Faulkner said “in writing, you must kill all your darlings”. On the surface the language used in As I Lay Dying appears to subvert this dogma: it is poetic and beautifully written, but it is not merely decorative infill, it is loaded with meaning. As is the magic of Faulkner, each time I read this novel, I take new things from it and I half expect (and hope) to never fully understand it.
He has a way with words that arrests me. Stops me dead. When I first read Addie Bundren’s section in As I Lay Dying, I read it ten times more. Something just clicked and things started falling into place.
Despite the entire story revolving around her death, for the most part, Addie’s voice is absent. We seek to understand her through the actions and words of others and are granted a single insight in one small section: Addie’s.
She married for the wrong reasons, she committed adultery, she struggled to feel, she could not connect emotionally with others and so to do so, she beat the “dirty, snuffling” children that she taught as a young woman. Only through violence did she feel she could make an impression on another human being:
and I would think with each blow of the switch : Now you are aware of me! Now I am something in you secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever (Addie)
And yet I find it difficult to feel contempt for her. Instead, she saddens me. And while she saddens me, her words inspire me:
I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; (Addie)
This idea of words versus action is reflected in her children: Jewel is all action and rarely uses words, compared to Darl who can convey words without saying anything at all:
I saw Darl and he knew. He said he knew without the words like he told me that ma is going to die without words (Dewey Dell)
Words as empty vessels is introduced in this, my favourite quote:
I had been used to words for a long time. 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. (Addie)
Hate and love and pride and sin and fear and salvation and motherhood are JUST shapes. Words that are invented by people who have never experienced the feeling that these words convey, and they can never experience the feeling until they become less preoccupied with the word.
sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and never can have until they forget the words.
We are guilty of overusing emotive words and in the process, the words themselves lose meaning and become foreign. When we repeat a word over and over and over to ourselves, we begin to question why is ‘hate’ ‘hate’; and not something else. As Shakespeare, noted “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Addie recognises this word disassociation in the name of her husband, Anse:
Anse. Why Anse. Why are you Anse. I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch him liquify and flow into it like cold molasses flowing ut of the darkness into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless: a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame; and thenI would find that I had forgotten the name of the jar. (Addie)
Words are just simply inadequate.
It’s pretty self-evident that I value this book highly. Don’t get me wrong, it is NOT a walk in the park, and the first time I read it I sort if loathed it; not because it wasn’t brilliant, but because I did not understand a word of it! Don’t delve into this book expecting a gripping plot either, that would be a mistake. As I Lay Dying is about characters and relationships, focus in on those and the plot will unravel itself.
This book demands your full attention, but I promise that you will be rewarded highly… (unless, of course, you’re reading this and you fully understood the book, yet you still hated it) :-)