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."
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.
Using the following websites, students will (preferably in groups) explore one aspect of or perspective on Faulkner's life and the culture of the South. Students should explore the webpage in detail and then write a brief summary of what they discover. If there are images on the website, students should also analyze them—what kind of image is it (graph, photograph, etc.) and what does it reveal about the subject? What does it obscure? The Document Analysis Worksheets, available via EDSITEment-reviewed Digital Classroom, might aid in this process.
Questions that students might want to consider:
The teacher should have each group present their findings, recording important aspects on the board (it might help the teacher to compile a list of possible findings on his or her own prior to class in order to supplement or confirm student findings).
Allow each group to offer a perspective, writing the information on a black board. After all groups have presented, you should have a list of different "perspectives." Discuss them and put them in the context of Faulkner's life and work. This activity serves two purposes. First, the fact finding aspect simply educates students about Faulkner's life, as well as some history of the South. Secondly, and equally importantly, the teacher can use this opportunity as an introduction to the idea of multiple perspectives or points-of-view in describing the life of one person. They are creating a narrative of Faulkner just as many perspectives help shape the narrative of Addie Bundren and her family.
Finish by reviewing the quotation by Evan Goodwin at the beginning of this lesson:
[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.
Discuss how Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, like history, can be made up of sometimes competing or confusing bits of knowledge, based on the perspective of the viewer.
Ask students to maintain a journal while reading As I Lay Dying, where they can write down thoughts, questions, and ideas about the novel. They should be sure to include page numbers to relevant passages in the text. Their first entry can explore the following question: what makes "the South" a compelling literary setting?
1-2 class periods