Portrait of William Faulkner by Carl Van Vechten.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
William Faulkner's self-proclaimed masterpiece, As I Lay Dying, originally published in 1930, is a fascinating exploration of the many voices found in a Southern family and community. The following lesson examines the novel's use of multiple voices in its narrative. Faulkner:
often told his stories using multiple narratives, each with their own interests and biases, who allow us to piece together the 'true' circumstances of the story, not as clues in a mystery, but as different melodies in a piece of music that form a crescendo. The conclusion presents a key to understanding the broad panorama surrounding the central event in a way that traditional linear narratives simply are unable to accomplish."
—(Little Blue Light, through EDSITEment reviewed Internet Public Library)
The novel's title—As I Lay Dying—invokes a first-person speaker, presumably the voice of the dead mother, Addie Bundren. Yet she only speaks once in the novel, and she is dead, not dying, throughout most of the novel (aside from the beginning chapters). How does Faulkner's form for the novel—a series of competing voices and perspectives presented as a multiple-voice narrative—work for or against the novel's title?
After completing the activity in this lesson, students will be able to:
Review the curriculum unit overview and the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. If necessary, download and print out any documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
The title of the novel, As I Lay Dying, indicates action that occurs simultaneous to the death of the matriarch—what else might be "dying"? The South? The authority of the narrator? The institution of the family? Faulkner's artistic depth allows for all of these possibilities.
What kind of promise does he offer after death? Is the novel simply pessimistic, or is there some hope throughout?
One way of reading the novel is to see the myths of the South slowly revealed to be as rotten as the corpse of Addie Bundren. How do the desires of each family member reveal in different ways this sense of despair and dissolution? Consider, for example, Anse's false teeth (and new wife), Dewey Dell's failed abortion, Darl's 'madness,' Cash's lost tools, and Jewel's bartered horse.
Another way of reading the novel involves recognizing the images of success and endurance. Students might examine the comedic and optimistic aspects of the novel. Many of the Bundrens, after all, do succeed in their endeavors, especially Anse, who not only gets his new teeth but also finds a new "Mrs. Bundren"—possibly a hopeful indication for progeny and prosperity.
Students should revisit Faulkner's Nobel Prize Speech via Internet Public Library, where he said that "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself […] alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat." He spoke of that conflict: of "love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice." His assessment of mankind's future is surprisingly optimistic: "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail."
Considering Faulkner's speech, what does the final portrait of the Bundrens look like? Are they as rotten as Addie's corpse, full of despair and dissolution? Or are they a tribute to the vigor and resolve of a Southern family, who successfully complete an overwhelming task? Does Faulkner truly resolve this issue? Is the sense of hope more evident in his Nobel Prize Speech than in As I Lay Dying?
1-2 class periods