The Tragedy of Miscommunication: As I Lay Dying
In accordance with the increasing influence of Modernist thought affecting American literature during the twentieth century, William Faulkner was willing to exercise more experimental narrative techniques and styles. His novel that came from this experimentation, As I Lay Dying, is a testament to his critique of mankind as hopelessly poor, yet unyielding, communicators. The heavily disjointed Bundren family, along with the handful of spectators and strangers who also happen to be a part of the burial of Addie Bundren, form an equally disjointed patchwork of perspectives, opinions, longwinded internal monologues, and terse conversation. The resulting synthesized narrative is a literary panorama which reveals all of the overlapping layers and niches which create a comprehensive story of the Bundren family journey. Surprisingly enough, this story of a dirt poor Southern family spending five days burying their dead mother is rich and vibrant, featuring intense emotional turmoil and the testing of familial ties, all hidden within the respective characters’ minds and thoughts. Ultimately, the greatest tragedy of As I Lay Dying is not the death of Addie Bundren, but the suffering and resentment which the Bundrens undergo as a result of their failure to communicate with each other, their true thoughts and reflections only chronicled in their respective narrative sections.
Faulkner’s most significant representation of mankind’s inability to truly communicate is his implementation of fifteen separate narrators over fifty-nine separate, overlapping narrative sections, freely displaying the misunderstandings, delusions, and silent reflections that directly lead to all of the Bundren family’s public and personal dilemmas. Each with their own unique voice, desires, and worldly views, the various narrators of the novel are distinct and diverse. The Bundren family members are particularly divergent in their communication styles. The only characteristic they share is that they refuse to genuinely articulate themselves verbally to one another. All seven of the Bundrens almost exclusively express themselves in the novel’s narrative through rich, personal mental accounts of their impressions, feelings, and motives which go largely unheard by the other members of the family.
Cash, for example, is frequently ignored and overlooked despite his inherent levelheadedness. For example: “I told them that if they wanted it to tote and ride on a balance, they would have to” (165). Here, Cash is expressing his frustration at his family’s ignorance. Being the most logical and adept of the Bundrens, Cash had easily foreseen trouble at the crossing of the river, yet was completely ignored by the entire family. Faulkner even goes as far as to end his narrative mid-sentence. Clearly, this act of sheer disrespect towards the narrator mirrors the disrespect which Cash receives when he attempts to communicate. Rather than avoid calamity altogether, the Bundrens’ deaf ears and deaf souls result in disaster; Cash is swiftly isolated and subdued by both family blood and the rushing river waters. The only one who earnestly hears Cash is himself.
This isolation is true for all of the respective narrators within the novel. Each speaker is effectively secluded within their own minds, portrayed through their respective narrative sections. Progress only occurs if there appears to be shared opinions among all this communicative ambiguity. Cash elaborates on this idea in regards to Daryl’s incarceration: “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 talks him that-a-way. It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it. Because Jewel is too hard on him” (233). Indeed, Cash concludes that sanity, and by connection all conceptions of truth and reality, are relative to the perspectives by which it is observed and communicated. Darl’s declaration of insanity is only the result of other perspectives, like Jewel’s and the rest of the family, overpowering his own. This molding of what is considered to be the Bundrens’ reality is exemplified by the maze of individual narrative sections which actively bend and rewrite their story as it happens. Evidently, the method by which mankind perceives and evaluates truth is far too fickle and isolated for any effective communication, especially for the Bundrens.
Furthermore, Faulkner’s juxtaposition of rich, flowing stream of consciousness passages and the comparatively blunt vocal exchanges debases a large portion of the miniscule verbal communication present in the novel. The various narrative sections feature scant conversation between the characters. However, when compared to the abundance of resonant internal monologues which form the majority of the story’s progression, these short-lived outbursts of spoken word lose much of their relevance. For instance, as several of the older men of the novel gather around Cash and discuss his first broken leg, two distinctly separate conversations, one internal and one external, are visible. Tull comments, presumably in his mind, “I dont mind the folks falling. It’s the cotton and corn I mind. Neither does Peabody mind the folks falling. How bout it, Doc?” (90). Here, Tull in a near jocular manner, disregards Cash’s three-story fall from atop a church. He asserts that his and Peabody’s professions take precedence over Cash’s leg only moments, in fact, after Armstid had mentioned the potential of Cash being bed-ridden because of the accident. The difference between these two statements is that Armstid had spoken aloud and Tull had kept his true thoughts to himself. Tull then goes off riding on a loose, flowing narrative which Faulkner takes the effort to fully italicize, indicating an acute separation between Tull’s thoughts and the actual conversation at hand. In this particular moment, Tull is an example of how strongly the characters in the novel protect their inner thoughts from those who may be listening. As a result of this behavior, the vast stores of sincere reflections are transformed into hollow bits and pieces of dialogue. This is hardly sufficient communication for a family in crisis and leads to many fatal mistakes and misconceptions.
Finally, Faulkner’s terminating critique against communication in the novel comes from Addie’s bitter critique of language, the vehicle by which all communication has thus far been established. In her lone standing narrative section, Addie Bundren attacks the use of words as a legitimate method of communication. Particularly, when referring to Anse and the word “love,” she spits, “I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear,” (171). To Addie, words never quite “fit” the concept or emotion which they attempt to contain and symbolize, and can easily be discarded as soon as they fail to impel the idea to which they refer. In this instance, the word “love” fails Addie in multiple respects as she laments over her life which apparently lacked love entirely. Consequently, the word loses all meaning to her. However, Addie’s frustration over this single word holds solid ground as a universal argument against communication between mankind as a whole. Words such as “love” are mere hollow representations of the tangible concept and actualization of love, the communication of earnest thought and feeling via vessels which lack the impact and emotion necessary is fruitless. Unfortunately, the Bundrens are only able to communicate with the help of feeble words. Yet, lacking the experience and tangibility required to convey their ideas sufficiently, all attempts of communication simply fizzle out.
Despite being isolated in thought, the Bundrens and fellow narrators act, though obliviously, as a cohesive unit that tells the story of Addie Bundren in shocking detail. Partitioned into individualized narrative sections, Faulkner’s web of perspectives and characters forms a synthesis of thought which completely lacks communication. As such, the Bundrens’ failure, or perhaps inability, to communicate was the ultimate source of their troubles.
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