Faulkner’s Symbolism in As I Lay Dying
“My mother is a fish” is perhaps the most famous quote from William Faulkner’s Southern Gothic novel, As I Lay Dying (Faulkner, 1957, p. 84). William Cuthbert Faulkner was born in 1897 in Oxford, Mississippi. The setting of As I Lay Dying, as well as many of his other novels, resembles the bucolic nature of his hometown. He embodies his hometown through the fictional setting, Yoknapatawpha, that is consistent throughout all of his stories. Faulkner is well-known for creating the genre know as Southern Gothic, which exemplifies Southern culture and tradition. He established this genre of writing through his experimental writing, such as the multiple narrators experienced in As I Lay Dying. Faulkner’s stories do not attempt to represent the beauty in southern culture, but the realistic, negative parts. This also helps to develop the gothic nature of his writings. Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, is the epitome of a Southern gothic writing and is a great contribution to Southern literature. Faulkner utilizes As I Lay Dying to address the strain placed on family ties during a close death. Faulkner employs animal metaphors, eye symbolism, character tension, and textual voice to demonstrate a person’s ability to cope with the loss of a loved one.
Faulkner utilizes animal symbolism to maximize communication between the narrator and the reader to reveal the characters’ emotional state. Faulkner expertly juxtaposes the main characters and animals to reveal important characteristics. Anse is compared to a “dipped rooster,” Jewel’s mother is stated to be a horse, and Vardaman claims his mother is a fish (White, 2008, p.1). The use of these “animetaphors” invigorates the language and enhances the reader’s understanding of how each character sees the loss of Addie (White, 2008, p.1). Because the book gives only the inner thoughts of the narrator, the observations and descriptions of the animals allow a sense of body language. Every main character exercises an animal metaphor in a different way. Dewey Dell’s description of the cow shows her heightened sense of perceptiveness due to her pregnancy (White, 2008, p.7). She relates her emotional and physical state to that of the cow by her chiding, “You’ll just have to wait. What you got in you aint nothing to what I got in me, even if you are a woman too” (Faulkner, 1957, p. 63). The intimacy of her relationship with the cow relates to the loss of her feminine role model, even if her thoughts on the subject are selfish. Furthermore, Darl’s description of the “unrestrained and inarticulate” mules not only juxtaposes with his “exquisitely controlled language”, but also foreshadows his descent into insanity (White, 2008, p.7). Faulkner’s employment of animal symbols and metaphors creates a deeper understanding of the characters’ emotional states and capabilities.
Faulkner employs another type of symbolism to demonstrate the individual personality and ability to cope. Through describing a character’s eyes, Faulkner relates the character’s emotional state to the reader. Jewel’s eyes are described the most out of all characters, which is interesting since he is the least present throughout the novel. His personality is revealed to the audience through the description of “his eyes like pale wooden eyes” (Faulkner, 1957, p. 18). This symbolizes Jewel’s unyielding strength and dependability, which is apparent throughout the novel, supported by the dedication and hard work required to buy his horse. Another example of this is Darl describing Jewel’s eyes as “alert and hard” (Faulkner, 1957, p. 146). Tull describes Jewel as having eyes that “look like pieces of a broken plate” (Faulkner, 1957, p. 26). This symbolizes Jewel’s brokenness at his mother’s death as well as his hard and cold nature towards the rest of his family. The description of Addie’s eyes also provides important insight into the story. Addie’s death is described as her eyes being “two flames [that] glare up for a steady instant. Then they go out as thought someone had leaned down and blown upon them” (Faulkner, 1957, p. 48). The comparison between Addie and a flame shows her untamed nature that broke during her life with Anse. When the flame goes out, it symbolizes her life ending as well as the end to her untamed spirit. The description of Dewey Dell’s eyes provides more insight into her selfish nature than to her feelings on her mother’s death. However, Dewey Dell’s selfishness reveals her lack of caring about her mother due to her own problems. Her eyes are often described by associations with dark and dangerous objects. The Bundren’s neighbor describes her as having eyes like “pistols” (Faulkner, 1957, p 115). This alludes to her anger and distrust of anyone due to her secret pregnancy. Dewey Dell’s eyes are also described “as black a pair of eyes as ever” seen (Faulkner, 1957, p. 199). The color black symbolizes the fear and remorse she feels at her unwanted pregnancy, as well as mourning for her mother’s death. Through extensive use of color symbolism and allusions to eyes, Faulkner grants insight into the personality of the characters.
The tension between Jewel and Darl is the cryptic conflict of the novel which leads to the reader’s understanding of how family bonds affect the ability to endure after the loss of a family member. The most obvious example of this tension is Jewel’s constant presence in Darl’s narratives. This is evidence of Darl’s unnatural obsession with his younger brother. According to Elizabeth Hayes, the conflict is a result of Addie’s favoritism towards Jewel and his aversion to Darl (Hayes, 1992, p.5). Another example of family ties relating to a death is Jewel’s absence of narratives after the death of Addie. His voice is presented through the unreliable word of Darl. Jewel’s mother was the only thing that connected him to the rest of the family. Born out of an affair, he was not fully related to Darl or any other member of the family, which led to his apparent distance and coldness from the rest of his family. The strained, edgy dialogue between the two brothers also proves this tension. Jewel and Darl’s conflict ultimately leads to Darl’s alienation from the family that could chiefly be responsible for his insanity. This proves that family ties partake in a person’s ability to remain rational after a traumatic loss.
The textual voice of each character reveals his or her emotional stability and composure, which reveals his or her strength after losing the matriarch of the family. Faulkner varies his use of italics, punctuation, paragraphing and speaker identification to reinforce his uses of textual voice (Hayes, 1992, p.1). In the beginning of the novel, Darl emerges as the most logical character as his language is controlled and punctuated, but as he loses control of language it is evident that he is also losing control of his sanity. An example of Darl’s shift in textual voice is present in his last monologue when his tense switches between first and third person. His rambling, “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes”, proves his shift in textual voice, which mirrors his shift in emotional and mental state (Faulkner, 1957, p. 253). Jewel’s short, passionate monologues reveal that he deals with his mother’s loss through violent thoughts and actions (Delville, 1994, p.2). Vardaman’s illogical train of thought, such as his famous quote “My mother is a fish,” reflects his confusion and inability to comprehend his mother’s death (Faulkner, 1957, p. 84) . Each character’s narrative voice reveals how he or she is coping with Addie’s death.
Faulkner enhances the reader’s understanding on the Bundren family’s ability to cope with loss through animal metaphors, eye symbolism, character tensions, and textual voice. The multi-narrator, stream of consciousness style of writing presents the reader with a limited, choppy, and unreliable story. Faulkner compensates for this through his use of literary devices. “Animetaphors” give a sense of the character’s body language, while the symbolism of eyes implicates the personality and emotions of the characters. Both of these characteristics relate to how the individual characters deal with the loss of the matriarch of the family. Character tensions allude to the strain endured by family members in the face of a loss. It is evident in As I Lay Dying that the loss of a family member brings out the worst in everyone, so it is logical that there tends to be more conflicts and frustrations within the family unit during the grieving process. Since the first-person point of view is largely undependable, Faulkner utilizes textual voice to reveal the emotional stability of each character. In the novel As I Lay Dying, Faulkner successfully creates the epitome of a Southern Gothic novel that demonstrates every aspect of the loss of a loved one.
Delville, Michael. (1994). “Alienating language and Darl’s narrative consciousness in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.” The Southern Literary Journal, 27.1. Retrieved from
Faulkner, William. (1957). As I Lay Dying. New York, NY: Vintage International.
Hayes, Elizabeth. (1992). “Tension between Darl and Jewel.” The Southern Literary Journal, 24.2. Retrieved from
White, Christopher. (2008). “The modern magnetic animal: As I Lay Dying and the uncanny Zoology of modernism.” Journal of Modern Literature, 31.3. Retrieved from http://ww16.gogalegroup.com/?sub1=20210913-2035-26e5-9688-38a61dd1e27d
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