As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying was the first Faulkner novel I read, aged about 16 or 17, and I remember exactly what I thought about it at the time: the story was good, but it had been badly written. After the passage of time, do I disagree with my youthful self?

As I Lay Dying certainly has in the Bundrens the least eloquent narrators that appear in Faulkner; and I’ve no doubt it was this I didn’t like when I was young, and which I still don’t like now. I know now that this style is not in fact typical of Faulkner: he has rather a penchant for the excessive long and rambling sentence, and consequently for characters who tend to think this way. My prejudice extends from As I Lay Dying to almost all modern literature, which is all similarly ineloquent, whether because of incapacity or otherwise affectation; though sometimes I think it is not mere prejudice.

No, I don’t like it. I feel, when Faulkner tries to get his characters to have thoughts more complex than their verbiage allows, everything becomes abstract and unclear. This is particularly true of Darl, whose character in this novel I frankly struggle with: he is meant to be insane, but doesn’t really come across this way at all in the first two-third of the novel. In fact, he seems the most sensible of the Bundrens. And I still have little idea what Vardaman is going on about most of the time. I was lost on how old he is meant to be, since he often comes across as about eight, but actually I think it is likely he is about sixteen. Faulkner does in fact give away the ages of the children during the course of the novel and I don’t think it’s entirely what I’d been considering: Darl and Cash are both about thirty, Dewey Dell is about nineteen (it is given exactly in the text), and Jewel is about eighteen. Vardaman is merely younger than this, though perhaps not much. On the whole, it is the less contemplative characters, and especially the supporting cast, who I think succeed much better.

These characters, the children in particular, are already now becoming familiar Faulkner types; comparable especially with those in The Sound and the Fury. Darl is Quentin; Vardaman like Benjy in the way he expresses his thoughts and his lack of a full understanding of the world around him; Dewey Dell has aspects about her of Caddie, especially the younger Caddie; and Jewel is very much like Jason, the son privileged by his mother whom the other children are not entirely enamoured of. The book is, like The Sound and The Fury, about the children, their inter-relations, and their relationship with their parents, particularly with their mother.

This is the only novel of Faulkner’s (I think) which has a constant changing of points of view; quite a few of his other novels have long sections told by different narrators; and Faulkner uses the effect of this quite plainly, merely building up a multi-sided picture of events. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring any of the less natural, more literary possibilities of this formal structure (contradiction, misunderstanding, irony etc). The only moment I noticed in this novel, is where Cora observes Darl is the only child who has any feeling for his mother, and her reasons for stating this are then directly contradicted in other passages. Perhaps it is not in keeping with the subject. I’m not sure he explores these things much in his other novels either. Not really much of one for experimentation for experimentation’s sake, eh?

A Snopes appears, though off-stage, as a horse-dealer. I notice a Snopes has appeared so far in every one of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels, a pattern I’m beginning to believe is deliberate.

This wasn’t actually the novel Faulkner started after finishing The Sound and The Fury; he first started on Sanctuary, but put it aside to write this. It is Sanctuary which will be up next.

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2 thoughts on “As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

  1. “abstract and unclear” is, I think, some of Faulkner’s point, that knowing is essentially impossible, and that use of language is not a way of knowing. If you look at Addie’s chapter, she says, “Words are not good…words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at.” and then she says, “words go straight up in a thin line” “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.” Actions/intentions, knowledge/truth, all drift apart, and there’s no way to keep them together, or even running in roughly parallel paths.

    There was a time when I thought As I Lay Dying was the perfect American novel, and I’d give copies away to people because I thought everyone should read it. Happily I don’t do that anymore, but I still think it’s pretty near a perfect novel.

    I think Vardaman is about ten, maybe. I’ve always thought he was a great character, trying to comprehend his surroundings with his incomplete, childish (possibly developmentally disabled?) mind. “My mother is a fish,” is great. Vardaman discovers metaphor, and death, all at the same time.

  2. Sorry for not replying for ages. I did think, as I was writing it, that it might be said that some of the incomprehension was Faulkner’s point; but it’s not an argument that convinces me. Faulkner as a writer doesn’t give me the impression of feeling language is inadequate (and besides, as I’ve said before on this blog, I’m not sure I entirely trust any writer who believes in the ultimate failure of words). Perhaps in this novel, for these characters, a failure to express themselves is reasonable, in that these are probably among the least eloquent of all Faulkner’s character I’ve come across. I prefer him where he’s at his most verbose.

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