The Relativism of Reality in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying

March 21, 2019 by Essay Writer

“It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it,” (Faulkner, 233). In William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, an obvious discrepancy exists between death and birth and between words and thoughts that ultimately changes the way events are perceived. Peabody articulates that death does not take any one form but rather takes different forms based on different perspectives. He says, “I can remember how when I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind,” (44). This forms the philosophy that seemingly concrete events like birth, death and the life in between are not absolute at all. Rather emotions shape them into unique events which vary from person to person. Through the insights of his characters Faulkner also seems to suggest that words do not mean the same thing to everyone. Rather each person’s unique perceptions give different meaning to the same words. This is another way in which reality, in this case the reality of language, varies. Ultimately, through multiple contradictions, through the primacy of the individual and through a divergence from expected emotional reactions, Faulkner relates his theory that reality is indefinite and that individual perceptions and emotions, not merely facts, shape reality.Faulkner uses his characters as vehicles to express the belief that reality and events are indefinite and are formed based on emotions and individual perspectives as much as on actual facts. Faulkner develops this theme primarily around Darl’s presumed insanity and the varying reactions to it. Darl has an uncanny ability to sense his siblings’ personal feelings and to take on their personalities. Thus, his reaction to his own insanity eerily mimics the reactions of his siblings. In his final appearance he proclaims, “Darl is our brother, our brother Darl. Our brother Darl in a cage in Jackson where, his grimed hands lying light in the quiet interstices, looking out he foams. ‘Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes,'” (254). Having a jarringly similar reaction, Vardaman represents the impressionable masses of society as a whole. Young and innocent, Vardaman has no solid opinions of his own but rather takes on the opinions of the majority around him. Vardaman perceives Darl’s insanity in a much more black and white manner. He states quite simply; “Darl is my brother. Darl went crazy,” (250). This lies in direct contrast to Cash’s much more philosophical reaction. For it remains Cash who asserts most lucidly that, “It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s in the way the majority of folk is looking at him when he does it,” (233). He also declares that, “Sometimes I aint so sho’ who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talk him that-a-way,” (233). Thus, he summarizes Faulkner’s belief that reality, in this case the reality of Darl’s madness, is only reality if one’s perceptions deem it so. Otherwise reality becomes complete falsity. Jewel once again stands apart from the rest of the family. He feels little guilt, sorrow or remorse for Darl’s virtual imprisonment, saying to Darl straightforwardly, “You goddamn lying son of a bitch,” (213). These widely varying reactions to Darl’s insanity prove that reality maintains no definite form but rather varies based on each individual’s emotions or perceptions.Words, as used in As I Lay Dying, do not often accurately reflect the impressions or the implications that the character tries to convey through them. Thus, the perceived precision of words diminishes and reality becomes more abstract. Words are definite in their tangible form. However, words attain meaning only through the personal connotations that are attached to them. As Addie declares, “That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at,” (171). Communication between the characters seems most effective when words are not used at all, further emphasizing the ineffectiveness of words. For example, during the conversation between Dewey Dell and Darl regarding her pregnancy, words are never spoken aloud. This nonverbal conversation not only seems more effective in conveying its meaning but Dewey Dell also expresses that had it been spoken aloud, she would not have believed it. This again suggests the fallibility of words. Dewey Dell articulates, “It was then, and then I saw Darl and he knew. He said he knew without words . . . and I knew he knew because if he had said he knew with the words I would not have believed that he had been there and saw us,” (27). This apparent ineffectiveness of words forces the reader to observe the uncertainty of events in life; events which are based on individual reactions to a situation as opposed to a factual meaning.Each character’s different reaction to Addie’s death illustrates Faulkner’s concept of the primacy of the individual. Their words reflect different responses thus proving that similar words and similar events have very diverse connotations. Vardaman’s inability to cope with the reality of Addie’s death underscores his childish, often naive reaction, to many different events. His reaction seems to be the one that is the most out of touch with true reality. He mumbles, “My mother is a fish,” (84) and, “It is cut up into pieces of not-fish now, not-blood on my hands and overalls,” (53). He also reacts by denying the physical death of his mother by asserting, “My mother is not in the box. My mother does not smell like that. My mother is a fish,” (196). While this seems ludicrous, its clarity appears if one observes it in a more philosophical manner. Indeed, Addie does not lie in the box, but rather only her body lies in the box. The actual person, her spirit, swam away down the river. He cannot accept reality and thus his fantasy becomes his reality. He truly believes that his mother is a fish and thus questions, “Where is ma Darl? . . . You never got her. You know she is a fish but you let her get away,” (151). Darl’s reaction to Addie’s death lies in stark contrast to Vardaman’s when he asserts that, “Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is,” (81). Vardaman’s response seems much more philosophical and his reaction remains internalized. His inability to express his feelings in words reinforces the primacy of the internal individual as opposed to the physical world. Anse reacts by denying her illness altogether when he says, “You lay you down and rest you, . . . I knowed you are not sick. You are just tired,” (37). Finally, Cash has the most physical reaction to Addie’s death. He focuses exclusively on earthly concerns such as his tools and on the mechanics of making the coffin. Cash proceeds to describe the construction of the coffin, the physical way in which he dealt with Addie’s death. He declares, “I made it on a bevel . . . It makes a neater job,” (82-3). He is the only one of the three sons who does not associate Addie with an imaginary entity or animal. Darl associates Addie with “is was” (101) and he associates Jewel’s mother with “a horse” (101). Finally, Vardaman associates Addie with “a fish,” (84). Cash never enters this conversation and thus appears more in touch with reality than the other characters. These vastly different reactions emphasize the primacy of the individual over one singular reality through multifaceted reactions to the same event.The uncertainty of reality and the varying views of one event surfaces again in the infamous river crossing scene. The even-keeled Tull lays out the facts quite simply, stating, “…Darl jumped out of the wagon and left Cash sitting there trying to save it… the mules finally kicked it loose, it looked for a minute like maybe Cash would get the wagon back,” (152-4). He plays the role of the omniscient narrator, relating the story simply using the facts. This acts as a reference point for the narrations of the other characters, which are filled with emotion and discontinuity. The different characters’ accounts of the river crossing reflect the same emotions that each character feels towards Addie’s death. Vardaman, the character least in touch with reality, continues to be unable to separate himself from the idea of his mother existing still as a fish. He stays fixated upon the idea that Addie continues to live on Earth in a fish’s body. Cash focuses entirely on earthly things like the coffin saying, “It wasn’t on balance. I told them that if they wanted it to tote and ride on a balance they would have to,” (165). Finally, Darl seems to take on the feelings of each character. He seems slow to act and deliberate in his motions which reflects his reaction to Addie’s death, slow to accept her death and deliberate in overcoming it. The different accounts of the river crossing illustrate the likelihood of varying views of one event, thus making the existence of a singular reality problematic.A divergence from the typical emotions associated with birth exists. Societal norms dictate that a birth is a happy event. However, Addie and Dewey Dell display a divergence from reality because they feel that their aloneness has been violated by their unexpected pregnancies. Thus they feel anger instead of joy. Cora represents the typical, societal stereotype when she emphasizes, “God gave you children to comfort your human lot and for a token of His own suffering and love, for in love you conceived and bore them,” (166). Directly after Cora’s remarks come Addie and Dewey Dell’s sentiments of anger towards their children. Their remarks belie the traditional stereotypes of birth because of their past experiences and current situation. The pregnancy violates her aloneness in Dewey Dell’s mind and she laments, “It’s because I am alone. If I could just feel it, it would be different, because I would not be alone. But if I were not alone, everybody would know… Then I could be all right alone,” (59). Addie’s feelings of violation and anger mirror those of Dewey Dell. She testifies that, “When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the one that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not,” (172). Her anger also resurfaces when she laments, “I knew that it had been, not that my aloneness had to be violated until Cash came,” (172). Dewey Dell’s and Addie’s divergence from the normal sentiments of delight and joyfulness towards birth represents a further reflection of Faulkner’s philosophy that perceptions and emotions shape events in life.William Faulkner, in his novel As I Lay Dying expresses his belief that wildly different ideas, perceptions and emotions shape life and make it indefinite. His characters all provide different accounts of the same basic event. Ultimately, the reader realizes that that a seemingly concrete event is not concrete at all but rather fluid and ever changing due to the varying perceptions of the characters involved. Through Addie Bundren’s statement, “That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at,” (171), Faulkner also asserts that words have no meaning in their tangible, definite form but that personal emotions, perceptions, and experiences give them meaning. Even still, words remain indefinite and ever-changing in their meaning. Faulkner seems to stress the importance of open-mindedness by emphasizing the multifaceted descriptions of one, singular event. He seems to say that it is impossible to define life or reality because each human being defines it for himself. Faulkner implies that a man must keep an open mind and willingly accept all points of view. Ultimately, one realizes that the novel attempts to impart to the reader the belief that life is not concrete. Varying individual perspectives, atypical reactions to events and individual primacy shape reality. Thus no one reality exists but rather true reality is relative. As Peabody so lucidly asserts, reality, like death, is “…merely a function of the mind,” (44).

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