The Metaphysical and Ontological Quest Inwilliam Faulkner’s as I Lay Dying
Compared to the long and often tortuous delivery of Faulkner’s other great masterpieces—The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!—his fifth novel, As I Lay Dying, came to him fully formed at its inception and was completed in a great sprint of imaginative intensity. “Before I began I said,” Faulkner declared, “I am going to write a book by which, at a pinch, I can stand or fall if I never touch ink again.” Faulkner’s grotesquely heroic account of the hard-scrabble Bundren family’s attempt to bury its matriarch, Addie, while contending with what Faulkner described as “the two greatest disasters known to man: flood and fire” on their journey through the blazing heat of midsummer Mississippi is fractured into 59 alternating monologues by 15 witnesses, from the four Bundren brothers—Cash, Jewel, Darl, and Vardaman—their sister Dewey Dell, and their father Anse, to a chorus of eight neighbors and those encountered along the way, as well as the dead Addie herself. In Faulkner’s daring, Cubistlike structure of multiple, juxtaposed perspectives, narrative coherence and a full understanding of the family’s past and motives emerge only gradually, reassembled by the reader out of often conflicting, subjective, and biased testimony. With such a book, Faulkner asserted, “the finished work is simply a matter of fitting bricks neatly together, since the writer knows probably every single word right to the end before he puts the first onedown. This happened with As I Lay Dying. It was not easy. No honest work is. It was simple in that all the material was already at hand.” The result is one of Faulkner’s greatest technical achievements and one of his most profound explorations of the human condition. With As I Lay Dying Faulkner dissolves the fundamental polarities of human existence: life and death, the individual and the group, language and actuality, private and public, comedy and tragedy in pursuit of a new synthesis that expresses a fuller truth. As much a metaphysical and ontological quest as a family’s internment drama, As I Lay Dying is in every sense the tour de force that Faulkner habitually described it, a masterpiece in which the vernacular and its regional setting buttress a profound, universal human drama.
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