, is told by the town marshal that he

will have to leave town. After eight days in the stifling heat, Addie's

body is endangering the public health.

The family leaves town, stopping briefly to apply fresh cement on

Cash's broken leg. Jewel, who disappeared after Anse traded his horse,

reappears and rejoins the family.

They spend the last night of their journey on a farm belonging to

Mr. Gillespie. During the night, Darl sets fire to the bam and Jewel's

back is burned rescuing the coffin from the flames.

When Gillespie discovers that it was Darl who set the fire, he

threatens to sue unless Darl is committed to the mental institution in

Jackson. Cash thinks that Darl "done right in a way," trying to get Addie

"outen our hands," but decides that it does not excuse setting fire to a

man's bam and endangering his property.

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^104

3.1.4. Journey's End and a New Beginning

As they arrive in Jefferson the next day, Anse finally concedes that

they will have to find a doctor for Cash's infected leg. But first, they

bury Addie. Anse borrows a couple of spades on the way to the

cemetery and — nine days after Addie's death — finally lays his wife to

rest in her family plot. As they leave the cemetery, Darl is jumped by

Dewey Dell and Jewel and handed over to the men waiting to take him

to the mental institution in Jackson.

When Cash finally gets to the doctor, Peabody cannot believe that

Anse treated his son's broken leg with raw cement. Shocked at the

damage they have done to him, the doctor wonders why Anse simply

didn't bring Cash to the nearest sawmill and stick his leg in the saw.

Meanwhile, Dewey Dell finds another drugstore. After requesting

something that will terminate her pregnancy, she is given a box of

useless capsules by the drugstore clerk. The deceitful clerk proceeds to

seduce her. The next morning, Anse disappears only to reappear with a

new set of teeth and a new Mrs. Bundren — a local woman who loaned

him the tools to bury Addie.

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying 105

3.2. Analysis oi As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying has no fixed narrator, and is instead composed of a

number of different protagonists' successive interior monologues, the

performance of a character's iimer thoughts and feelings. Each voice is

subjective, shaped by the particular character's views and perceptions,

but also makes factual observations about events, moving the story

along in a continuous narrative. While some characters, particularly

Darl, narrate in a straightforward storytelling, others, such as Cora and

Jewel, express their thoughts in a confused and contradictory jumble.

We have no objective narrator who can reveal the truth .When the

various voices present the same character or event in different lights, we

have to make decisions about which voice to trust. Faulkner's approach

is challenging, but by employing a narrative in which events are

described, judged, and interpreted from different perspectives, he is able

to probe his characters' minds deeply. We are not passive observers of

dialogue and events; rather, we experience the characters as they

experience themselves. In Faulkner's world, what a character thinks is

frequently more relevant to the story than what a character says.

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying 106

Faulkner helps us to get a grasp on his characters by associating

them with objects: before we meet Tull, we encounter his wagon; before

we hear Cash speak, we hear the roar of his saw and, of course, before

we meet Addie, we see her coffin being assembled. These objects come

to stand for the individuals themselves, as symbols of, and clues to, their

respective identities. For example Addie's coffin signals that her

primary role in the novel is played out in her death. We also learn fi-om

what the characters do not say. When Darl comes upon Cash, they

exchange no words. This tendency toward mute interaction which is

certainly not limited to Darl and Cash, demonstrates how thoroughly the

characters in As I Lay Dying are cut offfi"omeach other. Again, the use

of multiple points of view underscores this separation, with the

characters so isolated from each other that even their thoughts cannot be


In sections 7 to 12 with the introduction of several new voices, the

narrative becomes more complex and stylized, and we begin to see

identical events through the voices of various characters. Because Darl

appears sofi-equentlyas a narrator, and because his voice has the fewest

peculiarities, his story begins to overpower those of the other narrators.

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^107

Indeed, Darl's mode of speech is more similar to Faulkner's prose style

in other novels, and it is tempting to consider Darl's point of view to be

Faulkner's. Further supporting this suggestion, Darl is chosen to narrate

Addie's death even though he is not present when it happens. Exactly

how Darl knows what is going on back at the house remains a mystery,

but his omniscience puts the role of narrator on his shoulders, at least


In some sections, especially in sections 34 to 39, verb tenses change

frequently as each character tells his or her version of the river-crossing

in either the present or the past tense. One of the frinctions of this

technique is to separate the immediacy of the Bundrens' involvement

with their plight from the detachment that Cora and Tull experience as

observers who are not particularly invested in the Bundrens' problems.

While the Bundrens generally narrate in the present tense, Cora and

Vernon Tull usually give their monologues in the past tense. The past

tense gives Cora and Tull an air of careftil consideration, as if they have

had some time to consider and evaluate the entire story before telling it

with calmness, rationality, and balance. The Bundrens, on the other

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^108

hand, do not have the luxury of reflection, as they are trapped in a

confusing world that allows time only for frantic explanations.

The sudden introduction of Addie's voice into the narrative is

puzzling, and, like Darl's strange ability early in the novel to know what

is happening at home even though he is not there, Addie's monologue

defies logical explanation. It is, however, quite well placed, and

provides us with more perspective on the characters.

As it is narrated in final sections, Anse's brief stay in Jefferson

culminating in a second marriage happens so quickly and it is almost

comic. Anse embodies the contrast between high seriousness and cheap

farce, and his status represents the contradictions that permeate the

narrative. These contradictions underscore the novel's key idea that

there is no absolute perception of reality, and that one person's pain is

another's comedy. The differing reactions to Darl's removal serve as a

last reminder that even the most cataclysmic events do not set off a

universal reaction, and that events are shaped entirely by the perspective

and experience of the person witnessing them.

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying 109

3.3. Elements of Modernism in the Novel

3.3.1. Multiple Narrations

Perhaps the most audacious among the technical innovations of

Faulkner is his use of the multiplicity of voices. There are fifteen

different narrators who serve to orchestrate the fifty-nine divided

sections into a workable pattern of meaning. These narrators work not

only to move the action of the novel forward but also participate as

characters in the main action of the novel that is the funeral journey of

the Bundren family. Each of the sections headed by the name of the

narrator reveals information about the characters, actions, and events of

the novel. However the information provided is not enough and often

conflicting so that the reader experiences extreme difficulty in obtaining

a clear picture of what is going on. The reader, for instance, is not able

to understand what should be considered the crucial part of the story and

the motivations behind. Addie's last wish of being buried in her native

land's graveyard at Jefferson forty miles away and her important

relationship to her husband and children are not clear until her only

section, apparently narrated after her death.

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^110

Thus Faulkner's multipersonal narration in As I Lay Dying seems to

share the modernist's characteristics in a more radical way. However,

Faulkner's management of the polyphonic narrative strategies, on closer

look, takes on quite a different aspect, which can hardly be explained

through the European cosmopolitan paradigm of modernism. As a

matter of fact, the technique of multipersonal presentation, as Erlich

Auerbach (1993,136) explains in Mimesis, was originally devised as "an

attempt to approach (inner) reality from many sides as closely as human

possibilities of perception can succeed in doing so". The emergence of

this narrative technique coincided with the sense of the disintegration of

the stable social order and the strong doubts about an objective reality

after World War I.

In its broadest terms, the structure of As I Lay Dying revolves

round the actual journey from the Bundren farm to a town forty miles

away in order to bury Addie Bundren. During the journey, several

difficulties are encountered. So, in one sense, the novel has a linear

structure based upon the movement of the funeral procession

traveling the forty miles from the Bundren farm to Jefferson. But the

novel is also structured in such a way that the author has virtually
Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^111

removed himself from the story. He allows his characters to tell their

own story.

By using a different narrator for each section, Faulkner

accomplishes many things. First, he allows or forces the reader to

participate in the story. Since Faulkner has removed himself from the

story, he doesn't use a straight narrative technique to explain certain

aspects. Thus, we must enter more directly into the story and

determine for ourselves the exact nature of each relationship or the

significance of any particular event.

Secondly, the multiple narrations technique allows us to know

the inner thoughts of all the characters. We see the mind of each

character directly and must analyze what we find there. Faulkner, as

author, has not told us anything about the characters. He has simply

presented them and we must examine their inner thoughts and

determine for ourselves what types of characters they are.

Thirdly, we are able to see each event from multiple perspectives.

For example, when the coffin is lost in the river, we have several

narrations which allow us to see the same event from many different

vantage points. Darl gives his own narration of the loss of the coffin;
Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^112

from Vardaman, we hear of his mother being a fish swimming in the

river; from Cash, we hear that the coffin was not on a balance; and

from Anse, we hear that this is just one more burden we must endure

before he can get his false teeth.

Therefore, with the multiple narration of each event, we see that

event from many angles and observe what type of emphasis each

character puts on that event; by this technique, we learn more about

the character. Thus, in general, the structure of the novel allows us to

become a part of the narration by drawing us more intimately into the


But Faulkner has also included some narrators who are not

Bundrens. These narrators help to bring a touch of objectivity to the

novel. Without the outside narrators, we might become too involved

in the unusual Bundren world. Faulkner is therefore careful to

include outside narrators to remind us that the Bundrens are not

typical people. For example, if the story were confined solely to the

Bundrens, we might not realize that this dead body stinks so badly

and that the Bundrens are violating all sense of decency by carrying

the body over the countryside. Thus, the outside narrators give us a
Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^113

touch of the real world by which we can measure our reactions to the


3.3.2. Stream-of-Consciousness in the novel

Faulkner uses stream-of-consciousness in many of the sections of

the novel. This technique is one whereby the author writes as if he is

inside the mind of the characters. Since the ordinary person's mind

jumps from one event to another, stream-of-consciousness tries to

capture this phenomenon. Thus in many sections of As I Lay Dying

notably in the Vardaman and Darl sections, everything is presented

through an apparently unorganized succession of images.

In fact, stream of consciousness extensive use was directly linked

to the consequent shift of the writer's concern from the meaningless

outer social reality to the innermost self In Woolf s The Waves, for

example, where the multiplicity of narrating voices is used as in As I

Lay Dying, each monologue serves primarily to reveal the innermost

self of the narrator which is complemented by the thoughts of each one

about the other five narrators. This is not the case with As I Lay Dying.

Here Faulkner is concerned not so much with exploring the inner reality
Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^114

of his characters, their emotions or thoughts. Faulkner seldom goes

down into his character's fluid unconscious mind as Woolf or Joyce

does. Even Darl's monologues, which seem closest to stream-of-

consciousness passages, seldom suggest the workings of the

unconscious mind; when he is intensely preoccupied with his own

thoughts, he always looks out at the world around him. As a result, his

thoughts always sound objective, and even detached from his own mind.

Of course, it cannot be denied that the narrators of As I Lay Dying

possess their own distinct identities, each with his own self-centered

demands and obsessions. Although they are connected with each other

as family members or neighbors participating in the communal funeral

ritual, each often appears to be closed off in his or her own secret and

selfish thought and hardly able to communicate with the others.

Each of the fifty-nine sections in this novel, therefore,

represents the inner thought of the character who is narrating the

section. This technique reflects the twentieth-century development,

research, and interest in the psychology and the inner thoughts of

people. As a technique, stream-of-consciousness was popularized by

James Joyce and Virginia Woolf But Faulkner's use of this

Chapter Three: Ekments of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^115

technique is probably the most successful and outstanding use that

we have yet had. Even while using this technique, Faulkner varies it

enough to capture the essence of each character.

Darl is the most complicated character in the novel, and so his

sections reflect a mind that is contemplating the intricacies of life.

The style is more complicated and the presentation is essentially

through poetic imagery. From Darl we receive the views of the other

characters that penetrate into the heart of that character. And these

views are often expressed with a sensitive eye for detail. Thus Darl's

monologues are complicated and the most difficult to penetrate.

Because Darl is the most complex character, his thought process is

the most involved.

Cash's monologues are quite different. Cash can think of only

one thing at a time. While he is building the coffin, he can realize no

other concept. Therefore, his narration is exceptionally simple and is

captured in the section where he lists in thirteen steps exactly how he

is building the coffin. Thus, whereas Darl's narration was

complicated. Cash's is extremely simplified because Cash can handle

only one thought at one time.

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^116

With Vardaman, we have another type of difficulty. Faulkner

wanted to show us the confused mind of a boy. In order to convince

the reader that Vardaman was able to confuse his mother with a fish,

Faulkner had to show a mind that jumped from one thought to

another. There are no difficult words because the mind of a boy like

Vardaman would naturally be simple. But the sections are not

simple. Since this mind does not function logically, Faulkner records

the mind's thinking in terms of basic images. For the most part, these

images involve the death of the fish, the death of his mother, being

caught in a bam, and being unable to breathe. Gradually these

associations are made into one image with the resultant statement by

Vardaman: "My mother is a fish." Thus Faulkner has achieved a

stylistic success by suggesting the functioning within the mind of an

illogical person but has still brought enough order to that mind so

that the reader can follow his thoughts.

Addie's monologue is narrated in terse and expository prose

because Addie is a person who has tried to solve some of the basic

problems of life and has failed. Therefore, she tends only to state her
Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^117

views in ratlier direct terms, especially since she maintains that

words are useless.

Anse's monologues reveal the hypocrisy of the man and

furthermore comically reveal how he has deluded himself into

thinking himself sincere. He narrates his sections rather simply and

in a chronological order because he is not concerned with anything

except that which affects his own person.

Therefore, Faulkner adjusts his style of stream-of-consciousness

to fit the mind of each individual narrator. From Darl's poetic

observation to Vardaman's confused associations to Cash's literal-

mindedness, Faulkner's style shifts in order to lend additional

support to his subject matter.

3.3.3. The Blurring of Distinction between Genres; Tragedy

and Comedy

As I Lay Dying is strongly funny. However it contains certain scenes

that evoke feelings of disgust, sadness, and sympathy. This unsettling

combination of humorous and tragic elements has been the focus of

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying 118

much of the criticism of the novel. With some critics arguing that

Faulkner's tale is a tragedy, others perceive it as a comedy. However,

this debate just shows how the novel has defied and resisted any attempt

to impose reductive explanations or categorizations and lead us to see

the novel as a modernist writing as the distinction between tragedy and

comedy is blurred in it.

The basic plot of the novel is, without question, tragic. A dying

mother, lying on her deathbed, watches her eldest son builds her coffin

just outside her bedroom window. After she dies, her husband and five

children load her corpse onto a mule-driven wagon. They travel in the

summer heat for nine days, hoping to bury her in her family's burial

ground. Along the way, the mules drown, one son breaks a leg, one goes

mad, the daughter is taken advantage of by a lecherous drugstore clerk,

and the widowed husband, having stolen his children's money and

traded his son's horse , buys himself a new set of teeth, remarries, and

obtains a record player. Despite these tragic elements, the story exhibits

traces of humor as well as pathos.

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying 119

One of the critics to deny the humorous elements of the novel is

Robert Merrill (1994, 12). He states that "The comic moments in the

book are, genuinely amusing, but they almost always merge with events

of a truly compelling terrible-ness". In short, he describes As I Lay

Dying as "Faulknerian tragedy in its most radical and original form."

On the other hand, Patricia R. Schroeder (1986,64) emphasizes the

novel's humorous elements, contending that Faulkner's grotesque and

black humor contribute to a comic framework .Schroeder views the

novel as comedy that is the "inverse of tragedy: it affirms life in the face

of death."

Schroeder also discusses the novel in relation to the "frustrated funeral,"

a type of Southwestern story that used humor to reduce death to comic

and manageable proportions. The end of the novel is a modem example

of the comic vision: "a vision capable of presenting the necessary

darkness of human travail and then celebrating man's ability to

overcome it."(Ibid) When the Bundrens begin their journey home, they

do so with a new team of mules, a new set of teeth for Anse, a new wife

and mother, and Dewey Dell's yet unborn child. Schroeder suggests.
Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As ILay Dying ^120

that "even when confronted with the death of an individual, life will


Although Merrill underscores the novel's tragic aspects, he does

acknowledge that As I Lay Dying contains many memorable comic

moments. He also observes that many of these humorous moments

result from the removed position of the non-Bundren narrators.

Indeed, many of the novel's fiinniest moments are found within the

sections told by Samson, Moseley and Peabody. When Moseley

describes the arrival of the family in Mottson, for example, his

"version" of the journey reveals what the Bundrens themselves refuse to

admit: "It had been dead eight days," he says: "It must have been like a

piece of rotten cheese coming into an ant-hill." Peabody's opinions of

Anse are equally amusing. Examining Cash's broken and badly infected

leg, he says: "/ be damned if the man that'd let Anse Bundren treat him

with raw cement ain't got more spare legs than I have." "God

Almighty," He continues: "why didn't Anse carry you to the nearest

sawmill and stick your leg in the saw? That would have cured it. Then
Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^121

you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole

family, "(p. 127)

The final section in particular — when Anse introduces the new

Mrs. Bundren to his children — utilizes humor to underscore the

outrageous nature of the situation. Underlying this humor is the pain and

unsettling knowledge of what occurred in the sections leading up to this

absurd ending: the brutal betrayal of Darl, news of Cash's serious injury,

Dewey Dell's physical abuse, and Addie's final, humiliating journey.

The introduction of the new Mrs. Bundren provides one of the biggest

laughs in the novel .However such an ending hardly seems like a

celebration of life's victory over death. Instead, this scene, like almost

all of the novel's funny moments, produces an awkward laughter that is

tinged with anguish and remorse.

As a result, it can be said that As I Lay Dying as a novel where the

boundaries between tragedy and comedy are mixed so that their

separation is strictly difficult is the representative of the modernist novel

in which the blurring of distinction between genres is attempted by the

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^122

3.3.4. As I Lay Dying As a Southern Modernist Novel

Most ftiodemist writers at the time of Faulkner such as EUot and

Joyce presented their works inspired by high metropoUtan culture and

cosmopolitan sensibilities. Disengaged from the net of their native

places and provincial cultures, modernist writers including such

acclaimed American writers as Fitzgerald and Hemingway have pursued

autonomous art with little national or regional ethos. As Malcolm

Cowley has described in Exile's Return, the modernist writers belonging

to the Lost Generation were "homeless citizens of the world , adhering

to a theory of art which held that the creative artist is absolutely

independent of all localities, nations, or classes"(Cowley 206). Against

this trend which emphasized the self-imposed exile from one's native

soil Faulkner decided to turn back from the cosmopolitan and urban

cities like New Orleans to his own little land. As I Lay Dying is his

answer to this particular challenge.lt is a product of his eagerness to

demonstrate that his Yoknapatawpha was as resourcefiil mine as Eliot's

London, Joyce's Dublin, or Hemingway's Paris.

In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner dealt with the decadent

aristocratic class of Yoknapatawpha , and now he wanted to go down

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^123

the social scale to the poor whites, stretching his fictional realm and

displaying his versatility. Faulkner came to understand Southern culture

more deeply and open his eyes to the richness of its cultural capital,

especially the Southern storytelling tradition kept alive largely through

the South's historical narratives about the lost past .What is interesting

is that Faulkner rediscovers southernism not despite modernist art,

but through it, and succeeds in forging his own version of a great

"local" art.

To sum up, As I Lay Dying marks the emergence of Faulkner's

unique aesthetic of Southern modernism, which, initially inspired by

Joyce or Eliot, comes to formulate itself in the process of the vital

confrontation between the experimental and the traditional features of


3.3.5. As I Lay Dying As a Cubist Novel

During the past three decades, several critics have recognized

correspondences between Faulkner's writing and the visual arts. They

have examined the influence of painting on Faulkner's work. Such

critics have explored the influence of cubism on Faulkner. And more

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^124

recently, some of them have noted the surrealistic qualities in Faulkner's


Faulkner's acquaintance with cubism is well documented by his

biographers. According to Joseph Blotner, Faulkner went to Paris in

1925 and stayed near the Luxembourg museum. During the stay

Faulkner saw many contemporary paintings of Manet, Picasso, Matisse,

and Cezanne. Faulkner's admiration of Cezanne is well expressed in his

letters to his mother. As several critics have noted, Faulkner's As I Lay

Dying shows a number of similarities to cubist art. In her essay

"Faulkner's Cubist Novels," Broughton claims that As I Lay Dying is the

"quintessential cubist novel" (93). He observes: "Repeating geometric

designs, lines and circles, verticals and horizontals, Faulkner actually

facets, like a cubist painting, the design of this book. That is why it is so

difficult to speak of theme in As I Lay Dying. Here we have a work of

fiction that comes remarkably close to being an exercise in pure design,

a true tour de force, a cubist novel" (93).

Faulkner's text clearly manifests various cubist techniques ~

collage, flattening, multiple perspectives, fragmentation, and passage of

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^125

planes. Cubist painters, such as Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, and Braque,

abandoning the traditional single point of view, often presented a

number of different perspectives of the same object or person on a flat

plane. Cezanne's early cubist painting Still Life: Basket of Apples (1890)

is a good example of multiple points of view. Faulkner's use of fifteen

narrators in As I Lay Dying is the most significant instance of his use of

cubist multiple points of view. We can find another instance in the very

first pages of the story. Although Jewel is behind him, Darl describes

Jewel as if he can see him:

Jewel and I come upfront the field, following the path in single file.

. . . The cotton house is of rough logs. . . . When we reach it I turn and

follow the path which circles the house. Jewel, fiifteen feet behind me,

looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window. Still

staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face,

he crosses thefioor in four strides. (AIL D,pp:l-2)

Structurally, As I Lay Dying is a literary collage of fifty-nine

fi-agmented chapters. Faulkner's other uses of the technique of collage

are obvious in Darl's narrative sections: Darl describes Vardaman's face

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^126

as "fading into the dusk like a piece of paper pasted on a failing wall"

(p.49), compares Jewel's horse to "a patchwork quilt hung on a line"

(p. 162), and depicts Jewel's eyes as looking "like spots of white paper

pasted on a high small football" (p.213).

Faulkner's direct reference to cubism occurs in Darl's bam burning


"The front, the conical facade with the square orifice of doorway

broken only by the square squat shape of the coffin on the sawhorses

like a cubist bug, comes into relief (p.219)

This description, Watson Branch (1973,117) claims, "creates a

cubist painting by reducing the three-dimensional bam to geometric

shapes ~ conical and square ~ flattened to the two dimensional surface

of the facade with the coffin and sawhorses brought up to the plane of

the emntv doorway".

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^127

3.3.6. Surrealist Elements in the Novel

In her essay "Faulkner as Surrealist: The Persistence of Memory in

Light in August," Eileen T. Bender (1985,51) speculates that Faulkner,

"who was a gifted amateur .watercolorist and illustrator himself, may

well have been aware of the controversy surrounding the first American

exhibition of surrealist art in Hartford, and the gift of Salvador Dali's

famous painting" .

Although, there is no biographical evidence which shows his

familiarity with surrealism, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying nevertheless

shows a number of surrealist verbal and visual touches. Like other

artistic movements at that time, surrealism's intention was to find new

ways of expression. In his first "Manifesto of Surrealism" (1924, 6),

Andre Breton, the acknowledged leader of surrealism, levels a serious

charge against realism. He considers the "realistic attitude" to be

"hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement". Breton then

continues: "I loathe it [realism], for it is made up of mediocrity, hate,

and dull conceit. ". Breton influenced by Freud's theories, privileges

automatic writing and the dream. According to Breton, it was a dreamed

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^128

or imagined scene, or a visual hallucination, of "a man cut in two by the

window" that inspired his subsequent exploration of the relation

between poetic production and unconscious thought. The surrealists'

goal was to release the unconscious from the constraints and limitations

of conscious reason and logic. Breton defines surrealism and continues

"Surrealism is base on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms

of previously neglected associations. It tends to ruin once and for all, all

other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all

the principal problems of life. (Ibid, 26)

Breton gives a new importance to the neglected dimensions of life

like dreams, fantasies, fixations, mental disorders, and hallucinations.

Faulkner's As I Lay Dying manifests many typical features of surrealism

which emphasizes the role of the unconsciousniess and the forces of

desire. For instance in the text, we find that several characters'

unaccountable actions and fantasies are the results of their unconscious

desires. As some critics have noted, Addie Bundren is the emotional and

psychological center of the novel. In "Spatial Form in Faulkner's As I

Lay Dying,'' Betty AUdredge claims that "the presentation of Addie is

not directly related to the action taking place in the narrative. . . .

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As 1 Lay Dying ^129

However, it is Addie who is at the root of the psychological problems in

her children, and it is her ^eath which is the catalyst for the action of the

narrative". Faulkner's text is "intensely concerned with the matter of

closeness and separation in the relationship of mother and child" (Ibid,

21). Jewel's strange relationship with his horse clearly shows that the

horse is the displaced object of his unconscious desire for his mother.

Darl sees Jewel "caressing, cursing the horse with obscene ferocity"

(AILD, p. 12). According to Andre Bleikasten, "Jewel's obsessive

fixation on his horse is incestuous: He never leaves it, even sleeps with

it, and permits no one except himself to take care of it. Darl identifies

the treasured animal as a mother surrogate.'This strange transference is

obviously a defense mechanism indicative of the incestuous nature of

Jewel's love for his mother" (IJ)fd, 92-3). Jewel's unconscious desire for

Addie is made far more explicit in his Oedipal fantasy. His fantasy of

sole possession of mother is represented in vivid visual images. Darl


It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks

down the hill at their faces, picking them up and throwing them down

the hill faces and teeth and all by God until she was quiet and not that
Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^130

goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet,

(p. 15)

Faulkner's text abounds with dreamlike images and resembles a

confused dream itself. For instance, Addie's monologue section, which

is often regarded as her posthumous reminiscence or postmortem

autobiography, is written as if she was still alive, but placed after her

death. This section disrupts the novel's chronological order. Darl's

narrative sections are marked by a dreamlike quality too. In the opening

chapter, he views himselffi^omabove. And later, when he is on the train

to Jackson, he describes himself in the third person:

"Darl has gone to Jackson. They put him on the train, laughing,

down the long car laughing, the heads turning like the heads of owls

when he passed" (p. 253).

Darl's extra-sensory vision and perception allow him to penetrate

the minds of other people. He knows that Jewel is not Anse's son and

that his sister Dewey Dell is pregnant. Vernon Tull says: "He [Darl] is

looking at me. . . . It's like he had got into the inside of you, someway.

Like somehow you was looking at yourself and your doing outen his
Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^131

eyes" (125). Darl even describes events and scenes which he has not

witnessed. For example, he depicts Addie's death scene which takes

place in his absence. Darl's language also has the dreamlike texture. In

the bam burning scene, he says that : ""Jewel and Gillespie are like two

figures '" '^ Greek frieze, isolated out of all reality by the red glare"


Such passages in Darl's sections contribute to render the novel its

dreamlike quality; as Bleikasten notes: "Almost every time Darl starts

speaking, reality is transmuted: space begins to waver, the scenery takes

on a disturbing life of its own, and everything stands out against an

indistinct and shifting background with the strange clear-cut quality and

fierce colors of a bad dream. "(Ibid, 61)

The surrealist, nightmarish imageries also appear at several points in

the text. The Bundrens, for instance, attempt to ease Cash's pain by

encasing his broken leg in cement. Later, Vardaman talks about Cash's

decaying leg: "Cash's leg and foot turned black. We held the lamp and

looked at Cash's foot and leg where it was black. 'Your foot looks like a

nigger's foot, Cash,' I said" (p. 224).

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying 132

The Bimdrens are blind to the reality of the smelling, rotting corpse

and continue their funeral journey to Jefferson with the coffin in a

wagon, followed by a number of buzzards. The most horrible, bizarre

scene occurs when Vardaman drills holes in his mother's coffin (and

inadvertently into her face), so that she might breathe. Like those of

surrealist paintings, such images or scenes are irrational and grotesque.

We can also find in the text the surrealist or double images that

show an ambiguous picture which represents several different images at

the same time. In As I Lay Dying, Addie is portrayed in various images.

In the novel's shortest chapter, Vardaman states: "iVfy mother is a fish"

(p.84).Later, Darl makes a similar statement that "Jewel's mother is a

horse" (p. 101).

Darl and Vardaman express their inner realities through these vivid

pictorial images. Like a figure in Dali's double or simultaneous painting,

Addie is a woman and, at the same time, a fish and a horse. As in

surrealist works of art, the world of the Bundrens is an absurdly

disturbing world which blurs and breaks down the boundaries between
Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^133

reality and dream, life and death, human and animal, comedy and

tragedy, sanity and insanity, and natural and supernatural.

3.3.7. Modernist Approach Towards Language

What has not been strongly considered in Faulkner's writing is the

intricate relationship between his reliance on the visual and his skeptical

view of language. Here, an attempt is made to examine Faulkner's use

of the visual within the broader context of the modernist perception of


Faulkner and other High Modernist writers such as Joyce, Stein,

Eliot and Woolf experimented with narrative techniques, stream-of-

consciousness, interior monologue, montage, and collage presentation.

In addition to these technical innovations, the modernist writers also

deliberately questioned and challenged the traditional notion of

language as a transparent representational medium. Incidentally, at the

same time the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who is known as

the founder of the modem linguistics and structuralism,, was formulating

a theory which would consolidate the modernists' new perception of

language. Saussure's influential Cours de linguistique generate (1916),

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying 134

the transcription by his students of lectures offered at the university of

Geneva between 1906 and 1911, is one of the most important texts

representing the new attitude toward language. Saussure's basic

principle is that language is a system and the fundamental unit of this

language system is the sign. After defining language as a system of

signs, Saussure emphasizes that the relation between the two

components of the linguistic sign ~ the "signifier" (acoustic image or

speech sound) and the "signified" (the mental concept corresponding to

the verbal sound) ~ is, in principle, utterly arbitrary. For example, there

is no intrinsically necessary connection between the sound image "tree"

and our concept of "tree." What is revolutionary about Saussure's idea

of arbitrariness of the link between signifier and signified is that it

suggests that linguistic meanings, which are "unmotivated" rather than

"natural," are always slipping away and can never be pinned down.

With modernism, the problematic function of language as a verbal

medium becomes a common theme of writers. Faulkner's As I Lay

Dying is also concerned with the problem of an inadequate language.

Faulkner's own attitude toward language is apparent in Addie's famous

indictment of words:
Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^135

And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible

and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned words are

not good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at.

When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone

who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children

didn't care whether there was a word for it or not. (p. 171)

As Wesley Morris argues in "The Irrepressible Real: Jacques Lacan

and Poststructuralism," Addie is a character who "manifests a firm

understanding of Saussure's concept of the 'arbitrary' relationship

between signifiers and signifieds" (p.l 16). For Addie, language is only a

"shape to fill a lack" (AILD,p.l72). Language cannot convey accurately

the meanings of her own experiences such as love, sexuality, marriage,

and motherhood. Addie claims that words are always ineffectual:

And so when Cora Tull would tell me I was not a true mother, I

would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless,

and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after

a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle

from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds
Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^136

that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they

never had and cannot have until they forget the words. (Ibid,pp;l 73-4)

Addie's skeptical view about the representational function of

language is further emphasized by the use of the blank space in the

following passage:

"I would think: The shape of my body where I used to be a virgin is

in the shape of a and I couldn't think Anse, couldn't

remember Anse" (p. 173).

The empty space as a visual signifier represents Addie's

unspeakable experience. Faulkner's own awareness of the limitations of

language is clearly represented in Addie's monologue section.

Faulkner also expands Addie's distrust of words in several other

characters' sections. Darl and Dewey Dell communicate without words;

Addie realizes that 'words are not good'; Vardaman finds he 'couldn't

say it' when he understands that his mother is about to be placed in

coffin; Whitfield 'fi-ames' rather than speaks his confession. In the case

of Vardaman, his incoherent language is impotent to represent meaning.

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^137

Bleikasten finds in Vardaman's monologues "a breakdown of language

of which the most obvious signs are irregularities in spelling ('darl' for

'Darl'), the absence of punctuation and the dislocation of syntax. A riot

of words dash and crash into each other, disappear and appear;

sentences are started and lost, repeated and mixed up, unable to find

their rightful place of order." (p.63)

Faulkner's skeptical attitude towards language is well-reflected in

the characters' relationship with language. In "What Does Addie

Bundren Mean, and How Does She Mean It?", Paul S. Nielsen (1992,_

34) notes that "the language of the novel in general and Addie's

language in particular express deep suspicion and frustration with the

referentiality of all language".

To sum up, Faulkner's extensive use of the visual as a privileged

mode of expression is closely related to his recognition of the

limitations of language. By employing various images and techniques

borrowed from the visual arts, Faulkner attempts to fill the gaps

between reality and verbal representation.

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^138

3.4. Conclusion

As I Lay Dying, often paired with The Somd and the Fury, has long

been cited as an exemplary modernist text which provides a critical

ground for placing Faulkner along with Eliot, Joyce, and Proust in the

tradition of modernism. This novel challenges traditional literary

conventions in the way that the modernist literary movement of the

1930's sought to do. Faulkner, in "As I Lay Dying" builds upon the

ideas of other High Modernist writers, such as James Joyce and Virginia

Woolf, making him one of the first great authors of modem literature.

Furthermore, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is primarily a visual text.

The novel is full of cubist and surrealist visual images and scenes. His

characters rely heavily on vivid visual or pictorial images to express

their complex irmer logic and perceptions of reality. In addition to his

textual experiments with italics, punctuation, and capitalization,

Faulkner's use of the coffin pictogram and the blank space are also

indicative of his efforts to overcome the inadequacy of language. These

visual signifiers attempt to express inexpressible ideas and experiences.

Chapter Three: Elements of Modernism in As I Lay Dying ^139

In addition, through a series of technical innovations such as

multiple voices and viewpoints, stream-of-consciousness, the

disruptions of logical or temporal sequence, juxtapositions, repetitions,

elaborate speculations on language, complexities etc., Faulkner creates

in "As I Lay Dying", a world where objective truth does not exist, and

reality is wholly dependent upon individual perception. Faulkner

abandons the traditional device of an objective, and omniscient narrator,

in favour of the fragmented subjective accounts of fifteen different

protagonists. Faulkner sketches out the Bundrens' comic, yet tragic

journey, through a series of successive interior monologues. The

thoughts of each character are presented uncensored through the

confessional and stream-of-consciousness technique that so distinctly

characterizes this text. Each voice is notably unique and discerning.