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The Peculiarities Of Language In The Novel As I Lay Dying

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Modernism defined American literature as a movement that emphasized the human experience and expanded on the psychological conditions of the human mind in reaction to its surrounding environment. William Faulkner embodies the abovementioned sentiment as he emerged an extreme modernist, whose literature can thus be examined as an experimentation with the human condition and its response to substantial life events. Among his renowned works, As I Lay Dying focuses on the psychological processes that human beings undergo to cope with a traumatic personal experience. In particular, Faulkner juxtaposes the literal funeral journey of Addie Bundren and her family with the reflective nature of their mental states and attempts to articulate emotions. Faulkner employs a poetic and polyphonic style to expose the paradoxical, symbolic nature of language within the human experience as both an inadequate form yet realistic function of being human.

The modern approach that Faulkner takes towards the novel’s form involves the use of precise formatting, syntax variety, different vernaculars, and multiple voices. The novel consists of fifteen unique narrators, each with their own perspective. Many critics refer to the fragmented narrative as a mirror to the compartmentalization that is characteristic of the human mind (Olsen 97). Faulkner portrays the stream of consciousness of each integral character through multiple reflective sections. Addie Bundren’s section serves as the main allegory for the complex relationship between language and experience. The range of voice invoked with each new section represents the real-time processing of events by its titular character. The polyphonic style in conjunction with the intensity of precise syntax and appropriate vernaculars, like Vardaman’s short conclusion that “[His] mother is a fish” (Faulkner 84) or Dewey Dell’s italicized, innermost thoughts protruding her monologues (Faulkner 121), conveys the authenticity and sincerity behind each character. Faulkner forces the reader to analyze the text with “reflexive reference” (Alldredge 3) so as to interpret each different view as a collective illustration. The nonlinear format suspends the literal travel of the Bundren’s and each of their internal constructs of reality in a sporadic, three-dimensional context.

The novel’s form symbolizes Faulkner’s intent to juxtapose temporal events with the spatial nature of humanity. He breaks up the serial, progressive narrative by representing each character’s voice regarding the same events they all share in, such as the river calamity. Cash’s interpretation of the river accident, including the death of the mules, the temporary loss of his mother’s coffin, and Jewel’s attempt to grab control of it once more, while laying down on the bank represents his particular need for reason and logic. Having gone underwater and consequently throwing up, the reader might expect Cash to focus on near-death experience. Instead, Cash thinks to himself that “it wasn’t on a balance. I told them that if they wanted it to tote and ride on a balance, they would have to,” (Faulkner 165) observing a succinct summation of the distressing incident. This comparison of experience and articulation starkly emphasizes the contrast between the substantial degree of danger and trauma and Cash’s personal viewpoint of reality. The fragmented sentence plus his self-satisfied tone reflects Cash’s solemn, in-control nature, even amidst almost losing his mother’s body before burial and almost drowning himself.

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In contrast, Darl’s depiction of the events at the river crossing signify his introspective, philosophizing temperament. For example, Darl notes how Cash’s “hair [is] plastered in a smooth smear across his forehead as though done with a paint brush…and his face appears sunken [and]…sagging…as though the wetting had slacked the firmness which had held the skin full” (Faulkner 156). Read with Lilly’s “reflexive reference,” Darl takes the time to paint a detailed image of Cash’s person: a calm, solitary being on the bank of a river. Yet, Cash himself sees not the gravity of the situation, but the candor of his preferences and intentions. Faulkner’s intentional variety of voice, tone, and form contribute to each character’s interpretation of and coping with reality, and prompt the reader to consider the construct of language and communication between each character and within the constraints of attempting to translate the human experience.

Addie’s monologue represents Faulkner’s primary metaphor of humans and their attempts to find meaning in life. The significance of Addie’s section cannot be overstated; Faulkner specifically chose to insert a snapshot into the mind of the deceased mother whose corpse currently decays in the back of the wagon, traveling from city to city in the sweltering sun to reach its grave in Jackson, Mississippi. The physical placement of the section in the precise middle of the novel parallels the essential role that Addie plays in the comparison of external to internal communication and language. Faulkner employs alienating diction to expand on the isolation felt by Addie Bundren. Addie’s commentary like “I knew that living was terrible” (Faulkner 171) and “I knew [the word Love] was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack” (Faulkner 172) frames her perspective in terms of first-person experiences that are detached from other beings. This alienating terminology functions as a cog in the wheel of emotion through which people live, and not only as the limiting function of language that Michael Delville suggests (Delville 65). Faulkner’s polyphonic, fragmented style represents his experimentation with provoking the reader to engage with the character’s experience and communication of that experience. By reading Addie’s perspective on her life posthumously, and reflecting on the other character’s voices simultaneously, Faulkner accomplishes his intent to engage the reader with the boundaries and limits of the human experience and attempts to connect with others.

Faulkner frequented the term “poet” as the pinnacle representation of the human existence in his lectures and correspondence with colleagues (Atkinson 20-21), thus perhaps his literary goal was to achieve a transformative narrative using poetic language. Martin Heidegger claims the language of poetry “has the potential to bring meaning into existence” (Olsen 102). Thus, a person’s attempt to interpret, translate, and communicate a given experience, as feeble as it may be, is ultimately the most appropriate medium humanity has to imbue meaning into the human experience. Faulkner’s use of multiple voices may appear chaotic and experimental, but is rather a re-forming conception that appears to link time and space, life and death in a cyclical, spatial context that mirrors the human experience and subsequent interpretation. As Addie reveals that childbirth remains the only event through which her “aloneness had been violated and then made whole again by the violation: time, Anse, love,” (Faulkner 172) she likens the shared experience between a mother and child to the thread that connects humanity. Faulkner is not simply trying to conclude that “words are no good…[and] don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at,” as presumed by Addie (Faulkner 171), but that they are the best attempt to assign meaning to life as they connect human beings through language, communication, and ultimately common experience.

Faulkner claims poetic language stands as the pinnacle of significant existence, as communication provides human beings with a sense of purpose and meaning. Thus, the alienating language employed by Faulkner throughout the novel alludes to the regenerative nature of poetic language and its articulation of shared experience. This implication appears most effective in Addie’s section and can be simultaneously viewed as a cycle of love and loss, of living and dying, and of isolation and connection. The perfectly imperfect language that humans use to share their experiences connects all as multiple beings who become one in human bond. Faulkner mastered the representation of the complex nature of humanity in its vast range of emotions and rationales through his use of alienating language and polyphonic style.

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The Peculiarities Of Language In The Novel As I Lay Dying. (2021, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from
“The Peculiarities Of Language In The Novel As I Lay Dying.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2021,
The Peculiarities Of Language In The Novel As I Lay Dying. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 4 Mar. 2024].
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