Sigma Tau Delta at JMU

“And for My Next Trick…”: The Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Narrative Structure in As I Lay Dying

One of William Faulkner’s principal contributions to literature lies in his adroit ability to reexamine, deconstruct, and rebuild traditional concepts of textual form and structure. He dedicates one of the only four chapters of The Sound and the Fury to the first person narrative of Benji, the free-associating manchild, and another to the psychotic breakdown of Quentin Compson on the day of his suicide. Absalom, Absalom! tackles the undeniably human element of history, telling the story of Thomas Sutpen’s doomed attempt to forge a Southern dynasty filtered through multiple sources with different exact knowledges and biased assumptions to fill in their own personal gaps. Published in 1930, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying immediately establishes itself as a work preoccupied with redefining the process and artistic potential of a novel’s narrative structure. Split between the first-person perspectives of fifteen different narrators, the novel explores the overall picture created by the layering of multiple characters stuck in their own singular mental frameworks. Darl Bundren represents the exception to these cramped, individualized narrations. His consciousness expands beyond his own physical capabilities to omnisciently describe scenes he’s not actually present for. Faulkner utilizes the impossibilities of Darl’s narrative abilities to enhance the potential for meaning in narrative structure in general, and specifically uses Darl’s narration in As I Lay Dying to illustrate the conflict between the truths created and accepted by society and actual, literal truth.

Darl possesses an expansive sense of intuition far surpassing that of any other character in As I Lay Dying. Darl senses and describes Jewel’s externality from the rest of the Bundren family almost immediately, observing, “[Jewel] is a head taller than any of the rest of us, always was. I told them that’s why [Addie] always whipped him and petted him more….That’s why she named him Jewel I told them” (17-18). Jewel’s alternative parentage and Addie’s consequential infidelity receive no specific mention, but the heavy implication of Jewel’s “otherness” displays the simultaneously expansive and precise nature of Darl’s intuition. The novel’s other narrators never even enter a sphere of suspicion, unflinchingly focused on their own individual thoughts and desires in a way that blocks any tendencies towards outward examination. However, while indicating an essential gap between Darl’s powers of intuition and the others’ self-absorbed shortsightedness, the ruminations on Jewel and Addie fail to challenge reality and possibility in a meaningful way. The idea that Darl could observe his family members and correctly deduce a greater meaning behind his mother’s emotional preference for Jewel over her other children rests comfortably within the realm of the reasonable. Therefore, discerning Faulkner’s true purpose in establishing this gap within a novel dominated by intentional narrative impossibilities first requires the exploration and examination of those moments in which Darl’s voice transcends the boundaries of his own reality.

Darl’s narratives in As I Lay Dying often defy physical possibility. His consciousness balloons outward, seeming to invade the minds of others to divine their thoughts and emotions and translate them to the reader. In one of his early passages, he assumes omniscient details of Jewel’s presence in the Bundren family barn. He declares, “from here [Jewel] cannot even hear Cash sawing,” utilizing the immediate “here” despite not physically being in the barn with his brother (13). Darl’s voice itself constitutes the only assurance of details Faulkner could easily make explicit, like Jewel’s ability or inability to hear Cash working. Faulkner says neither explicitly nor implicitly that the subjects of Darl’s assertions ever inform his conclusions themselves, or even that other characters somehow influence him with their own observations or opinions.

After warming up with minor impossibilities, Faulkner expands Darl’s supernatural narrative power as the novel progresses. Despite being one of only two family members not present, Darl narrates Addie’s entire death scene. He projects his consciousness back into his home, precisely describing details of scene and dialog. His own temporal experience takes the form of italics within the text, indicating the secondary nature of Darl’s actual surroundings and therefore the primary nature of his projected narration. Additionally, the striking lack of details and explanation of Darl and Jewel’s present temporal situation serves to reinforce the primary/secondary form of the two font styles when compared to Darl’s extensive delineation of Addie’s final moments. Faulkner leaves no excuse for any misinterpretation of the two alternating text formats as belonging to two separate narrators, bridging the two with Darl’s cry of “Jewel, I say, she is dead. Jewel. Addie Bundren is dead” (52). Ensuring the unification of the chapter’s two geographic spaces draws attention to Faulkner’s narrative process and the process of textual meaning itself, demanding an attention to the motivation behind such a deliberate act. Zachary Tavlin explores the relationship between Darl’s consciousness and his temporality, noting that “to the extent that Darl’s consciousness is wholly transcendental, his vision of things is always out ahead of his body, so that the world is in his consciousness rather than the reverse” (91). With Addie’s death, Faulkner pushes the potential of the novel form outward, stylistically confusing the typically straightforward practices of narration by appearing to step away from his authorial role as the omniscient narrator and allowing Darl to step in as his substitute. Investing Darl with his own authorship instills narration itself with explosive possibilities for meaning and connection.

Deconstructing narrative in such an extreme way represents a very real danger to the structure and stability of the work as a whole. The narrator serves as the wholly essential communicator of language, exposition, imagery, and message to the reader. The pure text format of novel necessitates an almost complete assumption of the responsibility of meaning by its own narrative structure. Narrators serve as the intermediary between author and audience, and a compromise or corruption of the line of communication between the two can easily decimate the power of a novel’s message and the fulfillment of any intended purpose. The potential effects of a confused narration prove to be so extreme that entire works exist based primarily around unreliable narrators. Lauded works like Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Nabokov's Lolita utilize unreliable narration with the understanding that it irreparably alters the works’ meaning and message. The unreliable narrator itself becomes the focal point around which the rest of the content must revolve. In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner disregards the safe, rudimentary approach to narrative, but also avoids the equally restrictive alternative of a work based in thematic unreliability. He meticulously structures the novel in such a way as to preserve the flexibility and potential of Darl’s impossibly free consciousness for an artistic and thematic meaning that transcends the simple idea of general untrustworthiness.

Faulkner employs two tactics to achieve his heightened use of narrative in As I Lay Dying. First, the sheer number of narrators, fifteen in total, engage in a multitude of blatant misinterpretations between each other. Every character other than Darl narrates from deep within their own internalized lenses of perception, revealing their own personalities and ideologies. Cora betrays her own misunderstanding of the Bundren family dynamic by saying, “Darl almost begged them on his knees not to force him to leave [Addie] in her condition. But nothing would do but Anse and Jewel must make that three dollars,” when Darl’s section shows the exact opposite: that Anse and Jewel resist and Darl insists on departing (22). Addie’s one post-mortem chapter reveals the shameless lack of love she feels for every Bundren but Jewel. Vardaman’s titular line “My mother is a fish,” indicates his inability to process the concept of death, and his childlike connections conversely disconnect him from the realities of the world around him (84). These repeated contradictions divide narrative unreliability across multiple characters and their points of view, and the different facets of unreliability in each chapter string together to create an inversely reliable framework for the novel as a whole. Eric Casero says on narrative in Absalom, Absalom!, “the characters’ consciousnesses interact with each other in the social realm of real time,” a comment that applies quite readily to As I Lay Dying just as it does to Faulkner’s later exercise in fragmented narrative (87). The interaction of consciousness Casero mentions unarguably takes place as the novel switches between the fifteen different character perspectives, each steadily chipping away at larger concepts of desire, individualism, and loneliness. The combined effort eventually displays the full images at hand, and Faulkner’s approach affords readers the understanding that each non-Darl chapter must be read as an explication of the narrating character by the narrating character. In her article on the characters’ embodiment of cognitive processes, Laurel Bollinger writes, “we fuse with the narrating characters, entering their consciousness in the process of understanding their experiences” (451). Faulkner prevents the reader’s misinterpretation of reality via one unreliable narrator by showering his novel with fourteen other narrators, all unreliable in their own way. The multiple narrators of As I Lay Dying trace a web of connections composed of false understandings between each other, and each chapter informs every other chapter before and after.

Darl himself represents the other method by which Faulkner manages to deconstruct and reconstruct narrative form without sacrificing his communication to readers. As shown previously, Darl appears to take on a role of omniscience during many of his sections, performing impossible feats of narrative observation and deduction. The sheer impossibility of Darl’s narration prompts a pushback from the reader, borne from the desire to mentally rectify narrative contradictions. Faulkner’s mockery of tradition and possibility would suggest that Darl exists as the least reliable narrator of As I Lay Dying, his chapters in danger of totally forfeiting all meaning. The increasingly disturbed attempts to pave over guilt by the murderous protagonist of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or Humbert Humbert’s impassioned justifications of his hebephilic predilections in Lolita constitute easily collapsible disparities between biased narratives and the reasonably assumed reality behind their mistranslations. Both characters just want to rationalize their socially unacceptable actions and feelings, but with Darl transcending the laws of physics, what line of understanding does the reader have, beyond an assumption of some sort of higher power of telepathy within Darl Bundren? The fantastical, science fiction nature of such a line of reasoning prompts no satisfying and/or interesting sense of artistic purpose or meaning, and therefore disproves itself in its inherent invalidation of the authorial intent necessary to execute a deliberate deconstruction of narrative processes.

Faulkner counters readers’ frightened instincts of Darl’s atypical and realistically unfeasible narrative form by making Darl repeatedly, unflinchingly, undeniably correct. Addie herself affirms Darl’s early comments on Jewel and Addie’s relationship. He correctly assumes Dewey Dell’s pregnancy, and Dewey Dell describes Darl’s cognitive abilities when she says, “He said he knew without the words like he told me that ma is going to die without words, and I knew he knew...” (27). The way Dewey Dell describes Darl, as knowing “without the words,” serves to validate Darl’s perceptions while simultaneously removing Darl from a need from a direct corroboration. Direct evidence of Darl’s inherent accuracy helps to comfort the unsure reader, but Darl himself doesn’t receive that evidence, because he doesn’t need it. Referencing Darl’s comment to Vardaman: “...I am not is. Are is too many for one woman to foal,” Bollinger argues that “By defining himself as other, as ‘are,’ he seems to function as pure cognition, particularly in moments where his narration neither requires nor invokes his physical presence” (Faulkner 101, Bollinger 447). Darl separates himself from the singular “is” to adopt a more expansive form of plurality befitting this “pure cognition,” or inherent correctness. Decisive, clear language delivered in the present tense dominates his moments of omniscience, seen in his description of Addie’s death within phrases like, “[Cash] is looking down at her peaceful, rigid face fading into the dusk...until at last the face seems to float detached upon it, lightly as the reflection of a dead leaf,” and, “Pa breathes with a quiet, rasping sound, mouthing the snuff against his gums” (50, 52). The direct and matter-of-fact way Darl narrates his moments of impossible omniscience places him in a state of pure correctness. Tavlin notes that, with Darl, “consciousness directly perceives the immediate deviation of an object’s multi-sidedness—the effects of protention and retention are immediately given in the ‘pregnant Present’” (85). In this way, Faulkner exploits his authorial control over his art by making Darl consistently and plainly precise in his narrations. Darl’s flawless correctness forms a scrupulous narrative structure in which the reader has no recourse other than to accept not just Darl’s ability to discern the truth, but Darl’s ability to know the truth, to be the truth of the novel via the consistent accuracy of his narration.

Darl never considers questioning how he knows, or why he knows, he simply does know. Whether Darl correctly assumes the truth, intuits the truth, guesses the truth, or simply knows the truth holds no relevance whatsoever to the truth itself. In his meticulous restructuring of narrative form, Faulkner instills an expressive power into As I Lay Dying’s narrative structure. He uses the disparity between Darl’s knowledge and the other fourteen narrators’ distracted assumptions to comment on the perception of truth itself, and the way that “true Truth,” or the greater external concept of Truth itself, conflicts with the “aggregate truth” or “practical truth” created by the sum of society’s perceptions and actions.

By faithfully reflecting the truth in his narratives, Darl comes to inhabit the idea of a metaphysical Truth in As I Lay Dying. He sees through the lies his family members tell others (both verbally and nonverbally) and the lies they tell themselves. Darl’s powers of narrative perception give him access to that greater Truth denied to the other narrators trapped in their own cramped minds. But while writers, philosophers, and artists usually invoke the concept of “greater Truth” as a positive force destined to pressure the falsehoods of the world into balance, Faulkner invokes it to show its weakness and ultimate futility in a world of mentally confined individuals. He shows us this conflict between Truth and “truth” as Darl confronts Jewel later in the novel, asking pointedly, “‘Jewel...whose son are you?....Your mother was a horse, but who was your father, Jewel?’” Jewel, fixated on Darl’s attempts to halt the Compson family’s ridiculous journey by burning the barn where his coffin-interred mother is stored, can only reply to the question by repeating, “‘You goddamn lying son of a bitch’” (212-213). Jewel’s individual truths resist the pressure of Darl’s external Truth, and his fixation on Darl’s barn-burning deflects the real Truth, Jewel’s scandalous parentage, safely away. The Bundrens’ entire motivation behind their journey to Jefferson represents a broader instance of conflict between the two truths. The real Truth exists differently for each Bundren; Dewey Dell hopes she can get an abortion, Anse retrieves the new Mrs. Bundren, Jewel wants everyone to see him swagger into town on his beloved horse, and even Vardaman associates bananas as a purpose through his confusion. These “true Truths” in some way disappoint, scare, shame, or otherwise upset the Bundrens, and so they find solace in the aggregate “practical truth” of fulfilling Addie’s wish to be buried in Jefferson.

Darl struggles against the socially determined aggregate truth, and he attempts to stop the disingenuous journey by burning down the Gillespie barn and Addie’s casket along with it. If the Bundrens can no longer transport Addie to Jefferson, their purported motivation for the journey disappears. The loss of the lie allows the external entity of Truth to work its balancing pressure, forcing the individualistic Bundrens to either admit their actual motivations or sacrifice them and return home. But Darl’s efforts are thwarted, and the socially fabricated “aggregate truth” persists and prevails.

In this framework of truths, Darl’s insanity thus represents his inability to reconcile his visions of “real Truth” and its ultimate defeat by the practical truth created by subconscious societal vote. Unable to contain itself, Darl’s narrative consciousness ejects itself from him completely, and he speaks to and about himself in the third person as his final section narrates his train ride to the Jackson mental asylum. Faulkner’s message here lies in real Truth’s weakness against the tendency of man to act in selfish and ignorant ways. Just as the specific method by which Darl reaches the Truth holds no significance in the face of his perfect narrative accuracy, so does that concept of external Truth hold no significance in a society where everyone agrees on an alternative truth. Faulkner argues that society completely strips the power from any metaphysical axioms through its ability to refurbish, reject, or rebuild truths of the world.

The unique narrative structures within As I Lay Dying betray a specific effort on Faulkner’s part to imbue narrative structure itself with a potential for meaning. Compared to the closed-minded individualism of the majority of the novel’s narrators, Darl possesses a unique intuition that quickly blossoms into apparent omniscience. Faulkner uses his principal narrator, Darl, to upend the conventional approaches to and expectations of narrative structure, blurring the lines between character, consciousness, and the text itself. He expertly swings As I Lay Dying around the pitfall of total unreliability, successfully creating in Darl a trustworthy narrator who can break rules of writing and laws of physics with aplomb. In the aftermath of the novel’s narrative construction, Faulkner uses the gap between Darl’s perceptive and expansive vignettes and the incognizant and individualistic tinting of the other narrators’ sections to explicate the truth-destroying conflict between actual truth and the false truth created by social perception and desire.


Works Cited

Bollinger, Laurel. "'Are Is Too Many for One Woman to Foal': Embodied Cognition in as I Lay

Dying." Texas Studies in Literature and Language, no. 4, 2015, p. 433.

Casero, Eric. "Designing Sutpen: Narrative and Its Relationship to Historical Consciousness in

Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!." The Southern Literary Journal, no. 1, 2011, p. 86.

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. First Vintage International edition. New

York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Michel, Delville. "Alienating Language and Darl's Narrative Consciousness in Faulkner's "As I

Lay Dying." The Southern Literary Journal, no. 1, 1994, p. 61.

Tavlin, Zachary. "'Ravel out into Time': Phenomenology and Temporality in as I Lay Dying."

The Mississippi Quarterly, no. 1-2, 2015, p. 83.

This paper was presented by the author on April 14, 2018, at James Madison University as a part of Sigma Tau Delta's Undergraduate Conference. 

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