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As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
The author of As I Lay Dying is William Faulkner. He was born in 1897 and died in 1962. His parents were Murry and Maud Falkner. He was the first born, with three siblings. His childhood was spent in Oxford Mississippi. From childhood, he showed signs of a good writer. He became very interested in poems, novels, and art, though grew tired of his lessons at school.
From the start of his adulthood, he was very indecisive about any possible career options. His first act was to serve in Britain’s Royal Air Force during World War One. When the war ended, he enrolled in the University of Mississippi in 1919. He dropped out in 1920. He then became a New York book store manager in 1921; in 1922, a University postmaster. In 1925, he moved to New Orleans, and then Paris a few years later. In 1929, he married Estelle Oldham, and moved back to Oxford. He had four children, though only two lived to reach adulthood.
Throughout his life, he tended to distance himself from people. He changed his last name from “Falkner” to “Faulkner” so that he would no longer be associated with his family. He never talked with neighbors, nor had many friends. Even his marriage with Estelle was seen as emotionally deprived. These are some measures he took in seeking solitude. In the later part of his career, he became severely depressed.
During the 1930’s, a critical point in his career, he was faced with a number of new responsibilities. His father died in 1932, which made him accountable for the welfare of his mother. In 1933, his daughter Jill was born, who became the only surviving daughter of his. In 1934, his brother died, and he was now given authority over his niece’s education.
He wrote a number of novels, including As I Lay Dying, The Road to Glory, Light in August, The sound and the Fury, and Pylon.
He received a Nobel Prize in 1950 for his literary works.
The novel is set around the time of the late 1920’s and Early 1930’s. The Great Depression had just started in late 1929 with the crash of America’s stock market. Though this was not the worst part of the Depression, the deterioration of the South is evident. The South is perhaps one of the most effected regions by the depression. One of the main causes of the depression was the over production of goods, mainly crops. The South had long been number one in producing these, mostly tobacco and cotton. Even before the depression fully started, the South was having a hard time recovering from its loses that World War One had brought. When Black Tuesday hit, the South was devastated. Even throughout the Roaring Twenties, farmers all across the nation faced poverty as crop prices reached an all-time low, up to the point where the price of transportation for the produce became higher than any profit they may have made. One of President Roosevelt’s solutions to fix this problem was to pay the farmers not to farm, since overproduction was such a large problem. People in the South generally made half of the money as the average Northerner at this time. As if there was not enough trouble for the farmers, a swarm of locus and drought wreaked havoc on the South as well.
The farmers were not the only ones to struggle during this time. The depression hit schools hard. Major budget cuts caused for a lack of funding for public schools. Parents were having a hard time paying the bills, let alone buy school supplies and uniforms. Also, most children were needed at home anyway, to help their parents around the house with chores.
With the Depression came another step toward the Civil Rights Movement. The Harlem Renaissance during the 1920’s brought on a wave of modern thinkers, William Faulkner included. The ideas of racial integration could be seen as an undercurrent of most literary works of the time. People were beginning to think that these segregated ideas were outdated.
Darl becomes increasingly frustrated with the slow progress towards Addie’s burial. His actions and perspective add to the thought that he may be insane, such as him attempting to burn his mother’s coffin, and referring to his mother as a fish. All the while, he remained most at hand with the situation. He was the one to realize that Addie’s burial had become a problem, and decided that he would solve it. Darl has always loved Addie most, even though Jewel was Addie’s favorite. This becomes frustrating for Darl, and he does resent Jewel on some level for it. Darl’s point of view in the novel could be described as all knowing, and does tie up a few lose ends. An example of this is the knowledge of Dewey Dell’s pregnancy.
Dewey Dell is the only girl in a family full of boys. With the death of her mother, she is now responsible for the cooking, cleaning, and caring for the family. Being pregnant and the only female helps her appreciate how Addie might have felt about the family. This also brings light to the realization that Addie never really loved any of them. At most times throughout the novel, Dewey Dell is somewhat oblivious to what is happening on the journey to Jefferson because she is so overwhelmed with her pregnancy. She does, however, devote time to her suspicions of the men in the family, especially Darl.
Cash is a very straight forward, logical thinker. He views the world and his actions step by step, and is constantly analyzing. His perspective on Addie’s death is very unemotional, and it provides some stability to the novel, especially amidst some characters, such as Darl. He does, in many aspects, keep the family together by coming in where the other members fall short. His one obsession throughout the book is the coffin; fitting the planks of wood, balancing it, bringing it to Jefferson. His compulsiveness with its perfection is especially highlighted because of the disrespect it faces at the other family member’s hands.
The coffin is a major symbol throughout the entire book. It signifies the stress of Addie’s death and the toll that her death takes on each character. Cash’s efforts of carefully creating and balancing the coffin are completely wasted. The disrespect Addie’s body faces starts the moment she is placed in the coffin. She is put in upside-down, holes are drilled into her face, her body is left to rot for days, it nearly sunk to the bottom of a river, and it was almost burnt to the ground. The growing disrespect represents the growing dysfunction of the family. Only when she is finally placed in the ground can the family start to move on.
When Addie dies, her children gravitate toward animals so as to have some sort of replacement for their mother. Dewey Dell claims that she and the family cow are alike. This would make sense because Dewey Dell and Addie, being the only females, were expected to have children and a family, but only when it was convenient for the men. Darl declares that the horse is Jewel’s mother. Vardaman thinks that his mother is the fish that he caught earlier; the one that was wasted and disrespected, just like Addie’s body.
The tools Cash used to build Addie’s coffin symbolize stability. The ultimately become a major part of Cash himself. When he almost loses them in the river, he begins to cry. Without them, he views himself as nothing, or empty. Rather than mourning over the loss of his mother, he spends his time using the tools to make a coffin. The tools held him together in a time when
all other family members were falling apart. This is why Cash remains the calm and put together one throughout the duration of the book
A reoccurring theme in the novel is the treatment toward women, and the ideas of how a woman should act. When Dewey Dell learns of her pregnancy, her immediate thought is to get rid of it. Never once did she consider keeping the child, given the circumstances. She is seventeen and not married. If word of her pregnancy were to get out, she would ultimately be shunned by society. In this setting, women were only needed for raising children, cooking, and cleaning. Dewey Dell herself had to take over these responsibilities when her mother passed. Also, any talk of the female body or sexuality is usually met with disrespect and embarrassment for women, particularly directed at Dewey Dell.
The identity-deprived tone set for women during this time makes it undesirable, from a woman’s point of view, to have children. Children represented the end of your life, your will, and your desires at this time. It signified the death of your identity, rather than the happiness and joy at the thought of a new family member. For Addie, it became an obligation. With the birth of her first child, Addie realized that her solitude had been taken away and she would never again live for herself, but for the family. She then gave birth to more and more children to fill this obligation, not because she particularly wanted to. This is why Addie had a hard time loving her family, because it was never something she really wanted.
Faulkner uses the writing style, stream of consciousness, repeatedly throughout the book. This technique displays the character’s thoughts and feelings without any interruption from a third person. The thoughts can often be confused, or muddled, but usually offer significant insight to the character’s true personality. With stream of consciousness, you can sometimes lose details, like what a person looks like. This is because the familiarity is already there, so the character does not need to process the information again.
Another style Faulkner uses is monologues. These are somewhat similar to stream of consciousness, though they are usually in full sentences and thoughts. It is a straight telling of how the character is feeling, by the character, without any interruption. Also, all of the monologues in this book were written with diction beyond that of the specific character. Their vocabulary was heightened, and none of their southern diction was present. This only occurred in the monologues. This was a style Faulkner used so that the reader concentrated more on the characters themselves, rather than the actual plot.
A finale motif in the novel is diction. The book takes place in the deep south of America, and all of the characters have a rich Southern accent. Instead of just inferring that the accent is there, Faulkner wrote out the words how they would sound in a southern accent. If you yourself do not have this particular accent, it may be hard to read the text, but one usually becomes accustomed to it over time. Any type of proper spelling and grammar is completely ignored.
Editor, SparkNotes. "SparkNotes: As I Lay Dying." SparkNotes. SparkNotes, 14 Mar. 2013. Web. 02 Apr. 2013.
Harrison, Scott. "Welcome to Valdosta State University." Welcome to Valdosta State University. Valdosta State University, 17 Mar. 2003. Web. 02 Apr. 2013.
Padgett, John B. "William Faulkner." The University of Mississippi. The University of Mississippi English Department, 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 02 Apr. 2013.
"Shmoop: Homework Help, Teacher Resources, Test Prep." Shmoop. Shmoop University, n.d. Web. 03 Apr. 2013.
"Symbolism in As I Lay Dying." Free Term Papers, Research Papers, Essays, Book Notes. N.p., 1 Jan. 2011. Web. 03 Apr. 2013.