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.
This activity explores the voices of As I Lay Dying, starting with the first introductory chapters. The principles followed in this one class session can then aid the student in reading the remainder of the novel, supplemented with journal entries and other assignments according to the needs of the classroom. Of crucial importance to this activity is the question: what is narrative voice? Ask students to brainstorm what 'voice' might mean in terms of a novel—what sorts of things would a person's voice reveal? Possible answers include age, education, background, culture, religious and other kinds of beliefs, and so on. Other questions students might consider include:
The following PDF worksheet, The Many Voices of As I Lay Dying, has 15 rows—one for each voice in the novel. The first group of voices has already been filled out—they are the immediate members of the Bundren family: Anse, Addie, Cash, Darl, Dewey Dell, Vardaman, and Jewel. The Bundren Genealogy, available at William Faulkner on the Web, via EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library, lists the relationships of the family in a graphical format (spoiler alert: the genealogy does give away Addie's relationship with Rev. Whitfield). Students can begin filling out the character sheet, including adding new "voices" as students come across them, and use the chart as they read to keep notes about the various characters. As I Lay Dying has a total of 15 voices—who are they? What do we know about them from others? What do they reveal about themselves? What do they reveal (or conceal) about Addie (or Addie's position as a woman in the South)? What do we learn about the setting and culture through the characters' voices? What do we learn about the characters that they did not intentionally reveal (either through their own voice or another's)?
Once students have been able to use the chart to examine the "big picture" of As I Lay Dying, the form of the novel might be a little more apparent. Who is the most frequent narrator? (answer: Darl) What happens to him in the end of the novel? Why is that? How does he compare to the other members of his family? Who are some central characters who are also the least frequent speakers? (answer: Jewel and Addie, who both have just one monologue—see Lesson 4: Burying Addie's Voice for more detail on Addie's role) What does Faulkner seem to be saying about the power—or the lack of it—in the act of narration? How does this style of narration compare to a novel where there is one clear narrator with authority? Without a central narrator, how does the process of reading change? Can the reading process be compared to the journey to Jefferson? In what way?
As I Lay Dying has a total of 15 voices—ask students to write a detailed profile of one character, citing examples from the book to support their claims. Questions to get students started might include:
If desired, the teacher can discuss the narrative style in terms of a shift from Realism/Naturalism to Modernism in American fiction, where an objective or even scientific narrative view shifts into the personal and subjective point of view. In this conversation, students could then compare narrative perspective with other novels read during the year.
1-2 class periods