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?
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.
This activity explores Addie, the central character of the text. 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). The remainder of the text details the thoughts and activities of all the people surrounding her. Addie herself speaks only once, after her death.
Before specifically discussing Addie's chapter, have students consider: Who is Addie Bundren to each of the characters who speak of her? What are the relationships like between Addie and her children? Addie and her husband?
Read aloud the 10th Darl section, which contains a revealing passage:
It [the New Hope sign] wheels up like a motionless hand lifted above the profound desolation of the ocean; beyond it the red road lies like a spoke of which Addie Bundren is the rim. It wheels past, empty, unscarred, the white signboard turns away its fading and tranquil assertion. (p. 108, Vintage edition, 1990)
Have students discuss this image—the road "like a spoke of which Addie Bundren is the rim"—in depth. Draw the shape of a wheel on the blackboard, labeling the rim as Addie. Ask students to consider how this reflects the structure of the story. Students might discuss:
Addie's voice comes to the reader only after her rotting body was pulled from its "baptism" in the river after the disastrous crossing. Questions that might be valuable in discussing her chapter:
Addie displays bitterness about the very fact of existence and a preoccupation about death: “I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.” She expresses distaste for her students and difficulty relating to her children. She implies that she married Anse for his property and that “living is terrible” after she has Cash, who “violated” her aloneness. Darl’s birth makes her want to kill Anse; she refers to him as “dead,” though he doesn’t know it. She is skeptical about love, which she refers to as a “word . . . like all the others: just a shape to fill a lack.” In fact, she questions the authority of language and the possibility for meaning: “That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at.”
Further questions to consider:
Some students might have difficulty understanding the historical situation of women in the 1920s. Teachers might remind students, for example, that women had just won the right to vote with the 19th Amendment. You may draw additional historical context from the History Channel Timeline (the link starts at 1920—the menu at the top will take viewers through the rest of the decade), available through EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library. Teachers might also emphasize the difference between the agricultural-based south and the industrial north.
Compare As I Lay Dying to other stories about adulterous relationships that the student might have read during class, such as Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or Kate Chopin’s “The Storm.” How does Addie’s relationship with Whitfield compare to Hester Prynne’s with Dimmesdale or Calixta’s with Alcee?
1-2 class periods