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As I Lay Dying | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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As I Lay Dying | Context


The Great Depression

After World War I, the United States experienced a worsening economic slowdown, climaxing with the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Like so many other workers, writers and artists scrambled for sources of income. In addition to taking work at the local power plant, Faulkner focused on "salable" writing, but he quickly grew discouraged as the quality of his work suffered. He wrote As I Lay Dying in a burst of creativity during lulls in the jobs that put food on the table. Though Faulkner was not personally financially devastated when the stock market crashed, the desperation that plagued not just farmers but other workers in his community is reflected in every aspect of the Bundrens' lives and those of many other characters in his work.

Mississippi Farmers

During the early 1930s, Mississippi was primarily a farming state, which is reflected in the setting of As I Lay Dying. Some farmers managed to maintain their businesses despite the repercussions of the 1929 stock market crash, but many suffered a huge drop in income, making it difficult to maintain their livestock and crops and feed their families. A quarter of Mississippi's farmland was sold off to enable farmers to pay their state taxes, and many people became unemployed and impoverished. The sense of economic foreboding and impending desperation plagues many of Faulkner's characters.

Faulkner's Modernist Techniques

In large part, modernism developed in response to the horror of the two world wars. As civilization appeared to be on the decline, writers began to focus on the effects of such modern phenomena as technology, competition, capitalism, and economics on individuals' inner lives. Modernist writers such as Faulkner, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway explored themes such as anxiety, loneliness, alienation, as well as psychology and the subconscious within the framework of modern life. Faulkner and other Southern writers added themes such as poverty, religion, and family duty to the mix. As they explored characters from the inside out, modernist writers experimented with style. Faulkner uses several modernist techniques in As I Lay Dying.

Stream of Consciousness

The stream-of-consciousness literary style depicts a character's thoughts, feelings, and reactions in an uninterrupted flow. Faulkner employs a traditional plot in As I Lay Dying: Anse has promised to bury Addie in town, and the family's journey to fulfill this promise is fraught with obstacles. However, the journey motif runs deeper than this surface action. Each character undertakes an inner journey of exploration as well: Darl questions identity and reality, Jewel is angry and desires revenge, Cash is obsessed, Dewey Dell is challenged by her circumstances, Vardaman is confused about death, Anse struggles between activity and inactivity, and Addie is plagued by secrets and regrets. Faulkner uses stream-of-consciousness narrative to convey these characters' emotions with immediacy and intensity.

Varying Points of View

Faulkner includes 15 narrators in As I Lay Dying. This may seem an odd choice in light of the simple plot, but each character's experience depends largely on his or her viewpoint. To reinforce this idea, Faulkner's narrators repeatedly refer to eyes throughout the novel. Faulkner's narrative style and symbolism invite readers to compare characters' varying viewpoints on similar events to determine where the truth lies. For example, is Darl mad? If so, what is the cause?

Language: In As I Lay Dying, words prove ineffective at capturing experience. Addie says she has learned that "words are no good; that words don't ever fit even what they are trying to say at." Faulkner manipulates language in different ways, including steam of consciousness, varying viewpoints, folk language, and metaphors, to suggest that words are always faulty symbols of the experiences they seek to describe. Vardaman notes, "My mother is a fish," and attempts to relate his mother's death to that of a fish he caught.

Southern Grotesque: Faulkner blends tragedy and dark humor in As I Lay Dying to suggest the common ground shared by seeming opposites, such as laughter and tears, life and death, and sanity and insanity. Flannery O'Connor was one of Faulkner's contemporaries in the Southern Gothic genre, which frequently focuses on damaged characters. O'Connor described the Southern Grotesque as a "distortion" of the familiar, resulting in a work of fiction that is "violent and comic, because of the discrepancies that it seeks to combine." For example, a child drilling holes in a casket so the corpse can breathe may elicit uneasy laughter from readers; the image combines life and death, suggesting the two are more closely aligned than readers may think.

Reinvention of the Classics: In the modernist tradition, Faulkner repurposes a phrase from The Odyssey, Homer's ancient Greek epic, for the title As I Lay Dying. The phrase comes from a speech by Agamemnon, the king of Argos in the Underworld, who is describing his murderous wife's callousness as he lay on his deathbed. Faulkner also mirrors the deadly fall of Odysseus's friend Elpênor when Cash takes a spill from a roof. Yet Faulkner adheres to modernist poet Ezra Pound's edict, "Make it new!" In As I Lay Dying, the characters' odyssey ends not with fulfillment and justice, as in Greek myth, but with questionable results. In fact, the quest itself may be entirely unnecessary.

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