"The reason for living was to get ready to stay dead for a long time" -- Addie Bundren in Faulkner's 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. 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.
—Evan Goodwin on Faulkner
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?
Students will also explore the context of the novel, examine background information on social and economic conditions in the rural South in the first decades of the twentieth century. This background will enable the teacher and students to "place" Faulkner's novel historically and sociologically; Faulkner wrote about his own time and a place he knew well. Faulkner's life will be presented, briefly, so that parallels can be drawn between his life and the life depicted in the text. Faulkner grew up in a small Mississippi town in a middle-class family and saw in his surroundings perfect models for characters like the Bundren family and their neighbors. In the lessons of this curriculum unit, students will
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
The voice of the narrator helps shape the way that readers encounter the story. The voice can reveal the narrative point-of-view, the background of the speaker (such as education level, social standing, and so on), and the relationship of the narrator to others in the story. An omniscient narrator, for example, often gives the impression of authorial investment and oversight, but maintains distance from the characters. A character speaking from his own point-of-view, however, creates a sense of a limited but intimate perspective. Faulkner's ability to shift narrative voice in As I Lay Dying 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.
Review with your students a basic introduction to literary terms, including "point of view," or distribute a student handout on literary terms that is available at Purdue's Online Writing Lab, via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library.
William Faulkner on the Web, available via EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library, is the strongest representative of William Faulkner materials online. Below are a few key sections of the website that might prove helpful in teaching this lesson:
A general review of Literature in the American South is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Documenting the American South. While not specific to As I Lay Dying (although it does discuss other Faulkner novels), the section Civil War discusses representations of the Civil War in literature in a manner immediately relevant to the study of Faulkner's work:
But the southern writer … has been less concerned to reconstruct the actual time of the struggle than to recount the consequent loss of the antebellum southern culture and, in the response to this loss, the creation of a postbellum culture of survival.
[from Civil War, Encyclopedia of Southern Culture edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris.]
The section Humor provides details on many aspects of the amusing and the grotesque often found in Southern literature, attributes obvious in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying:
Southern humor, like much of the best southern writing in general, has been boisterous and physical, often grotesque, and generally realistic. On the whole, it has no doubt been better received and more appreciated outside the region than in it … William Faulkner was certainly a puzzle to the people of Oxford in his time. Writing has never been a particularly admired occupation in the South, and its comic writers, as well as the most perceptive serious writers, have singled out aspects of southern culture that many southerners would sooner forget. This combination has produced what many southern readers would no doubt characterize as a literature of betrayal.
(From Humor, Encyclopedia of Southern Culture edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris.)