As I Lay Dying Essay, Research Paper
AS I LAY DYING
In “As I Lay Dying” William Faulkner uses multiple points of view to explore the theme of existence as a motionless and meaningless cycle. The cycle is motionless because it is inescapable and unchangeable. One can never leave the cycle of life and death. People perpetuate the cycle by creating life, but in creating life they are creating death, for life irrevocably leads to death. Faulkner depicts existence as meaningless. Nothing really changes in the story. On the surface the characters appear to change, such as Addie dying, Darl going crazy and Anse getting a new wife, but none of these changes are really as relevant as they seem.
By using multiple points of view Faulkner lets us into each character?s mind. We see how each person thinks about the cycle of existence. This insight could be accomplished with an omniscient narrator, but Faulkner?s way is much more effective. Faulkner allows us to see a ten-year-old?s perspective on life and death from the perspective of a ten-year-old, instead of from the perspective of some all-knowing narrator that doesn?t really know what it?s like to be a ten-year-old. Also, the actual sequence of narrators is in a cycle. We don?t just hear all of Darl?s point of view, and then Anse?s, and then Peabody?s. Faulkner cycles through his characters, returning again and again to people like Darl and Dewey Dell and Vardaman, while having characters such as Jewel and Addie speak only once.
Addie Bundren is in many ways the central character of the story. The plot revolves around her as her family tries to get her body to Jefferson for burial. Her single monologue comes in the exact middle of the book, making her geographically the central character. Most importantly however, she is the character who best expresses the motionless and meaningless cycle of existence. “My father said that the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead” (506). With life comes the unmistakable knowledge that death will eventually follow. People live their entire lives knowing that ultimately all they have to look forward to is death. This makes life meaningless, since it will all be forgotten with one?s death. Granted, this view could be challenged by people who believe in an afterlife, but the only two really religious people in “As I Lay Dying,” Cora and Whitfield, are portrayed as somewhat stupid and insincere. So Faulkner apparently wants us to think that life is meaningless. For the characters in his story, life is certainly meaningless.
Addie describes the meaninglessness of life when she talks about words. “…words are no good; that words don?t ever fit even what they are trying to say at” (504). If words are meaningless, then how can life have meaning, since words are humanity?s livelihood? Words are what allow communication, and communication is what gives life meaning. Without communication life is devoid of all social aspects, and humans are social creatures. Addie realizes the meaninglessness of life, and she knows that she is caught up in the cycle of life and death, and that there is no escape form it. She knows that she brought her children into the same cycle that she herself is in, and that they too will live empty lives only to die.
Dewey Dell?s situation is an example of how the cycle of existence is perpetuated, even against her will. She tries to not continue the cycle into the next generation, but the cycle is so powerful that she cannot avoid having the child. Faulkner gives us Dewey Dell?s point of view, because without it we might not even know that she is pregnant. If the story were told from, say, Cash?s point of view, we would have no idea that Dewey Dell wants to go to Jefferson to have an abortion. An omniscient narrator could give us this information about Dewey Dell, but it would not affect us the same way as when it comes directly from her. By using the first person point of view Faulkner takes us inside the characters? minds and makes us a part of their thoughts and actions. So when Dewey Dell says, “I lean a little forward, one foot advancing with dead walking” it affects us much more personally than if an omniscient narrator says the same thing (471). It?s like Dewey Dell is sharing a part of herself with us. She is sharing her knowledge of the cycle of existence. She knows that she is alive, but that each step only brings her one step closer to death, and she brings us closer to herself by giving us this knowledge. Dewey Dell embraces the readers in a way that no omniscient narrator could in this story.
Vardaman is too young and inexperienced to fully understand the meaning, or meaninglessness, of life, yet he perfectly describes the motionlessness of the cycle of existence. “I strike at them, striking, they wheeling in a long lunge, the buggy wheeling onto two wheels and motionless like it is nailed to the ground and the horses motionless like they are nailed by the hind feet to the center of a whirling plate” (469). Life and death are like the horses and buggy ? individually they move, yet the entire cycle stays motionless in the same place. The cycle is like the whirling plate that Vardaman describes. It makes things appear to move and change, but in reality everything just stays the same. This whirling and motionless and circling imagery is repeated throughout the book. The flood scene has the whirling yet stationary imagery, and buzzards are constantly circling above Addie?s coffin. This repeated imagery makes it an important part of the story.
The changes that the characters go through really aren?t changes at all; they are just the next steps in the cycle of existence. Addie dying just finalizes her life. She was moving towards death her entire life, and she finally makes it. Anse getting a new wife doesn?t change anything in the family structure. She is just a replacement of Addie. Everyone?s life goes on just as it had before, with the exception of Darl, who goes to a mental institution. However, his craziness is not as strange as it first appears. Throughout the entire story Darl is utterly confused about his own identity. He doesn?t know who he is, or who he is not. He doesn?t understand what his place is in life, and the fact that he goes crazy is simply the next step in his identity crisis. Again, it is because we are given Darl?s thoughts that his craziness makes sense to us. We are brought into his confused mind, and so when it finally cracks we understand why.
So nobody in the story really changes. They are all in a motionless state of existence, moving slowly towards death. Faulkner?s use of point of view helps us understand how the characters feel about their cycle of existence, and how much of it they truly understand. If Faulkner had told this story any other way, we would not understand the cycle as well as we do. We wouldn?t feel a part of they story and the characters. We would be distant from their emotions and thoughts. But as it is, we feel like a part of everyone in the story, and we can relate to and understand their thoughts.