Closer Readings Commentary

Faulkner for the Classroom

In his classic introduction to The Portable Faulkner, Malcolm Cowley writes, "Faulkner's novels have the quality of being lived, absorbed, remembered rather than merely observed. And they have what is rare in the novels of our time, a warmth of family affection, brother for brother and sister, the father for his children—a love so warm and proud that it tries to shut out the rest of the world." That familial glow is one we can all bask in as we strive to fulfill the rigors of the Common Core.

As I Lay Dying

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. This novel is an English Language Arts text exemplar for CCSS Grades 11 – CCR. (See Appendix B.)

EDSITEment offers a Curriculum Unit As I Lay Dying: Form of a Funeral to unpack this masterpiece of fiction from the American South. Faulkner's ability to shift narrative voice in this novel results in a rich tapestry of often competing perspectives, where information is doled out in small bits, left to the reader to piece together in an understanding of the larger (yet not complete) family portrait of the Bundrens.

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? This guiding question aligns with grade standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3 Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama.

The Nobel Prize speech

Teachers looking for an informational text to accompany their reading will find one in Lesson 5: Faulkner's As I Lay Dying: Concluding the Novel. In his Nobel Prize speech Faulkner 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." In this brief speech (only 553 words) 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."

Activity 1 has students compare the central themes of hope and loss found in both Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech and As I Lay Dying. Consider Faulkner’s final portrait of the Bundren family:

  • 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?
  • Beyond the title, what else might be "dying" in this novel? 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 Faulkner offer after death? Is the novel simply pessimistic, or is there some hope throughout? Is that redemption reflected in the Nobel Prize speech? CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2 Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

Sense of place

Faulkner wrote about a time and a place he knew well. Lesson 1: Faulkner's As I Lay Dying: Images of Faulkner and the South can be used to examine social and economic conditions in the rural South to allow students to "place" Faulkner's novel historically and sociologically. Faulkner's life is presented, briefly, so that parallels can be drawn between his life and the life depicted in the text. Students can explore how the small Mississippi town where Faulkner grew up supplied models for many colorful characters like the Bundren family. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3 Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

NEH Humanities magazine feature, “Faulkner at 100,” discusses Faulkner’s view of love as “an active response to something that we choose.” The conflicting impulses he fielded to both escape and indict his home state were trumped only by his abiding affection for it. His Mississippi is all embracing—his characters in spite of (and perhaps because of) their shortcomings are his own folk. Thanks to Faulkner’s genius, they also become ours.