Wednesday, July 13, 2011

As I Lay Dying

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As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying is perhaps, Faulkner’s most agile, adroit novel. This is the novel that his versatility and mastery of his craft are revealed. With signs of both tragic and comic genres, literature fans and critics have argued between themselves the true genre of the novel. With the somewhat “unchosen” classification and very odd writing style, As I Lay Dying has become one of the most unique and puzzling novels in history.

Unlike any other novel of its time, As I Lay Dying has multiple narrators. Every member of the Bundren family, including some members of the community, narrates at least one section. With such an unusual writing style, the novel seems to be a bit confusing, at times, because the variety of narrative voices, provides the reader with multiple, sometimes conflicting perspectives (Lilburn 1-15). Lilburn says that the novel “can, at times, leave the reader a bit confused” (Lilburn 1) As each section goes by, the lighting and perspective changes. The reader is then forced to make adjustments to be able to stay with the story. With its multiple narrators, the novel starts to get hard, at the end, to follow. But it’s the tones and moods that keep the novel together. Even though confused, it is almost instinct to try to interpret the novel. “ The baffling diversity of tones and moods which characterizes the novel goes some way towards explaining the variety of interpretations it has provoked” (Bleikasten 15-18). What the critic is saying is that depending on the person reading the novel and how he or she hears the changing tones and moods, determines how each person will interprets the novel.

Critic Jeffrey M. Lilburn believes that the debate over comedy or tragedy “just shows how the novel has defied and resisted any attempt to impose reductive explanations or categorizations” (Lilburn 1). However, he does believe that the novel is in fact a tragedy at heart. He examines the tragic elements of the story. A mother on her deathbed listening to the sounds of her own coffin being constructed, for instance. Also many other events along the Bundren’s journey seem to be of a tragic nature. These events include a team of mules drowning, a Bundren son Cash breaking his leg, another son Darl being sent to an asylum, and the physical abuse of Dewey Dell, the Bundren daughter (Lilburn 1-14). It is happenings like these that drive Lilburn to believe the story to be a tragedy.

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Critic Robert Merrill sides with Lilburn on the matter, defending his belief with even more passion. Merrill says that reading the story as tragic is “to experience the novel as Faulkner conceived and wrote it” (Lilburn 14). He concedes that the humorous moments are “genuinely amusing” but “merge with events of a truly compelling terribleness” (Lilburn 14). For this reason, Merrill is a firm believer that the novel is and was meant to be a tragedy “in it’s most radical and original form” (Lilburn 14).

Other critics tend to emphasize the books comical elements. Patricia R. Schroeder believes that Faulkner’s grotesque humor contributes to a comic framework that celebrates “the indefatigable man” (Lilburn 14). Schroeder sees the novel as a comedy that is the “inverse of tragedy it celebrates community survival, applauds the status quo and affirms life in the face of death” (Lilburn 14). Schroeder also addresses the “frustrated funeral” of the south that allows people to reduce death to comic and manageable proportions (Lilburn 14). It may possibly be this aspect that allows Schroeder to see the story as comic. It may give people a way to deal with the loss of a loved one through comic modes to make them better able to handle their situation. Again Schroeder sees comedy at the end of the novel when the Bundren’s return home. They do so with a new team of mule’s, a new set of teeth for Anse, a new mother and wife, and Dewey Dall’s child, unborn. Schroeder believes that this is evidence that “even when confronted with the death of an individual, life will prevail” (Lilburn 14).

Although Lilburn sees the novel as a tragedy, he is also able to see the comic value in many instances throughout the book. He believes that many of these moments come within the sections narrated by members of the community who are not in the Bundren family. He says a prime example of this is when Samson gives his version of the Bundren’s journey. When Samson says, “It had been dead eight days, it must have been like a piece of rotten cheese coming into an ant-hill” (Lilburn 14) Lilburn sees all sorts of comic value. Lilburn suggests that Peabody’s views of Anse are “equally amusing” (Lilburn 14). Peabody states “I be damned if the man that’d let Anse Burden treat him with raw cement ain’t got more spare legs than I have” (Lilburn 14) while examining Cash’s broken leg. It is scenes like these that allow Lilburn to stray away a bit from his original prescription of the novel.

The indecision of these critics is obvious though, as some are even able to see both sides of the argument and almost agree with each. It is because of this inability to clearly choose sides that Andre Bleikasten says that “As I Lay Dying embarrasses critics who are hard put to define it’s genre” (Bleikasten 16). Bleikasten believes that the novel provides us with “ a comedy and the reverse of comedy, a tragedy, and the derision of tragedy” (Bleikasten 17) all at once. Bleikasten seems to fall in line with his contemporaries, being not able to choose a clear category for Faulkner’s classic.

It seems as though he was exactly correct because not even these literary scholars seem to be able to determine the true nature of the book. Is the novel a comedy or tragedy? It is possible that there will never be a definite answer. Maybe that is what Faulkner truly wanted.

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