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?
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.
Have students examine the photograph, Yocana River Bridge, at the Mississippi Writer's Page, available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library. The river crossing occurs just prior to Addie's only section in the novel. How is the river crossing significant to each of the characters involved?
A useful but brief commentary about the river crossing (see "The First Threat: Flood") is available at William Faulkner on the Web, via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library. The website also has the following glosses, which help contextualize Faulkner's semi-fictional geography:
Teachers might ask students to discuss the symbol of the river at this point in the narrative. How does the description of the river and the river crossing relate to the method of narration? In other words, how might students read this scene as a metaphor for the difficulty in telling a story (or, more precisely, how Faulkner is trying to tell a story)? What does the image of the river say about the emotions of the scene?
For example, students might refer to Darl's section (just before Vardaman's description of the river crossing):
Before us the thick dark current runs. It talks up to us in a murmur become ceaseless and myriad, the yellow surface dimpled monstrously into fading swirls traveling along the surface for an instant, silent, impermanent and profoundly significant, as though just beneath the surface something huge and alive waked for a moment of lazy alertness out of and into light slumber again…
Students might also compare the four different perspectives prominent in the description of the crossing: Darl, Tull, Vardaman, and Cash. How does each of these four narrators describe the river? What is the relationship between the way they see the world, the images they attach themselves to, and the way they describe the river crossing? Students might consider especially Vardaman's stream-of-consciousness style, where the reader sees the toss and tumble of his thoughts as reflective of the turmoil of the flooded river. Cash, in his brief section that might be considered the conclusion of the river crossing, measures the attempt according to his carpenter precision: "It wasn't on balance."
Throughout As I Lay Dying, characters rely on or refer to various objects or images. As students continue to fill out the PDF chart from Lesson 2, they should list important images associated with each character, from Jewel's horse, to Vardaman's statement "My mother is a fish," from Cash's tools to Dewey Dell's abortion money and Anse's teeth. What do these objects reveal about the character? What do they reveal about the characters' grieving process?
Students should continue to enter any new characters' names, providing details about their voices, preferably providing insights beyond what is available in the character list at William Faulkner on the Web. Students should explore particulars of the characters' voices that reveal (intentionally, or not) aspects of not only their own character but also that of their family and now dead mother. This segment of the activity should continue throughout the duration of the novel, perhaps supplemented with journal responses, in order to enhance classroom discussion and prepare students for exams or papers. Journal entries can include, among many other possibilities, detailed examinations of characters, explorations of symbols, or a discussion of different reasons for going to Jefferson. The chart is useful only as a beginning point for students to map the novel's progression—journals and brief essays are highly encouraged to garner more critical engagement with the text.
Possible questions to consider in class discussion or in student journals: What is the role of the Tulls, who provide the reader with a "non-Bundren" perspective? Why include non-Bundren voices?
Students can write a detailed profile of one character, citing examples from the book to support their claims. A few basic questions to get students started might include: What makes the character tick? What motivates the character? What is their role in the novel? What major symbols are associated with the character, and what might they mean?
Students should also keep a reading journal so they can take notes on questions they have, quotations of importance, and their thoughts on the novel.
1-2 class periods