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As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner Online Book Summary

 

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THEMES


Main Theme

The primary theme of this novel is that sanity is both tenuous and tenuously defined. Darl, who everyone notes has an odd look in his eyes or is outright insane, is the one who is most philosophically sophisticated. Is intelligence in the face of trial or adversity a negative? Cash states that sanity is defined by how a community views a particular person or event. Faulkner anticipates the ideas of social construction with this definition. Sanity/insanity has much less to do with an individualís mental state than with the communityís perception of that individual.


Minor Theme

A secondary theme of this novel is that death affects individuals differently. Some, like Jewel and Vardaman, do into denial. Others, like Darl, want to get beyond it but are frustrated in those attempts. Cash, at the beginning, and Jewel, towards the end, try to "honor" the dead in an overly heroic and dramatic way. Dewey Dell, who is the one who reacts most passionately at her motherís death, becomes more interested in her abortion that the burial. Anse seems able to get past his wifeís death rather easily so that before she is even buried, he is courting a new wife.


MOOD

The mood is one of futility, hopelessness, and frustration. The episode when Dewey Dell is looking at the sign for New Hope encapsulates the mood. She knows that there is little hope for them; one is not surprised to discover that her "quest" for an abortion frustrated. Darl recognizes the futility of the drive to bury Addie; he twice tries to intervene and end it, but to no avail.



William Faulkner - BIOGRAPHY

William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi on September 25, 1897 and died on July 6, 1962. He was the author of many novels and short stories. He most famous and critically acclaimed works are Absalom, Absalom, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying , and Light in August. Faulkner spent most of his writing life in Mississippi and set all of his fiction there. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950.


LITERARY/HISTORICAL INFORMATION

Faulkner is one of Americaís great Modernist writers. As a Modernist, Faulkner was interested in new ways of telling stories. He was also interested in portraying the decline of civilization and the dependence on the individual. Faulkner may be best known for his inventiveness: Absalom, Absalom is one story told from five perspectives; The Sound and the Fury is told from four perspectives, one of whom is retarded; and As I Lay Dying is narrated by fifteen different people, one of whom is dead when her section is presented, and does not always adhere to a chronological structure. These novels force the reader to become more aware of the process of telling and seeing a story; the point Faulkner wants to make is that if he provides four, five, or fifteen versions of an event, he knows that the reader will provide the fifth, sixth, or sixteenth. Stories evolve and grow. A static story is a dead story.

Furthermore, all of Faulkner ís fiction interlocks, creating a larger story; if we put his novels and stories together, we will get an historical and sociological study of one fictitious county in Mississippi, Yoknapatawpha. Some of the novels and stories focus on the aristocratic and upper classes, others on the military families, a few on the middle class, some on the poor, and a few more on the rural "white trash." The settings in time also span from the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth century.

Another Modernist characteristic of Faulkner ís is his location of an almost existential conflict within an individual who is surrounded my non-thinkers. Darl Bundren, in As I Lay Dying, and Quentin Compson, in Absalom, Absalom and The Sound and the Fury, are both caught in personal, psychological conflicts which lead to their self-destruction: Darl is imprisoned and Quentin kills himself. Both novels are written after World War I, and seem haunted its destructiveness, and are set in the South, and are haunted by the Civil War and the atrocities of slavery. Faulkner ís thinking characters are overwhelmed with the problems and magnitude of themselves, the region, and the world. Although Faulkner is not suggesting that a thinking person cannot survive, he does show how difficult it is to honestly face those problems.


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